Marginalized by media: Story-slam series celebrates art, activism and sex positivity

The second project in this three-part series that runs through Monday introduces Kristiana Rae Colón, a poet and playwright, creator of Black Sex Matters and co-founder of the #LetUsBreathe Collective. Join us Monday to hear about Angela Davis Fegan of “The Lavender Menace Poster Project,” and read yesterday's profile of Elijah McKinnon and Aymar Jean Christian of “Two Queens in a Kitchen" here

Activism can be sexy. Kristiana Rae Colón knows all about it, and her series Black Sex Matters focuses on just that.

A slam-style series of events, Black Sex Matters explores pleasure and sensuality by drawing attention to how artists and activists can celebrate sex positivity in social justice spaces. It goes against the idea that “if you are conscious or if you are woke, that you are also chaste, and that being fully present and fully integrated as a sensual being is a part of liberation,” Colón said.

The 30-year-old poet and playwright created the series as a positive response to her 2016 play "Good Friday," which deals with raw, traumatic issues that affect women of color, including gun violence, sexual violence and the oppression of white feminism. To counter the darker material, Black Sex Matters exists to raise up the joys of female sexuality among liberation struggles while serving as a benefit for Oracle Theatre, which hosted “Good Friday” with free admission. Proceeds from Black Sex Matters events go toward actors’ stipends. The benefit events, she explained, are part of her work to change the culture of vastly underpaid storefront theater actors.

Colón has been an artist for almost as long as she’s been alive. She started writing as early as 4 years old and had her first poem published at 6. By 11, she was performing professionally on stage. She attributes her aspirations of making a career of her artistry to her involvement with Young Chicago Authors, a local art and literary organization that produces Louder Than a Bomb, billed as the world’s largest youth poetry festival. The first poem Colón performed publicly at age 16 was about police brutality. At the time, she didn’t know she would take on that same issue years later as an activist.

“Our other tools for political activism have always been a part of my consciousness, and I think if you look at the legacy of black liberation in America, it’s always been inherently tied to the arts,” she said.

ENVISIONING A LIBERATED FUTURE

Colón is also the co-founder and co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, a local organization that has played a prevalent role in Chicago’s Black Lives Matter network. Among other campaigns, the group was behind last year’s #BlackBrunchCHI and the recent Homan Square occupation, an initiative called Freedom Square during which activists camped outside of the Chicago Police Department’s Lawndale facility for 41 days in response to alleged police brutality. Homan Square garnered attention last year after a Guardian story reported that CPD detained thousands of black people at the facility, where the article says officers conduct secretive interrogations often relying on violent, physical force. CPD denied the allegations.

During the occupation, demonstrators set up tents for first aid and arts and crafts and grew a garden to build a community that supports a world without police. They gave out free food, books, clothes and water until the occupation came to an end Aug. 31 because of several structural issues. The group still serves the community by distributing school supplies to classrooms and collecting stories from Homan Square survivors. 

“The occupation did not end because we ran out of energy or we were overwhelmed by the logistics of the site,” a Facebook post said. “It ended because it illustrated the tension between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be.”

The #LetUsBreathe Collective was born out of work Colón and other activists did in Ferguson, Mo., following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. Her experiences also inspired a play she conceived through her residency at the Goodman Theater called “Florissant & Canfield,” named for West Florissant Avenue, where protests exploded to oppose Brown’s death, and Canfield Drive, where Brown was shot. Colón describes the play as an epic reimagination of her experiences traveling to Ferguson and building relationships with activists. She’ll give a staged reading of the play at a sold-out event Oct. 8 that’s part of the New Stages Festival, Goodman Theatre’s annual fest featuring first looks at new plays.

“Really using the arts as a way to make protests more accessible and to make political organizing irresistible and pleasurable and using art as a tool to galvanize people into consciousness and activism, Black Sex Matters is definitely kind of like the cornerstone where those two things collide,” she said.

Between March and September, Colón hosted three Black Sex Matters events where artists were invited to slam, or tell a story, based on the theme of positive expression of sensual joy for four minutes using any medium, including spoken word, rap and poetry. Events also featured live body paintings, burlesque and prizes such as lube and vibrators.

'BLACKNESS IS NOT A MONOLITH'

Historically, Colón said, black women in America have been characterized by two paradoxes, “the asexual black mammy figure or the hypersexual vixen figure.” As activists try to overcome these characterizations, she explained, it’s difficult. How do they fight the good fight as sexually liberated people without compromising their authority and the respect of other activists?

“The Black Lives Matter era of black liberation has really tried to grow from the liberation struggles of eras past and encounter the narrative of black liberation for being this single male figurehead leader and really centering on female and queer collective leadership,” she said.

Colón said that in addition to women and queer and/or trans identifying people historically being stamped out from black liberation struggles, mainstream feminism contributes to that very erasure of violence against women of color. She critiques that with “Good Friday,” in which she experimented by not specifying the ethnicities of the characters in the script.

“In this particular casting configuration, one of the things that we hope to highlight with the ethnic configuration of the cast were some of the ways mainstream feminism can co-opt liberation struggles of black and brown women to further its own aim,” she said.

Because the show’s theme of violence against women of color and other content is potentially triggering, Oracle Theatre hosted talkbacks to unpack the heavy material.

While the North Center venue's public access model and free shows make Colón's work more attainable for the masses, she wonders if the location is really accessible to the target demographic. She has hosted Black Sex Matters events in Lincoln Park and Avondale but said she would like to produce similar content on the South and West sides.

Oracle’s public access model and the company’s willingness to challenge itself to be inclusive of black and brown artists are reasons she chose to work with the theater. While she feels that complex representations of black and brown people are more nuanced in theater because it’s live and onstage, “the answer is always more [representation],” she said.

In the mainstream media, Colón said, she rarely sees representations of herself. What she does see is tokenization, and she feels that endorsing black female-focused TV shows like “Being Mary Jane” and “Scandal” is just affirming that.

“Tokenization is not the same thing as representation, and representation is not the same thing as liberation or equality,” she said. “Blackness is not a monolith. Even though we’re starting to see a trickle of representation of people of color in different roles in the media, without there being a fuller expression of all of the different variants of the black experiences, it’s still very tokenizing.”

Not seeing herself in media is why she became an artist, Colón said, to write herself into the narrative.  

“Black and queer and any marginalized group is always going to be depicted in the most one-dimensional way in dominant media,” she said. “So it’s up to the content creators to subvert and complicate those narratives.”

Go to redeyechicago.com/blacklovematters to read the entire series with the yesterday's profile and the last being released Monday.

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