Citizen Artist Fellow Donney Rose unpacks African American ancestry

Baton Rouge native, poet, and 2018–2019 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow Donney Rose is on a quest: “I want to unpack the debt owed to African American humanity in the U.S.”

He’s doing so through the creation of The American Audit, a poetry and mapping project assessing the nation’s standing with its Black citizens 400 years after the first slaves settled in Jamestown. Placing a special emphasis on his own Louisiana/Deep American South roots, Rose plans to culminate the project in a four-part multimedia performance piece & epic poem centered around the assessment of laws, culture, economics, and family structure as it pertains to 400 years of Black American existence using an audit report as extended metaphor. The project will also consist of interviews with historians, museum curators and storytellers.

“About two years ago I ran across an article that talked about the what the promised 40 acres and a mule for freed slaves would amount to in today’s economics,” Rose said. “The amount was in the trillions, but it also got me to thinking beyond a dollar amount owed to the humanity of African Americans in the U.S. And as I thought more on it, and the prospect of enslaved Africans being brought to a then undeveloped country as a product, I begin to consider what would be a suitable metaphor to expound upon a company relationship to the value of its product. That’s where the concept of the audit came from. America as a company that captured product to produce labor and build an economy. If this metaphoric business was audited based on outcomes 400 years later, what would be the gains, losses, defects, et cetera?”

2019 also marks a personal milestone for Rose — his 20th year as a performance poet. He began performing spoken word as a college student at Southern University in Baton Rouge and found a passion that has sustained him over the last two decades.

“When I first started performing at our campus open mic I never imagined that spoken word would set up my career trajectory. Through this art form, I have been able to work for over a decade as a teaching artist, travel the country as a performer and competitor in poetry slam, be a mentor to others, and — most importantly — find my voice through writing and sharing.

The element of self-discovery is another driving force behind the creation of The American Audit. Aside from just analyzing the wide scope of Black American history in the United States, Rose has began doing ancestral work to be able to trace his familial journey to the larger Black American story.

“I recently got back my DNA results from ancestry.com and discovered how my family migrated to south Louisiana and what my blood consists of in totality,” Rose said. “It has been an eye-opening experience to truly get an idea of what got me to where I am today and will certainly inform the labor of The American Audit.

Rose ultimately hopes that The American Audit project will further conversations around the United State’s ongoing complex relationships with its citizens who are descendants of enslaved Africans by centering the conversation around a concept that everyone can understand: the concept of economics.

“Human life, dignity and liberation are invaluable concepts. Yet 400 years ago there were people who put a dollar amount and expected a monetary return on account of free labor. We cannot reconcile with those sins until we are able to honestly admit that a segment of our population are still reeling from the effects of not having their humanity fully actualized until just over 50 years ago. The plan for The American Audit is to examine the emotional currency, toll, labor extolled unto a group of people who came here as products and have fought to be fully human.”

Donney Rose is a Donney Rose is a poet, teaching artist, essayist, 
podcast host and community activist from Baton Rouge. He is
a 2018–2019
Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow.