Soulville Census: Learning about the Nuances of Blackness

Interview with Aisha Cousins about the Soulville Census and the motto of Afrolatino Festival NYC 2015 (Affirm, Educate, Celebrate).

Reflection: Afrolatino Festival NYC 2015

First watch the video. Then read the transcription while listening to the interview. Later reflect on these questions.

Transcription: Interview with Aisha Cousins

My name is Aisha Cousins. I’m an artist. I write performance art scores, which are do-it-yourself instructions for live art projects. The projects that I do are usually designed to get black folks from different cultural backgrounds to come together to explore a sociological shift or a change in society that’s affecting black folks in a way where people from different backgrounds might be experiencing it in different ways, but by working on this project together they can learn to see it from each other’s perspective. And hopefully by sharing the documentation of these projects with people who don’t feel like they relate to them directly, we all kind of learn a little more about the nuances of blackness.

What are perhaps some of the nuances of blackness with regard to the Afrolatino communities?

When we started doing this project, it’s part of a series I’m doing about important, but I think underdocumented aspects of black life during this period where we have our first black president in the United States. The idea of doing an alternative census came up in response to the 2010 Census, which only had one line for black folks. It was Black, African American, Negro and it was like one box. So, if you’re family is from is from Ghana or Jamaica or you’ve been in the US since slavery, it was just one box. Which really if you think about all the information being gathered, it makes that information very cloudy. So, if you say that there’s a bunch of black people now who have moved to Colorado, which ones? Is it Sudanese immigrants? Is it people who have been in the US since slavery? It really skews your picture of what’s happening.

So, we were interested, I was interested in filling in that missing information and getting the public to think about the way that the US sort of overgeneralizes the way it thinks about black folks. But, in the midst of doing that, I realized that black folks amongst ourselves often are also not thinking critically about how diverse the black population is in the US and how much more and more diverse it’s becoming. And so our language has not really kept up with that and you find a lot of people using terms… they use them inconsistently within their own language and then when they’re talking to other people they kind of have to renegotiate within every conversation what these terms mean.

So, if you think about 50 years from now, say somebody’s reading a news article and there someone says, ‘Oh, this happened to this black person’ or ‘this African American person’. There’s no clear, consistent way in which we’re using that language, so 50 years from now, the person wouldn’t know exactly what you’re talking about, exactly what population you’re talking about or what you’re describing. It could be an incident because a person got shot because they were Jamaican. You just don’t know because that information is not clear now. So we wanted to get other black folks to think about that.

Then, in going around to different festivals, it was pointed out to us that the Census also did a terrible job of thinking about Afrolatinos. And also that again that amongst black folks there’s sort of that weird… it’s bizarre, but the idea that language somehow makes us separate that way. It doesn’t work that way with other languages, which is interesting. I don’t think people feel that divide in the same way with say French. You know what I mean? Like nobody’s like, ‘They speak French, those Senegalese people’. The psychological sense of difference that I think people create when they make these imaginary boxes that they put people in. It’s a stronger line for some reason when it comes to the Spanish language, which is interesting.

It was pointed out to us that the AfroLatin@ Forum obviously has been doing a lot of work around the way that the Census didn’t really deal appropriately with trying to gather that information about Latinos in the US. So we we’re like, ok, cool, so we’d definitely want this project to try to get responses from a number, a percentage… we would like the number of people who identify as Afrolatino that respond to the Soulville Census to be proportionate to the number of the people in the United States who identify as Afrolatino or the percentage of black people in the United States who identify as Afrolatino, so that our census project again is a nice example of how much information the US Census has missed.

AFFIRM

The main phrase of the festival this year is Affirm, Educate, Celebrate. So, in what way does the census work that you’re doing support one or all of those three verbs?

I think it definitely encourages people, it affirms people’s… the way in which we all see ourselves and it affirms the idea that even if the person who’s making boxes put you in the wrong the box, you can always take yourself out of that box and put yourself right where you belong, like we’ve made up our own census.

And it’s actually, I write performance art scores, so because they’re instructions they’re almost like jazz compositions, where it’s like, a person plays it, but hopefully somebody else will play it in a different way. They’re written for other people to do. I do them as examples for other people to see. I’ve done this one three different ways: I’ve done it as a mural, I’ve done it as a thing where people raise their hands and answer it and this one is the biggest one yet where we literally have census takers and we’re going around and doing it that way. It’s a project where the instructions for it are literally just ‘Make a census that gathers the data that the US Census missed’. So, I think it affirms people’s ability to recreate those definitions and make boxes fit who they are. That’s is something that you totally have the power to do. Don’t let anybody make you feel like you can’t.

EDUCATE

I think it’s been education for us definitely in doing the census. I think it’s interesting talking to people doing the census. It’s four pages long and part of it is just straight, like ‘How do you feel about the 2010 Census?’ and then like terms that you call yourself. The terms keep growing in response to what people tell us. But it’s really interesting also because we’re not literally just gathering census data.

It’s called the Soulville Census so that when people learn about it they’re referencing the idea of the 2010 Census and what that was like. But really what we’re doing is asking people questions that are part gathering information and part getting them to think about the terms that they use and the logic behind it. So, this set of questions are ‘What would you call yourself?’ and then ‘What would you call Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, their children?’ and then we also use an example from the movie 12 Years A Slave. It’s a character who is presumably first-generation in the United States. She’s a woman who has been kidnapped from an African country, you don’t know which one. She’s working on a plantation. ‘Which terms would you use to describe her?’ ‘Which terms would you use to describe the woman, the actress who played her?’, who’s Kenyan.

After people answer those questions, we get them to go back through the grid of possible answers. It’s really just based on the language people use. But, we try to get them to go through this grid and say, ‘Ok, if you put down, for instance, African for Barack Obama and maybe you put down like Kenyan, if you didn’t put it down for his kids, why is that?’ Because those are his kids and asking people what they’re logic is. Then people will sometimes tell us what their logic is or sometimes they go ‘Oh!…’. So it’s interesting, kind of like a two-way thing. There are several questions like that where we’re pushing people to dig deeper about their logic.

CELEBRATE

I feel like the festival is making me celebrate, which is great. I thank the festival for that! Because I’m usually I’m not. I’m in the house making census forms.

Aisha Cousins: ‘How I started doing performance art scores’

Additional Resources

To learn more about Aisha Cousins, visit her official page. Come back each day throughout August to see new interviews carried out during the Afrolatino Festival NYC 2015.

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