(an interview with Dr. Timothy Berry, composer and producer, “Overcoming by Word of Our Testimonies: Black – Male – Wounded Healers”)

Dr. Timothy Berry is a brilliant brother! Period.

I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Dr. Berry for many years now. We are both deeply committed to our work in, what I call, the “struggle militant” (to borrow an ecumenical phraseology) and firmly rooted in the work of “agitation” (building off of the famous Frederick Douglass’ quote regarding the struggle for progress). Dr. Berry is a old soul steeped in the black church and stemming from a long line of activists and community builders from the Northside of Minneapolis. He is an Assistant Professor and Director of Educator Partnerships and Student Support for the College of Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He holds a Master of Music Education degree, with an emphasis in multicultural music from The University of Minnesota. He is also an award-winning composer, and has edited and published interdisciplinary curriculum, and has recently published a book chapter on using critical race theory to undergird the preparation of new teachers. Like I said, the brother is brilliant! Period.

Dr. Berry is presenting his provocative and powerful spoken word production on Monday, April 8, 2019 at 7pm in the Ostrander Auditorium on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato. It will be performed by himself, Ron Collier, Dante Pirtle, and Michael Berry with set design by Michael Berry and paintings by Seitu Jones. (picture of flyer at the end of the post)

The abstract for this original piece highlights the depth of research undertaken by Dr. Berry while also concretizing the unabashed and unrelenting voice he brings to the movement.

Overcoming by Word of Our Testimonies: Black – Male – Wounded Healers – abstract:

“Due to systemic racism, Black males have been excluded from upward mobility, victimized by dehumanization, fallen prey to biased policing practices, and plagued by disparities in health and education when compared to their White counterparts.  Such conditions have led to internalizing race-based trauma and stress, manifesting itself in ways that are damaging to the Black community.  The purpose of this performance is to present an original script and original musical score to audiences that addresses such trauma. Using the primary medium of storytelling through spoken-word performance, it focuses on five historical periods that function as a chronology of Black male trauma: (1) Chattel slavery; (2) Reconstruction/Post Reconstruction; (3) The Great Migration; (4) Civil Rights; and, (5) Modern Day Slavery. Using foundations of Critical Race Theory (CRT), combined with music and text, this work expresses the ways in which Black males have suffered, transcended their own pain, and fostered healing through creativity. There will be an opportunity for audience members to engage in critical discourse about the performance. Its goal is to inform audiences about the wounded healing process by better understanding such trauma.  Ultimately, as a result of this performance, audience members can locate themselves within a structurally racist society in order to engage in anti-racism work by uprooting White supremacy, leading to systemic transformation.”

I recently interviewed Dr. Berry to gain greater insight about this powerful and courageous addition to the canon of anti-racist writings, publications, productions, and performances. That interview follows.


Love & Struggle: Describe the “why” that pushed you to develop this performance?

I developed this performance because of my personal sojourn with internalizing race trauma.  The toxicity in my own body caused by systemic and structural racism led me to research more about how trauma works in our body and what can be done to heal it. I wanted to uncover all of the manifestations of brutalization and exploitation of black male bodies from a historical perspective. 

Additionally, I wanted use critical race theory as a grounding to creatively expose audiences to storytelling that does not sugarcoat the reality the devastating results of brutal tactics and systems that have attempted to dehumanize black bodies.  As I was researching this topic, there were themes that emerged.  One of the themes was that there has been creative expression from black males throughout history that can be identified as a form of what I call wounded healing. 

Ultimately, I developed this performance to expose people to the personal and intimate effects of racism on black male bodies, and the creative resilience fostered through spoken word and music, and to provide an opportunity for multi-racial audiences to dialogue with each other. 

Dr. Berry

Love & Struggle: How does this performance speak to, what I have heard you say many times, “the people in the struggle” ?

For people of color in the struggle, I think it speaks to the critical race concept, the unique voice of color.  There is a shared sense of struggle for black and brown people in a deeply white supremacist society.  Thus, we need to talk about the stigma of mental healthcare, body trauma, and healing body practices that are holistic. 

For white people in the struggle (those who want to pursue anti-racism), I think this piece tells this particular narrative in a way that gives them a more honest, unfiltered truth about white supremacy and hopefully sparks a different level of understanding about the gravity of our situation.  For my white brothers and sisters in the struggle, knowing all the ways in which privilege has limited their ability to empathize with people of color, this performance invites deep conversation about how they can be different in the struggle, and different in the actions they may take to dismantle oppressive systems.

Dr. Berry

Love & Struggle: What visual element(s) of this performance were most challenging for you to incorporate?

The whip and the noose stand out for me on this question.  I wanted the audience to grapple with not only the visual image of the whip, but the cracking sound it makes. It was a matter of how much and how long to use it on stage.  Both of these props trigger the very sensations that cause discomfort in black bodies for which we need to heal from because of our history.

Dr. Berry

Love & Struggle: Describe the importance of unapologetically speaking to the “black male body” experience in this performance?

It is important for me to speak my truth as a black male. In doing so, I must not compromise the story in order to make white people comfortable.  It is a personal local and immediate phenomenon.  There are references in the script that illustrate this point.  One line says my sin is my skin, I question why my skin is thought to be a contaminant by white people.  These are the thoughts, psychic terrors, and anxieties of the black male experience.

Dr. Berry

Love & Struggle: What are some next steps people should take after viewing this performance?

I encourage people to reflect, locate themselves within a structurally racist America, and determine how they either work toward an anti-racist agenda, or are complicit in promoting white supremacy and its devastating consequences on black bodies.  I think about three levels of anti-racist development, particularly for white people:

1) Ally – this is someone who is supportive and provides moral support.  They seek to listen, learn and understanding racial justice. They may stand up for marginalized and minoritized groups, but may not have the feel the sense of urgency to involve themselves in uncomfortable situations around race:

2) Accomplice – this is someone who will get involved on a deeper level to interrupt biased policy, procedure, and practice in oppressive systems. They may use their particular access to organizational decision making and power to make room for racial equity to have a platform; and,

3) co-conspirator – this is someone like abolitionist John Brown or activist Heather Hayer, who died for the struggle in Charlottesville. 

In other words, they are willing to put their safety and life on the line for racial justice.  They epitomize “by any means necessary.” They are willing to give up their set at the table so a subordinated person can have a space. They have courageous conversations in their own racial groups to challenge white solidarity. 

Dr. Berry

Love & Struggle: What do you want viewers to walk away with from this performance?

A better sense of unsensitized history of violence against black bodies perpetrated by white bodies.  There is a certain genius that black bodies have demonstrated throughout history in America to pursue freedom and healing. 

Dr. Berry

Dr. Berry has been humbled by the response to this piece. He looks forward to engaging with different institutions and communities to deliver this performance and have this discussion.

Come out on Monday, April 8, 2019 to bear witness to this incredible performance. This event is free and open to the public.

Overcoming by Word of Our Testimonies:
Black – Male – Wounded Healers

Dr. Timothy Berry is an Assistant Professor and Director of Educator Partnerships and Student Support for the College of Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He holds a Master of Music Education degree, with an emphasis in multicultural music from The University of Minnesota. Dr. Berry is an award-winning composer, and has edited and published interdisciplinary curriculum, and has recently published a book chapter on using critical race theory to undergird the preparation of new teachers. He maintains a research agenda including critical race theory, project-based learning, and music and the arts.  Dr. Berry received several awards as a composer including: Live Music for Dance award from the American Composer’s Forum and the Cultural Community Partnership Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He was also the winner of the Essentially Choral Competition for emerging American composers sponsored by VocalEssence and the American Composers Forum.  Dr. Berry’s in-depth knowledge of composition has led to commissioned works for dance, choral, and church groups.  He is on the teaching artist roster for the music organization, Vocal Essence. As a clinician, he has conducted workshops on drumming and choral music. Frequently, he is invited to speak in schools, universities, and churches on issues surrounding race, Black culture, and race relations.

Dr. Berry has performed nationally as a singer, actor, and percussionist; including August Wilson’s Fences, and Black Nativity with Penumbra Theater, and La Boheme with the Minnesota Opera.  He has also performed with Grammy Award winner, Larnelle Harris. His recorded music is on a variety of CDs, from Gospel to Caribbean, including his Soul Drums series, which stems from West African, Afro-Cuban, and African American music traditions. 

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