Wednesday, October 31, 2007

To Be Re(a)d

Today, Wednesday October 31st 2007, women of color and allies around the country are wearing red as part of a collective healing and revealing process in response to sexual violence against women of color. This collective red is meant to be antidote to shame, a warning sign to those would continue to blame women of color for the outrageous abuses that our society condones against us. This collective red is meant to fill in the missing frame of the black and white of Jena. This red is an invocation of gendered wounds and demands that we remember what Ida B. Wells told us, which is that the lynching of black men and women and the rape of black women and men are twin tools of the same repression. And blood is red.

In 1973, when Toni Morrison published her second novel Sula, she changed black feminist literary criticism forever. In fact, I like to day that black feminists created black feminist literary criticism to deal with Sula, the character and the text. In partnership with her first novel The Bluest Eye, Morrison's Sula does more than insert black female characters into a literary scene that had ignored and caricaturized them. With these two novels Morrison insists that the very form of the novel must bend and bow and breathe and move to witness the experiences of black women and girls. The Bluest Eye could have been the first contemporary black female bildungsroman (coming of age story), except that Pecola, the main character (but not necessarily the protagonist) never grows up. Incestuous rape and violent racism shatter anything that would dare look like growth in that novel. Even the flowers. One could argue that in The Bluest Eye white supremacy (in the voice of the falling apart Dick and Jane reading primers) is the protagonist, and Pecola herself is the antagonist, criminalized for a small attempt at existence and vanguished by the pervasive triumph of racism, as patriarchalism, as capitalism and the death of a soul, the splitting of a mind. The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first major study of what it means to be re(a)d. What happens when we are excluded from the very language we learn to read in? What are the dreadful consequences of an agreed upon social reading of black girls that spells us "worthless"?

Sula could have been the first contemporary black female bildungsroman, except that whereas The Bluest Eye leaves the main character with a split mind, witnessed by the black girls who survive, Sula is an intersubjective novel with two protagonists that cannot exist without each other, Sula and Nel grow apart, but the love between girls is the miracle, hope and home of this novel (a theme Morrison will return to in her most recent novel Love).

Sula arrived well placed in time to become the catalyst that it was and is for black feminist literary criticism. The book was published right when the first black women's lit courses were being taught in newly formed Black Studies and Women's Studies programs in colleges in the NorthEast. The two foundational texts of black feminist literary studies, Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics and the Black Women Writer's Literary Tradition" and Barbara Smiths "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism" both read Sula as their primary text and as an instance through which to imagine what black feminist literary criticism could be. Even though Morrison wouldn't achieve national recognition until she "manned" up...or won the National Book of the Month Club selection for Song of Solomon (a radical and beautiful and rich book in it's own rite), Sula was the book black feminists clung to. Audre Lorde mentions in an interview that she doesn't care that it was Song of Solomon that Morrison won the award is Sula that "lit me up like a Christmas tree".

And indeed one of the topics we can discuss is why Morrison gained national recognition once she wrote a novel that centered around a black man. It might be helpful to realize that when Morrison won the National Book of the Month Club selection she became the first African-American writer since Richard Wright to do so.

The passages that cause black feminists to canonize Sula are the passages about mutual self invention that occur between Sula and Nel. The most cited passage is the one where the narrator explains the destined friendship of the two girls noting that "having long ago realized they were neither white nor male...they went about creating something else to be." This is a proposition as far reaching as to appear in Afro-Scottish Maud Sulter's description of a art exhibit she curated in England and as long lasting as to reappear as the "different sort of subject" that Hortense Spillers asks for in her 1987 essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe". The two other moments of the text that black feminists theorists drew in the sky are Sula's insistence when her grandmother suggests she should settle down and have some babies that "I don't want to make someone else. I want to make myself." This challenge to motherhood completes the critique of heteropatriarchy that allows Barbara Smith to claim Sula as a "lesbian" text alongside the books final revelation that the loss of a husband is nothing compared with the loss of a girl friend. And the book ends with the word that has framed all of my days. Girl, girl, girl, girl, girl.

Spiraling out into this moment, the desperation in that one word, girl speaks the prayer to the only thing that I believe can save us, and that is the love between women and girls of color that fills us with the bravery to make a new world language. When the Irish boys in the novel attempt to attack Nel and Sula, with designs on sexual abuse, Sula cuts of the tip of her finger...shifting the boys' reading of her from prey to predator. Re(a)d is the color of threat. Is the color of blood, of nothing to lose, of everything born to be remade.

So today as I dress myself in re(a)d on behalf of my sisters and my own survival take me as a sign.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

CALL OUT: Community Responses to Sexual Assault

Or as June Jordan says.....:when will we seize the whole world with our freedom?"
Yes, I'm calling you out.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
To: undisclosed-recipients

hi all. this is a proposal for an international day of action. its
exciting. lets talk about what we can do in all of our cities, and the
connections we have overseas. how can we make this a big thing? if you
have information or articles to go on the blog, please email them through
to the address below. if you have ideas, you can email them too! or have a
meeting and organise some stuff.

we understand that maybe the date will be around elections, but this can
tie into that in so many ways - our government doesnt give a shit about
sexual assault. i was reading cosmo the other day and there was an
interview with john howard and he said he was dealing with sexual assault
and domestic violence by reducing unemployment with things like
workchoices. amazing. and the northern territory
intervention/invasion/occupation is a really huge thing that is going on
in australia right now, and is really fucked, and is tied up into these
discourses around sexual assault. this is a really important way to show
solidarity with indigenous communities, but also to acknowledge that we in
all of our communities need to be dealing with this stuff. assault is not
an indigenous issue - it is all of our issue.


For Community Responses to Sexual Assault

November 30th 2007

We are calling for people to organise in their own towns and cities to
take action on this day. This means whatever it means to you – maybe
organising in your school, occupying an office or a court or a police
station, holding a rally, making a publication, talking to people, or
anything you can think of.

The government has used sexual assault to justify the military invasion,
removal of land permits, and denial of Indigenous autonomy in the Northern
Territory. But this is not a way of dealing with sexual assault – fear,
intimidation, and military and police presence as a "solution" shows no
understanding of sexual assault or ways of dealing with it. The police
and military have been perpetrators of sexual assault in communities
around Australia, in Iraq, around the world.

The Northern Territory intervention is a racist intervention. It is
ridiculous that our white government thinks that Indigenous communities
are unable to respond to sexual assault themselves, with their own
processes and understandings, especially when we look at the way sexual
assault is dealt with across the rest of Australia, by relying on an
alienating, adversary and difficult to access legal system.

Almost no sexual assaults are reported to police, and most reported cases
result in no conviction. This is not because they are "false claims" but
because the legal system forces someone who has been assaulted to try to
"prove" their claim, doubting them, disbelieving, pressuring them to
relive their assault and undergo invasive medical examinations. Most
assault happens in private – it makes it the survivor's word against the
perpetrator's. The court system is designed so that survivors of sexual
assault are attacked and broken by defence lawyers who only want to win
their case. In the rare case that a perpetrator is convicted, prison does
nothing to confront and challenge the behaviour and underlying assumptions
and understandings that foster a culture of sexual assault.

We want a day of action calling for community – not military, not legal –
responses to sexual assault. Our government shows no interest in trying to
engage with the real issues of sexual assault and how to confront it, so
we need to do it ourselves. We are calling for support for survivors of
sexual assault, and a process of community response that prioritises their
needs and safety. We are calling for processes that try to change the
underlying myths and power dynamics that lead to assault, before it
happens. We want processes that deal with perpetrators in a way that
challenges their beliefs and behaviours, and gets them to take
responsibility for their actions and trying to change.

For more information, or to add your own:


Other links for info on community response, the Northern Territory
intervention, etc: