Dr. Nancy J. Dawson, Artistic Director of Tennessee based Music is Spirit theater group.
On Saturday, February 16, 2013 instead of going to Music for all Ages as we usually do, we headed to the NPS Historic Jazz Museum to see Stories from da Dirt, a dramatic and musical production by Nancy Dawson. Stories is an historical performance that covers topics about Slavery from the Underground Railroad to Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Civil War and Reconstruction, African American Spirituals and more. Tin and I saw only vignettes in the morning, while the longer, extended version of the play was performed later that afternoon at the Mint (with our own Bruce Barnes leading off with spirituals).
This interview took place on Friday, March 1, 2013 as Nancy was wrapping up Black History Month and headed into Women’s History Month. The photograph is Elizabeth Thompson, Nancy’s great grandmother who was a runaway slave from Liberty, Missouri, and who inspired the performance.
Rachel: How did this performance come into being?
Nancy: I taught at many different colleges and universities as a professor of African American studies and noticed that students didn’t know certain aspects of African American history, particularly slavery, and where I come from it is common to be a descendant of a slave.
Rachel: Was it mainly the white students that didn’t have this background knowledge?
Nancy: No, it was across the board. Then I was in Albany teaching a class and talking about slavery and someone said their great grandmother was 106 years old and her grandmother had been a slave so I asked her to come in and speak to the class. She spoke about the first-hand experience of slavery, of slave children eating out of troughs. And I thought here is a resource no one is tapping. At the same time, I had been working for many years with the National Park Service on educational programs and they asked me if I would do a production for public education and it took off. At first I used men as slaves but then I got women involved, and at first they were young women but they didn’t know the spirituals. So then I got older women who knew. Now you have to be over 40 to perform and our oldest performer is 76 years older.
Rachel: From your classroom experience and your audiences now do you think that slavery is not discussed enough in school? I ask this because I was brought up in a Jewish household and heard about the Holocaust before I could speak, and I’m conscious of the fact that in an African American family a child learns about slavery through osmosis, through elders talking about it. Which the reason I brought my son to your play, I’m initiating the conversation with him through various means.
Nancy: First of all, it used to be that people talked about enslavement and Jim Crow laws a lot more than they do now. I was in a classroom for over twenty years and I now see a big difference. It is discussed less and definitely in some regions not discussed at all. Traditional students between the ages of 18 to 20 years old don’t really have an understanding of the eras in history or even geographical information. I’ve had students confusing the periods of slavery and Civil Rights, conflating them. I think some families believe that it is over with and it’s painful to discuss, but then what happens is the child has a racial encounter and they don’t have the historical context to handle it.
Rachel: I know that you do a Q&A after each performance, what is the most surprising thing you have heard in these situations?
Nancy: Well, what surprised me was in the audience you were in when the man asked if we would be willing to marry a white man. His concept was that if we are as progressive as we should be, we should be interracially married.
Rachel: I remember that comment so well and wondered then what he was driving at.
Nancy: It’s an interesting concept and I put it up there as one of the most surprising questions. I have what I call an emergency kit, those who ask me a question that takes our Q&A to another level and gears me into an educational mode. As an independent teacher and artist, I have the freedom that others don’t have. I’ve performed to all white audiences and mixed audiences and there is something I call the intimate association that comes about in southern regions where a person can be associated by blood (such as black and white families with the same name), or by former ownership (slavery), or often times by all three, which is part of the problem, especially in Louisiana, where there is a lot of racial mixing. I believe white families, especially, have difficulty talking about these issues. But we’re at the point in human history where we have to talk about it to heal. I offer a safe place to talk about it and that is why the Q&A is an important part of the performance. My theory is that if you are on the Nancy Dawson program you are going to get it.
Rachel: And what is “it”?
Nancy: It is the story of American History, the story of human relationships in this country, the story of the oppressor and the oppressed, and the story of how women have historically been treated and how this impacts you today. This is not a dead history. When I’m in an elevator with a nonblack person and I see that person clutching their handbag because I’m a black woman with locks in my hair, I know it puts me in the same position as a young black man. I listen to a lot of satellite radio and have been paying attention to the Voter’s Discrimination Act and the revisiting if this shouldn’t be part of state’s rights. We do need to update it but there are still forms of discrimination that have to be addressed, and you have to have the history to know this.
Rachel: I wonder how what you are doing might be able to help the young African American boys in New Orleans that are in such need today?
Nancy: Think about any tragedy, after the World Trade Center tragedy the first people on the scene after the emergency ones were the mental health professionals. After Katrina, the people who came in to help were those trained to deal with the psychological fallout of what had happened. But what happened to the African American people, how have they had to deal with the psychological damage of slavery? The economic, political, and social impact of slavery is what I’m speaking to these audiences about and they get the picture, but it’s not introduced to audiences enough. If you give children a good social education, they are more successful in their lives. Our education system is antiquated. We’re still sending kids to school to go in and sit on hard chairs and we need a different environment. We need thinkers and creative learning, not cookie cutter learning.
Rachel: I hear you. That is why I send my child to Waldorf even though it is not as racially diverse as I would like yet at our school, it teaches children to think for themselves, not what to think, but how to think.
Nancy: I tell anyone in my audience that adopted children and African American children need true love and when a family truly gives that, it’s going to be what counts when the rubber meets the road, when all the isms there are come crashing in. I worked with the Black Family Preservation group and our objective was to place African American children with African American adopted parents, but our ultimate goal was to place adopted children in stable and loving homes no matter what the race.
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Nancy Dawson is bringing Stories from da Dirt back to New Orleans very soon. She’s already received numerous requests from a variety of entities here. Transracial Parenting will keep you informed of the dates and times, so you don’t miss this engaging and educational experience.