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Life This art collective provides a space for Black healing

Jul. 3, 2020
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In the past three months, college students have been switched to online classes, sent back to their hometowns, blasted with viral reminders of the injustices outside their doors, and then shown images of their injured peers after protests. 

Ricky Hall, a self-identifying “hustler, lover, and dreamer,” realized that with everything going on, he was going to burn out soon. He also knew he needed to do something to stop it. Almost immediately he called his old friend, Mya Ison, to figure out a way to bring art into their grieving and healing process. 

Hall and Ison met in high school, and they remained good friends even after going their separate ways (to Howard University and Boston University, respectively). Let Some Come Back to Me—the arts collective they founded—provides a space for that very process every Thursday evening over Zoom. 

After coming across the flyer on Instagram for their event last week, I realized how out of touch I’ve been with art and my own feelings since going back to my home state of North Carolina. I reached out to Ison, and she sent me the link to their Zoom event. 

“A lot of what we do as artists is examine the human condition, and I felt disconnected with that because of what’s going on with COVID-19,” Hall explained to me. “So much of what we do as Black people is we give, we give, we educate. Mya and I wanted a space where it was going to be just for us. As selfish as that may sound, it’s the most selfless thing we could do for ourselves.” 

The weekly session starts off with Ison leading a guided meditation, which serves not only as a cleanse but a warm-up for what’s to come. Her instructions are coated in an almost lyrical imagery. When she tells us to inhale words and then taste them, it doesn’t feel like an odd request. 

Immediately after she asks us to yell with her, pitching it as the release of a week’s worth of emotional buildup. Loud and pervasive (especially compared to just a few minutes earlier) the contrast is felt even by me who opted out. 

“Last week for me honestly felt like a month,” Ison confessed. “For some reason, I’m always nervous to do the breathing exercise but it helps me arrive into the space. And then once I start, I find myself open up, so the whole time I kind of feel like I’m soaring through.”

The exercises led by Ison are meant to prime us for a performance by a different Black artist every week. Last Thursday Ireon Roach, Ison’s girlfriend, recited three very different original poems. 

In one, she adopted the language of Nina Simone; another poem was peppered with expletives and interjections. The week before, Hall sang Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.” 

While the same content can be found on their social media channels, these moments exist only in the memories of us who bear witness. It’s an act that feels reminiscent of pre-pandemic times.  

If the first half of the hour-long events are a preparation, then the second half is a reflection. Every week Hall and Ison choose a text to read out loud, based on a theme they believe is well suited to address what’s happened in the Black community since their last meeting. One week’s theme of balance featured Bell Hooks’s “All About Love,” while another’s theme of Black healing was paired with a short story by Gail E. Hailey. 

“Words are so important and hold for me one of the main ways I know sensation,” Ison told me. “Whenever I hear beautiful words from people, I feel myself say exactly what I’m feeling. It’s the best feeling, so I try to evoke that for others as best as I can.” 

The rest of the evening is reserved for cycles of journaling and refining. We are asked to “word vomit” for six minutes which we are then to refine into a mantra—to be lived over the next week. Mine is to write about something that I won’t know forever. 

After Ison and Hall share what they’ve written, people slowly begin to unmute their mics and join the conversation. I’d forgotten that this was a Zoom call until now. What has felt like a personal 50 minutes with Hall and Ison is almost interrupted by the voices of the 30 other attendees. 

The discontinuity is fleeting, quickly filled with a sense of community from hearing one another’s promises to the future. Somehow Hall and Ison have created a place where the distance between the squares on the screen isn’t so relevant.