I've written about Writing Ourselves Whole
before, but that was a while ago
, and anything that brings transformative healing into survivors' lives is worth mentioning again and again. There's no better time to mention this precious work than now, on the eve of Fierce Hunger
, Writing Ourselves Whole's 10th anniversary celebration. For the past ten years, founder and facilitator Jen Cross has been helping survivors write at the intersection of a trauma and desire. And what a liberating place to write from
from – I'd know, as I've personally spent time in some Writing Ourselves Whole workshops, and I have Jen to thank for so much of the courage I've found to write my truth. And now, I also have Jen to thank for my latest publication credit. She's included my poetry in the Fierce Hunger chapbook
, alongside the work of many of the brave and talented Writing Ourselves Whole participants from the last ten years. I'm thrilled to be included, and by association, to take part in tomorrow's Fierce Hunger celebration. The event sounds like so much fun! The night will include dancing,
a silent auction and a raffle with some fabulous items available, and readings by Carol Queen, Jacks McNamara, and more. All proceeds benefit the Writing Ourselves Whole scholarship fund, to give more survivors the gift of transformative writing workshops. You can find more details on the event, on the prizes available, and on how to donate to the fund on the Fierce Hunger tumblr
I'm glad that my words will be at Fierce Hunger, so I'll attend in spirit, since I can't be there in person. I'll be reading at the Bernal Yoga Literary Series
, which is happening the same night, in an unfortunate coincidence in scheduling. I must say, I'm a little blown away by the list of the other writers who'll be sharing the stage (studio floor?) at Bernal Yoga Studio tomorrow night. The lineup includes Joshua Mohr, Aimee Phan, and Phil Lumsden. I'm trying not to shake in my boots over here. Here are the details for that event: Bernal Yoga Literary SeriesMarch 2, 2013
, 8:00 pm
908 Cortland Ave in San Francisco
I hope to see you there, but you won't hurt my feelings if you show up at Fierce Hunger instead. I'm looking over the details for that below, and I know it's hard to miss!
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.
Today is World AIDS Day
. I've written about HIV
and worked in HIV prevention, and I'm always saddened by the role that stigma plays in creating the pain that surrounds HIV and AIDS. Many of us don't want to talk about HIV or associate with it, which makes it easier to forget that stories of HIV aren't just about a virus – they’re about humans, brave humans who are hurt by our silence. Here's a project that helps combat that stigma. Magnum Photos shares stories and photographs of people around the world who are living with HIV and the stigma that comes with it. Here's "Stigma Under the Lens."
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.
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."
I've just spent a few days in Richmond, Virginia for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs
(NCAVP) Roundtable. It was quite a trip, and I'm just beginning to get my bearings back.
I've been on staff with Community United Against Violence (CUAV) for a little over six months now, and this job has taken me on many adventures so far. In my work, I'm an advocate for LGBTQ survivors of violence, a support group leader, an organizer for under-resourced communities - in other words, as I like to put it, I'm pretending to be a grown-up. And the rest of the time, I'm a real-life mess of a human being, just trying to keep my shit together. In other words, I'm a poet.
I really appreciate that in my work I can show up as my whole self. The NCAVP Roundtable is a meeting of folks from anti-violence programs working to prevent, respond to and end all forms of violence against and within lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected (LGBTQH) communities around the country.
So we're all kinds of people - lawyers, therapists, educators and more. And on one hand, we showed up at the roundtable to get down to the business of our work. On the other hand, our work is made up of stuff that's hard, and messy, and not always easy to fit into business-model workplans and agendas. Many of us are involved in this work as survivors ourselves, or as folks whose friends and family have experienced violence, so there's a part of this work that's deeply troubling and emotional.
We also understand that this work is absolutely vital. The NCAVP compiles data about violence against LGBTQH people. Alone, each individual story matters - these are stories of real people suffering pain and loss, of hate and violence robbing our people of parts of their hope, their humanity, and in some cases, of their lives. Together, these stories show strength in numbers. Through the NCAVP reports, we can see trends, like the recent rise in reported anti-LGBT murders
, and the disproportionate rates at which transgender people and people of color
fall victim to these crimes. So we can understand that each individual incident is part of a bigger picture, one that shows a need to care for one another and create better conditions in which to survive.
You can visit the NCAVP website
for the data and other resources, on everything from supporting LGBT survivors to S&M vs abuse.
At the Roundtable, we talked business - numbers, data, workplans. But we also talked about the stories behind these numbers, and about how we feel about those stories, and about how we plan to make change for those who deserve better.
With hate crimes on my mind, I can't help but see a connection to the recent shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Seven people were killed, and more were injured. Rep. Joseph Crowley has been calling for the FBI to count hate crimes against Sikhs
, and I have to believe that he might be right. As much as we can pretend that this was the act of a lone, crazed gunman, the truth is that there is a horrible history of hate crimes against Sikhs
in the U.S. And letting this shooting stand alone, treating it as an anomaly, really doesn't do anything to help prevent the next hate crime.
Sometimes, data is more than just numbers. Sometimes, the numbers help us gather our stories, and speak up to resist hate.
In London, the 2012 Olympic Games are under way. The world's top athletes are pushing their bodies to prove they are the best in the world at what they do.
And elsewhere, another kind of Olympics take place - the Oppression Olympics
. You may already be a player in these games, but did you know you can be a judge, too? It's easy. You just have to look at oppressed people and decide who's got it worse - Latinos or Blacks? Queer folks or people with disabilities? The winner gets the special prize of declaring that they suffer more than anyone else in the world. It's kind of like a gold medal, I guess, only there are more tears involved.
I'm just kidding, of course. I don't actually want to play this game. I hate this game. First, I'd want to know how we'd even
begin to count our suffering for the sake of comparison. Quick - measure the amount of blood spilled, multiply that by the volume of tears shed, add the tension in your body, then divide the whole thing by zero - Bam! You got yourself a suffering quotient...?
Also, competing over oppression misses the point
of our justice movements, to say the least. It's one of the easiest ways to drive wedges between groups
that have the potential to build collective power against the systems that hurt us all. And it also disregards intersectionality
, the fact that not everyone can easily identify with just one group or another. Clearly, intersectionality means that some will bear more wounds than others from the various forms of oppression, but we can acknowledge that without diminishing any of our experiences.
I admit that at times I'm tempted to compete in the Oppression Olympics myself, when someone tries to dismiss my struggles or claim that they hold a higher position on the great podium of pain. But the truth is, I may not ever truly understand what it's like to walk in another person's shoes, just like nobody else will ever really know what it's like to be me.
So maybe the goal isn't to compete with one another, but to recognize that many people are wounded, and we all deserve to be liberated from our pain. I can hold the truth of my own suffering, while building a bridge to yours. And the arts can be a way of lifting up the shared human experience of suffering in all of our stories.
Here's how I see it: if you're not yet ready to move forward, and you prefer to remain stagnant in your suffering, then sure, try believing that you've got it worse than anyone else and that nobody would understand. But if you're looking to create change, try stepping onto the common ground in the lands of grief, struggle and pain. I'll meet you there. Then maybe we can build something together.
The concept of change from within
continues to touch my writing these days. And I'm thinking not just about change from within my own body, but also from within the communities who need it most. So often, we see it happen the opposite
way – change taking place as outsiders see fit, without consideration of the community's voices
speaking to what's best for their own lives. And usually, this kind of change follows certain patterns. Out with the liquor stores, and in with the wine bars. Out with the graffiti, in with the art galleries. And, of course, out with the low-income people of color, and in with those who can afford to live in the more expensive, new and "improved" version of the neighborhood. At the July Lit Slam, the stupendous featured poet, Danez Smith
, read a poem he'd written from the perspective of a prostitute witnessing gentrification in her neighborhood. "My pussy got a Whole Foods," he read. The poem was a comically clever, making me laugh and making me reflect on the neighborhood where I grew up. It's still Whole Foods-free, and without gentrification, that land is sort of sacred ground.
And I know it may seem somewhat strange, to celebrate the preservation of conditions that are awful in so many ways. I'm from Stockton, California, a place that usually goes unrecognized unless it's at the top of a list measuring something like rates of crime, or unemployment, or overall misery
. The parks near my old house host more drug deals and gun fights than picnics or barbeques. Recently, Stockton has made international news
for the way it's worsened in the economic downturn. The news doesn't seem to indicate that Stockton will improve any time soon.
So as I watch, I wonder where things will go from here. Will Stockton communities continue to experience award-winning misery? Or will they see positive change, as some believe
? If so, my hope is for the people of Stockton to be able to feel safe and thrive, rather than being displaced by some new wave of privileged folk who decide that change is worth it because they've moved in.
You know me – I find hope in poetry, in the telling of stories from the voices of the people. So With Our Words
, a Stockton-based organization promoting youth development and leadership through literary and creative arts, is on my radar. Here's a video of Stockton youth competing in a poetry slam, with a piece that draws attention to the measures some take to find hope for change under dreary conditions.
Confession time: My name is Maisha, and I write with an agenda.
Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest.
"Agenda" is a bad word in many writing circles. Writing with an agenda might mean that you're insulting readers by trying to tell them what to think. It might mean that your work isn't as good as it could be, because you're too busy trying to shove a message down people's throats to pay attention to the quality of writing.
And I get that. I really do. I understand that for the work to be good, the writing must speak for itself. And I get that it's better to give readers questions, letting them reach their own conclusions, than to force them to accept my answers.
But I guess the problem comes with the question of how to define an "agenda." I'm no journalist, so my writing's never completely objective. It's always flavored with my own perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. And because my viewpoint is not considered the "norm," I might always come across as having an agenda. Beneath my voice there might always be a sense of unrest, of the need for change, because, to put it simply, the status quo just isn't working for me, as a queer black woman survivor.
At Saturday night's Bitchez Brew Revue, I read some silly poems. I also read the poem I wrote for Trayvon Martin
. Did I have an agenda in reading it? Hell yeah, I did. I've been hearing George Zimmerman's name in the media a lot lately, and I feel that it's important to keep speaking Trayvon's name, too. Did I have an agenda when I was writing it? Damn right, I did. When I wrote it, Zimmerman had yet to be arrested. And I didn't believe that my writing a poem would get him in jail or bring Trayvon justice, no. But for me, the whole situation stirred up a kind of sadness and anger that I need to release into the world. The kind that says something needs to change, because no lives should be lost this way.
So yeah, if that's what it means to have an agenda, then I've got one. I think part of it, for me, is that I write stories that feel personal to me, about events and systems that have traumatized me, so I feel somewhat protective over those, not quite ready to leave it up to interpretation.
But it was my "mentor" Audre Lorde
who said both "I am deliberate and afraid of nothing"
and "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood."
So maybe as I grow as a writer, I'll still have what may be perceived as an "agenda," being deliberate and unafraid to share my perspective. But maybe I'll develop the skills to be more subtle about it, and really let the writing speak for itself, even at the risk of having it misunderstood.