Geneva S. Thomas in meditative movement

Geneva S. Thomas in meditative movement

I am the daughter of Pearl Glover, Bertha Sims, and Betty Sims.  I am a Black woman who calls Houston, TX and Shreveport, LA home.  I am a poet who writes and lives a poetic sensibility.  I have many mamas, aunts, sistas, and nieces.  Billie Sims, Shellie Sims, Dorothy Sims, Linda Sims, Cheryl McKnight, Nelma Hicks, Heather Hicks, Jayla Dancey, Joi Dancey, Jayna Dancey are some of the women and girl-children who inform who I am today.  This manifesta is for them.  Ashe o!   

Culture

I guess that waltzes

Do not move me.

I have no sympathy

For symphonies.

I guess I hummed the blues too early

And spent too many midnights

Out wailing to the rain.

                 -Assata Shakur

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In “The Quilt: Towards a twenty-first century black feminist ethnography” Meida McNeal asserts, “The concept of diaspora in relation to Africa has undergone radical definitional shifts.  Across these shifts in the use of diaspora as process, product, space and identity, the tropes of ‘African-ness’ and ‘blackness’ have been under constant negation, not solely on theoretical terrain but in actual embodied practice,” (60).  I am intrigued and disoriented by the polyvalent nature of Blackness.  This disorientation grounds me in an ongoing process that thinks about the violent nature of translation as a learned, expected and constantly re-imagined behavior in Black women’s daily experiences. 

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As I engage language translation, I translate my body and my spirit. As I interact with others, I switch codes, “pass”, rub against identities that are not quite my own. The violent act of self-translation insists I ask, who’s language resides in my mouth?  I struggle to locate myself in the ideas swirling around in my head.  The indoctrination of the academy, the work of popular media outlets, the social fabric of this society all vie for space inside my body, and often win out over the desires, ideas, projects and processes that reside within the intimate space of my interior.   

 

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Is it possible to understand notions of Black womanhood in terms of the construction of language or “metalanguage”?  Homi K. Bhabha reminds us, “The linguistic difference that informs any cultural performance is dramatized in the common semiotic account of the disjuncture between the subject of a proposition (enonce) and the subject of enunciation, which is not represented in the statement but which is the acknowledgement of its discursive embeddedness and address, its cultural positionality, its reference to a present time and a specific space” (270).  With this in mind, I recognize my desire to write myself into a space, write space onto my body or write over/through the gap or “disjuncture”/disjunction/break that seems to separate Black women from the rest of the world.  Writing can be a set of practices and actions that reconnect the self to the self, intimate and global communities.

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The failure to write/act across the gap is one of the major failures of the women’s liberation or white feminist movement.  In “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” Evelyn Higginbotham quotes Elizabeth Spelman’s claim that, “White feminists typically discern two separate identities for black women, the racial and the gender, and conclude that the gender identity of black women is the same as their own: “In other words, the womanness underneath the black woman’s skin is a white woman’s and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through” (6).  Additionally, bell hooks describes the failure of feminist coalition building between Black and white women.  hooks states, “One reason white women active in the feminist movement were unwilling to confront racism was their arrogant assumption that their call for Sisterhood was a non-racist gesture.  Many white women have said to me, “we wanted black women and other non-white women to join the movement,” totally unaware of their perception that they somehow “own” the movement, that they are the “hosts” inviting us as “guests” (53).   I ask myself: what is the skin under my skin?  What is the voice within my voice?  This vacuum that theoretically separates the blackness from womanness, self from self, is the void I speak of/over/through.  I need to know, quite literally, what are the societal and gravitational forces displacing me from myself? 

I am a refugee in my own skin.

Higginbotham’s article thinks about race as language.  She writes, “Race serves as a “global sign,” a “metalanguage,” since it speaks about and lends meaning to a host of terms and expressions, to myriad aspects of life that would otherwise fall outside the referential domain of race” (5).  In the case of Black women, one must consider what signifies us historically and contemporarily.  What are the markers, traces, utterances that signal Black womanness?  Hostense Spillers begins her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” with the following declaration, “Let’s face it.  I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.  ‘Peaches’ and ‘Brown Sugar,’ ‘Sapphire’ and ‘Earth Mother,’ ‘Aunty,’ ‘Granny,’ ‘God’s ‘Holy Fool,’ a ‘Miss Ebony First,’ or ‘Black Woman at the Podium’  ” (65).  Again words miss the gap.  They contain instead of explicate who I am.  There, in the definition, is another fissure I must leap across/out of the boundness of a commodified identity into the space of expansiveness.  I find redemption in rejecting the “liminal” notions and constructions of Black womanhood. 

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I speak her name

Mother

Mama

Mawu

Mawulisa

Ala

Jezanna

Songi

Mboze

Yemanja

Mbaba Mwana Waresa

Chi-Wara

Attempting to stretch my body across the gulf, stretching towards myself, stretching myself through translation is more than a kinesthetic or alchemic performance.  It requires a seismic shift in the way the social constructs the intimate and the global constructs the individual.    I agree with Renee Alexander Craft who believes, “African/black women have all too often been imagined, defined, labeled and packaged in ways that are at odds with who we are and understand ourselves to be” (56).  The disjuncture is significant.  I am fixated on the sets of practices and the nuanced lexicon of Black women’s experiences.  Not to limit our identity, but instead to bathe in the layered textures of our diversity.  The representations and definitions are limiting, hurtful and sometimes backwards.  Moreover, the definitions and representations are transmitted as truth largely by people who do not speak the same language I speak. 

 

I am gravitating and maneuvering to the center of the universe.  In order to transport myself through language and performance I first must start here, center stage.  I want to stretch myself beyond the aforementioned terms.  I am “Mother” but my identity, as Spillers insists, does not rest or begin with who or what I produce, rear or suckle.  I speak across gulfs of legacy, trauma, kinship, futurity, expectancy, culture, body, space, and time to be seen or recognized by certain institutions or institutional representatives; but more so, to be recognized by myself.  The issue of invisibility, or speaking oneself visible, resonates like the reverberating sound of a Buddhists’ singing bowl.  Recently, I have begun to think about language as a set of ideas and actions in terms of the phenomenon of glossolalia, roughly translated as “speaking in tongues”. 

This concept has been helpful in thinking about ideas and actions that speak to how specific individuals or communities linguistically and performatively engage with others.  Amiri Baraka, in all his flawed brilliance and beauty, writes in Blues People “The spirits do not descend without music”.   His ideas vocalize how spirit/soul/”re”memory/body are related to language and performance practices. I believe Black women are masters of glossolalic practices as we translate, not only the language the of the gods, but the language of ourselves through our skins, legacies and everyday actions and vocalizations through gesture, intonation, glance, and other means of expressive cultures. 

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Perhaps, Black womanhood is an avant-garde/experimental performance.  Both the language, as I am writing and thinking about it, and Black womanhood push corporeal frontiers and urge ontological shifts in the manner in which human beings relate to sometimes hostile and other times lulling geographies. Blackness, as Adrian Piper, E. Patrick Johnson, and other notable scholars theorize, is just as slippery as the definitions of experimental/ avant-garde performance. Depending on where one is positioned or positions oneself on this stage called the globe, the United States, New York City, or some other space, Blackness looks and performs quite differently than one might assume.

E. Patrick Johnson teases out Blackness in Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity.  Johnson writes, “Blackness, too, is slippery—ever beyond the reach of one’s grasp. Once you think you have a hold on it, it transforms into something else and travels in another direction. Its elusiveness does not preclude one from trying to fix it, to pin it down, however—for the pursuit of authenticity is inevitably an emotional and moral one.” (2) Johnson explicates how blackness serves as a means to wiggle out of the crawl space or what Marcus Wallace refers to as the “scrawl” space of identity as it is constructed by genetic and social structures.

 I experience and negotiate this world through this corporeal and affective reality.  Black skin, Black sensibilities, Black acts conflate with the dominant discourses and hegemonies and make a real substantive relationship with myself and other Black women a job I work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Although current scholarship suggests we are possibly transitioning into a post-racial moment, I am still here writing visibility across gulfs.  I cannot be evacuated from this skin or this legacy.  I suggest that constructions of Black womanhood be expressed through the cultural practice of gumbo ya ya as theorized by Luisah Teish.  She writes, “Gumbo ya ya is a creole term that means “Everybody talks at once,” It is stream of consciousness, it is argumentative, and it is loud! The person speaks comments on the subject at hand, any stories from the past and future probabilities that are seemingly relevant to the subject, the immediate environment, and their own inner process, all within the same unpunctuated paragraph.  While the principal person is speaking, all other participants(who cannot truly be called “listeners”) are preparing what they’re going to say next (which cannot truly be called a ‘response’). The next person acquires “the floor” simply by cutting in and speaking louder than the present speaker.  The new “floor master” is allowed a sentence or two and then gumbo ya ya starts up again” (139-140).

            Gumbo ya ya, perhaps traces its genealogy back to the origins of the southern dish that bares the same name.  Gumbo ya ya is a stew.  Depending on the region, gumbo ya ya may contain different ingredients including shrimp, sausage, chicken, crab, and a myriad of vegetables.  The main and most fundamental component of gumbo ya ya is the roux or what I call the soul of the dish.  The roux is the gravy that holds all the ingredients together.  Again, depending on one’s location the roux maybe either a tomato based gravy or a brown gravy made from the fat rendering of a piece of cooked meat.  Gumbo ya ya features and highlights a menagerie of distinct and discernable flavors that collaborate to create an entire sensory experience.

            Teish’s ideas about gumbo ya ya are similar to those theorized in “The Quilt” written by a collective of sista-scholars who matriculated through various degree programs at Northwestern University.  The essay articulates theory and praxis for a contemporary and critical Black feminist ethnography.  These notions of quilting, stitching together, stirring up all inform my current project, Gumbo ya ya/ or this is why we speak in tongues: Documenting Womanist Performance Methodology. Media McNeal unravels a series of questions that problematize processes such as Gumbo ya ya/ or this is why we speak in tongues in “The Quilt”.  She asks, “How do we – as scholars who are cultural workers – complicate debates about ownership, tradition, innovation and authority by tracking some bits of culture and eclipsing others? How does what we craft on paper and in performance intervene, making some small dent in established perceptions of what we thought we knew or what we ignored up until now” (73)?  McNeal’s questions are indeed relevant and necessary in untangling such a complicated historical and contemporary narrative.  Her questions also suggest that work must be done to hone methodological practices approaches to Black womanhood that critically and responsibly engage such issues that pertain to the “intimate histories” and cultural practices of Black women.  Gumbo ya ya/ or this is why we speak in tongues desires to engage similar questions that further complicate scholarly and artistic engagement in and through Black womanhood. 

Gumbo Yaya/ or this is why we speak in tongues is an artistic and spiritual work conceived by members of the Black Women in Performance Studies Work Group at New York University, under my facilitation and desire to spend a year in meditation of the issues articulated throughout this manifesta.  Together we actualized Gumbo Yaya to highlight black women’s cultural production in relationship to community, self, legacy, spirituality and womanism. The piece was developed collaboratively over a six month period with women scholars and activists in New York City, Durham, NC, Atlanta, Georgia, and Houston, TX. Inter-generational narratives of spirituality and healing ground this creative and scholarly process, along with performances of healing and movement.

Gumbo Yaya/ or this is why we speak in tongues draws on the rich legacy of womanism as articulated by Chikwenye Okonjo Ogun-yemi and Alice Walker among others. Additionally, this process shapes and defines the practice of womanism as it performed presently by younger generations of black women. By galvanizing the energy of our foremothers, we intend to “make something new” as it is suggested through the artistic production and scholarship of Anna Deavere Smith.

            Gumbo ya ya/ or this is why we speak in tongues works through Black women’s cultural practices as a means of highlighting the diverse experiences of the participants while enjoying experiences of solidarity and unity.  This exploration critically engages notions of authenticity, authorship, voice, and expressivity as we question the agency and efficacy among us.  We reclaim the legitimacy of our experiences and the power to narrate our stories as we live them in our own tongues and through our own language and practices.

i don’t wanna write

in english or spanish

i wanna sing  make you dance

like the bata    dance   scream

twitch hips wit me cuz

i done forgot all abt words

aint got no definitions

i wanna whirl

with you

our whole body

wrapped like a ripe mango

– Ntozake Shange

                Shange writes about the importance of nuanced articulation of identity in her essay “takin a solo/ a poetic possibility/ a poetic imperative”.  Shange argues, “You never doubt bessie smith’s voice.  I cd not say to you: that’s chaka khan singing ‘empty bed blues’. Not cuz chaka khan can’t sing empty bed blues/ but cuz bessie smith sound a certain way.  Her way.  If tina turner stood right here next to me & simply said ‘yes’…we wd all know/ no matter how much I love her/ no matter what kinda wig-hat I decide to wear/ my ‘yes’ will never be tina’s ‘yes’” (2).  Ultimately the work of Gumbo ya ya/ or this is why we speak in tongues, in some ways, is exactly what Shange describes.  The process provides a space for Black women to rehydrate the flattened identities mapped onto or voices and bodies.  The process provides a space through shared legacies through multiple tongues and movements that speak a communal truth. 

 

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SiStar Mykayla tells her story.