A performance initiated by Suzanne Lacy
October 19, 2013
Presented by Creative Time & Brooklyn Museum
A public dialogue between bell hooks + Melissa Harris-Perry
November 8, 2013
Presented by the New School University for Social Research
“Shaming is a form of trauma,” writer bell hooks emphasized as she and media host Melissa Harris-Perry debated whether anyone was listening to black women’s voices today. And trauma (in this sense of act as well as impact) is a form of repression, a means to silence, negate, and remove individuals and collective peoples from participation. White women are complicit, she added, in upholding a system that continues to make entertainment out of the abuse of children’s and black women’s bodies. Although the two women disagreed on the value of Steve McQueen’s much lauded anti-slavery film, Twelve Years a Slave, they provided the terms of engagement for an ongoing struggle for respect, pride, dignity, empowerment, and opportunity. Masculinity was not under attack; patriarchy, however, continues to be, these women insisted, a debilitating social, economic, and juridical structure.
A strong, forceful, and determined energy coursed through the standing-room-only crowd at the New School last Friday afternoon and I thought: Yes! this is what I search for in my life…stature and conviction and a collective commitment to support differences so long as they ratify a place at the table. A week before, art critic Lucy Lippard spoke in the same hall but to a very different audience. She asked us to distinguish between the American creed: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the French: liberty, equality, fraternity. One reinforces individual rights while the other emphasizes human relations. Who are we in relation to one another? Some dictionaries assert that sorority is a synonym of fraternity. Is it? Derrida in The Politics of Friendship (1994/7, 57) asks of philosophy’s own fraternal interpretation of history: “How much of a chance would a feminine friend have on this stage? And a feminine friend of hers, among themselves?”
bell hooks has spent a lifetime taking chances to reconfigure this stage to include women, people of color, and LGBT individuals. Artist Suzanne Lacy has also sought to rectify the absence of women’s voices by creating platforms for their speech. In mid-October just as the days felt shorter and the late afternoons were cooling considerably, she initiated a performance of over 300 feminist participants. “Between the Door and the Street” was sponsored by Creative Time and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and made possible through the involvement of some 80 organizations and 120 volunteers. Women of all ages, creed, and color, along with a few men, gathered on the front stoops of a single block in Brooklyn not far from the Brooklyn Museum of Art to talk about issues impacting women and girls today. Sadly, I came to realize while listening to varying groups that those effecting young women had changed little since I sought independence as a young adult decades ago: stories of sexual assault and shaming abounded.
Young women spoke of abusive love relationships. They told of conflicted identities in their experience as immigrants. An older woman referred to “the night of the wolf” as she described a neighborhood overrun by gangs with a cowboy mentality. Voltaire and Toni Morrison were intoned in response to a strict religious upbringing as offering the possibility of creating one’s own bible of values. A group of four men spoke of accepting responsibility in their relations with women. “How much does the media impact our notions of victimhood and give permission for assault?” they asked. “In glamorizing the anti-hero, what kinds of men become the center of our attention?” A group of middle-aged women spoke of juggling jobs and family but there was copious laughter in the telling of their stories. A 23 year-old Punjabi woman created a metaphor of a non-picturesque street view complete with bent sign posts in response to the question: “Right now we have this space to hear people out but how do we go beyond this moment?
As an immigrant trying to assimilate she wanted to be realistic: “I have so many identities and I am only 23! Wearing our identities [as immigrants and as women] is hard.” In another group, five teens spoke of fears and establishing safety zones. On another stoop, five college students considered what it meant to be black, queer, and having a sub-standard education. One described finding strength beyond her epilepsy to make space for others. All participants wore dark clothing and a bright yellow scarf to create a visual unity to the enormous diversity of race, background, and ages represented. As the dwindling light left a chill in the air, one loaned another hers to use as a shawl. Others passed an amethyst from one to another to designate the speaker. Further down the block, women stood and changed seats to reinvigorate their conversation.
And so I zigzagged back and forth across the street to discern the range of ideas and topics as well as garner a picture of the women and men who participated. They were all beautiful – 300 portraits as compelling as the Mona Lisa and as complex as Faith Ringgold’s narrative quilts – but vocal and active, gaining strength through sharing to assuage the hurt, anger, frustrations, and despair of being squeezed into molds they do not fit. The conversations continued from 4:30 until 6:00 and then a song rose from the middle of the street signaling participants and viewers to blend together in a block party atmosphere. My last listening sojourn was at the base of a front stoop occupied by teens and women in their twenties. They were members of Girls Write Now, a mentorship program that pairs high school students with professional writers. Determined to modify the perception that change for women came at someone else’s loss, one offered that feminism be reframed as the “thoughtfulness of interaction.” Their willingness to share openly in public was a generous gift and I was grateful to be privy to all the conversations that afternoon.
Present on the front stoops of Brooklyn mid-October and in the New School audience early November, was a vast set of experiences translated into a plenitude of identities; but, clearly, no matter what roles women achieve in business, government, religion, education, media, literature, and the arts, they still feel the uncertainty of a future left to the whims of a patriarchal society. bell hooks after publishing her most successful book was dropped by her publisher without explanation, while MS magazine questioned why she had “dropped out.” “Is writing dropping out?” she exclaimed. Melissa Harris-Perry acknowledged her position as television host could be terminated at will and that she had compromised her writing in taking on such a demanding public role. But when a woman stood up to ask why is it that poor black women are constantly being blamed for their plight, recounting her own story, Ms. Perry got up from her seat, walked off the stage, pushed away the microphone and stood face-to-face speaking intimately with her for several minutes. They embraced and Ms. Perry returned to give a broad response to the entire audience.
With this gesture of equanimity and respect, she demonstrated accountability for the lives of others. If a moment could absolve the trauma of shame, this is it: the thoughtfulness of interaction all women might imagine and come to know.