How to Make Use of History

January 30, 2014—In an era that has been called “post-racial,” Associate Professor Soyica Diggs Colbert is exploring how contemporary artists use history to create new “fields of knowledge around race.”

Colbert is the newest faculty member in the Department of Performing Arts and the African American Studies Program. A 2001 alumna of the College, Colbert returned to Georgetown to join a growing performing arts department interested interdisciplinary study. “[The department] is open to different ways of thinking and moving across media,” she said. Colbert’s courses and research span film, theater, and literature.

In one of her first main projects at the university, Colbert invited playwrights, actors, and scholars to a symposium, “Playing with the Past, (W)righting the Future.” Through discussions and scenic readings, Colbert wanted to explore “what it means to be a contemporary black artist,” she said. “Race doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it did in the middle of the 20th century,” she continued. After Civil Rights Movement and the end of apartheid, changing notions of race affect how artists are tackling these subjects.

“I think [writers and playwrights] are grappling with how to make use of the past—what histories do they find useful and which histories they think should be better left in the past and for what reasons,” she explained.

Colbert uses the scene “Git on Board” from George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum to illustrate the complexity of engaging with certain histories. “Git on Board” features a stewardess directing the flight along the path of the Middle Passage. At the end of the scene, she tells passengers, “Please check the overhead before exiting as any baggage you don’t claim, we trash.”

“The rest of the play is thinking about ‘What is racial baggage? What does it mean to trash it?’” Colbert explained. “Why do we hold on to certain histories, and why would we want to discard other ones?”

In two new publications, Colbert addresses how writers use the past in their works and the effects of choosing to write about certain histories. In Black Movements: Performance and Politics, she illustrates how “artists directly make linkages to the past to articulate certain modes of self-fashioning,” she explained. Examining how artists use the past also shows how they are “imagining the possibility for artistic movements moving forward,” she continued.

Colbert is also editing the forthcoming volume, Do You Want to Be Well?: Trauma, Healing, and Subjectivity, with co-editors Robert Patterson, director of Georgetown’s African American Studies Program, and Aida Hussen, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The volume will examine one of the major questions for African American studies in the 21st century—“how to negotiate what some artists have called the ‘afterlife of slavery,’” she explained.

“We’re specifically thinking about it from psychic perspectives—the psychic pulls that draw us to certain histories and repel us from certain histories,” she continued. It is a complex issue, Colbert says, with many arguing for a need to remember slavery and others arguing for a need to let go of that past.

“There are all of these ways that living in the 21st century as a black person in the United States can mean multiple things,” she explained. “And that the idea of [a] universal linkage to slavery covers over that specificity.”

In the late 20th century, many black feminists highlighted the differences in class, gender, and nationality within the African American population. According to Colbert, these writers remind us that when artists choose to engage with certain histories there is always the issue that “everyone’s histories aren’t the same.”

These debates, Colbert notes, leave open the possibility for writers and playwrights to create new artistic movements and to remember the past in order to imagine the future. “That’s the legacy that’s left for us in the late 20th century. So in the 21st century, it’s a matter of working through that and thinking through it.”

—Elizabeth Wilson


Related Information

The symposium “Playing with the Past, (W)righting the Future” is part of the Georgetown University/Arena Stage/Ammerman Family Partnership, in conjunction with the department’s April production of Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History. The production is directed by guest artist and alumnus Isaiah Matthew Wooden (C’04). Learn more about the department’s 2013–14 season.