As I currently work on my fantasy novel based in Queens and inspired by the Underground Railroad (two of the characters are based on Harriet Tubman and William Still), I look forward to featuring others who are continuing to share the legacy of our ancestors and heroes who fought for freedom and for us to be here in this moment today.
One of those people is Lacresha Berry, a local Queens-based educator, singer-songwriter and playwright. Currently, she is writing a one-woman show about Harriet Tubman and t-shirt line for Air Tubman. Continue reading to find out more about her and her previous and upcoming work within the community.
“I just felt it was important to understand our histories in context to the larger global community and tell stories that haven’t been told. Instead of complaining about not being taught these things, I wanted to create a conversation that there are black Kentuckians. We exist and we helped to shape the state that it is today. We contributed to country music, blues and bluegrass.”
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Lacresha Berry and I’m an artist—educator, artivist, singer-songwriter, playwright, actress, and sometimes lyricist. I was raised in the great state of Kentucky. I came to NYC—actually this month, in 2003. So, I guess you can say I’m a New Yorker now. Well, at least I live the life of one. I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a BA in theatre. I came to NYC for grad school at NYU. At the time, I was really into costume design and got accepted at Tisch for Costume Design for Stage and Film. I ended going for about a year and began full time teaching in 2005 after stints of being a sub and after-school teacher.
2) What was your experience like growing up in Kentucky and how does it compare to Queens?
Growing up in Kentucky was much slower and a lot more familial. There were homes and playgrounds and open space to walk and live and ride bikes and play basketball. I rode and drove in cars—I took buses but the hustle and bustle and urgency I experience in NYC, doesn’t really exist in Lexington. I also dealt with a few more overt racists while working at the waffle house and other places during my college years. The only black people I grew up around was my immediate family and close friends with a few Spanish speakers and a couple of different Asian ethnicities —Indian and Japanese, mostly. With that being said, coming to NYC was a HUGE culture shock; I mean, I saw so many black people in one place in Jamaica, Queens and in Harlem that I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was truly amazing! And Harlem is where I’ve spent most of my teaching career in NYC. I love the diversity of Queens, especially, so I call it my home, now.
3) In BrownGirl. Bluegrass., you highlight the history of African-Americans in Kentucky and in mentioning bluegrass, also highlight African-American contributions to musical genres like bluegrass and country music. For example, the origins of the banjo are from West Africa. Tell us a bit more about your inspirations and motivations behind the show and introducing audiences to alternative histories and perspectives of African-Americans in the world.
My father, Michael Berry, and my grandfather, Flipfred S. Johnson, passed away on the same day within a year of each other. My grandmother, my father’s mother, passed six week before him. I then realized, after they passed on, that I didn’t have a lot of records of my family. So, I decided to research my family and Kentucky history and I wanted to align my family history with Kentucky history. In school, we didn’t learn of anyone of color that significantly played a role in Kentucky history. I mean, I didn’t anyway. I found four people whose stories connected with mine in some way, and I imagined what their voices would sound like based on their accomplishments in life. I just felt it was important to understand our histories in context to the larger global community and tell stories that haven’t been told.
Instead of complaining about not being taught these things, I wanted to create a conversation that there are black Kentuckians. We exist and we helped to shape the state that it is today. We contributed to country music, blues and bluegrass. For a long time, I denied my love of these genres in NYC, so BGBGmade me embrace all that I am-it allows me to speak about my complex experiences in Kentucky and it allows audiences to tap into multi-layered and nuanced encounters as a black person living in Kentucky. We are not monolithic yet there are certain occurrences that we all share. You don’t to be black to relate to my story. BGBGexplores identity, heritage, culture, family, and womanhood which all are universal themes.
4) Speaking of histories that are not often highlighted, can you talk a bit about your work with Black Gotham walking tours? Would the group consider doing tours in the other boroughs in the future?
Black Gotham is a tour created by the brilliant photographer, videographer, and historian, Kamau Ware. Black Gotham highlights the impacts and powerful contributions that the African diaspora made in NYC during the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s. He’s now creating a graphic novel that will accompany the tour and give an in-depth look at those specific histories. So, I performed for his Black Gotham kickoff event in 2013 in Red Hook. Three years and three or four photo shoots later, I’m on the creative team for his studio. I am a historian as well and it’s a passion of mine, for sure. He recognized the passion because he was the official photographer for the premiere of Browngirl. Bluegrass. in 2014. He asked if I was interested and I decided in February of this year to study seriously and now I have the tour guide license to do it. I’m sure there are possibilities in the future to branch out into the other boroughs but for now, we are sticking to Manhattan. I could also see myself creating an African-American tour in Queens seeing that many of the jazz greats lived in Queens like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. And even, Malcolm X, lived in East Elmhurst until his death.
“…what if Harriet was iconic in the same way as the most famous basketball player we know? What if she was a superstar and everybody wore her symbol on their clothes? What would her message be? First of all, we know little about her—in the curriculum sense in school. So, I bet you she was more that just an underground railroad conductor—she was a wife, a sister, a daughter, a witty young woman full of liberty in her spirit…”
5) You’ve taught science through an interdisciplinary approach with the music and arts. I’ve seen similar practices with other teachers using hip hop to teach science and math, likeScience Genius. Why is it important to culturally engage students in order to teach and for STEM and arts to be taught together in classrooms?
It is important to engage students in the way they learn best. I realized coming from Kentucky, I didn’t have the Harlem language. I studied my students, built relationships, listened to what they listened, observed their fashion and style and lingo—like all cultural anthropologists do. From there, I built my curriculum around what I do best—which is making music. I’ve been an ELA teacher for nearly 12 years with an emphasis in history. I taught all subjects in an elementary classroom and students understand music. They just get it. There is a correlation between memory and music. To this day, I know all the capitals of south american countries because it was put inside of a song. I know my states, too! I mean, music is great for all students, even if they are not musically inclined. Also, music uses all parts of your brain. It engages everything. So, writing songs with popular beats and hooks and adding science or social studies content, effectively engages students in all classrooms. I even tried out my methods in a few Kentucky classrooms and these students were fantastic!
6) How did you come up with concept of Air Tubman and can you tell us a bit about the upcoming production for the one-woman show?
I had this idea pop up in my head around Harriet. She’d been on my mind for a while. I wondered about her often. Like, what would she be like now, as a young woman in 2016. I thought about what my students love and what they often talk about. I wondered if Harriet would sound like my students and what would she look like and represent now. I called up Kon Boogie, my graphic designer extraordinaire, in November of last year and said what if Harriet was iconic in the same way as the most famous basketball player we know? What if she was a superstar and everybody wore her symbol on their clothes? What would her message be? First of all, we know little about her—in the curriculum sense in school. So, I bet you she was more that just an underground railroad conductor—she was a wife, a sister, a daughter, a witty young woman full of liberty in her spirit.
So, I decided to create an image that would be impactful AND a conversation piece. The one-woman show is an adaptation of her story with Harriet aka Araminta growing up in Harlem as a student struggling in school with an IEP. Harriet would’ve had an Individualized Education Plan because she experience brain trauma as a young child. Traumatic brain injury is a classification on an IEP. In other words, she’d be a special needs child. Harriet Tubman, the most powerful black woman in American history would be reduced to an IEP, a classification, a label, a status—all because she saw visions of god, got migraines, and was often sickly. I want to explore the lens of that Harriet and see where that takes me. I’ve written a couple of songs and the words and ideas are coming together. The full production will show in February 2017.
7) Since we’re talking about Tubman, how did you feel about the suggestion to have her on the $20 bill?
I’m all for Harriet being on on the money. We created this country and we wouldn’t be here without her countless contributions. She’s more than that, of course. Reducing her to a $20 bill doesn’t totally capture her legacy but I do think we need to start recognizing the power of women in this country and for that, I’m with Harriet.
“Strong black women built this country and fight for black men every single day…”
8 ) Can you speak about the need to share and continue the legacy of black women heroes like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, especially as black women (disabled, queer, trans included) today still continue to fight to have recognition with movements like #Sayhername and Black Lives Matter, which is led by black queer women?
Being a black woman in America can sometimes feel like being invisible. We fight for visibility to be ourselves in a world that deems non-black as a standard of beauty and legitimacy. And this is 2016. Imagine what women have dealt with—especially black women before our time, before our parents’ time, and before our grandparents’ time! Women are often erased from history even though they’ve played significant roles in our country’s history and other other countries as well. Women’s deaths are justified and the conversations around strong women are often, “She deserved it,” “She shouldn’t have been so aggressive.” But without that strength and that misunderstood assertiveness often seen as aggression, we wouldn’t be here today. Strong black women built this country and fight for black men every single day. It’s important to #sayhername because it’s quite silent when it comes to us being killed and brutalized unjustly.
9) In what ways do you see the borough of Queens as a place of speculative and futuristic possibility?
Queens has so much history and greatness and many don’t understand it. It’s the subtle borough, the laid-back borough where families comes to raise their children. Many artists have come from Queens, and I believe it’s interest in education, prosperity and property creates a world of possibility. I see gardens and self-sustaining food co-ops burgeoning and thriving here. I see families taking back their communities here. It’s a place of quiet activism—calm but deadly.
10) Since the blog is called Futuristically Ancient, in what ways are you both futuristic and ancient?
My spirit and voice are definitely ancient. I’m interested in the past–in history because it helps me to develop my future. If I know someone in my history was a teacher or activist or singer, that lends to the definition of a futuristic Lacresha. I see what the world could be by envisioning what the world was like back when my mother was a child. I’m ancient in my style of dress but futuristic when it comes to freedom and gender roles and societal norms. I fight for the future of women. I fight with the spirit my ancestors. I am in those way, futuristically ancient.