Happy International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day! Here’s to the heroes, leaders, inspirations, and trailblazers. Here’s to all the women who navigate the complexities of an intersectional life. Here’s to the trans* women living proudly and refusing to prove their gender to anyone. Here’s to the women breaking glass ceilings and sports records and stereotypes and boundaries. Here’s to the women having it all, and acting as role models for their children. Here’s to the women making scientific breakthroughs, creating brilliant works of art, writing groundbreaking laws. Here’s to the women running the shops, working the factory floor, farming the fields, cooking the food, cleaning the offices, answering the phones. Here’s to the women working tirelessly every day in hospitals, schools, care homes, youth centers, job centers, hospices, and nurseries to improve the lives of others. Here’s to the women who consciously bring love and joy to everything they do.

And perhaps most importantly and most rarely commented on in these types of things — here’s to all of us when we’re not being heroes, when we’ve had a shit day and eat ice cream for dinner, when we lose our temper with our significant other or make a mistake at work that can’t be fixed, when we stay in our comfort zone and don’t try the hard thing, when we cry and rage and refuse to work the second shift. Here’s to us remembering that we don’t have to be super strong or super caring or super giving or super smart to deserve the admiration of others.

Here’s to us being fully human, and to the feminist and womanist movements that work to create a world that sees us as such, respects us as such, and structurally supports us as such. Here’s to us knowing that we are worthwhile just by being, and to creating a world that honors that.

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Black History Month: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures does its job well, telling the uplifting story of three trailblazing black women at NASA in the ’60s by showing some Obviously Racist Policies that the main characters Resist With Dignity until Good-at-Heart White People learn some Valuable Lessons and Civil Rights Are Won and Racism Defeated, all in Tasteful Period Costumes. Well, that’s a little bit how the movie works, and it’s no surprise that it does; if you’re going to get a major studio picture made about race in America, and pick up those Oscar nominations, you have to take the prestige approach. But what I liked best about this movie was that it doesn’t just stick to the template. There are wonderfully powerful and subversive moments throughout Hidden Figures.

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Black History Month: Girls Trip

In recent years, Hollywood has seen #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp, and it has generally responded with a shrug of the shoulders and a few token awards and wider releases to appease the masses of us who just want better representation, fair pay, and a safe and equal place to work. In this context, enter 2017’s Girls Trip, which is at once a reflection of real issues in women’s lives (love, career, friendship) and a raunchy group comedy that gloriously pushes the bounds of what we’re used to seeing on screen in a major studio release.

In this movie, black women are allowed to let loose and let fly like they rarely are in movies and indeed in real life. Part of this is the privilege of class — these are upper-middle-class women, except for Regina Hall’s character, who is rich and about to get richer — but also it’s because reality is only allowed so much rein here. The women get into a fistfight in a club and then sneak out the side door, no one the wiser. They get off their faces on absinthe and laugh about it later, rather than being kicked out for inappropriate behavior. In short, they’re friends goofing around and getting into mild trouble, like in The Hangover or Bridesmaids or any other film that allows groups of friends to kick back without any real consequence. Continue reading

Black History Month

For longer than I’ve been alive, the US has celebrated Black History Month in February.  The risk of having a month like this is that schools and other institutions only focus on the struggles, accomplishments, contributions, and real-life issues and joys of black folks during the shortest month of the year. But if done right, it can be a jumping-off point to discussing these things and setting them properly in the wider historical and social context.

For every day in the month of February, I’m going to write about a piece of art made by a black person. I’m mostly going to focus on those works of art I enjoy and/or things I think are well done, but there may be the occasional reassessment of a favorite. Why me, a white woman in her mid-30s? Well, it’s my blog and I want to, hello, welcome. But also, a big part of our problem is white folks not paying enough attention or engaging critically enough with black folks’ words and work. I can be part of that re-engagement.

So tune in every day now through the 28th for more!

Spoiler alert: I’ll be doing the same thing for Women’s History Month in March.

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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern

If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”

The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.

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April 4 by Sam Gilliam

Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.

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America the Beautiful by Norman Lewis

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Processional by Norman Lewis (apologies for the slight blurriness)

My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.

The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.

Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.

Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.

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I Got Rhythm by Betye Saar

A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”

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Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell

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Detail of Black Prince by Wadsworth Jarrell

Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.

One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.

There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.

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Bill & Son by Roy DeCarava

Me Too

Me too.

Have you been catcalled walking down the street? Called “sweetheart” at work? Had to plaster a smile on your face while clients hit on you because “you’re in a customer-facing role”? Forced yourself to laugh along with the taxi driver because it’s dark out and he knows your address? Walked the last few blocks home with your keys out, grateful your mom taught you this but wishing she’d never had to?

Me too.

Have you said “I have nothing to wear” not because ladies are ditzes who buy too many clothes, but because you’ve still not found that magical outfit that will protect you from the leers and comments and gropings of strange and familiar men in the workplace, the subway, the bar? Have you worn what you wanted to anyway, and tried to not think “you knew what you were getting when you put this on” when the leers and comments and gropings appeared?

Me too.

Have you tried to turn the times you’ve been sexually harassed into comic stories – you have to laugh or you’ll cry? Have you kept the incidents that are too serious to be turned into a funny story to yourself?

Me too.

Did you at one time believe them when they said you were too fat or too ugly or too something for anyone to want to assault you? Did you feel somehow doubly betrayed when they assaulted you anyway?

Me too.

When you were assaulted, did you immediately remind yourself that others have it much worse, and that comparably what you experienced is not so bad? Did you not tell anyone for some time? Did you find it hard to name it to yourself?

Me too.

Have you noticed that I haven’t even used the word “men” once yet? Did you not notice because there’s no need to name the thing that is always there, the menacing presence that hovers on the periphery of your daily movements, and all too often forces itself into the center of your life?

Me too.

Are you deeply distressed that “a menacing presence” is a valid way of thinking about men, since statistically speaking they are the ones who harass, beat, rape, abuse, murder? Do you wish there were some failproof way to know if any man you meet is going to be one of those ones? Do you have many wonderful men in your life? Do you wish you had more?

Me too.

Are you wondering why more of the men in your life aren’t speaking up today? Wondering why you don’t see them taking concrete steps to intervene when they see sexual harassment, to call their friends out when they say something sexist, to take a friend aside and ask if they realize that what they’re doing is hugely harmful? Wondering why men aren’t proactively suggesting rigorous (not checkboxes-style) sexual harassment training at work? Why they’d still rather make a joke than a real change in their behavior?

Me too.

Are you reading this and feeling unseen and unknown, because you are a man or non-binary person who has experienced sexual harassment and assault? Or because a woman is the one who assaulted you? Or because your experience includes additional layers of abuse involving race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, class?

I see you. I believe you.

Are you angry that even though we’ve said it over and over again, we’re being asked to say it again? Are you furious that it is on the survivors and victims to say something, that the harassers and abusers and rapists can continue on with their day unaffected – which is always true for them anyway? Are you livid that the norm is for their lives to be wholly unaffected by what they have done to you, while you’ll carry it with you for forever?

Me too.

Are you heartbroken by the sheer number of people who are posting today – and from such a wide swathe of your life? Have you seen your former teachers post, the priest of your childhood church, parents of your friends, community elders, not to mention what seems like every single one of your peers? Are you holding them all in your heart, including those who don’t use social media or chose not to post but definitely have experienced sexual harassment and assault?

Me too.

Are you holding a bit of hope that maybe this time, more HR departments will fire the harasser instead of retaliating against the whistleblower, more colleges will expel the rapist instead of punishing the victim, more people will say “we’re on her side” instead of “I see both sides and I’m sure he’s sorry,” more men will do the hard work of holding each other accountable instead of looking away and feeling guilty? That maybe more people who have felt alone now feel less so?

Me too.

 

Where in the World Wednesday

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Trafalgar Square, London, England; January 21, 2017

It’s International Women’s Day — wear red in support of women striking for equality, and if you’re a woman who can strike today, please do!

Here’s a quick primer on the day.

Advent Calendar for Social Justice

Check out the Advent Calendar for Social Justice here!

We have one month left before we’re in 2017, and although it’s tempting to just curl up into a ball until it’s over, we know that we need to prepare to live in a Trump world. (For the many people who see how this year has just pulled back the mask on what wasn’t all that well hidden to begin with – I hear you. I’m sorry it’s taking some of us so long to figure it out.) Okay, so let’s live in this world, let’s make it as good as we possibly can, and let’s do it together.

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I used to be a weekly churchgoer, and the rhythms of the church year still echo in my life. The season leading up to Christmas is called Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, during which Christians prepare for the coming of the savior of the world. They prepare for the end of the world as we know it and the arrival of a better world we can barely imagine. This year, we are preparing for what certainly feels like the end of the world, and it’s hard to see anything beyond it. Trump is the opposite of a savior, no matter how he brands himself in his populist speeches. So this year we need to prepare ourselves to be our own saviors, to save ourselves from what we’ve allowed to happen. (I’m speaking mostly to my fellow straight white cis folks here – people of color and queer folk have been doing the heavy lifting since forever.)

This election seems to have served as a wake-up call for many of us. It’s not right that it took a loss that will devastate so many lives and alter the fabric of our democracy to serve as such, but here we are. So now what? is the question I see most frequently on Facebook, Twitter, in the news. There are a lot of good answers out there, from better thinkers than I. Read them, discuss them with friends and family, take action.

But for what it’s worth, here is my “what now?” response. Advent is a time of preparation, so let’s prepare. For each day of December, I’m going to take concrete action that makes me more prepared to resist the Trump presidency, or that offers some resistance now, or that contributes something good and kind to the world. Some of these actions can be done anywhere in the world, and some are US-specific.

I also think it’s important to do a mix of overtly political and more community-building or “good deeds” type things. Especially if you haven’t been politically active before, you may find this a little intimidating, but what we’ve seen from the way Trump’s campaign was run, and now after the election, is that white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia play a prominent role in people’s political decisions and everyday lives. Coaching Little League builds community, yes, please keep doing that — but also see how you can assist your local Black Lives Matter chapter, to build community in that way as well. And artists — keep creating, always. Artists are vital.

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Will you join me for this month? Especially for people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves political, or who don’t have much experience with activism, I tried to make this an accessible collection of things to do that will show how easy it is to fit these things into our busy lives, and how it’s not that scary to do.

If you have suggestions, please comment. Share this with anyone you like. The key is to take action, and to do it together. So call your mom, talk to your coworker, make a new friend, and go all in. As Angela Davis recently said, “How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.”

Here is where I was going to put the calendar, but I can’t get it to embed. So please click through to the Advent Calendar for Social Justice. Be sure to click on each day to see notes and useful links with further info for each action item.

This calendar is intended as a helpful tool for people who want to do something, but aren’t sure where to start. I hope it will help you sample different ways of taking action, so that in the new year, you’ll be better prepared to really dig in to volunteering, donating, and organizing roles. I’d love your feedback. I consider it a live document and will adjust it as necessary.

Shout-out to Liz and Emmett for providing excellent advice and action items.

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Resources for Educating Yourself and Taking Action:
Accomplices Not Allies
A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support
Oh Crap! What Now? A Survival Guide
Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice
“We’re His Problem Now” Calling Sheet
What Educators Can Do to Support Undocumented Students
What to Do Instead of Calling the Police

Organizations Fighting the Good Fight:
350
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Black Lives Matter
Campaign Zero
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Emily’s List
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Disability Rights Network
National Women’s Law Center
Planned Parenthood
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Southern Poverty Law Center
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
The True Colors Fund
Welcoming Refugees

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The Lady and the Unicorn, a Lesbian Love Story

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, masterpieces of the form from the late 15th/early 16th centuries on display in the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny Museum), have appeared in novels, poems, songs, and as some sharp viewer noticed, on the walls of the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies. Ever since George Sand rediscovered them and wrote about them in the mid-19th century, these tapestries haven’t been exactly obscure. And yet, no one knows quite how to interpret them. There are several theories, the most prominent being that they are about the five senses and the soul, since at the time the tapestries were woven, the senses could be seen as doorways to the sacred but also reminders of our base humanity. The final tapestry, which bears the inscription à mon seul désir (“to my one desire/love” or “by my desire/will alone”), is usually seen as the lady putting aside material things for higher ideals. It could also be about the lady preparing to give up her virginity (unicorns are symbols of chastity but that long horn is also a bit suggestive, so unicorns are generally sexually ambiguous). But these interpretations are all wrong. Clearly, The Lady and the Unicorn series shows the lady and her maidservant falling in love.

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Okay, here’s our first tapestry, “Touch.” Our lady is bracing herself, holding on with one hand to the flagpole bearing her family’s crest, and with the other to the unicorn’s horn. The unicorn looks up at her calmly, secure in the knowledge that he is what she needs. She knows what’s expected of her, that she will be married off to a man, but she can’t even bear to look at him, to admit what her future will be. The lady is isolated, just her and the lion and unicorn, and one brave little bunny. Notice that many of the animals here are shackled, chained and unhappy.

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Ooh, our lady and her maidservant meet here in “Taste.” Right away, the lion and unicorn are up on their hind legs, reflecting that feeling you get when you meet someone you’re immediately attracted to–you feel alert, alive, like you have to stand up and take more notice of the world. Notice that the animals are unchained and free now, and several of them have joined the women and lion and unicorn on the little island. Everyone feels like more things are possible now. The maidservant is offering up a bowl of sweets to the lady, literally offering up something sweet for the lady to taste. How does the lady feel about that? Well, she would never be so unrefined as to have her hair blown back, but her veil is waving about behind her. A little bird lands on an outstretched finger, a little symbol of freedom. Check out the look on the unicorn’s face; he knows that serious competition has just arrived.

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In “Smell”, our lady and maidservant get to know each other better, as they hitch up their skirts for the work of the day, a gesture of intimacy we haven’t seen yet. Our lady, who before was so overcome with feeling that she had to glance shyly away from her maidservant, is now able to look her right in the eye. Our maidservant holds up a tray of flowers, from which our lady gathers blossoms to make into a garland. Delicate lady-flowers are definitely in play here.

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Look, now they are literally making music together. In “Hearing,” our lady plays the notes on the organ while our maidservant works the bellows. This is a two-person job, and dare I say they have to be perfectly in tune with one another to do it properly? The lion is even sort of turned away to give them some privacy, although he can’t help peeking. The unicorn is coming around to the idea of this whole arrangement; the tilt of his head seems to be saying, “Go on, babe, I see what you’ve got going here.” Our wonderful maidservant looks frankly at her lady, as she has done in all the tapestries she’s been in so far. No maidenly shyness here; she knows what she wants and she’s looking right at her. I’m pretty sure we have not one but two goats on the little island as well (goats being well-known symbols of randiness).

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In “Sight,” our lady bids farewell to the unicorn. Our maidservant isn’t here–she has tact–so our lady looks almost sorrowfully at the unicorn as she breaks it to him that this is never going to work between them. But look at him, he’s pretty sanguine about the whole thing. He rests his hooves on her legs and gazes at her with affection. He’s not going to get in the way. She holds up a mirror so he can see himself, and what he sees isn’t a reflection of himself now but as he will be in the near future–alone, maybe, but head held high and looking out for what’s next.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Finally, here we are on the final tapestry, which shows a little tent, a bench, and our maidservant holding up a big ol’ chest of jewelry for our lady. Perhaps she’s placing the necklace back in the chest because she doesn’t need material items to be happy, just the love of this woman. Perhaps she’s taking a necklace out of the chest to give to this woman as a token of her affection. Perhaps she’s getting undressed because they’re about to go inside that tent and get busy. But whatever she’s doing with the jewelry, it’s clear what she’s doing with her future: she’s building it with this woman, her maidservant becoming her partner. A little lap dog appears for the first time, a symbol of domesticity. The lion and unicorn hold up a long veil that looks remarkably similar to what women often wear on their wedding day. And now that ambiguous phrase overhead makes sense: à mon seul désirIt both means “to my only desire/love,” as she gives her heart over to her maidservant, and also “by my desire/will alone,” as she lives her life according to her own desires and not by what was expected of her. She still displays her family’s flags proudly, she’s not trying to reject them, and look she’s even still friends with the unicorn (in a he’s-bowing-down-to-her kind of way). But she knows what she wants, and she’s looking right at her.