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.
Okay, here it is. My Miley Cyrus post.
I wasn't going to do this. Not because I've been living under a rock, unaware of the pop star's recent antics, but because I've been hoping that she'll just go away. I've kept track of conversations about her, with people like Tressie McMillan Cottom
, Syreeta McFadden
, and Big Freedia
expressing how I've felt about Miley's choices much more eloquently than I could (seriously, click those links. They're essential reading). And, after so many mic-dropping moments of brilliant commentary, I really hoped Miley would just get the message, hang up her own microphone, and fade away from the center of pop culture attention.
But no. We're still talking
about Miley. Only now, much of the conversation
is about Miley's sexual expression and whether or not we should be encouraging her to put on more clothing
. And I'll be honest. In the grand scheme of things, considering the current degradation
and the historical exploitation framing the context of what's been happening with Miley, I really could not care less about what Miley chooses to do with her own body.
So, even though I'm well aware that there are plenty of issues
more important than Miley Cyrus, I've taken a moment to write about Miley. Because these conversations touch on issues that go far beyond the power of a half-naked pop star, and to me, it's important that my perspective isn't forgotten. That's why I'm sharing this poem, which I wrote in response to a Saturday Night Special
prompt of "wiggle." Read on to find the wiggle, and see if you can hear why on some level, while I hate to admit it, Miley matters to me. miley and me
Artist: Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski
I'm still brimming with emotion triggered by the court's acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer
, but I haven't given up hope. Oftentimes, the most hopeless moments are those that inspire us to look most deeply within ourselves and our own communities, and we discover, perhaps with surprise, that we're the ones with the answers we've been hoping to find. I've been coming across answers infused with creativity ever since I asked the question of "What will we do?"
The thing is, I'm not seeking answers from the criminal justice system. I already know that what I'm searching for can't be found in courts or prisons or police departments. Mia Murietta wrote an insightful piece entitled "Justice for Trayvon Martin: Why Punishing His Killer Isn't Enough
," posted on the Ella Baker Center's blog, Ella's Voice. As she pointed out, "Our 'justice' system doesn’t deliver justice. It enforces laws. It is a legal system that creates and perpetuates the kind of structural racism and devaluing of black lives that lead to killings like Trayvon’s, Oscar Grant’s, and so many other unarmed, young Black men
." The George Zimmerman case doesn't highlight some previously undiscovered flaw in our legal system. It sheds light on what many of us already knew – that when the criminal justice system operates as it's designed, it bolsters systems of oppression and continues to harm those who have been degraded for centuries. People of color know this. Low-income people know this. Queer and trans people know this, as demonstrated in
Toshio Meronek's Advocate article, in which he frames the choices of LGBT people of color facing violent situations as "Be Killed or Be Caged?" For those of us who aren't white or upper class or straight, it's no surprise that justice for Trayvon does not exist in a courtroom. So, how can we assure our minds to believe that Trayvon can rest in peace? How can we comfort one another in these times of fear, knowing that
any one of us could be the next one murdered in a violent act ruled "justifiable"? How can we hope for change, when every arrest, lack of arrest, or verdict contributes to our loss of faith? I still don't have all the answers, but as people are gathering together to help one another through this difficult time, I'm gathering more clues as to where the answers are for me. And for me, all answers point to creativity. With creativity defined as the use of imagination
or original ideas, it's no wonder that this is the source of hope for me right now. Justice for Trayvon doesn't exist in preexisting systems, so now is the time for our imagination to come to life. I see examples in the city of Oakland, where I live. Betti Ono Gallery has been offering safe space
for folks to come together in reflection and solidarity, to have dialogue about the verdict and the kind of change it calls for. Down the street, Solespace
has had Art 4 Justice workshops
to give those who are emotionally impacted by the verdict some time and space to express themselves. And I also see examples from around the world. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag
has spread throughout the internet to show that we value black lives, even if the courts don't. New pieces of art are coming into existence every day, to mourn for Trayvon
and to depict alternatives to the systems
that allowed Zimmerman to murder him without consequence. Writers are sharing their words of reaction, hurt, and healing – Vanessa Huang included my words in this found poem
, "a living monument of love." Stevie Wonder announced
that he refuses to perform in Florida while the state's Stand Your Ground is in place, and other artists are beginning to follow his lead
You see my point. When we feel lost without hope, we've got artists, musicians, and innovators to create hope for us. On the side of those who want to uphold oppressive systems as they are, they've got badges, uniforms, and gavels. That's a lot of power. It can feel like a losing fight. But then again, another definition of creativity
says that creativity is "marked by the ability or power to create, to bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to produce through imaginative skill, to make or bring into existence something new."
Sounds like a lot of power to me. Where injustice currently exists, we have the power to create something new.
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!
I've made plenty of silly confessions on this blog, so I guess it's a good place for this one, too: there's been a ridiculous amount of giggling in my world these days. Giggling, and smiling, and even blushing, as best as I can blush in my dark skin.
Maybe you can guess what that means. And no, it's not just that I've lost my mind, though I suppose you could call it a form of madness
. I say this has been happening in "my world," because although we live on the
same planet, it sometimes feels like each of us lives in our own little world. Perhaps this is most noticeable during times of tragedy. While some of us struggle through the demolition of our worlds
, the rest of us keep living our lives. When I'm halted by grief
, everyone else's worlds keep spinning. And recently I've discovered that it's true for the opposite feeling, too – it turns out that while I'm consumed by amorous bliss, the rest of the planet doesn't stop and join me in schoolgirl giggles. One glance at the news tells me that injustice doesn't take a leave of absence from the earth to make room for love to flourish. Who knew? I've come across a movie that
captures how the earth keeps spinning throughout a lifetime of love. Chico & Rita
is a feature-length animated film that tells the story of a jazz musician and a beautiful singer, set against the backdrop of Havana, New York City, Las Vegas, Hollywood and Paris in the late 1940s and early 50s.
The setting of this film means, of course, that the two title characters can't exist within a blissful bubble of joy. Forces including racism, deportation, and the fight for revolution impact Chico and Rita's lives and their chances of being together. The influences of music and of fame also make their mark.
In addition to telling a complex story, Chico & Rita is an alluring film to watch, with dazzling animation, as well as a captivating original soundtrack by Cuban musician Bebo Valdés. Featured musicians include Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and many more who greatly influenced jazz music in both Cuba and the U.S.
Chico & Rita is really an enchanting movie, and I highly recommend it if you get a chance to watch. It's available to view on Netflix, and also on DVD.
I also recommend doing whatever it takes to welcome some more giggles into your world. As I'm discovering, silly laughter can be good for the soul, and though we can't forget about what's happening around us, we can remember that it takes more than injustice to create our worlds.
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."
Josephine Baker created a space
of her own,
where there was none before
Tomorrow night's event is one that feeds my hope
that there are spaces out there
where my authentic, wacky voice is welcomed. Harlem's Poetic Rebellion: A Salon for the People
is happening at 8 pm tomorrow, May 26, at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley. I wrote about this event
after seeing last year's installment. It was seriously one of the best shows I saw all year, so I'm just thrilled to be a part of this year's event.I'll be reading some new work - that is, if I can manage to compose myself after the excitement of performances by
Griot Noir, Brontez Purnell, Khalil Sullivan and the other fantastic artists who will be part of the show. We are all queer black artists (poets, musicians, dancers, filmmakers), and we're paying tribute to our Harlem Renaissance heroes, those who made black art visible like never before. Following in their footsteps, we're sharing our original work, showing off our pride in the vibrancy that comes with being a queer black artist. Harlem's Poetic Rebellion is one of the SF Bay Guardian's weekly picks. You can watch a video preview on Vimeo, with clips from last year's event. It's going to be a stellar show, so I hope you can join us. Find more details on my events page or the Facebook event page. Advance tickets are recommended, and you can buy those here.
As I've written before, around Christmas time
and Valentine's Day
, holidays can be complicated. And today, Mother's Day, is no different. Today I'm celebrating my mom, the strong woman whose love and support helped me become the woman I am today. I'm also reserving part of the day for thoughts and prayers for those who might be struggling. Those who have lost mothers, and children.
And mothers separated from their kids - like those whose children are imprisoned
, or who are imprisoned themselves
.I'm thinking, of course, about my own reasons for having complicated feelings about this day. On Mother's Day a few years ago, I sat in a park with my mom and told her that she would soon be a grandmother. That day never came. I had a miscarriage, instead, a couple of months later. Today I'm thinking about
all the moms who've lost their children before they were born.In a way, I feel guilty for spending time on such thoughts today. I see all of the celebratory hearts and flowers and I think, today's supposed to be a joyful day. There's nothing wrong with leaving it at that. But I have a feeling that, historically speaking, M
other's Day is actually meant to hold all of these complications. Did you know about the radical roots of Mother's Day?
I've been reading up on it. First there was Julia Ward Howe, a poet and anti-war activist who began promoting Mother's Day for Peace
in 1872. Then came Anna Jarvis, a childless woman who persuaded Congress to recognize the holiday in 1914, and who grew to resent the commercialism
of the day. So, this day isn't only for Hallmark. Mother's Day is for everyone, including those who may be unable to get through it without shedding a few tears.
Today I'm holding it all, sending my mom one of these fierce Mama's Day cards
from Strong Families, and also recognizing those working for a better world
for all mothers. Thank you for reading, and for your solidarity in holding the complexity of this day.
Albert Laveau, Kenneth Ramchand,
Penelope Beckles, and Bhoe Tewarie
get ready to kick off the Bocas Lit Fest
Hello! I’m blogging to you live from Port of Spain, Trinidad, home of the second annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest
, a celebration of writers and writing from the Caribbean. Today was the first of four jam-packed days of readings, workshops, music and film, and the festival’s off to a great start. I’m already having a blast.
This year makes fifty years since Trinidad & Tobago gained its independence, and a celebration of local literature is a great way to honor fifty years of freedom from colonial rule. Today’s events kicked off with local luminaries reading from classic works by Samuel Selvon, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Eric Williams, and satirical columnist “Macaw.” These readings set the tone for the rest of the day, paying homage to writers whose work came out of the Independence era, and lifting up the writing that has followed.
Pride is a universal language. Surrounded by people whose voices and bodies are swelling with pride, I can’t help but feel some of what they’re feeling – love for themselves and for others who have lived lives like theirs. This festival isn’t about trying to appeal to what’s popular in literary communities in other parts of the world, not even those countries that tend to dominate conversations about the most significant literature in the world. No, here at Bocas Lit Fest we’re recognizing that the literature of the Caribbean is powerful and important, telling the stories of Caribbean people.
Today was memorable in many ways, but two writers in particular stood out to me. The first was Jamaican poet and fiction writer Kei Miller
. Now, I face my own challenges writing work with queer themes, but Kei Miller directly confronts Jamaica’s violent homophobia
with courage I could only dream of. He also manages to use humor, and unapologetic honesty, creating compelling, captivating stories and poems. I’ll get a chance to hear more from him later in the festival, so I’m very much looking forward to that.
The other person whose reading is still echoing in my mind is New Talent Showcase writer Stephen Narain
. He’s the kind of writer who inspires me to explore all of the possibilities of my complex voice as a writer. This might be partly due to the fact that he’s only a year older than I am, but as I listened to him read, and participated in the Q & A discussion that followed, I felt like I was hearing the words of somebody with decades more wisdom than I’ve acquired. I had to recognize, at a point, that he’s not much different than I am, speaking from his unique perspective and creating space for voices that aren’t often heard. And he’s diving straight into the stories that call him, risks and all, and doing a brilliant job of it.
If this festival continues to inspire me as it’s done today, I’ll have the makings of a lifetime of work by the time it’s over. My hope – scratch that, my plan
is to run with that inspiration before it fades, risks and all, shaking off self-doubt and taking pride in the voice that’s uniquely mine.