I'm thankful I didn't know what I was getting into when I agreed to participate in a one-on-one interactive performance with artist Sharyll Burroughs, who goes by the moniker Colordgirl. Had I known, I don't think I would have mustered the courage.
I sat down across from her, a chess clock between us on the table.
"We're going to exchange a word for the next two minutes," she said.
She handed me her phone so I could see the word on the screen: nigger.
"Out loud?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," she replied, her face open and calm.
My hands started to shake. I felt sick. "If you need to," she said, "you can opt out at any time." She went first, looking into my eyes.
She hit the chess clock as soon as the word left her lips. My eyes welled. I wanted to run.
"If somebody calls me a nigger," Burroughs tells me later by phone, "they're trying to tell me a story about who I am: someone who is less than human who should be shunned or ostracized. In my life experience, when someone called me that, there I am carrying this thing around, and it hurts, and they've gone off with their family and gotten an ice-cream cone. I'm still carrying around a boulder. My way of dealing with it is to make a decision about what to do."
Colordgirl has been working with racist words and imagery for a long time, "Using the idea of something that is experienced as ugly and repugnant and awful," she says, "and challenging myself to work past my conditioning to make something beautiful."
The N-Word Sessions: Subverting Banalities is Colordgirl's first performance. A monitor at Bronco Gallery displays a slide show of her visual art, which visitors can view while waiting to sit down with her.
In one series, Colordgirl digitally manipulates the image of a Jolly Nigger bank, a piece of racist ephemera from the late 19th century. She gilds its original black and red, cast-iron surface so the ubiquitous smiling "coon" caricature from that period takes on the quality of a timeless religious icon.
One black-and-white photograph captures a nondescript living room. In the foreground, in sharp myopic focus, a dark-skinned hand holds a Mammy figurine, in the process of either picking it up or setting it down, it is unclear. In the background, fuzzy and diffuse, a Buddha statue of the same size sits in peaceful meditation, a visual metaphor for what is waiting for us when we shift beyond the narrow ways we categorize each other.
Though Colordgirl has chosen to build a performance around the narrowness of a single word, she is clear about its role. "We can use it as a tool instead of being used by it," she says. "It's not about the word. The word is peripheral to people's inability to stop drawing lines. I'm doing my best to provide a conversation, and hopefully it will trickle out to lots of different places."
She continues: "We all have the capacity for love and compassion and kindness and generosity. That doesn't have anything to do with gender or race. I can use 'nigger' to remind people that this is a word that society is using to keep us all out of our heads, out of our bodies, and out of our hearts."
During the performance, as I sat with Burroughs, mute and gripped with fear, not wanting to take my turn, she said, "See if you can allow yourself to be uncomfortable, and do it anyway."
And as I sat down to write this review, afraid of tackling this weighted subject, of saying the wrong thing, I reminded myself of something else she said: "The fear closes the door. Just keep the door open."
SEE IT: The last performance of N-Word Sessions: Subverting Banalities is at the Bronco Gallery, 15 NE Hancock St., broncogallery.com, on Thursday, Sept. 15. 9-11 pm.