In this episode of What IFF? we record a panel titled Diaspora, Conflict Bodies, and The Power of Art as part of the Land, Body, History series that explores vectors of knowledge from global Black feminist perspectives. Featured are Dr. Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, Director of Africana Studies, Dean’s Professor of Culture and Social Justice, and Professor of Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University, Dr. Kameelah Martin, Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of African American Studies and English at CofC, Dr. Robert Sapp, Associate Professor of French Studies at CofC, and Cady Walker, CofC alumni of Psychology and Women's and Gender Studies.
Music by Crypt of Insomnia
** To view all works cited, please visit the transcript page.
- INTRODUCTION -
Welcome back to What IFF? - A podcast where we imagine intersectional feminist futures and talk about the role social activism plays in our everyday lives. I’m your host, Bria Ferguson, and on this episode, we had the special opportunity and privilege of recording a panel titled Diaspora, Conflict Bodies, and the Power of Art, as part of the Land, Body, History series for the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston. Included are two CofC professors, a CofC alumni, the inaugural Women’s and Gender Studies Scholar-in-Residence, and our discussion moderator, Dr. Lauren Ravalico, who’s an Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies and the Director of our Women’s and Gender Studies Program.
- BACKGROUND -
I'd like to begin by introducing my colleague from the College of Charleston, Kameelah Martin, Ph.D. Kameelah is an academic leader and award-winning scholar of African Diaspora literature and cultures. She's deeply committed to the fields of African Diaspora studies, African American literature, Black feminism, African American folklore, and film studies. She's a professor of African American Studies in English at the College of Charleston and also serves as the Dean of the Graduate School. Her most recent book, which is called Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics: African Spirituality in American Cinema, and a book from just about three years before that which is called Conjuring Moments in African American Literature: Women, Spirit Work, and Other Such Hoodoo. It's my great pleasure to present Régine Jean-Charles, Ph.D., the Inaugural Scholar-in-Residence for the Women and Gender Studies program at the College. She is the Director of Africana Studies, Dean's Professor of Culture and Social Justice, and Professor of Africana Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University. She's also a founding board member of A Long Walk Home, a national art organization based in Chicago that empowers young people to end violence against girls and women. A Black feminist literary scholar and cultural critic who works at the intersection of race, gender, and justice. Her scholarship and teaching in Africana Studies include expertise on Black France, Sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean literature, Black girlhood, Haiti, and the Diaspora. She's the author of three major books, the first is Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary, a second book Martin Luther King and the Trumpet of Conscience Today, and her third book, which is called Looking for Other Worlds: Black Feminism and Haitian Fiction. She's currently working on two projects, one explores representations of Haitian girlhood, and the other is a co-authored interdisciplinary study of sexual violence entitled The Rape Culture Syllabus, where she's weighed in on topics including #MeToo, Higher Education, and issues affecting the Haitian diaspora. Thank you so much for being with us, Dr. Jean-Charles.
I met Régine in 2005. We were both graduate students in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, and Régine was finishing her PhD when I was beginning, and my first encounter with Régine was by failing her. She was finishing her dissertation, and she was on fellowship in Paris, and she emailed graduate students to ask if someone could print out copies of her dissertation to give to her advisors so that she could move to the defense. And I volunteered, and I went on a Sunday, and I walked to Boylston Hall to the fourth floor in the Harvard Yard where our department was, and we had a little bank of computers in our lab. It turns out, though, of course, all printers in all time, including the Harvard ones, they don't work with a dam, and I could not print out her dissertation, which sent her into a spiral of stress and crying because she was on a tight deadline to get this thing sent off to her advisors. And so I did emerge victorious at a certain point. And I think I went back the next day, and I was able to finally print off those copies and give them to her three advisors. And she successfully defended and went on to teach in her first professor position at Boston College, where I met up with her again several years later when I took my first teaching position. Then, fast forward, I moved here in 2014 to start teaching in the Department of French, Francophone, and Italian Studies. In August of 2015, I gave birth to my son, and the only problem was he was born still because he didn't have any oxygen and had to have a stroke at some point either when he was emerging or right before, and was very, very sick and had to be whisked off to the NICU. And I was left at the hospital to kind of get myself dressed and fend for myself and so forth. And in the days following that, he had to be in a hypothermic blanket to try and stave off a brain injury that he was threatened with. And I was recovering both in the hospital with him when I could go and visit it and then at home. And I was also having to nurse plastic bottles every hour and a half. And so these were very long nights for me because my husband would be at the hospital with our son and I was by myself and I couldn't sleep or anything like that. And so I had texted Régine to tell her what was going on. And Régine, I think every year in August goes with her family and many other people to Martha's Vineyard, which is an island off the coast of Massachusetts. And she's always surrounded by a million people and friends and family. And Régine is very like lively and exuberant. And she called me, I think, from a restaurant or something. And I told her the story and it was just helpful to be on the phone with friends because I was in such a state. And Régine, who's a very faithful person and who, if you read her books, the first entity she always thanks for her books is God. And she asked me if I wanted to be with her while she prayed. And I'm not personally like a prayerful person, but it was something that I really needed. And so she just like totally showed up for me in that moment and did something that was very sad and hard for me, but also very beautiful and has just always remained in my life as one of the key moments in my life that I always come back to because it was really clutch assistance at a time when I needed it. So I think a lot when I read Régine's work and when I think about her arc as a scholar about the question of spirituality, and she's very open about her life anyway, so it's not like I'm divulging anything too personal. But it's also something that I've noticed is, you know, an essential theme in Dr. Martin's work. And I'm going to kind of link those two things together and talk about how the idea of spirituality is at the root of how both of you as scholars work through the relationship among land, body, and history in the context of African and Diasporic art in the Americas.
- FEATURING DR. KAMEELAH MARTIN -
Two key terms that I've noticed in your work, and I just wanted to like unpack them a little, talk about what you mean by them and understand some similarities between them. And then, Kameelah, you use the term conjure feminism, and you use the term Black feminism. And so I looked up conjure in the dictionary just to make sure I knew what it meant, and it means to call upon a spirit or ghost to appear by means of a magic ritual. So it made me think about like the term black magic, and also about a figure that you talk about in your analysis of American cinema, which is the Black priestess as a cinematic figure. And you co-edited a volume of Hypatia, which is a feminist philosophy journal about conjure feminism. And you talk about Black women as metaphorical conjure women whipping up tales of survival and sainthood, love and lasciviousness, redemption, and ratchetness alike, having refocused our literary attention on connection rather than separation. So these are some themes that you've noticed. Learning silence and to speech and giving back power to the culturally disenfranchised. And you also talk about reclaiming time, but then you talk about connection to the land as a way to regain that time. And so the time-space, the space-time connection is interesting to me. And so you talk about Black women representing a community of inheritors who make it possible to recognize literary and philosophical ancestors such as gardeners, root workers, quilt makers, midwives. So these people working these like physical, very anchored in the body type of jobs. And yet conjuring and these ideas of magic and so forth are all linked to the transcendent of the spiritual. And then in Looking for Other Worlds where you define black feminism, Dr. Jean-Charles, you use terms like urgency, dreaming, and ethical responsibility as a kind of spiritual practice to talk about what Black feminism means for the writers that you're looking at. In that book, you're looking at Haitian women writers, three Haitian women writers that Robert will talk to you about. And so you say, and I'm quoting you here, when Black feminist scholars refer to an ethic, we're invoking a way of being in the world as both theory and praxis, so like ideas and action. And you say that that's a transnational global practice that's related to the history of the diaspora. I see a bunch of overlaps in these two ideas, although you're working on different corpus as different kinds of art, and you're also working in different regions and different nations. And so maybe you could talk, Kameelah, to the figure of conjure feminism and the conjuring woman, and then we can look together at the different ways in which the idea of spirituality inflicts both of your work and ways of seeing the world.
Absolutely. Thank you for that wonderful introduction and for contextualizing our conversation today. This kind of goes back to my undergraduate experience. I was an English major. I was voraciously reading everything by a Black person that I could get my hands on. And I started to realize there were things that I just knew, right, as we were having conversations in class about what was happening in the t ext. There were things that I just knew, and I was speaking about, particularly about Black women who were healers, who were midwives, who talked about dreams, who knew how to go in the backyard and pick a particular herb. There were just things that I knew, right, and that I brought to the conversation, and I didn't understand how or why I knew them. And I needed to understand, I recognized that I was bringing this cultural experience, this other sort of knowledge that wasn't really validated in the academic space. I was bringing that into the way that I was reading these texts. And for me, it was liberating because I felt like I was the smartest person in the room, right? Like, I had the keys to this language and this experience that was being projected on the page, and I wanted to understand that. I wanted to leverage that. Because, to be honest, using psychoanalytic theory to read Toni Morrison or into Ntozake Shange or who have you, it just did not ring true for me. So I spent my academic career, grad school, all of my scholarship, really trying to articulate that knowledge that I knew, really trying to validate what I knew to be true because of my cultural upbringing and the women around me, bring that into the academic space as a valid form of theory, right? And so that's eventually how I got to conjure feminism. And so when I think about conjure feminism, and I see it as another branch of Black feminism, right? Black feminism is not a monolith, right? It exists in various ways, and conjure feminism is one way that I argue Black feminism shows up. And for me, and my co-editors, Kinitra Brooks and LaKisha Michelle Simmons, we really wanted to validate and theorize what we saw as this ancient knowledge that Black women in particular, Black women across the diaspora, had access to, right? We wanted to theorize how they knew what they knew about the land, right? All of this ancient, mostly oral knowledge passed down orally. It's not written down, right? It's transmitted from mother to daughter or grandmother to granddaughter or nieces from aunts, right? But it's powerful, right? And it is the thing to tie this back to the land. For me, when I think about the land, I think about particularly, you know, the transatlantic slave trade, and I will say I'm a little biased to that, right? That's my family's experience and so that, and that's where my research and scholarship is situated. I will talk about it in that way, but moving from West Africa through the Caribbean, through South America, into the American South, you know, there was a time where my African ancestors ceased being African and started becoming Cuban, Jamaican, Haitian, what have you, right? And I would argue that they were able to survive because of their spiritual relationship, which also incorporates their relationship to the land, right? The land is literally home to them now, right? Because they can't, there's a moment where they can no longer recall Africa, right? So the land becomes their home. It's both a site of horror, right? Because we know horrific things happened, but it's also the place where they were able to transform, right? The reason that we have Cuban food or Haitian-Rastafarianism or all of these different diasporic cultures, right? The foods, the music, the dancing, right? Is because they came to the land and transformed it, right? They used the land to survive, right? They were able to read the landscape, understand the different herbs, understand the flora and the fauna and use it to heal themselves, use it to nourish themselves. They literally buried the dead in the land, right? And so there are all of these spiritual connections to the land, right? They mastered the land in a way that allowed them to yield power, right? I talk about the conjure, the priestess, right? So yes, she's healing, right? She's making sure people don't die, right, because there is no medical assistant. She's making sure the babies are born healthy and the mothers are healing, right? But she's also making sure that people who intend her harm are getting that harm thrown right back at them. They also mastered poisons and different sorts of medicines to stop the racial violence that had run amok, right? So they're using the land and their spiritual knowledge to access a power that can't really exist outside of their understanding of the world, right? And so that creates this different type of feminist praxis that we see. And so for me, it was about really articulating, right? Really giving homage to these ancient theorists, these ancient practitioners who had always been able to master the land and the spirituality and who were already putting theory into practice, right? Forget the words, right? They were practicing a sort of power and a sort of communal healing and understanding that now on the backside, we can talk about as conjure feminism, right? But we really wanted to pay homage to that particular unspoken and unwritten practice that really linked the land and the spiritual knowledge. Particularly as we think about people of the African Diaspora and who are coming and transforming and evolving these African ideas, these African ways of knowing African practices and really helping them to evolve as they kind of move across the diaspora.
I have so much that I want to say in response to that first. I'll say thank you, Lauren, for the introduction and for the invitation. It's been really wonderful to be here at Charleston. And I've had forgotten the first story. I remember that you printed my dissertation, but I didn't remember about the failure or the tears. Oh, my goodness. I'm glad that we made our way through that. And so it really is my joy and pleasure to be here. And you know, so much of what you're saying is making me think I picked up my book because in the last chapter entitled Environmental Ethic Land and Sea, I write about how there is an environmental ethic that governs the work of many Black feminist writers, right? And I think that that's true for Black feminist writers from all over the world, right? And so I just came from the (International African American) Museum and we saw they had this, you know, I was watching these videos about the African Diaspora and how we're all connected. And I think what is important about that as we think about this question of diaspora, first to remember is that there is specificity and there is difference, right? So there are certainly so many connections that we can make. And we're each anchored in our own specificity. And that's part of the beauty of the diaspora. So you can look at someone like Mambo Ayizan, who's the equivalent of a mother nature type of figure in the Vodou cosmology, who is a woman that is one with nature, that walks through nature. She's the queen of nature. And you can look at, you know, some of the work of the Obeah women in Barbados. Oh, I think about the work of Daughters of the Dust and Julie Dash and how we see these root women that are working with the land, that are working with nature, that are working with the plants and the herbs, and they know exactly what to do in order to heal, but also in order to survive and sometimes kill as their mode of resistance, right? So I see that so many synergies with what you're saying. The thing that you said that really reminded me, and I pulled it up because I love this essay by Barbara Christian called The Race for Theory. And she says, our theorizing, and she's talking about, and this is Barbara Christian writing in the late 1970s, early 1980s, about this question of theory, right? And who is theorizing? Who do we look to as the authority for our theorizing? And she's really trying to push against some trends that were happening in English departments in the 1980s and dispel this myth of high theory and low theory, right? And so this is very Black feminist because, again, it's kind of dissolving binaries, resisting these very rigid taxonomies and saying that we can do both-and. And so she says, our theorizing, and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun, is often in narrative forms in the stories we create in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language because dynamic rather than fixed ideas see more to our liking. And I pulled this up because I was trying to remember, and I was like, oh, isn't there something she says about spirituality? And there actually isn't, but it also applies, right? And so thinking about how much of our theorizing has come from spirituality, has come from religion that's rooted in our lived experience, but also born out of necessity due to the transatlantic slave trade and what we had to endure as a people. And so in Vodou, when we say, you know, spirit is nature and nature is spirit, there was an understanding that the enslaved people of at the time what was known as St. Domingue or Hispaniola, there was an understanding that they had of nature as related to their homeland. Just as you said, nature is related to the afterlife because they also understood that when they died, they were going to return to Ginen, which is the name of the ancestral homeland, which literally stands for the place in West Africa that many of them, other Haitians were taken from West Africa and from Gungal and from other parts. But Ginen is like Guinea, right? Modern Guinea. And so there's always this understanding that is very layered. And I see that it infuses so much of the literature. And it really allows us to see, I'm thinking about, for example, one of the books that I write about, which is called Bain de lune, Moonbath. And you really see the characters in the novel, the ancestors who have gone, who are no longer on this earth, are characters in the novel, the Loa, who are the different deities that make up the spiritual system, are characters in the novel. And they operate in an ecosystem with all of the people that are currently living and breathing like you and I as human being characters. And there's no, there's no distinction. And so that really integrated view, I think one is one that is characteristically Black feminist. And I love the idea of conjuring women because I think that that's what Black feminist theorists have always been doing. Always. Right? They've been conjuring, they've been calling down the spirits for their survival. They've been doing what Barbara Christian describes in their theorizing. They do it as scholars today, as academics today in the places that we inhabit, but also in the writing, in the art. Again, I'm thinking about like just all of these art forms that I just finished seeing at the museum today. But you know, in movement, we see it, we hear it in sounds. And so that conjuring, I like it because it is in the gerundive and it also speaks to a kind of activity, right? It's dynamic, right? Like she said, it's dynamic rather than fixed. It's always in flux. It's moving. And that's one of the characteristics of Black feminism, actually, when Patricia Hill Collins wrote Black Feminist Thought in ‘19, no, in 2000 actually, it came out. That was one of the characteristics. She lays out, Patricia Hill Collins is sociologist, and she really was the first person to write out ‘this is what a Black feminist framework looks like as a method.’ And so that's why her book is really canonical and useful for any feminism, women, gender, and sexuality studies 101 class. And one of the characteristics is that it is dynamic, that it is always changing. And so someone should not be allowed to come to you and say, oh, this is the Black feminist box that you're in and it's that and you're not doing it properly because it is constantly evolving because we don't know what the circumstances of history or society are going to require us to conjure, right? We didn't know the pandemic required us to conjure things that we didn't have to conjure when I was in college or graduate school, right? So this generation also has its own modes of conjuring that they will also be in, that will also be in exist in relation, right, to the ancestors and those that have come before them because that's the other thing that you notice about Black feminism that we're constantly invoking these, a lineage, right, a genealogy that we can say, you know, just as, as, you know, when Dr. Kameelah started speaking, she said she knew these things, she didn't know how she knew them, right? And so I would, I would certainly say I'm sure they were aunties, they were grandmothers, they were all kinds of other mothers and people in your village that gave you that knowledge, right? And they constantly kind of come with you. And I think that that's part of, I mean, it's really like the best, you know, they say in, I think it's like writing 101 or one of those books about how to write a literature paper and they say that, you know, when you're writing a work of literary criticism or writing a paper, an academic paper is a conversation that you're having today with generations before you. And so you have to acknowledge, the intervention that you as a student are making, you must cite people and acknowledge that there is a larger school of thought here, right? And so I think that that is the same for conjuring women, Black feminists, and that for us so much of that is also familial. And so that's why, you know, when I say that I wrote this book, I invoke my grandmothers in the introduction of my book or I invoke my mentor, Farah Jasmine Griffin, who has one of the epigraphs of the novel. It is because she is the one that introduced me to Black feminist thought and I'm part of that; I'm also part of her genealogy, even though she is not biologically related to me.
As a way of thinking through a specific history and a particular kind of lived experience, and everybody used Black feminism as a way of thinking and a way of understanding and even as a practice, or should there be limits placed on it on who can look that way?
I actually write about this. I was, we have a postdoc at Northeastern in Black Feminist Studies. I was working earlier and I just got a comment from HR telling me that the way that we have phrased it could be exclusionary because it says ‘preference will be given to a Black feminist historian.’ And I was like, oh, this person doesn't understand what black feminism is because I'm not saying you have to be a Black, feminist, historian. I'm saying that you are a historian that uses black feminist methodology. I mean, some of the authors that I admire so much, someone like Kevin E. Quashie, who writes often about using a Black feminist lens and that is the ethic that he uses to approach his work. And so I believe, I tell my students all the time, Black feminism is for everybody and there's some great, again, there are other authors that have written books about this. But when we understand it as a lens, right, that through which we look at the world intersectionally, so we're looking at the world to understand how the multiple oppressions of race, gender, class, et cetera, et cetera, sexuality, et cetera, when you use that lens to see the world, that is a lens that you can put on, that you use as a framework and as a theory. Regardless of your field, regardless of your discipline, I think that if you think about, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement is another good example where they were using a Black feminist ethic or a Black feminist framework to approach their activism. They were, one of the things that they did, for example, is, you know, they refused to name official leaders for the movement. This is a very collaborative approach. This is an approach that is non-hierarchical. To answer your question, yes. And we can find examples, especially if we look outside of the academy. We can look, we can find examples of people using that Black feminist lens in order to build a better world. And that's what, you know, Farah Jasmine Griffin says in the epigraph of the book, right? It's that Black feminism, “Black feminism has never only been about Black women. It's never been this. It's about a more just world and a planet that said, if you listen to the insights of the least of these, which is us, that we can do something transformative.” And that's from an interview that Farah Jasmine Griffin did with the Ms. Magazine several years ago.
And I'll just add, as we kind of develop conjure feminism, we cited and thought a lot about Hortense Spillers. She talked about conjuring Black women writers as conjures. And she coined the term community of inheritors, right? We inherit this knowledge. It's not about ownership or keeping it to ourselves. Everyone can have access to it, right? She did stress that we need to understand it and we wanted the recognition that it originates with Black women's lived experience. And so that's the only thing that I would add. But we should absolutely use it, right? That's really what we want. We want more people to have access and to employ Black feminism as a lens as they're reading texts in artwork and film, right? And allow that to expand the way that you're understanding and interpreting these other creative visions, right? Add that to your arsenal of knowledge so that you can pull from it and that when you are engaging with a piece of work that may have been produced by a black woman, you can pull out that lens and put it on and maybe have a better interaction, better engagement with that piece of work because you understand that particular lens and can engage it because you have that knowledge, because you are more fluent in what sorts of ideas and experiences that artist is bringing to the work.
You know what you just said made me think about policy and how I wish our policymakers would adopt a Black feminist lens. I wish they would. I'm from Massachusetts and I have my wonderful Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. And she always says this thing, she says, you know, “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” And to me, that's a Black feminist addage. Right?
That is the idea, again thinking about people that are the most marginalized. And if you have policies that benefit the most marginalized people, then everybody actually stands to benefit.
- FEATURING DR. ROBERT SAPP -
Thank you so much. I'm going to ask Robert if he can come up on stage and get in the weeds a little bit more about Régine's work. Thank you so much Dr. Martin. I'd like to also introduce my other College of Charleston colleague Robert Sapp, Ph.D. He is associate professor in the Department of French, Francophone and Italian Studies. Here with me, specialist in literature from the Francophone Caribbean in Quebec. His current research focuses on the expression of the past and contemporary Haitian novels and his work appears in French Review, the Journal of Haitian Studies, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, Women in French Studies, the Journal of West India Literature, Romance Notes, and the New Zealand Journal of French Studies. His forthcoming article on Kettly Mars' novel, L'Ange du patriarche, will appear in the collection Chronotropics: Caribbean Women Writing Spacetime this October.
Well, thank you. Thank you so much for coming, Dr. Jean-Charles, I just want to thank you for giving Lauren a second chance after that dissertation debacle. But we're all very happy to have you here at College of Charleston. I'm very excited. I wanted to get into Looking for Other Worlds, but when I found out about your new project on childhood, I kind of wanted to talk more about that. But where would you like to start?
Let's start with Looking for Other Worlds.
Well, when I saw the book, I was very excited because it deals with authors that I'm very interested in as well. But when I saw the title, I thought ‘looking for other worlds,’ this feels sort of like escapism. But then I read it, that's not the case at all. Would you tell us how you're using the term looking as sort of a praxis?
Absolutely, I love that. So it does go back to the gerundive, right? Again, thinking about how our theorizing is dynamic. And I just love the gerundive just as a form because it's precessual, right? And so it comes also from this quotation that Kettly Mars had in an interview where she says, you know, “when I write, I look for other worlds.” That's what I'm doing when I'm writing. And then I was also, you know, right now we're having a moment, I think, in cultural studies and African diasporic studies, where we're talking a lot about the culture of about world building and world making. And what does that mean? And I think some of that definitely comes from some of the abolitionist ideas and abolitionist justice spaces where, you know, the goal is to build a better world, right? The goal is to imagine something, imagine a world that is different from our present and that that is often the work of justice. So for me, that looking for other worlds is a part of the imagination, right? It's part of how this Black feminist ethical imagination is activated. That's how Kettly Mars is able to look at the world. And at the same time, even when she writes on topics, so this author, Kettly Mars, is kind of notorious for approaching very difficult themes, right? So books about sexual violence, books about incest, books about terrible forms of abuse that we see, often sexual, right? And so how is it that someone who writes things that are so difficult and so hard and so treacherous in our society - how is that person simultaneously looking for another world, trying to imagine - helping us to imagine something else? And so I say that, you know, part of this idea of looking, I'm interested in finding that you asked about this because it's actually connects to the second book where I talk about looking and then looking again, right? And so in particular on my work on Haitian girls, one thing that I noticed was that how often our girls, and we talk about this in black girlhood studies in general, are girls being looked at, but not looked at in a way that has any kind of ethic of care? How are they being looked at but not being seen? How are they being looked at, but only looked at as objects and not subjects who have their own ways of looking? And there's some book, you know, the text that I'm most interested in are ones that really subvert that relationship for the girls where we're paying. We see things, so I'll give an example. Edwidge Danticat has a book called Claire of the Sea Light, and it's about a little girl named Claire on the sea light, but it's really, it feels like it's not actually about her because it's about a village that she is from and every chapter is narrated by a different person. There are ways in which Claire is very present in the novel, but she's also not present. And so there's a way that you can read that and say, oh my gosh, Edwidge Danticat, are you just like perpetuating these cycles or are you showing us how Black girls can be visible and invisible? How a poor Haitian girl from a seaside village is simultaneously seen and not seen. And then when you pay attention and you look again and you really read this book, you see that there are scenes in which Claire is watching everything. She's not speaking. And so this is the other thing that I think is fascinating for me, especially after having written a book about sexual violence, which was my first book, but how do we - as opposed to privileging what is spoken - privileging what is seen, right, and privileging the look?
That's fantastic to look at because looking and looking again, it doesn't make me think of Moonbath with the woman's body who's washed up on shore, but she's our narrator at the same time. So she's re-looking over that life again. I very much like the way you articulate Black feminist ethics in this text because I find what you point out - I just found myself going, yes, yes, yes. Because in all the authors I see, there is this blending of both-and, be it spirituality, be it sexuality. There's an acceptance keeping two ideas in abayence and doing both exactly what Dr. Martin had just said about the heel and the hurt at the same time. So I'm wondering, what is it about Haitian literature, and maybe I'm a little biased here, that lends itself to this Black feminist ethics that you're describing in Looking for Other Worlds. I have a citation, but would you rather just tell us what is this ethics and do you feel it's particularly Haitian in any way?
So I think, and again, I'm also biased, I think also as a person who was Haitian by heritage too, so my parents immigrated from Haiti, and I was born here, but then they moved back, and so it has always been a huge presence in my life. And I think that we are a place of contradictions. Also I think that we have on the one hand this, the first glorious, amazing Haitian Revolution and the way that that was completely singular in the history of the world. And we know that due to a lot of the debt in the ways that we were punished for that independence, that the country today has not lived up to that, to that kind of luminous standard that we had for the revolution. So I think that a lot of Haitians, and it's true, I just actually thought, do you know this documentary? Haiti Is A Nation of Artists. So in the documentary, they talk about how a lot of artists are constantly grappling with that. And so it's to kind of, we live in the both-and, right? So we dwell in that, the glory of the revolution, and also the crisis of today, of the current moment. And I think that that's something that we are always kind of holding and wrestling with. And I think for women in particular though, and for Haitian women, who again, also understand and witness that history and participated in it, we had people like Sanité Bélair, who was a soldier, and the Haitian Revolution, a woman soldier that not many people know of, we're still simultaneously written out of it, right? And so we kind of understand this need for an assertion of our lived experience as women and girls and gender non-conforming people, while still holding on to what makes this place special.
I just found it very interesting when you use the both-and, because I've found in Haitian literature the both-and comes up, and a colleague of mine, I'm scanning to see if he's here, but he's in religious studies, and he shares an experience with me about how he was with a woman who was, she doesn't practice Vodou, but she's a Protestant in some way. But she's mixing up some healing potion that involves a little bit of toothpaste and a little bit of le Saint-Esprit, and he said, so that the Holy Spirit, and he says, well, which is more important, you know, the spirit or the toothpaste? She's like, no, it's both. You have to have the Saint-Esprit and the toothpaste. I mean, they're both important. So I think that's a great anecdote for the both-and. I want to ask a little bit about Land, the Caribbean, and History. So Édouard Glissant, and maybe it's time to revisit this, but even Derek Walcott will talk about the Caribbean as a pastless or a historyless place. For these reasons, we talk about the connection with the land that's severed. This ancestral land only starts at a certain point. History is prevalent in Haitian literature. People want to engage with this. I don't want to get into Haitian exceptionalism, but do you feel like the Haitian imaginary - a historyless place, or do you see this something different?
No, I reject that. I mean, I have some of my issues with some of these fathers of Francophone literature, including Glissant. No, I don't think so at all. I think, again, because I refuse this binary view, right? And so I'm thinking about, you know, I have a wonderful and brilliant colleague. Her name is Kyrah Malika Daniels, and she's a professor now at Emory (University). We were together at Boston College for several years. And she works on Vodou, and she's a religious scholar. And she was telling me about how much indigenous, Taíno religion is also a part of Vodou, but that is often people don't know as much about. And I was thinking about that because I think that that's a good example of the fact that we are not historyless, and if you think about, you know, Creolization and what we have created. And the mere fact that we chose Ayiti as our name after the independence, so Ayiti means mountainous land, but it's a Taíno word. It's an indigenous word, right? So it's not an African, it's not like a word that is, you know, we could say even from Creol, which was a language that was created. But the fact of choosing an indigenous name is a way of acknowledging the history that this land, there were people on this land before we were snatched from our homes and forced to come here. There were other people that were here before us, many of whom were killed. You know, when I tell you how many Haitians, my youngest daughter has Anacaona and has her middle name. And we're like very big on giving our kids, you know, Haitian names. How many Haitians are aware of who Anacaona and is? She was a Taíno chief. The Taíno are the indigenous people of Ayiti. And when Columbus and the Spanish arrived, they fought them. The Taíno's fought them. Anacaona and I ended up being killed by them. But this is someone that we know of. People are aware of who Anacaona is in our culture and our history. I also think, you know, I think about Michel-Rolph Trouillot and how much of, you know, that silencing the past for people that aren't familiar with Trouillot. But just thinking about the work that he did and the interventions that he made as someone that was saying, well, no, our past is here, but our past has been silenced in some ways, right? I think that the work of many of us who are academics and intellectuals working with Haitian literature and culture and culture makers is to continue to unearth that past, right, to concert. And that's what Trouillot does, right, in Rosalie l’infâme, The Infamous Rosalie, this novel in which she purposefully sets it 40 years before the start of the Haitian Revolution as opposed to doing it during the Haitian Revolution because she was interested in the hidden lives of the enslaved in their everydayness and their interiority. And how are these people making love? How are these people having relationships? How are these people just thinking about processing what is happening on the plantation? And so I think that we, there are so many Haitian cultural workers that put in the work of conjuring history, right, in multiple ways.
This text by Trouillot, I'd love to talk more about it. And I hope maybe it ties into childhood maybe. The thing about Rosalie l’infâme, The Infamous Rosalie, which an English translation has recently come out, so I'm very excited about that.
It’s beautiful, the English translation is beautiful. It's the first book I taught this semester for my Gender and Black World Literature class. Marjorie Salvodon, Ph.D., is the translator, so good.
I want to talk about the body because the big thing in that body, in that text is - slight spoiler alert - the young woman to sort of take control of her situation basically slowly and over time kills herself, takes her own life in her body. This Bain de lune, so many other examples, thinking about the Haitian body, and I want to go back to your earlier text about Conflict Bodies. Again, I'm sort of doing some Haitian exceptionalism here, but how do you feel about the representation of the body, the feminine body especially in Haitian literature, within Rosalie l’infâme, which to your point, that's what I was going to say, as a historical text, so many times she is almost quoting C. L. R. James' The Black Jacobins as far as the treatment of people, so it's a very historical text.
With a more, again, inclusion of gender, which C. L. R. James did not do. So, yes. Okay, the body. Yeah, so my first book is on representations of sexual violence and literary and cultural studies, and I, at the time, and we're going to talk about this next, when I, prior to writing that book, or while I was researching that book, I was also working as a rape crisis counselor and working with survivors. One of the things that I was very intentional about was paying attention to how, when scenes of rape are described or when novels feature rape survivors, what happens to their body? How are they experiencing their body? Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Amour, Colère et Folie, another one, Love, Anger, Madness in which this woman is being tortured, she's being sexually tortured, this is during the Duvalier Regime, and there is such a focus on her body and everything she experiences in her body. I would say it's a very embodied way of writing. I think about even in, oh, what is that one? Guillaume et Nathalie, right? This other, again, this is a love story that Yanick Lahens wrote, but the feelings on the body, right? What it feels like when she makes love to the man, what it feels like when they see each other for the first time, and they're experiencing that tension, I would say that there's very pointed attention to the body, and I think that there's this attention, there's a certain acuity with which these authors are writing the body.
One text that I really like that is very recent by Emmelie Prophète, Les villages de Dieu, she's a young woman who is for so going as a sex worker, so her body is a means of agency, she suddenly can afford a smartphone and she can post images online. The images she posts are of cadavers in the streets of Port-au-Prince, and it's these cadavers that give her all these likes, and so again, it's the tortured, the conflicted body, but it's a body behind a glass, too, in those pictures, but we could probably say a lot more about it.
So much more about the digital bodies and Haitian bodies, and this also brings me back to In The Wake, which I was talking about yesterday, and Christina Sharpe's use of these images of the Haitian girls' bodies, and the girl that had the tape on her forehead that said ‘ship,’ right? And again, when we see, when events like the earthquake happen, there is this proliferation of Haitian bodies in the media that we see. This happens in the global South in general, right, the ways in which the bodies, especially of black and brown people, are made visible and are treated almost as like, they are so spectacularized that it's like they're disembodied, and so I find that often what these writers are doing are causing us to pause and really contemplate the bodies just like she does in that book.
And I'll just leave you the last word to maybe, could you tell us about the current project you're working on a little more?
Yes, so I'm very excited about this book, and yesterday when I visited this class, they read two essays of mine, one called Occupying the Center: Black Girlhood and Wake Work, which I wrote in 2018, and that book was actually the genesis for this project. And so this book is about representations of Haitian girls and Haitian girlhood, and I look at, it's kind of like Conflict Bodies in the sense that as opposed to just being literary, like Looking For Other Worlds, I look at fiction and film and visual art. I'm actually working with some photographers from an organization called FotoKonbit, which is an organization of Haitian photography, by Haitian photographers, and so some of that work is also looking at photographs that Black girls, the Haitian girls, take of themselves. And so I'm really interested in this idea of visibility and invisibility. I'm interested in how these girls are presenting themselves for themselves. I really wanted to also just track this from a kind of historical perspective, starting with the 19th century King of only Khrushchev, but that's a really long, that's a long, it's a bigger project than anticipated, so I might have to make that an article. And then focus the book to be on post-earthquake representations, because I do think a lot of this, there was a lot so much that happened, especially around the earthquake with representations of Haitian girls that we saw in the media and in film and in the literature as well.
- FEATURING CADY WALKER -
Thank you, Robert. I'd like to introduce a former student of both Robert and me and an alum of the College of Charleston, Cady Walker. Cady is a 2023 graduate of the College of Charleston with a double major in French and Francophone Studies and Psychology and a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. During her time at the college, she completed a Women’s and Gender Studies internship at Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S., the sexual assault victim advocacy center in the Charleston area. She continues to volunteer with the organization, providing crisis intervention for individuals impacted by sexual violence. In the future, she hopes to continue providing trauma-informed and culturally competent care in the mental health field. It's such a pleasure to have you back with us, Cady. Thank you for coming here. I invited you to come to sort of continue on what we've been talking about, I suppose, in a way about girlhood and also the term that Robert brought up, which is conflict bodies in a very visceral, everyday, not art, but ways in which maybe the power of art can help people who go through really terrible sexual violence are able to get past it. So I invited you Cady to come because you did an internship with Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. as part of your women and gender studies minor. And then Dr. Jean-Charles, you worked as a founding board member and sort of a theater troupe performer in the prevention and then aftermath care. So I just wanted to get the two of you together to hear your different perspectives on that, the different time periods, and so forth. I know Cady, you had some specific ideas that you wanted to probe with Dr. Jean-Charles.
Absolutely. So the most important part was crisis intervention for survivors of sexual assault. Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. has a 24-hour hotline. People can call if they are experiencing any sort of emotions or need advice or need help processing de-escalation. So I would do shifts on the hotline or go to the hospital if somebody requested a sexual assault forensic exam. I would accompany them during the exam. I would sit in the room, listen to their stories, give them information about reporting options, and then get them in touch with any immediate resources they might need.
And maybe you can talk a little bit about because you kind of understand the resilience of those who have experienced sexual assault and also you've experienced firsthand what it's like to be part of a trauma care team. And so maybe if you have any just very brief insights to share with us about what you learned from your experience in both being part of it in that way as a caregiver and also what you learned about resilience in general of those who are going through some really tough stuff.
Coming from a background in Women and Gender Studies and then going through the training with Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S., I think you have a lot of expectations about guidelines on what not to say. I thought I was going to do more than I really did honestly. I thought I was going to be saying more. I thought I was going to have to give them some sort of eloquent inspirational, I don't know, and I didn't. I was just there. And I had a lot of information about how sexual assault impacts people. And I had a lot of information about how to get through this really horrible moment where you are experiencing flashbacks or a panic attack or you're going through a medical exam where somebody is looking at your body and inspecting the ways and taking pictures of the ways in which you were violated. And I wasn't telling them anything. I wasn't inspiring anybody. I was just being there as somebody that cared, that was not a nurse, that was not a police officer, somebody that was informed.
We talked about this last night, right? That they say, especially when you go through these trainings, that the first and most important thing you can do for a survivor is just to believe them. And so sometimes just being present and not offering that advice or not saying anything and just saying, I believe you does so much. And we do that. That's something that I first learned through the training that I did as a rape crisis counselor when I was in graduate school. And I know as part of the curriculum that they do, like the curriculum that you did and in other places. And that also reminds me of one of the things that I think about a lot in terms of my writing is like the power of not saying something, right? So how silence can actually be powerful because survivors have been so harmed also by people's words too, right? I mean, there's a whole litany of terrible things that you can say to survivors. I really do appreciate you saying that because, yeah, that presence means a lot. And the other thing that we talked about too is we just want to acknowledge that the statistic globally is that one in three women will be raped in her lifetime. And one in seven boys or men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. And so that means that inevitably somebody in this room has been affected by this issue. And if not you yourself personally, then you surely have a friend, family member, a partner, friend in your life who has experienced this. And so just survivor acknowledgement, right, is something that I do a lot. When I was touring for my other book and giving talks, I had to do that before every talk because I was talking about scenes of sexual violence. I do this so often in my teaching, which is different from trigger warnings, right? It's different because what you're just saying is, yeah, this is a hard topic. It's a widespread topic. And we're not here to necessarily offer it. And though we have this information, we're not here necessarily to give that to you. But we do at the very least want to acknowledge the resilience of survivors.
I'm just wondering, especially, I guess this is more, this directed towards both of you, because both of you have done this work. So Cady, did the difference between your expectations and what unfolded change your understanding or like appreciation or noticing of silence at all? And just like being there and you know, that just being present can be a form of care, essentially.
The survivor knows what they've been through and they know that so intimately. I'm there as a newcomer into their life, into their space, into their experience. There's nothing that I could say that they wouldn't know. I think part of trauma-informed care is being sensitive to the intersections that people lie on that makes them more vulnerable to sexual violence or sexual assault. I couldn't possibly know the experience of every single person at every intersection. And so when I encounter somebody calling me and asking me for my help or I'm offering that to them by going to the hospital with them, I try to let them tell me what they experienced and not the other way around. There's the compulsion, I think, especially having studied psychology. I want to say, oh, you could do this, this might make you feel better. They know themselves, they know their minds, they know their bodies.
Part of what is so important about what you're saying, Cady, too, is that another principle that we learn is the empowerment model, right? So the idea of the empowerment model is the framework that really guides everything that you are supposed to do when you're working with survivors. And so the argument is that because what rape specifically does is strip the survivor of their power, right? Because their power to consent, their power to choose whether or not they want to be intimate with someone. Most of the work of rape crisis advocates or people who are in advocates for survivors is to like return that power to them. And so that's like, that's exactly what I hear you saying about them being, they're being the expert in their own experience, their own identity. That's empowering them, right? Recognizing their power. I wrote in the acknowledgments that I wrote the book for survivors and that every time a survivor comes to me and tells me that they read the book and that they felt seen to me that's worth more than the MLA prize or any prizes you could get for your work. I'm a big believer in self-care and this is what they teach us also, right? When we go through these training programs, when I was writing the book, I remember especially the second chapter where I'm reading a book called L'espérance-macadam by Gisèle Pineau, Macadam Dreams, and it's about a little girl, right, who is a survivor of incest. The scenes are extremely graphic and part of what Gisèle is doing is comparing the force of the hurricane on the island to the force of the girl's father on her body. And I remember reading those passages over and over again and just having to really step away, you know, and come back to another chapter or come back to another part. And so really breeding space, you know, for myself. I do go to therapy. I'm in lots of different prayer groups with people and I'm, you know, there have been times where I'm like, I need you to just pray for me as I write this because I'm working on this and it's difficult. I'm part of the Peloton Nation, which I really love. Endorphins are real. I believe that endorphins will help you through everything. And then just like hanging out with friends, you know, again, for me, my activism also helps whenever I would perform Story of a Rape Survivor. And I remember, you know, Salamishah Tillet, who is the, so she and her sister are the co-founders of A Long Walk Home. And it's her story that we're telling in Story of a Rape Survivor. And there would be so many times that I'd just act my heart out on the stage and I'd be crying and crying. And she would always be like, thank you so much. Thank you so much. You know, you're amazing. Like your performance is amazing. And I'm like, but you lived this. Like you're amazing. You know, and so I think that for me, especially as someone who is not a rape survivor. And this is what I tell my students too about reading - we were just talking about reading scenes about slavery - thinking about it as bearing witness. And then I think about the resilience of the survivors. And I think about their activism and their work and the change that they're making. That really fills me with hope. And Angela Davis has this quote, she's going to be 80 next year. And somebody asked her, how do you keep up, you've been an activist for over 60 years. How do you keep up this pace of activism? And she says that it has been in other people, “It has been in communities and collectivities that she finds her reservoir of hope.” So I feel like self-care, being with other people, working with service, all those things fill my reservoir of hope. And so that's what I would encourage you to also do.
Wide-ranging and rich discussion. And I'd like to thank Cady Walker, Régine Jean-Charles, Kameelah Martin and Robert Sapp for joining us. Our co-sponsors include The Friends of the Library, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, the First-Year Experience, the Office of Institutional Diversity, the African American Studies program, the Department of English, the Department of French, Francophone, and Italian Studies, the Department of History, CLAW which is the Carolina Lowcountry and The Atlantic World program, LAX which is the Latin American and Carribean Studies program, and finally our generous external funder the Melon Foundation which has awarded a major grant to the Women’s and Gender Studies program to futher the work of affirming multivocal humanities.
- CONCLUSION -
To explore more vectors of knowledge from global Black feminists in the Land, Body, History series, be sure to witness La Vaughn Belle’s exhibition When the Land Meets the Body at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art which is accessible to the public until December 9th. Belle’s work centers decolonial art practices that challenge the narratives in colonial archives. On the next episode of What IFF? we’ll continue exploring intersections, spirituality, and scholarship, as well as introduce our incredible new host for season three, Molly Dickerson. Until then, I’m your host, Bria Ferguson. Thanks for practicing the art of being in community with us today.