Homily: “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water” by, Andrea Shasgus Parkinson

2020 July 7
by DoMC

God’s Gonna Trouble the Water
Andrea Shasgus Parkinson
July 5, 2020

I spent my first week as a middle school dance teacher talking myself out of quitting. According to the students, I was the third to come and go within the span of five months. Class after class, my eighth-grade students, who are mostly black and brown, placed bets on how long I’d last. They joked that white people didn’t like them, which is why they left.

I spent my second and third weeks telling them that I wasn’t going anywhere, so they better start moving. And I meant it. Like it or not, this white lady was gonna show up for them. They were gonna get off their butts, take off their shoes and dip their feet in the water.

By the end of my first month at the school, the threat of the Covid 19 virus was still just a slow trickle, a casual insult between the students: “don’t go near her, she’s got Corona!” and increased vigilance in hand washing: until someone in the building tested positive. Then the dam broke. Students stopped showing up for school and a quiet hysteria took hold. We were not safe.

Once the schools were shuttered, it was the goal of administrators, teachers and students to continue to measure and be measured by national, state and city academic standards, to maintain some sort of schedule and carry on without too much disruption. To keep the waters calm.

I don’t need to tell anyone how difficult it is do a job that is essentially about sharing a space to a remote platform. I was, for lack of a better word, befuddled. Not because dance in and of itself can’t be taught remotely, but because I’d barely gotten to know my students before our they became little more than names on a classroom log, and avatars on my Google Meet screen. 

My first weeks teaching remotely were, by and large, a mess. I could barely get my students to attend the classes, let alone show me the steps of the dances I was trying to teach. Those did show up kept their camera and mics off. I was talking to myself and I was resentful. Where was my reward for being the nice lady who didn’t bail on them? 

When Spring break was cancelled, the school chancellor sent out lists of lesson plans we could use in lieu of the vacation we were missing. The section of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations stood out to me because, as a dancer, I was somewhat familiar with it. So, by mid-May, I had reworked the lessons to fit our new remote reality, taking the actual movement out of the activities and replacing it with history.

Alvin Ailey created the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 at the age of 27.  2 years later, his signature piece, Revelations, “A dance that is a reflection and celebration of Black Life in America,” premiered to worldwide acclaim.

This is how I began my first lesson, reciting to a small group of recalcitrant eighth graders, their silence behind the screen a confirmation of my insecurities as a teacher. What did I, a middle-aged white lady have to say to a group of black and brown students about anything, let alone Mr. Ailey’s American masterpiece? And why should they care? Why should I? In light of the pandemic, the subject I’d spent my life learning about, dance, felt like a dumb frivolity from another era, a time “before.”

Then, on Memorial Day, a black man named George Floyd spent 8 minutes and 46 seconds with his neck compressed beneath the knee of a white officer. He gasped “I can’t breathe,” echoing the desperate last words of Eric Garner just 3 years ago, before dying. And the nation’s cities, already dried to tinder amid the strain of covid 19, ignited. News of demonstrations, peaceful and otherwise, filled my feed. My family and I joined many of my neighbors, taking to the streets protest this death and the countless ones before.  

The week that followed, I greeted my students with the usual “how’s everyone doing today?” When none of them answered, I asked if there had been any demonstrations in their neighborhoods.

There was silence before someone, said. “Yeah. People breaking stuff.”

I weighed my words. “Why do you think that’s happening?” I asked.

Another pause. Then one of the girls said “cuz the police don’t know how to act.”

And finally, they talked. Reaching beyond their screens, they told me how they felt. They were scared; of the virus, the news. And they were mad. Everything was cancelled: their school trip, prom and graduation, hijacked by a virus. Their streets unsafe. They were exhausted from the weight of the strange and inhospitable world weighing on their young shoulders

Alvin Ailey is quoted as creating Revelations based on his “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas. Raised under the weight of the Jim Crow South during the depression, Ailey and his mother worked in cotton fields and as domestics for the white families that owned them. As his mother looked for better employment, Mr. Ailey was often left with distant relatives, his life a tenuous journey from one difficult situation to another.

The first section of Revelations is called “Pilgrim of Sorrow. “It begins with nine dancers standing together, their chests lifted as they gaze heavenward, even as their bodies are pulled to the ground.

After the first viewing, I asked my students to describe the costumes, the music, the mood. It took a replay before I got a response.

“They’re wearing rags,” said one.

“The music’s old, and sad,” said another. “But it’s pretty. The dancers look hopeful.”

After the third viewing, we discussed how the movement lifts the eye upward, like the ribbed vault of a church, and how the music, a set of sorrowful spirituals, creates emotion.

“What do you think this is about?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Look again,” I said, trying not to let my impatience show.

“Slavery,” said one student. “Oppression,” said another. “Getting desperate, but picking yourself up again and again,” said a third.

Finally, they could see. It took several viewings, but the truth of the dance was laid bare for them, as obvious as the sirens screeching by our homes.

Alvin Ailey lived in Texas until he was twelve, where he found refuge in the church listening to spirituals and gospel songs. It was there that he witnessed a Baptism.

If the first section of Revelations is desperation, the second is salvation. “Take me to The Water,” is a baptism. Two men enter holding long reeds, sweeping the stage for the procession; A woman carrying a magnificent white umbrella and young couple clasping their hands in prayer. They all wear white against a cool blue backdrop as they journey towards the river. “Wade in the Water,” the rousing spiritual once used as a code for the enslaved to find their way to the Underground Railroad, rings through the dancers’ undulating bodies. Giant streamers are cast across the stage, creating the illusion of a great river. The refrain “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” a challenge to oppression and a promise to the unfree— unrest is here. Change is coming.

Revelations culminates with a different kind of religious scene. In the third and final section, titled “Move, Members, Move,” the women in the company wear dresses of yellow with hats to match. They strut and flap their fans at each other as the men, dapper in their gold suit vests, approach the ladies with reverence. The music is joyful, the movements exuberant. They are celebrating each other, their salvation, and their freedom.

I was surprised at first, to read some of my students’ writing on Revelations. Many of them, previously unacquainted with concert dance, confused it as part of a play. Then I realized that it does tell a story. With its beginning, middle and end, Revelations is a hero’s journey of a people who have struggled and found faith and freedom in their community.

Just before his thirteenth birthday, Alvin Ailey and his mother left Texas for Los Angeles, where he excelled as a student and saw his first dance concert. When he was 18, he began studying with Lester Horton, the man who would create the dance technique that is used to train the Alvin Ailey dancers to this day.

As a dancer, Mr. Ailey confronted the beliefs held by the Jim Crow system declaring African Americans intellectually and physically unfit for ballet and defied them. A friend of mine who studied with the Ailey school told me she was expected to dance with the precision of a ballerina and the passion of and African Goddess.

As a choreographer and artistic director of a multi-racial company in the 1960’s, Alvine Ailey became part of the cultural wave that defined the Civil Rights era, the era we as a country find ourselves reflecting on now.

If I were to compare our country’s response to racism within the narrative of Revelations, I’d say we were somewhere between the first section, “Pilgrim of Sorrow” and the second, “Take Me to the Water.” “Pilgrim of Sorrow” for the desperation tainting generations reaching back to the Original Sin of 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived as chattel on our shores. For them, and their descendants, staying alive in our society has been a continuous struggle. And all this time, those that have needed absolution the most, the slaveowners, the Confederates, the enforcers of the Black Codes, the lynchers, the red-liners, the developers, the police, the president, have deflected and circled and skirted the issue of enduring systemic injustice, which is a disease, a pandemic in fact.

Alvin Ailey was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor a year before dying of complications from the AIDS virus, this cruel callback to another era fraught with division, fear, and lack of government response was not lost on my students.

Today the Covid virus takes lives and livelihoods, predominantly, but not exclusively in black and brown populations. The virus reminds us all of our vulnerability. It shows us all how staying alive in this country can be a true struggle.

Just as I felt initially uncomfortable teaching students of color about Revelations, until recently, I was hesitant to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement— not because I didn’t believe in it, but because I was concerned about being “performative;” about appropriating an issue for myself, taking a spotlight that is not mine. But as soon as the news of George Floyd hit my feed, I messaged a friend from Grad school asking: “How do I begin? How do I talk to my students about this?” She responded immediately. “Just show up and listen. Be the white lady that doesn’t leave.”

On this day 168 years ago, Frederick Douglass began the conclusion of his 4th of July speech by saying “Not withstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.” He had hope that there would be a reckoning, a repentance, a salvation of the nation’s ideals. With the recent removals of Confederate statues, and iconography of the Mississippi flag, some might feel hopeful, but there’s so much more to do, justice to be had.

There is a legitimate concern that if Trump loses in the fall,” we,” meaning White people, will forget. There’s worry that once a vaccine restores our ability to work and re-inhabit our usual spaces, we will forget. For myself as a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t want to forget!

Thanks the community at first Unitarian and our Unitarian Universalist values, I feel empowered to use my privilege toward equity. For this I am grateful and honored. I have hope.

I didn’t mean to teach my Alvin Ailey unit like a course in Black History, but that’s the beauty of the Arts in Education. Truths are exposed for anyone to examine, all you need to do is look, often more than once or twice.

I hope to return to teaching in the fall, where I will do these lessons again, but as less of a history buff, and more of what I know I am, which is a dancer. I hope to help my students lift their chests and reach for the heavens, even if the music is sad, even as the weight on their shoulders makes it difficult. I plan to show up, whether they like it or not, to tell them to get off their butts and move. To take off their shoes, and dip their feet. Then wade in the water. Trouble it. Maybe with enough nudging, they will “one day know the thrill of riding the surf of change.”


Comments are closed.