In recent months, the national conversation has focused largely on taking historical figures off the pedestal, as Confederate monuments come down and institutions drop names that index oppressive power. Just as important, however, is the dialogue around who should be remembered. On a momentous Election Day yesterday, a roving street performance in New York City commemorated someone who too many Americans may not be familiar with: Ona Maria Judge Staines, a formerly enslaved woman who courageously fled from George and Martha Washington in 1796.
Artist Robin Laverne Wilson, known as Dragonfly, conceived of her performance “Absconded” to honor Judge’s legacy by creating a living monument. Dressed in the garb of Judge, Dragonfly walked the streets of upper Manhattan, activating and engaging with historical landmarks and elements of the urban landscape that signal America’s history of chattel slavery and its insistent echoes in the present.
Judge’s escape from the Washingtons’ household, where she was the First Lady’s personal maid, was recorded through her own accounts in abolitionist newspapers. Despite her bravery, she is one of the most under-studied fugitives from slavery in America.
Organized with the support of Grace Exhibition Space and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance & Politics at New York University, as well as self-funding from the remains of the artist’s $1,200 federal economic stimulus check, the piece was broadcast live; it can be watched in its entirety here. Collaborators including costume designer Ak Jansen; dramaturg Joy Brooke Fairfield; and director Sabura Rashid helped Judge come to life.
The performance began at Seneca Village near the West 85th Street entrance of Central Park, a former primarily Black settlement that served as a haven from the racism and overcrowding of Lower Manhattan. In the mid-1800s, its approximately three hundred residents were forced out, dispersed, and under-compensated for the property they owned to make way for the park’s construction.
Dragonfly stood proudly on a hill on the Seneca site, opening her arms in a gesture of acknowledgment. The first audio in the performance’s soundtrack emanates from a speaker: a looping clip of Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner from a recent and damning interview about the president’s policies for Black communities. “He can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful,” Kushner’s voice repeats over and over. There is a jarring contrast between his message, which shifts agency and blame to African Americans, and the environment that surrounded us — a land forcibly taken from them.
The artist paces gently around the site. All her movements are slow and silent, yet deliberate and deeply thoughtful. She descends a stone stairway carefully, dragging a small rolling cart that reads “Ona Judge: Forgotten Founding Mother.” As she stops to embrace a tree near Summit Rock, the highest elevation in Central Park and a distinctive feature of the Seneca Village geography, her face captures a mixture of awe and solemn remembrance. Dragonfly is completely immersed; she has become Judge.
A group of about 30 spectators and journalists trail behind her as she walks downtown on Central Park West toward the American Museum of Natural History, the second stop on the route. She pauses in front of a towering statue of Theodore Roosevelt flanked by an African figure and a Native figure. After years of activism by Indigenous and grassroots groups and added pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, the city agreed to take down the monument this past June; on Election Day, however, it still stands, an enduring symbol of the nation’s unshakable past. Dragonfly looks up at him, then turns her back in defiance: one monument challenging the presence of another.
Later, in front of a sculpture of abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the New-York Historical Society, the artist’s body softens. She leans her head on his chest as the soundtrack marks his heartbeat. Though Judge and Douglass’s paths did not cross during their lifetimes, their writings were published in the same abolitionist journals in the 1840s.
As Dragonfly continues down Columbus Avenue, she draws our attention to the persistence of power tensions in everyday language: a supermarket named “pioneer”; a sign that reads “assets.” Her movements and pauses lead our eyes to painful disparities: she zooms by groups of curious diners eating in curbside restaurants, plates full of food, but stops beside a homeless man asleep on the sidewalk, outstretching her arms toward him.
A very particular soundtrack, which the artist created, accompanies her every step, blending with the blaring sounds of the city. Meditation tracks she composed on Garage Band give way to intonations of “Widening Gyre,” a piece directed and co-composed by Nehemiah Luckett with Nate Stevens and performed by the activist group the Stop Shopping Choir, to which Dragonfly belongs. The score also appropriates excerpts from The Color Purple, and historical speeches are spliced with the empty words of modern politicians.
At the intersection of Broadway Avenue and Columbus Circle, the fifth stop on the path, Dragonfly — or Judge, rather — speaks for the first and only time.
“We are at a crossroads,” she proclaims. “We are at the crossroads of two major streets. One named after a colonizer; the other, an avenue that the colonizers took as their own. We are at the crossroads for the soul, for the life, for the truth.” Broadway was originally the Wickquasgeck Trail, an Indigenous stretch of land that ran the entire length of Manhattan.
Dragonfly continues her promenade toward Lincoln Center. A print-out about the performance explains that the site used to be known as San Juan Hill, in honor of the African-American and Latinx veterans of the Spanish-American War who lived in the neighborhood; the Center’s construction in the 1950s displaced more than 7,000 lower-class families and 800 businesses.
The coda of “Absconded” is the most modern of all the landmarks in the route, and the most pressingly urgent threat. In front of the Trump International Hotel on the rotunda, Dragonfly is visibly shaken. Her body is stricken with convulsions before becoming very still. The same ominous notes that opened the piece begin to play again, and in the cool fall air, there is a sense of both imminent danger and hopeful promise.