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On Racial Justice: A Letter From Billie Holiday Theatre Artistic Director Dr. Indira Etwaroo

How much longer must we wait for our country to honor our Unalienable Rights?
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"What struck me most about those who rioted was how long they waited. The restraint they showed. Not the spontaneity, the restraint. They waited and waited for justice and it didn't come. No one talks about that…" Toni Morrison

And we have. We have waited and waited and waited and the question today, as people from all walks of life take to the streets across the nation: How much longer must we wait for our country to honor the unalienable Rights endowed by the Creator to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness ?" How many more deaths? How many more protests? 

Dr. Indira Etwaroo, Executive Artistic Director of The Billie Holiday Theatre

The devastating murder of George Floyd propels us, yet again, into another historic moment, this time framed within the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. While Black Americans are overwhelmed by the disproportionate human losses and impact of COVID-19 within our communities, we are once again confronted by another senseless and racist murder, preceded by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Rana Zoe Mungin, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.

We find ourselves in the eye of a storm that lays bare the 400-year old conundrum of what it means to be Black on American soil. Our story, as a people, is one rooted in our ever-evolving and complex journey towards freedom.

"A narrative of freedom commenced as captive Africans jumped overboard to escape the cruel novelty of bondage, as the White Lion - the first of many vessels - roared to the shores of Jamestown Settlement in 1619. It continued with every runaway slave, every enslaved child who secretly learned to read and write by the dim light of a candle, and every passenger on an underground railroad.

This narrative of freedom strained under a proclamation that emerged out of one of the bloodiest battles on American soil some 150 years ago, and it grew faint, as the laws of Jim Crow produced a strange fruit that filled the air with an aroma not soon to be forgotten. This narrative sparked a renaissance in Harlem after birthing the blues; an art form reinvented time and time again as a visceral resistance to terror in one's own county.

This narrative marched on Washington, even as warriors of justice would never see the narrative of history rewritten. This narrative of freedom has many authors. It is a living document that has been edited, amended, and revised, time and time again. It has been tested, challenged, downtrodden, and it has been shored up with countless whispered prayers and hallelujah shouts." Indira Etwaroo, University of Illinois Press, 2019.

And this narrative continues to be written as protestors take to the streets of Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Chicago and cities across this nation rightfully demanding that Black Americans experience the same freedoms as others. Black Americans have historically borne the weight of this fight for 400 years. It is time for our struggle to be shared by all those who believe in justice. 

My heart has been heavy like so many of you, yet I opened my email yesterday and was heartened by an E-blast from Atlantic Theatre Company. The subject line read: In Solidarity with our Black Community. The Billie Holiday Theatre, like Black theatres and Black-led cultural institutions across the nation was forged in the kiln of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements - National Black Theatre, New Federal Theatre, Negro Ensemble Company, Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop, and many others.

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George Floyd Protest in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn on May 30, 2020 | Photo Credit: Karlvy Smith

We have produced and presented our stories in response to domestic terrorism in our own country and we have often stood alone in this fight. I say this less as a condemnation and more as an invitation to white-led institutions who serve predominantly white, mainstream audiences.

Stand with us to dismantle inequitable and unjust cultural, political, economic, and artistic systems. Stand with us now as Black people are being murdered in the streets.

Stand with us as most essential workers come from neighborhoods of color and COVID-19 takes a devastating toll on our already vulnerable communities and institutions.

Stand with us as institutions of color are disproportionately funded less than white, mainstream institutions, making it an ongoing challenge to fully serve our audiences and tell our stories. Stand with us, as "reopening" means something uniquely different for communities of color.

To my fellow white cultural leaders and audiences:

  • Use your social media and online platforms to underscore your support of justice for the African American community and cultural institutions now and moving forward; 
  • Advocate to your funders and elected officials your stand for equitable funding for institutions of color; 
  • Create a radically welcoming space for not just select Black artists and works, but for all Black audiences beyond MLK Weekend and African American Heritage Month; 
  • Visit our communities and institutions. Invest in our small businesses. Attend our events; and,
  • Be the person who doesn't look like the majority of people in a space and experience the power of that perspective.
  • Develop, communicate, and achieve a multi-prong, multi-year racial justice strategic plan with actionable benchmarks that support racial justice and equity.
  • Create an Institutional Racial Justice Task Force made up of various departments from throughout the organization with diverse representation  that will hold the institution accountable to their strategic plan.  
  • Present an annual racial justice audit, just like one might do for its financials, and make it available to the public.
  • Funders can require a racial justice annual audit as part of their application process to assess grant applicants.
  • Recruit Board Members that have the expertise, knowledge-base, and commitment to support racial justice strategies.

As a Black woman leader of an institution that is for, by, about, and within the largest community of African Americans in the nation, Central Brooklyn, it has not been the sound of protests on the streets outside my home in Brooklyn - for Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Natasha McKenna (now George Floyd) and so many others - that is deafening, it is the silence of my peers.

To my fellow community members who are experiencing this moment as a resounding echo of so many moments like this in our history, The Billie Holiday Theatre remains anchored in revolution and justice with you. As it has been for the last 48 years, our North Star remains our complex and ever-evolving narrative towards freedom.

We must pass a better world on to the next generation. The time has come to stand together. The time for justice is now.

Ever-forward, Indira

Dr. Indira Etwaroo
Executive Artistic Director, The Billie Holiday Theatre