Journal Prompts

Week 1

 In chapter 6 of Houston Baker’s seminal book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker suggests that we can think about the history of black resistance, especially black resistance through black expressive texts, as falling in one of two categories.  Black resistance, Baker suggests (via a curious appeal to natural history), deploys as either a “mastery of form” or a “deformation of mastery.”  

Considering our reflection on the term “ontology” and its relationship to blackness and performance and performative presentations of self and in deference to the at least poetic resonance between Baker’s emphasis on form, formation, and deformation and the title of Beyonce’s 2016 track and subsequent music video “Formation,” this week’s prompt invites you to examine the music video “Formation” via the lens of Baker’s ideas of “mastery of form” and “deformation of mastery.”  

To what extent are one or more of these concepts applicable to the performance of/in the music video “Formation”?  You may wish to begin your journal contemplation with a straightforward distinguish and identify exercise.  Distinguish between the various performance and/or performative aspects at play in the video.  Identify aspects you believe might constitute a “mastery of form” and aspects you believe might constitute a “deformation of mastery.” Make note of why you view the particular aspects as you do.   Once you’ve done this initial work, you should think about honing your examination on one or two aspects of the video.  What about these aspects (how they are deployed and to what end) makes you associate them with either “mastery of form” or “deformation of mastery”?  What is the significance of thinking about this particular aspect of the video as a mastery of form or a deformation mastery?  Note: In thinking about the significance, it will be helpful to elaborate on the nature of the form that’s being mastered and/or the nature of the mastery that has been deformed.  

Week 2

This week you can choose any of the following prompts:

  • 1-  What kind of work does child-like wonder, imagination, and magic do in/for the novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo? And specifically what kind of work does it do around the way the text imagine race, blackness, and freedom?
  • 2- What kind of work does child-like wonder, imagination, and magic do in/for the film Guava Island? And specifically what kind of work does it do around the way the text imagine race, blackness, and freedom?
  • 3- Does the difference in setting affect how we understand the dancing and lyrical performances the music video “This is America” versus how we understand it in the film Guava Island?  How? Or Why not?  
  • 4-  Does the difference in genre and/or medium affect how we understand the dancing and lyrical performances the music video “This is America” versus how we understand it in the film Guava Island?  How? Or Why not? 
  • 5- Compare and contrast the dance/movement performances in Ntozake Shange’s novel with the dance/movement performances in either (or both of) the texts by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover).  What do the have in common? Are those commonalities related to race, blackness, genre, time period, or other factors?  Are the gendered differences between the dance/movement performances in the two artists’ work?
  • 6- Keeping in mind the concepts introduced in the first two weeks of class (I.e. performance, performative, reality check, mastery of form, deformation of mastery), what theories/ideas about blackness, performance, or freedom seem to arise across the the four texts we’ve examined thus far (I.e. two music videos, one film, and one novel)? Use specific examples from each texts to support your theory. 

Week 3

Pick one of the recipes for food or healing, one of the songs, dances, or other pieces of artistic performance presented in the novel and enact it in. You may need to modify the recipe or nature of the craft to suit pragmatic concerns (i.e. access to materials and tools) and/or the specifics of your own life and performative expression.

Consider journaling about the following:

  • 1- Which recipe/art/performance did you choose to enact and why?
  • 2- How did you go about reenacting this performance?  Did you modify it in any way? If so, what modifications did you make?; why did you make these modifications? And in what way do the modifications affect how your reenactment signifies? If you didn’t make any modifications, why not?
  • 3- Describe the experience of reenacting this performance.  Consider:  How did it feel (smell, sound, taste, look, etc.)?  How did you feel (i.e. nervous, excited, confused, etc.)? How did it feel to prepare, stage, maybe even rehearse the performance versus actually enacting the performance?  Did you have a sense of audience? If yes, who? How did it feel to come out of the performance; to clean up afterwards; or in theater parlance strike the set?  Is any part of you or your understanding different after having performed this reenactment?
  • 4- In what ways, if at all, does your experience reenacting one of the novel’s performances affect the way you understand some minor and/or overarching aspect of the novel?
  • 5- Please make sure to include some documentary evidence of your performance (e.g. a photo, video, piece of food you can share with your classmates, a recording, a scrap of fabric you used, etc.).

Week 4

This week you have two options to pick from: one more activity-experience based, and one, more academic analysis based:


Body, Noise, Space Exercise Complete the steps for the following exercise, and then, using the subsequent reflection questions, journal about the exercise experience:

  • 1 – Go somewhere that you feel comfortable taking up space sonically and kinesthetically. Note: Really consider what you need to be comfortable: Depending on your needs, you may need a physically large space while someone else might not care about the size of the space as long as no one else is there. Still someone else might need a supportive friend or community group with them. You decide.   
  • 2 – Once in this space, take at least three distinct actions to bring your body and mind into a comfortable connection with each other (e.g. adjust some part of your clothing, turn down the lights, rearrange the furniture, take several deep breaths, give yourself a brief myofascial massage).  
  • 3 – Be still for three minutes (not longer than the average radio edit pop song).  
  • 4 – Follow this stillness with 1-2 minutes of continuous bodily movement.  Take up as much physical space as you safely can, and keep your energy exertion level as high and as long (not to exceed 2 minutes) as you can safely do so.   
  • 5 – Conclude this movement section with a scream. Endeavor to scream rather than shout or yell.  Whether you are happy, sad, anxious, or content, try to let something of yourself be expressed in the scream.   
  • 6 – When you are finished screaming. Stop.  
  • 7 – Make yourself as small and still as you can without making yourself uncomfortable.  
  • 8 – Conclude the exercise by being still for one minute. 

PROMPT: Reflect in your journal about each stage of the experience.  Describe how the experience registered on all five of your senses.  Reflect on your mental, physical, emotional, spiritual state before, during, and after the exercise.   Record and reflect on various thoughts and preoccupations that may have come to mind, before, during, and/or after the exercise.  
How does the experience affect your understanding of Goldman’s reading of Lincoln and the scream? How does it affect your understanding of the sound of Cypress’s dancing or the movement conjured and felt in Indigo’s playing?   


Watch the YouTube clip of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach (maybe more than once). The performance is similar to the one that Goldman discusses in her article “Sound Gesture.”  

Write a journal entry in which you reflect on the relationship between body and sound, between movement and music. In order to do so, you should pay attention to the dynamic between Roach and Lincoln.  You might consider the pace and tone of their musical back and forth; the juxtaposition of their energies;  their placement on the stage; and/or how the camera frames them.

Take special notice of Lincoln’s scream: What do you notice in your own body as Lincoln’s vocalizations and utterances “wide[n]” out to bodily and emotive projections of the scream? What thoughts and/or feelings does the scream provoke?   How does the scream affect your orientation to the music? to Lincoln? to Roach? to the recording itself?  How does it affect your understanding of the music? of Lincoln? of Roach? to the recording itself?

Weeks 5, 6, & 7

You can draw from any of the following journal prompts for last week’s journal entry, this week’s entry, and/or next week’s entry.   Just make sure you pick a different prompt for each week.

1 – Listen to one of the songs/tunes referenced in the play.  (Some are easier to locate than others.) Write a post in which you describe how the specificity of that particular tune might affect the way we read, stage, and understand the signification of that moment in the play.    

2 – Identify an aspect of “Color Struck” where the script’s absent material has significant political / ideological potential depending on how the script is embodied in performance.  The aspect you identify should be different from one of the aspects mentioned in the Richards article or discussed in class. 

3 – Find an example of ecstatic joy in your everyday life (recent or from that you can recall from the past). Now try to represent the experience and feeling of that ecstatic joy in a medium and form of your choice.  Once you’ve completed this representation as best you can.  Spend time in your journal reflecting on 1) the formal choices you made and why; 2) the challenges of trying to communicate this moment of ecstatic joy via representation; and 3) insights you gained from trying to communicate this moment via representation. (Your insights may be about the experience, the form, the medium, or any topic, at least generally, relevant to the class material.)

4- Comparing and contrasting the narrative performance of Derek Bell’s story “The Space Traders” with the cinematic performance of the story as one of the shorts featured in the program Cosmic Slop, journal about one or both questions:  In what ways does black performance (in its concerns and/or formal tendencies) lend itself well to the genres of sci-fi or speculative fictions? AND/OR How might speculating about the future constitute a present political performance?

5- Thinking about about Beyonce’s decision to emphasize Louisiana as the place of her familial belonging (as opposed to Texas) in the music video Formation, the animated storybook like frame of Guava Island; Shange’s black (and female) arts version of the bildungsroman (coming of age) genre; the absence of clear familial and ancestral belonging generated by the pointed ambiguity around characters’ color in “Color Struck,” answer one or both of the following questions:  In what ways does ontology function as a performative mode of black (and potentially female) resistance?  AND/OR  How is black ontology realized differently in performance as opposed to scripted text?   (Note: Don’t be afraid to look up the word “ontology” again, but also don’t get bogged down in learning the whole philosophical tradition around the concept of “ontology.”  Remember our discussion about “ontology” being related to origins and social-cultural belonging. If phenomenology is related to the metaphysics of material existence, ontology is related to the social-physics of cultural/civic/societal existence –as having an identity that is from somewhere-thus belongs and is recognized as belonging somewhere).  

 6- Using the videos in the “Black Ballerinas” Media Packet as a kind of glossary of dance and expressive movement gestures, provide a close reading of a gesture or movement phrase in one or more of the following; Beyonce’s Formation, Childish Gambino’s This is AmericaGuava Island, and/ or Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo.  You might approach this close reading as a comparative close reading in which you are reading the physicality of one of these texts through the lens of one of the texts in the  “Black Ballerinas” media packet. 

Week 8

Please pick from one of the four prompt options:

1 -If in the bildungsroman and many traditional western narrative forms, there’s a relationship between the developmental rise of the narrative form and the developmental rise (or formation) of the subject identity, how might the sequencing of “incidents” in Jacobs’ suggest about Linda Brent’s subject formation?     There are a lot of ways to answer this question. Try not to generalize and don’t feel you need to be exhaustive in your answer.  Try identifying a one or two places in the text where you can really explore the relationship between the form of Jacobs and/or Brent narration and the type of subject formation that narration presents.   Tip: Try focusing on a moment in the text that deals with time; rituals; coming of age; maturation; status classification; and/or citizenship status.  

2. The title of the chapter describing Brent’s entry into the garret above her grandmother’s house is “The Loophole of Retreat.”  How does this title inform the way we read the chapter and Brent’s mode of escape?  What implications might this title have for how we ought to read both the mode of escape and the narrative mode of relaying that escape?  

3.  Using housemates, friends, stuffed animals, figurines, sock puppets, etc. to stage the drama that Linda Brent orchestrates in chapter XXV of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  When you journal about the experience, make sure to describe and discuss your choices about the following:  casting, set design, lights, sounds, props, staging and blocking. What material conditions and/or social-environmental dynamics did you need to consider that weren’t explicitly mentioned or foregrounded in the text but which nevertheless matter to staging the event? How does the way you understand (interpret) the scene affect (determine) your choices?   How does thinking about and making decisions about those choices affect (influence, possibly change)  the way you understand the scene? 

4 – The purpose of this exercise is to help you contemplate something of the physical dynamics of Harriet Jacobs’ garret escape. Please read all the instructions as well as the below “Warning” note before attempting this optional exercise.   Jacobs wrote that “[t]he garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose floor board.”  

  • A.  At a time when you are relatively awake, find or construct a space that roughly equivalates to 9’x 7’x3′. Make sure your space is completely enclosed with the exception of possibly a few holes no bigger than the width of your ring finger.  
  • B.  If you have roommates or housemates, you should try to do this exercise without their assistance or knowledge to the extent that doing so is feasible and advisable. You should however call, text, or email a classmate, friend, family or someone else outside the space informing them about the time and place you intend to start this exercise.  
  • C.  Procure your journal (if you have a physical  one) OR a recent piece of mail OR  a sheet of newspaper as well as a pen or pencil.
  • D.  Set an alarm for 40 minutes. The alarm should remain outside of this structure.    
  • E.  Remove your shoes.
  • F.  Enter the structure with nothing other than the items from step B and the clothes you are wearing (less any electronic accessories).
  • G.  Spend 40 minutes in this space:  Begin by taking note of your body, the smells, the sounds, etc.  Then try to experience the space of the room from this vantage point. Try to feel the distance between you and the door.  Try to assess how many people and/or animals are within a 2-3 minute range of reaching you.  Now try recording these sensations with your writing materials.  
  • H.  When the alarms goes off, do not burst out of the garret.  Inhale deeply, check in with your feet, your legs, your spine, your neck, your head and your arms. Find cautious and deliberate movement.  Slowly, carefully, leave your garret space. 
  • I.  Turn off the alarm.  Let the friend, classmate, family member you contacted know that you have completed the exercise.
  • J.  In your journal, write a brief letter addressed to Harriet Jacobs or Linda Brent (you choose).  Your letter should consist of three parts:  
    • PART ONE:  describe the simulated garret you made–its location, dimensions, materials, climate, etc.  
    • PART TWO: Using more than one sentence, fill in the blank– “What I felt  was ______.”  Describe what you felt both physically (with your sensorial apparatus) and emotionally (with your mind).  
    • PART THREE:  Using more than one sentence, fill “What I still do not, and perhaps cannot, know is______________. “

**WARNING (Please Read):  This exercise may not be right for you if you have fears of small spaces, darkness, or suffer from ptsd or other anxiety disorder that might be triggered by any of the material conditions you’re invited to materially contemplate in this exercise.  If after starting the exercise you experience shortness of breath; chest pains; intense sweat or any other signs of physical distress, please stop immediately.  

*NOTE: You should do this exercise when you are awake. While you will likely start to feel drowsy in this position, the exercise will not be as effective if you sleep for most of it. 

Week 9

Student Group 1

Week 10

Student Group 2

Week 11

Student Group 1

Week 12

Student Group 2