by Brenda Dixon Gottschild
Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Meta-Notes expand on the project's conceptual frame and ground it in a larger context.
Free Radical Brenda Dixon Gottschild reflects on her walks along Forbidden Drive and the Philly ethos.
It’s almost six months ago that ten women joined me for a Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia “Walk Along the Wissahickon” in the Chestnut Hill area of Fairmount Park. I take this walk year round, holding off only when rain, sleet, ice, or snow make it impossible to stay the course. Tame though it may be, it’s my connection to the life of the land, to the reality that everything is in constant flux—that life is change and, even in terms of the natural world, “what goes around comes around.” So I watch the seasons come and go by recording these changes in my steps, on my skin, and in my mind’s eye.
There’s also the sociopolitical sense of “what goes around comes around.” Who’s on top one day will devolve into old news and fall from grace. And, in another sense—the karmic sense—what you reap, you will sow. (In this regard, I’m more than ready for Trump to be trumped, if you will!)
In my little walk along the park’s Forbidden Drive, nature reminds me that this land existed long before Europeans set foot here, bringing in enslaved Africans and extinguishing the Original Americans. Thoughts float up from the unconscious: who would I be, had my ancestors not been violently and unwillingly brought to these shores? What landscapes would I traverse? What moods would arise?
These bare-limbed autumn trees are augurs of human mortality and help me to remember that I, too, will pass, and that all days are precious. That these sparse trunks and branches and the yellow-orange-brown leaves underfoot are blessings that simply exchanged their summer madness for winter garb. That life goes on, despite human folly, frailty, and fanaticism. That I can come here as though entering a sanctuary. In fact, this is my church! And this is one of the delights of living in the American metropolis with the largest public park within its city limits.
I’m not a native Philadelphian, but I’ve come to love parts of the city with a passion. Nathea Lee is another non-native who dearly loves—and now sorely misses—Philly. Lee was the Managing Director for the Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble from 2009 to 2014, when she left to take a similar position with Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women. I met her last week in Manhattan at the Dance Magazine Awards ceremony on December 7. (Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Founder and Artistic Director of UBW, was one of the award recipients.) Lee told me how much she misses Philadelphia (and asked me to send greetings to everyone at the Bride, especially Lisa Nelson-Haynes) and added, with a melancholy tone to her voice, “You know, Philly’s a very special place. I still have my house there!” I agree with Nathea! After years of lusting after Manhattan, my home town, I’ve come to realize how much I love Philadelphia: the park, the people, the particulars of a site-specific culture that is not like any other. It’s more of a southern metropolis than New York City. Atlanta may be “down South,” but some people nicknamed Philly, “up South.” There’s a provincial pace here that I’ve come to cherish, and a definable ethos that I describe in “The Philadelphia/Philadanco Aesthetic,” a chapter in my most recent book (Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina – A Biohistory of American Performance). And my personal aesthetic—artistic, intellectual, and spiritual—has matured through the influence and resonances of this city. Let me stop here, before I wax sentimental. And since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are photos of my walks last week along Forbidden Drive.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild is an African-American cultural historian, performer, choreographer, and anti-racist cultural worker. She is a Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Free Radical.