Sunday, December 30, 2007

saartji listens to poison and ponders ~~~~~a poem

saartji listens to poison and ponders

why exactly cant you trust a big butt and a smile

heat and curves do not kill

a jiggle you can feel in your throat/ is pleasure

and my lips bending into a poem is a smile not nuclear war

there was a world built here some call earth

or heaven or ocean or god

my butt and lips are not three card monty

are not watches sold on L's in the city mothered by oya

or the snap of a brothas spanish/ he wants to leave on your breast

the issue of trust does not lay here or here or here

beneath the pyramid of my pelvis

writing about writing~~~some reflections

Reflections and ripples

As I write this, I am sitting at the same table I was sitting at when I first learned to divide. This is the table I had breakfast at after I began my first period. I introduced my first fiancé to my mother at this table. Not much has changed about this table but the people who sit around it are dramatically different. My mama, the spicy intellectual, who ran a tight ship and kept me off the streets and encouraged to do great things has mellowed out a lot. In her retirement, she takes long walks and likes her house to stay silent. I am writing right now about rhodessa jones' Medea Project for Incarcerated Women. I am writing about the "power and possibility," the title of Elizabeth Alexander's most recent collection of essays, of staged embodied narrative and the transformative implications of story telling and movement. There are indeed transformative qualities.

This kitchen table used to be surrounded by yellow walls. The refrigerator is the same so is the stove. The floor is different. Large beige ceramic tiles. I can't remember what is was before, but once a mouse got in and ran so quickly across the floor to get away from us we couldn't help but laugh. The walls are now a creamy white. Once I splashed red kool aide on these walls. They are much different now. So am I.

I am writing at this table now. Trying to finish this paper, that I want to read to my mama. She knows her baby is at NYU writing and reading all the time. Writing through graduate school. Writing about women writing and reclaiming their labor for their own well-being. I am writing about how women undo time. The trauma of the prison industrial complex ages us, whether we are locked up or not. I am writing about how this goddess called rhodessa rewinds the narratives, back through the rough parts, back through rocky roads women want to forget, back through the good parts too. She wants us to hold onto the good parts. The good parts reveal a different part of the self. One that does not need to be bandaged up by drugs, bad relationships, self-deprecating behaviors and actions.

I must admit I am possessed by the narratives women write about their time here on this planet. I think a part of my life's work is concerned with how we take back the time that really is all ours. How we make our bodies bend time to our specifications. I wonder what rhodessa is doing or undoing right now. I wonder what toni Morrison is doing right now? I wonder what audre and june are doing right now. I wonder what my mama is doing right now. Oh she is playing solitaire and looking at the stacks of books I brought home to write with.

I am looking for an origin that may not exist. I want to know where cycles begin. Is it behind the wind? I want to know how cycles can be interrupted, shaken, cracked open to reveal a new sunlight. I am looking for a way to interrupt my own harmful cycles. I am looking for a way to intrerrupt the cycles of women who look like me. African women, poor women, white women, spiritual women, Houston women, women in florida. Women everywhere, who share a similar skin. I am called to continue writing and performing an intervention that shines like this little light of ours.

working our rainbows~~~another essay on performance and activism

UnDoing Time: The Medea Project for Incarcerated Women as Social Activism

Dedicated to Joan Little and Many other Sisters "Locked Up"

"…we have had to look from the outside

to make sense of a world that has not endeavored

to include us among its intellectuals."

-Elizabeth Alexander

"Let us not forget to remember that

the struggle continues for all of us."

-Rhodessa Jones

Come Into the Sun, a coalition dedicated to delinquency prevention, reports that between 1970 and 1990 the number of women offenders increased 896 percent from 588 to 5, 858 (Fraden 123). Additionally, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children reports that although black women comprise 7 percent of California's population they constitute 34.1 percent of the prison population, with Hispanic women following at 22.7 percent (124). In "Imagining Medea", Rena Fraden documents the nine-year journey of the Medea Project for Incarcerated Women. Fraden includes interviews, photographs and analysis of the successes and challenges the Medea Project encountered as the project gained momentum within the prison system.

Angela Y. Davis, Berkley scholar and noted prison industrial complex abolitionist, writes in the forward to "Imaging Medea", "One of the important contributions of the Medea Project has been to demystify the relationship between crime and punishment. As prison populations have soared in the United States, the conventional assumption that increased levels of crime are the cause of expanding prison populations has been widely contested" (xi). The statistics fail to present the social factors such as drug addiction, racism, domestic violence and poverty that heavily skew these numbers. In the following excerpt from "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women", Mama Pearl reveals why she began engaging in illegal behavior. "I got three daughters. My older daughter was born deaf and dumb. She's the reason I went to jail in the first place. You see, I embezzled some money from the company that I was working at so my daughter could get special training so that she could take care of herself, despite her handicap" (Elam 369). This monologue illustrates the choices some mothers are forced make to support their children. The staggering figures, along with Davis' thoughts and Mama Pearl's scenario, suggest the overarching sociopolitical issues affecting how and why women go to prison and speak to failed rehabilitation programs and high levels of recidivism within the California Department of Corrections.

Rhodessa Jones created the Medea Project for Incarcerated Women after the California Department of Corrections hired her to teach aerobics. The project incorporates physical theater, writing, dance, and healing modalities to "explore whether an arts-based approach [to rehabilitation] could help reduce the number of women returning to jail" ( "The decision to use Medea stemmed from the fact that a young woman in the theater workshop, who was incarcerated for infanticide, was ostracized and taunted by other inmates. [I] told the women the story of Medea and Jason and asked the group to interpret it in relationship to their own lives, to consider ways in which they were like Medea, but also different," says Jones (Warner, 484). The Medea Project staged "Big Butt Girls, Hard-headed Women, Buried Fire, Slouching Towards Armageddon: A Captive's Conversation/Observation on Race, Food Taboos in the Land of the Dead, and Reality Is Just Outside the Window during her tenure at the San Francisco County Jail. Jones' project, subversive in creation and application, high-jacks the space of the prison industrial complex and provides a venue for women to actively engage in narratives around their incarcerations.

Beginning in 1987, Jones facilitated workshops on Wednesdays with the women. She began with twelve women who were assigned to her aerobics class. Soon, her enrollment ballooned to over fifty women once the word spread that there was a place women could heal and rehabilitate themselves through acting. The project provided time and space for the women to meditate, through the practice of performance, on the complex social factors involved in their individual journeys to jail. Jones, a trained actress, dancer, and choreographer, noticed immediately that the women desired a space to express what court systems, lovers, and family members refused to hear. Her process shows physical activity as an extension of language, and language as an extension of the body. Harry Elam notes,

"The correlation between "aerobics" and "Big Butt Girls" is not ironic nor trivial, but purposeful. Aerobics hones and shapes the body. The use and abuse of women's bodies is the center of Jones' performance piece as well. Jones reveals the pressures, constraints, degradations, and exploitations enacted on and against the bodies of these "Big Butt Girls" and "Hard-Headed Women" by their society, their lovers, their families, and even themselves" (10).

Elam's idea speaks to what Teresa Ralli teaches in her Voice of the Body workshop at Casa de Yuyachkani in Lima. In this workshop, Ralli leads participants through a series of yogic breaths and asanas, modern, improvisational and experimental dance movements to free the voice from certain blocked spaces in the body. Her workshop teaches participants about the intimate connection the body and the voice share and reveals a process of healing that happens when the voice is freed from the body. Ralli insists participants move like poetry, like water, free from silence's viscous restraints.

The inaugural production of the Medea Project, titled Big Butt Girls, Hard Headed Women "explores an underclass of women who are intentionally silenced and ostracized by the systems of power" (Elam 9). Ralli's workshop enlivens the chakras from the deep dark spaces of the root chakra to the bright spaces of the crown chakra to dislodge the voice locked inside the body. In one session, Ralli led participants through a series of vocal exercises. The call and response exercise included a series of whispers, chants, shouts, screams, and various other exclamations. During the session, several participants incorporated rhythmic hand drumming and stomping to express what the voice could not but the body could. At some point, each participant's body and voice were tuned, which tuned the voices and bodies for the entire group. Not only did each individual body and voice make music, but the entire community harmoniously connected and functioned as a cohesive entity. By exploring the sound of the spirit inside each body, each participant unravels an instinctual voice that allows the individual to listen, reinvent and revise the narratives that create the soundtrack to their personal triumphs and traumas.

The project serves as a site for exploring alternative rehabilitation modalities. Jones utilizes Brechtian and Boal methodology as well as critical ethnographic practices as espoused by Dwight Conquregood and D. Soyini Madison to engender personal narrative, thoughtful interaction, and shifts in consciousness that leave lasting impressions on those women who share these experiences. Fraden offers, "This is a case study that describes how the Medea Project creates and alternative, sometimes oppositional space, and how it reshapes theoretical and practical boundaries that mark off the aesthetic, commercial, political, moral, personal, and religious realms we inhabit at present, evaluating which methods work best at creating more permeable boundaries" (xv). Fraden's ideas speak to what she, Jones, and Davis express as the knowledge that much work has to be done to alter the lives of these women or the prison system. Her ideas illuminate the importance of teaching and rehearsing a practice that could work one woman at a time to create a massive restructuring of the prison industrial complex and possibly other institutions as well.

Jones' project uses one of the few resources afforded to women in prison. A resource even the prison can not arrest to critique women's imprisonment. Time is a major resource in prison. Sorrentina, one of the characters in "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women" exposes what doing time does to the body as she undergoes a detoxification program in solitary confinement.

Hail Mary, full of grace.

The lord be with thee.

Blessed are the fruit of thy womb.

J e s u s.

Holy Mary, mother of God.

Pray for us sinners now,

And in the hour of our death.

I'm so damn tired. I'm tired of being sick and tired. She's fucking dogmeat, man. Just one little shot. This bitch, snitches at Work Furlough. She was getting stoned, too. Piss in a cup. Piss on your family, okay. Fuck you. Count time, my ass. When will this shit end? This is the longest nightmare I have ever had.

During a brief stint as a GED instructor in a male medium security prison I learned the value of time and how time is practiced. I watched men watch the clock, ask each other about what time it was, and ask each other about how much time they had. Some of the men talked about "filling" time with reading, or completing puzzles, or various nefarious activities, but time was always a topic of conversation. Perhaps, the men where attempting to "grasp" time, to "retain" some semblance of time and their power over it. They counted minutes to lunch time. They counted days to canteen visits. They counted weeks between visits and letters to hold onto their relationship with those on the outside. I learned about how time orients society and how this orientation impacts the prison as a microcosm of society. I learned that several of my students worried if they didn't see me walking across "the yard" at a certain time every morning. They thought up all kinds of scenarios from sicknesses, to car wrecks. A few even thought that I may have been searched and detained for drug smuggling one morning. The point is time in prison creates positionality to the others "locked up", to the self, and those on the outside. Relationships are heavily affected by time. Some of the men were broken by how much time they had and felt they could never do or perform all of their time. While others, with lighter sentences, moved as if they were on vacation at a resort. Those men most always earned their GED's, increased their technical skills and stayed out of trouble. They did time, instead of allowing time to do them. Wherever one is situated in society, time is a resource and a commodity that institutions within society want to benefit from. Money is made based on time and bodies. The men talked about choosing GED courses over the road squad because they refused to let the prison make money off their labor or time. They chose GED courses because they felt they would reap the benefits of education before the prison system and in that way they resisted the prisons construction of time and labor.

The Medea Project performs a similar resistance as practiced by the men a Warren Correctional in northern North Carolina. Fraden writes, "In other words, as women's presence behind the walls continues to grow, so does their performance of the invisible labor summoned by the expanding prison population as a whole" (xi). The Medea Project serves as a model and a practice for returning the fruits of incarcerated women's labor back to those women. So much focus is placed on what inmates will do after they are released from prison, but very little attention is placed on the road to prison. It is almost as if the prison system resets time at one's admittance. But time is multi-directional and the project unravels it. In essence, Jones instructs the women on how to steal time from the jails, how to bend time to their benefit instead of letting time defeat them. This project absolutely is about destabilizing time as a method of psychically, emotionally, and spiritually escaping prison. The Medea Project serves as a site for what Angela Davis calls "theorizing on the ground" about how best to equip women with the tools needed to create their own relationships with time (past tense, present, and future) and space while matriculating through the prison system and beyond.

It is also important to spend some time thinking about what cultural business radical theatre practice accomplishes in space of the prison. Specifically, how do these virtuosic bodies and voices, occupying multiple spaces and times, under Jones' direction and tutelage circumvent the prison space? Moreover, how do the women's voices and bodies along with stealing back time, also steal the prison's space. We can think about how the women steal their bodies back from society and the prison through performance. We should also think about how the women take up prison space with their voice and performance. A large part of the performance of the prison industrial complex continues the dehumanizing social practices women experience on the outside. This practice of alienation dismantles relationships women have with themselves and other women. The destruction of these relationships possibly prohibit women from recognizing how their individual struggles comprise a larger tapestry of experiences that effect the majority of incarcerated women.

Birthing these personal narratives begins to address the stigmatism associated with women offenders and the traumas the share. Through activating the voice of the body, the space of the body transforms but also the space of the prison changes as well. Jones believes "through love, through the power of the ancestors, through the linkage of past to present and future, a body can "catch a body". The needless loss of black lives to the prison system can be overcome through collective consciousness and the formation and assertion of community" (10). Jones identifies the development of a community as a foundational and fundamental step in her process with the women. Fraden includes photographs of correctional officers smiling as they observe the women's rehearsal process. She also describes one moment when she observed one of the women's inmate identification bracelets as the performed at Theatre Artaud in San Francisco. Both of these incidents illustrate how the space of the prison was altered by the Medea Project. Unfortunately, the prison system is large enough to hold multiple narratives and the participants in the Medea Project maps another narrative onto the space of the prison.

Thiong'o's article, Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space, asks us to consider the politics of geography, "open space", "openness", "territorial space" along side issues of body, movement in postcolonial Kenya. I agree with Thiong'o's assertion that the tug-of-war occurring between the artist and the state is a power struggle in which both parties seek leverage over space and also seek to perform autonomy. Through examining the personal agency of bodies in space, or restrictions thereof, we examine the states colonial/postcolonial practices of domination, oppression, and censorship which seek to squelch community performances of resistance. Taking a cue from Thiong'o, I wonder how the Medea Project pushes the limits of the function of the prison space. Certainly, the prison is not a space for artistic training or the site of major
rehabilitation. However, we should consider the potential of the performance space that no longer serves as a site of prescribed action.

Jones reveals that "benign neglect and blind rage" make the women's problems
"too immense and too great". She says, "But I was raised in a family by a mother and a father who taught me that when you're called to something too great, too immense, you can always take it to God. Now the African in my American teaches me to take is to the Ancestors" (374). Here the Jones articulates a poetics of presence that challenges spatial frontiers. The preceding quote conceptualizes a framework, a set of tools that extends back and into the future, and is all-encompassing like faith and belief in the in the omnipresent strength and fortitude of a trans-national family. It may be helpful to read Thiong'o ideas about re-scripting space along side Jones' work. Both projects seek to replace the narrative of space created by the ruling power structure with that of the marginalized population. Their projects "fill in the gaps" as Suzan-Lori Parks describes in
an interview with Shelby Jiggetts in Callaloo Journal.

Elam notes, "She challenges audience members to recognize their personal connections to these women. "Who are these women? She's your mama. She's your lover. That women who is gonna carry your child." Jones points out that the system of crime and punishment touches all our lives and that we all have a responsibility to act for social change."(10) Jones' work urges us to reach past our comfortable or uncomfortable positions to recognize how we are all implicated in the phenomenon of the prison industrial complex. Jones writes, "In jail. A black woman artist, working in jail. I look out at all those faces. There's my mother's face, my sister's face, and my daughter's face. And I'm wondering how in the hell did they get here in the first place. And I realize that it is but for a flip of fate that it could be me in here and she out there" (367).

Fraden includes a monologue from Slouching Towards Armageddon that works to vaporize these boundaries. She writes, "A white prisoner, Angela Wilson (Confusion), delivers a piece that speaks about her frustration with landing in jail. Wilson describes her rage at finding herself in jail as a kind of second jail, her "own personal lockup." She recognizes, as the monologue progresses, that she is responsible for herself: A killer I've allowed myself to be—of me. Here, all locked up in this place. Heart, mind, body, and soul, all agree, we can't wait, to be set free, of this prejudice against—me." Wilson describes a prison not comprised of brick and mortar but prison as an experience or set of experiences, an embodied prison she "can't wait to be free of". This monologue highlights the psychic "lock up" women can experience on "the inside" or in society. In this sense, prison is an invisible state of being that affects and is affected by a series of personal and
social events. Again, Jones' turns the spotlight on the audience members and calls for everyone in the room to participate in the work of imagining their own prisons. In an odd and uncomfortable way, Jones builds a community in the safe space of the theatre that diffuses notions of identity and space through the performance of private narratives in public. Again she reiterates, we are all involved and implicated in the stark increase in women going to prison and living on "lock down".

This monologue alongside Jones' dramaturgical practice of conflating classical mythic texts and street language or aerobics and theatre therapy builds on a larger legacy of black women's cultural practices of healing around the kitchen table or on the front porch. Jones' project destabilizes the canon and allows diverse voices to express similar issues that take place in classical texts. In this respect, we maybe able to read Jones' work, in part, as a project against genre. Elizabeth Alexander talks about reading as a poet in her most recent collection of essays Power and Possibility.

I assume I have always "read as a poet," which is to say, there are various shapes of poetic argument in prose. Reading as an African-American woman intellectual poet? Reading, as my lodestar Audre Lorde would have it, with all of my selves active and present and vigilant and alive. The great utility
of so much black feminist theory was the guiding truism that black women have blazed alternative routes to making sense of the world, that regardless of our differing circumstances, we have had to look from the outside to make sense of a world that has not endeavored to include us among its intellectuals. Alexander reminds us how poetry, specifically black women's poetry, conceives alternate configurations for black women in this world. Alexander's ideas engender thoughts about the social and political work theatre must accomplish for black women. It must create new avenues, wide enough for black women to walk down. It must allow for our full citizenship in the world. It must be a space where we can explore the totality of our being. Her ideas in some ways, talk about poetry more as an interwoven series understandings and performances that are larger than genre.

Actually, her ideas refute genre as Suzan-Lori Parks performs in her anti-genre essay "New Black Math". A project that challenges the silence and the disease resulting from traumatic life styles and the trauma of the prison industrial complex cannot be bound by genre. It would be a re-manifestation of the restrictions placed on them by society and the prison system. Possibly, we could understand Jones' work as one to dismantle the prison industrial complex but also we would think about it as one that dismantles the prisons that stratify communities of women, that render us unrecognizable by our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends locked up, locked down, or locked away. We are all co-participants in this madness called a world.

One performance of "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women" is performed as a one-woman show in which Jones performs the poems, stories, and monologues written
with Regina Brown, Mama Pearl, Lena Sorrentina and Doris to reveal the porosity of identity. Jones transitions between the four characters and herself as the artist, diminishing the frontiers separating women by infusing one narrative into another. She embodies and performs the question that creates the working hypothesis of the Medea Project: Can a body catch a body? The choreographed falls and recoveries, swirls and facial manipulations show a merging of bodies and narratives that make each individual story a part of a larger healing narrative.

Sara L. Warner writes about her experiences observing the process in her essay "The Medea Project: Mythic Theater for Incarcerated Women". In one of the sessions she observed, the incarcerated women demanded to know more about Jones and the other facilitators. Warner writes, "I soon learned that what separated the women on the outside from the women on the inside was for the most part circumstantial. The volunteers' histories were similar, if not the same, as the women in orange: sexual abuse, foster care, drug addiction, domestic violence, and poverty (489). Jones requires that the participants are honest with themselves and with the group. In order for her to require this, she must also practice full disclosure. Her honesty shows the women that there are other choices for the same circumstances. In what is commonly referred to in southern black communities as a "come to Jesus" session, everyone reveals who they are and relationships can be built on equal solid footing by all the participants.

The violence of the prison industrial complex insists on the hierarchical construction of power and domination that systematically marginalize oppressed women. While Jones' project makes this crystal clear to Medea Project participants, she also makes them aware that the prisons are not only at fault. The project emphasizes the amount of women who are trapped by circumstance or limited opportunities for advancement. Jones makes it apparent that at any point in time anyone could be backed against the wall and may end up sitting right where the participants are sitting. In an NPR interview she talks about how art has made the difference between her and some of the women "locked up" in the San Francisco County Jail. Lesley Yalen and Cynthia Cohen make known in "Complementary Approaches to Coexistence Work" that, "Arts and culture are important means through which people and communities come to understand, express, and communicate their ideas, emotions, needs, hopes, concerns, and memories". I agree. Art elicits a process by which we can bring memories from the corners, from the forgotten spaces of the past to the present. But that process extends past the present, it must. Artistic and cultural practices also serve as tuning devices. Tuning individuals into themselves and their communities. Just as two drummers will eventually breath in unison, it is possible that a community that creates art together will eventually be tuned into each others needs and desires for social and civic movement.


Alexander, Elizabeth. Power & Possibility. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Cultural Oddyssey.

El Grupo Yuyachkani.

Elam, Harry and Alexander, Robert, eds. Colored Contradictions: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Plays. New York: Penguin Group, 1996.

Fraden, Rena. Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones & Theater for Incarcerated Women. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

National Public Radio. "Medea Project Brings Hope to Incarcerated Women". Oct. 2007.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. "New Black Math". Theatre Journal 57:4. December 2005. pp. 578- 583.

Thiong'o, Ngugi. "Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space". TDR. Vol. 41, no. 3. Autumn, 1997. pp. 11-30. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Warner, Sara. "The Medea Project: Mythic Theater for Incarcerated Women". Feminist Studies, no. 2. Summer 2004

Yalen, Lesley and Cohen, Cynthia. "Complementary Approaches to Coexistence Work". Complementary Approaches to Coexistence Work: Focus on Coexistence and the Arts. July 2007.

Ebony Awarded Grant for Current Project

Peace family!!!

So most of yall know I am working on a ethnographic healing process with a group of women here in nyc and in nc. Well I have been awarded a small grant to continue this oh so important process.

I am very thankful to NYU for supporting this work in this way. Here is more information about the grant.

Sistas, you are still welcome to participate if you wish...



The -Ism Grant

Racism. Capitalism. Individualism. Feminism. What is an "–ism?" They surround us. We live them. We embrace them. We resist them.

Accordingly, the –ISM Project, provides a venue for students to critically examine the complex ways –isms permeate their lives, especially in regards to diversity and in-tolerance. The objective of this program is to provide an opportunity for students to engage in an education and professional project, which encourages creativity, freedom of expression, and free thinking.

What is the –ISM Project?
This unique program encourages students to analyze various –isms in our communities as it relates to race, culture, class, gender, politics, religion, and other existing social constructs. Beyond critical analysis, the participants create artistic platforms to creatively express their research and personal understanding of their selected -isms. The resulting projects' shared goal is to incite introspection, open exchange of ideas, and social change in the NYU community and beyond.

Coming from all academic disciplines, past participants have focused on the "conventional," like Colonialism and Sexism, to the unique and personal, like Buckwheatism, Hip Hop Feminism, and Outofthebox-ism. No matter the subject, the participants' objective is to creatively explore and challenge their own ideologies while initiating meaningful discussion, which encourages diversity, understanding, and critical thinking. Students are encouraged to use a variety of media available to them, such as photos, paintings, audiotapes, videotapes, journals, or skits, to portray their –ISM project.

In the fall semester, students go through a competitive application process preparing and presenting their -ISM Project proposals. Receiving a grant commensurate with project expenses, selected students work throughout the spring semester researching their –isms and creating their original artistic pieces. During the creative process, the students have the option of collaborating with faculty and local community members. All participants share their work with the NYU community at CMEP's annual -ISM Gala.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

performed violence--on black womens body

The Mother of Gynecology

Anarcha was an African American slave woman. She was one of the seventy-five slaves who worked the Wescott plantation, just on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama.

Anarcha went into labor one day. Three days later, she was still in labor. Dr Marion Sims was called in to assist the delivery. He writes in his autobiography that he used forceps on the fetus’s head but that he really didn’t know what he was doing since he’d had so little experience with the device. We don’t know whether the baby survived the ordeal. We do know that the mother experienced several vaginal tears from the birthing. She became incontinent afterwards due to the damage.

A few days later, the master of the plantation sent Anarcha to Dr Sims hoping he could repair the damage to his slave, as she could not hold her bowls or bladder. As her master’s chattel, her condition reduced her value considerably.

Sims took in the patient reluctantly. He put her up on his examination table, on her hands and knees and, using a modified pewter spoon to expand the walls of her vagina, he accidentally released the pressure that held her uterus in an awkward position. Anarcha felt immediate relief as the change in air pressure helped her uterus to relocate back into its proper position.

Through an agreement with her master, Anarcha became Dr Sims's guinea pig. She regularly underwent surgical experiments, while positioned on Sims’s table, squatting on all fours, and fully awake without the comfort of any anesthesia. It was commonly accepted that African Americans had a higher tolerance for pain than their white counterparts. Commonly accepted but utterly wrong.

Anarcha’s fistula (from her vaginal tears) was repaired by Sims. Sims thus became the leading expert in repairing this damage that seemed to occur in a good number of births by slave women. Though Sims was sent many slave women with fistulas, we know from his biography that he experimented repeatedly on Anarcha, as well as two other slaves, Betsy and Lucy.

Anarcha was experimented upon, and drugged up later, not to ease her pain as much as to stifle her moans. It has been calculated that she had been operated on, perhaps, 34 times. She, Betsy, Lucy, and countless others helped Dr Sims hone his techniques and create his gynecological tools. Though on display in museums, many of Dr Sims’s tools have modern counterparts that are used today.

Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy left no written legacy. Slaves were forbidden to read and write, a crime punishable by death.

And though science today looks back on Sims’s work ambiguously, truly unsure as to his level of success, or whether he should be credited as the father of gynecology, we now know who the mothers of modern gynecology were: they were the nameless and faceless slave women upon whom Dr Sims experimented.

Today we have just three names: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy. It is our hope that these names will never be forgotten.

Pioneer in Performance Studies Transitions

By Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations | 06 December 2007
BERKELEY – VèVè Amasasa Clark, an associate professor of African American studies
at the University of California, Berkeley, and a literary scholar who coined
the term "diaspora literacy," died Dec. 1 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley
after being found at home in a coma. She was 62.

VèVè Amasasa Clark

During her 16 years on the African American studies faculty at UC Berkeley, Clark
became an expert on such topics as African oral expression and the Francophone
novel. She was instrumental in helping create at UC Berkeley the nation's first
doctorate program in African diaspora studies.
"Her theorization of 'diaspora literacy' has functioned as a model for numerous
scholars in the field, here in the United States and in the Caribbean. She will
be sadly missed," said Suzette Spencer, an assistant professor of African American
studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a former student of Clark's.

Clark's urbane manner was reinforced by her multilingualism. She spoke fluent
French, Spanish and Creole and had a fair understanding of Wolof, a language
spoken in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. She co-edited "The Legend of Maya Deren"
(1985), a biography of the avant-garde filmmaker and theorist; and "Kaiso! Katherine
Dunham: An Anthology of Writings" (1978), about the iconic dancer and choreographer
who died last year.
"She was the epitome of a brilliant scholar, passionate thinker, gifted writer
and master teacher," said Ula Taylor, chair of UC Berkeley's Department of African
American Studies. "As a colleague, she was a woman of integrity who was committed
to encouraging younger faculty to embrace their own intellectual voice."
As a mentor and champion for black scholarship, Clark worked on the retention
of African American students and sought to provide a support network for graduate
students in African American, African and Caribbean studies. What many students
loved most was how she challenged them academically and intellectually.
"She could think so far out of the box, it was mind-blowing," said Lisa Ze Winters,
an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Wayne State University,
Detroit, and a former student of Clark's. "Even as she pushed you, told you that
your work could be better, you knew she really wanted you to succeed, to exceed
your own expectations. In her mind, there were no limits."
Clark was born Dec. 14, 1944, and grew up in the New York City borough of Queens.
She was the only child of Alonso Clark, who was from North Carolina and belonged
to the worldwide historic Freemasonry fraternity, and of her Caribbean mother.
VèVè Clark was extremely close to her father, friends said. Both her parents
are deceased.
As a child, Clark first contemplated becoming a doctor and then a musician, according
to an interview she did in 1996 when she became the inaugural recipient of UC
Berkeley's Social Sciences Distinguished Service Award.
As an undergraduate in Queens College at the City University of New York, Clark
majored in romance languages. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1966,
she continued her language studies at the Université de Nancy in France, where
she received a certificate d'études supérieures. She returned to Queens College
and received her master's degree in French in 1969.
During the 1970s, Clark headed west to UC Berkeley, where she worked as a teaching
assistant in French and then as a lecturer in what was then called Afro-American
studies. She also taught French at an experimental collegiate seminar program
on campus that was known informally as Strawberry Creek College.
Daphne Muse, director of the Women's Leadership Institute at Mills College in
Oakland, met Clark in 1973, when they were both teaching at UC Berkeley. The
two quickly became close friends, and Clark officiated at Muse's wedding.
"She would have me on the floor in tears with laughter. She had an uncanny ability
to mimic, and she was just brilliant," said Muse. "She was also incredibly generous,
both spiritually and financially."
In 1980, Clark was hired as an assistant professor of African and Caribbean literature
at Tufts University in Massachusetts. During that time, she worked on her Ph.D.
thesis in French and ethnology for UC Berkeley and received her degree in 1983.

In 1985, she received a faculty research award from Tufts to attend the United
Nations Conference for Women in Nairobi. A year later, Clark was promoted at
Tufts to associate professor of African and Caribbean literature.
In 1991, she returned to UC Berkeley as an associate professor of African American
studies. That same year, Clark won recognition for coining the phrase "diaspora
literacy" in a paper titled "Developing Diaspora Literature and Marasa Consciousness."
She defined the term as the ability to understand multi-layered meanings of stories,
words and folk sayings in African diaspora communities through the knowledge
and lived experiences of the community members' cultures.
Her method of using literature to convey experiences inspired students to look
beyond dry surveys and interviews for their research. That was the case for Erin
Winkler, who took Clark's "Diasporic Dialogues" course during her first year
in graduate school at UC Berkeley.
"As a social scientist who researches children's developing understandings of
race, I was not sure how a literature course would speak to my work," said Winkler,
an assistant professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

But Clark encouraged Winkler to use coming-of-age novels in her research, said
Winkler, "because they speak to experiences of race in ways that sometimes go
unspoken in surveys or interviews. What she modeled in her own scholarship had
a profound impact on my development as an interdisciplinary scholar."
During Clark's career, she received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship
for research on choreographer Katherine Dunham and a graduate fellowship for
study at the Université de Dakar, Sénégal. She also was a Rockefeller Foundation
fellow-in-residence at Brown University,
In 1996, after winning UC Berkeley's first Social Sciences Distinguished Service
award for "service that benefits undergraduate and/or graduate students," Clark
explained to an interviewer her passion for fostering a new generation of black
"We're all trained in something else: English, political science, French, sociology,"
she said of her own generation. "How many Ph.D.s do we have who actually came
though in African American studies or African diaspora studies? So, it's exciting
to me that we are about to develop a generation in this field."
Trica Danielle Keaton, an assistant professor of American studies and global
studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, fondly refers to Clark's
adages as "VèVèisms."
"'Joining the ancestors,' a precious VèVèism, is not an ending, but rather a
transition, something that feels akin to one of VèVè's 'zen moves' to higher
and safer ground," Keaton said. "I am humbled by the love that she bestowed on
us, her 'intellectual daughters and sons.' Indeed, I am honored to be but one
of so very many touched by her genius and generosity."
Clark is survived by a wide circle of friends, colleagues and students. A memorial
gathering in celebration of her life and legacy will be held on Friday, Dec.
14, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Lipman Room in UC Berkeley's Barrows Hall.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Asanas for Megan Williams

i am trying to think about the intentional process of invisibility around the violence acted against Megan Williams. i am still trying to wrap my brain and my heart around this case and what our collective responses could be.

i am trying to think about how trauma stifles my ability to respond to acts of violence in my community and around the world. is it that my trauma stops me from acting when i see other black women traumatized? what do we do next? is it these historical traumas that some how shift my body back to a time when i could not say anything, or bear the same trauma my sista experienced, or worse? is choosing not to act against our historical or contemporary trauma a mechanism for keeping our safe, in some way?

i am trying to think about how i can take back my body from trauma. what does an embodied resistance look like? perhaps, it looks like a body, full of light, harnessing her strength, and refusing to be frozen by trauma. perhaps, it is a body who refuses to have her tongue tied by fear. maybe embodied resistance is a heart that refuses to stop beating, that refuses to have the love pressed out of it.

embodied resistance, could be black women free from heart disease, diabetes, womb disease, mental disease. embodied resistance could be black women freeing their bodies from food, cultural pressures, drugs, alcohol, social pressures... as i write this i am sure embodied resistance is all of these acts and more.

i am trying to think about how to process this trauma against our sista megan williams in an intimate, real, transformative way. i am looking to find a way for individuals to actively participate in a healing movement for Megan Williams no matter whereever they are. here is a call to action for anyone interested in sharing healing evergy with our sista. you don't have to march, protest, write a letter. you don't have to leave your dorm room, you warm living room, you can even do it on the train, at a stop light, on the bus.

i am asking for everyone who reads this post to dedicate one minute of yogic practice, meditation, or breath work to Megan Williams. if you are not a yoga person to do one or two stretches for her. if you are advanced do a head stand or full lotus position for her. take a moment or two out of your day to breath deeply, complete some fire breaths, or kemetic breaths for Megan Williams.

as you are doing this, think about her healing, send out some well wishes for her, her family and our collective healing.

our collective action will shift the energy around this case. we will not be immobilized by trauma.

our embodied resistance is movement is breath meditation is the quest for our collective health and well-being

here is a poem for encouragement

i am a daughter of ntozake
of june of audre of nikki
of sonia of gwendolyn of jayne
of asha of lucille of rhodessa of anna
of ruth of elizabeth of toi of marilyn
of nina of cassandra of ella of fannie
of rosa of nayo of bernice of anjail of aretha
of toni of sapphire of ai of betty of pearl of bertha
of of of of of ofoofffffof fofofff

our collective heat is a back bend that strenghthens our walk
our collective heat is a visualization that wraps us in warmth
our collective heat is a moon salutation that greets the night
our collective heat is slow and concentrated breath deep in the diaphragm
our collective heat is heat is heat supple and pulsing and balancing the universe


Calendar of Events

  • June 1- Official Launch of Betty's Daughter Arts Collaborative
  • May 10, 7 pm, Gumbo YaYa @ Roses and Bread Women's Poetry Reading, Performance/Body Insallation, Brecht Forum NYC
  • May 10, all day, Experimental Theatre Final Performances NYU
  • May 7-8, all day, Gumbo YaYa, MA Symposium NYU
  • April 23, 6 pm Gumbo YaYa, -ism Gala NYU
  • March 26, 7 pm, Gumbo Yaya/ or this is why we speak in tongues, Tisch School of the Arts, Forum Series
  • Feb. 7, Brecht Forum, 730, moderating NO! film screening
  • Jan. 4, Common Ground Theatre, 8 pm, performance art night---Holding Space (a love poem for Meghan Williams)
  • Dec. 12, Ripple in Brooklyn, 8 pm, sharing poetic vibes for a jazz/blues show
  • Oct 27, Duke University, 9:45 am, Women Engage Hip-Hop Panel
  • Sept 14, PS @ Tisch, How Much Can the Body Hold
  • Sept 19, Righetous AIM, NC A & T
  • August 31-Sept 2, 75TH Highlander Anniversary
  • Anti-prison Industrial complex performance, Durham, NC
  • April 30 Shout Out, Carrboro, NC
  • April 24 Fingernails Across Chalkboard Reading, Washington, DC
  • April 14 Poetry Month Reading, Durham, NC
  • 3/31 Ringing Ear Reading, Chapel Hill, NC
  • Wednesday 3/21 - 7 pm Miller Morgan Auditorium, Performative Healing and the Work of Ntozake Shange, Lecture