A peek into New Haven’s femme and nonbinary led movement towards liberation.
BY KRISTIANNA SMITH
Womanhood holds no value for me.
What I can tell you is that there is something beyond genderhood that happens to artistic spirits who exist outside of white cismasculinity. I’ve created many things. I’ve created plays, lesson plans, events, and one human (a work, by all accounts, still very much in progress). I’ve now found myself surrounded by people who not only look like me, but who are actively investing in a world that centers the liberation of Black and Brown femme and nonbinary humans. The word that feels most appropriate to describe these folks? Village. My village is constantly creating joy.
According to a 2016 article, New Haven, Connecticut is the metropolitan area most demographically similar to the United States as a whole. So, what wisdom do I see from my village that can resonate with a nation of creatives? First off, connection. While New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, and the other cities of Connecticut have their own independent creative networks, we’re all at best two degrees of separation from one another. In a state where the arts can feel overwhelmingly white and wealthy, our ability to connect is one of our strongest skills.
However, it is not just the network that you have, it’s how it functions together. There is a theatre exercise called flocking, in which a group moves in tandem seamlessly shifting leaders. The leader is the person most downstage. The “downstage” of life are those most vulnerable or knowledgeable about a struggle. When I think of the Black and Brown femme and nonbinary creatives I know, I think of flocking. A group, in constant support of one another’s projects, who allow leadership to move between them. I think of Kerry Ellington and Amelia Allen showing us what creative dismantling of oppression and systemic accountability look like, in action, in real time. I see Camelle Scott, Ashley Blount, and Raven Blake leading CT CORE in what collective power and resource sharing across the state can achieve. Then I turn, and I witness Thema Haida and Hanifa Nayo Washington’s creation of One Village Healing, finding ways to support us even as we physically distance from one another. If I spin this time, I might as well be dancing, because Farron Harvey and Jasmin Agosto are cultivating spaces which bring us together in pure joy and pleasure of the body and spirit.
There are more, many more. All of these folks are interconnected, supporting and learning from one another, creating spaces in collaboration that could not exist within isolation. This village of creatives—I feel honored to even be associated with—functions within the same space as one of the most privileged institutions of our country. It functions among some of the most startling disparages between white folks who have and Black and Brown folks who have been culled, stripped of opportunities, resources, and the ability to live free of physical and systemic violence. And yet—these powerful creatives innovate constantly. In the face of heartache, they move in profound love and joy.
So what can a nation of creatives learn? adrienne maree brown describes fractals in their book Emergent Strategy. What happens on the smallest level has the power to ripple through to the largest. If Black and Brown femme and nonbinary creatives are able to build and lead innovative spaces of healing, power, and joy—then you, dear Black babe who feels utterly surrounded by a cacophany of whiteness, you can build something beautiful too. In part, I’m talking to the young Kristianna who grew up in Bristol, Connecticut. It’s my hope, though, that somewhere lost inside that sea of voices shouting that their hair is too big, their clothes too tight, their voice too loud, their being too bright, there’s a creative who now knows there is a village looking to manifest the next beautiful thing with them. What y’all can learn from New Haven is if we can find one another here, we can find one another anywhere.
Kristianna Smith is cofounder and owner of Via Arts, an arts service company that creates partnerships centered around professional development, program design, and civic engagement to strengthen social and racial equity efforts in communities and their organizations.