Definition: A Praxis
(listen to the selection, read by the author)
I name myself. As a young, Black, Disabled man there are a few ways my identity has been named without my input, but I do not rail against it. Instead, I dig deeper into the hull scavenging for rare metals that serve me. It’s here a practice emerges. I don’t hope for the majority to love me, but to read me. Their reading creates meaning regardless if there are correct or ideal containers. In this I focus on the conditions for reading, which diminish the role of a majority at all. I attest to the presence of a spectrum where no one thing has completely mirrored a definition to even warrant redefinition. Throughout this piece, I aspire to articulate the presence of a spacious lexicon that does not preclude a definition is fixed. I’ll span my identities as a Black, Disabled artist. I aspire to identify this elasticity of meaning as crucial to Disability aesthetics.
In all my works I’ve examined a term and its potential usefulness. The movement and design adjust to offer the audience a fuller picture of the concept. My first experience, PHYS. ED, was a series – two dance works and a mixed-media piece – to color the history of physical education for a disabled body. I had understood P.E as an oppressive form of physical prowess, that I was always a bit short of completing its thresholds. At the same time, I would experience unexpected bouts of normative athleticism like shooting a three-pointer or catching a fly ball that were never quite pinpointed or accessed. I failed where they focused and I succeeded in secret. This pattern dissolved when my athleticism was given a different focus through dance.
By rehearsing and performing in a modern dance company, I gained the confidence to understand what my body did well versus making it move in any particular way. With confidence came new insights: the aspects of physical prowess I wanted to explore were the miniscule, particular feats that my dystonic, spastic body created. Across the series I developed moments wherein I could push experimentation.
In the first solo work, I reinterpreted classic P.E staples, the jumping jack and the push up, and abstracted them: embellishing the tension of the push up or slowing the arc of the jumping jack so that their original forms were almost unintelligible.
In a slight diversion, I expanded the series to include a mixed media foot map that invited participants to embody a walking/standing pattern from the piece. This was accompanied by a closed loop video of the performed solo. My practice of definitions now became participatory. People embodied my athleticism to gauge their own. Yet, in my P.E class, there was no “focus” of completion, rather a goal for individual understanding and confidence.
It was due to both these series entries I returned to process a third piece. In PHYS ED B I went subtle choosing to make the audience see how much is in a little. This was most exemplified in “the pillar”, a section devised to articulate confinement. I wanted to establish an authentic knowledge of my impaired left side and I began with a vocabulary of balance because it was historically foreign to me. Across three distinct musical movements I rested on my left leg, enjoying a boustrophedon swing pattern that revealed the control and chaos inherent in my athleticism. The success of the third piece was how it provided a nice end to the whole series. I had, literally, exhausted my P.E. experiments. In the same way I had graduated from gross movement to interiority.
“Physical Education”: redeemed.
I’ve been deemed an “activist” merely because of my identities of being Black and Disabled. I’ve had qualms about this as I associate the term with a level of activity I have not produced. Making this an a priori term is troubling because it doesn’t disassociate identity from activity when it must. I also believe an a priori attribution to a marginalized person assumes a measure of life, work, perspective that is woefully incomplete. This is what I brought into another piece, Many Ways to Raise a Fist, which took a measured look not only at the historical assumptions of “protest” but also my occupation of it. Ultimately, I wanted to showcase how flat that term had become in culture.
The first half was devised like a quasi lecture to introduce context featuring civil rights voices like James Baldwin and Mahalia Jackson against contemporary art works featuring disabled artists. Centering the stage, in particular, was a blue plywood bench made by a fabulous disabled artist and friend, Shannon Finnegan, which had the text “I’d rather be sitting, sit if you agree” across the seat and back.
The movement was closely tied to the cadence and measures of the music, while representing a theme for the paired music and art. Making the interpretation more explicit, the opening costume included a white jacket festooned with various causes – military, LGBTQ, AIDS, mourning, faith-based – while patchwork on its back was the word “Protest”. I paired it with a black durag and racer tights. With the symbolic activist identified I led the audience through vignettes of compounding meaning.
In the section featuring Mahalia Jackson’s Take My Hand, Precious Lord I created movement vocabulary exacerbating the limits of my left hand’s dexterity by willing it to form the shapes of hands within the art piece projected behind me. The artwork by friends Ezra and Noah Benus/The Brothers Sick blazonly declared “An Army of the Sick Cannot Be Defeated” beneath a grid of contorted hands. This troubled the authority of the forlorn gospel standard. The vignette was, again, cemented by Finnegan’s bench: I had been sitting the whole time, thus repairing a kind of responsibility within dance and protest culture to constantly be ambulatory in order to effect/affect.
In the second half I shed the pedantry for a more observable integration of refusal. After shucking the durag to reveal dyed white hair, I donned a black jacket with similar ribbons, replacing the white. This shift was to articulate the subtlety one could have engaging in political action. It was my hope to express the oftentimes hidden elements that contribute to successful change. Joy revealed itself as that hidden element that moves mountains and makes imperceptible but long lasting shifts.
Throughout the second half I played with ecstasy – from several reclining positions on the bench or floor to outright bombast against a jazzy standard for the finale. I mirrored the two halves very intentionally to create a clear duality. The ecstasy and joy only began to make sense after a recall from a section in the first half: while still in white, I walked a square pattern to the edge of a screen vocalizing in the tradition of keening, a mourning acknowledgement of the labor various protests encountered. While I walked and wailed I projected images of AIDS activism, Christian persecution, Defense of Water, the Capitol Crawl. My wailing intensified and spurred my shedding into subtlety. Now in black, I walked a similar pattern against a repetitive clack of clavas. Countering the images was a continuous vista of the Hudson River behind the glass windows of The Whitney Museum. Recalling the same square pattern, I slowly started infusing bouts of release and spirality. Soon, the pattern was only a liquid transition between different spirals, leaps, and turns, effectively denouncing the incepting pattern. Here was joy: sparking bodily knowledge from a secret place and making it visible within a context..
Throughout, the implications of Disability abounded. First and foremost, the vocabulary was constructed to allow for spasms and less accountability to any set structure. This allowance was key for my particular body because given any previous action – a leap, spin, an abrupt stop – I wanted to give my body its natural response. This was something I had not yet experienced as a dancer. Well-oiled, well -constructed movement in an ambulatory fashion is our most emphatic reference for progress. But what about the skip or the jut? Dancing to liberation seems as crucial as a march, so I chose to allow my body its quirks, even at the expense of total legibility.
Across marginal identities, whether historically or contemporarily displaced, we desire defense. There is no better defense than occupation, than habitation, and it’s here that I find purpose or drive. As an artist, Disabled and Black, it’s fun to read our composite lexicon and identify where I fit. I fit in many places. As we express, we define; as we define, we deepen. I do not think anything should be lost.
“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.
About the Author
Jerron Herman is a Disabled dancer and writer based in New York City who is compelled to disrupt images of restriction with freedom. His works have been seen at The Whitney Museum, Danspace Project, and Performance Space New York. Jerron has served on the Board of Trustees at Dance/USA since 2017 and is a member of Kinetic Light in addition to his solo offerings. His awards include being a finalist for the inaugural Apothetae/Lark Play Development Lab Fellowship in 2017 and being named a 2020 Disability Futures Fellow, an initiative made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford Foundations, respectively. The New York Times has called him “…the inexhaustible Mr. Herman.”