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.


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

As we co-create a world where the feminine is respected, female bodied persons are safe, and our humanity shines as our point of connection – where might we first place our attention?

To think of changing the world always seems like an awesome task.  We may at some point feel the deep need for the world to tip its balance towards a way of collective action that is more cooperative and fair.  With so many of us walking the globe, how can we, how can I, change things?  If I am but one person, what can I do?  Especially, If I am marked by race and gender and class as “other”and “marginal”, what can I do to shift the power balance?

Campaigns and catchy slogans are meant to inspire us, and they do often succeed in that task.  In addition to pledging our support to a larger entity or organized effort, is it possible to see the results of our efforts a bit closer to home?  Even those of us who focus our careers on social justice wonder how to bring our efforts into our familial networks.  It is easier at times to work publicly against all forms of gender based violence than it is to work intimately with those same issues.  We can become “fans” of socially oriented pages here, “tweet” the good news there and stay up on the latest releases from our favorite cultural critics, but how does that translate to the growth or lack of the girl children’s breasts and hips no longer being the subject of conversation at family dinner?  At what point do we feel strong enough to confront the issue of that uncle or cousin, rather than just warning the children to keep their distance.  When do we get to dismiss the silence around how our aunts arm was really broken?

The gender violence that happens in family networks can be deeply enmeshed in the ways we interact with and negotiate intimacy with each other.  It is no wonder that we might be re-traumatized in the simplest effort to be with family.  And since the same cycles are often repeated over and over, we have often experienced the violence as children, that we witness or condone through our silence as adults.  Violence becomes normative in families, but its harm is never diminished.

We can reclaim our power in our own families.  The issues that make us limit our visits and specialize in quick phone calls, are never unknown.  There is often at least one other family member that knows what isn’t working.  We can collectively confront the violence in our families.  Family members, regardless of age, can challenge negative family patterns as a unit, by modeling loving interactions.  The next family reunion or spontaneous talent show can feature a poem, song or announcement about how certain remarks and interactions make you feel. We can tell the people in our families how we want to be loved.  We can engage each other in conversation, and while asking for the quality of love we need, we remind the other of the quality of love they deserve.  We can also invite our family members into our professional and public spheres, where our activism is more apparent.  We can decide when and how we gather.   The next time we are volunteered to speak or say the prayer before a meal, we can speak our vision of hope and love to our families.  We can choose which conversations to participate in, which to interrupt.

Every word and intention counts.  We always have power in the present moment create and transform.  Each moment is ripe with possibility.

Events, Uncategorized

Identity and Performance:A Conversation with Local University Students

Last week, I was invited by Professor Ifeoma Nwankwo of Vanderbilt University to speak to her students during her course, American Studies Workshop: Black Nashville.
“This class is part of a new innovative course series called “Music City Perspectives.” Through it, Vanderbilt students will learn from, about, and with the city’s diverse communities, while also honing their academic writing and research skills and contributing to the greater good.  The Fall 2009 course will focus on populations of African descent in the city, particularly African American, Caribbean, and African communities.”

Initially I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say.  I was invited to speak about my experience as a Black Nashvillian.  It is always an interesting exercise to talk about your experience with a particular identity group.  How do I explain being a Black, queer, working class, southern woman in her 30s?  I just am what I am, right?  What would be the best way to break down the culture and politics of those identity groups, but then reassemble them to give the full picture of the experience I am having, and how that experience informs all the work that i do?  How would I feel doing that with/for individuals who may not have a single piece of identity in common with me, yet if they did, would they experience it exactly the way that I do? 

I decided that rather than examine all these intersecting identities alone, then presenting some finished analysis, that I would walk the students through my process.  I wanted to invite them into this conversation that I was having with myself. (giggle) 

I came to class with a few ideas I had been working on, then put my theory on the board and asked for feedback.  We talked about pieces that could be missing from my analysis.  I thought it was important to acknowledge that as soon as we are born, the world responds to us, giving us information about who we are, and then how we are to respond to/with that information.  At our core is this authentic, essential being, but once our identities are layered onto us, we filter who we truly are through that matrix of identity.  The result is our performance.  But what happens if we want to alter that performance or find that it doesn’t fit?  Are we free to alter this performance? Aren’t there incentives to maintain a certain performance at all times.  Perhaps we are more predictable or easily controlled if we do. 

I’d love to return and have follow up conversations.  The course seems ripe with good news.  I’m looking forward to their final projects. 

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. 


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. 


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?


Don’t you want people to like you?


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.


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

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


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. 


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. 


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.


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, do you remember what’s her name?


No girl, be more specific.


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


Oh yes I remember now, you mean …


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.


I guess in the end she was drop dead gorgeous.

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


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


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.  


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)

Creative Writing, Uncategorized

Requiem for a Lullaby

This performance text was written a few years ago.   It is one of my favorite pieces.  The first section is read as a lullaby to a young girl.  The second portion is read as a reporter.   The piece remarks on how views of women’s virtue, worth or goodness are fed to us as propognada to control us, but can betaken away or questioned at any timein order to protect masculinity. 

Little girls hate yourselves and all other women for being born female. 
Your emotion makes you inferior. 
Trusting your intuition makes you weak.
Sleep peacefully tonight knowing that you will never ever quite be …enough. 

You’ll have a mate that will never love you as much as he loves his boys. 
His homoerotic utopia is far more rewarding than anything he could feel with you. 
He has been taught to have no respect for women. 
The culture that feeds him reinforces that ideal in his religion,
in his educational system,
and in all the media information he consumes. 

 Don’t try to run away. 
Where will you go? 

 Its inevitable you’ll fall for a man who has never been held accountable for his actions and feelings. 
One that thinks the world owes him something. 
And that he is free to take out his frustrations on you. 
Banging, stabbing, hitting, beating up your womb until he figures out what that something is.

If you’re lucky you’ll get a pet name like “wifey” or “main bitch”. 
He might have sex with those other girls but he only loves you. 
He’ll look to you to fulfill the roles of wife and mother whether or not children are present. 
Forget about all that self-love crap and get yourself a ring girl.  
Many of your friends won’t be so lucky.  They will grow old alone.

 BUT you can say to world with pride that you got a man that takes care of his responsibilities.  He keeps a job and comes home at night, well eventually. 

And that should be just enough to keep you smiling for years and years to come. 

 In 5…4…3…2…1… you’re on

 Good afternoon.  I am reporting to you live from the Kobe Bryant…Mike Tyson…Robert Kelly community support rally?  I apologize, I’m not sure who the “Black Community” has been asked to come together and support this afternoon.  All we know is that a man with a very large amount of money and therefore very large amount of power wants us to overlook a major felony or other minor male indiscretion committed against a woman such as: sexual assault, abuse, stalking, intimidation, restraint, or harassment. 

 Today’s rally is being led by a large jewel encrusted man in a candy hued suit.  From this distance he appears to be, a pimp, a rapper, a preacher, or possibly even a candidate for the 2008 Democratic Party.

 Until today while Mr. So and So, as the unidentified celebrity will now be referred, continues to avoid the press and live a somewhat regular life; the alleged victim has been fired from her job.  Supervisors claim that her negative publicity has affected their business.  She’s also had to vacate her apartment, as the swarms of reporters have made it impossible to secure her privacy or safety. 

Pardon me one second ladies and gentlemen…

 I’ve just been informed that angry mobs are on stand by to send hate mail and plaster the Internet with the alleged victim’s personal information.  One website, www.shewantedit.com, has received several thousand hits after being up and running for only two days. The website uses the alleged victim’s photograph with the caption, “you know she wanted it” in large flashing letters.   The website also includes pornographic images of women in submissive positions and links to a variety of other adult websites.

 The general public, with the exception of a few lesbians a hand full of feminists and some dead Latina’s grandmother, have sided with Mr. So and So.  Popular opinion is that Mr. So and So, quote “seems innocent” and “looks sorry.”  In response to recent events, one particularly concerned citizen states “why Mr. So and So need to take some pussy from somebody? He got so much money, bitches is trippin over theyselves to get in his face.  Hell push come to shove he can buy the pussy before he gotta rape somebody.” 

 Rest easy tonight America, our paternalistic oppressive systems are indeed intact. 

Maleness still equals power.

Sexism continues to be internalized.

Goodnight and God Bless.


 Cynthia C Harris