What Am I?

I was honored when Eric Shibuya reached out to me to submit an article as a prominent black juggler for eJuggle. On one hand, it feels great to have your art and progress affirmed, to have your effort acknowledged, and on the other hand I have mixed feelings about the term black, that however is something I will address as I continue.

The connection between blackness and juggling are two things I hadn’t thought much about until it was addressed by an older cousin of mine several years ago. He said something along the lines of, “Well that’s different, not a lot of African American jugglers are there?” At first I almost took it the wrong way, thinking that his insinuation of its strangeness was somehow something I could be offended by. But when I took a second to consider, I realized he was perfectly right. Though I know many who identify or would be identified as black in the object manipulation community, so few of them identify themselves primarily as jugglers. And when I rack my brain, I can’t think of a single person I’ve seen who is famous for juggling that is a “black” person, or at least not from the United States. I began to think more deeply about this subject from this point forward: there are black people famous for poetry, music, science, even aviation in the U.S. but why not juggling?

While considering I made many connections to my field of study, which is forestry, that parallels the lack of representation of black people in the juggling community. There are not a lot of African American’s in the field of natural resources. There are many factors that contribute to this lack of representation in the field. I think some contributing factors are the lack of exposure black people have and the general lack of representation. Because there are already so few black people in this field one is less likely to have a family member or see someone who looks like you doing something in this field. I say this because it’s harder to imagine yourself in a role unless you see someone with a similar background doing that thing. There are also socio-economic factors that allow certain people to go on a visit to a national park or to go camping that motivate people to become stakeholders, or those who have a vested interest in those natural places. Stakeholders tend to also want to protect and propagate the subjects they are invested in. If your parents or none of your family know how to juggle, if people you know don’t get excited about going to circus performances, if you are not exposed, if you never see someone that looks like you juggling; why would you think about juggling? I promise you I didn’t for a long time, like many others I tried juggling as a child with no instruction and decided after considerable failure that this was very impossible, over time this thought established itself as fact in the recesses of my mind without consciously realizing it.

It is interesting that I wasn’t exposed to juggling up close and in person until I went to study a field which also has a dearth of black people present. A coincidence, I don’t know. But it makes sense to me that I encountered juggling, an activity that few black people practice, in a setting where few people of that demographic are. But as I mentioned, it was some time before I recognized being a black juggler as anything special. I just remember in the beginning being so enamored by the art that I scarcely did anything else. I learned to spin poi first and thought I would be a “spinner.” But I learned to juggle shortly after my exposure to poi spinning and rarely spun poi for years as I did practically nothing else with my leisure time except juggle. When I learned to juggle it was like some ancient, unfathomable, and intelligent spirit had come to inhabit my body; that something was spurring me on, invigorating me, pouring out some fantastic version of infinity. And yet, while I served as a conduit for this spirit, I felt that the discovery of juggling was a discovery of myself. But more than that, juggling was a way to express what was unspeakably me so that it could be seen. It was great; I’d never had something that felt so much like home, like somewhere I’ve always been. From then on, when someone would ask, who are you, what are you? I knew without a doubt what the answer would be: I am a juggler.

But I want to address the issue of blackness. I have had mixed feelings about the term black. Black History Month is a nice effort to acknowledge a disparity which has resulted from discriminatory practices through time in the U.S. Eventually I realized that I don’t like to think of myself as black. The idea of blackness has been constructed in parallel to whiteness, which is arguably an even more vague and ill defined than being black. Neither terms actually refer to heritage and while it doesn’t make me upset to be called black. You will be hard pressed to find me labeling myself as such. African American sure, but so many offences and perceived offences occur around our relationship to the labels we assign ourselves and others. So many discriminatory practices, perceptions and utterances revolve around racial terms, and the results of assigning them to people. I’m not saying we should stop calling February “Black” History Month and use another word. My intention is to use this article as a springboard to continue the conversation; Do we need race? We won’t lose our history, our heritage, or our traditions without race. Why do we need a concept whose very phrasing necessitates a winner, and losers. It is important to remember where we’ve come from. But if we can’t form poorly defined assumptions about people based on race which is little more than a concept, will we continue to discriminate against people when the illogical framework is removed? It’s just a thought, but I think it’s worth exploring.

Simeon Spottswood is from the DC area, he mostly enjoys juggling clubs, balls, poi, and contact balls. His other interests include tree identification, mindfulness, slacklining, knot tying, and fire manipulation. His instagram is @theflowmagician

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