I recently wrote this essay as a response to the Feministwire.com’s upcoming volume on Graduate Women of Color and Mental Health.  Here is also the link to me reading the essay: https://vimeo.com/51266543

Occupying Myself: Reflections on Resisting the Colonization of School and Accepting My Heaviness

Right now I am depressed.  My aunt’s husband sexually violated me when I was a teenager, and since she is still with him and he still comes to family events, I am forced to mentally split if I am to still enjoy my family.  He was in my house for the past three days for my cousin’s graduation festivities, and though I have healed and forgiven, his presence is still painful for me, almost as painful of how accommodating my family has been.  It’s because of experiences like that, that my doctoral research is on race, gender, sexuality and power.  Although I have intellectualized sexual trauma and recovery in many papers in graduate school, the pain is still real, and I still hurt. Naturally, now is the best time for me to write and reflect on being a doctoral student and mental heath. I can become overly intentional in how my writing serves the healing paths of my readers.  I tend to write for them instead of writing for me.  I have learned that removing my existence from how I serve the world is a learned fallacy of patriarchy. How could I help other women heal themselves if I didn’t learn my own healing?  So it is good that I write in this heaviness.  This way I am not allowed to share a reflection that is padded by any half-lived sermon or pressured to offer some convinced happiness.  This moment is perfect. I am sick, runny nose and all, and I must write now because writing for myself has always brought relief.  That kind of writing has always saved the day.

I started my Urban Education doctoral program at Temple University in Fall of 2007.  At the fiesty age of 21, I wanted to start a school because I wanted to create radical change for our urban children of color.  Disappointed with my own Eurocentric-schooling experiences, and frustrated with the academic spaces I had taught in, I wanted to develop a school that was community based, culturally relevant, and spirited by the aims of social justice.  I didn’t want to enter the academy in order to stay there, but rather to get the academic license to create more liberatory spaces of learning for our urban communities.

But school, and specifically graduate school, has always been a colonial experience, and I had forgotten how colonized I still was.  I still believed that those who dominated conversation were the smartest, that my intelligence was validated by my professor’s compliments; that if I couldn’t bring something new to the conversation or anything at all, that I might as well not be there.  As an intellectually gifted colored girl, most of the White privatized institutions I attended held me to high expectations and offered little to no positive reinforcement.  Receiving less love than my white counterparts, my academic accomplishments never felt enough.  They felt like nothing because I never heard that they meant something and it said something amazing about me.  Since I was only hearing the hyper-critical voices in my head, the silences and aloofness of my colonial teachers actively affirmed my own self-hatred.  And while I did have a few supportive white teachers, I had no white mentors that supported me from a deeper and more radical place of love and understanding.

The colonial experience, if not resisted, will always make one feel as if they are not enough; it will always push them to the margins until they can’t breathe, or read or write or create, or feel entitled to the right to be wrong.  Living that kind of half-life for weeks, and then getting into a major car accident on the highway, eventually led to my anxiety attack in my Urban Schools class.  I thought I felt a bloodclot explode and that I was bleeding out.  When the ambulance brought me to triage, the Asian nurse listened to me explain the pop-sensation I had felt as my peers discussed urban school reform.  She nodded as she scribbled on her clipboard and finally said, “You don’t have blood clot, you just need doctor for the head, you just like, a little crazy.”  I sat in the wheelchair in the waiting room, and then waited for the death I knew was coming, the death I had secretly prayed for so many times before.

When I was 12 years old I wrote a will and note to my beloved mother.  I was praying that I could bypass the theater of suicide and just magically die.  Sleep my way into death; be accidently pushed off the platform at 125th. I didn’t know that I was deeply repressing sexual and emotional trauma from my family and school, so I often felt I didn’t have any good reason to be that sad. I heard voices that were ugly and poisonous, mocking voices that disciplined with hate and with haste.  They spoke with the intensity of my mother, so I quickly listened and accepted their dark syllogisms.

You are dumb and stupid which is why Louis got a 100 and you didn’t!

You are wasting people’s time, you shouldn’t be here!

You are nothing. You are nobody. I hate you.

I sorrowfully bowed to their rage, made concessions to do better, feeling little comfort when I did; always knowing the voices would come back, that they always had something to say.  If I didn’t feel punished enough by the voices, I would hit myself until my cheeks became numb, or until a voice said that I was too weak to make the necessary bruises.  Then I’d cry myself to sleep, praying a prayer to never wake up. And though I did plenty of laughing and dancing, prayers for death happened for years.

This is what mental illness can look like.  That is how school can operate as a colonizing force. Those were colonial voices I heard.

Healing for me, has been the process of decolonization, it has been the moment-to-moment work of Occupying Myself, through therapy, yoga, Ochun, activism, and radical, radical writing.  I recognize that the academy was never set up for my survival, especially not if I intend to live freely and honestly, as a urban Black Puerto Rican feminist queer rape survivor warrior poet dancer activist.  And because I am a spiritual daughter of Audre Lorde, I don’t think we can use the masters tools to dismantle the masters house.  My fierce intention for healing, for self-occupation and self-actualization forced me to find an Underground Railroad in this ivory tower, even if it meant giving up the luxuries of an A, or a professor’s satisfaction, or a well-padded CV.  This intention for healing was conjured by the love I was allowing for myself, one encouraged by so much of the woman of color feminism I was reading.  Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Patricia Hill Collins were begging me to put myself first, to trust in the Universe, and believe in the power of our ancestors.

It was many things that called me to healing, even when healing seemed so far away.

It was reading Paulo Freire as Marc Lamont Hills’ teaching assistant, dedicating vast amounts of time and energy into transforming my classroom into a safe and radical space; it was engaging in wounded healing with all the students who then came to office hours to talk about depression and hopelessness, and faith and acceptance.

It was Dr. Billie Gastic telling me that finishing this program was not about how smart I am, but how resilient.

It was hearing a graduate student say, “Research and me-search”

It was being raped by a friend that I had been intimate with; the gnawing process of letting go a seed that I couldn’t allow to sprout from my karmic debt and live in bitter shame.  It was writing my papers on abortion, and sexuality; starting the Yoni Project, a sexually healing and sexual empowering workshop for young girls and women, and writing a paper about that too.

It was finding out that my boy Abim had committed suicide, all the visions I was receiving of his last moments and last thoughts. It was the wail of his father, a sound that will always bring me to a quiet numbness. It was writing about mental health.

It was finding Ochun, dancing, offering honey to her rivers.  And of course, writing a paper about her too.

It was learning that my heaviness, the one that comes from living deeply and widely, grounds me, just as my inner light strengthens me, pushing me to transcend into higher grounds that must also be transcended toward even higher ground. That life was an upward spiral. Some days I’m at the top; other days, like today, I’m at the bottom.  My movement upward depends on how accepting of myself I can be at the bottom. I need it, so I respect it. I am beginning to believe we all should.  No matter which colonial house we live in.

Speech given at People’s Speak Out on June 9, 2012 in West Philadelphia

I believe in all power to the people

I believe the children are our future

I believe in a world

Without rape

Without prison

Without suicide

I believe that knowledge is power

And that change is possible.

I believe in the radical imagination of deep living

And the profound certainty of death and departure

I believe that anger is hurt

But rage is conviction

That hurt keeps us unwhole

But conviction demands balance

And I believe in the power of believing

For I am the daughter of warrior slaves

from long long ago.

 

 

While one in five women in the U.S. will be raped in their lifetime, the stakes are higher in our community, where 1 in 4 Black women are expected to be raped.  I am one of them. While TV depicts rape that happens by strangers in dark alleys and parking garages, 4 out of 10 real women will be raped in their homes, and 38% of them will be raped by people they know and trust. I am one of those women, my home was one of those homes, my violator was someone I knew and trusted.   And while most people will become angry at the fact that only 3% of violators will spend even a day in jail, I am not one of them.  I believe in collective healing and rehabilitation, in restorative justice and community accountability, and that communities can save ourselves from the terror of sexual violence.

I won’t lie and say there are days where the trust lost still pains me; there are still moments I am still hurt and angry at my violator. He grew up in West Philly, I know government mandated poverty and government broke ass schools and government supported corrupt police officers made it difficult for him to be a “real man”, that for so long he had been robbed of his power as a human being. And because I know that rape is not an act of desire but an act of power, I know he sought to find that power by dominating me.  Let me be very clear, make no excuses for him, I make no excuses for any of you that sexually violates another sister or brother.  It is too easy to blame him, though he too is part of the problem, or his village and how they raised him, though too are apart of the problem; it is even too easy to blame the hip hop artists that he listened to that constantly violate their Black and Brown sister.

 But I am also enraged at the state acceptance of a rape culture that encouraged his behavior in the first place.  I consider the role the state has historically played in enabling a silence around sexual violence, particularly of women of color; blaming and shaming victims when they have come forth; giving power and protection to mass media which collectively damages our perception of Black and Brown women and our sexuality; I consider the lack of funding for quality sex education in urban areas and federal coercion of narrowed school curriculum that emphasizes teaching to the test and downgrades the importance of life skills like stopping and preventing sexual violence.   And since rape is one way that an individual asserts power, it is no surprise that rape has a higher occurrence in the oppressed urban areas.  Therefore, the state marginalization of urban areas that maintain their poverty, lack of resources, and fascist police intimidation and violence, has also been a key player of the conditions that enable violence found in our urban communities, particularly sexual violence.

While I believe that removal can be necessary for the safety of the community, there is absolutely no justice done when violators are carted off from one exploited community to another exploited community.  And I refuse to have my violation to be caught in this web of exploitation under the guise of “real justice”; not when the self-serving interests of the state has effectively made prison into a violent industry that defiantly functions as slavery by another name.   Between the lack of rehabilitation within prison that teaches healthy sexualities for all prisoners, and the cruel mockery and acceptance of prison rape, the state shows its disregard and self-righteous contempt for any real change in the conditions that maintain rape as a reality for too many women and men.   This is one of the key reasons why only .2% of the prison population have been federally convicted of sexual abuse charges in comparison to 46.3% of those imprisoned for immigration offenses.  If the state was genuinely concerned with creating a rape-free society, and it genuinely believed that punishing violators through prison would make this possible, then that number would be higher. But it’s not. And it never will be, because the state does not have any moral concerns, the state only has interests, and none of those interests include the healing that victims deserve and all the education that violators desperately need.  Sexual violence is one more silent killer in our communities and we can’t just rely on the state.  We need to break our silence, believe the stories of victims and survivors,  we need to raise our boys to better,  to not find their manhood in aggressive and amoral sexualities, and we need to help them and all young people to channel that need for power into fighting this system and fighting these conditions that make them feel powerless.

For I believe in all power to the people

I believe the children are our future

I believe in a world

Without rape

Without prison

Without suicide

I believe that knowledge is power

And that change is so damn possible.

I believe in the radical imagination of deep living

And the profound certainty of death and departure

I believe that anger is hurt

But rage is conviction

That hurt keeps us unwhole

But conviction demands balance

And I believe in the power of believing

For I am the daughter of warrior slaves

from long long ago.

 

Revolutionary Love: A Letter to my Kindred Spirit

A Letter for my Kindred Spirit:I love you. And I love you for many reasons, but there are forty reasons why and how I love you divinely, recognize you as me and me as you, a beautiful and painful mirror. So it’s hard to look at you when I see you. I’ve read that that is one of the signs that the person you have encountered is a kindred spirit. An entity housed within a body that you are called to learn from, and ultimately teach, since isn’t that how learning happens? So yes, though I have been scared and hesitant in hearing that call and knowing what to do with it, I accept you wholeheartedly as a kindred a spirit: a divine companion where I can look upon myself, and see all the parts that need to be loved, held, cherished, pleased, and sanctified.I have learned thus far that I am the yoni to your lingam, and for me that means that it is through my yoni work that I can bring us both to a healing place in our journeying here on Earth. I walk in the spirit of Audre Lorde, ready to do this work, coming to ask you, are you doing yours? Only you can answer that question, only the whispering voice of compassionate honesty can know, only you can devote the time and the space to hear that voice. What I know, is that it is through our work that we can work with and on and through the Universe, and create new life, new understanding, new vision, seeds for the people who are running towards a Promised Land, who needed it yesterday and the day before that.Over the years that I have known you I have had many, many dreams of you. More dreams than I will probably ever admit to you. There we are doing yoniwork, creating life-energy, holding each other in sweet embrace as we do so. It is pure and simple, it is loving, it is that place higher than platonic, higher than romantic, higher than any orgasm a physical body can produce in an earthly context: the space is a place of pure unity, of wholeness, of divine harmony, peace, perfection, truth. It is the most honest place I have ever been. I’ve reached Nirvana in my dreams, and Nirvana was with you. And it is the kind of companionship that can be found between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, but we are of a different time and place, different gender and different race, and that last part makes it tricky. And then we each have our histories, our traumas and accomplishments, different comedy and different sorrows. And then the history we have conjured thus far, which has been a rollercoaster and it hasn’t always been fun.But it will be. I can already see it. If we can achieve what Rumi and Shams did, then the voids on our paths can discovered and be filled; that we can be made content, feel whole in Love, the way that they were so whole in Love. They were magical those two. They made Sufism seductive with their beautiful truth, their yellow alchemy. Hopefully my kindred spirit has read that story. I know there is already a lot on the plate, many earthly demands, many material desires. But there comes a time in your journey where you must work on the spirit, read books for the spirit: build that foundational force that will help you to live more authentically, more deeply, more freely; more compassionately, because to allow love to manifest your spirit, to know how to allow love to manifest in your spirit, allows you to be compassionate to yourself and subsequently compassionate with others. And so it undergirds all the freedom fighting you do, making it not just winning a war for our history books, but healing the spirit of our people in the face of oppression.Our people needed HEALING WORK. We are dying, and if we are not being killed, if guns and prisons and rape are not killing us, we are killing ourselves. Some of us kill ourselves with worry or food or drugs or meaningless sex, abusive relationships or hypersensitive egos, but in the end, we all perish. Some of us take pills until our livers collapse, or pull triggers until the brain shuts down. How are we fighting this fight and fighting for our people’s spirits by doing the healing work? Yes, there is a time to shout out and at the oppressor, but how are we healing the oppressed as we bear America, as we live in an anti-democratic country that seeks to silence our history, silence our truth and then blame us for our misery.

And while we choose between two battles, we must find balance and learn how to be a quiet warrior in both. Because the most revolutionary thing one can do is find balance by loving ourselves in this present moment, in the place that hangs between those two war zones. It is the place where we actively love ourselves, not passively, not agreeing to someone’s question when we are queried, but actively and persistently looking in our mirrors with love in our eyes, even as we witness tears of pain. Aligning our mind body and spirit: breathing and breathing and breathing and telling ourselves we arepurposeful, and whole, and already enough, and already perfect because our Creator has scripted our flaws for a perfect reason, that all is truly in divine order; that we can we love ourselves in the way that we were suppose to, our own unique harmonic Way. That we were already free, and that the rest of the war that we win and that we are winning is all so that our freedom will be remembered by our children. That we were already at the Promised Land when we found the kind of love where we arrived at ourselves honestly and with courage and with conviction.

So read the The Forty Rules of Love, because it will best define how I am talking about love here, love for ourselves, love for the Creator that created you and l, and love for what that creation is suppose to be. The highest of loves that has been divinely scripted, already written before this time and place. It will be the love that is found when the void is filled, and we can be able to rest in divine contentment in who and where we are, and why we do what we do here, and how we get it done.

Lastly, I want to give thanks to my yoni for bringing me to this place of understanding, it has been through my yoni work that I have been enlightened so: it has been the work I needed to do and that I need to do to attain the spiritual growth I have been called to experience, and the spiritual enlightenment that I was born to obtain. It has been the yoni worship and the yoni dancing, the breathing, the painting, the yellow candles and the yoga poses; the chakra clearing and balancing, the mirror work and the affirmations, the building with sisters and brothers and co-creating life energy, through cooking, or teaching, or laughing. It has been the baths and the quiet alone time, the creation of tears, all the times I rubbed the tears all over my face, because I wanted my skin to capture the strength that filled my tears. It has been the courage to be vulnerable, to be seen and to not be afraid of what others might think. Because others will always think, but I had ownership over my own reality, and my thoughts were the only ones that managed all others, and I am finally trusting in that management because I am finally giving myself to the goodness of the Universe, that my management submits to Love. This allows myself to understand I am a creator, of the reality that I sought and reached for, and the reality that the Universe needed. And that it needed it more than me, that the need was bigger than any of m insecurities because ultimately, it was bigger than me.

It was bigger than you.

And it was so much damn bigger than we.

So I pray you read this letter and find it a letter of revolutionary love, a letter full of the love and fiery truths that I truly believe Mumia Abu Jamal has found during his long captivity in the death camp of America. I believe that you and I can reach that place of freedom, and that we can do it together, because it has already been written. Alas, let us allow it to be so, through your work and through mine.

Your kindred spirit,
Mari

P.S. Though it might seem like this letter was for you, it was also for me, to write, and read, and hear, and see as an undeniable truth.

That I was, that we were, worthy of love.

Rage, Conviction, and Our Radical Imaginary: My Experience at Slutwalk with My Mother

I first learned about Slutwalk at my job at Temple University, where I am both an Urban Ed doctoral student and writing tutor at the writing center. A young white female freshman wanted me to help revise her paper. She was focusing on Slutwalk and its use of social media. Intrigued by the chain of events that led to Slutwalk and its ideological attack on rape culture, I did more research on the march after our session. The message seemed multilayered and cumbersome: it was about problematizing and reappropriating gendered words; exposing the patriarchal underpinnings of those words and how they shape the ways in which male (and female) authorities talk about accountability; reframing how the larger society privileges avoiding rape as opposed to not raping; and more viscerally, reconceptualizing the body as a cultural text where messages are communicated. This last part was what had made Slutwalk a spectacle and controversial. There seemed to be so many competing and seemingly conflicting messages about what to make of “scantily clad women”: Was this sluttish? Was this attention seeking? Was this real freedom? And if this was an attack on rape-culture, how did the exposed body engage in this attack? Akiba Solomon and Keli Goff further questioned, what did this exposed body really do for the vulnerable bodies that had been raped?
As a rape survivor, an urban woman of color, a feminist activist, and a burgeoning scholar deeply invested in issues of gender and sexuality, I have thoroughly appreciated all of the discussion and critique about Slutwalk. Black Women’t Blueprint unveiled questions I hadn’t thought of when I initially (and quickly) applauded the radicalism of Slutwalk. Their critique of how Slutwalk failed to acknowledge the historical and social context that brings women of color to this conversation in different and unique ways, was undeniably valid. It offered another reason for why it was important for me to enter and entitle myself to a space in that walk, even if the organizers or my fellow white marchers had the privilege to not think about that space, and the cultural baggage that kept them from fully understanding it.
But I walked that day for other personal reasons as well. The day before the march, September 30, marked the 3 year anniversary of my rape. A week before the march, I thought about the deep wounds of that event, all the ways it had unraveled me and all of my notions of trust. I thought of the 3 year sojourn of healing: the tears, the blank stares, the difficulty in naming it, the dancing, the candles, the baths, the yellows, the breathing, the sharing, the silences, the anguish, the memories, the affirmations, the frail hope, the rage, the conviction. No, I would not allow that anniversary to be a day of mourning, but rather a time in memoriam of the healing. I decided that in carving my own space at Slutwalk, I did so as a survivor with conviction; a survivor who craved a public space where I could be fully enraged, who was finally healed enough to make that rage public. And that is what Slutwalk was for me. It was the public space I needed to honor the anguish and to honor the rage, even if that anguish and rage was not fully understood within its cultural context.
My mother’s participation in the walk made the experience that much more powerful. Her support was crucial, but it was the fact that we could share this experience and this space together; it was how she crafted her own space as a mother of a rape survivor. Slutwalk was a space where this elder could share her anguish: that despite all of her conversations with me about not leaving my drink unattended, not riding elevators by myself, or not riding the train so late, that somehow, someone had hurt her baby, badly, and deeply. It was a place where she could cry all the tears she had denied herself, since here was a safe place where everyone agreed we can’t be silent about this any more. It was a space in which she could be angry about that silence, where she could release that anguish into a war cry, a cry that came from deep, deeper than the place where I was born, and closer to that ancient place that Audre Lorde speaks of: “a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘Beautiful and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness’ and of impotence.” And her cry shook the walls of my own buried rooms of darkness, as we both roared: “This is what a feminist look!”, “What do you do when you are under attack: Stand up fight back!”, “A dress is just a dress, it does mean no and it doesn’t mean yes!”, and her favorite, “Hey rapists, go fuck yourselves!” The space was what I needed, and it was what my mother needed. It was what we needed at that time and in that way.
My mother, a moderately conservative woman, once argued with me that girls do need to watch what they wear, that there are messages that they put out to men, even if they don’t want to. I was so angry that my mother could hold on to such a myth, be so defeatist in reframing the conversation to what we need to tell our boys. But that day, as we walked behind a woman who only wore a sequined bra and a thong, I studied my mother’s face, and I could see her thinking. I could see her thoughts changing shape and changing colors, and I could see her mind making room for radical possibility. I could see how she was embarrassed and then offended and angered. And then astounded and bewildered; I could see her appreciate the beauty of this woman’s body, get lost in it and then, remember where she was, and why she was there, and what all this was about. And finally, mami nodded, turned to me with a tear in her eye and a gaze of understanding, and said: That’s right, we should be able to walk these streets naked without fear. We should have that right, damnit. We should have that right. She continued to roar, a war cry that she felt entitled to and empowered by, a space she crafted for herself, as a mother of color, the mother of a survivor, and a survivor in her own right.
It is my hope that in sharing my experience with Slutwalk, I add to the larger and critical discussion that women of color have had about this spectacle of event, and the individual experiences that women of color have had at Slutwalk. So that when Keli Goff begrudgingly asks, what this walk did for rape survivors, I am so grateful that I can answer, it gave me and my mother a space to walk without fear, a space to walk with conviction, and a space to fight back at all the silences enabled by rape culture, including my own profound silence which disabled me from fighting off my violator. My trusted friend.
I agree that the colorblindness dangerously enables young white woman like Erin Clark to hold up racist signs that extinguish the Black female existence. And I agree with Aishah Shahidah Simmons that there is something critical in coming together as women and there is something dangerous in not doing the difficult work of working through differences. And I wholeheartedly agree with Salamisha Tillet that, “In order for it to be more than a passing fad, it has to become a healthy marriage of substance and spectacle, a movement that builds on the anti-rape activism of black women, like civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks.” To all of this I add, that I hope we might think of Slutwalk as a space where radical possibilities can be imagined and enacted and that we understand it on those terms. That the march is but a small piece of this larger movement, but an important piece nonetheless. It was and is not realistic, but it wasn’t meant to be realistic for this time, for this place; for me, it was meant to be idealistic for a future we want for all of our girls, in the hood and in the suburbs, and in every patch of earth in the world. A world where we can walk naked, and vulnerable; and still be safe, and still be free.
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4 responses »

  1. You are living a life of love on purpose, fully present, and filled with tremendous power. Thank you for being the purpose we were all called to manifest — love, love, love… Loving in laughter, in tears, in awe, and in life and in death…. we are here love and allow ourselves to be loved…. Angela C

  2. You are my blood , you are my sister , your my friend and through this deep reflection writing you are my voice not just my voice the voice of the oppressed all over. Thank you for allowing God to use your temple to liberate ALL!!!!!!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

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