Four Women (Part 1)

Over the course of Hollywood’s relatively short history, representations of minority groups have all too often been reduced to stereotypes. Black men and women in particular have had to watch Hollywood represent their own communities through such stereotypes as: the “Tom;” the “Coon;” the “Tragic Mulatto;” the “Mammy;” and the “Buck” (Shohat 195).

These stereotypical roles not only draw attention to the skewed, one-dimensional view of race in Hollywood (and perhaps the United States more broadly), but they also draw attention to the complex relationships between representation, performance, and stereotypes (Shohat 195).

Filmmaker Julie Dash explored these issues in one of her earlier short films, Four Women, which sets dance to Nina Simone’s ballad of the same name.

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The four women described in Simone’s song represent four common stereotypes of Black women in America: the strong “Aunt Sarah;” the ‘tragic mulatto,’ “Saffronia;” the sex worker, “Sweet Thing;” and the militant “Peaches” (UCLA Film and Television Archive). Through her performance, Nina Simone brings the voices of these four characters to life in a way that links both their similarities and differences as Black women in America.

My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara (“Four Women”).

According to Mirielle Rosello, “the problem in thinking about stereotypes … is our stereotypes about them” (in Williams 82). Linda Williams explores this idea further:

“Rosello argues that stereotypes are important objects of study not because we can better learn eliminate them from our thinking, but rather because they cannot be eliminated. Stereotypes persist, and perhaps thrive upon, the protestations against them … ” (Williams 82).

What is required then, are analyses that shine a light on the changing historical contexts of stereotypes (William 82). In other words, we need to change how we approach the study of stereotypes if we wish to effectively understand how they exist and thrive over time.

For example, Richard Dyer (1984) critiques the stereotypical representations of homosexuality in films, but does so by looking at the roots of the representation, rather than attacking the stereotype itself. As he points out, “Righteous dismissal does not make stereotypes go away, and tends to prevent us from understanding just what stereotypes are, how they function, ideologically and aesthetically, and why they are so resilient in the face of our rejection of them” (Dyer 353).

Similarly, Ella Shohat argues that while “stereotypes and distortions” analyses do highlight the issues surrounding “social plausibility and mimetic accuracy” in media, their “obsession with ‘realism'” tends to paint the world in black and white – as “errors” and “distortions,” between “truths” and “lies” (178).

In other words, preoccupation with the accuracy and realism of stereotyping can be harmful because it ignores the ways in which the politics of representation actually operate within stereotypes. Shohat suggests that this is problematic because it assumes that the reality of a community is somehow “transparent” and “unproblematic,” while inaccurate representations are “easily unmasked” (178). Instead of focusing on the specific realism of certain stereotypes, it is more effective to problematize the social and historical context in which stereotypes are produced.

In the case of Nina Simone, “Four Women” faced ‘righteous dismissal’ upon its release in 1966. It was accused of being insulting to Black women by perpetuating stereotypes, and was subsequently banned by several radio stations.

Perhaps what these critics heard in Simone’s song were the ‘typical’ markers of Black femininity – skin colour, hair texture, social roles, names – the kinds of markers that have been at the root of problematic representations of Black women in the media. While these radio stations may have heard stereotypical representations of women, they did not look beyond the surface to really understand Simone’s message.

In Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (1994), Ella Shohat describes “the burden of representation,” which refers to the synechdochal tendency of ethnic and racial representations (182). For example, colonized peoples tend to be perceived as “all the same,” meaning that any kind of negative behaviour by one member can come to represent the group as a whole, ultimately creating a stereotype (Shohat 183). As Shohat states, “representations become allegorical,” whereby “every subaltern performer/role is seen as synecdochically summing up a vast but putatively homogenous community” (183).

With this persistence of stereotypes, certain communities, such as Black Americans, come to face the “burden of representation” (182-3). Because these stereotypes are produced and projected from outside these communities, sensitivity arises “from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat 184).

We see this sensitivity exhibited through the critique and censorship of Simone’s “Four Women.” After years of seeing Black American’s being represented in stereotypical roles, it is understandable that some people might not have wanted to hear those distorted utterances on the radio (considering that many of the radio stations that banned Simone’s song were primarily Black) (Virgin Island Daily News n.p.). But as Dyer and Williams warn, stereotypes cannot be eliminated that easily (Dyer 353; Williams 82).

Censorship only prevents us from “exposing the reactionary political force” of stereotyping (Dyer 364).

If we look closer, we might see how Simone’s use of stereotypical depictions of Black femininity operates simultaneously as a critique of stereotyping. Instead of placing a cloak on the stereotypical roles for Black women, Nina Simone sings about them, projecting her voice in a way that works to reinscribe Black female subjectivity into the roles promoted by a white, patriarchal Hollywood (and America more broadly). Through the four women, Simone uses four common stereotypes to challenge the social and historical circumstances through which such stereotypes exist and thrive.

My skin is brown / my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me / My name is PEACHES (“Four Women” ).

Through one voice, Nina Simone relays the many (and different) stories and struggles of Black, American women.

“If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger” (Pierpont n.p.).

Later, in ‘Part 2’ of this post, I will explore Julie Dash’s filmic interpretation and re-presentation of Nina Simone’s controversial “Four Women.”

Sources:

Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina   Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,           http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700.

Dyer, Richard. “Stereotyping.” Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer. New York         Zoetrope, 1984.

“Four Women.” UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2014, https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/four-women.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned music into a movement.” The New Yorker, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice.

Shohat, Ella. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking       Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.     Routledge, 1994.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,   https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.

The Virgin Islands Daily News. “Protests continue to mount against the banning of a         recording by Nina Simone,” 1966, Google News, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=grdNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wUQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3795,2693076 &dq=four-women+nina-simone+ban+radio&hl=en. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Williams, Linda. “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and             Interracial Lust.” Freiburger FrauenStudien, vol. 15, 2004.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

legibility and viability

We have a blogging schedule here on saltwaterstories, but I’m afraid that in the busy-ness of administration and end of term, I’ve dropped my part of the ball (can you drop part of a ball?) And so, the timing is all off.

But here I am, in Chester, UK, where the tulips and cherry trees are in full bloom, at the biennial international Talking Bodies conference.

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I can say with full authority that there are no tulips in full bloom in St.John’s right now.

I’ve come to this conference three times – every time, in fact, since its inception in 2013. It’s a highlight on my conference schedule and I’m so very happy that the fantastic creator and organizer of the conference, the incredible and seemingly indefatigable Emma Rees, has seen fit to accept my proposals each time.

There is nothing I like more than thinking and talking about bodies (yes, you can quote me on this). Especially when such conversations happen in a beautiful place like Chester, accompanied by great vegetarian food, and in the company of students, activists, independent researchers, and faculty members from 25 countries.

Sounds like bliss, doesn’t it? I can assure you, it is.

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St. John’s has a cool and colourful downtown, but it doesn’t look at all like this one.

It’s also, as a colleague put it, an endurance test. Emma has us all on a tight and very full schedule! Days begin early and end late. Yesterday was a 12-hour day, with a plenary at 9 pm. The day before was even longer, with a feminist pub quiz to round things out. Tonight we ended just after 9. But earlier today, I played hooky for a couple of sessions to a) pick up a birthday present for my soon-to-be-12-year-old-who-thinks-he’s-a-teenager-already, b) respond to work emails (the curse of being department head), and c) catch up with long-lost blogging.

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One of the things my find-a-birthday-present walk allowed me to do was to really figure out how it was that the different papers I’ve heard fit together. And I think that the comments of one delegate, Emma Hutson, who presented a paper on essentialism and anti-essentialism in cis and trans contexts this morning, summed it up. In response to someone’s commentary about Judith Butler, Hutson replied that it was important to think about the possible tensions between legibility, on the one hand, and viability, on the other. In other words, it is one thing to talk about how one might be properly read and understood in the world – how one is legible enough to be, in Butler’s understandings, grievable) – but the viability of such legibility is something else altogether. That is, sometimes the work of making oneself legible within and against dominant paradigms is just too much.

And here I think that Emma Hutson landed on exactly what I see emerging as a larger theme in the conference (at least in the context of the 24 papers I’ve listened to thus far): the limitations of dominant language and thought systems to articulate the diversity of human experience.

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Hutson’s paper brought me to Delia Steverson’s work on the intersection of disability studies and Black literary studies. In her paper, she examined slave narratives by Moses Roper and William Grimes and observed, during the Q&A, that such slave narratives are always heavily mediated texts, constructed and created with the express purpose of supporting abolitionist causes. To what extent, then, were these texts about making the enslaved legible – as subjects – to a white audience, and what role did the articulation of pain and impairment serve in supporting that move towards legibility? There is, indeed, very little room to manoeuvre in slave narratives; there are accepted stories that can be told, and silences that must be maintained. But what did this mean for those who were not able to work within those parameters?

So, too, was the limitation of language a key element in a trio of papers by Jonathan Hay, Krystina Osborne, and Hanna Etholén that focused on autofiction, a genre that necessarily blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Even the term itself is contested. One could argue about the need for a term at all – why not just write and then publish the damn thing, after all? But if there’s anything that’s become clear in this conference (if it wasn’t clear before), it’s that we’ve been organized into needing categories in order to understand our world. There’s a fiction section. There’s an autobiography section. And things get messy in the spaces between. As readers, we tend to fret when we don’t know if something is true of false. We start to fuss about questions of authenticity. What’s real, and what’s not. And here again, the spectre of legibility rears its head: what we think and feel about authenticity lies at the heart of questions of legibility.

But as the author Chris Kraus, referenced by one panelist, indicated:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.” 

And while one could argue that this relationship between fact and fiction doesn’t matter so much because it’s fiction, or rather, autofiction, the tensions inherent in this terminology are actually symptomatic of much larger issues. What happens if the categories that exist aren’t enough? And what happens to those who do not fit into the categories? Or those who want to escape those categories? What do we do with their stories? What does it mean to be legible? And what kind of work is involved in that process?

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Chester Cathedral – only visible here because the leaves haven’t quite come out yet.

Garjan Sterk discussed the current status of race and racism in The Netherlands. A people that prides itself on being tolerant and open, the Dutch do not have a real word for ‘race.’ The closest approximation – ras – is thought to be too closely aligned with Nazi discourses. But the end result of not having a word is that the Dutch can very easily – and do very easily – argue that ‘We do not have any racism,’ which is patently untrue. Sterk took us through the various twists and turns of ever-shifting government policies and practices around the naming of various groups of ‘others’ through the also shifting parameters of the ‘allochtoon’ and how this shifting language has also affected political organizing among various social justice groups in The Netherlands. And it’s affected Sterk’s own work: as she has personally navigated the muddy waters of race and politics, she’s also started to discover that the traditional model for thesis writing, as she’s been taught it, may not be suitable for the work she’s trying to do, for the story she’s trying to tell. But are there alternatives available for her? How will she navigate that relationship between legibility – within the mainstream academic context – and viability?

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The limitations of current knowledge systems was also front and centre in Katie Myerscough’s paper on the (now infamous) case of Rachel Dolezal, the white American woman who created a Black identity for herself. This is a tough topic to take on at a conference about talking bodies (actually, at any conference) but Katie’s approach, which located Dolezal and the furor surrounding the case within a much longer historical context, was probably one of the more nuanced reading of the situation that I’ve heard or read to date. What was abundantly clear in Myerscough’s argument was that the whole situation (for lack of better way of putting it) – Dolezal’s actions and the responses to it – are the result of centuries of racist policies.

If Rachel Dolezal’s actions have been productive at all, it is because they have shone a blinding light on the messy political, structural, and activist histories around the politics of naming. I don’t think she necessarily intended to do this; her most recent interview, in The Stranger, shows a remarkable level of narcissism and corresponding lack of awareness of the larger context in which her story plays itself out But here we are. As Myercough pointed out, “How we see race might be something we want to think about.” But do we actually have the language to have this conversation?

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And all of this also takes me to my own paper (an expansion and reworking of ideas I explored here). I, too, have hit walls along the way. Walls that point to the failure of the colonial imagination to articulate the humanity of the indentured and the enslaved. Methodological walls that make it challenging to read between, through, behind, and around the archival material that remains. And walls that limit the possible ways for me to tell these stories within the context of academic audiences.

I am increasingly convinced, as my paper for July’s Creative Histories conference  (yaye! Another trip across the pond!) will argue, that the work I have done in this particular research project cannot be adequately captured in a conventional academic format. To make these stories legible in this context, requires some contortions that I am not certain I am fully prepared to make.

I’ll produce some academic articles as a result of this project (I already have), but really, these stories should emerge in another venue. But academia, as it is currently constructed, doesn’t have the language necessary to tell these stories. And as someone trained in this space, I’m not entirely sure I fully have the language yet, either. And so, I muddle along, working it out as I go.

I write.
I rewrite.

I think.
I rethink.

I story.
I re-story.

And in the end, I hope I will find the language to allow the story to tell itself, to emerge the way it wants – and needs – to emerge.

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on the campus at University of Chester

What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.

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Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.

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Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

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Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

The Blur Between

When writing about the making her film Daughters of the Dust (1992), Julie Dash credits the archives for helping shape the historical, ethnographic foundation of her story: a Gullah family at the turn of the century, contemplating northern migration from their Sea Island home to the US mainland.

Turning to the archives myself, I decided to browse the photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “public domain” collection to see what I could find.

One image caught my eye.

It was a photograph by Henry P. Moore of a group of former slaves on a plantation during the American Civil War (1862).

 

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Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

 While in residence, [Moore] made some of the earliest and most poignant Civil War photographs of slave life in the Deep South. Moore focused on the changed lives of African Americans in the aftermath of the Union victory (navy and army) at the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.

 With the departure of their owners, plantation workers in Union-controlled areas were no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42)

 “No longer slaves but not yet free.”

A liminal state.

Caught between a divided nation,

Between time,

Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?

I think what really caught my attention about this photo was the way in which the plantation workers looked towards the camera. I do not know if this photograph was staged or not, but the fact that the Black workers return the gaze of Moore’s camera really jostles the power dynamics of the photographs. In a way, this gaze seems to acknowledge the tripartite relationship between subject-artist-viewer.

But what does this relationship signify? What power structures exist in this frame, and beyond it?

If we take the title, for example, what can we learn?

After the word “negroes” (a word quite out of date, although only so since about the 1970s) there is the bracketed phrase: “Gwine to de Field.”

gwine (gwīn)


  1. Chiefly Southern & South Midland US

A present participle of go1.

[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

The inclusion of this in the title makes me wonder if it was Moore’s conscious attempt to more “authentically” (a loaded word, yes) represent his subjects? Does this title allow the subjects to speak, in a way? Or is Moore exoticizing their own language? Are the subjects ‘othered,’ and silenced through the power structures imbued in this photographic (and somewhat ethnographic) pursuit?

We also learn from the title that this image depicts a plantation on Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This is near St. Helena Island, which is the Sea Island in which Daughters of the Dust was set (the focus of my current research).

Julie Dash has said that she wanted to make Daughters of the Dust to tell untold stories, the untold histories.

What stories are held in the frame? What histories are hidden?

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Moore, Henry P. Detail of “Negroes (Gwine to de Field).” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

I look to the woman on the ride side of the photograph, carrying a child. The skirt of her white dress is blurred, as if caught in the midst of movement. At a glimpse it looks ghostly. Mother and child caught in motion – in a flash of the camera, caught between past and present. They may be caught in between – in the liminal – yet, in their ghostly, blurred visage, they appear to transgress the limits of the photograph.

Moore may have wanted to capture a moment, but what he also captured was (a) movement.

In any case, in that blur, I am reminded of the life behind the image. The stories untold and the histories that still resonate.

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina,” photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42).

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

 

home in a mode of migration

In 2013, I participated in visual artist Pam Hall’s collaborative “Building a Village” project. The premise of the project was simple: Pam would send a house model – photocopied onto white cardstock – to any interested party and we would decorate it as we saw fit. Pam requested $1 to cover the cost of postage but other than that, we were on our own.

My house model arrived early on in the process. But then it languished on my desk as I pondered how best to approach it. Like a true academic, I overthought every step of the process. There were variables to consider. I had to think through authenticity, truth, representation, equity, justice, honesty. I had to ponder my pasts, my futures. I needed an argument, a thesis, a theory. And I had to consider my artistic desires (and also, my inevitable artistic limitations).

“What does home mean to you?”
This quickly became an angst-ridden existential question.

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Lovely Greenspond, NL. There was a house for sale, right by the ocean, when we were there… and we did, for a few foolish moments, contemplate the possibility of buying it…

Because here’s the thing. I’ve lived in 5 countries on 3 continents and my histories span 2 more. I have 2 mother tongues. I learned a third language that I’ve lost completely, and then a fourth that jostles with the first two. I was born in a country that has absolutely no links to my heritage. At our Canadian Citizenship Ceremony, ours was the only family where every single member was born in a different country.

So what does home mean in this context?

All around me, Pam’s project was growing. She kept us all up-to-date with a Facebook page, sharing the new houses as they arrived in her mailbox. Some were intricate; some were colourful. Some were the work of professional artists; others the submissions of interested and keen crafters. Some, like me, just wanted to explore stories. Each one was unique. No two were even remotely similar.

The more I thought, the further my webs unspooled themselves. The more I thought, the more tangled they became.

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Newtown, NL

And then, suddenly, a moment of clarity.

Home, I realized, was not something fixed.

Movement has marked my pasts; it’s also marked my presents. And so, certain of something at last, even if that something was unmoored, I photocopied some historical maps, cut them into tiny pieces, and collaged them to the outside of my house, foregrounding the cities and regions that mattered in relation to my family history, while also leaving room for some sea serpents and other creatures of the wild ocean.

On the inside, I attached my statement: “home,” I wrote, “in a mode of migration.”

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public transport, river crossing, Paramaribo

And that, I thought, was that. I felt pretty proud of myself. I’d solved the puzzle. I felt creative. I felt … certain, comfortable, right.

My little house joined hundreds of others and later became part of Pam’s Houseworks show at The Rooms. [for more views of the “Building a Village” project, click here, here, here, and here)

Imagine my surprise, then, when it dawned on me earlier this year that my enslaved ancestors lived not only in the same country, but on the very same plantation for three generations. And that most of their descendants lived in the same country for the next century.

So much for my theory.
And here I thought that creating a cardboard house caused an existential crisis.

The facts, such as are, make for slim pickings. I knew them, but I hadn’t quite put them together.

So here they are:

Sarah plantation was on the Western side of Suriname. Located along the coast, rather than along the rivers like most of the other plantations in Suriname, it was offered up for development sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. By 1820 or so, the parcel of land originally granted to a man named Dietzel had been sold to John Bent, who appears to have been the first to manage it as a cotton plantation, and thus it was that Sarah plantation was born.

I don’t know when my ancestors arrived at Sarah plantation. The Slave Registers indicate that Frederick Noa, the patriarch, was born in 1798; his mother is listed as “unknown.” To me, this suggests that he arrived at Sarah plantation as an adult, perhaps just as it was being developed. He would have had two young children in tow at the time, and a partner, a woman who is listed as “deceased” in the Register.

And from that point on, he likely stayed at Sarah plantation. His children, including a set of twin daughters – Eva Albertina and Frederica – were born there. And later, his grandchildren, too.

It’s entirely possible that Frederick Noa didn’t leave Sarah plantation between his arrival, likely sometime around 1820 and the abolition of slavery in 1863. Even then, it’s possible that he stayed on until the end of the transition period, in 1873.

So, let’s do the math: assuming an arrival date of 1820, Frederick Noa was enslaved at Sarah plantation for 43 years. His two sons, Edward, Philip Elias were also at Sarah for 43 years, while his daughters, Eva Albertina and Frederica, were there for 36. Add 10 years if they stayed on through the whole transition period.

And now let’s compare this with my own experiences. We’re now closing on 9 years in the same house in St. John’s, which is the longest I’ve ever lived at a single address. I’ve never lived in any community longer than 11 years.

This year – 2017 – will mark 42 years since my parents and I arrived in Canada, 33 since I became a Canadian citizen. It’s one country and it’s a long time. But Canada, with its 5 time zones, is immense and I’ve lived in several provinces.

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Sunrise in St. John’s, almost the eastest of east.

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Tsawassen to Swartz Bay ferry – heading towards the westest of west.

I can’t even begin to imagine 40 years in one location.

How does place – and permanence – affect one’s view of the world, I wonder. How does it affect our understanding of home? If I extended them the invitation, how might my ancestors have imagined home? And can I ever hope to recover any of their imaginings?

What does home mean to you?

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A row of temporary homes along Lumsden North Beach, NL… 

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Fortunately, Lumsden North Beach is huge! 

 

 

stitching theory

stitching theory

A considerable body of research has considered the role of handcrafts – sewing, knitting, crocheting, and the like – in the service of activism. We might consider here Rozsika Parker’s influential The Subversive Stitch (1984/2011) and more recently, Betsy Greer’s publications, Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism (2014), and Knitting for Good: A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch (2008) but also the ever-growing body of scholarly literature on contemporary craftivism and DIY culture (see, for example: Bratich & Brush 2011; Groeneveld 2010; Kelly 2014; Luckman 2013; Pentneny 2008; Solomon 2013; Springgay, Hatza, & O’Donald 2011; Springgay 2010; Williams 2011).

Embroidery, knitting, crocheting – all have experienced a resurgence in recent years. But what does all of this mean? What purposes might handcraft, traditionally aligned with the domestic and the feminine, serve? “The needle is an appropriate material representation of women who are balancing both their anger over oppression and pride in their gender,” Ricia A Chansky writes. “The needle stabs as it creates, forcing thread or yarn into the act of creation. From a violent action comes the birth of a new whole. Women are channeling their rage, frustrating, gilt, and other difficult emotions into a powerfully productive activity” (682).

20-epic-womens-march-signs-from-all-over-world-12Winter had its way with Newfoundland over the past few days. Two days of blizzard conditions have brought us 66 cm of snow, aching shoveling muscles, but also more relaxed brains and bodies, the result of forced closures. The whole city shut down: schools, government offices, the university, banks, public transit. Even the shopping mall and the liquor store were closed. And in that space of winter wind and blowing snow, we cocooned ourselves inside with hot chocolate and scones between bouts of shoveling. I should have spent the entire time writing, catching up with a number of projects. Instead, I spent it in front of the sewing machine, stitching a quilt together.

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shovelling, day 2

I’m not an expert quilter. My current project is only my second. I’m awkward around the machine. I can’t always sew in a straight line. The material bunches in funny places. Sometimes the machine won’t go at all and then I curse it and all things fabric.

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fabrics gathered from family, pillowcases, Ikea, and at thrift shops and….

But the rhythm of the machine also gave me room to think. And what I discovered, after two days of stitching and thinking, is that quilting time is ideal thinking time. Rhythm. Touch. Feel. Sound. Colour. Texture. Routine. All of these worked together. My quilting time wasn’t just about the quilt; it was about all the stuff that’s rattling around in my brain. After several hours together, my fabrics, my thread, and I had worked through not only a quilt, but also the larger ideas that underpinned my research. Together, we told stories. Together, we massaged ideas. Together, we made theory.

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squares. and more squares.

In her essay, “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice,” Lisa M. Heldke argues that “[t]he knowing involved in making a cake is ‘contained’ not simply “in my head” but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.” (219). Theory, here, is profoundly embodied, located in touch, smell, taste, and the body’s memories. Foodmaking, she says, is “theoretically practical” (203; see also Heldke 1988).

As I worked my quilt through the machine, I considered the potential of quilt making, too as a space for embodied thinking, processing, knowing. Of making theory in a material sense. What stories can 400 squares tell? And what new stories emerge when I join them together into a whole?

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the only spot big enough to layer the quilt…

While, as Parker observes, “embroidery and a stereotype of femininity have become collapsed into one another, characterised as mindless, decorative, and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content” (6), it doesn’t have to be this way. Leanne Prain reminds me that “unexpected” embroidery causes us to pause and think anew. After all, “embroidery is a means of communication, the stitches, like handwriting or drawing, make marks. A stitch,” she writes, “can form a mark of love, a mark of hate, or simply indicate, ‘I was here.’” (18).

This ethos is the whimsy that accompanies yarn-bombing, for example, or guerrilla cross-stitch. It’s also the impetus that underpins the Pussy Hat project. A colleague on Facebook admitted to not quite understanding that project until she saw photos of the Women’s March; the sea of pink hats made a bolder statement than she ever could have imagined. But I wonder if the power of the Pussy Hat project lies not only in the final performance, but in the process itself. What spaces for thinking did the process of making the hat enable? How did knitting make theory possible? What theory emerged in the stitches themselves?

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done!

Three years ago, my fourth year students, my colleague Beth Pentney, and I – together with a crew of other volunteers – created a giant bikini bottom as a knitivist commentary on the politics of women’s bodies and the politics of art in Newfoundland and Labrador .

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Knitting accompanied our weekly readings and our seminars. It accompanied all of our thinking and all of our discussions. As one of the seminar students, Mary Germaine, said:

When you knit and you’re with other people, there’s nothing else to do but talk – nobody’s checking their phone when they are knitting . . . in class we are looking at things that are hard to talk about, like what happens to women in Sierra Leone. We’re not socialized to deal with that sort of information. Having our hands busy helped to play out the discussion in a physical way.

 

Knitting made a space for thinking and for working through challenging ideas. Knitting made room for theory. And because it was part of every class, knitting became part of our theory making process: together, we knitted our theory into being. In the words of Betsy Greer (2008):

By allowing our minds to work through what we’re feeling while our hands follow a familiar and comforting rhythm, we allow our emotions to sink in and work their way throughout bodies – from the reluctance of letting our negative feelings settle and root to acceptance of the outcome and the discovery of new paths we can take to make things better …. Knitting creates a safe space in which to sit comfortably, whether with our uncomfortable thoughts … our anxieties … or … our joy. (p. 42)

 

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Handcrafts are ideal vehicles for storytelling and storymaking. As Leanne Prain observes, “textiles can help us learn about ourselves and those around us” (2014, 11). From button blankets to story quilts to embroidered maps and more, the artists and craftspeople profiled in Prain’s Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles demonstrate the myriad ways that textiles can tell stories, often without words.

Textile work makes meaning through touch. The material is the story, is theory.

“Artists may have many reasons to work with textiles,” Prain writes,

but often, their love for the medium of fabric has to do with the sense of touch. Through the nap of velvet, the slight roughness of linen, or the silkiness of angora, fabric can evoke memories. Our childhood memories are filled with fabric, from the blankets we were wrapped in to the scratchy sweaters we were forced to wear to school. Quilts, embroideries, and weavings can hold remembrances both personal and collective, and artists can use them to create biographies, autobiographies, genealogies, and memorials. (2014, 103).

My first quilt, created out of a range of fabrics I bought during the course of two research trips to Suriname, is rich with stories. Stories of my family’s histories, stories of a nation’s histories, stories that haven’t yet been told.

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As I stitched this second quilt, I recalled a Maroon sewing machine displayed in the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo. Carved out of wood, with intricate detailing, the machine was purely ornamental, but its very presence suggested the relevance of sewing to Maroon cultures.

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The anthropologist Sally Price, who has lived and worked with Maroon communities in Suriname for many years, points to the importance of strip quilts as part of Maroon culture. In a more recent online piece, she links this piece work to larger histories of women’s art, considering in particular a politics of collage – termed femmage – that could “[turn] the detritus of earlier…projects” into new “aesthetic wholes.”

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Today, such work might fall into the realm of assemblage theory, or, perhaps, into actor network theory, both of which consider how it is that individual elements gain meaning through their ever-shifting encounters with one another. But I wonder about the lowly patchwork quilt and the work that it has done – and continues to do – to make meaning.

Needles and thread, my two snow days tell me, are not only good to stitch with; they are also good to think with.

 

References

Bratich, J.Z. & Brush, H.M. “Fabricating Activism: Craft-Work, Popular Culture, Gender.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 233-60.

Chansky, Ricia A. “A Stitch in Time: Third-Wave Feminist Reclamation of Needled Imagery.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, 2010, pp. 681-700.

Fields, C.D. “Not Your Grandma’s Knitting: The Role of Identity Processes in the Transformation of Cultural Practices.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014, pp. 150-165.

Greer, Betsy, ed. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.

Greer, Betsy. Knitting for Good! A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch. Trumpeter, 2008.

Groeneveld, E. (2010). “‘Join the Knitting Revolution’: Third-Wave Feminist Magazine and the Politics of Domesticity.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, pp. 259-77.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 203-229.

Heldke, Lisa M. “Recipes for Theory Making.” Hypatia, vol. 3, no. 2, 1988, pp. 15-30.

Kelly, M. “Knitting as a feminist project?” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 44, 2014, pp. 133-44.

Luckman, S. “The Aura of Analogue in a Digital Age: Women’s Crafts, Creative Markets and Home-Based Labour After Etsy.” Cultural Studies Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2013, pp. 249-70.

Moore, Mandy and Leanne Prain. Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Grafitti. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009.

Parker, Roszika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. I.B.Tauris, 2011.

Pentney, Beth Ann. “Feminism, Activism, and Knitting: Are the Fibre Arts a Viable Mode for Feminist Political Action?” thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory and culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2008. Retrieved from http://journals.sfu.ca/thirdspace/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/pentney/210

Prain, Leanne, ed. hoopla: the art of unexpected embroidery. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011.

Prain, Leanne. Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.

Price, Sally, “On Femmage,” E-misférica, vol. 12, no. 1, 2015. Retrieved from: http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-121-caribbean-rasanblaj/price

Solomon, E. “Homemade and Hell Raising Through Craft, Activism, and Do- It-Yourself Culture.” PsychNology Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 2013, 11-20.

Springgay, S. “Knitting as an Aesthetic of Civic Engagement: Reconceptualizing Feminist Pedagogy Through Touch.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 20, no. 2, 2010, pp. 111-123.

Springgay, S., Hatza, N. & O’Donald, S. “‘Crafting is a luxury that many women cannot afford’: campus knitivism and an aesthetic of civic engagement.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 24, no. 5, 2011, 607-13.

Williams, K.A. “‘Old Time Mem’ry’: Contemporary Urban Craftivism and the Politics of Doing-It-Yourself in Postindustrial America.” Utopian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 303-320.

 

(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2017.

sketch v

When I find one of Shanawdithit’s archived drawings I experience a necessary discomfort.

I go back to my childhood.

All my young life I hear the mythologizing, how she was the last of the Beothuk people. Ten minutes outside my hometown, the provincial Beothuk Interpretation Centre is a place I visit quite frequently as a child. There’s a walking trail, on which I come across a statue of Shanawdithit and the remnants of a 300-year-old settlement. There are crosses that mark graves. My parents teach me that history shouldn’t have been written “this way.”

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“Killing of a Beothuk woman at the Exploits River,” by Shanawdithit, 1829. Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Newfoundland Images. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_images/id/71/rec/26

From this drawing I read memories, encounters, connections to place. I read loss and resistance. I do not read silence.

I know that mythology is also about evolvement – how we get to here from there.

As she “transferred her talent for constructing detailed patterns on bone and bark to the European medium of paper,” (Polack 2013: para 9) Shanawdithit’s drawings opened up a past that cannot be erased, and none of us can overlook or forget colonial encounters and mediations in Newfoundland and Labrador because of them.

Reference

Polack, Fiona. 2013. “Reading Shanawdithit’s Drawings: Transcultural Texts in the North American Colonial World,” In Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 14 (3). DOI: 10.1353/cch.2013.0035.