Breathing Deeply: The Breath and Voice of the Black Body
by Charlique C. Rolle
Take a moment to breathe with me.
Allow each breath to find its way deep into every part of your body. Feel it surge through your muscles. Course through your veins. Releasing tension. Slowing your heart rate. Stilling your anxious thoughts. Giving you mental clarity and awareness. Freeing you from the stress, anxiety and trauma carried in the innermost parts of your being—burdens that have lingered longer than you care to admit or attempt to comprehend.
The most innate force. The very essence of all creation by which our voices are formed and heard. The deep somatic and kinesthetic connection of breath and voice are inseparable, where breath initiates, empowers and sustains the voice. The deeper the breath, the stronger the voice.
That which was strengthened by faith, protest and the fight for liberation. Whose reach expanded beyond its surroundings and, despite outside attempts to separate and weaken the voice of our people, was the very thing that unified the Black body at Louisiana’s iconic Congo Square—a haven where our people found freedom to simply be through song, dance and performance. Black art did more than simply imitate life. It was life.
It was the sound of a people caged in systems designed to mute and silence their voices by stealing their breath, mutilating their bodies and denying them justice. This pain and trauma transferred into every Black body that would follow creating what Ta-Nehisi Coates described as “a visceral experience, that dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” But just as intensely as this pain was felt, the power of the Black body’s breath and voice harnessed enough strength to free our people from a dark place. As Charles White once said, “Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place…It must ally itself with the forces of liberation.”
"Individual freedom will always breed communal freedom; it is contagious."
For much of my life, the arts have been my very freedom—that which led me to find God, to find myself and, in so doing, led me to see the beauty of our shared humanity. As a child growing up in the Bahamas—a place where aspiring artists’ dreams were crushed daily—this could never be a viable career. But even as families, educators, counselors and the like repeatedly discouraged this route, I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I understood the value of every art form and the unexplainable freedom it could provide. This dichotomy of art and healing was always at the forefront. The arts gave me breath amidst my parents’ divorce, through depression, through trauma and abuse, and quite literally kept me alive when I thought death was the only way out. The arts saved my life. After experiencing such powerful freedom through my faith, my soul was burdened to ensure that others found their liberation through the power of the arts—through dance, through theatre, through voice, through music, through process, through structure, through breath.
Individual freedom will always breed communal freedom; it is contagious. So as I find freedom in my breath and my voice, it is my duty to create that for the community. My deepest passion and mission is to fearlessly create and curate works that catalyze freedom, healing and transformation, and to build, equip and develop artists to walk in the fullness of their gifts and callings. As an artist, a curator and an administrator, I know that the structure and process are integral means of giving space for others to first find their breath, and then their voice.
I breathed when I said yes to stepping into a leadership position at Congo Square Theatre in March 2020—the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back, it seems almost ironic to take on such a significant job at a time when the world was shutting down, but it was so divinely ordered. When I saw Congo Square, its artists, Board and staff, I saw myself in a way that I had not in a very long time. I had spent years leading and serving in either predominantly white or multicultural organizations and yet, I never felt truly seen, heard or understood. It was not until I stepped into Congo that I felt it all. I felt a peace, but also a great burden to ensure that these Black voices were heard unapologetically and this Black institution was preserved and fought for constantly.
I breathed when I said yes in the middle of this year’s racial uprisings because we needed to keep breathing for the sake of the generations to come. Blackness could no longer be a matter of convenience in this industry. Blackness could no longer be a matter of convenience in this world.
I breathed when I said yes to becoming a pillar for this sacred Black company, and for every Black artist and person who would be impacted by our work. I broadened my back into bedrock—a foundation on top of which Black voices could be elevated and strengthened and rooted and pushed higher. I breathed so that the Black body could too.
"We can no longer stand by waiting for a seat at a table that was never meant to hold us."
It is our collective duty as a generation of artists and activists who chronicle history, champion the present and pave a way for our future, to breathe deeper. Our ancestors did not simply pass on a torch for us to carry, they stood tall with the knowledge that we would be perched on their shoulders. They must have known that the taller you stand, the farther your voice carries. So they stood tall yesterday to project and elevate our voices today. And so we must stand tall and raise our shoulders so the next generation of Black voices can shout louder than ever. Our work must be created fearlessly, unashamedly and with intent as we create and preserve Black institutions. As we raise up Black artists, administrators, technicians, playwrights, directors, dancers, singers, painters and poets. As we pass down the invaluable wealth of breath and freedom. As we tell stories from our perspectives. As we create spaces for the Black body to grow. We can no longer stand by waiting for a seat at a table that was never meant to hold us. We breathe life into our art and into Black institutions so that our community can find their breath deep within their bones, deep within their souls. A long breath. A continued breath. A breath that never stops fighting or claiming space. The breath that will set us free.
Take a moment to breathe with me.
Inhale for you. For your freedom. For your healing. For your story.
Hold for us. For today. As we strengthen ourselves and our community. As we fight. As we build. As we create.
Exhale for them. Release a sustaining and enduring breath that gives life and strength to the next generation.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: One World, an imprint of Random House, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015.
Elliot, Jeffrey M. Charles White, Portrait of an Artist. Washington, D.C.: Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, 1983.