In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness month, I was invited by the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at CSULA to facilitate a shame and stigma-free space to explore "slut-shaming" and its origin/history, rape culture on college campuses, and what patriarchy, misogyny and enforcing rigid gender roles has to do with violence against womyn, LGBT and gender non-conforming people. It was an empowering dialogue!
We spoke their names, together, over forty of them, standing in the grass in front of King Hall. My student and I shared one sheet. As we rolled our eyes and tongues over each consonant, we called back human faces, memories, vibrant lives. Black women and girls’ lives. Melina Abdullah said its by speaking the names of the dead, of our ancestors, that we keep their spirits with us. Mitrice Richardson, Tarika Wilson, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd…Refleshing bodies discarded and stripped of dignity….Eula Love, Miriam Carey, Tenesha Henderson, Anna Brown… And tears flooded every cavity of my insides, capsizing me. Astringent, cuts I had been carrying for centuries sizzled and I felt. Felt deeply.
The bent heads, the reluctant lips, purple, pleading. I let out pressure slowly, to steady sickness. Locks and braids and tight-curled fros. Blowing out breath to inch out the sediment and salt collected in my lungs. The grief was so thick. We were reading out the dead, the murdered. And all around me young black women. Fearful, formidable, fragile in the thought: “we were never meant to survive.” My student next to me one of these women--braids of bronze and cocoa, high cheek bones, who joined the class late and made her entrance schooling the rest of the students on the sterilization of black women and eugenics.
Earlier today, she shared her granddaddy’s wisdom, his everyday theorizing. She told us how everyone in her family joked about the ‘black tax,’ which meant they had to work harder to prove themselves just for being black. Kris’ granddaddy sat her down one day, looked at her and said with no bullshit, sympathetic eyes, “Girl, you’re in trouble. You’ve got double-tax. You’re black and you’re a girl.” We snapped for her granddaddy’s insight that wrapped up Crenshaw’s intersectionality into a vital lesson for a 6-year old Black girl.
Each person stepped forward holding the story and photo of a murdered black woman or child. More children’s stories than we could stomach. Aiyana Stanley Jones, killed by Detroit SWAT team while asleep on her couch in her grandmother’s arms, was 7 years old. Two mistrials with reduced and diluted charges each time let the killer cop off the hook. Rage shook us all. The woman to my left spoke. Black girls don’t deserve protection, she said. In this sad, pathetic, racist society, they’ve never been seen as innocent enough to keep safe. And I saw all the grown women who made it past childhood and the constellation of freckles on caramel skin and the eyes set in earth and harvest and the hands fidgeting with cuticles or pressed against pleading chests.
In this moment I saw them and it was a fuller sight than I had ever experienced. I realized that before this moment I still held the internal garbage of judgment I had been force-fed by every family, school, playground, restaurant, mosque that I had ever known. There was sympathy for suffering but not the empathy I walked into now, feeling responsible for knowing, seeing, feeling and fighting against this suffering, of Black women and children, of Black communities.
I keep a folded piece of paper of ancestors near my meditation cushion, telling myself I won’t forget. That I’ll ring the copper bell three times, breathing life into my broken heart. And I pray my memory is strong.
Today, for our non-quiz, I gave them a prompt anyway, but this time no quotes from authors, no high theories, no page numbers or evidence. I asked them in what ways they have or are in the process of decolonizing themselves. Chalk spider legs defined decolonization as autonomy. Regaining power. Liberation. Freedom. Self-expression and definition. Flow. Home.
Snaps followed stories and a bit of what liberation tastes like to them. A bit of what pulls them to gouge out rope fibers now fused into wrists and seek more. Later, in my office, with stacks of staggered college ruled papers, printer cranking, multitasking in full effect, I glanced over the ones not shared aloud. And this one, this line stood out as one of the most poignant reflections I’ve read in a while. She wrote…. decolonization is when...
“…no one feels like they are living in a world made for someone else…”
A white, female student in my class. She described her commitment to a future decolonized self, one that understood the effects of her white privilege and vigorously advocated for racial justice. Why wish for that consciousness, one that can be so heavy to accept. One that exposes how one could, does, inadvertently, build and maintain an exclusive world, one livable only to the privileged. What does it feel like to live in a world where you were never meant to survive? Where others, not you, were born with the conditions to thrive? A world made for someone else….
And this decolonized world of her imagination...I wonder if we can stick our hands underneath layers of asphalt and pull up clumps of wet, slick clay. Smash it through our finger webbings, cool and pulpy. And rebuild. This time with all of our hands. This time with feeling intact. I wonder if the new world we create can hold all our desires. And I wonder what belonging and safety untethered from the fists of the elite would feel like.
I think it would feel like canopies of ancient trees longing to meet. Like a trance of perpetual violet sunsets. Like constellations when our eyes and arms and hearts seek each other. I think it would feel like coming home to the world.
The old white male philosophy professor whose office is down the hall from mine often stops by to tell me riddles. They are delightfully corny.
Today's include: "Why was the dresser embarrassed? It dropped its drawers."
But today we also talked about the intense disclosures of violence and trauma in my students' essays. We talked of resurfacing trauma and the catharsis of being witnessed and heard. We talked of creating spaces to hold these stories. We talked about how students have different needs when revealing and confronting and exposing these traumas. He, maybe, in his 70's, told me he has a lot to learn from me.
I am so thankful to be at CalState and to be apart of these cross-disciplinary conversations.
The class readings were Anzaldua and Lorde. I assigned the pieces I can’t live without. The reminders I will never outgrow, tire of, the ones that forgive forgetting every time I reunite with the first luscious sentences. I wait for the explosion of inspiration, the charge that I feel to zap apathy and draw eyes up from smartphones. Instagram filters got nothing on the life and truth these queer women of color writers serve raw. Write to give yourself what the world will not. Write because silence is not an option.
My student presenters begin with a prompt: draw yourself, how you see yourself, how you dream to see yourself. I love it. And I see intent pens render their hearts whole. I draw stars and comets and moons being sucked into the top of my head. And then the student who assigned us the activity shared her vision of herself: she saw herself with wings outstretched and a compass heart. I imagine it. Feathers feeling every current of air and yet so strong, so mighty in their reach and their ability to maneuver skies. She said she wanted the freedom to go wherever she wanted. A compass with a needle whirring in the center of her chest. Four directions corresponding to the four sacred elements: earth, water, air, fire. This, she said, would guide her flight.
And with her description I witnessed her step into mythic skins. And I hear Anzaldua…
I write…. “Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put the world in order, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my…hunger.”
May this self-portrait be a reminder for her that she comes to over and over again, cannot live without, one of her true self.