Do You Know Who You Are?
by Joycelyn Reynolds
As an administrator of the Arts Council New Orleans’ grants, I spend a lot of time attending arts and cultural programs. I had the pleasure of attending an original theatrical piece written by India Alicia McDougle that focused on black history called, Do You Know Who You Are? When I arrived at Dillard University’s Cook Theater, I noticed bulletin boards decorated with famous black historical figures. The words colored and white were on the water fountain and restroom doors. I felt as if I had gone back in time, like I had entered the segregated 60s.
The audience, 4th grade African American students from local public schools, was enthralled by this production that used poets, dancers, and actors along with video projections to tell the story of how enslaved African Americans were brought to the United States. Images were very graphic, showing how slaves in cargo ships were chained together in overcrowded conditions. Ill and dying slaves were thrown overboard in shark-infested waters on the way to America. From slave sales, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Frederick Douglass, Jim Crow, and “Strange Fruit,” the play depicted the horrors of slavery. This affected me greatly and I wondered how it impacted the young students. This production also highlighted the Harlem Renaissance, the sounds of Mahalia Jackson, the horrors of Emmett Till, the Civil Rights Movement, Motown Records, the Black Panther Party, Shirley Chisholm’s for president run and a plethora of others historical African-American people and movements.
Being an African American woman in her early fifties, I reflected upon my experiences and stories told by my parents who are in their early eighties. My father was often stopped by the police upon entering City Park on route to his job as custodian for Christian Brothers School, with their cruel words of, “Boy, you know you don’t belong in City Park. City Park is not for negroes.” The police would then follow him to the school to confirm that he was employed. When I was in my early twenties and apartment-hunting by phone (before the internet was invented), one potential landlord told me that she couldn’t tell by my voice if I was black because her “husband” didn’t rent to black people. I immediately hung up. I didn’t know how to fight housing discrimination. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center wasn’t founded for a least another ten years.
McDougle’s production was successful. It appealed to me on an emotional level. It made me reflect on my experiences and it exposed a much younger generation to our history. I only wished that the students who attended this production were more diverse. African-American history isn’t usually covered in schools at that detail without an African-American population. Thumbs up to McDougle for exposing the New Orleans community to the African-American experience using the arts!