Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.
As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” (~quotes from bell hooks, chapter 1 ‘FEMINIST POLITICS Where We Stand’ in Feminism is for Everybody)
To Read the complete chapter or read the book Feminism is for Everybody go to: Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks PDF
May 11, 2016
“The issue is really one of standpoint. From what political perspective do we dream, look, create, and take action? For those of us who dare to desire differently, who seek to look away from the conventional ways of seeing blackness and ourselves, the issue of race and representation is not just a question of critiquing the status quo. It is also about transforming the image, creating alternatives, asking ourselves questions about what types of images subvert, pose critical alternatives, transform our world views and move us away from dualistic thinking about good and bad. Making a space for the transgressive image, the outlaw rebel vision, is essential to any effort to create a context for transformation. And even then little progress is made if we transform images without shifting paradigms, changing perspectives, and ways of looking.” (~ from Black Looks: Race and Representation)
To read more of bell hooks blog check out the bell hooks Institute at: http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com
This is one of the best in the lecture series by bell hooks at the New School. Cinematographer Arthur Jafa discusses Transgressions in Public Spaces, ‘who is looking’, and the common ground of racism and sexism with bell hooks as well as shares some of his stellar film work.
“Poetry is a useful place for lamentation…poems are a place where we can cry out.” ― bell hooks, Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place
“The Woman’s Mourning Song”
i cry high
this mourning song
my heart rises
sun in hand
to make the bread
my heavy work hand
the voice of many singers
the warmth of many ovens comfort
the warrior in me returns
to slay sorrow
to make the bread
to sing the mourning song
i cry high
i cry high
the mourning song
go away death
go from love’s house
go make your empty bed
by bell hooks
“sometimes falling rain
carries memories of betrayal
there in the woods
where she was not meant to be
too young she believes
in her right to be free
in her body
free from harm
a wilderness she can enter
believing the power
that there be sacred place
that there can be atonement now
she returns with no fear
facing the past
ready to risk
knowing these woods now
hold beauty and danger”
quote from bell hooks, Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place
Those who have influenced bell hooks include African-American abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth (whose speech Ain’t I a Woman? inspired her first major work), Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (whose perspectives on education she embraces in her theory of engaged pedagogy), Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, African-American writer James Baldwin, Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, African-American black nationalist leader Malcolm X, and African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr (who addresses how the strength of love unites communities). As bell hooks says of Martin Luther King’s notion of a beloved community, “he had a profound awareness that the people involved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way.”
“No profit in poetry, right? That’s a nation that’s going to hell. What will happen to generations who don’t have poetry? Even illiterate cultures have poetry. Poetry is part of the soul.” (quote from Komozi Woodard March 1990, SLC “Key Issues in African American History” course.)
Komozi Woodard is a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of A Nation Within a Nation; a co-editor, with Sylviane A. Diouf, of Black Power 50 (The New Press); and the editor of The Black Power Movement, Part I; Freedom North; Groundwork; and Want to Start a Revolution?
During the Black Power Movement, Komozi Woodard served as head of economic development for the Temple of Kawaida in Newark, New Jersey and as editor of Unity and Struggle, the organ of the Congress of African People.
Black Power 50
Sylviane A. Diouf Komozi Woodard
With a foreword by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
The fully illustrated companion to a major exhibit at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a sweeping fiftieth-anniversary retrospective of Black Power in America and around the world
Black Power burst onto the world scene in 1966 with ideas, politics, and fashion that opened the eyes of millions of people across the globe. In the United States, the movement spread like wildfire: high school and college youth organized black student unions; educators created black studies programs; Black Power conventions gathered thousands of people from all walks of life; and books, journals, bookstores, and publishing companies spread Black Power messages and imagery throughout the country and abroad.
The Black Arts Movement inspired the creation of some eight hundred black theaters and cultural centers, where a generation of writers and artists forged a new and enduring cultural vision.
Black Power 50 includes original interviews with key figures from the movement, essays from today’s leading Black Power scholars, and over one hundred stunning images, offering a beautiful and compelling introduction to this pivotal movement.
To purchase the Black Power 50 book go to: The New Press (Books) “Black Power 50”
Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka is best known as one of the African American writers who helped ignite the Black Arts Movement. This book examines Baraka’s cultural approach to Black Power politics and explores his role in the phenomenal spread of black nationalism in the urban centers of late-twentieth-century America, including his part in the election of black public officials, his leadership in the Modern Black Convention Movement, and his work in housing and community development.
Komozi Woodard traces Baraka’s transformation from poet to political activist, as the rise of the Black Arts Movement pulled him from political obscurity in the Beat circles of Greenwich Village, swept him into the center of the Black Power Movement, and ultimately propelled him into the ranks of black national political leadership. Moving outward from Baraka’s personal story, Woodard illuminates the dynamics and remarkable rise of black cultural nationalism with an eye toward the movement’s broader context, including the impact of black migrations on urban ethos, the importance of increasing population concentrations of African Americans in the cities, and the effect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the nature of black political mobilization.
To purchase the Nation within a Nation book go to:
This collection of Amiri Baraka materials was made available by Dr. Komozi Woodard. The collection consists of rare works of poetry, organizational records, print publications, over one hundred articles, poems, plays, and speeches by Baraka, a small amount of personal correspondence, and oral histories. The collection has been arranged into eighteen series. These series are: (1) Black Arts Movement; (2) Black Nationalism; (3) Correspondence; (4) Newark (New Jersey); (5) Congress of African People; (6) National Black Conferences and National Black Assembly; (7) Black Women’s United Front; (8) Student Organization for Black Unity; (9) African Liberation Support Committee; (10) Revolutionary Communist League; (11) African Socialism; (12) Black Marxists; (13) National Black United Front; (14) Miscellaneous Materials, 1978-1988; (15) Serial Publications; (16) Oral Histories; (17) Woodard’s Office Files; and (18) Audio Visual. Dr. Woodard collected these documents during his career as an activist in Newark, New Jersey.
“Incident” (Poem) BY AMIRI BARAKA
He came back and shot. He shot him. When he came
back, he shot, and he fell, stumbling, past the
shadow wood, down, shot, dying, dead, to full halt.
At the bottom, bleeding, shot dead. He died then, there
after the fall, the speeding bullet, tore his face
and blood sprayed fine over the killer and the grey light.
Pictures of the dead man, are everywhere. And his spirit
sucks up the light. But he died in darkness darker than
his soul and everything tumbled blindly with him dying
down the stairs.
We have no word
on the killer, except he came back, from somewhere
to do what he did. And shot only once into his victim’s
stare, and left him quickly when the blood ran out. We know
the killer was skillful, quick, and silent, and that the victim
probably knew him. Other than that, aside from the caked sourness
of the dead man’s expression, and the cool surprise in the fixture
of his hands and fingers, we know nothing.
Amiri Baraka, “Incident” from Black Magic (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969). Copyright © 1969 by Amiri Baraka. Reprinted with the permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
Source: Black Magic (1969)
For a basic biography of Amiri Baraka visit the: Poetry Foundation
To Check out Komozi Woodard’s course list at SLC visit:
MAYA ANGELOU: 1928-2014
Maya Angelou felt particularly connected with the work of William Shakespeare. After reading his Sonnet 29, she was known to say, “Shakespeare must be a black girl,” as he so perfectly articulated her experiences:
William Shakespeare’s SONNET 29:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Visit the Angelou Johnson Family website to learn more about: The Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou
MA: It came from a poem written by Sir Lawrence Dunbar, a black male poet writing in the 1800s.
DF: Do you remember that?
MA: Yes. It’s called Sympathy — the poem.
I know what the caged bird feels.
Ah me, when the sun is bright on the upland slopes,
when the wind blows soft through the springing grass
and the river floats like a sheet of glass,
when the first bird sings and the first bud ops,
and the faint perfume from its chalice steals.
I know what the caged bird feels
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
till its blood is red on the cruel bars,
for he must fly back to his perch and cling
when he fain would be on the bow aswing.
And the blood still throbs in the old, old scars
and they pulse again with a keener sting.
I know why he beats his wing.
I know why the caged bird sings.
Ah, me, when its wings are bruised and is bosom sore.
It beats its bars and would be free.
It’s not a carol of joy or glee,
but a prayer that it send from its heart’s deep core,
but a plea that upward to heaven it flings.
I know why the caged bird sings.
Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119
issue 116, Fall 1990 (the Paris Review)
Interviewed by George Plimpton
This interview was conducted on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side. A large audience, predominantly women, was on hand, filling indeed every seat, with standees in the back . . . a testament to Maya Angelou’s drawing power. Close to the stage was a small contingent of black women dressed in the white robes of the Black Muslim order. Her presence dominated the proceedings. Many of her remarks drew fervid applause, especially those which reflected her views on racial problems, the need to persevere, and “courage.” She is an extraordinary performer and has a powerful stage presence. Many of the answers seemed as much directed to the audience as to the interviewer so that when Maya Angelou concluded the evening by reading aloud from her work—again to a rapt audience—it seemed a logical extension of a planned entertainment.
You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?
The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is. Though I do manage to mumble around in about seven or eight languages, English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.
Do you read it to get inspired to pick up your own pen?
For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.
Do you transfer that melody to your own prose? Do you think your prose has that particular ring that one associates with the King James version?
I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is. Then, I try to be particular and even original. It’s a little like reading Gerard Manley Hopkins or Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson.
And is the bottle of sherry for the end of the day or to fuel the imagination?
I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.
When you are refreshed by the Bible and the sherry, how do you start a day’s work?
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK.” I remember that and I start to write. Nathaniel Hawthorne says, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language. On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks. When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat. That’s that. Not a cat. But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you. Come to me. I love you. It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.
How do you know when it’s what you want?
I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.” And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.
How much revising is involved?
I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop—I’m a serious cook—and pretend to be normal. I play sane—Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them—fifty acceptable pages—it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.
The five autobiographical books follow each other in chronological order. When you started writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings did you know that you would move on from that? It almost works line by line into the second volume.
I know, but I didn’t really mean to. I thought I was going to write Caged Bird and that would be it and I would go back to playwriting and writing scripts for television. Autobiography is awfully seductive; it’s wonderful. Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass—the slave narrative—speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning we. And what a responsibility! Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me. I’ve written five now and I really hope—the works are required reading in many universities and colleges in the United States—that people readmy work. The greatest compliment I receive is when people walk up to me on the street or in airports and say, Miss Angelou, I wrote your books last year and I really—I mean I read . . . That is it—that the person has come into the books so seriously, so completely, that he or she, black or white, male or female, feels, That’s my story. I told it. I’m making it up on the spot. That’s the great compliment. I didn’t expect, originally, that I was going to continue with the form. I thought I was going to write a little book and it would be fine and I would go on back to poetry, write a little music.
What about the genesis of the first book? Who were the people who helped you shape those sentences that leap off the page?
Oh well, they started years and years before I ever wrote, when I was very young. I loved the black American minister. I loved the melody of the voice and the imagery, so rich and almost impossible. The minister in my church in Arkansas, when I was very young, would use phrases such as “God stepped out, the sun over his right shoulder, the moon nestling in the palm of his hand.” I mean, I just loved it, and I loved the black poets, and I loved Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe, and I liked Matthew Arnold a lot—still do. Being mute for a number of years, I read and memorized, and all those people have had tremendous influence . . . in the first book and even in the most recent book.
I was raped when I was very young. I told my brother the name of the person who had done it. Within a few days the man was killed. In my child’s mind—seven and a half years old—I thought my voice had killed him. So I stopped talking for five years. Of course I’ve written about this in Caged Bird.
When did you decide you were going to be a writer? Was there a moment when you suddenly said, This is what I wish to do for the rest of my life?
Well, I had written a television series for PBS, and I was going out to California. I thought I was a poet and playwright. That was what I was going to do the rest of my life. Or become famous as a real estate broker. This sounds like name-dropping, and it really is, but James Baldwin took me over to dinner with Jules and Judy Feiffer one evening. All three of them are great talkers. They went on with their stories and I had to fight for the right to play it good. I had to insert myself to tell some stories too. Well, the next day Judy Feiffer called Bob Loomis, an editor at Random House, and suggested that if he could get me to write an autobiography, he’d have something. So he phoned me and I said, No, under no circumstances; I certainly will not do such a thing. So I went out to California to produce this series on African and black American culture. Loomis called me out there about three times. Each time I said no. Then he talked to James Baldwin. Jimmy gave him a ploy which always works with me—though I’m not proud to say that. The next time he called, he said, Well, Miss Angelou. I won’t bother you again. It’s just as well that you don’t attempt to write this book, because to write autobiography as literature is almost impossible. I said, What are you talking about? I’ll do it. I’m not proud about this button that can be pushed and I will immediately jump.
Do you select a dominant theme for each book?
I try to remember times in my life, incidents in which there was the dominating theme of cruelty, or kindness, or generosity, or envy, or happiness, glee . . . perhaps four incidents in the period I’m going to write about. Then I select the one that lends itself best to my device and that I can write as drama without falling into melodrama.
Did you write for a particular audience?
I thought early on if I could write a book for black girls it would be good because there were so few books for a black girl to read that said this is how it is to grow up. Then, I thought, I’d better, you know, enlarge that group, the market group that I’m trying to reach. I decided to write for black boys and then white girls and then white boys.
But what I try to keep in mind mostly is my craft. That’s what I really try for; I try to allow myself to be impelled by my art—if that doesn’t sound too pompous and weird—accept the impulse and then try my best to have a command of the craft. If I’m feeling depressed and losing my control then I think about the reader. But that is very rare—to think about the reader when the work is going on.
So you don’t keep a particular reader in mind when you sit down in that hotel room and begin to compose or write. It’s yourself.
It’s myself . . . and my reader. I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. There’s a phrase in West Africa, in Ghana; it’s called “deep talk.” For instance, there’s a saying: “The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the chief’s bugle but where to blow it.” Now, on the face of it, one understands that. But when you really think about it, it takes you deeper. In West Africa they call that “deep talk.” I’d like to think I write “deep talk.” When you read me, you should be able to say, Gosh, that’s pretty. That’s lovely. That’s nice. Maybe there’s something else? Better read it again. Years ago I read a man named Machado de Assis who wrote a book called Dom Casmurro. Machado de Assis is a South American writer—black father, Portuguese mother—writing in 1865, say. I thought the book was very nice. Then I went back and read the book and said, Hmm. I didn’t realize all that was in that book. Then I read it again, and again, and I came to the conclusion that what Machado de Assis had done for me was almost a trick: he had beckoned me onto the beach to watch a sunset. And I had watched the sunset with pleasure. When I turned around to come back in I found that the tide had come in over my head. That’s when I decided to write. I would write so that the reader says, That’s so nice. Oh boy, that’s pretty. Let me read that again. I think that’s why Caged Bird is in its twenty-first printing in hardcover and its twenty-ninth in paper. All my books are still in print, in hardback as well as paper, because people go back and say, Let me read that. Did she really say that?
The books are episodic, aren’t they? Almost as if you had put together a string of short stories. I wondered if as an autobiographer you ever fiddled with the truth to make the story better.
Well, sometimes. I love the phrase “fiddle with.” It’s so English. Sometimes I make a character from a composite of three or four people, because the essence in any one person is not sufficiently strong to be written about. Essentially though, the work is true though sometimes I fiddle with the facts. Many of the people I’ve written about are alive today and I have them to face. I wrote about an ex-husband—he’s an African—in The Heart of a Woman. Before I did, I called him in Dar-es-Salaam and said, I’m going to write about some of our years together. He said, Now before you ask, I want you to know that I shall sign my release, because I know you will not lie. However, I am sure I shall argue with you about your interpretation of the truth.
Did he enjoy his portrait finally or did you argue about it?
Well, he didn’t argue, but I was kind too.
I would guess this would make it very easy for you to move from autobiography into novel, where you can do anything you want with your characters.
Yes, but for me, fiction is not the sweetest form. I really am trying to do something with autobiography now. It has caught me. I’m using the first-person singular and trying to make that the first-person plural, so that anybody can read the work and say, Hmm, that’s the truth, yes, uh-huh, and live in the work. It’s a large, ambitious dream. But I love the form.
Aren’t the extraordinary events of your life very hard for the rest of us to identify with?
Oh my God, I’ve lived a very simple life! You can say, Oh yes, at thirteen this happened to me and at fourteen . . . But those are facts. But the facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like. Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.
Aren’t you tempted to lie? Novelists lie, don’t they?
I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being—what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.
James Baldwin, along with a lot of writers in this series, said that “when you’re writing you’re trying to find out something you didn’t know.” When you write do you search for something that you didn’t know about yourself or about us?
Yes. When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.
Baldwin also said that his family urged him not to become a writer. His father felt that there was a white monopoly in publishing. Did you ever have any of those feelings—that you were going up against something that was really immensely difficult for a black writer?
Yes, but I didn’t find it so just in writing. I’ve found it so in all the things I’ve attempted. In the shape of American society, the white male is on top, then the white female, and then the black male, and at the bottom is the black woman. So that’s been always so. That is nothing new. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t shock me, shake me up . . .
I can understand that in various social stratifications, but why in art?
Well, unfortunately, racism is pervasive. It doesn’t stop at the university gate, or at the ballet stage. I knew great black dancers, male and female, who were told early on that they were not shaped, physically, for ballet. Today, we see very few black ballet dancers. Unfortunately, in the theater and in film, racism and sexism stand at the door. I’m the first black female director in Hollywood; in order to direct, I went to Sweden and took a course in cinematography so I would understand what the camera would do. Though I had written a screenplay, and even composed the score, I wasn’t allowed to direct it. They brought in a young Swedish director who hadn’t even shaken a black person’s hand before. The film was Georgia, Georgia with Diana Sands. People either loathed it or complimented me. Both were wrong, because it was not what I wanted, not what I would have done if I had been allowed to direct it. So I thought, Well, what I guess I’d better do is be ten times as prepared. That is not new. I wish it was. In every case I know I have to be ten times more prepared than my white counterpart.
Even as a writer where . . .
Yet a manuscript is what arrives at the editor’s desk, not a person, not a body.
Yes. I must have such control of my tools, of words, that I can make this sentence leap off the page. I have to have my writing so polished that it doesn’t look polished at all. I want a reader, especially an editor, to be a half-hour into my book before he realizes it’s reading he’s doing.
But isn’t that the goal of every person who sits down at a typewriter?
Absolutely. Yes. It’s possible to be overly sensitive, to carry a bit of paranoia along with you. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It keeps you sharp, keeps you on your toes.
Is there a thread one can see through the five autobiographies? It seems to me that one prevailing theme is the love of your child.
Yes, well, that’s true. I think that that’s a particular. I suppose, if I’m lucky, the particular is seen in the general. There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. Less time is crystal. Less than that is coal. Less than that is fossilized leaves. Less than that it’s just plain dirt. In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be. Human beings are more alike than unalike. There’s no real mystique. Every human being, every Jew, Christian, backslider, Muslim, Shintoist, Zen Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, every human being wants a nice place to live, a good place for the children to go to school, healthy children, somebody to love, the courage, the unmitigated gall to accept love in return, someplace to party on Saturday or Sunday night, and someplace to perpetuate that God. There’s no mystique. None. And if I’m right in my work, that’s what my work says.
Have you been back to Stamps, Arkansas?
About 1970, Bill Moyers, Willie Morris, and I were at some affair. Judith Moyers as well—I think she was the instigator. We may have had two or three scotches, or seven or eight. Willie Morris was then with Harper’s magazine. The suggestion came up: Why don’t we all go back South? Willie Morris was from Yazoo, Mississippi. Bill Moyers is from Marshall, Texas, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump—about as far as you can throw a chitterling—from Stamps, my hometown. Sometime in the middle of the night there was this idea: Why don’t Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou go to Yazoo, Mississippi to visit Willie Morris? Then why don’t Willie Morris and Maya Angelou go to Marshall, Texas, to visit Bill Moyers? I said, Great. I was agreeing with both. Then they said Willie Morris and Bill Moyers would go to Stamps, Arkansas to visit Maya Angelou, and I said, No way, José. I’m not going back to that little town with two white men! I will not do it! Well, after a while Bill Moyers called me—he was doing a series on “creativity”—and he said, Maya, come on, let’s go to Stamps. I said, No way. He continued, I want to talk about creativity. I said, You know, I don’t want to know where it resides. I really don’t, and I still don’t. One of the problems in the West is that people are too busy putting things under microscopes and so forth. Creativity is greater than the sum of its parts. All I want to know is that creativity is there. I want to know that I can put my hand behind my back like Tom Thumb and pull out a plum. Anyway, Moyers went on and on and so did Judith and before I knew it, I found myself in Stamps, Arkansas. Stamps, Arkansas! With Bill Moyers, in front of my grandmother’s door. My God! We drove out of town—me with Bill and Judith. Back of us was the crew, a New York crew, you know, very “Right, dig where I’m comin’ from, like, get it on,” and so forth. We got about three miles outside of Stamps and I said, Stop the car. Let the car behind us pull up. Get those people in with you and I’ll take their car. I suddenly was taken back to being twelve years old in a Southern, tiny town where my grandmother told me, Sistah, never be on a country road with any white boys. I was two hundred years older than black pepper, but I said, Stop the car. I did. I got out of the car. And I knew these guys—certainly Bill. Bill Moyers is a friend and brother-friend to me; we care for each other. But dragons, fears, the grotesques of childhood always must be confronted at childhood’s door. Any other place is esoteric and has nothing to do with the great fear that is laid upon one as a child. So anyway, we did Bill Moyers’s show. And it seems to be a very popular program, and it’s the first of the “creativity” programs . . .
Did going back assuage those childhood fears?
They are there like griffins hanging off the sides of old and tired European buildings.
It hadn’t changed?
No, worse if anything.
But it was forty years before you went back to the South, to North Carolina. Was that because of a fear of finding griffins everywhere, Stamps being a typical community of the South?
Well, I’ve never felt the need to prove anything to an audience. I’m always concerned about who I am to me first—to myself and God. I really am. I didn’t go south because I didn’t want to pull up whatever clout I had, because that’s boring, that’s not real, not true; that doesn’t tell me anything. If I had known I was afraid, I would have gone earlier. I just thought I’d find the South really unpleasant. I have moved south now. I live there.
Perhaps writing the autobiographies, finding out about yourself, would have made it much easier to go back.
I know many think that writing sort of “clears the air.” It doesn’t do that at all. If you are going to write autobiography, don’t expect that it will clear anything up. It makes it more clear to you, but it doesn’t alleviate anything. You simply know it better, you have names for people.
There’s a part in Caged Bird where you and your brother want to do a scene from The Merchant of Venice, and you don’t dare do it because your grandmother would find out that Shakespeare was not only deceased but white.
I don’t think she’d have minded if she’d known he was deceased. I tried to pacify her—my mother knew Shakespeare but my grandmother was raising us. When I told her I wanted to recite—it was actually Portia’s speech—Mama said to me, Now, sistah, what are you goin’ to render? The phrase was so fetching. The phrase was “Now, little mistress Marguerite will render her rendition.” Mama said, Now, sistah, what are you goin’ to render? I said, Mama, I’m going to render a piece written by William Shakespeare. My grandmother asked me, Now, sistah, who is this very William Shakespeare? I had to tell her that he was white, it was going to come out. Somebody would let it out. So I told Mama, Mama, he’s white but he’s dead. Then I said, He’s been dead for centuries, thinking she’d forgive him because of this little idiosyncrasy. She said, No Ma’am, little mistress you will not. No Ma’am, little mistress you will not. So I rendered James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes.
Were books allowed in the house?
None of those books were in the house; they were in the school. I’d bring them home from school, and my brother gave me Edgar Allan Poe because he knew I loved him. I loved him so much I called him EAP. But as I said, I had a problem when I was young: from the time I was seven and a half to the time I was twelve and a half I was a mute. I could speak but I didn’t speak for five years and I was what was called a “volunteer mute.” But I read and I memorized just masses—I don’t know if one is born with photographic memory but I think you can develop it. I just have that.
What is the significance of the title All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes?
I never agreed, even as a young person, with the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Instinctively I didn’t. But the truth is, you can never leave home. You take it with you; it’s under your fingernails; it’s in the hair follicles; it’s in the way you smile; it’s in the ride of your hips, in the passage of your breasts; it’s all there, no matter where you go. You can take on the affectations and the postures of other places and even learn to speak their ways. But the truth is, home is between your teeth. Everybody’s always looking for it: Jews go to Israel; black Americans and Africans in the Diaspora go to Africa; Europeans, Anglo-Saxons go to England and Ireland; people of Germanic background go to Germany. It’s a very queer quest. We can kid ourselves; we can tell ourselves, Oh yes, honey, I live in Tel Aviv, actually . . . The truth is a stubborn fact. So this book is about trying to go home.
If you had to endow a writer with the most necessary pieces of equipment, other than, of course, yellow legal pads, what would these be?
Ears. Ears. To hear the language. But there’s no one piece of equipment that is most necessary. Courage, first.
Did you ever feel that you could not get your work published? Would you have continued to write if Random House had returned your manuscript?
I didn’t think it was going to be very easy, but I knew I was going to do something. The real reason black people exist at all today is because there’s a resistance to a larger society that says you can’t do it—you can’t survive. And if you survive, you certainly can’t thrive. And if you thrive, you can’t thrive with any passion or compassion or humor or style. There’s a saying, a song that says, “Don’t you let nobody turn you ’round, turn you ’round. Don’t you let nobody turn you ‘round.” Well, I’ve always believed that. So knowing that, knowing that nobody could turn me ’round, if I didn’t publish, well, I would design this theater we’re sitting in. Yes. Why not? Some human being did it. I agree with Terence. Terence said homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. When you look up Terence in the encyclopedia, you see beside his name, in italics, sold to a Roman senator, freed by that Senator. He became the most popular playwright in Rome. Six of his plays and that statement have come down to us from 154 b.c. This man, not born white, not born free, without any chance of ever receiving citizenship, said, I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. Well, I believe that. I ingested that, internalized that at about thirteen or twelve. I believed if I set my mind to it, maybe I wouldn’t be published but I would write a great piece of music or do something about becoming a real friend. Yes, I would do something wonderful. It might be with my next-door neighbor, my gentleman friend, with my lover, but it would be wonderful as far as I could do it. So I never have been very concerned about the world telling me how successful I am. I don’t need that.
You mentioned courage . . .
. . .the most important of all the virtues. Without that virtue you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency.
What do you think of white writers who have written of the black experience—Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner?
Well, sometimes I am disappointed—more often than not. That’s unfair, because I’m not suggesting the writer is lying about what he or she sees. It’s my disappointment, really, in that he or she doesn’t see more deeply, more carefully. I enjoy seeing Peter O’Toole or Michael Caine enact the role of an upper-class person in England. There the working class has had to study the upper-class, has been obliged to do so, to lift themselves out of their positions. Well, black Americans have had to study white Americans. For centuries under slavery, the smile or the grimace on a white man’s face or the flow of a hand on a white woman could inform a black person that you’re about to be sold or flogged. So we have studied the white American, where the white American has not been obliged to study us. So often it is as if the writer is looking through a glass darkly. And I’m always a little—not a little—saddened by that poor vision.
And you can pick it up in an instant if you . . .
Yes, yes. There are some who delight and inform. It’s so much better, you see, for me, when a writer like Edna St. Vincent Millay speaks so deeply about her concern for herself and does not offer us any altruisms. Then when I look through her eyes at how she sees a black or an Asian my heart is lightened. But many of the other writers disappoint me.
What is the best part of writing for you?
Well, I could say the end. But when the language lends itself to me, when it comes and submits, when it surrenders and says, I am yours, darling—that’s the best part.
You don’t skip around when you write?
No, I may skip around in revision, just to see what connections I can find.
Is most of the effort made in putting the words down onto the paper or is it in revision?
Some work flows and, you know, you can catch three days. It’s like . . .I think the word in sailing is scudding—you know, three days of just scudding. Other days it’s just awful—plodding and backing up, trying to take out all the ands, ifs, tos, fors, buts, wherefores, therefores, howevers; you know, all those.
And then, finally, you write “The End” and there it is; you have a little bit of sherry.
A lot of sherry then.
In May 2014, after Maya Angelou’s death Joanna Connors on The Plain Dealer wrote:
When she was 8 years old, Maya Angelou stopped speaking. She silenced her voice because she thought her voice had killed a man. For almost five years, she spoke to no one but her beloved brother, Bailey.
The man she believed she had killed with her voice — her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman — had raped her. After she testified against him in his trial, he was convicted and sentenced, but released from jail. Four days later, he was found dead. Murdered. Probably by Angelou’s uncles, her memoir implies.
Her work and her life offer readers a personal journey through the African American experience of the 20th century, an experience that included friendships with Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. She wrote with blazing honesty about racism, rape, her pregnancy at 16 and the deep fractures in her own family. Her strong voice spoke to countless readers, particularly black readers, who in 1969 were starved for literature by black authors writing intimately and truthfully about growing up and living in the “other” America.
But in “Caged Bird,” Angelou’s voice especially spoke to young women – young black women, but also young white women, who, even if they had not been raped or assaulted, always lived with the knowledge and fear of that trauma.
Many of us read “Caged Bird” in high school, an age when its themes of finding identity, strength and courage carry deep resonance. Angelou spoke to me, a middle-class white girl from the suburbs, in a voice that, once she started using it again, had a power that will live on long after her death.
Maya Angelou’s autobiographies:
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969)
“Gather Together in My Name” (1974)
“Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1976)
“The Heart of a Woman” (1981)
“All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986)
“A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002)
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou” (2004)
“Mom & Me & Mom” (2013)
In the past year, Philadelphia native Marley Dias has successfully written a proposal for (and received) a Disney Friends for Change grant, served food to orphans in Ghana and recently launched a book club.
Dias is 11 years old.
“I’m hoping to show that other girls can do this as well,” Dias told PhillyVoice. “I used the resources I was given, and I want people to pass that down and use the things they’re given to create more social action projects — and do it just for fun, and not make it feel like a chore.”
Dias’ latest social action project is the “#1000BlackGirlBooks” book drive. Frustrated with many of the books she’s assigned in school, she confessed to her mother during dinner one night that she was unhappy with how monochromatic so many stories felt.
“I told her I was sick of reading about white boys and dogs,” Dias said, pointing specifically to “Where the Red Fern Grows” and the “Shiloh” series. “‘What are you going to do about it?’ [my mom] asked. And I told her I was going to start a book drive, and a specific book drive, where black girls are the main characters in the book and not background characters or minor characters.”
So far, she said, she’s collected about 400 books — nearly halfway to her goal of 1,000 by Feb. 1. The project is part of an annual social action effort she makes as part of the Philadelphia-founded GrassROOTS Community Foundation Super Camp for young girls, designed to empower and improve the health of ‘impoverished’ girls middle-school-aged and younger. Dias’ mother, Janice, cofounded the organization seven years ago with lead MC of The Roots, Tariq Trotter (aka, Black Thought).
Janice, who grew up in Jamaica, calls watching her daughter grow up with such an investment in giving back a surreal experience. She further explained that her daughter’s “#1000BlackGirlBooks” project has been eye-opening even for her.
“I didn’t need identification, or I didn’t desire it because I grew up in an all-black country,” Janice told PhillyVoice. “She’s not growing up in an all-black country; she’s growing up in a fairly white suburb, in a country that only has 12.6 percent of blacks. For her, identification is a bigger deal. … For young black girls in the U.S., context is really important for them — to see themselves and have stories that reflect experiences that are closer to what they have or their friends have.
“And it doesn’t have to be the only thing they get, but the absence of it is clearly quite noticeable.”
The two just wrapped up a book drive at Lingelbach Elementary School in Germantown but are still on their way to hitting the 1,000-book mark. By the end of the drive, they’ll put together a reference guide that compiles the book titles, authors and age groups. Books collected will be donated to a low-resources library in St. Mary, Jamaica, where Janice grew up — in the spirit of giving back to their roots.
And in case you’re wondering what Dias wants to be when she grows up:
“I want to be a magazine editor for my own magazine,” she explained, without hesitation. “And I’d also like to continue social action. For the rest of my life.”
(Interview article written by BY BRANDON BAKER
1000 Black Girl Books Resource Guide:
This resource guide was created from the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign led by Marley Dias who has now collected over 9000 books. The guide includes some of those books that have been catalogued into an easy to find database. This information here is appropriate for youth, parents, educators, schools, and libraries.
Each month we will update the list and continue to serve as an information repository for Black Girl Books.
If you know of a black girl book, not listed here, please send us a copy so we can add it to our collection. We would like to see this list grow. Their address is:
GrassROOTS Community Foundation
59 Main Street
West Orange, NJ 07052
Financial donations are always welcomed. All donations are tax-deductible.
Librarians are more freedom fighters than shushers” – Carla Hayden, Ms. Magazine
The new librarian of Congress on the value of ‘free information’
According to Hayden, the profession was “feminized” when Melvil Dewey, who created the Dewey decimal system, said “it was time to let women in because there was a lot of monotonous work to do. And he also said women in public libraries could be hostesses because they were part of the home”.
“Oh he was quite the fellow,” Hayden said, laughing. “So for a woman to be actual manager, CEO, is poetic justice.”
Hayden says she’s even more proud of her role as the first African American Librarian of Congress.
“I’ve talked for years and cited how slaves were forbidden to read, you could get your hand chopped off, or people who taught slaves to read were punished, that’s Fredrick Douglass’s thing,” Hayden said. “So to have an African American heading up the world’s largest library is not quite an oxymoron, but it speaks to the history.” (source: Baynard Woods, The Guardian 9-15-16 article)
Hayden first came to national prominence in 2003 when she spoke out against certain elements of the Patriot Act as the head of the American Library Association. Attorney general John Ashcroft attacked Hayden for sowing “hysteria” about the provision of the act that would allow the government to search library and bookstore records.
Hayden shot back.
“We are deeply concerned that the attorney general should be so openly contemptuous of those who seek to defend our Constitution,” she said. “Rather than ask the nation’s librarians and Americans nationwide to ‘just trust him,’ Ashcroft could allay concerns by releasing aggregate information about the number of libraries visited using the expanded powers created by the USA Patriot Act.”
At the time, there was political risk in such statements, but Hayden said she never considered that.
“It wasn’t an either or – it was a how do we do both. How do ensure national security and protect a person’s right to know,” she said. “What was happening at that time was people wanted to know what are these groups [like Al Qaeda and the Taliban], a lot of people didn’t know what jihad meant or anything like that and they were seeking information and the concern was just because you want to know, you don’t intend to do anything. You just want to know.” (source: Baynard Woods, The Guardian 9-15-16 article)
Carla Hayden Sworn In as 14th Librarian of Congress (9/14/16, 12PM) Ceremony (video) Streamed live on Sep 14, 2016: Carla Hayden was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress by Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. in the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, September 14 at noon. Hayden is the first woman and the first African-American to serve as Librarian of Congress. Hayden was nominated by President Barack Obama and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Today, I’m nominating Dr. Carla Hayden to be our 14th Librarian of Congress. Michelle and I have known Carla since her days working at the Chicago Public Library, and her dedication to learning and education is unparalleled. More recently, she’s been hard at work revitalizing Baltimore’s struggling library system as the CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library. Last year, during the unrest in Baltimore, Dr. Hayden kept the doors of the Pratt open as a beacon for the community. Her understanding of the pivotal role that emerging technologies play in libraries will be essential in leading the Library of Congress as it continues to modernize its infrastructure and promote open access and full participation in today’s digital world. Finally, Dr. Hayden will be the first woman and the first African-American to hold this position in its 214 year history – both of which are long overdue. (from President Barack Obama’s Facebook)
The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. https://www.loc.gov/
Hayden was the head of Baltimore’s library system since 1993 until she resigned earlier this year, after her nomination. When unrest erupted in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody, Hayden kept the libraries open, even though almost everything else was closed.
“My thinking was that at a time of crisis the library should try to be open,” she said. “And it was heartening that the staff members were willing.”
She tells the story of one young man who was there the morning after the riots to fill out job applications. When he returned two days later to tell her he had three interviews “It really reinforced the fact that the community needed us open”, she said. (source: Baynard Woods, The Guardian 9-15-16 article)
Thank you readers and followers for your sensitivity surrounding the following subject of Trauma.
Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” (quote from Pema Chodron)
In the darkness (not light) of the recent shootings, from Ferguson (can you believe that was two years ago? Seems like yesterday… Do you remember Mike Brown?) to Orlando to Louisiana to Dallas and all the people and places I’m failing to mention, I heard Mike Brown’s mom say that after a while all of the “I’m sorries” blurred into one and how nothing changed. She can’t get away from the social media images, the corporate media images, and she is being forced to relive the trauma of her son’s murder. She can say only to the families suffering the loss of their loved ones at the hands of gun violence and police brutality, this is what you’re all going to know one day. Now you will all know how it feels.
There are the speeches by politicians and religious leaders I am supposed to be motivated or moved by, about it being a time for grieving and building bridges and for healing. There is a call for calm. There is a weary cheer for love. It’s a numbed collective from the repeated shocks, lacking leadership, insisting on pointing out the everyday heroes so we can still believe in angels.
But for me… Mike Brown’s mom had the clearest message.
In my personal life (at the same time as the Dallas police department was being shot up) I had relapsed into a Posttraumatic Stress episode due to a predator from my past who raped me and began contacting me again. I didn’t realize how ill equipped I would be to handle his transgressions and I became suicidal.
This post is about Trauma. I am not giving anyone professional advice about how to overcome and heal from experiences that kill soul. I am offering what is currently helping me hold on and develop coping skills so that anyone else who finds themselves blocked by or locked into a fight or flight response might not feel so alone. I believe it is possible to transform and renegotiate trauma. That is my goal.
Many traditional approaches to therapy actually re-traumatize the victims and make it impossible for them to get help. What I have discovered for my own best course is a non-tradtional approach. It’s not the only way so if it doesn’t work for you, keep seeking your right guides and healers.
This is only partial information and hopefully is of some help to others for what I have selected and yet it is still a semi-long read because the matter of life and death doesn’t fit neatly into a box even when there are a lot of coffins around.
Peace and LOVE,
Below is an Excerpt from an Interview (by Victor Yalom and Marie-Helene Yalom Copyright © 2010 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published April 2010.)
The Polyvagal Theory
Peter Levine: Yes, the tiger image. At that time, I was taking a graduate seminar, and some brief mention was made of a phenomenon called tonic immobility. If animals were physically restrained and frightened, they would go into a profoundly altered state of consciousness where they were frozen and immobilized, unable to move. And it turns out that this is one of the key survival features that animals use to protect themselves from threat—in this case from extreme threat. Actually there are three basic neural energy subsystems. These three systems underpin the overall state of the nervous system as well as the correlative behaviors and emotions, leading to three defensive strategies to threat.
MY: That’s the polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges?
Peter Levine: Yes. These systems are orchestrated by the primitive structures in our brainstem—the upper part of the brainstem. They’re instinctive and they’re almost reflexive. The tonic immobility is the most primitive system, and it spans probably over 500 million years. It is a combination of freezing and collapsing—the muscles go limp, the person is left without any energy. The next in evolutionary development is the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response. And this system evolved from the reptilian period which was about 300 million years ago. And its function is enhanced action, and, as I said, fight-or-flight. Finally the third and most recent system is the social engagement system, and this occurs only in mammals. Its purpose is to drive social engagement—making friends—in order to defuse the aggression or tension.
VY: So this is when we’re feeling threatened or stressed we want to talk to our friends and family?
Peter Levine: Yeah, exactly. Or if somebody’s really angry at us, we want to explain what happened so they don’t strike out at us. Obviously most people won’t strike out, but we’re still hardwired for those kinds of expectations.
VY: Most people have a general sense of the fight-or-flight, but would you just say a few words on it?
Peter Levine: Basically, in the fight-or-flight response, the objective is to get away from the source of threat. All of our muscles prepare for this escape by increasing their tension level, our heart rate and respiration increase, and our whole basic metabolic system is flooded with adrenaline. Blood is diverted to the muscles, away from the viscera. The goal is to run away, or if we feel that we can’t escape or if we perceive that the individual that’s trying to attack us is less strong than we are, to attack them. Or if we’re cornered by a predator—in other words, if there’s no way to escape—then we’ll fight back. Now, if none of those procedures are effective, and it looks like we’re going to be killed, we go into the shock state, the tonic immobility. Now the key is that when people get into this immobility state, they do it in a state of fear. And as they come out of the immobility state, they also enter a state of fear, and actually a state in which they are prepared for what sometimes is called rage counterattack.
MY: Can you say more about that?
Peter Levine: For example, you see a cat chasing a mouse. The cat catches the mouse and has it in its paws, and the mouse goes into this immobility response. And sometimes you’ll actually see the cat bat the mouse around a little bit until it comes out of the immobility, because it wants the chase to go on. Now, what can happen is that the mouse, when it comes out of the immobility state, goes into what is called nondirective flight. It doesn’t even look for where it can run. It just runs as fast as it can in any direction. Sometimes that’s right into the cat. Other times, it will actually attack, in a counterattack of rage. I’ve actually seen a mouse who was captured by a cat come out of the immobility and attack the cat’s nose. The cat was so startled it remained there in that state while the mouse scurried away. When people come out of this immobility response, their potential for rage is so strong and the associated sensations are so intense that they are afraid of their own impulse to strike out and to defend themselves by killing the predator. Again, this all goes back to our animal heritage. So the key I found was in helping people come out of this immobility response without fear. Now, with Nancy, I was lucky. If it were not for that image, I could just as easily have retraumatized her. As a matter of fact, some of the therapies that were being developed around that time frequently retraumatized people. I think particularly of Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy, where people would be yelling and screaming out, supposedly getting out all of their locked-in emotions, but a lot of times they were actually terrorizing themselves with the rage and then they would go back into a shutdown, and then be encouraged to “relive” another memory, and then this cycle would continue.
MY: It becomes addictive sometimes, right?
Peter Levine: That’s correct. It literally becomes addictive. And one of the reasons is that when you do these kinds of relivings, there’s a tremendous release of adrenaline. There’s also a release of endorphins, which is the brain’s internal opiate system. In animals, these endorphins allow the prey to go into a state of shock-analgesia and not feel the pain of being torn apart. When people relive the trauma, they recreate a similar neurochemical system that occurred at the time of the trauma, the release of adrenaline and endorphins. Now, adrenaline is addictive, it is like getting a speed high. [section;And they get addicted not only to the adrenaline but to the endorphins; it’s like having a drug cocktail of amphetamines and morphine.] So when I was at Esalen I actually noticed that people would come to these groups, they would yell and scream, tear a pillow apart that was their mother or their father, and they would feel high. They would feel really great. But then when they would come back a few weeks later, they would go through exactly the same thing again. And that’s what gave me a clue to the fact that this might be addictive.
Peter A. Levine, PhD, is the developer of Somatic Experiencing© and founder of the Foundation for Human Enrichment. He teaches trainings in this work throughout the world and in various indigenous cultures. Levine is the author of the best-selling book Waking the Tiger : Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences and he has recently co-published a comprehensive book on childhood trauma, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing as well as a guide for parents, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience. He is the recipient of the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the the US Association of Body Psychotherapy.
“Recently, a young Iraq veteran took issue with calling his combat anguish PTSD and, instead, poignantly referred to his pain and suffering as PTSI- the “I” designating “injury.” What he wisely discerned is trauma is an injury, not a disorder like diabetes, which can be managed but not healed. In contrast posttraumatic stress injury is an emotional wound, amenable to healing attention and transformation.
Nonetheless, the medical model persists. It (arguably) functions fairly effectively with diseases like diabetes and cancer, where the doctor holds all of the knowledge and dictates the necessary interventions for a sick patient. This is not, however, a useful paradigm for trauma healing. Rather than being a disease in the classical sense, trauma is instead a profound experience of “dis-ease” or “dis-order.” What is called for here is a cooperative and restorative process with the doctor as an assisting guide and midwife. A doctor who insists on retaining his or her protected role as “healthy healer” remains separate, defending him- or herself against the ultimate helplessness that lurks, phantom-like, in all of our lives. Cut off from his or her own feelings, such a doctor will not be able to join with the sufferer. Missing will be the crucial collaboration in containing, processing and integrating the patient’s horrible sensations, imagess and emotions. The sufferer will remain starkly alone, holding the very horrors that have overwhelmed him or her and broken down his or her capacity to self-regulate and grow.
In a common therapy resulting from this isolating orientation, the therapist instructs the PTSD victim to assert control over his or her feelings, to manage his or her aberrant behaviors and to alter his or her dysfunctional thoughts. Contrast this alignment to that of shamanistic traditions, where the healer and the sufferer join together to reexperience the terror while calling on cosmic forces to release the grip of the demons. The shaman is always first initiated, via a profound encounter with his own helplessness and feeling of being shattered, prior to assuming the mantle of healer. Such preparation might suggest a model whereby contemporary therapists must first recognize and engage with their own traumas and emotional wounds.”(excerpts from chapter 3: The Changing Face of Trauma, pages 34-35)
The MEDUSA – Benjamin Millepied ART + MUSIC MOCAtv (music and art film) is an artistic collaboration between Director Choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Rodarte Costumes, and the LA Dance Project in a Caravaggio aesthetic. It is being posted here for reasons of art and healing and for NO COMMERCIAL PURPOSES.
Music: performed by Renee Fleming featuring Christoph Eschenbach “Schubert: Du bist die Ruh‘, D.776 (Op.59/3)”
LA Dance Project Dancers: Charlie Hodges, Amanda Wells, Nathan Makolandra, Morgan Lugo, Julia Eichten, Frances Chiaverini. Director of Photography: Cat Deakins. Costumes: Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte.
Mythology teaches us about courageously meeting challenges. Myths are archetypal stories that simply and directly touch the core of our being. They remind us about our deepest longings, and reveal to us our hidden strengths and resources. They are also maps of our essential nature, pathways that connect us to each other, to nature and to the cosmos. The Greek myth of Medusa captures the very essence of trauma and describes its pathway to transformation.
In the Greek myth, those who looked directly into Medusa’s eyes were promptly turned into stone. . .frozen in time. Before setting out to vanquish this snake-haired demon, Perseus sought counsel from Athena, the goddess of knowldege and strategy. Her advice to him was simple: under no circumstances should he look directly at the Gorgon. Taking Athena’s advice to heart, Perseus used the protective shield fastened on his arm to reflect the image of Medusa. This way he was able to cut off her head without looking directly at her, and thus avoided being turned to stone.
If trauma is to be transformed, we must learn not to confront it directly. If we make the mistake of confronting trauma head on, then Medusa will, true to her nature, turn us to stone. Like the Chinese finger traps we all played with as kids, the more we struggle with trauma, the greater its grip upon us. When it comes to trauma, I believe the “equivalent” of Perseus’s reflecting shield is how our body responds to trauma and how the “living body personifies resilience and feelings of goodness.
There is more to this myth:
Out of Medusa’s wound, two mythical entities emerged: Pegasus the winged horse and the one-eyed giant Chrysaor, the warrior with the golden sword. The golden sword represents the penetrating truth and clarity. The horse is the symbol of the body and instinctual knowledge; the wings symbolize transcendence. Together, these aspects form the archetypal qualities and resources that a human being must mobilize in order to heal the Medusa (fright paralysis) called trauma. The ability to perceive and respond to the reflection of Medusa is mirrored in our instinctual natures.
In another version of this same myth, Perseus collects a drop from the blood of Medusa’s wound in two vials. The drop from one vial has the power to kill; the drop in the other vial has the power to raise the dead and restore life. What is revealed here is the dual nature of trauma: the first its destructive ability to rob victims of their capacity to live and enjoy life. The paradox of trauma is that it both has the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect. Whether trauma will be a cruel punishing Gorgon, or a vehicle for soaring to the heights of transformation and mastery, depends upon how much we approach it. (excerpts from chapter 3: The Changing Face of Trauma, pages 35-37)
Below is Excerpted from an Interview (by Victor Yalom and Marie-Helene Yalom Copyright © 2010 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published April 2010.)
until the person has dealt with and sufficiently resolved the physiological shock, they really can’t deal with the emotions
Peter Levine: Many therapists are doing something different from what they think they’re doing. And if you’re working with emotions in a very titrated way, then you can actually go from the emotions to the sensation, and begin to resolve things at a sensation level. But therapies that really work to provoke emotions or the exposure therapies… I know that they do get some results, but I think that they can easily lead to retraumatization.
VY: How so?
Peter Levine: One of the things that Bessel van der Kolk showed when he first started to do trauma research with functional MRIs is that when people are in the trauma state, they actually shut down the frontal parts of their brain and particularly the area on the left cortex called Broca’s area, which is responsible for speech. When the person is in the traumatic state, those brain regions are literally shut down, they’re taken offline. When the therapist encourages the client to talk about their trauma, asking questions such as, “Okay, so this is what happened to you. Now, let’s talk about it,” or, “What are you feeling about that?” The client tries to talk about it. And if they try to talk about it, they become more activated. Their brainstem and limbic system go into a hyperaroused state, which in turns shuts down Broca’s area, so they really can’t express in words what’s going on. They feel more frustrated. Sometimes the therapist is pushing them more and more into the frustration. Eventually the person may have some kind of catharsis, but that kind of catharsis is due frequently to being overloaded and not being able to talk about it, being extremely frustrated. So in a sense, trauma precludes rationality.
MY: So what do you think is the hardest thing for traditional talk therapists to learn when dealing with trauma patients?
Experiencing the Body
Peter Levine: I think the most alien is to be able to work with body sensations. And again, because the overwhelm and the fight-or-flight are things that happen in the body, what I would say is the golden route is to be able to help people have experiences in the body that contradict those of the overwhelming helplessness. And my method is not the only way to do that. It’s certainly one of the most significant. But many therapists, for example, will recommend that their clients do things like yoga or martial arts.
MY: Or meditation?
Peter Levine: The thing about meditation, though…. With some kinds of trauma, meditation is helpful. But the problem is when people go into their inner landscape and they’re not prepared and they’re not guided, sooner or later they encounter the trauma, and then what do they do? They could be overwhelmed with it, or they find a way to go away from the trauma. And they go sometimes into something that resembles a bliss state. But it’s really an ungrounded bliss state. I call that the bliss bypass. It’s a way of avoiding the trauma. It was very common in the ‘60s when people were taking all of these drugs, and a lot of these people were traumatized from their childhood. And what they would do is they would go into these kinds of dissociated states of bliss and different hallucinatory imageries, but in a way it was avoiding the trauma. So in a way the trauma became even a greater effect, and then often people would then wind up having bad trips in which they would go into the trauma but without the resources to work them through.
MY: I guess that’s what I find inspiring about your approach. Ultimately you really want to enable the traumatized person to regain their autonomy, not just find palliative methods of dealing with their trauma.
Peter Levine: Yes. One thing therapists are really good at, I think, is they’re good at helping people calm. We set up our offices so they’re conducive, so they’re friendly, they’re cheerful, there are things in the room that would evoke interest and curiosity. And many therapists can actually help calm the traumatized person. This is something that’s a necessary first step, but if it’s the only thing that happens, the clients become more and more dependent on the therapist to give them some sense of refuge, some sense of okayness. But when therapists are helping the clients get mastery of their sensations, of their power in their body, than they are truly helping them develop an authentic autonomy. And from the very beginning, the client is beginning to separate.
So this is a gradual process, where the client really becomes authentically autonomous, authentically self-empowered. And if we don’t do this, the client tends to become more and more dependent on the therapist, and this is when you see these transferences where all of a sudden the client depends on the therapist for everything. At this point the therapist can go from being the god or the goddess up on this pedestal to being thrown down and the client having rage about the therapist for not helping them enough. So the key out of these conundrums is through self-empowerment, and I know of no more direct and effective way of doing this than through the body.
Peter Levine: The shaking and trembling has to do with the resetting of the autonomic nervous system. I was so curious about this that I interviewed a number of people who work with capturing animals and releasing them into the wild. And they described to me very much the kinds of shaking and trembling that I see with my clients and that happened to me. A number of these folks said that they knew that if the animals didn’t go through this kind of shaking and trembling when they were captured and put in cages, they were less likely to survive when released into the wild. So it appears to be a way in which the physiological autonomic nervous system resets itself.
(*note: I know the above post barely covers what I’m trying to say and so might not be easily grasped or readily helpful so I highly recommend you read the book for yourselves by Peter A. Levine, PhD In An Unspoken Voice; How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness BUT do not try to heal alone or think you have to. Find a guide and don’t give up.)