There are many roads that lead to the flow arts. Mine was at Georgia’s regional burn, Alchemy. It was fall of 2014, during my last semester of college. I was pursuing a practical but not so exciting degree in accountancy. I am a first-generation college graduate, a reality not uncommon in the African American community. I was committed to putting fun and adventure after my studies. With graduation clearly around the corner, I decided to attend my first festival with a group of friends.
I drove up into the mountains, down winding dirt roads, and found myself in a tent city in a rolling field. Odd yet amazing art was all around, and there was so much to explore. On that day, I came across a group of flow artists. I was awestruck as they flowed effortlessly. I asked them if I could try the practice staff. I clumsily spun the prop around in circles for what felt like forever, lost in this new and captivating experience. Before I know it, they were gone… and I was left with this prop.
What followed through a weekend of experiencing this new place, was the start of my relationship with my first prop. When I finally caught up with the owner of that practice staff, they said they saw how much I enjoyed playing with it and decided that it should go home with me. It was a transformative weekend. I had no idea what the journey ahead would be, but I was beyond excited to find out.
The moment that weekend when I knew how deep I was about to dive in, was when I saw my friend Patrick Spidey perform at Circus Combustus. His performance was captivating! I returned from Alchemy eager to learn. I attended as many local flow gatherings as I could find, and then began to familiarize myself with the community.
As with most things in life there were pros and cons. On the positive side of things, flow arts gave me a much-needed creative outlet. Flow arts helped me find a personal direction in life, one that helped me reorient my priorities. This path was nurturing, much more than the consuming nature of climbing the corporate ladder. I took notice, found a different career trajectory in my field that was more nourishing. On the negative end, my enthralling new community seemed only sparsely inhabited by people of color. I was conflicted; this unique and organic excitement tempered by an all too familiar feeling of not belonging. I doubted myself too; I wasn’t good at flow arts. Some people invested time and energy into me as a person and growing artist, but I struggled to find a feeling of comfort and belonging. I so desperately wanted to explore this community and call it home.
The Flame that Followed:
A year after I began my flow arts journey, I found myself struggling with my first plateau. My friends encouraged me to attend FLow Arts Movement Exchange (FLAME) the closest flow arts retreat to my hometown of Atlanta, GA. I was blown away by the depth of knowledge and talent packed into an event. So much so that it simultaneously inspired me and exacerbated my feeling of not belonging. There were so many talented amazing people, that all knew each other, and I was just trying to not burn myself with a stick. I left the event having learned a lot but feeling less connected to the community.
A lot of it was in my head, but feeling like an outsider is par for the course when virtually no people in your community look like you. However, that has not always been my experience. I grew up in Atlanta; a beautifully diverse and enigmatic city. Due to my diverse background and interests, I have not always found myself welcome in groups comprised of predominantly black people, and even more so in groups of predominantly white people. While the flow arts community is a dramatic improvement from some social norms in my past, it was not free of the microaggressions, and prejudices around people of color. Even if some of those prejudices are innocent misconceptions.
A Fading Flame:
The autumn that followed my first FLAME was filled with those personal hurdles and challenges life throws at you. When you’re in the throes of navigating life’s hard lessons and distasteful realities, your mind wanders to odd places. Unfortunately, the world isn’t always sweet or kind. The grind is often sour and cutting–right to the bone. Some days are worse than others, but even the average days can be a not so gentle reminder that some people you encounter feel that you simply don’t belong. The first time a derogatory term was directed at me, I was about 12 years old. What drives an adult to direct a racial slur at a child is still beyond me. It was not the last time. I have a plethora of memories of being tokenized with those I thought were friends during college–even in the classroom. I‘ve had the–sadly not so unique–displeasure of experiencing blatant discrimination in front of a class, to the point of escalating to a formal complaint to my school. To my initial shock and subsequent somber acceptance, the complaint was written off and life just went on.
The issues people of color and other disenfranchised groups face is ubiquitous. There are no breaks. No time-outs from people noticing you don’t look like other people in a group. These are just some of the experiences that I have learned from, and inform my perception of the world around me. I also have no doubt learning from these experiences keeps me safer every day. While often difficult, sometimes immensely so, the pitfalls we navigate through life, are the same things that help you grow in amazing ways. When I needed a nudge in the right direction those “few” people who invested time and energy into me not only helped me get out of the funk I found myself in. To my surprise, I realized those “few” had grown into a large support group.
A Brighter Tomorrow:
In the years that followed I made more connections in the community I was so eager to be a part of. Before I knew it, I was working with the very people I looked up to and helping to organize events like FLAME. Not long after that I began teaching the next generation of flow artists the moves learned over the years. The greater my involvement, the more I began to notice that the communities we have cultivated over the years is not free of all the overarching societal issues that the world we live in is subject to.
Every community is a microcosm of the larger communities they represent. A reality many people of color in our own communities are surely all too familiar with. Being the only person of color in a group and being asked to speak on what they think about a thing. That thing may or may not be connected to the person’s own ethnic or cultural heritage. Even if it is, being asked to “speak for an entire race/gender/class/etc” is not a particularly comfortable position to be put in. Last year, I observed someone in our community behave in a way that made me highly uncomfortable. What was equally as disturbing is that I could count on one hand the number of people who had a similar uncomfortable reaction to my own. These experiences are subtle, but poignant reminders of the cruelty many of us have experienced in our past.
In light of all of these issues, every day I am still thankful and proud to be a part of this community. We work hard to put our best foot forward and welcome people with open arms. It is up to each of us to hold ourselves to a high standard and lead by example for the new members of our community. While we are all human and will undoubtedly make mistakes, owning those mistakes, learning from them, and continuing to grow as people is important. It is just as important as the time, effort, and passion we put into our respective art forms. The issues our society faces are many and are seldom a fun or exciting thing to discuss. However, when we speak to each other and speak up for each other, we strengthen our communities. That is how we grow in the right direction. I strongly encourage us all to take a step outside of our comfort zone, learn how we can best support each other, and make this community burn bright.
Written by Yamhari Yum Yum