400 Years of Inequality

400 Years of Inequality is a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals calling on everyone — families, friends, communities, institutions — to plan their own solemn observance of the anniversary of slavery in America, learn about their own stories and local places, and organize for a more just and equal future.

ArtsEverywhere invited Michael Roberson to reflect on this anniversary. Michael is a public health practitioner, activist, and leader within the LGBTQ community, which created the Federation of Ballroom Houses, the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Group, and the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom School. Michael presented the Big Ideas in Art & Culture lecture at the 2018 ArtsEverywhere Festival.

What is the sound of freedom? Every sound is a structure formed of many sounds. Every sound archives echoes from encounters, spaces, from moments of voices, both historical and contemporary, both earthly and cosmic that demands, desires, requires the vibrations in between; the off note, the tonality of ancestral cries for liberation, the memories never lost but lie dormant, ready for the awakening. Next year, 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of when the first Africans were brought onto the land that is now known as the United States of America. Four centuries have marked the ongoing struggle for freedom for black people in America. As long as four centuries may seem, we, Black People don’t own the monopoly of the chronology of inequality. History must recognize that ethical imperative of allowing suffering to the suffering of Native Americans, whose bodies gave permission for these new Africans to remain hopeful. All of these bodies, Native Americans and Black, existing into a space of estrangement, have been sacrificed for the progress of the American democratic project. This truth is most significant and reflective of a long historical tradition of the Black radical fight for freedom. As the late great writer Richard Wright once exclaimed,

“the truth is, we black folk, our history and our present being, are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. What we want, what we represent, what we endure is what America is. If we black folk perish, America will perish. If America has forgotten her past, then let her look into the mirror of our consciousness and she will see the living past living in the present, for our memories go back, through our black folk of today, through the recollections of our black parents, and through the tales of slavery told by our grandparents, to the time when none of us, black or white, lived in this fertile land.” (Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Folk, 1941).  

The year 2019 called together, interwoven through particular anniversaries, ways and means to illuminate both the dialectical tensions of liberations and oppressions, subversion and hegemony, home and homelessness with the history of the Black struggle for freedom. Not only is it the 400th anniversary of the first Africans brought into Jamestown, Virginia (1619), 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the LBGTQ Stonewall rebellion (1969), the 50th anniversary of the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), which created “The Black Manifesto”(1969). Yet it is also, as far and as much as we can historicize, it is the 150th anniversary of the very first drag ball (1869). I illuminate this fact as a moment of reckoning, as a call and a response, or as the international sound art collective Ultra-red articulates, of deep listening. Journey with me and listen to the Sound of Freedom, through a Ballroom lens and Black poetics: an ode to 400 Years of Inequality.

Ballroom: A Poetic Ode to 400

Here We Are Again…at the opportunity to create greatness…To remember who We Really Are…To Remember Our Own Greatness…Our Own Divine Greatness…Yet the question remains…How have We evolved??…As individuals…as a community…as a collective…as a people whose creative gifts are shown…and replicated across the globe…all over this world…whose gifts have blessed this Universe in countless ways…Magnificent and Brilliant…whose relentless efforts…and tireless desires have “Made A Way Out of No Way”…And so…How do We evolve…in This Moment and Time when The Universe is begging Us to Be and Remember Our Own Audacity…How do We raise the bar…create new standards…in Our loving…in Our mobilizing…in Our own individual and collective process of self-definition…self-determination…through Our coalition building…Our community service work…on the runway…on the catwalk…on the Piers of New York against a landscape of a city where it all began and now finds itself across the globe…BALLROOM…Be Clear…Be Real Clear…Who We Are is Ballroom….

We are such a Wonderful…Beautiful…Unbelievably Brilliant People…Ballroom Rockstars…Freedom Fighters…Radical Scholars…Revolutionary Artists…The Black Church…God in motion…The Universe enacting it’s Magnificence…Fusion Politics…The Radical Theology…Leaders in Our Own Right… And so This is that Moment moving towards the end of an era…Soon, 2019 will be the 400th year anniversary of the first Africans arriving in Jamestown, Virginia…what began 400 years of inequality…within the framework of what We call…the United States Project of Democracy…It will also be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the beginning of what we call the modern LGBT movement…and, as much we can historicize, the 150th anniversary of the very 1st drag ball….

From Slavery…to the Emancipation Proclamation…from Black reconstruction…and the rise of lynching and Jim and Jane Doe Racism….from the Great  Migration of Black Folk moving from the South to the North…making Harlem, NYC the Black mecca…where Black queers became homeless in the new home because of the Black church’s rejection….and because of these moments in time…..Harlem Drag Ball emerges…through the ethos of Black Trans women…..as our church…..and using performance as our hermeneutics of the body…our sacred text…Ballroom has claim our right to be fully human and divine….We can hear the Voices…the Echoes of Our Pioneers…Our Ancestors…Crystal Labeija…Peppa Labeija…Dorian Corey…Avis Pendavis…Paris Dupree…Angie XtravaganzaEric Christian Bazaar…Danielle and Octavia and Portia…Sylvia and Marsha P. Johnson…All of them saying “E PLURIBUS UNUM….Out of many, the one….Ballroom…Well done…My Beautiful People…Well done.”

Filed Under: Poetry & Prose


Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner, advocate, activist, artist, curator, and leader within the LGBTQ community. He is the co-creator of the nation’s only Black Gay Research group and National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition, as well as an Adjunct Professor at The New School University/Lang College NYC, and Union Theological Seminary NYC.

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