A blog of the Center for Experimental Ethnography
Jasmine Johnson believes in the integration of research and practice and is interested in the various ways her own movement practices “show up” in her work. Her research examines the politics of Black movement, which for her includes not only dance but also phenomena like diasporic travel and gentrification. Interdisciplinary in nature, her scholarship and teaching are situated at the intersection of diaspora theory, dance and performance studies, ethnography, and black feminism. Her first book manuscript, Rhythm Nation: West African Dance and the Politics of Diaspora, is under contract with Oxford University Press, and her second book project is a cultural history of black American dance.
In conversation with Grace Ndicu, Jasmine talked about the recently inaugurated Black Feminist Lab. She described the Lab as having organically emerged through casual conversations with Aimee Cox, a former CEE Fellow who teaches at Yale University. Jasmine had met Aimee during a Mellon-sponsored summer institute at Northwestern, and they had stayed in touch since that time. Their conversations touched on the movement practices in which they have both been engaged, from African and Caribbean dance to experimental dance, yoga, barre as well as Pilates. As the conversations evolved, they begun to discuss the role of movement in their writing and scholarly practice, and what moving could do to mitigate the disruptions that were taking place.
Because these discussions took place during this difficult pandemic time, one that has been especially trying for Black people contending not only with a pandemic that was disproportionately affecting them, but also with America’s perpetual reawakening to the injustices that face African-Americans, they took on a heightened salience. Jasmine and Aimee also understood that other black women were experiencing the disembodiments they were feeling, perpetuated by an increase in virtual communication, and especially by endless zoom meetings. They imagined that others would also be interested in participating in a conversation about embodiment, so they began to ruminate on the role of this embodiment in the rising conversation about Black bodies, and on what they could share that would be useful.
What was birthed from this desire to share was the creation of a space in which Jasmine and Aimee would share each of their movement practices with an emphasis on embodiment and experience, without preaching or performing. They enlisted Savannah Shange, an anthropologist based at the University of California-Santa Cruz with whom Jasmine had connected in the Bay Area, to serve as an interlocutor, and the Black Feminist Lab had its first public offering on March 19th. Forty participants took part in a workshop that was organized in relation to three concepts: CLEAR (a breathing exercise led by Savannah); BUILD (a barre and Pilates practice led by Jasmine); and RELEASE (an experimental invitation to move led by Aimee). After the exercises, Savannah threaded these three concepts together, and then opened space for participants to share how they felt. The goal was not necessarily for participants to leave with a new skill, but to explore Black women’s experiences with their bodies in motion.
Jasmine’s current research focuses on the choreographic practices of contemporary black choreographers such as Solange Knowles, Camille A. Brown, and Jennifer Herge, as well as scholar-choreographer Aimee Cox. When looking at these choreographers’ work, she is especially interested in exploring the extraordinarily diverse representations of black womanhood that they put forward.
Jasmine was drawn to barre and Pilates classes because she had noticed the dearth of Black women in these classes, and wanted to change that. She has also been exploring the practice of full body listening, as developed by Aimee Cox, a practice that she says helps develop clarity. “When using my body for physical practice,” she said, “it connects my work both in method and approach as well as practice.” Through her scholarly work, movement practice, movement instruction and her dedication to the liberation found in Black Feminist practice, Jasmine personifies the practice of full body listening.
Jasmine’s background in Dance Studies informs her interrogation of Black movement generally, from diasporic relocations to the Great Migration, to the chorographic practices of Black artist. For her, attention to movement in these broad terms helps us to understand the diversity of Black identities, even “where there is very little verbal utterance.” Movement, in this way, becomes an archive of experience, and the body both inhabits and registers this archive. It is this sense of movement that underlies the Black Feminist Lab, a space in which the intention of being and moving together in active presence should be guided by curiosity, rather than on a determined point of arrival or resolution. The trio wants participants to be open to what movement asks instead of what it answers.
The Black Feminist Lab is led by:
Aimee Meredith Cox, a cultural anthropologist, writer, and movement artist currently teaching in the Anthropology and African American Studies Departments at Yale University. Her first book, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (Duke 2015) has won several awards.
Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson, an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania who has also been a Ford Foundation Diversity Pre- and Post-Doctoral Fellow. Jasmine earned her Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley, and has been a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a Newhouse Center for the Humanities Fellow at Wellesley College, and a Postdoctoral Fellow in African American Studies at Northwestern University. In 2016, Johnson was awarded the Michael L. Walzer '56 Award from Brandeis University for combining "superlative scholarship with inspired teaching." Jasmine is also a professional dancer and has performed internationally.
Savannah Shange is an urban anthropologist who works at the intersections of race, place, sexuality, and the state. She is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz with research interests in circulated and lived forms of blackness, ethnographic ethics, Afro-pessimism, and queer of color critique. Savannah has been a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow, a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Fellow, and a Point Scholar.
We are very excited about the Black Feminist Lab as well as Jasmine's other projects!
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