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Is Your Family Safe for Women and Girls? pt IV

“when women respond appropriately to violating acts in public spaces, we are often treated as the source of disturbance, the offensive presence.  We are the ones told to calm down and are escorted to less populated spaces, as though our interruption of violence has caused the scene, rather than the provoking  incident.”

-Is Your Family Safe for Women and Girls? pt III

Responding appropriately to violence in family settings, to that very real  intimate terrorism, is no easy task.  It requires going against family norms and gendered behavioral codes we have consumed since birth.  We learn early when our emotional discharge is “too much” and that our silence is the best way to receive affirmation and praise.

I remember two recent instances very vividly during which women’s responses to violence seemed to cause more upset than the actual incident of violence.  At each occasion a woman was participating in a normal routine, either performing a duty at a public event or relaxing at a festive gathering.  At each occasion a male attendant at the event became angry when his attempt to alter the flow or predetermined activity in his favor, was met with no.  At each occasion the individual men became loud and aggressive, making threats or disparaging comments, both clearly inappropriate responses.  At each occasion, the woman’s no was not accepted or respected.  The first layer of the violation is in not accepting the NO.

The second layer of violation is in the responses of other male bystanders and witnesses-participants.  At each occasion one or more men attempted to bring the violent episode to a conclusion.  At each occasion minimal effort was put into addressing the offending males behavior by stating what  behavior on the offenders part would have been most appropriate or by stating that offending the woman verbally or sexually was behavior that would not be tolerated in that shared space.  At each occasion the male bystanders and witness-participants acted most quickly and thoroughly to silence the offended woman, verbally implying that her response, her anger or outrage was making the current situation difficult and uncomfortable.  At each occasion, the offended woman was told to “calm down” and if she did not immediately become silent she was labeled as “overreacting .”

I do not mean to over-simplify the experience of witnessing violence as a male or female.  Violence causes old and present terrors to lock our muscles and voices, freezing us in time.  It is very difficult to have any response other than shock and terror when violence is witnessed.  But when we are able to speak and act, we must speak and act appropriately.  Even if witnessing violence terrifies us, such that we are not able to intervene, we must never seek to silence the victim of violence  as a means of managing our own fear.

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Alice Walker’s Sofia: Sisters Make all the Difference

I’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie “The Color Purple” many times over the last two decades, since its original release in 1985.  The visual interpretation of Alice Walker’s text, gave many of us an opportunity to see and publicly discuss the hidden realities of Black women’s lives.

I was thinking recently about the intimate partner violence experienced by the two characters Celie and Sofia.  In particular, I thought about the similarity of experience, in that both characters had histories of family violence.  The film shows us Celie’s sexual trauma, and Sofia tells Celie in a powerful scene that she has had to “fight” her father, uncles, cousins, and brothers her whole life.  Fighting here not only suggests physical violence, but might also include sexual violence as well.

It would be easy to assume that Sofia was able to leave or control the violence with her husband Harpo, while  Celie’s violence at the hands of Mister continues, because of a difference in the physical size of the two women or in their husbands difference in machismo.  The film shows Sofia as a woman larger in stature, who fights back, is very vocal and is not easily controlled, while Celie is smaller, timid and less vocal.  This surface comparison is tolerated due to our common mythical beliefs that there are certain “kinds of women” who are more likely to experience abuse.  These beliefs might make us think that if a woman is big enough or loud enough, she won’t experience abuse, but this is simply not true.

I think that one of the most vital differences, though individual experiences can’t ever be compared, is that Sofia had SISTERS.  Yes, Celie had her sister Nettie, but due to Mister’s isolation tactics, she was not able to access her sister’s social support.  Sofia never wondered about the power and breadth of her social support; she was very aware of it.  In her first meeting with Mister, she assures him that her pregnancy, nor economic reality are the reasons she is marrying Harpo.  She asserts that her sister made it very clear that she and her child are always welcome.  In the scene following Harpo’s physical abuse, Sofia’s sisters pack her belongings and her children into a wagon and take her away to safety.  Alice Walker eventually creates a source of intimate support for Celie in Shug Avery, which offers Celie the safe space and support to remember the truth about herself, and make the courageous exit from Mister.   Imagine how different things might have been for Celie if she had never been separated from Nettie.  Imagine Celie with consistent high quality social support.

I am reminded now that it is less useful to us to spend time trying to identify the characteristics of potential abusers and potential victims of abuse.  This checklist approach suggests that women who experience violence weren’t wise or vigilant enough to see the batterer coming  and protect themselves.  The truth is that all of us are capable of enacting and experiencing violence in our intimate spaces.  There are no identities that protect us.  It is far more beneficial to place our attention on reminding our sisters and sister-friends of the unconditional love and support we offer.  It is critical that the women and children in our lives hear from us, that we trust their brilliance and ability to make wise decisions about their safety.

Imagine the vibrant communities we can create if  we continuously fill each other with the truth about who we are and of the goodness we deserve.

Uncategorized

Is Your Family Safe for Women and Girls? PT. III

I realize that growing up in a family comprised majorly of women, does not equate to a safe environment for women and girls.  Families and circles of women can easily act out internalized oppressive beliefs on each other, even in the absence of a batterer.  We can “crack the whip” in our quiet spaces, acting out these deep mistruths about how Black women are lazy, and don’t deserve rest or unearned leisure.

In creating safe spaces for women and girls we might search for examples of women who created woman-centered spaces for themselves and other family members.  There might be, as Audre Lorde* mentions  “the unmarried aunt, childless or otherwise, whose home and resources were often a welcome haven for different members of the family…”  In whose home was/is it safe to speak freely, to rest, to dream, to express yourself creatively?  In whose home were you free to be present in your body, free from the feeling that you were being sized up up for having too much or too little, free to eat what you wanted without commentary, free of invasive notions of modesty?

If you can’t think of a person, try to remember who seemed the happiest, the juiciest, or was described as wild.  Since we aren’t always able to remember the truth about each other, these free women might have been looked at with suspicion or contempt.  You might have been warned against being that kind of woman, or the source of her joy may have always been connected to some sinful behavior.

We get to make the rules in our space.   We get to expect that those rules will be respected.  We  also get to make choices about how to proceed, when our wishes are not respected.

In the past, whenever I tolerated non-woman-centered conversations or allowed the creepy guest to explain why their action was misinterpreted, I have regretted it.  The tolerance came from the knowledge that when women respond appropriately to violating acts in public spaces, we are often treated as the source of disturbance, the offensive presence.  We are the ones told to calm down and are escorted to less populated spaces, as though our interruption of violence has caused the scene, rather than the provoking  incident.  Over time I became comfortable escorting offenders out of my home or gathering without feeling like I needed to justify my choice to the offender or the other guests.  And addressing the violence is absolutely necessary for everyone’s comfort.  Women don’t have to become hyper-vigilant as potential victims and men don’t have to be hyper-vigilant as potential defenders.

One of the statements I use to recover my voice when I feel threatened by the presence of violence is “I wish a (word for oppressive person) would say/would come up in my house and/would try to etc…”  Whether I say it out loud or to myself, I am reminded that I have choice and power in my space.  I can do something to make my family, my home, my life safer for women and girls.

*Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving.  First Published in The Black Scholar, vol. 9, no. 7 (1978).

Creative Writing, Uncategorized

Is Your Family Safe for Women and Girls? PT. II

An excerpt from the performance Phrases of Womanhood (c) Cynthia C Harris and OlaOmi Akalatunde. 

Woman#2 :When I was younger, still in pigtails and patent leather Sunday shoes, they said I acted womanish and thought I was cute: all of em, Mamas, Aunties, Daddies, Uncles, and Play Cousins. I remember family outings and church picnics full of honey coated chocolate dipped caramel kissed grown folk, loud talking and story telling. Long rows of women fanning flies and fighting back beads of sweat. In between sips of iced tea, they attacked.

W#3:“Look at her, you gone have to watch that one right there. She ain’t but how old – and already thankin she cute.”

W#1:“Mmm Mmm honey, you ain’t gone be able to tell her nothing in a minute.”

W#3:”That’s the kind of girl that makes it hard to raise your son right. Lord knows we don’t need no mo fast tail girls round here layin up, makin babies left and right”

W#2:And there it was – the only possible destiny for a girl like me. I hadn’t even graduated from dress up shoes without buckles, couldn’t pick out my own clothes, couldn’t even do my own hair or fix my breakfast yet, but they already knew me.

I was guilty – of something. I walked with spine straight topped with a head held high. Ever peculiar about nice dresses and clean hands, I thought I was beautiful. No you couldn’t convince me that I wasn’t special cause I felt it with every part of myself.

I was the center of my very own universe. The stars shined for me. I could call thunder and rain. The crickets sang my song on cue. I was the first and only recipient of the keys to all the sweetness the world had to offer and I all I had to do was show up and be born.

But over time you begin to believe your inherent special-ness is wrong.

If youthful attempts to show pride bring shame then accepting that you are unworthy of positive attention or kindness is your only refuge.

New truth embraced, the scene was set for not telling my mother that every morning after I waved goodbye from the rear of the school bus, boys a few grades ahead of me called me dirty names and touched me under my uniform.

At school a classmate took an interest in me and decided I would be his girlfriend. Even though only an elementary student, he was well versed, in the ways a man treats a woman, especially one that thinks she’s cute.

W #1: (as though teaching or explaining a conspiracy plot)Rule #1-You sit next to her only at lunch and special assemblies, adorning yourself with her as a fancy decoration.

W #3: (as though teaching or explaining a conspiracy plot)Rule#2-You count her with your racecars and marbles, as a valued personal possession.

W #1: (as though teaching or explaining a conspiracy plot)Rule#3-You pull her braids and mess her ribbons for receiving any attention you don’t solicit or approve.

W #3: (as though teaching or explaining a conspiracy plot)Rule#4- You push her down into sharp gravel, for not feeling, looking, thinking the way you want.

W #2:  Slowly the weight of it all began to crush. Silence painted my pictures and shame laid my path. Cause this was my fault. I made this happen. It had to be my fault. Surely there had to be something about ME, the way words confidently flowed from my mouth, the way my heart was wide open to the sun and the world that made ME somehow appropriate for attack. Maybe I was born wrong or at the wrong time, Cause the world was telling me I was an Alien here. Wasn’t no place for me to just be as I was – naturally.

When everybody that is supposed to love you, speaks harshly, ridicules, abandons and picks at you till you are nothing but the words they call you and the thoughts they feed you, you wonder who you can turn to when your first, second, and third loves treat you like shit. Those same people that are supposed love you; all demand to know

W#1:Why do you, HOW could you tolerate such disrespectful partners and such and abusive relationships? If anybody ever talked to ME that way I’d…

W#2:They say

W#3:I guess I just expected more from you.

W#2:They say

W#1:We thought you knew better than to get yourself mixed up with somebody like that.

W#2:They easily forget that the self-love necessary to avoid such pitfalls is long gone. Slight traces found mixed with dirt under fingernails or sitting high in pantries, pickled in jars thick with dust.

Wouldn’t they all be happier if I could just fade away.

Wouldn’t the world be better if I were never here

Maybe somebody else coulda used this space or this brain or this blood or this body

And whatever piece of me still struggles and gasps for life could just relax and finally be

But somehow, always the pieces of you remain, somewhere in the between.

Somehow, no matter what the trauma, however intense, the missing pieces can always regenerate.

Somehow despite the worst of yesterdays and this mornings, right now and tomorrow SURVIVE waiting to be informed.

Deep under all the “other people’s stuff”. Under years and layers of something other than what you would have chosen for yourself, is the little girl waiting to uncurl her spine and love herself again.

Creative Writing

IAMSHE

Visibility is a topic I explore regularly in my work.  The following performance text serves as incantation, testimony, and war cry.  These are the words of a woman speaking her truth and making it plain.

I am she who makes it

I am she who makes manifest

I am she who makes real by opening

I am she who accesses truth

I am she who demands physical pleasure

I am she who demands physical pleasure

I am she who is vibrant

I am she who radiates light

I am she who opens

I am she who awakens

I am she who savors

I am she who lingers

I am she who lamps

I am she who chills

I am she who rests and is carried

I am she who is carried

I am she who is carried

I am she who is never without her favorite things

I am she with luxuries

I am she with patience

I am she with patience

I am she with patience

I am she with patience

I am she who is without hurry

I am she who makes

I am she who crafts

I am she who calls forth

I am she who conjures

I am she who incants

I am she who sings out

I am she who cries and wails

I am she who mourns

I am she who grieves

I am she who does not hoard

I am she who trusts

I am she who dreams

I am she who laughs

I am she who celebrates

I am she who feasts

I am she who calls down merriment

I am she who is pleasured

I am she who gushes

I am she who pulsates

I am she who praises

I am she who brings forth song

I am she who is

I am she who is all things

I am she who is heavy and all consuming

I am she who is unrestrained and unfettered

I am wild she

I am free she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she

I am she who does as she desires

I am she who expects cooperation

I am she who is pleased with the outcome

I am she who is pleased with the outcome

I am she who expects beauty

I am she who accepts praise

I am she who knows her own name and sings her own song

I am she who wakes to good news

I am she who wakes to good news

I am she who lets and flows

I am she who dreams and creates

I am she who receives increase

I am she who is assisted

I am she who is loved

I am she who molds and makes pretty

I am she

Creative Writing

The Inspectors

 This is an excerpt from Phrases of Womanhood.  The section focuses on the absurdity of our body image obsessions.

 Recorded Voice or Audience Read: Before starting your day you must prepare for the world around you.  It is tough out there ladies.  Put on your armor.  Get your daily shield protection.  Find your place

Inspector #1:

It is time to put your faces on and pull it together Ladies.  Ready for inspection in 5, (dancers hurry to put their t-shirts on using the same character descriptions above) counting 5…4…3…2…1

Inspector #2:

Ladies, ladies, ladies, this will never do. 

 Inspector #1

We do not assign these uniforms randomly.  It takes considerable energy to have them perfectly fitted for each and every one of you.  Not to mention that some of you grow out of them or intentionally try to “misplace” them.

Inspector #2

Proper care of these uniforms must be taken to guarantee your appropriate rank is clearly displayed at all times. 

Inspector#1

Please resist the urge to personalize your uniforms.  They are in your care but, ARE NOT to be considered personal property. 

 The Inspectors begin individual inspections.  Making notes on clipboards as they examine each dancer.  They reach “ TOO SMALL”.

 Inspector # 1 (to Inspector # 2)

Inspector what did we cite this one for last time?

 Inspector #2

(Checks chart)  Let me see… ah yes.  We pointed her out for shame and ridicule because her bra size is 32B. (Stares at the dancers chest.)  And by the looks of it, a B- cup may be a bit of an exaggeration.

 Inspector #1:

32 B, (takes a moment to look her over) you are looking a little better today. 

 Inspector #2

Good to see you took our advice and invested in a good push-up bra.

 Inspector #1

Though these little bras are only temporary. 

Inspector #2

And once you take them off, you go back to well…. Nothing.

Inspector #1

I think you should consider simple corrective surgery for this particular deformity.

 Inspector #2

Oh, Absolutely. 

Inspector #1

Saline Implants could take you up to a DD-cup easily.  You really can’t say you’ve made any improvements until you develop a curvature of the spine. 

Inspector#2

It’s simply not feminine to be that flat chested.  You don’t want to go around looking like an adolescent boy, do you?

 Inspector #1

Do you?

Inspector #2: They move on to other dancers until they reach another the woman “TOO OLD”.

(checks chart) Mid to Late 30s.  mmmhhmmm…(making notes on her chart)

 Inspector #1:

mmmhhmmm… (Making notes on her chart)

 Inspector #2:

mmmhhmmm. Inspector #1 is this one married yet?  I don’t see any of that information in her chart here. 

Inspector #1:
(Searches clip board, eyes widen in horror)  NO!

Inspector #1 and Inspector #2 (at the same time):

Oh My!

Inspector #2

Mid to late 30s, and you’re not married yet. 

Inspector #1

Being this old and unmarried really only works for men dear.  It’s just not appropriate for a woman.

 Inspector #2

Start clipping coupons for Cat Food and Ensure, cause Honey, you’re well on your way to spinsterhood. 

(Inspector #1 & Inspector #2 share an annoying laugh together)

Inspector #1

Look Ladies, don’t you want to be beautiful like everybody else?

 Inspector#2

Don’t you want people to like you?

Inspector#1

Don’t you want to partner up with somebody so you can put all the hassles of thinking for yourself on somebody else’s shoulders?

 Inspector# 2

Lord help us all. I’m glad we caught all these errors today.  We can get you all started on a plan that will get you in total bondage I mean bliss in no time.

 Inspector#1

Oh yes absolutely! But how shall we customize for women in such a state of distress?  

(Inspector #1 & Inspector #2 pause to think)

 Inspector#2

If you were between the ages of 8 and 11, we would have the time it takes to thoroughly eat away at your self-esteem. 

Inspector#1

Eating disorders can be good for quick weight loss, but it takes so much time to really make a good eating disorder stick.  And TIME is what we have the least of!

 Inspector #2

It is not enough to be concerned about the way you appear to others.  It must be your first and only thought always.  After all, the way other people perceive you is really all that matters. 

Inspector#1

It is too late and entirely too much work, to slowly change your diet and increase your level of activity (said in a different voice as if imitating and mocking someone). That health nut mumbo jumbo is pure foolishness anyhow.

Inspector#2

Diet pills and Liposuction are the only way to go.  Try a little Laser rejuvenation for your lady friend, if you are really feeling fancy.

Inspector#1

Inspector, do you remember what’s her name?

Inspector#2

No girl, be more specific.

Inspector#1

You know what’s her name with the ….and all the ….

 Inspector#2

Oh yes I remember now, you mean …

Inspector#1

That’s the one.  Ladies, I tell you after her reconstructive surgery, well if she had survived her reconstructive surgery, she would have been drop dead gorgeous.

Inspector#1

I guess in the end she was drop dead gorgeous.

 (Inspector #1 & Inspector #2 share an annoying laugh)

 Inspector#2

Where are all my smiling faces? You all look pitiful!

 Inspector#1

Let’s not make this any harder than it needs to be.  Not that I encourage this, but if you are so dead set on being “HAPPY”, it comes in an assortment of vices now; you can pop it, sniff it, smoke it, shoot it, or drink it.

Inspector #2

Sweethearts, there are a number medications available by prescription, over the counter, or from your local narcotics dealer, that can take all your worries away.  

Inspector#1

Stop trying to paddle upstream.  Just go with the flow, like everybody else.

 Inspector #2

Trust us.  We know what we are telling you. 

Inspector #1

If you take our suggestions, without question, you’ll be just fine. 

 (Inspector #1 & Inspector #2 share their annoying laugh again)