Quanda Johnson is a Fulbright Scholar and a Dean’s Graduate Scholar at Gallatin. A performer of work from Broadway to grand opera, she seeks ways to utilize performance to disrupt and consequently alter entrenched, cyclical conversations concerning Blackness and the African diaspora. Awarded the Fulbright Community Leadership Program Grant, she wrote, edited, and directed Beyond the Veil of the Sorrow Songs, which examined the Underground Railroad related to Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and current Maritime racial issues. Quanda earned a MFA in Acting from New School University and a Master of Music degree from the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College. An AUDELCO Award nominee for her portrayal of Marian Anderson, she appeared in Broadway’s Tony award-winning Ragtime and made her New York City Opera debut in The Mother of Us All with Lauren Flanigan. Her work is dedicated to the memory of the first artist in her life, her mother, Vernetta.
In Search of Negroland
It’s the intensity of their gaze that pulls me from my subway reading, studying me in spite of themselves—the shape of my eyes, the thickness of my lips. “May I touch your hair?” Or, a sidelong glance of myself in a shop window, “Do other people look at my body and think, ‘God . . . she has a big ass’?”
My body, my intellect, my humanity, has been analyzed, measured, codified, commodified. I have been severed and stored in formaldehyde in Paris. I’ve been caged as a cannibal savage in the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. I’ve swung from trees—not by choice—my scorched flesh, like the scorched earth after a natural conflagration, stunned and amazed. I reeked in the hold of ships for centuries . . . and when the stench overtook those who held me, my lacerated, bleeding flesh was hosed down with seawater. I feel the scorch and burn still. Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro*. Then I go in search of Negroland.
Slavery. The word has a way of collapsing time—propelling us back, back, back . . . falling through a vortex . . . a whirling, sucking mass of air, snatching our breaths, gripping our hearts.
Those of us in the US understand intrinsically that American slavery was the lash, the gimleted paddle, blood hounds, rape, and white privilege gone berserk. Nothing was sacred. Come January first of each year, amidst New Year’s Day revelry, the slave quarters echoed with crying and gnashing of teeth. That was the day debts were settled; the day mothers learned which children they’d lose to see no more; husbands rent from wives; sisters torn from brothers . . . sold. Sold like furniture . . . like cattle. Slavery in America, that “peculiar institution,” compelled running, and that running took many forms—from insurrection, to fleeing on foot, to going within and escaping through song, story, dance, God. Death. Look to see me no more . . . cause I’m Gone!