Thursday, April 10, 2008

April Is...: Poetry Month & Sexual Assault Awareness Month


This month I had planned to post a poem everyday, inspired by fellow (and much more prolific) blogger J's Theater's example. Unfortunately, I haven't even had the time to read a poem everyday, although I made up for that with a marathon of poetry reading last night after going to see and hear writer Junot Díaz in conversation with Princeton religion scholar Albert Raboteau and novelist (The Professor's Daughter, 2005) and CUNY English professor Emily Raboteau (his daughter). After listening to Díaz I became aware of a voracious thirst, and needed to dive into some elements of language. So I am grateful to J's Theater for introducing me to the work of Brigit Pegeen Kelly (pictured left), whose latest book of poems, The Orchard, I looked for and found in the library after reading her poem "The Satyr's Heart" on the collection's BOA Editions/American Poets Continuum Series website. I do think the poem J's Theater reprinted, "ISKANDARIYA", is more stunning in some ways for the particular unfolding of its unexpected journey. (J's Theater is still posting at least one poem per day, so do head on over and get your daily read on.)

But I like the questioning, ambiguity and final resolve Kelly embraces in this poem as well:

The Satyr's Heart

Now I rest my head on the satyr's carved chest,
The hallow where the heart would have been, if sandstone
Had a heart, if a headless goat man could have a heart.
His neck rises to a dull point, points upward
To something long gone, elusive, and at his feet
The small flowers swarm, earnest and sweet, a clamor
Of white, a clamor of blue, and black the sweating soil
They breed in...If I sit without moving, how quickly
Things change, birds turning tricks in the trees,
Colorless birds and those with color, the wind fingering
The twigs, and the furred creatures doing whatever
Furred creatures do. So, and so. There is the smell of fruit
And the smell of wet coins. There is the sound of a bird
Crying, and the sound of water that does not move...
If I pick the dead iris? If I wave it above me
Like a flag, a blazoned flag? My fanfare? Little fare
With which I buy my way, making things brave?
No, that's not it. Uncovering what is brave. The way
Now I bend over and with my foot turn up a stone,
And there they are: the armies of pale creatures who
Without cease or doubt sew the sweet sad earth.

© BOA Editions, Ltd 2004




Today at The Root.com two black women professors, Salamishah Tillet (pictured left) and Melissa Harris-Lacewell (pictured below, right), wrote about the need for the African American community to address the issue of sexual violence perpetrated against African American women by African American men. Tillet is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. Bravely, to me, over the course of their respective articles both Tillet and Harris-Lacewell also disclosed being a survivor of sexual assault.

Each wrote on the various factors that keep many African American women from reporting instances of sexual assault when the assailant is an African American male, with Harris-Lacewell giving a succinct delineation of the major impediments to reportage in such cases:

In African American communities rape narratives are not women's stories. They are men's stories. Rape is tied to the historical legacy of white terror. Strange fruit hanging from Southern trees has led to a legacy of disbelieving women who report sexual violence and intimidation.

Black women raped by black male perpetrators often remain silent because they are alone. They don't want to confirm white racial stereotypes; their own families and communities tell them to shut up; they have little reason to think that authorities will take their cases seriously; they fear the devastating ramifications of a manhunt in black communities if they are believed; and in the history of lynching white women have been adversaries, not allies, on the question of rape.

Recovering from rape is burden enough without having to shoulder this vicious legacy.

These articles appear at the same moment as the conviction of 71 year old Civil Rights leader, Rev. James L. Bevel in Louden County, Virginia for having had intercourse with his daughter (and apparent namesake), Jamese Machado who agreed yesterday to be identified by the press. Since filing the charges she has (understandably) changed her name, and disclosed that information as well. She is now Aaralyn Mills. Bevel reportedly molested his now-29 year old daughter for several years starting when she was six years old and eventually raped her when she was a teenager. According to AP coverage of the trial Bevel maintained a number of disturbing philosophies "for eradicating lust, and parents' duty to 'sexually orient' their children." I found myself wondering if none of his colleagues were aware of his beliefs, and if they knew what if anything they did about Bevel's practices. Not surprisingly, Bevel molested a number of his daughters, which came to light when some of them shared with each other at a 2004 family reunion. Sadly, the family was split in its support of Mills, with family members testifying both for and against Bevel. Also, not wholly surprising was Mills's own seemingly contradictory feelings about her father, reportedly during trial breaks she and her father stood together and "cooed" over Mills's infant daughter. However, it was the birth of a daughter by Bevel's new wife that prompted Mills and some of her sisters to take action fearing the safety of the little girl (the child now lives with her maternal grandparents). Following the verdict The Washington Post reported:

Mills, 29, said her father, who organized some of the nation's most storied civil rights marches and was a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is a pedophile and deserved to go to prison. At the same time, she was sorry it had come to that.

"The real objective would have been for my father to just apologize and to work on this with us as a family," she said in an interview from her home in suburban Maryland. "In life, you pretty much have a right to do what you want to do. But there are consequences to doing some things."

In Bevel's case he is paying some consequences for his actions, but so are the women in his family who were subject to sexual molest, rape, and other forms of spirit-breaking behavior that were aspects of Bevel's family philosophies. Since Bevel's philosophies and behavior presumably didn't spring forth fully formed from the head of Zeus we can hypothesize that he too was subjected to sexual assault or forced witness something of the kind in his own youth--indicating this to be a multi-generational issue in his family.

In her article for The Root.com , Tillet commented on the alarming statistics concerning rape and African American women, asking why African Americans aren't addressing this as the crisis it obviously is:

I hope to bring awareness to the fact that even though African-American women make up about 7% of the U.S. population, we currently constitute 18.8% to 28% of the reported sexual assault victims. These women are, and have always been, our grandmothers, our daughters, our partners. And our friends.

Given the staggering statistics, I cannot help but wonder why this pandemic does not constitute a crisis within both African-American communities and the larger American body politic.
When you realize that 18.8% to 28% only accounts for the reported female African American sexual assault survivors, and that as both Harris-Lacewell and Tillet have indicated there is serious under-reportage by African American women, the weight of the issue becomes more apparent. Again, since these statistic didn't just come out of nowhere we have to consider that we're not just dealing with a problem of the present generation, but, I would posit, the legacy of intersections of sexual violence, race, class, and gender as they've played out during the history of this country.

In her article for The Root.com, Harris-Lacewell detailed a screening of Aishah Shahidah Simmons's NO! The Rape Documentary, (I saw this film in an early stage of its development, but still haven't seen the finished work) at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY. She marveled that the screening was organized by a group of black men. "[A] community group called Black and Male in America. Under the leadership of writer, activist and Congressional candidate Kevin Powell." The organizers had filmmaker Simmons (pictured right), who is herself a rape and incest survivor, in attendance to discuss the work and help people process the experience. Who was there? According to Harris-Lacewell, "an intergenerational group of black men and women, gay and straight, survivors and perpetrators, all grappling with the legacy of rape and race."






This reminds me of Rebecca Walker's recent Huffington Post article on some of the problems with US feminism in which she talks about how certain stances within white women's feminism could be an affront to the concerns of various women who couldn't go along with the sentiment that "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" because they did need their fathers and brothers and uncles, and weren't willing to sacrifice those relationships and weren't willing to struggle for a freedom that was non-inclusive either of those family members, or of the brother down the block who always chivalrously let them get on the bus ahead of him.

For some, the end result of healing is not a permanent estrangement that is analogous to so many of the ways in which African American communities have been torn asunder by indifferent urban planning, drug trade, the "benign" neglect of city government, and the abandonment of the civic charge of public education. Instead, healing is the way in which communities individually and collectively can imaginatively reconfigure how to express the legacy of violence that extends back into slavery and forward into the violence enacted on African American bodies detailed in books such as Harriet A. Washington's Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (2008, Reprint), James W. Loewen's Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (2006), the James Allen edited tome, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), James H. Jones's Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Revised Edition (1993), Elliot Jaspin's Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America (2007), and Rachel Holmes's African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus (2007) (though I do recall some mixed feelings about Holmes' portrait).

It's not enough to look for the straight trajectory of violence causing like violence, causing like violence ad nauseam. Violence is like a stain or a virus, it spreads in some predictable and unpredictable ways, nevertheless reproducing itself and its effects, and initiating new outcomes as well. In looking at medical and scientific violence, the violence of erasure and uprooting, some of the particulars are in how these are enacted upon, or how they engage with the black body, and change African American's relationships to their own and others bodies such that for some the body itself becomes problem, alien, a place of unease and dis-ease--how else to explain Bevel's philosophies--such that it's borders and boundaries come to express, (to (sadly) negatively paraphrase poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly,) "how [un]surely we are contained/how [un]well our small boundaries love us."* The consequences extend forward into our present, and can be seen in works such as Tricia Rose's Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy (2003), filmmaker Mya B.'s documentary, Silence: In Search of Black Female Sexuality in America (2004), Charlotte Pierce-Baker's Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape (2000), Lori S. Robinson's I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse (2003), and of course Simmons's NO! The Rape Documentary (2006/2007). However, these works also foreground change and the potential for healing, and, at their best, forward an inclusive narrative that doesn't hide painful histories in shame. This new narrative tells the whole of its story, simultaneously calling for both a present and future where that story evolves and compels us to a new place, and is an integral part of the building of that new place, for all concerned.


Endnote I:
A Long Walk Home, Inc., the non-profit organization co-founded by Salamishah Tillet "which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children."

*quoted from "After Your Nap (for Maria)", Brigit Pegeen Kelly, To the Place of Trumpets (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988).

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