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.


Where There Is Love: October in Review

As I entered October, I began to think about how I would observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Much of my focus over the last few years, has been centered around my performance workshop “Why Won’t She Leave”, giving me the opportunity to speak intimately with women about our relationship violence.  I assumed that I might spend the month in dialogue, but rather than filling my schedule with workshops, I spent time with important women in my life teasing out the ways violence creeps into our hopes, defines us, and limits our imagination. 

It’s daunting to consider the realities of one’s own life.  Where were passion and curiosity curtailed by invasive action?  When did intentional invisibility cross from external survival strategy to unconscious internal reality?  Will I ever be able to distinguish the performance from authentic expression?  In the face of violence threatened and enacted,  How relevant is my quest for wholeness? 

To avoid being paralyzed by the threat of violence, it  gets compartmentalized into an experience of the other.  Attempting to avoid the dangers of being in a female body, we rationalize the potential violence against us by making it an experience unique to “those women” who deal with “those men” live in “those places” or do “those things”.  While we find more nuanced ways to go unnoticed, to exist without need, to be worthy of safety, violence siphons away our individuality and robs us of our divine gifts.   

During October, while I continued the process of re-membering myself, I continued to wonder how and where intact vocal women exist.  I wonder what they talk about, how they dress, what they eat.  I find myself deeply and primarily concerned about who loves them.  Do whole, vibrant, alive women ever get to be truly happy or is it a constant struggle to justify your humanity to the world around you, to mark even the smallest amount of space? 

I find that the best way to expand the boundaries of my human experience is to make myself the center of all important questions.  Standing in the power of the present moment, I decide that I am a whole, intact, fully expressed woman.  As such, I revel in my fiercely inventive style of dress.  I am delighted about the loving quality of my relationships, nourishing interactions that leave me feeling fully replenished.  I celebrate my sensuous approach toward cooking, noticing that being present allows me to experience food with my full palette.  Humanity is a state of being, a reality that requires no justification, and by one’s existence can’t be denied. 

If the normative experience for women is one of safety and wholeness, then there is no need for boundaries, no need for survival strategies, invisibility and silence.  When we are free to fully embody our goodness, to approach every experience with a resounding YES, we can all define for ourselves what wholeness looks like on us.

Creative Writing


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

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.