If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again: An Ethnographic Performance
of Black Motherhood

by Evette Hornsby-Minor (film by Rachel Raimist)

“If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” is a performance ethnography project that has matured over several years since its inception as part of my doctoral thesis, which dealt with the lived experiences of four generations of African American women and the impact of racism, sexism, classism, and stereotypical images on the maternal connections among generations. It is based on the premise that to fully appreciate the issues that influence Black women as mothers, we must examine the images of the idealized mother and of Black womanhood in U.S. culture and how these contradictory images are burdensome for Black women. Asserting that Black women should express and define their own experiences, the thesis used the lens of Black feminist thought and theory to address the lived experiences of Black women as women and as mothers. This multi-media performance ethnography is about death, grief, and mother-loss in the Black community, and embodies my claim that to adequately tell the narratives/stories of Black women as mothers, we must move theory into narrative and performance.

The methodology used in my creative scholarship is performance ethnography, in which I employ multi-media to create a multi-text and multi-voice “text.” Performance ethnography is an innovative and cross-disciplinary method that allows me to integrate my experience as both a scholar and performer and to bridge the “nearly invisible boundaries separating theatre performance from dance, music, film, television, video, and the various performance art ‘disciplines’” in postmodern culture (Denzin 93).

This project, beginning from the premise that telling and writing stories is only one way to share and pass on lived experiences, incorporates movement and dance to convey stories and narratives. In this way, my research explores the connection between literary texts and the language of movement. I seek to employ what Albright calls an intratextual practice of interpretation, “one that would privilege neither the autobiographical voice nor the dancing body, but rather take the intersection of these textual and bodily discourses as the site of analysis” (125).

In this way, the project manifests the assertion that our bodies hold our stories. As Spry puts it, “the performing body offers a thick description of an individual’s engagement with cultural codes and expectations; it is an ancient scroll upon which is written the stories of one’s movement through the world” (170). That is, the body remembers, and movements can reveal or capture emotionally charged moments that can be re-told through the body. This performance is an example of what Snowbear calls “body narratives” that integrate the arts of autobiography and dance. Based on feminist, anthropological, and performance theory and the ethnographic data I collected from relatives as well as my own memories, the performance incorporates stories, songs, visual images, and dance (including a choreographic study of my grandmother’s movements and dancing) to tell a story of several generations of women-mothers that is impossible to convey in words alone.

Works Cited

Albright, A. C. Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1997.

Denzin, N. K. Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the Twentieth-First Century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.

Snowbear, C. “Bodydance: Enfleshing Soulful Inquiry through Improvisation.” Dancing the Data. Ed. C. Bagley and M. B. Cancienne. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 20-33.

Spry, T. “Illustrated woman: Autoperformance in ‘Skins: A Daughter’s (Re)construction of Cancer’ and ‘Tattoo Stories: A Postscript to ‘Skins.’” Voices Made Flesh. Ed. L.C. Miller, J. Taylor, and M. H. Carver. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 2003. 167-191.

About Rachel Raimist

Born to a Puerto Rican mother and a Jewish father, and raised in upstate New York, Rachel Raimist began making videos at age 14. Since emerging as a powerful, insightful voice of hip-hop feminism with the award-winning documentary Nobody Knows My Name in 1999, she’s also established herself as a progressive force in the fields of academia, pursuing a Ph.d. in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. She has taught feminist film/media studies, feminism, and film/media-making at The University of Minnesota, Macalester College, The University of California, Irvine and Los Angeles, and at non-profits, community centers, and high schools.  She is co-editor of Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology, and appears in many other academic and popular press publications. She describes herself as a mother, filmmaker, hip-hop feminist, activist, scholar, emerging poet, and blogger.

About Evette Hornsby-Minor

Dr. Evette Hornsby-Minor, scholar and performance artist, grew up in two very different geographic and cultural environments, New York City and rural Mississippi, which has influenced both her identity and her work. Moving to California in the late 1980s, she completed her B.S. with honors in Africana Studies in 1992 and her M.S. in Marriage, Child, and Family Counseling in 1997, both from San Diego State University. In 2004 she received her Ph.D. in Multicultural Education from a joint doctoral program of Claremont Graduate University and San Diego State University.

An interdisciplinary scholar-artist, Hornsby-Minor has also had extensive training in dance, drama, and expressive art therapy, including training with Allyson Green, a renowned choreographer and visual artist. Her dissertation, If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again: A Narrative Ethnography and Performance Ethnography of Black Motherhood, is grounded in a Black feminist theoretical framework and utilizes the methods of narrative ethnography, the storytelling tradition of the African Diaspora, and performance ethnography to embody the lived experiences of Black women. She has since developed If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again into a 45-minute multimedia solo performance. She has performed this work at various venues, including Sushi in San Diego and the Performance Arts Festival in St. Cloud, MN. Her innovative and interdisciplinary method allows her to integrate her experience as both a scholar and performer in a theatre performance that bridges such performance art forms as dance, music, and video.

Currently, Hornsby-Minor is an assistant professor in the Gender Studies Program at St. Lawrence University, where she teaches Gender Studies and continues to develop new courses on movement and performance that are cross-listed with the Performance and Communication Studies department. She has also been training with Zab Maboungou’s Compagnie Danse NYATA NYATA, a professional training program in African Dance in Montreal.

Her research interests are creative scholarship, autobiographical and ethnographic performance, African and African American movement/dance, and writing inquiry and multimedia performance. She is also interested in race, class, and gender issues, especially Black masculinity and Black women (with a focus on mothers and mother/daughter relationships and intergenerational family narratives).

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