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.


On attending University of Bristol’s Gender Research Centre and Centre for Black Humanities joint seminar: A conversation with Dorothea Smartt, (30 Nov 2018).

The following blog post was written by Charlotte Hooper, a Senior Teaching Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. 

This seminar was billed as the first in a series of conversations ‘imagining what our curriculum might look like were it researched, taught, and learned from Black Queer-Trans perspectives’,

Dorothea Smartt is an accomplished poet so, yes, I was expecting some poetry, but mainly a stimulating, if principally academic discussion of such issues as who gets taught and cited, and who to ask and frame the relevant questions. The conversation led by Dr Nathaniel Coleman did touch on these topics, but what the seminar delivered was, for me at least, rather more of a transcendental experience than an academic discussion.

The poetry, inflected with ‘Black Londoner’; ‘Barbados’ and ‘Queer’ themes, was stimulating; ironic and playful at times; serious at others; always evocative and insightful.  Smartt’s voice rang soft, tender, and penetratingly clear, accompanied by the voices of sisters, lovers, mothers, aunts and ancestors – all emerging steadily through the performance.  At one point, Medusa came to life as a symbolic Black woman in a dangerous mirror-reflection with a turned-to-stone stare and snakes-for-hair. At another, a lover materialised as a goddess of the female form.

Later in the recital came poems originally commissioned as a response to ‘Samboo’s grave’ in Morecombe Bay, re-imagined the life of a captive African boy destined for an early death in Britain. This story reminded me of the young slave ‘Scipio Africanus’ –buried here in Bristol (at St Mary’s, Henbury), who met a similar fate, albeit ending up with the ‘Christian’ grave denied to ‘Samboo’, or ‘Bilal’, as Smartt named him.  The performance of this poetry paying homage to Bilal’s short and wasted life was made all the more poignant by the seminar setting: the Old Council Chamber, a court-like inner sanctum of the Wills Memorial building.  The back wall of this room is adorned with stone plaques bearing the coats of arms of the University’s wealthy benefactors, including the arms of the building’s namesake, H. O. Wills, of tobacco fame. There is no acknowledgment here of the many other, less illustrious, founding ‘benefactors’, whose plantation labour (along with that of assorted local factory women and labourers) also financed this building, and this University.

As Smartt invoked Bilal’s voice and spoke his story, the seminar was temporarily transformed into a reverential wake.  I could almost sense these unsung contributors crowding in as we listened to the resurrected voice of their African cousin.  Long denied entry, but now tentatively taking their rightful place in the pantheon of founding mothers and fathers – invited in through the medium of a poet-daughter.  The air of this fusty old room unmistakeably rustled and stirred, the atmosphere became charged, and the past seemed to momentarily merge with the present.

Speaking for myself, this felt like a transformational moment. Having Dorothea Smartt perform this particular material in this particular space was an experience that for me was stimulating, horizon-broadening, empathetic, politically challenging, and personally discomforting.  A vital (in all senses of the word) step on the road to our shared, enhanced and broadened educational future.