Friday, September 11, 2009

Eye to Eye: A Poetic Exercise

Greetings loved ones! This is a talk that I did at the very first LGBTQ school-wide program yesterday at Bennett College (a historically black college for women in Greensboro, NC).

To watch a video of the entire program see:

For the class of 2013 at Bennett College

Good morning Bennett Belles! My name is Alexis Pauline Gumbs and I am a queer black trouble maker, an afro-Caribbean grandchild and love embodied. I stand here this morning in the legacy of Audre Lorde, black feminist lesbian poet mother warrior, doing our work. I bring you an interactive embodied poetic exercise called eye to eye. Are you ready to interact? Are you awake? If you can hear me say “Audre Lorde lives!”

Thank you! This exercise is about healing. About what it means to love ourselves and to love each other as black women. Raise your hand if you have ever heard a black woman say some version of this: “I don’t really like to be around too many females. Too much drama. Women are shady. Can’t trust them. We can be associates, but I don’t really have to many female friends.” Raise your hand if you have heard a black woman or girl say that. Picture her in your mind. Close your eyes. What did she look like? How did her face look when she said that? Did she look peaceful? Resigned? Disappointed? On the verge of laughing? On the verge of telling someone off? What did she look like? Keep your eyes closed and raise your hand if you, yourself have ever said or thought something like that. “I can’t really let too many females get close to me. They talk behind your back, they try to steal your man or push up on your girl?” Keep your hand up if you have ever said or thought something like that yourself. Open your eyes, and look at me. Everything I say about black women, is true, about myself.

The other day a beloved comrade of mine told me that a young woman in a workshop he was leading about self-love and self-esteem said something to him the other day that is ridiculous enough to be funny, but is actually a logical extension of this thought about other women that many of us have had: “Love myself?” she said, with a disgusted look on her face. “Eww. That’s gay.” I laughed out loud when I heard my friend, a gay man, tell me this story. But at the end of the day, this is not a rare belief, and the costs are to cruel to be funny. We are taught so vigilantly not to love black women, we are taught, through violence and racism and sexism daily that black women are not worthy of love, we are taught that it is an amoral, disgusting thing to love a black women, and we have learned the lesson so well that we have forgotten how to love and affirm the black woman we know best. We have forgotten how to love ourselves.

I am talking about this to you because you might have the occasion to interact with a few black women over the next few years. Like everyday, all day, in class, in the dorm, in the hall, in the dining hall, in your own imagination. You have chosen brilliantly to be in a community created every day by and for black women. I am a proud graduate of a women’s college, but the power in this room, the singular majestic power of a college that is about one thing, the genius of black women, is miraculous to me. And I envy you. But that’s because I love black women. I love myself fiercely. If you are in here, surrounded by black women and you are fighting feelings of jealously, mistrust, judgement about your sisters your choice to be here at Bennett College for women is inconvenient at best. But this is also an incredible opportunity to learn how to love all different kinds of black women, and it matters that you LOVE black women, which is different than dealing with, smiling in the faces of, or tolerating other black women. The extent to which you love your sisters here at Bennett is the extent to which you can and will love yourself.

In the early 1980’s in Essence Magazine Audre Lorde, warrior poet mother icon, wrote about exactly this issue:

“We are African women and we know in our blood’s telling, the tenderness with which our foremothers held each other. It is that connection which we are seeking. We have the stories of Black women who healed each other’s wounds, raised each other’s children, fought each other’s battles, tilled each other’s earth, and eased each other’s passages into life and death. We know the possibilities of support and connection for which we all yearn and which we dream of so often. But connections between Black women are not automatic by virtue of our similarities, and the possibilities of genuine communication are not easily achieved..”

“Often we give lip service to the idea of mutual support and connection between Black women because we have not yet crossed the barriers to these possibilities, nor fully explored the angers and fears that keep us from realizing the power of a real Black sisterhood. We cannot settle for the pretenses of connection, or for parodies of self-love. We cannot continue to evade each other on the deepest level s because we fear each other’s angers, nor continue to believe that respect means never looking directly, nor with open-ness into another Black woman’s eyes. I was not meant to be alone and without you who understand.

Okay. Here comes the interactive part. What better time to interact intimately with another black woman than now. We are about to experiment with how difficult, uncomfortable and unfamiliar it feels to look directly into another black woman’s eyes. Please choose a black woman sitting near you who you do not know well, maybe someone sitting in the row in front of you or behind you. Does everybody have someone. Work it out y’all…everyone needs a partner. Someone you do not know or someone you are just getting to know.

Okay. So now look into that sisters eyes. Directly. It’s not a staring contest. You can blink, just don’t look away. Keep looking. Keep looking. Breathe. Let your eyes settle on your sister’s face. Think about how much she reminds you of yourself, think about how different she is from you. Do not look away. For 30 more seconds just chill. Look into your sister’s eye and breathe.

So how did that feel? Awkward? Strange? Did it get less or more uncomfortable for you? Were you aware that you were looking at an amazing person? Were you afraid that she was seeing the crust in your eyes from earlier this morning? How did you feel? I did this in a middle school class once and one girl whispered loudly “I think that lady’s a lesbian” which is fine, because I am a proud queer black woman and I stand here in the legacy of Audre Lorde, black lesbian genius warrior poet. But this is not some kind of gay conversion exercise. This is about learning how uncomfortable we are just looking at other black women face to face, eye to eye, and over coming that so we can really build sisterhood with each other and love ourselves. How often have you really looked any black woman in the eye for a significant period of time. That was only one minute. It felt like a lifetime because of the lifetimes we have spend avoiding each other. Have you looked in your mother’s eyes, your grandmother’s eyes, your aunts, your sister’s, your cousins?

Why not? This is what Audre Lorde said:

“We do not love ourselves, therefore we cannot love each other. Because we see in each other’s face our own face, the face we never stopped wanting. Because we survived and survival breeds desire for more self. A face we never stopped wanting at the same time as we try to obliterate it.

Why don’t we meet each other’s eyes? Do we expect betrayal in each others gaze, or recognition?”

What is dangerous about a black woman who loves black women? What is dangerous about a black woman who loves herself? What does society get from us when we are afraid to love ourselves and each other. I want us to support the students in BRIDE in really bringing out the conversation about what everyone loses in a homophobic society and to remember that homophobia in the black community isn’t really about sex. It is really about fear. How afraid are we to love each other, even as sisters, even as friends, even as students and mentors? How afraid are we to love ourselves and what are we missing?

Thank you for your bravery. Thank you for you attention this morning, thank you for looking at yourself with love and honesty, eye to eye.


Abena said...

Beautiful! :)

Very well written and well said.

ms. bliss honeycomb said...

absolutely amazing. thank you.

i went to an all-female high school full of mostly black women, and it taught me some profound lessons that i still carry with me.

peace & blessings.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this.

lex said...

thanks so much sistas. keep being your amazing selves!