“Racism is f–king us — left, right and center.”
Such were the words of Staceyann Chin, one of the most lauded spoken-word artists of our era, who performed at the Afro-American Cultural Center on Sunday evening as part of Black History Month.
In a pointed performance recounting events ranging from her first period to her encounter with her birth father, Chin addressed issues of race, sexuality, gender and class while jauntily pacing up and down the aisle, gesticulating quickly with her hands and planting her legs widely apart as if she were ready to perform a judo chop, rather than another line of poetry.
While her off-color humor drew the most laughter (both roaring and awkward) from the audience of 70 individuals, Chin’s most enduring remarks involved her coming-of-age as a young Jamaican girl. At the centerpiece of her performance were three — humorous, though emotionally stirring — vignettes about her pre-adolescent years.
“I am seven years old. I have just discovered dirty magazines,” begins her first story about discovering her body.
“I am nine years old. My mother has abandoned me,” begins her second story.
Chin’s performance was clearly intended as an emotional barrage, forcing her audience through the raw awkwardness and pain of her own life.
“I just dragged you through a weird moment,” she piped after a brief declaration of her frustrations with racism.
While it would have been easy to write off Chin’s humor as crass, her simple, sometimes profane, words wove together to create a profound tapestry as human and relatable as Chin herself. Darting down the aisle and gesturing inches from audience members’ faces, Chin broke every physical and emotional boundary between herself and her audience, leaving her both exposed and commanding as the audience listened with rapt attention.
Her performance ended in a bombarding potpourri of different poems and haikus.
One gem, titled “Haiku on Bush’s Second Term,” brought the audience to its knees with laughter: “How can you f–k up / So many times and still be / Voted president?”
While such humor is worth remembering, some of the night’s arguably most successful performances came before Chin’s.
Traveling with Chin was Gloria Bigelow, a comedienne whose biting witticisms covered similar topics of sexuality, race and gender. In a tone ranging from fierce sarcasm to endearing directness, Bigelow sewed together pieces of her own coming-of-age story.
“I chose to be gay because my life wasn’t hard enough being black and a woman,” she said sarcastically.
Still, true to form, some of the show’s most impressive displays were those of Yale students.
Poets from the spoken word group Word included Elizabeth Kim ’11, Jessica Abrego ’10, Cara McClellan ’10, Liz Moran ’11 and Rodney Reynolds ’10. Each student’s poems incorporated impressive rhetoric with commentary on topics such as sisterhood, disenfranchisement and sensuality.
Each performance, in addition to the poems of Chin and Bigelow, directly or indirectly highlighted some new idea about “Celebrating the African-American Woman,” this year’s theme for Black History Month at Yale.
Still, womanhood was only one of several topics to be explored during the night’s performances.
Reynolds focused on both the political nature of materialism and the overall understanding of poetry.
“People would rather collect royalties than treat our women like royalty,” he said.
In one of the night’s most earnest presentations, Alice Huang ’08, a member of the Asian writing and theater group Jook Songs, performed a poem about coming to terms with her sexuality, as well as the damaging nature of restrictive religious beliefs.
While it would be difficult to locate the common thread that held together the unique patchwork of the event, the performances still blended together to create an event as powerful as it was eclectic.
The spoken-word show is only one of 10 different arts-related events held at Yale for Black History Month. In fact, more than half of the programs on this year’s itinerary are directly connected to the arts.
Pamela George, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center and assistant dean of Yale College, said the month’s theme was not the central focus of all events included in the Center’s calendar. She noted that many presentations are chosen based on student input. Last year, Word hosted a performance by Chin, and this year, George decided to further expand student participation.
“I invited Word, Jook Songs, Prism and [Yale West Indian Students’ Organization] to take part in the program given the various ways that Staceyann Chin’s work intersects with the aforementioned groups,” George wrote in an e-mail.
The month began with musical shows such as Peru Negro and the Yale Cabaret performance “Dancing in the Dark,” as well as a screening and discussion of the film “Afropunk” with its director, James Spooner. Singing played no small part in the month’s festivities, which included songs by the Yale Alumni Gospel Choir in addition to a standing-room-only Valentine’s Day performance by the a cappella group Shades in the Silliman Dining Hall.
Still, for students interested in future Black History Month arts-related events, there remains the film festival “Black and Green — Land, Power and Sustainability in the African Diaspora” on Feb. 23 and the opening of the exhibit, “Women of a New Tribe,” which celebrates the beauty of black women, on Feb. 25.
The month rounds out with the Black Solidarity Conference, which will include additional arts-related events, including a cultural show, theatrical performance and a film screening.