ANNOUNCER: Welcome to MOYERS ON DEMOCRACY. Bill Moyers talks with the remarkable Bill T. Jones, the artistic giant who revolutionized modern dance. The son of migrant farm workers in the South – the 10th of 12 children – Jones grew up to win two Tony Awards, receive the National Medal of Art and a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, to be honored by the Kennedy Center and widely recognized for his advocacy for human rights. You may remember the documentary Bill Moyers and his colleague David Grubin produced about Bill T. Jones landmark work STILL/HERE.
BILL T. JONES: (excerpt from STILL/HERE) I thought when I was making STILL/HERE I wanted to affirm that there is that which is profound and beautiful in all that is life and in particularly those moments when it’s dark. So STILL/HERE was trying to tell people that there is always reason to sing and dance.
ANNOUNCER: In the days just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 Bill Moyers would seek out Bill T. Jones for another conversation.
BILL T. JONES: (excerpt from 9/11 CONVERSATIONS) Could I go now and dance at that site? I could. I could dance. I could dance with respect. I could dance with grief. Fierceness. I would dance and hopefully invite grieving people and we’d all dance together.
BILL MOYERS: Do you believe there’s wisdom in the body?
BILL T. JONES: I do believe there’s wisdom in the body.
BILL MOYERS: What is it? How do we find it?
BILL T. JONES: Well, listen to the body and take care of it. Reclaim the body. Start moving around. Just start moving. And don’t judge. Just try it. An then I dare you to do it with a group of friends. And that you all look at each other, crying and moving, without judgment, and with infinite compassion. Be brave.
ANNOUNCER: Here now, in the middle of another crisis, is Bill Moyers, with Bill T. Jones.
BILL MOYERS: It’s really good to be with you. Fancy it being in the midst of a pandemic.
BILL T. JONES: In the middle of two pandemics if you think that the police brutality and the killing of George Floyd, which has turned into a whole generational political movement on top of COVID, the social protesting that’s so frightening to many.
BILL MOYERS: Are you more politically inclined this year than previously?
BILL T. JONES: I think I’m more interested in how the political and the spiritual, if there is such a thing, come together. I’ve become a big fan of Hannah Arendt a real thinker about totalitarianism, a real thinker about group think, and a thinker about thinking. I trust her to be with me in those moments of intellectual, spiritual confusion because she is so clear in her intellectual pursuit of ideas. MEN IN DARK TIMES, THE HUMAN CONDITION. Speech. As you know, this is a big issue right now. What are we allowed to talk freely about? And should some things just not be said? And there used to be a time I used to say it was everything should be said. But now I’m cautious. I’m thinking a lot about that right now. Of course, I’m really angry at the present administration. I’m outraged by it. And it makes me, well, that’s why we have the “Vote” on the front of the building right now.
BILL MOYERS: I saw the picture of you standing in front of your building with those large rainbow-colored letters: V-O-T-E.
BILL T. JONES: And, we decided to participate in something called #OpenYourLobbies, when all the protests were going on, so people are coming in and out, and I thought, well, why don’t I do an action? So, I did an action. First time out of my house and I did a reading action, which is I read for five hours everything from Toni Morrison and her Nobel lecture to Richard Pryor’s biography, all things that, in obvious and not so obvious ways, are speaking to me about the moment that we’re in. And that moment is, is there a “we”? I was so sure about the “we.” “We shall overcome.” “We the people.” The pursuit of the “we.” I don’t want to be a cynical shell of who I used to be. But I want to be an honest one. So is there a “we”?
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that “We the people,” in the Constitution, written as it was in the time of slavery, was “We the people” a metaphysical piety expressing a political aspiration – you know, “One nation, indivisible” – or a charade enabling the strong to thrive at the expense of the poor?
BILL T. JONES: Are you messing with me Bill?
BILL MOYERS: I’m messing with you Jones.
BILL T. JONES: Well, like every other young person– I’m born in ’52, right? And I remember the time when we did prayer in the morning, and every assembly program we would stand up with hand on heart and my temperament, I wanted to believe in big, unifying ideas. “We’re all God’s children,” says my southern Baptist mom. And then you have Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King telling us that in the words of the Negro spiritual we will hold hands. So, I was ready for it. I loved Malcom X, but I had difficulty embracing him in the way that I did Martin Luther King, because I thought there was something spiritual, metaphysical about the fact that even though we all look differently, we are at base, in our hearts we are the same. And every enlightened human being should be trying to work for that. Then this sort of cynicism begins to seep in as one gets older, as one maybe owns things, or one goes out and gets their head cracked, or one feels a sense of injustice. And I think that it made me very confused. And I wanted to turn off the world. I wanted to turn it off. Don’t try to resolve the questions that have gnawed at you about why did your father, Gus Jones, this powerful man, when the white state troopers come around, why did my dad begin to move differently? He would drop his eyes a bit, the tone of voice would change. What’s going on here? I’m getting signals. Now, is this a cynical man saying this? Always there’s the levers of power, oligarchy pulling those. And sometimes I feel that the good liberals need a Zen slap. It bothers me when I hear Martin Luther King’s I HAVE A DREAM speech every Black History Month. Black History Month, right? I’m saying this is so cynical. It placates liberal guilt. And I didn’t want to be part of that. So, when I say that, when he says “we,” even Martin Luther King, I am challenging his Christian theology that teaches us that we are all God’s children. I want to believe it. I have to believe it. But I believe that it should be questioned, it should have to renew itself and stand up with new language to convince me.
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned your father. You were born in Florida, right?
BILL T. JONES: Yes, he decided to be a Black Yankee and moved to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
BILL MOYERS: I see.
BILL T. JONES: I was about three years old when we moved to the Finger Lakes region.
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t realize that you had moved there that soon. So, he never felt the stark fear of seeing you leave home and worrying if you’d get back? Is that right, when you were growing up?
BILL T. JONES: Are you kidding me? The earliest stories that we heard was my mother talking about her mother trying to go from the plantation they worked on– they were sharecroppers. Her daughter was pregnant on another plantation and the farmer, the white farmer told my grandmother, “Anna, you can’t go.” My grandma tried to sneak away. He catches her, brings her back, puts her over a bale of hay, and he had a thing called a man handler, which is a giant strip of leather. He made Anna Edwards, Big Mama, my grandmother, lean over that and her five children had to line up and watch him beat her. Now, you’re telling this to a six year old? It’s dangerous to be Black. That– are you kidding?
BILL MOYERS: How did you handle this?
BILL T. JONES: You just– how do you handle it? Oh my God. I don’t know. Imagine a potato field that goes on for maybe a mile, one row, and your job is– your mother’s down on her knees picking the potatoes, yours is to run ahead and shake out the dust, and the DDT, ’cause they were spraying everything, and all day long, because she’s trying to get to the end of the row before noon, and it’s good money because it’s .12 cents per bag. Now you know what 12– 100 pound bags of potatoes you get paid .12 cent for, and that was good money, and you– she’s trying to support a family on that, boy, you better get out there and work. You better carry that field. “When I was a child,” my mother says, “and we were picking cotton in Georgia, we were there at dawn, and my mother would whip us if we didn’t lead the field.” What is all this expectation, right, this expectation that you’ve got to– you cannot be like the kid you go to school with. You know? I’m sorry I get so excited but this pulls me away from the Black Lives Matter era where you’ve gotta give the talk to young Black men that they want to kill you. It was just understood. They want to kill you.
BILL MOYERS: When I talked to you after 9/11, remember I called? You came in from the country and we did a conversation about how you were responding to the atrocities of 9/11, and about the spirit of survival, and here’s something you said to me then:
BILL T. JONES: (excerpt from 9/11 CONVERSATIONS) There’s a touch of madness, I think, in most artists. I think in myself that madness I attribute it to something I saw that was wild in my mother when she was praying when I was a child. It’s when you strip yourself of all that supports you, your ego, and your world, and then you try to talk directly to– I don’t want to call it God. I’ll call it destiny. Try to talk directly to the circumstances of your life.
BILL T. JONES: It’s insane, isn’t it? And now as a country we’re supposedly reckoning with it. That’s really hard for me to have the generosity of spirit to allow people this long to catch up. When I hear people saying, “I didn’t know. I had no idea. I had no idea what it was like.” It took I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, James Baldwin, or it took Nina Simone, and people are now saying, “I had no idea,” and it’s hard to be generous enough to say, “Well, why didn’t you know? You know me. You– you couldn’t–this is my white friends, right? “But you’re different, Bill. You’re different.” And then I feel degraded and silly. Oh, so you’ve been acting another part to be accepted in the white avant-garde? You’ve been acting another part so as not to– there’s a term now called rescuing white people. When people are trying to deal with white fragility, and they’re feeling, “Oh, I’m so sad,” and all, and you have the way of coming in and saying, “Oh, it’s okay. It’s okay. We’re alright. You know, it doesn’t matter between us.” That’s called rescuing white people. And I’m a champion rescuer. You know? How often have I been the only some at chic dinner and somebody says something absolutely ignorant down there? Now, you can choose to get into an argument with them about it, or you just laugh it off and let it go because you don’t want to disturb the situation. I have often disturbed the situation, and as time goes by, the man that made that statement, I still recognize him, but as time goes by, I think I become more inclined to go for it. I’m not rescuing anybody now.
BILL MOYERS: But there’s another side of it. You talk about how you were seen at an elite dinner party. But I’ve been to three of your epic performances and the white audience out there, Bill, they’re transfixed. You know that. Do you concede that? That race can disappear in the presence of art?
BILL T. JONES: And, Bill, it’s only because of my extreme respect for you that I will not challenge that, except that when people say I don’t see your race, they don’t see you. Now, that’s a hard one.
BILL MOYERS: By the way, you don’t really respect me if you can’t challenge me.
BILL T. JONES: Oh, okay, well, I challenge you. I say that attitude then is the noose around the neck of certain of us Black folks who have been able to cross over. I notice it in the gay culture as well, this notion that I was oftentimes used as a charismatic decoy. So, you put him out there, he’s a bona fide Black man, he’s whatever, he’s a gay man. We don’t have to change because, look, we’re with him. We don’t have to examine anything because look, if we can have such an out in-your-face kind of a Black friend, then obviously we can’t be racist. And if we can say he’s so beautiful, he’s so genius, even if he is Black, then we don’t have to deal with the fact that he’s Black, and that a lot of his experience you cannot see, ’cause he doesn’t dare show it to you, and you don’t know to go look for it. This has been my experience as a performer. We used to joke and say it’s very important for a man of my description to know when you should take your shirt off in a performance, you know? When do you take the shirt off and you flash those pearlies, you know? And you move in that way that everybody can feel moved, and good about it. Maybe they want to have sex with you, all of that. But it’s just because you are a great artist. There’s a lot– it’s a contract. I’m being really tough with you, Bill, right now because we’re in a new day right now. And I’m surrounded by young Black and brown people who are not accepting things that I accepted. They want to succeed but they don’t want to be quote “respectable” in the way that I was expected to be respectable. I stand by that quote. And it sounds like a beautiful thing a man said, but does it allow for the volcano, the rage? Does it allow for the pain? You know, there’s more of my life behind me than ahead. What’s my legacy? What’s the epitaph?
BILL MOYERS: Well, your legacy is a great body of work.
BILL T. JONES: Why thank you.
BILL MOYERS: The symbols of which touch people differently, transform some people in one way, and other people in another way. I mean, I saw the audience being transfixed when you did your tribute to Lincoln. And I heard a man say to his companion, “You know, it seemed to me that Jones is really sentimental about that guy. Really sentimental about Abraham Lincoln.”
BILL T. JONES: I was. I was. And reading about him I fell in love with Lincoln. I fell in love with the story of Lincoln. Now, is Lincoln the same thing as his story? I’m not sure. But, I would say that as growing up as a child, and I think my sister Rhodessa might have challenged me, I said, “Lincoln was the only white man in our house who we could love unconditionally.” At least that’s what I thought. He freed us. He was honest, he cared about the underdog. You’ve heard the furor right now about the statue in Boston, right? And I’m conflicted about it.
It’s a statue of Lincoln standing over a shackled Black man who is, some people say, “Oh, he’s kneeling,” and other people say, “No, he’s about to stand up.” And other people say, “We should not even have the image of this white man standing over the Black man, chains or no.” That image itself, there’s too much that the audience has to do to understand what’s the caption underneath it. There is no caption. So, what I was doing with Abe was trying to say, I see you as a person, I love you for your story, you with the plow, and studying the books, and you meeting with Frederick Douglass and all, and Frederick Douglass who– thought that he– what did he say– Bill? Oh– Mr. Lincoln, he’s tall, but he’s grown a lot in the last few years, you know, those stories warm my heart. And let’s face it, my first husband was Arnie Zane, my second one was a white Puerto Rican name Arthur Aviles. My third is an Israeli born Jew whose name is Bjorn Amelan. So, hey, I have no problem with loving white flesh, but then I have to understand my loving them happens in a context where there is the opposite of love, and I’m not free from the world. So that’s about what was going on. I’m learning as well. Every piece you find out a bit more. I hope I haven’t crushed your opinion of me as a great uniter, and an uplifter. You know?
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t think of you as a great uniter. I thought of you as a great dancer.
BILL T. JONES: Well, I think too that we don’t become too comfortable in our certainties. We have to question everything. And I mean that. I know there’s a lot of people out there who are white supremacists, who have guns, who do not love me, but I am not assuming that they’re organized enough to on one day try to destroy us all. So, the only thing fair minded people can say right now, and I’m speaking to a journalist, is question everything. Left, right, and center. Now, what does that make you? A very nervous and unhappy individual. Or is it the way that we as thinking people have to really proceed right now? Question everything and keep your heart open. Ah! Now that’s a formula, isn’t it? Is it possible to question everything and keep your heart open? I’m trying.
BILL MOYERS: What were you questioning before the pandemic, the recession, and the racial turmoil that is now rippling across the country? What were you questioning before all this happened that– or what were you not questioning before all of this happened that you’re now questioning?
BILL T. JONES: “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.”
BILL MOYERS: Not unless you bend it.
BILL T. JONES: Not unless you– that part didn’t get put in there, right. But there used to be a feeling that, hey man, tune in, turn on, drop out, don’t believe what the world tells you, follow the flow, love. Those things I thought in my craziest work I was trying to promote freedom of thought, freedom of people– any two people– I mean, the end of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN with that stage of people, of every description, bathed in a golden light, naked, singing like children. That was my idea of the promise land, right? STILL/HERE. The idea was that we in our mortality would transcend all those divisions like sex, like gender, like race, that we’re all born, we grow, and we die. That’s what I was promoting. I still believe those things, quite frankly. What is it right now do I need to be doing to participate in the questions of my era? And the young people, why are they out demanding we defund the police, demanding this? And they’re demanding it of me as well. If I have succeeded in a white supremacist world, am I doing something that I should be ashamed of? I want to then be able to stand up, support this image of a man that wanted to embrace the world and say, yes, but I’m also intelligent enough to realize that everybody can lie. And I can lie. So never get comfortable.
BILL MOYERS: Do you question integration?
BILL T. JONES: No, not at all. I think that’s something really we should be proud of, if it’s really happening. You know, we’re still pretty segregated. You notice that, right? We are. We are. And never mind that I heard yesterday on NPR about Christian evangelicals– was it Maya that said that? Or was it James Baldwin? That the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning.
BILL MOYERS: Martin Luther King said it.
BILL T. JONES: Yeah, did he say it? Okay. Well, you know what he’s talking about, it’s still true. It’s still true.
BILL MOYERS: Well, when I was working on Civil Rights in the White House in the 1960s our goal was desegregation. The 1954 Supreme Court decision had called for integrating schools, it was a victory. But today, for example, New York City schools are the most segregated in the country.
BILL T. JONES: Isn’t it amazing? I don’t believe anybody should have to stay on their side of– stay in their lane. As a matter of fact, I’ve always wanted to be a maverick, I have the right to move anyway I want, I have the right to love who I want, I have a right to live where I want, and what’s more, I will fight to the death my right to have that right. If there’s any legacy I should be giving to the young, you want freedom, you want joy and love? What are you willing to give for it? What are you willing to give up so that people can have this equality you’re talking about? That’s where my art is still coming from. Beauty. Is beauty beyond duality, white and Black? I think it is, to some degree. Sometimes it’s in the duality of white and Black. But I’m looking for one that can– I want to dance to Shubert. I want to love Lincoln’s story, and I want to love it through the eyes that were informed by Estella Jones, my Black mother, down on her knees praying. I want to love it through the eyes of my father, the Black Yankee, who knew something about what it meant to leave everything in the South and go work in a white, German/Italian community because he wanted better for his kids. What did he mean better? “Free at last, free at last.” He wanted me to live free at last. What is free? I can kiss my male lover on the mouth in public. That’s free. That’s what I believe in.
BILL MOYERS: That’s not an issue of race though.
BILL T. JONES: It’s all related. Intersectionality is the issue of the time. That’s what the young have finally understood.
BILL MOYERS: Define it. What do you mean by intersectionality?
BILL T. JONES: Well, intersectionally, you would have to look at the whole picture. Gay liberation is human rights– gay rights are human rights. Let’s look at that statement. You have to define what you mean by gay people. And what does it mean that they have rights? Are those rights in the Constitution? The Constitution didn’t mention, the originalists say this, but it didn’t mention homosexuality. Well, no it didn’t. But that means that the Constitution is a living document, that we have to put it into the conversation now. So, you cannot talk about all people having a right to love who they want without thinking about basic changes in the culture politically, socially, and let’s talk about capitalism. Let’s talk about the arts being “free.” The arts are not free. Who pays for it? Do you know there have been boards divested of certain members because they are connected to the gun industry? Why? They say because those people– some of them say, “I don’t do that part, that thing,” but there’s something– this is hard to understand. People say you represent the acceptability of that dubious industry and you are now sitting in this board representing advanced human thought and openness. Those two things, people say they don’t go together. Now, that’s what I mean. When the weakest of us are protected and safe, everybody is safe. Now, that’s not original. You know. You’ve heard that. That’s an intersectional idea.
BILL MOYERS: So, Bill, in the context of what we’ve been saying, how do you read this moment of a trifecta crisis: pandemic, recession, social and racial trauma. Can you crystalize it for us?
BILL T. JONES: Well, I think– I appreciate you thinking so highly of me, but I don’t think it’s my job. I will say this moment is when people are trying to get it right about what democracy has promised to be and what it’s going to take to really get it to be that. That’s a hard one. That’s a hard one. Do you know what it promised considering three fifths of a man and all of that stuff in the Constitution? Okay, can we look at that past and do we have the courage to make the future we need? I don’t know what it means to defund the police. I’m hearing– I’m just– my ears are just opening up enough to hear there are other ways to take care of violence, mental health issues, inequities, housing, drugs. There are other ways to do that rather than militarizing a body of people. Some of those billions should be taken away from the police and given to schools. That should be a no brainer, shouldn’t it? But you know what? It’s very hard. Because we all, particularly those who have become middle class enough to own things, “My property. My property. Call the police.” Yeah, but be careful when you call the police. You call the police and you might, as we saw in Philadelphia in 1985, you might get your neighborhood burned down, and the police will not have to answer for it. Oh, “Well, I don’t call the police, who can I turn to?” That’s why you should defund the police, at least 50%, and give that money to somebody who can come up with other ways to protect your property. This is the moment we live in. It makes us all, if we’re paying attention, sharper.
BILL MOYERS: Has the pandemic exposed anything about America 2020 that you didn’t already know? Because it has exposed some things to white people that they didn’t acknowledge knowing. I mean, the cost of unrestrained individualism, the willful violence of capitalism, the legacy of colonialism, and the cruelty towards the George Floyd’s of America.
BILL T. JONES: I was on a program for a wonderful organization in Harlem called Bro/Sis. And I was on that program with Carrie Mae Weems, the great photographer. And she said that COVID has ripped the scab off of something. Now, what did I learn? I learned that class is much more important than I thought it was. I learned that not everyone gets the same healthcare. I learned that I could afford to socially distance. I could afford to have people coming and delivering food to me. I’m not one of the people delivering.
BILL MOYERS: You discovered your privilege?
BILL T. JONES: I discovered my privilege. And it was a guilty feeling for years. I mean, when Arnie Zane died I said to a group of French journalists, “I am the surviving member of a celebrated same sex, interracial couple.” And they wrote it down. They loved it. The surviving member of a celebrated, same sex, interracial– oh, wow, the trifecta, or whatever, how many it is. That sounded good, but now I understood what that meant. Arnie and I would go to a restaurant, he would go first, you know? And then I would come. You renting an apartment? We understood years ago that he should go first, then bring me. So, we knew how to work it.
BILL MOYERS: He was white and you weren’t.
BILL T. JONES: Yes. Yeah, and it took a while to understand that, work it to my favor and not hate myself as inauthentic Uncle Tom because of it. There’s another kind of math going on here. There’s another kind of math. What was I doing with that privilege? What kind of work was I making? What did I stand for? When I’m in front of a camera, could I speak the truth, even sometimes it was lacerating myself? And, could I speak about a higher truth? I think you’re a man of belief as well aren’t you? I’ve watched, again, you and Joseph Campbell. It’s really quite fascinating to go to watch those again. There’s something, this other narrative of humanity that’s being told.
BILL MOYERS: You may remember that I asked Joe Campbell if he were a man of faith, and he says, oh, no, no, my boy. I’m not a man of faith, I’m a man of experience.
BILL T. JONES: And I agree. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to say right now as well.
BILL MOYERS: I think that touched a lot of people.
BILL T. JONES: Yeah. I don’t have room for cruelty. I don’t want to be cruel, and I don’t wanna see it done.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that “Slavery is a memory of something we cannot remember, and yet we cannot forget.” Isn’t that what’s behind the turmoil in the country today, that many whites, if not most whites do not want to remember slavery, and many Blacks can’t forget it?
BILL T. JONES: Well, I think that’s really well put. Well put.
BILL MOYERS: You said it! I didn’t.
BILL T. JONES: Yeah, yeah, well, I– well, it– yeah, well applied. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Keep you humble.
BILL T. JONES: Well, when I look at the young people coming to me and demanding more from me, demanding more, my board of directors is not all, but they’re are primarily white people. This is New York Live Arts, of which I’m the artistic director. And of which Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company is a part. I say to them, “You don’t understand how the not for profit works. Who is funding the type of work that we make? I can’t punish them for being white.” And they say, “Yes, but you’re playing into the white supremacist power structure.” Well, is this experience to say? You have to take it as you find it and you hope to turn it into something beautiful and move on. That is how I found the art world, art world found me, and now I’m white haired, a retired dancer, but I’m still a director, and I’m still here talking to Bill Moyers. What are you doing with the reality that you are a product, and in some ways of white privilege, what are you doing with it? I’m gonna turn to them and say, “Okay, do better. Do better. Show me how you come into a world that is mundane, defiled, prone to mendacity. Show me how you’re going to live like a shining saint and be uncorrupted.” This is one of the cruel tricks, I think, for those people who believe in God, that God plays on us, isn’t it? You start with this hopeful idea as a young person, and then even the best of us, by the time we lay down and die, we have things that have marked our heart, we’re ashamed of, realities that we thought we were trying to correct, and we only made it worse. Show some humility. Ah, humility. Humility. I say to them, “Do better. Do better than me.”
BILL MOYERS: Do you really think that so many Americans are surprised to discover that racism is systemic, racism is cooked into our whole DNA? You weren’t surprised, were you?
BILL T. JONES: No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t. And I now hear myself at one of those either chic dinners or super hip gatherings and I remember having to say to my friends– I have a friend, a Canadian friend, and he and I have not talked since George Floyd. I don’t know how to talk to him. He doesn’t know how to talk to me. And he told me a few years ago, “Oh, race, that’s an American thing. I have none of that. None of that.” And I said, “You must never say that. Don’t say that.” And his girlfriend, another friend of mine, there was a documentary about racism, and I said, “I’m gonna send him this.” She said, “Don’t. It would hurt him. He wouldn’t understand what you were saying. He’d think you were calling him a racist.” And she said, “Wait until a time when you’re both relaxed, then talk to him about it.” I wonder now, did I do the right thing by waiting to let him know? I don’t think he would say it now. That was maybe five years ago, six years ago. I don’t feel smug. But I wonder if he is thinking. I can’t do it for him. Is there any white person now in America who does not know what slavery was? Yes, there are people who say that slavery was something else. It was our heritage, and after all, Black people were more better off then. We didn’t have slums in the city at that time, right? Whose job is that education? Whose job is it? Is it mine? Should I just charm them with my performing, and my artistry? Should I just charm them as I make the medicine sweet, just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down? Should I?
BILL MOYERS: You once said, if I remember correctly, that art does for you what religion does for other people. And the fact of the matter is it’s not charm in what you do when you transport an audience somewhere else. That’s not charm.
BILL T. JONES: Bill, I should be careful when I talk to you. You bring me back– bring back my words on me—
BILL MOYERS: If I didn’t– if I didn’t– borrow other people’s ideas. I– I–
BILL T. JONES: Well, yeah, so– so– there is something, though, about beauty, though, Bill. Beauty in physical form, beauty in choreographic configurations, beauty in choice of movement. Those things– maybe charm is the wrong word, but that does make– it disarms people. If you can be that kind of artist, can you create an environment that allows people in, first of all, and when they’re in there, what are you feeding them? Now that– I don’t claim to be able to do that every time. I don’t know if I can do that every time. But that seems to be what I’m looking for. Can it be beauty of form, sincerity of delivery, but once you get into that space that the artist has created, what is in there for you to discover? What is in there that the artist wants to share? That is a question with every new work.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers, and I’m talking with Bill T. Jones, the acclaimed choreographer and dancer whose newest work is titled DEEP BLUE SEA, inspired by Herman Melville’s 19th century novel MOBY DICK. Jones fastens on the character of a deck hand named Pip, just a boy, who’s thrown overboard when a whale bumps the boat. He’s rescued only to fall again later that same day. Now he floats alone in the vastness of the sea, sure he will die. DEEP BLUE SEA was to premiere in April but was cancelled when the pandemic struck. Bill T. Jones arrived for our interview with some good news.
BILL T. JONES: But it’s back on now. It’s back on. It will be rescheduled somewhere in the late spring of ’21.
BILL MOYERS: So, we will get to see it after all. I understood why it was going to be at the New York Armory. Lots of people, big space, the pandemic had hit. But I was looking forward to it, Bill, because I had a teacher in my segregated high school in Marshall, Texas who didn’t assign MOBY DICK to the class, but she would have me over, serve cookies and talk about books. And she asked me to read MOBY DICK, and I did. But it did not occur to me that Pip– the cabin boy that you have centered on in your play– that Pip, maybe ten, 11, 12 years old– was anything but another white kid on that boat.
BILL T. JONES: Interesting. Isn’t it amazing?
BILL MOYERS: So she said to me, “What did you think about Pip?” And I said, “Oh, so tragic. He’s just a tragic figure.” She looked around. There was nobody in her big living room except me. And she looked around and said, “He was a Black boy.” And I said, “Pip was a Black boy?” She said—
BILL T. JONES: Wow.
BILL MOYERS: “He was a Black boy.” So my question is—
BILL T. JONES: You didn’t remember him saying that “Even blackness has its brilliance” and “Black is brilliant and—”
BILL MOYERS: Oh yeah. But I thought that was Melville who said that.
BILL T. JONES: Well, he did. But that’s how he was describing Pip.
BILL MOYERS: Okay, all right. I was only, what, 15, 16 maybe– 16, I think, at that time–
BILL T. JONES: And that’s when I read it as well. I don’t even remember Pip. I don’t even remember him at all. Actually, you know, it’s complicated because he shouldn’t have been in the whaling boat. He was there because someone else hurt their wrist. The whale thumps the boat, he jumps into the water in panic. It’s entangled in the ropes. And Mr. Stubb says, “Cut him loose.” And– the next– and he said, but stay in the boat, Pip. Stay in the Goddamn boat, because next time we’re gonna leave you. And it happens again. And just when he jumps in the water before they have time to even decide to save him or not they spot whales. So, now commercialism, “Man is a money-making animal, which too often dims his beneficence.” Excuse the paraphrase, but that’s what Melville is saying. So, they go off to do their job and they leave him bobbing there. And now they didn’t mean to leave him, “And he looks up to the sun, another lonely castaway,” the sun. And that’s when this passage about, “the waters jeeringly keeping his finite body up, but drowning the infinite of his soul,” comes on and they come back and they save him. And from that day forward he was considered mad. He became a homeless person on the boat until, what happens? The most powerful man on the boat, Captain Ahab, actually feels great affinity for this– the weakest person on the boat. And he said, “From now on you will live with me.” And so Captain Ahab takes the little black boy to live with him in his cabin. Now, I have to explain people, “No, this is not homoerotic in any way.” But there’s something that Melville is getting at about the very most powerful and the least powerful actually setting up this kinda strange symbiotic relationship built around their mutual madness. Now, that’s storytelling.
BILL MOYERS: So—absolutely. So when and how did it occur to you that this fictional figure from a 19th century novel written before the Civil War– and a minor figure at that.
BILL T. JONES: Minor, minor.
BILL MOYERS: –they did, a kind of cabin boy who was terrified being on a ship full of drunken sailors under the thumb of a mad captain who was willing to risk everyone’s life to kill one whale, when did it—
BILL T. JONES: But Bill, may I jump in and say remember now, that one of the things that– when we first meet Pip it’s when Pip played a mean tambourine. And then whenever they wanted to party they would call “Bring Pip up.” And then and Melville invents jazz scat. You– if you read that, “Dig it, rig it, big it, boom, ba, ba, da, da.” And this is Melville writing this way. This is what Pip is beating the tambourine. Pip doesn’t want– he has to entertain them. The way he works in this story, he’s Sammy Davis Jr.
BILL MOYERS: Sammy Davis Jr. But remember that the storm engulfs the ship and he’s down on his knees asking that the big white God in the sky have mercy on this small Black boy down here. Now, I missed that when I first read it.
BILL T. JONES: Me too.
BILL MOYERS: “Preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear.” You can’t blame him for being afraid, can you?
BILL T. JONES: Uh-huh, well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? You know, in my DEEP BLUE SEA I quote a wonderful woman, Eleanor Traylor, who was an English professor at Howard University. And we were all on the cruise that Oprah Winfrey threw for Maya Angelou– Maya’s 70th birthday I think. And we cruised around the Gulf of Mexico and it was– I mean, Andrew Young, Ashford and Simpson, Dr. Dorothy Height. It was quite amazing collection. Coretta Scott King. And every night on this luxury Scandinavian liner they would open the casino and people would have the one-armed bandits, buckets of caviar, champagne, the music. AIN’T NO STOPPING US NOW, which we lovingly called the new Negro National Anthem. But that night– one night we’re all dressed up and we go out on the deck, Bjorn, Eleanor Traylor and myself, and we start talking about our love of Melville. And the character of Pip comes up and Eleanor Traylor says, “The meaning of Pip is that any enterprise,” the Pequod, is a metaphor of the American enterprise. “Any enterprise that could lose or leave the weakest, the most innocent in the water is doomed to catastrophe.” That’s how she saw the meaning of Pip in the water. And that is in my piece, DEEP BLUE SEA.
BILL MOYERS: I very much appreciated your interview with Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone before DEEP BLUE SEA was canceled. She says that Pip could have been pulled from a current headline, but that probably only you could have pulled him from a headline. And she—
BILL T. JONES: What did she mean by that, though? He was the abandoned young Black—
BILL MOYERS: She meant– yes. Here was a young Black kid, vulnerable, isolated, unable freely to breathe, his head bobbing up and down in a thrashing sea. And that when she asked you what you thought he signified, you thought a moment and said, “That no one should be left behind.”
BILL T. JONES: Well, you realize I read this book in high school. My companion and I– he loved it. He discovered Melville, we read it out loud to each other. And only then, around that time, finishing it the second time, Ferguson happened, and this whole plethora of assassinations happened. And I was thinking, “What is different now? I mean, I know about Black men being killed, but why is it now staring me in the face, and why is it hitting me so hard?” And I’m assuming it was, like, the same reason as– this is a very important part of the libretto for my DEEP BLUE SEA. I don’t remember, you don’t remember, they don’t remember. We don’t remember the little cabin boy. That’s what I think. And I said, “Nobody should be left behind.” Is that what Michael Brown meant? Is that what Trayvon Martin was, these guys were not seen? They were invisible, is that why they were abused and killed? We’re figuring that out now, every day in the street, aren’t we?
BILL MOYERS: Do you think, Bill, that George Floyd will show up in a future Bill T. Jones work?
BILL T. JONES: Yes, I’m already working on something. My friend Pauline Kim Harris, she’s a wonderful violinist, and she said that she was an event and they asked for an acknowledgement in silence to the death of George Floyd. So, she did that silence and then she made an improvisation, and when she realized she recorded her improvisation it was eight minutes and 46 seconds long. And as you know, George Floyd was eight minutes and 46 seconds. So, bingo, is that the universe talking about some unity that we don’t see? So, I’m trying to make a title that is worthy of the complex feeling I’m having, and many people are having about this time. The violence of Floyd’s death, the social distancing, all those things. And then it’s going to break. It’s got to break open. It’s breaking open.
BILL MOYERS: You watched those eight and a half minutes more than once, I imagine. What do they say to you?
BILL T. JONES: Well, it took me awhile to– at the time that it was happening– is that true? And I see it on the news, and I thought, “Oh, another one? How many have we seen?” I mean, do I need to go down the list? Have you seen the one of the young boy running away and the policeman shooting him in the back? Was that not enough? I had to close my eyes in order to open my eyes, and see through other people. I didn’t think that all of this protesting was going to be anything more than another paroxysm of guilt. As I told my young dancers, and I think they were shocked, I said, “Do you know that tune, that disco tune, “Burn, baby, burn, disco inferno?” I said, “Do you know what Burn, baby, burn had been? That had been when Newark was in flames, and then it was a disco song” shortly–I said, “This is a cynical culture.” Yeah, I said, “It’s a cynical culture. It’ll come to nothing.” And they said, “No, this is different.” Now I do believe, Bill Moyers, that we are in a revolutionary moment. I don’t know where it is going, but this is different. I own property now. I’m a middle-class man. I don’t want anarchy. But you know, it doesn’t matter what I want. Something is changing profoundly, and it frightens me. But I’m with the young on this. I’m with the young. And I’m still here.
BILL MOYERS: You’re still here because you learned to negotiate a very complex social system in which you often felt lonely?
BILL T. JONES: Uh-huh, it’s true.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s reflected in DEEP BLUE SEA.
BILL T. JONES: That is the way the idea started. A sense of loneliness, maybe even abandonment. I quote Melville about: “This little Black was brilliant” and “Even blackness has its brilliance.” And that is Pip. In Melville’s telling, this character that I identify with. “The ocean jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul and took him down, down, down to meet the miser-man, Wisdom, in all of his hoarded heaps. And he saw God’s foot on the treadle of the universe and his mind cracked. From that day forward–” ’cause he was rescued– “his shipmates called him Mad. Man’s insanity is heaven’s sense.” Beautiful, isn’t it? And every artist would like to think that they’re sort of a mad speaker of truth.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a terrible cross for the artist to bear.
BILL T. JONES: Toni Morrison said to me, “Man, you know, I go out sometimes, they ask me questions they should be asking anthropologists.” You know? There are times when people would come up to me and say, “What if life is actually poison?” ‘Cause a young woman, I realize she must have been profoundly depressed, she wanted me to tell her how to live. “You’re asking me to tell you how to live?” And you are either invited to make a fool out of yourself, or you try to go past yourself. What did Maya Angelou used to say? “If you want hope you already have it.” This is a hard one. They turn to an artist like me and they say, “Help us believe that we can keep going.” And I know that night when you asked me about 9/11– right, right? And I said, you know, I come from people who were slaves, chattel. That was something you just learned. You have to put one foot in front of another and you have to go for it. As I am the child of slaves, many of you are the children of slaveowners. Now what we gonna do about it? How are we gonna live together? How are we gonna make babies together? How’s gonna make culture together? That’s what the young seem primed to do. No, we’re not going to go into silos anymore. We’re not going to go into silos. You stay in your lane. They are hopefully, with the likes of Bill T. Jones, I’m telling you: transgress, transgress as a way of life. Don’t be scared. I call on that. I call on that even now. I have to. I’m not sure if I am any good, but I don’t have the luxury of worrying about it. I have to just keep going, and keep the heart open, and the fingers crossed.
BILL MOYERS: Your fingers crossed… Bill T. Jones, so good to see you. I’ll see you again at DEEP BLUE SEA.
BILL T. JONES: Thank you so much.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to MOYERS ON DEMOCRACY. Until next time, see an excerpt of DEEP BLUE SEA and learn more about MOBY DICK on Billmoyers.com.