Making Space for the Ancestral

by Debi Chess Mabie

An illustration of Debi Chess Mabie, a Black woman with short dark hair, medium dark skin, and black glasses.If “being a steward” is one of the principal notions of thinking like a folklorist, then the day I walked into the Dunbar Pavilion, I became something of a folklorist. It was as if a GPS was set toward the building and its history. Something deeply familiar to me is embedded in way the Dunbar operates. The word that comes to mind is resilience.

The Dunbar Pavilion serves as a gathering place for diverse cultures. My role is to help continue the vision of creating a space that recognizes and uplifts the historical presence of Black people in Tucson. A hub for social, cultural, and economic development programs, and activities that serve to reverse the effects of bigotry and segregation in Tucson. A place that reflects a contemporary Black experience that places equity and inclusion at the core of its community building efforts.

A folklorist is someone who honors, respects, and holds space for gifts that are rooted in people and places that entrust us with their care. I am not from the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood, nor am I from Tucson. But while the work we do as cultural workers and advocates is always grounded in specific places and identities, it can also transcend geography and social boundaries. The experience of being Black in North America transcends geography of origin. As Black people we have had to learn to adapt and be keen observers, partly out of curiosity and partly out of necessity.

Before the Dunbar Pavilion was a cultural center it was a school. Named after the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the school was created specifically to educate Black children in the segregated Southwest. From 1918 until 1951, when the State of Arizona ended school segregation, every Black child from the 1st grade to the 8th grade went to the Dunbar school.

What does that mean for Tucson in 2018? The experience and history of Black people in Tucson is the experience and history of all people in Tucson. To hold that experience as a marker of transformation, to me, is the work of a folklorist.

We often think of folklorist as keepers of nostalgia, holding on to the past as a wistful reminder of the best of who we were. But the practice of folklore means acknowledging the past in its proper context, to examine the ways in which communities and peoples organized themselves socially and economically under very particular circumstances in order to survive. That kind of examination gives us a roadmap for how to navigate the very real challenges of the present and helps us find our way into a better future.

The story of the Dunbar Pavilion is a story of survival in the Southwest. It reflects the core values of Black people who lived and thrived in this region in the face of bigotry. Art and culture, education, economic empowerment—this is the legacy that the Dunbar Pavilion now honors and actualizes.

Where will that legacy take us? That’s our work, as a community that knows where it comes from. To keep asking questions that demand us to be ancestral in our creativity and imagination.

Debi Chess Mabie is the University of Arizona School of Social and Behavioral Sciences Community Impact Fellow at The Dunbar Pavilion: An African American Center for Arts and Culture

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