“Why is the act of a brown body on white ice political?” Duchess Harris, a professor at Macalester College and author of a six-volume examination of race and sports, offers context around Brownbody, a Twin Cities performance ensemble that melds modern dance, theater, and social justice while seeking to “break down cultural barriers in figure skating.” Following a thread from Saartjie Baartman, the South African Khoikhoi woman exhibited in the early 1800s as the “Venus Hottentot,” to 1980s figure skating champion Debi Thomas and onetime Miss America Vanessa William, she contextualizes the groundbreaking work of Deneane Richburg’s Brownbody, which excerpts a new work, Tracing Sacred Steps, as part of a three-day performance showcase with Montreal-based Le Patin Libre.
The creation of Brownbody was a political act. The idea that the world of ice skating could be revolutionized is an idea that could only be conceptualized by a woman like Deneane Richburg.
Trained in African American Intellectual History by Harry Williams and African American literature by Kofi Owusu at Carleton College, Richburg went on to earn an MFA in Afro-American Studies with a focus on contemporary African American theater at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After this she travelled to Temple University, where she earned her MFA in dance and choreography and completed her thesis concert on the ice—the seminal work being a piece focused on Saartjie Baartman, otherwise known as the Venus Hottentot.
I have followed Richburg for most of her career—I remember getting a copy of the CD that was her MFA final project—and I have always found her to be intriguing. I can’t think of anyone else who would use the medium of figure skating to tackle social ills, such as reconstruction and lynching, as she did in a 2015 work entitled Quiet As It’s Kept.
Why is the act of a brown body on white ice political? Sports in the United States are racialized. We have expectations of seeing Black women’s bodies in basketball, but ice skating is considered “feminine” and Black women have been excluded from femininity. What do I mean by this?
Black women’s bodies have always been for objectification and exploitation. In the early nineteenth century, a young South African woman named Saartjie Baartman went to Europe with her employer. There, she began being exhibited at freak show attractions on account of her large buttocks—a feature that earned its possessors the label Hottentot Venuses, Baartman being the most famous Venus Hottentot.
Back in the United States, Black women were having similar experiences of being denied femininity. In 1851, the Women’s Rights Convention was held in Akron, Ohio, and Sojourner Truth addressed the audience. She emphasized the important difference between White women and Black women in terms of their relationships to White men in her legendary “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Part of her speech specifically addresses the differences in how White women are treated relative to Black women:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud-puddles or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
In 1984, 133 years after Truth’s speech, Vanessa Williams was crowned the first Black Miss America, and her success at crossing the historical color line of the Miss America pageant was read as evidence that Black women could be included within the parameters of White femininity. “My first reaction is that the inherent racism in America must be diluting itself,” former US Rep. Shirley Chisholm said at the time of Williams’ coronation. “I would say, thank God I have lived long enough that this nation has been able to select a beautiful young woman of color to be Miss America.” Chisholm continued by emphasizing the significance of Williams’s victory for Black communities in the United States, claiming that “because it didn’t ‘put bread on the table’ people might say ‘So what?’ when considering the importance to the civil rights movement of a Black woman’s winning of the crown…. [But the event was] not trivial because it shows a sense that the country, for whatever the motivation might be, seems to be trying desperately to move toward an egalitarian set of circumstances.”
Williams’s success and the narrative constructed around it were not to last, however. In July 1984, Penthouse ran an issue that featured Williams engaged in sexual acts with a White woman. These photographs, taken three years before the pageant, prompted the Miss America commission to ask Williams to relinquish her crown and title.
The Vanessa Williams story is relevant because Williams’s subsequent exploitation is the quintessential act of resistance against Black women in the 1980s, a decade in which Debi Thomas became the 1986 world figure skating champion, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, and two-time US National champion. Thomas was the first Black athlete to win any medal at a Winter Olympics. Despite this success, she was denied femininity. In 1988, Thomas wore a unitard to skate in the Olympics while her rival, the East German powerhouse Katarina Witt, wore a feathery, skirtless, posterior-revealing leotard. That year, the International Skating Union, the Switzerland-based federation that sets the rules for figure skating, speed skating, short-track speed skating, and synchronized skating worldwide, instituted a rule that a skirt covering hips and posterior was required for ladies’ competition, thus barring both leotards and unitards; it is occasionally called the “Debi Thomas rule.” Neither Williams nor Thomas were political. Fast forward thirty years, and we have Brownbody.
Deneane Richburg set out to carve out a home for her ancestral history. She retells the stories of Baartman, invokes Truth, highlights Ida B. Wells, and redefines beauty and femininity for the Williams/Thomas generation by (as her bio states) “bringing a heightened sense of energetic pathways and corporeal shapes performed by a Black body moving on the ice.” Richburg is confident in her mission: “Through our programming we witness, reflect, dialogue, dance, and heal as we assess if our perspectives stem from destructive historic ideologies and learn how to disempower these belief systems leading to self-defined nourishing change. Brownbody’s programming is designed to awaken connections to the histories and topics relevant to Black communities through artistic productions and workshops and we strive to make the ice welcoming to Black communities.”
Brownbody insists upon disrupting the dominant narrative of Black women’s bodies as simultaneously elegant, powerful, spiritual, and political. Richburg has said, “In order to embody the work, each skater, each artist is bringing their full selves to the work: heart, mind, souls, spirits, physicality.”
In short, Brownbody is politics on ice. Deneane Richburg has infiltrated what exists and innovated what hasn’t.