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Reflections on Dorothea Smartt and Travis Alabanza events

The following post was written by Nic Aaron, PhD candidate and Assistant Teacher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. 

Amongst the many opportunities on offer to me as a University of Bristol PhD student, the performance of Burgerz by Travis Alabanza, and the poetry reading and discussion with Dorothea Smartt, have stood out for me this term. These events, co-hosted by the Bristol Institute for Learning, alongside the Critically Queer Working Group, the Centre for Black Humanities and the Theatre Department, have shaped my PhD research, informed my seminar teaching, and reaffirmed my trans identity, while enabling me to critique my whiteness.

Burgerz is a show written and performed by Travis Alabanza after a man threw a burger at them while shouting transphobic abuse – and no one on the busy London street said or did anything. Having sold out in London, it was an incredible opportunity to see Burgerz in Bristol. The hour-long show was enthralling: Travis’ deconstructed the daily transphobic and racist abuse they encounter while simultaneously cooking a burger with a white cis man from the audience, conveying a raw sadness and vulnerability, whilst also, somehow, being hilarious. It was reaffirming and comforting to hear their articulation of many of the problems and fears I have encountered  as a trans person in 2018. More so, in the midst of increasing levels of abuse and hostility towards us on so many fronts.  It was also deeply challenging, provoking questions about intervening in situations of street harassment, and critique of the marginalisation of trans people racialized as black or brown by the trans community itself. On readdressing my own academic work after the show, I have sought to centre decolonisation when addressing transphobia and gender essentialism in the context of British Law on Sexual Violence.

If Travis’ performance provoked questions, Dorothea Smartt’s poetry reading and discussion provided a place to start to think about some of the answers. Listening to poetry about slavery and racism inside the Wills Memorial Building – named for a family who accumulated their wealth through the Tobacco industry and, therefore, the trans-Atlantic slave trade – highlighted the embedded and ongoing character of racism within British society, and the University of Bristol itself. The poetry was enlightening, not least in the ways it revealed the extent of my unfamiliarity with British History, despite having been in full time education for going on twenty years. Dorothea centred her queerness in her account; a reminder that black queer voices are so often erased. Her talk provoked a lively discussion as to how the curriculum can be decolonised and the importance of doing so. As a teaching assistant on the ‘Social Identities and Divisions’ Unit for first year Sociology undergraduates, the session provided many key insights into seminar topics relating to migration and belonging. Many of those in my seminar expressed interest in attending the session, demonstrating the relevance of this event for scholars at every stage.

As the term draws to a close and I knuckle down to complete a draft chapter ahead of the New Year, I am struck by the ways in which both Travis and Dorothea have been instructive in how to approach academia. I am excited to see more of these types of events, to further push and challenge the academic work that we are doing, and to amplify voices and ideas of those marginalised by the academy and in Bristol more broadly.

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