When women write there are a number of walls that surround them. It calls into question not only the established science of geometry but also all the aesthetic parameters and creative possibilities of architecture. Because women live in so many rooms at once, including their homes, their jobs, their schools and their very bodies, the interconnectedness of these spaces defies necessarily separate designations.
I once lived in a room in Philadelphia, a one-bedroom apartment, with my son, my former fiancé, my books, my bed, and all of the odor and noise and silence of inner city high rises. I didn’t know it then but I very much lived inside my body, with everything I did, and thought I was, sort of layered on top of it like winter clothes. This is including the room.
I was raped in that room, lying, forced down, on a bed with no sheet, with my jeans ripped open and a torn Princeton Day School sweatshirt. I met him when I was just a baby. He was five years older then me and I had only just graduated from high school. He forced a pillow down over my face. Our son was screaming in the middle of the dining room. I remember him holding our son upside down by one ankle. I remember praying.
Yvonne Vera remembers,
“I learned to write when I was almost six and at the same time also discovered the magic of my body as a writing surface . . . Using the edges of my fingernails or pieces of dry grass broken from my grandmother’s broom I would start to write on my legs. Here we wrote near the bone and spread the words all the way to the ankles. We wrote deep into the skin where the words could not escape. Here, the skin was thirsty, it seemed, and we liked it.”
Although Vera insits elsewhere in this same article that the “best writing” is “ungendered,” I would argue that her own early experience with writing, outlined in the passage above, is dependent upon her arriving into girlhood and her discovery of her feminine form. Just as she learned as a girl to write her own history on her body, black women map their lives, single and collective, onto their body through writing and other forms of artistic expression. Film, is one of these forms, that is interconnected with writing and the body, particularly in the case of black feminist works. The black female body is a template for ideas, hidden and exposed, documented in diverse mediums.
Remembering writing, as Vera demonstrates, is an exercise intimately tied to the body. It involves imagining the body of the writer, and this is how race, gender and class become imposed on writing, as well as digesting writing inside your own form. I remember the writing of James Baldwin first; the forcefulness of The Fire Next Time, compounded with the eloquence of perfectly flawless lines and logic wrought from the body of an intensely marginalized, courageous man. I remember Krik? Krak!, the collection of short stories by Edwidge Danticat that I found in a high school book fair, right before she became my second-favorite writer. I re-mem[ber] Beloved and Toni Morrison, the kind of academic I want to be, like Lorene Cary and Toni Cade Bambara. I remember these writings/writers in a roll call that reflects our shared cultural heritage. This is in fact how I write.
On the pages of their writings, or “bodies of work”, I find my own. “Word!” “I don’t know if it’s that deep!” “So he does believe in God, he just believes that God is White and that is why Blacks have been given the shit end of the stick.” “My point exactly!” “Can I write like this someday?””If I ever write something major to be published I am going to use “she” as my pronoun throughout.” “memory.” “history.” “history + memory.”
My earliest memories of writing are set in my elementary school librarian’s castle, a maze of wooden bookshelves with a rectangle of desks and chairs in the middle, adjacent to an office, covered in frogs. I remember writing “L.E.V.E.R.E.T.T.,” while reciting it in a singsong, over and over at the front desk; so proud to be the early reader and expert speller Mrs. Leverett pegged me to be. I remember Frog and Toad and Little Miss Bossy, and that my current investment in teaching, first, before any other occupation, has everything to do with a history of exemplary educators, fully committed to seeing me reach my full potential, starting with Mrs. Leverett.
In and between these memories is the realization that writing, even more so than speaking, for black women, gets at that intricate dance that black women do in order to negotiate their private and public selves. If silence, as Katherine Dunham, has noted, is a necessary component for achieving a total self, then my work has to both speak and listen, and in this sense it is not only a platform, but also a conversation. “We need to be able to be quiet too.”
Being silent as a writer is enabling, and here is where my other self, as a documentary video and photography artist enters in. The experience of standing in rooms, behind the camera, opening up the opportunity for subjects to share their own voices is a valuable experience for a writer/educator. I see this as my opportunity to be totally silent, to pull myself out of the room and into my body in order so that others can speak, uninhibited.
I do not know why the experience of witnessing is similar to the one that both myself and others have lived through during rape, but I know it must have something to do with this paradoxical need that black women have for being silent and finding a voice.
Survivor, Salamishah Tillet, recalls in NO! that during her rape,
“[She] became emotionally numb. [She] withdrew from the experience. [She] didn’t want to be there, and [she] didn’t scream. [She] didn’t know how to scream. [She] was just there, kind of numb, dead, watching it happen to [her].”
I prayed during my rape because I was afraid of being killed. I thought that if I was silent I could not make him any angrier. I probably thought that to a certain degree my mouth had gotten me “into that trouble in the first place.” I was silent because if I stayed alive then I could make sure my son stayed alive also. I was silent because I feared that this might be the night that he decided to silence us all for good.
Writing this, right now, means that I have learned as a black woman to voice myself, even when no one is listening because while our voice should not ever have to be confined to the body or walls we have surrounding us, we have to know that we can speak there too, always.