wide hips and lips and
This is my body but my body ain’t mine.
Stolen from Africa and put on a show
body parts commodified for that money flow.
Landed in the South to build that Amerikkkan dream.
Bred, raped and beaten for that dirty green.
You see as a black woman in this country
my sexuality has never been just for me.
First forced to reproduce to keep the slave population strong.
Then sterilized and told having children was wrong.
My hips and lips don’t belong to me
my thighs, breasts, punannay don’t belong to me
Im unfeeling, a robot
some say un-rapeable, you see.
Hoodrat, jezebel, hoe is my legacy.
Because living in this world ain’t nice to colored girls
trying to get free.
It’s 5am and I lay on my bedroom floor puffing on trees and stretching. I’m restless and exhausted, but this is when I do my best work. I don’t know if it’s the witchiness in me, but since I was young (really young) the late night or early morning twilight through my bedroom windows filled me with a sense of urgency to create. I think it’s the time and my room, which I always feel should be my own inspirational cave.
When I enter my room I enter a world that is safe; that is in my control; that excites me; and that ultimately is an expression of me. I hate plain white walls. As soon as I was old enough to start developing a personal aesthetic (around 7) I immediately regurgitated it on my bedroom walls. I think it is important for young women, and women in general, to have their own space; a room that reflects who they are and their experiences. The importance of autonomous space for women isn’t a new concept though; Virginia Woolf’s famous essay A Room of One’s Own is often cited as a groundbreaking piece for its encouragement of women writers having their own space to create. Who isn’t given much attention is Gertrude Bustill Mossell, who was a journalist and Black feminist who constantly championed the achievements and often omitted history of Black women. Her essay “A Lofty Study” pushed the importance of women writers to have their own room, and it was published before the publication of Woolf’s piece, yet Woolf gets all the credit for the ideas. In the piece Mossell is also commenting on patriarchy within the home. She writes,
“Even when there is a library in the home, it is used by the whole family, and if the husband is literary in his tastes, he often desires to occupy it exclusively at the very time you have leisure, perhaps. Men are so often educated to work alone that even sympathetic companionship annoys. Very selfish, we say, but we often find it so–and therefore the necessity of a study of one’s own.” (italics added)
Having my own bedroom helped me stay grounded and sane reassured that as chaotic and unstable as things could get outside those walls, when I entered my little cave there was a strong sense of self reflected all around me. Some kind of reaffirmation of my creativity and consciousness; and also who I was and who I was striving to be. Striving is an accurate word to describe my obsession with leaving a mark on this world. For some reason at the ripe age of 6 I begin to develop a strong desire to make some sort of impact; I wanted some sort of fame or recognition in history. Not in a celebrity, spectacle kind of way, but I wanted to influence people.
I think it all started with my early fascination with my great-grandfather, Daddy Herman, who I never knew but have always felt strangely connected to. He was a well-known jazz alto saxophonist in Kansas City, and also an influence of Charlie Parker. There is a great book documenting Kansas City Jazz scene in the 1930′s that has pictures and interviews with my grandfather in it, which I plan to write about in another piece. The Book is called Goin’ to Kansas City by Nathan W. Pearson, Jr. I was always so impressed by my Daddy Herman’s life; his small fame; his abilities to have success and make a living off of his creativity. I imagined he was a wild spirit like me and I took comfort in that connection. I would wear his fedoras and bowler hats that my father inherited, and sit in my cardboard fortress pretending I was in another place during another lifetime. These were also my first experiments with different gender expressions and the beginnings of a love affair with vintage fashion. This vignette is somewhat tangential to the ideas of autonomous spaces and creativity. But it is connected in the sense that my Daddy Herman was an early influence on me to create, and my bedroom was an important aspect of that creation process. He left a mark on me that, combined with my general interests in Black freedom fighters and artists made me yearn to be a part of that tradition and to shape history in some way. I think I jumped the gun a bit though when I sat down at my desk at the age of 9 and began to write my memoir. I wrote about a page and realized I still had some living to do.
I still do…16 years have gone by and I am still, as they say, trying to figure it all out. Many things have changed and at the same time nothing at all. I have made mistakes, gotten my heart broken a few times, broke some myself, made friends, lost friends, and have managed to work on this Taurian stubbornness to fit in time to reflect, grow and transform. Objective conditions change, but aspects of my subjectivity remain the same. It’s late and I am by myself relishing the solitude and creative freedom. I lay within these christmas light tinted walls covered with art, politics, textiles, records, photos, books, and lots and lots of colors. I feel a strange sense of familiarity and home that I carry within myself and from bedroom to bedroom in each house I settle into. And there’s nothing like some rainfall and early morning moon light to make a woman feel at home.
I have never been a connoisseur of Japanese pop music, popularly known as J-POP, but recently I was introduced to this group, Pizzicato Five, and the J-POP sub genre Shibuya-kei, named after the Shibuya district of Tokyo. I feel kind of lame that I haven’t discovered them or the genre earlier, because it is so good. Shibuya-kei, as a genre, is an excellent fusion of pop, dance/electro, and jazz genres, and is also influenced by 60′s french pop of the Serge Gainsbourg variety as well as lounge and bossa nova. A powerhouse combo of coolness with a dash of healthy hipsterdom. Pizzicato Five were an important band in developing the Shibuya-kei sound and popularity. Their music has a lot of pop energy, but this track, that I am featuring below, has a more chill, lounge sound that is much appreciated…especially on grayer days. The song has this constant groove with the funky, jazzy keys and low, sexy vocals that produces one chill sound that exudes coolness. It also inspires fantasies…dreams of 1960′s drizzly paris afternoons spent in cafes with lovers, and books, and drawing pens, and espresso to prepare you for Tokyo evenings in clubs with low lighting, cigarette smoke, bright colors, and beautiful people.
I like music and art and its time traveling effects. I also like artists that are influenced by multiple genres from multiple time periods and this is what I appreciate in the music of Pizzicato Five and their overall style. The two remaining members, Konishi Yasuharu and Miss Maki Nomiya, produce energetic, fun and cool music that is a mixture of past musical stylings from different decades, but also weaves their own flavor into it. This is also reflected in their style and use of a vintage aesthetic, while infused with their own contemporary Japanese flavor. I draw inspiration from their music and the trends that they are setting with their art. Check it out!
Building a radical community grounded in class struggle and feminist and anti-racist principles that puts the collective survival of the people first over individual gain is a way to protect our histories, culture, sanity and everything else that has been stolen from us by the oppressive sexist, racist, homophobic capitalist system we live in. I don’t mean this in a non-profit or utopian sense, where our solution to resist such a system is to build an exclusive community removed from the rest of society; that is not going to bring about the revolutionary change I believe in. However, while we are living in and fighting against this oppressive system we need to build radical communities to sustain and support each other as well as pass on our revolutionary principles, ideas, and cultures. I am reminded of this when I think of the indigenous people of this earth, who have survived centuries of genocide, but still work hard to preserve traditions and culture and history. I am reminded of this when I look at the genocide of African people, and how it effectively worked to disconnect what would later become ‘African Americans’ from any sense of African culture and tradition. And most recently I am reminded of this last night when I shared food, art and love with some friends and watched the Smithsonian censored experimental film by queer artist and activist David Wojnarowicz called A Fire in My Belly.
The film is an expression of Worjnarowicz’s grief over the death of his partner Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987, and his overall rage at a homophobic system that censors, represses, oppresses, and stands by and does nothing while 1000′s of people fall ill to HIV. A system that continually does nothing about the HIV/AIDS crisis that effects millions of people around the world, heterosexual Black women being the largest group effected. Worjnarowicz’s film was a part of a queer exhibit at The National Portrait Gallery called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” that explores same sex themes in American Portraiture. The film was removed due to the uproar caused by William Donahue and the Catholic church, who were upset by the images of a crucifix with ants crawling all over it. As a response to the homophobia and censorship of art a friend of mine hosted a dinner for folks to come together and watch the film as well as share other art, and celebrate Worjnarowicz, art, and resistance. Another very close friend of mine shared a poem from Palestinian woman poet Fadwa Tuqan, whose strong and beautiful words gave us a glimpse into colonization and the experiences of the Palestinian people; a side of the story that we don’t get living in a country that relies on imperialism and supporting Israels zionist government and occupation of Palestinian land. The poem came out of a poetry anthology called Against Forgetting: A twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, which is about experiences with war, militarism, exile, imprisonment and censorship. It was a perfect piece and book for the theme of the evening.
We cannot forget the experiences and atrocities of the ruling class and our cultures and histories of resistance it has sought to annihilate. That is all we have as radicals and revolutionaries and oppressed people is our memory and our consciousness and our ability to pass things on for resistance. What distinguishes humans from animals is that we have consciousness. We can produce culture and societies in a way that go beyond basic animal functions of eating, sleeping, fucking and survivng. Capitalism seeks to break down our consciousness, de-humanize us, and reduce us to animal-like beings that just work and then eat and sleep to reproduce ourselves and work some more. Therefore we must actively fight against that by organizing ourselves and producing political and cultural ideas that counter-act the oppressive bourgeois ideas of the ruling class. Our consciousness is all we own that the oppressors can’t take away. It is our ability to spread the truth to others, and to start to build collective resistance. We must learn the truth and not forget it even if our schools teach us lies, even if musuem’s censor our peoples art, and even if people are killed, because of their ideas we must continue to pass them on, because it is more than just us and it is more than just our communities that we are building in different spaces. We are a part of a larger historical network doing similar work to change the society we live in and its social relations.
It makes me think of Harriet Tubman and this network she created amongst slaves, white people, free people to liberate slaves in the 1800s. I think of Cecelia Bobrovskaya’s memoirs Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of A Rank-and-file Bolshevik, which describes her experiences as a Bolshevik working to prepare for revolution. I remember what stood out to me in the book was the importance of revolutionary literature and how threatening it was to the ruling class. She desrcribes the process of setting up illegal printing presses then smuggling illegal literature into cities. That work was dangerous to the oppressors, because it was sharing revolutionary ideas that could influence people. I think of Domitila B. De Chungara a brave bolivian woman and wife of a miner, who organized other bolivian women in the housewives committee, who was tortured in jail and suffered a miscarriage, who was exiled, and who continually risked her life in her struggle against her own capitalist government and foreign imperialism. Her autobiography Let Me Speak is an important piece of history. I think of Leila khaled, who was a heroic palestinian militant who was a part of the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine, who successfully and non-violently hijacked a plane and who had plastic surgery done to herself multiple times to conceal her identity as a revolutionary and to hijak a plane again. What a badass. And i think of today when I am able to smuggle an Advance the Struggle Oscar Grant pamphlet,
into jail and read it with other political detainees, who were also illegally arrested for exercising our first amendment rights (for what they are worth) and protesting police murders. And I think of beautiful dinners, like the one I experienced last night, where people are able to come together and share food, art and ideas. What do all these people and events have in common despite the different countries, time periods, historical events that our happening? What they all have in common is that they are all examples of freedom fighters, who were/are committed to changing the objective conditions that we live in and making history. This is what me must continue to do. And we must also find ways to break bread, share art, and build healthy, loving communities and spaces to sustain ourselves in these struggles.
Your movement is elegant.
I wish to share the ground with you and your light footsteps
delicate like a flower but not to be deceived,
your strength is earth shattering
just rarely seen.
Late nights are spent alone with photographic memories
of your long lean arms
and beautiful soul.
I keep them filed away in the depths of my mind,
where I dream of train rides on rainy days where everything is green and fresh
like our love.
Incense smoke stains bedroom walls with rose petals and earth
blurring the dim lights.
Im drunk off of the atmosphere
and your face.
Recently I have been thinking deeply about sexuality and the body and what it means to be a Black women living in Capitalist Amerikkka historically and into the present. Ive been thinking about how capitalism alienates us from our work and ourselves. Marx writes that labor should be the creative expression of ourselves and the development of our skills, but under commodity production it is this oppressive and exploitative process that we are forced into to survive. You can’t pay the bills, rent or eat if you don’t have a job giving you regular income to afford that. The fact that we are forced to work and do not have control or ownership over our work and what we produce results in us often being alienated from our work. In Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical manuscripts he characterizes the workers labor as an alien force that stands against her despite the fact that her labor is within the products she produces. He writes,
“Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.”
Of course he is writing about the labor process within the factory, where workers spend hours all day producing commodities for the capitalist, not for themselves. Even though they spend a significant amount of time making these things that embody their human labor they do not own them, and thus are alienated, and ultimately exploited by them. This is a useful analysis to apply to women and our own relationship to our bodies, as well as the ruling-class’s relationship to our bodies. Like the commodities produced by human labor, we do not own or have autonomy over our bodies, and thus have been alienated by them. Our bodies have been sites of pleasure for men and the ruling class and have been used to develop a patriarchal capitalist system that devalues us while maintaining male power within the class as well as the bourgeois state. I think of the origins of the Black experience in this country, where women were oppressed as slave workers and breeders; forced to reproduce and live in constant terror of rape by the master. These particular experiences were a product of the racist, sexist division of labor within the plantation that also had corresponding racist and sexist ideologies that characterized Black women has hyper-sexual and loose. These ideologies justified the horrors they were forced to endure, and are our legacy today when Black women are still raped, our bodies are still commodified, and we are still verbally assaulted by the words ‘hoe’ and ‘chicken head.’ I know I am talking about the Black experience, but I think women of color in general, who share similar origins of colonization, can relate to such experiences.
I am in the process of writing a more in-depth marxist feminist analysis of my thoughts on alienation and gender that I will post soon, but I wanted to share some things now as I start to think of resistance to alienation, sexism and racism in the form of artistic expression. I have spoken before that the mere fact that people find time to produce art and use their labor as a way of creatively expressing themselves in a world that systematically denies you that, is some form of resistance. When you use that art to make social commentary about this world…now we are getting into something more dangerous, and I like that!
One artist who continues to inspire me as a Black woman artist is Renee Cox. Described on her websites bio as “one of the most controversial African-American artists working today.” Her bold and beautiful photography often features herself, and addresses a range of issues from racism, sexism, religion and the eurocentric fine art world, all the while reclaiming empowering images and representations of Blackness. I fell in love with her when I first saw her photographs. The first piece, featured below, that I ever looked at was her photograph River Queen from her series Nanny of the Maroons (2004)
Since I was a little girl I have been obsessed with Harriet Tubman, and her drive to liberate herself and her people. Even at the age of 6 I was impressed by her military-like operation and strategy to not only free herself, but as many slaves as possible. When I learned about the Maroon societies of escaped slaves and the active role women have played in those struggles and communities I was even more proud of my ancestry, especially the women, and its commitment to freedom fighting. These principles are expressed in this photograph and the entire series that features Cox in similar attire, confidently holding a machete-like knife that exudes strength. I love this photograph, because it represents this strong, black, woman warrior determined to free her people. It represents all the reasons why I fell in love with Harriet Tubman 20 years ago.
The photograph featured at the top of this post is called Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from her series called Raje, which was a part of her first one woman show in NYC. She is featured throughout the series as this Black woman superhero, and in this particular photograph she is saving Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their incarceration within stereotypical, minstrel images that still continue to dominate in products and movies today. One image that has also stayed with me was her representation as Sarah Bartmann, aka Hott-En-Tot. Sarah Bartmann was a South African slave woman to the Dutch that was kidnapped by the colonizers and exhibited like an animal in Britain and other parts of the west. They made her undress and allowed people to examine her breast and behind. Cox is commentating on this type of colonization of the woman’s body that I get into above, and is obviously still an issue we face today. Cox’s pieces are very startling sometimes to the viewer and they are suppose to be that way; they should move you and make you think. Thinking isn’t encouraged too much in the society that we live in. Maybe that’s why her pieces are so controversial. One of her most controversial photographs was Yo Mama’s Last Supper. It was a remake of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which featured Cox nude in the middle posing as Jesus Christ. The catholic church was outraged, and Mayor Guiliani even tried to have it censored, because it was ‘indecent’. Cox’s response was right on stating, “i have a right to reinterpret the last supper as Leonard da Vinci created the last summer with people who look like him. The hoopla and the fury is because im a black female. It’s about me having nothing to hide.”
I love the boldness in the way she photographs herself and her body. I have always been weary of myself being a subject in my art or anyone else’s art, whether it be film, photography, paintings, ect.,. I have always preferred to stay behind the scenes, and film and paint other people. Therefore, I admire the fearlessness of Cox’s photographs and the way she puts herself in the forefront of her pieces. It is true…she really has nothing to hide and that is quite dangerous to the racist sexist ruling class. This is why I love her so much; and the fact that she is another Black woman visual artist. I do lots of art, but have always been inspired by visual art, especially photography and film. I went to film school, and loved it, but it is rough not having other Black women artists, especially filmmakers and photographers, around you to draw support and community from. Although I have never met Cox I feel strength just knowing she is out there producing creative, beautiful and powerful art that seeks to challenge and empower. Please do yourself a favor and go to her website and check out her gallery. One of my favorite series is American Family. I love the way she photographs herself and expresses sexuality. Empowering, creative, and delicious. Another bold woman to celebrate!
Hello beautiful people in the interwebs! I wanted to post a new poem today that I had written about Black women’s sexuality along with Renee Cox’s powerful art, but I received a comment that I also wanted to discuss first. The comment had to do with the ‘sexy’ haiku I had posted earlier. What I interpreted as abstact, queer sexuality another person interpreted as rape. It shocked me and made me think differently about the power of words and art and messaging. I removed the post, because I don’t want to be reppin anything that could be interpreted as rape. Usually I am not for censure, but in this case I thought the persons concerns were real and I shared them, and have decided to remove the piece. My apologies if that offended anyone.
Art is a weapon and must be used as the tool for the people against their oppressors. That said, I see the healthy individualistic aspects of it. I love making art, and see the merits in it being an activity for internal growth and development. I have always made time to produce art, and creatively express myself, and that in and of itself is almost a form of resistance when capitalism tries to steal away all my time and energy through wage labor. Sure, some people make a living off of their art, but that is rare nowadays. You really have to struggle to make time between work and surviving to intellectually and socially satisfy yourself. I also see art as a form of survival. I grew up in a violent and unstable home, and making art was an outlet for me to express the complicated emotions and trauma I was going through as well as a mechanism to stay grounded and sane. Some people do drugs; I made art. However, as I grew and became more political so did my art. I wanted other people to see the healing aspects of art that helped me survive in this very difficult world, but I also wanted it to express ideas that were bigger than just individual survival. That is when I begin to see art as a weapon, and a necessary aspect of revolutionary struggles.
I began to get interested in other artists, who used their art in similar ways. Nigerian saxaphonist and keyboardist Fela Kuti represents such an artist. He came from a political home with a mother, who was active in anti-colonial struggles in Africa and was also a feminist. Although that didn’t seem to influence Fela’s gender politics, because homeboy had several wives. The man also had style; check that yellow jumpsuit with the beautiful pattern he is rocking above; very fresh. However, the music is still incredible. He popularized the afrobeat sound, which consisted of a fusion of jazz, funk and African music that can put you in a trance…in a good way. Black power struggles in the US and anti-colonial struggles in Africa influenced Fela’s music, which reflected radical politics of socialism and anti-imperialism. The song that I am featuring below is one of my favorites, and is off of his classic album Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense. I love the opening monologue of the track where he is commentating on imperialism, referring to an ‘alien system’ in our midst. He is also addressing artists and the need for them to produce art that is socially relevant. He states, “as an artist politically, artistically, the whole idea about your environment must be represented in the music and the arts.” I also love the last few lines of the monolgue: “i think as far as africa is concerned music cannot be for enjoyment, it must be for revolution…if you feel bad about it then do something about it.” Very dope. Besides my obvious love of the radical art politics, the music itself is delicious. It moves you. The horns are incredible; so clean. The hypnotic rhythm makes you want to dance and get lost to the beat. The music also moves you with the ideas that it conveys about the world, and hopefully, as fela says, it causes you to do something about it. Enjoy!