Outside Two Worlds

Micah Watson on stories of the black experience.

Before I sat down with Micah Watson (UVA ’18), I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having met her in person she struck me as one of those rare people who are reserved but not necessarily disengaged. Yet, I had seen and read interviews of her where she spoke freely and passionately about her projects. This is where I could begin to appreciate Micah as an artist. What makes her artwork so powerful is the skillful intersection between her personal experience and a greater purpose: to portray fundamental themes of the black experience. 

I spoke to Micah about her childhood, her journey, and her artistic development, especially during her time at UVA. Newly graduated, she reflected on how UVA’s lack of space for a person like her forced her to create one through her work. What follows is an abbreviation of our conversation.  

 

A: Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, you’ve said how it was a very white community, then having to be a part of the black experience, did you ever feel like an outsider to it?

M: I always felt like I was outside two worlds. I was outside my school world because I was too black and then when I was around church kids I was too white. Which was crazy, it was this very narrow view of blackness that was something I found stifling.. But I always grew up hearing stories about black history and reading picture books about black history. My parents kept telling me “This is where you come from. They’re not going to teach you this in school. This is the legacy you come from.” So here are these black heroes and leaders and let me show you these fables of west African countries and that’s where you come from. So I was always very aware that I was black and that black was a good thing, a thing to be celebrated. Also that I was always going to have to work twice as hard. Even in the midst of these crazy environments I was a part of.

Do you think your childhood in Kansas has left you in a bit of an external position, almost like an observer? Has that allowed you to interpret black experience in a different way?

Before I came to UVA, I was definitely an observer of the broader black experience even though I had my own sort of black experience but maybe didn’t identify as that [that she was within the black experience]. That definitely gave me an academic approach, which I think became helpful for me as an artist. So I didn’t just experience blackness but I saw it. I was able to look at it through a critical lens. When I came to UVA my black experience became very different. I was a part of the black community, even if it took me a minute to get there (laughs). It was something that I was a part of and grew to truly and completely love.

Why UVA? On the cultural side of things, UVA is known as a predominantly white, almost racist institution, especially in the past. So why this place to find out about the black experience?

UVA has these two separate identities. There is definitely UVA as a pretty racist institution, built on slavery and that still holds true. But among the black elite if you will, UVA is known for its black alumni network. There’s a deep sense of community black students build at UVA that you don’t find at a lot of other PWI’s (predominantly white institutions). Particularly UVA because the black community we have built here was built [as a response to] the racist institutions. Black people had to come together to make sure you didn’t completely lose your mind while you’re out here in this crazy white world where no one wants you there. It’s only here because of the racist history. We have to create space for ourself.

Micah is an artist of the black experience. At UVA, she co-founded Black Monologues and served as director. She has staged multiple plays focusing on the diversity of black lives. Her latest work, Canaan, was the co-recipient of a national award (The Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award). Even Professors of hers have attributed some of the increased engagement in black arts at UVa to her. As Micah put it, “We made a GroupMe of everyone who has done something in black theater at UVA. There were like 60 people on that GroupMe which was crazy! When we started Black Monologues there were 10 or so.”

This is, of course, great. UVA could do with a lot more diversity, and the arts can be a primary driver of multicultural engagement. To understand Micah’s artistic success is to understand a struggle, not only to produce art, but to allow for a community around it.

UVA’s culture is where Black Monologues came in. Did you see it more as a bridging experience or the creation of a black space?

We really settled on the idea that it’s a show for black people. The bridging is there through the audience we got which is great, but it was primarily a black space. We know the white audience might not get some of what we’re saying, but the black audience would and it would make them feel good.

You also talk about how blackness need not be a monolith, that you want to show the diversity of the black experience. What would success in that look like?

Black monologues is trying to complicate the idea of what blackness is. You have this pre-conceived notion of what blackness is and isn’t. We want to validate those experiences that might not be part of that notion. There are different ideas of what blackness is. On one level success is acknowledging the wide varieties of struggles. Personally, I want to acknowledge that as reflections of God’s image we are beautiful and broad.

How does your work do that?

When I create something I want people to leave asking a lot of questions. It’s not about providing an answer, but leaving people with something to linger on so they can do the work themselves. Success is being a catalyst for change. I’m hoping they’ll see something I wrote and think oh my goodness I can be this person, I can take that next step.   

You’ve clearly had a huge influence on the UVA arts community through your successes in having created a more holistic black experience. What were the struggles in doing that?

My time at UVA will be marked by the spaces I’ve helped to create. There’s a much larger black art community. Not going to lie, UVA institutions make it difficult for black art to happen. I swear there’s always a roadblock in what’s happening. They enjoy supporting it publicly, but behind closed doors they don’t. All these little things that make the work slower. Every show I’ve been a part of it’s been difficult. UVA does randomly have these great black arts professors (Micah is referring to K. Everson, C. Harold, and T. M. Davis among others). The support is there, but not from places you would expect them to be.

I think Micah’s answers here speak for themselves. The culture that has surrounded her has shaped her as an artist–not necessarily because it imparted certain values on her, but because it gave her a need to create for herself. It’s slightly ironic that the University community was quick to praise Micah’s success and discuss her art; her art is fundamentally linked to UVA’s initial unwillingness to make space for it. 

Micah’s microcosmic approach is necessarily selfish: she is allowing a voice to those unheard. 

Leaving UVA, how do you imagine your future projects?

I enjoy looking at major historical and topical news events, seeing people on the periphery and how they relate to it. We don’t see how it affects real people and real lives. Black people are people still and we often get reduced to just bodies, but more so an idea. That goes back to the Black monolith thing. My idea is dealing on the microcosmic level.

A concise goal, maybe, but undeniably complex: to curate the stories of those that have been overlooked, create a space for them, and then to let those stories speak for themselves. The complexity comes not just from her work, but the environment in which it seeks to exist. She sets an example for how art can encourage and expose an entire cultural experience. 

To close out the interview, it was only right for Micah to speak freely. We both joked that her final thought was cliche:

‘Be yourself and create your own space. I spent time being someone I was not. I only began to flourish once I did things that I thought were important.’

…But it really wasn’t. For a black woman artist of a minority experience within a hostile majority space, the ability to claim a cliche is the most empowering thing I can think of. Merely the act of claiming space for herself, of claiming her need to create– that is revolutionary on its own.

(Micah graduated from UVA last spring, we hope her the best in her Master’s Program at NYU.)

Photography by Makeda Munirah Petiri.

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