Audre Lorde died twenty-one years ago today. When I first composed this post, I didn't realize the significance of this day. It's not a coincidence, I'm sure. The spiritual connection that allows black women to strengthen each other can't be broken, even in death.
Last month, I got the thrill of a lifetime with the chance to see a documentary film about Audre Lorde, my activist poet queen, at The New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years
was playing as the final feature film in the 2013 International Black Women's Film Festival
, an event designed to combat negative stereotyping of black women in the media by giving space for black women to tell our own stories. As soon as I heard the film festival would be playing this film, I knew it was the place for me.
It's just a movie, I know, but as I headed to the theater, I felt the giddiness of preparing to meet my idol in person. It seemed like the closest thing – when Audre Lorde passed away in 1992, I was a child unaware of her existence, and I have rarely seen evidence of her life in any form other than text. This text has felt, to me, like sacred traces of a mystical woman, echoes of divine footsteps that once walked the earth with us mere mortals. As I've read Audre's poetry, essays, and speeches over the years, I've imagined her as such a human being who is so extraordinary, she may not be human at all. In my mind, Audre Lorde has always been a goddess.
It remains true that Audre's spirit is divine and eternal. But the film showed many things, and perhaps most of all, it showed her humanity. Would a goddess walk through parks with friends, or laugh, or dance? Would she face the struggle of a cancer diagnosis? Would she endure the gentle teasing of her loving life partner? Maybe. But it's possible for any person, including me, to experience such things. Any of us could live our lives as she lived hers, with love and poetry as social action, with the capacity to change the world around us.
After the movie ended, I was a blubbering mess of joyful tears, and I didn't have the words to explain why. Maybe the sight of Audre Lorde dancing was something I never knew I needed to see. Maybe I'd been thirsting to hear her speak the words I'd read so many times. Suddenly, she felt more real to me than she ever had before. Maybe I needed to see her in the flesh. Maybe I needed to be seen.
It's strange to think that seeing somebody else on a big screen could help me
feel seen, but it's true. The film chronicles the final years of Audre's life, 1984-1992, when she spent time in Berlin and had a profound impact on the lives of black women there, challenging both black women and white women to think and write about race as they never had before. She mentored black women who had been silenced and isolated from one another, bringing them together to recognize one another and themselves as Afro-Germans. Many of these women testified in interviews that Audre's guidance allowed them to feel proud of who they are, for the first time in their lives.
The film sent me off with the exhilarating, terrifying feeling of seeing myself as Audre Lorde would have seen me. Not the goddess Audre Lorde, mythical creature of my dreams, but Audre Lorde, the human being, who really lived and breathed and saw a magnificent power in every black woman.
Now, I don't have to wonder what it would be like for me to meet Audre Lorde. Now, I know. I wouldn't have to prove my worth to her or ask her permission to step into my power. She would believe in me, simply because she could see me for who I really am.
I got to step into the power of my visibility later that day, when I read my poetry at Hazel Reading Series
, opening my reading with an epigraph by Audre Lorde: "Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs." Hazel's all about fostering the visibility of women, featuring women writers who each invite another woman to read at the next installment of the series.
Hazel's next event is today at 5:00 pm, at 1564 Market St. in San Francisco. My invitation to read went to Jezebel Delilah X, another queer black woman writer with divinity in her humanity. I can't wait to witness her sharing of magic through her words, continuing the legacy of resisting invisibility by lifting up our own stories to be seen.
As you probably heard last month
, political exile Assata Shakur has been added to the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist List. This is huge, not only because they doubled the reward for her capture to $2 million, and not only because she's the first woman to be added to the list, but because the U.S. government is sending a message that reaches beyond Assata's ears. This message reaches me, and of course, anyone like me, merging the word "revolutionary" with the word "terrorist"
to call those of us who resist, who challenge injustice, enemies.
Like many others, I've been searching for a way to respond to this attack on political activists. And, like I usually do, I've been searching especially for a way to respond through art.
So of course, I'm so glad that such an opportunity has emerged. Poet, artist, and cultural organizer Vanessa Huang
has written a poem for Assata, and she's invited all of us to be part of amplifying "our liberation love frequency" by sharing these words. Hearing about the poem, I knew already that I believed in its power, and all the more so when I heard of its sources of inspiration - Assata's poem "I believe in living,"
Audre Lorde's poem "For Assata"
and essay "Poetry is Not a Luxury,"
Cheryl Clarke's poem "wearing my cap backwards,"
and Morgan Bassichis' play "The Witch House."
The convergence of such artistic power can only mean magic is taking place, so it's only fitting that the invitation is to help "cast a spell"
for Assata by helping the support for her spread and grow.
Visit this project's campaign page at www.igg.me/at/poemforassata to read Vanessa's poem and to learn about how you can help share the poem, get a print for yourself, and do more help bring love and liberation to Assata. We, the change-makers following in Assata's revolutionary footsteps, can have our say - Hands Off Assata!
by Charles Bibbs
Sometimes, when I think of divinity, I think of something bigger than this world, something so far outside of myself that perhaps I'll never reach it.
Then there are the times when I see divinity in the eyes of another black woman. I guess that's the difference between thinking
about divinity and feeling
the spirit of the divine, through contact with a black woman who has struggled and survived. And in turn, I suppose that means seeing divinity in my own eyes. I've got to stop and absorb that for a moment, because the transformation from struggling to sense an ounce of worth in my dark skin
to seeing myself as embodying the divine feels like a miracle.
Black women's voices lifted up our divinity at last weekend's Black Women From the Future
event. It really enriched my soul to be part of
such a powerful reading, and I'm feeling an immense amount of gratitude for everyone who was part of the show, and who came out to see it, and who watched online via livestream. Be on the lookout for video from the event soon, and for more from Black Futurists Speak
And in the meantime, let's continue on with the inspirational divinity of black women with The Black Woman is God, a living altar art exhibition showing now at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco. From the program description
: The Black woman’s contribution in the society has been devalued. She has been viewed as second-class citizen, relegated to the dresser draws of history. However, she has shaped and changed the world in social and political spheres. These influences of change are reflected in the art world, however, dominated by white male patriarchy. This exhibition will challenge the limited artistic space deemed appropriated for black women to occupy and question when black women create are they God. It is explosive because the images of God have on the most part been white and male until recently.Wow.
I can't wait to see this exhibition, and to hear from the participating artists at tomorrow night's reception - see details for that event on Facebook
. And for a start, listen to an important discussion between the artists in the videos below, and see what you get out of it. The message I got? I am more than a healer. I am healing.
Okay, so I know I get really excited about every event
where I get the chance to read my work, but I must say, I'm really
excited for this weekend's reading. Let me tell you why.
- It's called Black Women From the Future. Enough said, right? I'll say more, anyway. This event, the latest installment of Black Futurists Speak, celebrates Black History Month and helps kick off Women's History Month, by lifting up the unique power of black women's voices. That's right, it's a lineup consisting entirely of powerful black women.
- Said badass lineup of performers is as follows: African-Jamaican dub poet d’bi.young anitafrika, poet and director of The Lower Bottom Players Ayodele Nzinga, the stunningly talented fiction writer Lisa D. Gray, poet and musician Amber McZeal as our host, and lil' ol' me.
- We'll be reading along with music by Kevin Carnes of the celebrated jazz-electronica trio Broun Fellinis.
- There's also an open mic, which means there will be even more badassery, which we have yet to hear of.
- The creation of this event is truly inspired, born from Warehouse 416’s current art show, African-American Icons (featuring the work of celebrated artists James Gayles, Esuu Orinde and Aswad Arif) and the theme for 2013’s Women’s History Month - “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” By celebrating black women of today, we are looking to "the future of the written word - where creative innovation and skill meet community responsibility and futuristic thinking."
Now you can see why I'm so looking forward to this event. Here are the details:
Black Women From the Future
Saturday, February 23, 2013
416 26th St in OaklandGet there early to sign up for the open mic!See you in the future!
As you may know, I'm a little sensitive about tributes to the irreplaceable Nina Simone. When I heard that Hollywood executives cast Zoe Saldana to play her in a movie, for example, I had to join the chorus of voices
pointing out the trouble with having a petite, light-skinned actress represent Nina, who had to fight to claim the beauty in her dark skin. I'm drawn to Nina's strength, her struggle, and her damn good music, and I like to honor her as a personal hero of mine, so maybe that's why I feel so protective over her legacy.
Well, now musician Meshell Ndegeocello has released a new tribute to Nina Simone with her album Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone. And this time, I can't find a bad word to say about it. In fact, the album leaves me speechless, in silent awe, much like the music of Nina Simone. Since I can't find the words for it, I recommend this excellent write-up on NPR, which says,
"Ndegeocello's has always been Simone's heir apparent. Ndegeocello, like Simone, has dared to cross musical boundaries, express bold politics and be a steadfast presence as an African American woman instrumentalist in a male-dominated music scene."I still believe, of course, that
nobody could possibly take Nina's place. But it's good to know that she didn't just leave behind shoes too big and too bold for anyone else to fill. She also left her footsteps behind, and when we follow her path with the best intentions, we can continue to walk the road to revolution.
This is a strange edition of Friday Friends. Usually, I use these posts to highlight a blog I like, or a literary hero of mine, or an organization doing important work. Today's Friday Friend is Nina Simone - not a particular interpretation or recreation of Nina Simone's work, but Nina Simone herself. Because some stories just need to speak for themselves. As a singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist,
Nina Simone made an unforgettable impact on the world. Personally, I have her to thank for helping me feel permission to love me for me. Her incredible sense of self-respect was nothing less than a fiercely radical act of courage, when she faced racism that said she wasn't good enough, and colorism that would call her anything but beautiful. Like me, Nina Simone looked in the mirror to see dark skin and big features, so like me, she had to see past the messages that attach the word "ugly"
to such features. Hers is a story that can teach us about true beauty, the kind that emanates from a spirit of self-love.
Now, Nina Simone's life is being adapted into a story as told by Hollywood, the source of so many of our messages about beauty. In Hollywood, beauty means lighter skin and smaller features, so in order for our Nina to be a Hollywood hero, she will be played by Zoe Saldana. She will be a romantic lead, because no leading lady is complete without the company of a leading man - never mind that the man in this story, her assistant Clifford Henderson, was, in fact, gay. And she will give us hope, with an altered happy ending - isn't it inspiring to know that every dark-skinned woman could someday be immortalized onscreen as a light-skinned woman? Perhaps there's hope for beauty after all.
Don't get me wrong - I do think Zoe Saldana is a beautiful woman, and for all I know, she could pull off the role very well, as far as the acting goes. And I'm not one to try to challenge someone's Black Card - her more mainstream features don't make her any less black than Nina Simone. So why does it matter if her skin is the right shade for the role? Because, unfortunately, choosing someone whose experience of blackness is so far from the challenges Nina faced follows a predictable Hollywood pattern
reinforcing hurtful messages about what it means to be beautiful. It's very rare to see this happen in reverse - a dark-skinned actress picked to portray someone who was much lighter. Instead, those who don't fit Hollywood standards of beauty must be replaced. And why? Will audiences relate more to someone who is thinner and more conventionally gorgeous
than the average woman? Will we learn not to let history repeat itself, to avoid underestimating the power of a dark-skinned woman, when we see her depicted as a light-skinned woman? Nina Simone's daughter has spoken up about the movie plans, sharing that the project is unauthorized, and giving clarification about her mother's platonic relationship with the film's "romantic" lead.
She also speaks about her mother's unseen beauty, her intelligence, and her revolutionary spirit. All of which could have an indelible impact if it were captured on the big screen. So I prefer to leave Nina's story as told by Nina, through her music, her soul, and her vision for justice. We don't need to rewrite lives, alter people's appearance and sexualities
, and ignore their truths in order to tell their stories. Nina Simone had no shame in who she was. We can respect her enough to know that she doesn't need to live up to Hollywood standards to be beautiful. I've posted this video a couple of times before, but it's always worth re-posting. Here's Nina Simone singing the words of William Waring Cuney's poem "No Images."
Yesterday, when I took to the world wide web searching for music to match my mood (namely, the blues
), I came across what looks to be a really important, informative documentary. "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" tells the stories of the legendary women who pioneered the role the blues have played in the U.S. It includes the indelible lives and careers of the unforgettable Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and one of my favorite performers, Bessie Smith. These women sang songs that held the emotional truth of what it meant to be a black woman early in the 20th century. So this film shows a part of the history that came before me and my angsty, emotional writing - black women who struggled, and who turned their struggles into art that would move people for many years to come. Here's part of the film. You can visit the California Newsreel website for more information about the documentary and to order a DVD.
The 8th annual Queer Women of Color Film Festival begins tonight! This totally FREE festival features short films, screening tonight, Saturday, and Sunday. It's taking place at a new location, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. This year's festival focus is I Do AND I Don't: LGBTQ People of Color & Same-Sex Marriage. When the media is so often misguided in its coverage of these issues, here's a chance to witness through film the true, authentic stories of queer people of color. The films speak to experiences of folks from all across the globe, and the festival also includes panel discussions with the filmmakers and after parties to celebrate this amazing weekend of voice and visibility. Visit the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project
website for more details about each day's events.
One video that was especially popular during holiday time was this one of a little girl complaining about the way toys are marketed by gender
. Sure, I can grow up and complain about Barbie's role in my life when I was a kid, but it's so much more refreshing to see this child speak up about it now, telling us that she deserves more as she lives through girlhood. When young people find the courage to say for themselves
that they need something more, they deserve at least for us to take a moment to listen.
And here’s a girl who says that all of us deserve better – this thirteen year old talks about slut shaming
, what it is and why it’s hurtful. Her insightfulness blows me away.
And, of course, I gotta love little girls raising their voices
through music. “My First Hardcore Song”
is by Juliet, also known as the 8 year old who’s way more badass than I’ll ever be.
In a more disappointing example of a video gone viral, a Girl Scout named Taylor
is using her voice to ask people to boycott Girl Scout cookies, in order to show opposition to the Girl Scouts’ decision to include a transgender child in their organization
. I’m glad to see girls finding their voices, but it makes me cringe to hear such a voice putting down others. So instead, in this example I’m applauding Bobby Montoya, the transgender child brave enough to speak up for the chance to be where she feels she belongs. She’s opened the doors for a delicious way to make a difference – all we have to do is eat more cookies
to show our support for an inclusive Girl Scouts organization. Sign me up!
Also, check out Girl Scouts’ new Year of the Girl campaign
Overall, I’m loving the presence of girl voices in viral videos these days. They’re not listening to any messages that tell them to grow up before they speak up, or to stay silent their whole lives. Sure, imagine a world full of women who raised these voices in girlhood. But before we fast forward, let’s stop and listen. The girls are speaking to us. Right now.
The online videos making their way around the networks these days show an encouraging trend. Girls who aren't yet old enough to outgrow playing with toys are outgrowing silence and shame. They're speaking up and being heard. They are, as they say, going viral. People are listening.
Today is the last day of Women's History Month
. How did you celebrate?Here's a poem from a woman who's an important part of my history, Gwendolyn Brooks, the first
black woman to hold the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. A poem rich with history. Who are your favorite female poets?to the Diaspora
you did not know you were Afrika
When you set out for Afrika
you did not know you were going.
you did not know you were Afrika.
You did not know the Black continent
that had to be reached
I could not have told you then that some sun
somewhere over the road,
would come evoking the diamonds
of you, the Black continent--
somewhere over the road.
You would not have believed my mouth.
When I told you, meeting you somewhere close
to the heat and youth of the road,
liking my loyalty, liking belief,
you smiled and you thanked me but very little believed me.
Here is some sun. Some.
Now off into the places rough to reach.
Though dry, though drowsy, all unwillingly a-wobble,
into the dissonant and dangerous crescendo.
Your work, that was done, to be done to be done to be done. -Gwendolyn Brooks