Barack Obama was asked recently on American television why he does not refer to himself as mixed-race. His late mother, the celebrated anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, was the product of a white, "all-American" family from Kansas. Yet, as he often does with matters he deems counterproductive or beside the point, Obama deflected the question. Its answer would have been more complex than any soundbite could have handled.
There was a time in the United States when all people of African descent - no matter how light-skinned - were graded and named, like breeds of cattle. A person with one-eighth African ancestry was designated an "octoroon" and could be bought and sold, or, if an escapee, hunted down and killed with impunity by any white person. This history of being named by others accounts in some ways for the evolving names that we black Americans call ourselves. Obama's deflection of the question signals a silence that only art can fill.
Just over half a century ago, aged 27, the visionary African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey danced into that silence. He had an extraordinary idea: to create his own company, led by black dancers, and through it look his era in the face. In 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was born. There had been black dance companies before, but in his 1960 masterpiece, Revelations, Ailey choreographed the everyday experience of black people and made the world see us anew. This classic will be performed in September at Sadler's Wells as part of an extensive celebration of the company's work.
In Revelations, Ailey brought together artistic references that fascinated him: the paintings of Bruegel, the sculpture of Henry Moore, theatre from the east and the writing of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. These were blended with his love of the spirituals and rituals of his childhood African-American Baptist Church. Revelations is divided into sections depicting the oppressed rising from the earth, the coming to God and baptism, and finally the community and joy of the black church.
The costumes are fluid - like water captured in fabric. Each section has a colour code: earth for the first section, white and pale blue for the second, yellow and black for the last. The fabric of the costumes is stretched and pulled as the dancers move to the music of black gospel classics such as "Wade in the Water". It is impossible not to sing along inside as you watch.
Swiftly recognised as one of the finest examples of American contemporary dance, Revelations was frequently taken on tour abroad by the US state department, something that a black child growing up in the South, as Ailey had done, could never have imagined. This is how he recalled the segregated Texas of the 1930s through which he and his young mother moved, looking for work and roots during the Great Depression, an experience that provided the inspiration for Revelations:
As early as I can remember, I was enthralled by the music played and sung in the small black churches in every small Texas town my mother and I lived in. No matter where we were during those nomadic years, Sunday was always a churchgoing day. There we would absorb some of the most glorious singing to be heard anywhere in the world. With profound feeling, with faith, hope, joy and sometimes sadness, the choirs, congregations, deacons, preachers and ushers would sing black spirituals and gospel songs. They sang and played the music with such fervour that even as a small child I could not only hear it but almost see it . . . I tried to put all of the feeling into Revelations.
I like to think that this particular composition is in homage to his mother. In it, Ailey gives us the antidote to all the negative images of black women - particularly dark-skinned black women. It is clear that he revered the black female body and set out to celebrate it as a work of art without salaciousness.
The female dancers in Ailey's company were (and are) not only great artists, but role models, too. They are part of Ailey and his company's dual vision: that art can satisfy and also instruct; can not only leave beauty in its wake, but also pave the way for something new. The company's work embodies the words of the late, great jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln: "The best thing you can do is be a woman and stand before the world and speak your heart."
While living in New York in the 1980s, I first saw Revelations performed by Judith Jamison, the company's leading dancer. I had grown up partly in what was then still known as the "ghetto" and lived in the milieu of Baptist church Sundays and gospel music, watching old black ladies and gentlemen sitting on porches in the summer sun and hearing the stories of their struggles and triumphs. For me, Revelations was those tales made flesh. It was glory itself. It resonated with my own life, too, and my coming of age during the 1960s - the time of the civil rights movement.
Jamison was very much like the black women I knew. As she danced, her gestures and her face were a human statement of triumph against
the odds. Ailey did not make his black female dancers into goddesses; he brought the goddesses down to earth to dwell among us. Better than a thousand books and a million words, Ailey's dance story told of his people. It is a story that is still unfolding.
Having stepped in as artistic director after Ailey's death in 1989, Jamison has continued and extended his vision. One of her greatest achievements is presiding over the construction of a new headquarters for the company in New York City, the largest dedicated dance building in the US. For her, Ailey's influence still looms large over the company. "I always say that we are living in his resonance," she tells me. "When you walk into the building you can tell right away that someone very special lives here - his spirit lives here."
Robert Battle, another distinguished choreographer, will take over from Jamison in July 2011, but the work of Ailey continues along with that of new artists. The company is always fresh, always innovative, yet firmly rooted in something ancient, in memories and experiences that are immortal.
Most of all, Ailey helped to create a space in the American psyche in which it was possible to imagine the unthinkable - a black man behind the desk in the Oval Office, the most powerful human being on earth; his wife, a dark-skinned black woman, as first lady of the land; and a little black girl as the first inhabitant of the White House to be born in the 21st century. But Revelations is ultimately about the inner life of a little boy and his mother, descendants of the enslaved poor, living on the road. We can still see and hear in it the solace, refuge, joy - the will to go on - that they found in the Baptist churches of black Texas.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 14-25 September. For full UK tour details, visit: danceconsortium.com
Bonnie Greer's book "Langston Hughes: the Value of Contradiction" will be published next year by Arcadia. Her opera "Yes" will feature in the Royal Opera House's new season of OperaShots this autumn