athena and her loom: crafting for change

Sometimes I get in a serious crafting mood, like if I don’t make something with my hands soon, my overloaded brain will collapse. This happens when I’ve been spending too much time on work that’s based on analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making, when my eyes are bugging out from typing and reading spreadsheets or marginalia, and when my neck is nearly frozen from stress and intense focus. My brain feels like it’s made up of all hard lines and sharp edges that will keep filling up my skull like Tetris pieces until my head explodes.

Because I wrote my undergraduate thesis on goddess archetypes in the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (and, clearly, am a little bit of a dork), I like to think of this kind of experience as my Athena problem. The Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena appears to be all about the mind and the shield, and she even sprang fully formed and covered in armor from the head of Zeus. So when I feel her dragging her sword around in my head, I have to subdue her before she busts out with that Gorgon-covered shield and I’m stuck with her battles forever.

What most people don’t know, however, is that she’s also the goddess of weaving. Yep, wisdom, war, and weaving. She invented the horse-driven chariot but also the loom, which is a reminder that one shouldn’t just be an archetype but a well-rounded, multi-dimensional person. So I subdue her by pulling out her spinning wheel, and next thing I know the armor’s hidden under a pile of warm, smelly wool and she’s humming along to her tapping foot.

The Triumph of Minerva: March, from the Room of the Months, detail of the weavers, Francesco del Cossa

The Triumph of Minerva: March, from the Room of the Months, detail of the weavers, Francesco del Cossa

I taught myself to knit from a book about ten years ago when feminists were starting to reclaim the crafts of their grandmothers as a way to redefine what had always been seen as “women’s work.” I’d never really been into crafting before that; it was easy to write it off as an old-fashioned activity for housewives or something. But crafts like knitting were real work. Women knitted and sewed to provide clothing for their families, and they often stitched in groups, where they would support, empower, and inspire each other. If only someone would unearth an old text describing the cultural revolutions that sprouted in stitching circles. For some, of course, crafting was, and is, a livelihood.

I was the laziest knitter for a long time, making only simple projects and leaving them half-finished on a shelf for months. But then I discovered what an antidote knitting is to over-thinking, so now I dig my hands into soft skeins of yarn in many colors and feel sufficiently soothed. There’s something very zen about knitting: the measured click of bamboo needles, slow unraveling of a ball of yarn, trance-like feeling of falling into a pattern.

Pinterest has helped me branch out into other crafts. I’ve fashioned beaded bracelets and necklaces with rope, embroidery floss, and hex nuts. I’ve found new uses for the fabric scraps and triangles left over from my great grandmother’s quilting bin. I’ve recycled old seed catalogues by decoupaging magnets and boxes. I’m a little obsessed with Pinterest. I get ravenous for ideas on how to craft with random things found around my house and in my yard, and it makes me feel very self-sustainable and accomplished. Also, as a writer who has written so much that no one will ever see, it’s a relief to finish a project that’s meant to be shared, and it’s particularly satisfying in an ever-pixelated world.

In fact, crafting is very much about community. I love feeling more connected to history, to the women who came before me, to a handmade life. Crafting, especially with materials found in nature or repurposed from thrift stores or your home, can be a good antidote to corporate industry and overconsumption. There’s a book called In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World, which chronicles the stories of women in twelve countries who turned their lives around by making and selling traditional handicrafts. Then there’s Knitting Behind Bars, which started knitting circles with male prisoners in Maryland, a project that transformed how the men saw themselves and each other. Reading about it will fill your crusty, old heart with joy.

I propose we draw up a new Athena. Perhaps she’s got a skein of yarn attached to her belt or a pair of needles stuffed in the Gorgon’s mouth. We need some way to remember that sometimes she takes off her armor and settles down with a mug of nettle tea and a basket of wool. Sometimes she drops her sword and just crafts the revolution.

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phenomenal african women in music, theatre, fiction, and visual art

pink_blue_bag

Pink / Blue Plastic Bag
Sokari Douglas Camp, 2010
Materials: Steel Perspex Plastic
Housed: Stux Gallery, USA

Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.

The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.

I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.

As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?

Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.

Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?

Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!

Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.

The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
  • Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
  • Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
  • Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
  • Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
  • Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
  • Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
  • Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.

black boy: images and imagination

“But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”

–Richard Wright, Black Boy

I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t imagine wasting their time with fiction when there is so much going on in the world that they need to learn about, so they read only nonfiction. I don’t understand why we need to make such distinctions, but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

Imagination often gets trapped in the realm of fear mongering. Over and over, we see carefully constructed images that are meant to stoke fear in our hearts, and our imagination runs wildly through the forest of racial profiling, xenophobia, nationalism, etc. If we deconstruct those images instead, we find common ground, people who love and mourn and work and play just like we do. But that takes a different kind of imagination.

Iris Murdoch wrote: “In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” In other words, through art, we are reconnected to the world–we gain empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in the life of someone whose experience is very different from ours and to feel what they feel.

I’ve heard from white people who have a hard time seeing the problem of race in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the police response, and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. Since it’s clear to many of us that there is pervasive racism involved, from beginning to end, I can only guess that these folks don’t have a good understanding of systemic racism and have not put themselves in Trayvon’s place, that is, have not fully imagined what it might be like to walk down the street as a black boy in a world that criminalizes black bodies.

I’ve also heard from white people who do see racism in this case and keep thinking about the experience of boys like Trayvon and their parents. One of my good friends, who is white and has a white baby boy, said last night that she thinks of the parents of black boys and the fear they must feel as their sons grow up. One of her black friends once said to her that she worried constantly about how best to raise her sons in an environment where they are set up to fail.

Like black girls, black boys have no voice. They are silenced. We, as a culture, do not seek metaphor in the language of black kids; we hear only noise and shut it down. (See Rachel Jeantel, for example.) Our institutions have created a fictive black boy that permeates our consciousness and convinces us that black boys aren’t worth saving, or even worse, they are worth killing.

I include the arts, particularly in terms of popular culture, in those institutions. A few years ago, The Guardian published a piece on the lack of popular fiction for black men, and the author, Aaron Akinyemi, said: “When [Michael] Obiora pitched his novel to a television executive, the producer liked the story but told him bluntly that mainstream audiences would be unwilling to see a black character without a gun in his pocket.”

bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: “The process by which any of us alter the way we look at images is political. Until everyone can acknowledge that white supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.”

Assuming these images are politically neutral is like believing that race played no part in what happened to Trayvon Martin. In light of the violent death of yet another black boy and the subsequent absence of justice, I offer some fiction, poetry, and film that can help us understand why these things happened, and continue to happen, because Trayvon is only one of many. May these works counter the usual images, enhance our empathy, and encourage us to fight fear.

And here’s a good soundtrack (which I found in Crunk Feminist Collective’s post today) to listen to while you’re reading. Please feel free to offer more suggestions in the comment section.