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Black Aesthetics & The Arts Therapies

Image Description: Three overlapping circular portraits of three Black women smiling. The portraits are enclosed by a dark blue background with pink, orange and beige decorative shapes. There is orange text at the top of the graphic that reads, "Black Aesthetics and the Arts Therapies".

So very fortunate to usher the work of Black artist, practitioners, and historians with colleague and friends, Leah Gipson and Britton Williams for the Special Issue of Black Aesthetics in the Arts Therapies in Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. A necessary act of care and a labor of love seldom preserved in creative arts therapy academic journals, this issue joins Black power, Black radical, Black freedom, Black consciousness, and Black arts movements to center Black place and liberatory practice.

Excerpts of the editorial co-written with Leah Gipson and Britton Williams along with links to featured pieces are included below.


"Black Aesthetics: Upsetting, Undoing, and Uncanonizing the Arts Therapies"

Excerpted introduction from the editorial by Marisol Norris, Britton Williams, & Leah Gipson

As three Black American women guest editors of this special issue, we came together out of the continued need to address the multiple ways Black spaces and Black imag- inations have cultivated the ground for the arts therapies. We recognized the need to delineate how the social stratification of Blackness allows for thematic construction of expression, implicating an expansive conception of Black aesthetics within disciplinary practices. Dually, we recognized the need to address contemporary discussions about the place and significance of Black peoples in the “field” (Thomas & Norris, 2021). While Black aesthetics has been a focus of our individual and collective work since our earliest experiences in arts therapies classrooms, our observations have revealed that when Black arts therapists focus on Blackness within pedagogy, practice, and research, their work is marginalized, contested, or subjected to oversight or surveillance (Norris, 2020a; Stepney, 2019). Although professional practices of surveilling Blackness in the field have appeared more subtly and at times to advance multiculturalism, this type of anti-Blackness has had a significant impact on theory, practice, and the development of Black aesthetics discourse that informs the whole of the arts therapies professions. This special issue is carried forward by a Black cultural overtone of protest against anti-Blackness. Attending to Black voices is a necessary, sustaining work of politically mediating Blackness across disciplinary boundaries—what it means to live in our skins and in arts therapies spaces and what it means to transgress dominant professional practice. We conceived this issue to center experiences of Black arts therapies commu- nities and the emerging dialogue on Black aesthetics in the arts therapies professions.


"Black Ownership & Reclamation"

Excepted frame by Marisol Norris

Ownership in this issue speaks as much to Black people's validity as creators as it does white people's legacies as pillagers, plunderers, overseers, masters, and lords. This assertion recognizes enslavement and colonialism as a central apparatus by which Black people are treated as property and their creations as material goods. This assertion also comes to bear the contemporary utility of ideological tools of dehumanization that circumvent Black personhood and seek to impose our physical, psychological, and spiritual bondage (Norris, 2020b). As such, talks about Black ownership within the arts therapies amplify the ways coloniality continues to transgress upon Black bodies and possession as a source of legitimacy and power (Norris, 2020a; Thomas & Norris, 2021).

Black people are human beings, living subjects that hold personal and collective agency. We construct lifeworlds that index our ways of being and our active world-making. We have been subjected to theft–physical, epistemological, representational–and subjected to persistent attempts of dispossession.1 When Black lifeworlds are pillaged by non-Black people, they are often commodified as social power and professional economy intended to disproportionately benefit those in dominant positions. When Black people are plundered, their bodies are not their own. When Black people are overseen, they are subjected to the white colonial gaze and treated as property expected to act at will by threat of punishment. When Black people are mastered, their autonomy is subverted. When Black people are lorded by man, they are seen as extension–not self-possessed; they are solely expected to be vessels filled. When Black people's spirits are violently demonized only to be conjured and consumed, liberation must occur. White cultural dependence rests on a status of Black peoples as nonentity rather than the ability for white people to produce social heritage (Holland, 2000), self-control, labor, capital, and servitude. The delegitimization of Black people as knowers and creators serves to sustain white dominance and obfuscate white histories of physical, material, representational, and psychological violence. Black ownership as a political pursuit in the arts therapies centers the need to problematize the decontextualized histories of the arts therapies that have led to “vocational awe”2—the set of ideas, values, and assumptions about a profession and the people within it that result in beliefs that sites of labor as “institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique” (Ettarh, 2018, para. 3). This special issue centers the need to authorize the ownership and reclamation of ourselves.

Recognizing problematic formulations of healing, recovery, and salvation within the arts therapies, we cannot help but reimagine and call upon multiple voices to reexamine ideas of possession. The writers of this special issue grapple with the complexities of Black people across multiple spheres. Collectively, they help to articulate the intellectual, epistemological, and representational forms that have long been appropriated by the arts therapies. Black notions of ownership articulated in this issue oppose colonial constructions of empire commonly noted in the arts therapies professions' neoliberal capitalist pursuits. They reinstate the authority and legitimacy of Black people as knowers and creators–the realization of their humanity.


Featured Pieces

Excerpted summaries by Marisol Norris, Britton Williams, & Leah Gipson

Leah Gipson, Marisol Norris, Leah Amaral, Johanna Tesfaye, and Anna Hiscox pose the question, “What are you all going to do to keep Black women in art therapy?” as an assertion of Black women’s agency to create safe and liberatory contexts for education. They begin with the significance of their collective participation in the 2018 Critical Pedagogy in the Arts Therapies Conference where Cliff Joseph spoke about the 1974 Art Therapy and the Third World panel (Joseph, 1974). The commentary offers a womanist manifesto for arts therapies education.

Leah Amaral and Johanna Tesfaye use a process of arts-based inquiry that embraces performance and sensory knowledge to address the politics of becoming an art therapist. In their creative essay, they describe a project based on a collective praxis of care and student activism during their time as art therapy graduate students. Reflecting on their experiences of Black personhood in professional and clinical spaces, Amaral and Tesfaye provide a range of emotional insights from co-creating BIPOC, sisterhood/sib spaces. They present their analysis using excerpts of poetry, dialogue, journal writing, and other documentary materials that were used to understand practices of community building.

Jasmine Edwards offers her experiences as a music therapist in the therapeutic performance Turbulence to describe the value of social identity affinity spaces and cross-disciplinary collaboration in the creative arts therapies that seriously grapple with race. She emphasizes placemaking, in particular supportive, culturally responsive, and justice-seeking environments, as vital to the professional development of BIPOC arts therapists. Relating personal meaning-making with relational dynamics that shaped her participation in the performance, Edwards cites the group’s support within womanist ethics of care.

Rochele Royster explores the therapeutic benefits of craft culture activism using a liberation approach to art therapy in her research study on grief of trauma caused by gun violence. She focuses on the role of school- and community-based responses to the violence that impacts young people living in historically segregated Black neighborhoods in Chicago. Upsetting pathologizing narratives of Black people and the myth of Black on Black crime, Royster highlights how children in Chicago Public Schools led a collective living-memorial project to provide care and craft culture activism in their communities.

In “Navigating US Citizenship and Colorism in the Dominican Republic: A Black Latinx Art Therapist’s Experience,” Johannil Napoleón addresses the need to decenter white narratives and experiences of power, privilege, and oppression. She notes that this predominant framing and understanding overshadows the needed discussion(s) regarding racial dynamics for BIPOC clinicians in the context of colorism.

In “Song as a Register for Black Feminist Theatre-Making Aesthetic,” Refiloe Lepere asserts the need for writing that centers Black registers. Lepere cites song and poetics as a site for connection and expression among Black women. Furthermore, she highlights the erasure of song, poetics, and Black women’s expressions in current understandings of knowledge production.

In “Tracks on Repeat: An Autoethnographic Poessay,” Britton Williams weaves a narrative connecting the personal, professional, maintenance, and social-cultural. She notes the inextricable connectedness of these domains and the importance of restorying oppressive narratives that seek to remain elusive so that they may remain undone.

In “How Do You Play When You're Prey? A Personal Exploration into Black Creative Healing,” Natasha Thomas explores the collaborative world-making of the blog project “Black Creative Healing.” Through personal analysis, Thomas asserts ownership of African and African diasporic healing legacies and their reclamation as a means of interrogation, resistance, and care. Similarly, kei slaughter, in “Run River,” offers musical tribute to great great great great grandmother Nancy Maker Brown. slaughter evokes an ancestral memory that problematizes monolithic recounts of lineage and affirms the ownership of familial histories through sonic construction.

In an audio interview, Gipson and Norris discuss the origins of American musical traditions with singer, songwriter, and producer Adrian Dunn in “Black Lives Matter and The Black Messiah Album: An Interview with Adrian Dunn.” Together they critique attempts to exorcise Blackness from popular musical productions and affirm the complexity of Black creativity as a source of radical healing. In the corresponding review, Kennedi Johnson explores the album The Black Messiah by Adrian Dunn and the Adrian Dunn Singers. Johnson contextualizes the “Hopera” within the wake of Black death, grief, and protest in the United States and situates its musical orchestration within a tradition of liberatory struggle.

Rodney Simpson Jr., in “The Butterfly Blues,” stories the hostility of a cis-heteronormative world and the spiritual journey of owning his identity as a Black queer man. Simpson reveals the tensions of faith and embodiment through multimodal artistic expressions. Last but not least, esperanza spalding, in “Black Aesthetic/s as Divine Lover of No End In Sight: The Progenitors of World Altering Resiliency,” provides rhythmic prose that centers Black aesthetic world-making. spalding’s provocations call for the recognition of Black life and life-force as restorative, sensuous, and spiritual offerings. As such, spalding considers Black aesthetical alchemy as a progenitor of place, creation, ownership, and reclamation and an Afrofuturist path to liberation and healing.

Read the full editorial by Marisol Norris, Britton Williams, Leah Gipson here:

Black Aesthetics Upsetting, Undoing, and Uncanonizing the Arts Therapies
Download PDF • 146KB


Featured Pieces

by Scheherazade Tillet

by Marisol Norris, Britton Williams, & Leah Gipson

by Leah Ashanti Amaral & Johanna Tesfaye

by Jasmine Edwards

by kei slaughter

by Natasha Thomas

by Britton Williams

by Refiloe Lepere

By Johannil Napoleón

by Rochele Royster

by Rodney Simpson

by Kennedi Johnson

by Adrian Dunn, Leah Gipson, & Marisol Norris

by Leah Gipson, Marisol Norris, Leah Amaral, Johanna Tesfaye, & Anna Hiscox

by esperanza spalding


Special Thanks

Submission Reviewers

Natalia Alvarez-Figueroa

Melita Belgrave

Akua Boateng

Veronica Bohanan

Steed Davidson

Rochelle Davidson Mhonde Jenni Graham

Grant Hales

Ana Hernandez

Helen Joseph

Sinethemba Makanya

Sonya Mathies Dinizulu

Donna Owens

Kendra Ray

D'Angelo Smith

Adam Stevens

Chevon Stewart

D'Angelo Virgo

Phyllis West

Mynesha Whyte

BIPOC Student Fund by Black Arts Therapies Educators

& Black Music Therapy Network, Inc.



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