In Memoriam: Dr. Barbara Ann Teer: Blowing Our Minds with Blackness!

A Personal Journey with Dr. Barbara Ann Teer

“We are here on this earth to learn how to be great ancestors!” I heard that quote from a Yoruba priest a few years ago. Leave it to the Africans to drop such pearls of wisdom with which we should adorn ourselves. The spirit world is now joined by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, a larger-than-life proud Black woman who passed on July 21, 2008. It was an unexpected and hard-to-process passing. The news was heavy for so many of us in the “arts and activism” world.

A few days after her passing, I was invited to give personal remembrances, along with the another larger-than -life figure, Mr. Amiri Baraka. Mr. Baraka and I spoke of the relevance of the National Black Theater (NBT) and Barbara Ann Teer: he from the perspective of her peer, her collaborator; I spoke, humbly, of the guidance she gave me as a young event producer in 1997.

It was at the National Black Theater where I presented and produced my first “show.” It was called “State of the Art: Expressions of a People” (Jauary 24, 1997). It featured asha bandele, Ras Baraka, Kwikstep and Rocafella, The Last Poets, Tracey Lee, Kenny Mahud, Jessica Care Moore, Tracie Morris, James Mtume, One Step Beyond, Aarian Pope, and Mista Raja. It was hosted by Rahzel, The Godfather of Noyze. Word got out the this event was the place to be. KRS-One even called me and asked if he could perform (no lie). And he did. Supernatural was there too and they rocked it! Savion Glover, Jared Crawford, and Raymond King (from Bring in Da Noise/Bring in Da Funk were scheduled to perform but they stood us up). I got BMI to co-sponsor, along with the International African Arts Festival. The Festival, however, was more than a sponsor. They helped me, an ambitious bright-eyed producer, stay grounded, for I had no idea how to produce such a show. That was evident in the fact that it was five hours long! People complained (a little) but something compelled them to stay the whole night, regardless. The house was packed and we all sweated it out there at NBT. We were not merely experiencing a “show,” but a ritual, as Dr. Teer would say. We were lounging in our own beauty, affirming how wonderful it is to be in love with yourself, your family, your talent, your own greatness.

Nabii Faison was my hands-on guide on behalf of Dr. Teer for much of this producer’s journey. All his technical direction was interwoven with cultural education. Every time I visited the theater or spoke with Nabii during any one of our pre-production meetings, he spoke lovingly of Dr. Teer, her relevance, and why this work I was doing was needed as a continuation of work done before me. It was an awesome baptism, of sorts. My mind could not fully grasp the stories represented in all the theater pictures and production posters and event handouts that I was being introduced to. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the significance of the African wood statues and other art that filled the space. Little did I know what I career path I was taking as a then twenty-eight year old. I bet Dr. Teer knew…even from a distance.

I don’t think I had much interaction with Dr. Teer until the night of the program. But she was guiding in spirit. She was a larger-than-life figure that oversaw EVERYTHING. She was goddess-like and here I was, this little untested “unknown” trying to produce all up in her space. Outside of being vouched for by Mzee Moyo and K. Mensah Wali of Festival, I had very little to show for myself. But people saw me working hard and my persistence must have softened them. Good people stepped up to help the program along. Word got out, and I as mentioned, KRS-One called to say that he’d heard about the event and wanted to perform (that connect came from Pee Wee Dance, a new friend). I thought the whole thing was a practical joke and started to hang up on the fool who was wasting my time. But KRS-One’s voice is rather distinctive, you know? After about two minutes, I was convinced that I was talking to the Blast Master himself. Then I morphed into a five-year old!

“Really?!? This is really KRS-One?!?” My sweating him was shameless for a few minutes while I gathered my composure. I knew I made it “big” if KRS-One was asking for permission to perform at my show. Day-um!

As important, Dr. Teer was uplifting the event from afar, too. I learned that she was checking to see if some of her friends would attend. Dr. Leonard Jefferies came and so did actor Glynn Thurman. “What in the world have I embarked on here?,” I wondered. I had grand visions for the program, but that was me aiming high. I didn’t really know this thing could be pulled off. I didn’t really know whose house I was in. That evening was a practical blessing and one of great symbolism. Dr. Teer built the state-of-the-art institution where “State of the Art,” the production could live. The National Black Theater was a safe haven for kindred souls like ours. Clean, spirit-filled, and self-reflecting. When you walked into NBT you felt “at home.” It’s an empowering thing to be under the guidance of a goddess-like Black woman who is proud of her ancestry.

I had come to do several more programs at NBT. None again like “State of the Art,” but important programs, nonetheless. I founded Co-Motion a few years later. It was a artist/activist organization that emerged in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo. James Mtume was an original member. When we had our first community townhall meeting at NBT. Dr. Teer was there…teaching and supporting. HipHop Speaks! was also birthed at the National Black Theater. It was a series of quarterly grassroots forums and performances on the state of hip hop. Kevin Powell conceived of the series in 2000 and I co-organized and co-promoted the series with him from conception to completion for year one. We started at The Theater with about 300 people. By the fall of that year, we tripled the turnout. Dr. Teer was at HipHop Speaks! too…coaching and guiding us on, either in person or on one of our insightful conference calls. She remained larger-than-life in all my work with her through the years. Her wisdom seemed unattainable.

I did grasp something, however. Something quite Teerian. I didn’t know it then, but I’m clear-headed now: I was following in her footsteps not because this kind of work was something worthy to do. I was (and still am) doing this cultural work because it must be done! The ascension of Black people depends on Black people… so what are we waiting for?!?! That was the drive of Dr. Teer. We are entitled to the power and brilliance of our own institutions…it’s an absolute! Dr. Teer’s tone was imperative…always. She was not a whiner, but was bold and unconventional about her love of Black people. I have rarely met women more boldly committed to “blowing our minds with Blackness.” I’m honored to have been personally touched by her example.

In heaven now, as it was on earth, her spirit teaches us to be more in love with ourselves. Thank you, Dr. Teer. Thank you NBT family.