an exploration of voice, value, and verity for womynx in the here and now
For Spirit, With Love is part of a long-form series centering the evolution of women(/yn/xn)hood from local (New Haven), regional (New England), national, and international points of reference. The four-part discussion offers brilliant and introspective commentary from female-identified voices.
BY TS HAWKINS
On June 18th, 1997, a collective of bronze brilliance playfully gathered in patterned pajamas and prose for a book club meeting. This majestic meeting of the minds was unlike any other gathering that could’ve taken place on a Wednesday night. Filmed by Oprah Winfrey’s production crew at the home of the illustrious Maya Angelou, it was then Angelou shared:
“…a person says to you, ‘I’m selfish, I’m mean, or I am unkind, or I’m crazy’—believe them! They know themselves better than you do. But, know more often than not, those of us who don’t trust life say ‘don’t say a thing like that.’ ‘You’re not really crazy. You’re not really unkind. You’re not really mean.’ And, as soon as you say that, then ‘whamp’ they show you! […] ‘I told you I was unkind, so why are you angry?!’”
Angelou’s sage wisdom swaddled by Winfrey, was now dispersed to the masses one television screen at a time. Though this assembly of media mavens conversed about intrapersonal connections with menfolx, I couldn’t help but consider how this message translates to the deeper relationship womynx have navigating the nation at large. The levels to which womynx across the gender diaspora have been forced to sit on the sidelines of communal justice, then stand up to defend oneself against personal injustice, to ultimately dissolve into upholding the sanctity of patriarchal mediocrity spans decades and ideologies that shamefully still exhibits itself in the 21st century. Additionally, if you identify as a person of color, your access to thrive continues to descend under the radar.
Since the inception of the thirteen colonies through to the United States lauding its existence as “the great nation”, black and brown womynx have been the backbone of civilization but remain on the backburner of humanity. From the medical industrial complex to the justice system, America—and its complacent denizens continually demonstrate its propensity to be selfish, mean, and unkind through enslavement, police brutality, toxic masculinity, misogyny and misogynoir, just to name a few. Routinely labeled oversexed, conniving, overbearing, uppity when educated, or enraged when the pacificity of being oppressed no longer appeases the authors of supremacy, black and brown womynx remain determined to persevere. Most times this happens through the arts. The arts give a pathway to seek progressive sovereignty and scream into an abyss where others dare whisper to demand change. It’s not that an artist isn’t “trusting life” to unfold as Angelou touted, it’s the desire of hope to shift a lurid legacy for the betterment of everyone.
At fourteen years old, Winfrey and Angelou’s, now legendary lesson hadn’t crossed my purview. Thus, having a black old school southern upbringing, the message wasn’t far from reach. Even back then, it wasn’t hard to notice how different I was in comparison to the other suburban children in my neighborhood. However, it was the love of the arts—the theatre stage for me particularly at the time—that leveled the playing field of human interaction. It was those moments on stage that we all shared the common thread of escaping our realities to story a different journey through another voice who had the capacity to bowtie a “happily ever after.” It was on a high school stage that I witnessed how the arts have the capability to capture the hearts and minds of the most soiled souls; the unaided arrow that struck with purpose.
With every joy of performing on stage, over time it became difficult to ignore how institutions charged with safeguarding the arts began to mimic the venomous systematic structures most folx were looking to abscond from and/or transform through craft. Many black box and mainstage opening nights celebrated board members and administrative staff who neglected to mirror the community penned in donorship mission statements. It was disheartening to observe leadership reflecting the arts in this manner. After years of watching colleagues being regulated to performing in black-only canons, being ensemble to all-white principles, or frontline tokens to white facing administrators, I was determined to manifest work for black and brown bodies to bloom in their own magnificence. Tending to that newfound expedition didn’t come without copious weeding maintenance. As a black, queer, non-binary, femme-presenting creative, in order to bridge vast communities, there were times I had to conceal parts of my intersections so others could “feel safe” in making space for black and brown voices. Or the cyclical frustration of being forced to extravagantly produce work in the margins only to have mainstream organizations engulf black and brown successes as an aside under their “established” banner when fiscal profits felt threatened. To this day, having to steer the multiple intersections is exhausting. At the dawn of a new decade, you wouldn’t think that the act of existing would spiral civilization into emotional and economic chaos. Nevertheless, I continue onward but not without making time to surround the spirit with some bronze brilliance of my own design.
It is my every wish to have had Maya Angelou’s landline at the ready, but I’m abundantly grateful to have been mothered and mentored by daring kweens throughout my career and life journey. Much like the pivotal book club gathering of 1997, I delight in any opportunity to sit a spell with creatives that can heal the worry of the world with a conversation or a call-to-action. As a writer, Ntozake Shange taught me that the language of poetry extends grace beyond measure. As a poet, Dr. Kimmika LH Williams-Witherspoon displayed how words ignite life and reflect the righteousness of your actions. As an activist, Keisha L. Johnson instilled the importance of inspired communal accountability. As a producer, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, through her shared inheritance, showcased the need of ownership to one’s purpose and advocacy for black and brown voices on a national platform. As an artist, Lois Moses ushered the understanding of tranquility to my soul and spirit. As a person, my mother embodied limitless resilience and each day I rise to personify the same. These bold, boundless, and bright Black womynx never hesitated to show me who they were. Through late night phone calls, books, and testimonials, sometimes to the worst of their highs & lows, they allow me to stand on their shoulders to extend my grasp to make space for other black and brown womynx to flourish.
Despite the milestones achieved by various womynx of color, the current social climate continues to be harsh. Heeding the words of Mother Angelou, womynx have noticed the onslaught of ways society and its parishioners can be disparaging. Yet, why can’t womynx resist the urge to be actively livid and walk away? Is it possible womynx are still angry because they know the world doesn’t have to operate at its present societal dysfunction?
Across the nation, institutions are grasping for the chance to highlight the 100th anniversary of women fighting for the right to be seen, heard, and respected. This moment of time in which womynx are paraded for sport under the veil of support and acknowledgment for the future womankind. But what happens when the year concludes? Will the provision for womynx’s existence dim again? How will local, national, and federal entities secure the legacy of womynx without it having to be siphoned through a polluted pipeline, a march, years of back deal legislation, ill-advised diversity and inclusion committees, or a hashtag? When will womynx no longer have to beg, spar, or silence their voice for their birthright to be acknowledged as commonplace? When will womynx, especially black and brown womynx, be considered human sans amendment? Alas, I digress.
So yes, when someone (or something) shows you who they are, believe them. But know you have the power to manifest magic outside their rubric of your merit. As you trek to cornerstones unknown to prosper by your own means, bring a few more womynx with you along the way. What the nation has shown us is that when our homes, our craft, and our governments continue to relish in selfishness, mire in meanness, and perpetuate unkindliness, womynx are each other’s salved serenity.
TS Hawkins is an internationally recognized author, performance poet, arts educator, and playwright.