digging up dead women and rewriting history

cover-full-204x300I used to write in a graveyard. I went to college in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and there was a little Episcopal church in that town with an old cemetery and a small labyrinth made of stones. I’d sit on a bench and write, and when I needed a break or inspiration, I’d walk the labyrinth or wander among the fading tombstones. One day I discovered the grave of the man who had been mayor in 1869. W.B. Scott was the second black mayor in the US, and here he was leading this rural Tennessee town just a few years after the Civil War.

East Tennessee was mostly pro-Union with all kinds of slavery opponents, but it still surprised me to see that a predominantly white town had a black mayor. The place was clearly proud of this fact all these years later because they’d erected a fancy new tombstone that also mentioned his work as a newspaper editor. I was mighty impressed until I noticed a crooked, faded, half-sunken stone next to it.

Who do you think that grave belonged to?

His wife.

The woman who fed him, sewed and washed his clothes, bore and raised his children, and kept his home clean and his bed warm. The woman who likely listened to his concerns, fears, and ideas; buoyed him when he faltered; and gave him advice and an idea or two of her own.

To leave her grave that sad while her husband’s positively sparkled was a shame. I haven’t been back to that cemetery in years, but I hope they’ve rectified their mistake.

It made me think of Shakespeare’s sister. Virginia Woolf imagined that William Shakespeare had an equally talented sister named Judith. The young woman’s story goes something like this: forbidden to study and married off too young, she ran away, but her inability to get work in the theatre and subsequent impregnation led her to commit suicide. Woolf wrote:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

 

The point is that there may have been all kinds of female Shakespeares, Raleighs, DaVincis, Copernicuses, etc., but we never had the chance to meet them because society did not deem it appropriate or beneficial to invest in women’s intellect and creativity.

Not only that, but history is missing women’s voices from all walks of life. History is made up primarily of men’s stories; the whole narrative of Western history is shaped by men, and white Western men at that. Even women who achieved have been written out, erased, forgotten. Women are responsible for the DNA double helix, signal flairs, and computer programming, to name a few, but you wouldn’t know that because men got credit for the hard work of these innovative women.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to serve on the advisory council of the Tennessee Women Project. Led by American Association of University Women of Tennessee, this project resulted in a book that highlights women who are missing from Tennessee’s history text books. The book, Tennessee Women of Vision and Courage, just came out, and it includes an essay I wrote on social reformer Fanny Wright.

When I was given the assignment, I knew nothing about Fanny Wright–or many of the other women included in the book. I didn’t grow up in Tennessee, so I didn’t learn state history in school like kids do around here. Over the years, I’ve gleaned bits and pieces, attended history museums, and read essays, but women were often missing from the story. And then I was offered the chance to dig them up and restore them to their rightful places.

The niece of moral philosopher James Mylne, Frances “Fanny” Wright was born in Scotland in 1795, but the promise of egalitarianism led her to the US, where she did decades of work for racial, gender, and economic justice. She created Nashoba, an intentional community outside of Memphis, devoting her attempted utopia to ending slavery and promoting racial integration.

In my research, I discovered that Fanny spent the final years of her life in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, she’s buried in historic Spring Grove Cemetery, where my grandfather and uncle lie and where I will someday go to visit the graves of my mother and stepfather.

She came all the way from Scotland to Tennessee to work for freedom, and I had to come to Tennessee to find her when she had been in my back yard my whole youth. I’ve worked for women’s empowerment and the elimination of racism for years, and nearly 200 years after Fanny’s arrival, it’s still an uphill battle sometimes here in the great state of Tennessee.

But now I have Fanny’s words to remind me how relatively easy my battle is: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked my fortune on it, my reputation and my life.” True indeed, as you’ll see when you read the essay.

These words are engraved on her tombstone, which, unlike Ms. Scott’s, is prominent and tended. May her memory be as well.

Want to know more about Fanny? Check out the Tennessee Women Project and buy the book from Amazon or CreateSpace.


lucrece, leda, and the rest of us: the evolution of a poetic object/subject

Having read my post on Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” a friend sent me an article about women poets in India who have taken up the subject of rape. You’ve no doubt read about the increasing problem of violence against women in certain parts of India, Delhi in particular, and the gang rapes that made international news. One poet explains her intentions:

‘With debates increasingly centering around violence against women, the topic has become common ground for all of us. We have become one entity, irrespective of where we come from,’ said Tamizh poet Salma. Her poems are often devoid of illusionary imageries and soaring similes. ‘I call sex, sex. A rape, rape. People have often asked me why my language is so stark and descriptions so explicit. How else would you convey what a woman goes through? Poetry is constantly evolving and this is part of that evolution,’ she said.

This article got me thinking about the evolution of the rape poem. For centuries, rape poems came from the pens of men. These poems, such as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” and Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen,” addressed classical rape, stories from mythology. They were not meant to help the reader understand real instances of rape; instead, they served as metaphors, ways to address other subjects. Essentially, women’s bodies were not women’s bodies but political symbols.

Even later, with Seamus Heaney’s “Act of Union,” rape is used as a metaphor for Britain’s control of Ireland, a common theme in earlier Irish poetry. Likewise, many scholars consider Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” to be an allegory for the “rape” of Ireland. With its erotic, sensual imagery, “Leda and the Swan” turns rape into an aesthetic experience, which makes Yeats’s sonnet one of the most revered works of art and exemplifies a problem that is common in art from painting to film: the eroticization of rape.

So rape is sexy and rape is useful for “loftier” discussions than women’s lives. In her book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Sarah Projansky points out that “scholars and media pundits alike casually invoke rape metaphors…to convey a sense of ‘ultimate’ degradation or horror or to illustrate the humiliation of nations (e.g., the “rape of Kuwait”). Simultaneously, they neglect the particular experiences of [those] who actually experience rape.”

When women finally began writing rape into poems, the narrative changed dramatically. Suddenly, the rape poem became personal, intimate, and painful. Rape was no longer a metaphor but a gritty reality. In a strange way, women reclaimed their bodies as sites of personal violence instead of national symbols. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Ntozake Shange expressed the complexity of woman as victim: being betrayed by a friend, being treated like a criminal by the police, feeling guilty and dirty, trying to overcome victimhood, etc.

But the depiction of rape on a personal level does not rule out politics. If the personal is political, then these poems are fiercely political, which just what the Indian poets are saying. Poetry can be healing, as it has been for countless victims in programs like Lifecentre, and it can nurture empathy, helping readers understand the experience of sexual assault and of living with the threat of this kind of violence. But it can also be a revolution.

Contemporary rape poems often serve to challenge, disrupt, and destabilize patriarchal power dynamics and gender norms that create male subjects and female objects, punish and silence transgressors, and perpetuate rape culture, i.e., community complicity. I came across this story from Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, who describes submitting a poem about her friend’s brutal rape to a literary journal and receiving a disturbing response from the male editor who told her to stop writing rape poems because he was “sick of wenchy women poets who are always bashing men.” Clearly, he was threatened by her poem. Her response, of course, was to write another one.

In Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, poet Anne Waldman wrote:

Perhaps women have the advantage of producing a radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing right now because they are experiencing the current imbalances and contradiction that drive them to it. They are turning to skillful means in figuring out how to combat assaults on their intelligence and time [and bodies]. She–the practitioner–wishes to explore and dance with everything in the culture which is unsung, mute, and controversial so that she may subvert the existing systems that repress and misunderstand feminine ‘difference.’ She’ll take on the subjects of censorship and abortion and sexual harassment. She’ll challenge her fathers, her husband(s), lovers, male companions, warmongers, micromanagers, spiritual teachers. Turn the language body upside down. What does it look like?

After I read Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” I thought about a few things in my life that I hadn’t written about. I thought about the time I was riding my bike to the library, nearly a decade ago, and two men in a pickup truck followed me. I could feel it all over again. And then I wrote this:

Caught

Quick, the hammering fear
as they pull up alongside
in a beat-up work truck

Words I cannot repeat, will not
words thrown like hammers
fired like hot bullets

I tell myself
to look straight ahead
keep riding, pedal harder

One block free
they find me again
I try to hide the shudder

It is the loveliest kind of day
a day for falling in love
or dipping your feet in the creek

A neighborhood of Victorians
pale pink, creamy yellow, baby blue
sidewalks interrupted by old trees

But the truck rumbles again
Locusts that keep coming, shadows I can’t shake
They have fists and gasoline and terrible tools

I have only the slender frame
of my bike and myself
a voice caught in my throat

Done taunting, they gun it
disappear into the city
their laughter still squeezing my throat

I stay inside for weeks
for the clouds watch my every move
the air itself trembling with murderous desire