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It's Lit: Free Black Dirt

Posted on Wed, Mar 22 2017 9:00 am by Sara Krassin


In an It’s Lit first, we’re doubling up and speaking with TWO artists in this week’s post. I first met Erin Sharkey several years ago through the Creative Writing Program at Hamline University, where we were both pursuing graduate degrees, and a couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting her artistic partner, Junauda Petrus. Together, the two form Free Black Dirt, a Minneapolis-based artist collective bridging the cultural and the magical.

Committed to creating original theatre and performance, hosting innovative events, organizing local artists, and promoting and supporting the emerging artists’ community in the Twin Cities, Free Black Dirt seeks to spark and engage in critical conversations. “Our primary focus is to create really high-quality, unique narratives around blackness, and particularly what it is to be black in Minneapolis,” Sharkey explained. She continued, “I think literature is at the heart of how we connect with our mission and with community. I think it’s about telling new stories, about celebrating stories, about being bold and irreverent to the rules about what stories are valuable.”

Petrus described the duo’s origin story as “multi-layered, heroic, and all of the feels.” After meeting in a literature class at MCTC, the two both ended up moving to New York (Sharkey to Upstate and Petrus to New York City). During this time, they reinvigorate their relationship through a blog they called Free Black Dirt. “It was a way that we could be connected, and accountable, and write and share our work.” Eventually they both moved back to Minneapolis, where Petrus received a grant to create the play There are Other Worlds. Sharkey joined the project as a producer, and they’ve been collaborating ever since.

But the road to Free Black Dirt really begins even further back, when the pair first discovered the power and pull of literature. For Petrus, it was a valentine she received in Kindergarten. “It felt like they knew me, you know what I mean. And I liked the rhythm, I loved the metaphor.” For Sharkey, it was the poems and stories recited by her grandpa and dad. “My dad had memorized whole books of the Bible, so it was like a magic trick that he could read the Bible with his eyes closed.”

Books also played a formative role in their young lives. Petrus’s mom frequently took her to the library. “Me and the librarian were tight, and I would just read a ton of books.” Sharkey’s aunt sent her a box of Maya Angelou’s books after Sharkey’s family moved out of her childhood home and into the suburbs. “I remember building a fort in my closet and just reading all the time. Reading every day. Reading as much as I could. It was something that gave me confidence.

The two went on to describe the ways in which literature helps us to engage our imaginations, to consider possibilities, to access other people’s experiences, and to foster empathy. Sharkey added, “I think through literature and art we can make bold proposals to our community, to the universe. And those things are what will lead us to the change we need to seek to survive.” What kind of change exactly?

“One of the things we’ve been engaging in the last couple years is the prison industrial complex. We’ve really been thinking about the ways in which artists are essential to dismantling the prison industrial complex and the police state. And how at first blush it feels like it’s impossible, that we can’t survive without the prison industrial complex. But it’s important to remember that someone dreamed it, someone created it, and that there was a time before the prison state. And there needs to be people thinking about it in order for anything to change. Or else people who are motivated by profit or by power or by whatever else will take the reigns, they always have.”

“So we’ve been engaging it through theater, through really thinking on the intimate level about how the prison industrial complex effects family, effects a neighborhood. We’ve thought about it in terms of salon readings, and our personal interactions. I teach at a prison now. So, it’s a long term project. But I think it’s important to not stop the conversation. How can we finally and completely give up slavery in our country? How can we complete the abolition process here?”

What other projects are the women of Free Black Dirt currently putting their time into? They’ll be organizing artists for the 43rd Annual MayDay Parade and Festival this spring, partnering with Umbra Search and Intermedia Arts in a dialogue with artists around legacy and archives this May, curating programming for the Walker Art Center’s Mn Artists: [Your Name Here] series this August, and screening their film project Sweetness of Wild this summer. 

What can we expect from Free Black Dirt in the future? Says Petrus, “Just tell them to watch out for us. Erin and I both have all of these big dreams. So look out for our books, we’re going to start publishing. Look out we’re about to have a restaurant, and like a little boutique space. You know how Oprah had her OWN network? And her magazine? We want to be like auntie Oprah.” Sharkey continued, “I think Minneapolis is lacking in black owned property, black owned restaurants and community spaces, black directed institutions. And I think we are ready to move into a space that we can share with other people.” 

Lastly, Petrus added - “And run somebody for president who’s not on some fuck shit.” 

Sharkey - “Yes. I’m not sure we’ll be ready in four years, but maybe.”

P - “We should run as a double black person ticket for president.”

S - “I don’t know that I want that job. Doesn’t it seem like a miserable job?”

P - “Man, I’d be up in there like Michelle Obama.”

S - “Yeah, but she wasn’t the president.”

P - “You be president. I’ll be the first lady.”

Erin Sharkey is a poet, essayist, educator and graphic designer based in Minneapolis. She is the co-founder of an artist collective called Free Black Dirt and serves as the co-host for Black Market Reads, a weekly podcast about literature and black cultural production. Erin was a 2015 Givens Writing Fellow and is currently a Givens Foundation cultural producer-in-residence and Coffee House Press in the Stacks artist-in-residence at the Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature at the University of MN and also is a consultant with Umbra: Search African American History.

Junauda Petrus is a creative activist, writer, playwright, and multi-dimensional performance artist who is Minneapolis-born, West-Indian descended, and African-sourced. Her work centers around Black wildness, Afro-futurism, ancestral healing, sweetness, spectacle and shimmer. She has received a Givens Foundation fellowship, Jerome Travel and Study grant, Many Voices Mentorship with the Playwright’s Center,  Naked Stages Residency at the Pillsbury House and a 2016 Jerome Film grant to write and direct an experimental and poetic web series about Black teens coming of age in Minneapolis, Sweetness of Wild, with filmmaker Mychal Fisher. She is the co-founder with Erin Sharkey of Free Black Dirt, an experimental arts production company.

Sara Krassin is a Minneapolis based poet, editor, and bibliophile. She currently serves as Poetry Contest Editor for the Water~Stone Review, reads submissions for Jellyfish Highway Press, and interns at The Loft Literary Center in Marketing & Communications. Her poems have appeared in Third Point Press, Artemis Journal, and The Sand Canyon Review. Find her at @MsKrassin.