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- Courtesy of the artists, Richard Howard Photography and Benjamin Aleshire
- From top left, clockwise: Toussaint St. Negritude; Angela Davis; Christal Brown; Tricia Rose; Jolivette Anderson-Douoning; Rajnii Eddins
In the early stages of planning the Black Experience, nuwave Equity Corporation CEO and founder Emiliano Void and poet Rajnii Eddins were a two-man show, "wearing about 986 hats," Void recalled. The two men shared an outlook, he said: that systemic problems require systemic solutions. They also shared lofty goals, even as the wide-ranging celebration of Black Vermonters was in its infancy.
"We were already thinking big, really big," Void said. "As in, we were dreaming of bringing Beyoncé and Jay-Z as headliners."
Their inaugural event was part of Burlington's Juneteenth celebration last year, and now the Black Experience 2023 (BX23) is making strides toward Void and Eddins' original ambition. Beyoncé and Jay-Z aren't headlining just yet, but America's most famous living revolutionary, Angela Davis, will return for a second year as the event's featured speaker.
The world-renowned activist, author, academic and philosopher appears in conversation with Brown University's Tricia Rose at the Flynn in Burlington on Saturday, February 25. The talk caps a free, daylong slate of speakers, poets and musicians at the venue. The next day, PHILADANCO!, aka the Philadelphia Dance Company, takes the stage.
BX23 has a statewide scope that marks an expansion from 2022. This year's event features speakers Mia Schultz and Steffen Gillom, the presidents of the Rutland and Windham County NAACP branches, respectively. Through a partnership with Green Mountain Power, BX23 is facilitating a network of free shuttles to transport attendees from 18 locations across the state.
"Our three pillars last year were community, culture and education," Void said. "This year we're expanding to include health as our fourth pillar."
As part of the effort, BX23 partnered with Jackie Hunter, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for the University of Vermont Health Network, to offer free screenings on Saturday for illnesses such as diabetes at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. According to the National Institutes of Health, Black Americans are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to develop type 2 diabetes, a disparity that has been rising over the past 30 years. Open to all Vermonters, the screenings will be accompanied by assistance with insurance and prescriptions to help people navigate the complexities of seeking health care.
That BX23 has assembled so much support from local partners is a testament to Void's skill as a diplomat.
Void's nuwave Equity is a consulting company that works to transform professional and educational spaces to be more equitable. Originally from Montréal, he's been based in Burlington for the past 11 years. He and Eddins met at Brother Cipher, an affinity space for Black men founded by Eddins and another speaker at BX23, Infinite Culcleasure, who ran for Burlington mayor in 2018 and currently works with the Freedom Finders Collective.
In a phone interview, Void made it clear that he hasn’t been a fan of Seven Days’ coverage of racial issues. He cited a November 2, 2022, cover story about a recent eruption of gun violence in Burlington as an example, arguing that it unfairly targeted the city’s immigrant community by perpetuating harmful stereotypes. The cover featured a stock photo of bullet shells littered on asphalt with the headline “Warning Shots: Burlington’s Immigrant Community Seeks Solutions to the Gun Violence That Is Claiming Youths.” The piece revealed the connections between the perpetrators and victims of the crimes, the majority of whom were new Americans.
"Narrative and imagery like that are dangerous," Void said. "What we're trying to do is lift people up and empower them."
Void believes that this sort of tension illustrates how deeply BX23 is needed in Vermont — a state that is 94 percent white — as both a celebration of Black life and an opportunity for white Vermonters to reconsider their relationship to the Black experience. The recent spate of racist slurs yelled during high school sports events is just one example of how far Vermont still has to go to live up to its reputation for neighborly tolerance.
"We have to draw from the strength of people who made vital sacrifices that at the time seemed impossible to surmount," Eddins told Seven Days at kru Coffee in Burlington, where he often holds court while organizing community events. The life's work of BX23 headliner Davis, he explained, "gives us a certain spiritual reserve against the periodic amnesia about the roots of systemic racism."
Davis has been an activist icon at the cutting edge of the struggle for racial equality since the 1960s. Her work fighting for Black liberation, anti-war, feminist and prison abolition movements has taken her from working with militant organizations such as the Black Panther Party to being hunted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to a successful career as an academic and philosopher. She recounted that journey in Angela Davis: An Autobiography, originally edited by Toni Morrison and recently reissued by Haymarket Books.
"At the time I wrote this book," Davis writes in a preface to the new edition, "I could not really imagine myself as an author, especially of an autobiography. Almost a half-century later, I have retained my suspicion of the underlying individualism that defines the genre. Today, as we witness the perilous repercussions of neoliberal individualism, I am more convinced than ever that we need to engage in relentless critique of our centering of the individual." Seeing a worldview that always places the self above the community as the defining spirit of capitalism, she applies a critical lens to that treasured American ideal.
Davis is no rigid ideologue, however, and that's part of her power as an activist and thinker. Throughout her life, she's shown the courage to evolve and change course while staying true to her ideals. She left the American Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union, citing power struggles that were less than democratic. In 1997, she came out as a lesbian, and much of her preface to Angela Davis: An Autobiography shows her clear-eyed admission that the radical struggles of her earlier career should have included more recognition of intersectional issues.
BX23 has a stellar showcase lined up to precede Davis. Emceed by Christal Brown, an associate professor of dance and director of the Anti-Racist Task Force at Middlebury College, the schedule includes musician Mikahely on guitar and valiha, beloved local DJ Craig Mitchell, and several spoken-word artists: Harmony Edosomwan, Brittany "Beamer" Morgan Wallace and Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, in addition to a set by Eddins.
Anderson-Douoning teaches at Saint Michael's College. Recently arrived from Louisiana, she moved to Vermont as the college's inaugural Edmundite Fellow to complete her dissertation on the development of Shreveport's Hollywood neighborhood, "Louisiana Learning: A Race-Space Geographic Education and the Creation of a Black Cultural 'Place'."
"What I'm working on is how to teach young people history through poetry," she told Seven Days. "I want people to understand or wrestle with the notion that, in order to write a poem, you have to understand history."
Anderson-Douoning is no stranger to the stage: She has run a poetry venue called Mississippi Vibes, hosted a poetry radio show, and toured as an opener for big acts such as Patti LaBelle and Brian McKnight.
"Understanding history makes us question the absences, the lack of representation," she said. "All groups have those absences: Asian, Latino, poor white folks. What we do as artists is plug in the gaps; we make those absences become present."
Toussaint St. Negritude is another fascinating performer slated for BX23. An Afrofuturist, poet and jazz musician, he'll perform on the bass clarinet and deliver his own brand of what he calls "oro-shamanic poetry," a reference to orology, or the study of mountains.
"I grew up in northern California around mountains, in the Sierras," he said. "I've always had a deep connection to mountains on a deep spiritual level."
That love of mountains has brought St. Negritude around the world — to Haiti, where he lived for several years; to Belfast, Maine, where he was appointed the state's poet laureate; and finally to Vermont.
"The minute I saw the mountains — and I know this might sound strange, coming from an African diaspora perspective — when I saw the Green Mountains, I felt the same immediate, lightning-strike connection as I felt with the Haitian mountains," he said. "And I still feel it today."
BX23 is proof of the richness of Vermont's Black community and the vast potential for local partnerships — to paraphrase Davis — to no longer accept the things we cannot change, and to change the things we cannot accept.