Fiona McGovern '18
if you’ve been around me for over an hour in the past six months, i’ve probably mentioned Jamila Woods. probably more than once. she is a Chicago artist that my friend Jade introduced me to over the summer and i am absolutely in love with her.
Woods went to Brown, studying Africana Studies and performance art. the first time i heard “Blk Girl Soldier,” a single off her 2016 album HEAVN, i fell out. later this summer, the whole album was released (on SoundCloud. if you haven’t already, put it on right now) and it became the backdrop for the entire fall and early winter. the album does really significant generational, geographical, intimate, and loving work. speaking to tender moments of pain, but also joy; speaking to the ways in which black women, in particular, survive and create networks of support. my favorite song on the album is “Lonely, Lonely” and there is a line in the chorus that goes, “I could be crazy, but my crazy is my own/ you think I’m crazy, I’ll be crazy on my own.” i listen to this album multiple times a week, because it helps me enter into a world of love and affirmation that i don’t feel in my immediate environment.
so much of her work speaks to the kinds of pain black women experience in the world: what happens when you hide this pain, how people react when you speak out, the toll it takes to do both things. she talks about the loneliness inherent in both speaking out and staying silent. the loneliness that comes as a part of black womanhood. in her own words: “I hope this album encourages listeners to love themselves and love each other. For black and brown people, caring for ourselves and each other is not a neutral act. It is a necessary and radical part of the struggle to create a more just society. Our healing and survival are essential to the fight.” i’ve been meditating on her for a while; not only because her work is phenomenal, but because i feel it acknowledges and affirms my own positioning as a mixed black woman at a predominately white institution.
for me, her work not only seeks to highlight the necessity of self-love, but is also an affirmation of black histories and communities of support. that’s what i’ve been trying to seek out. which is why i’m in NYC this FWT, working for an amazing artist whose work is rooted in black feminism, and creating avenues (professional and personal) for black women to support each other. it seemed like a good way to seek out intergenerational communities of color beyond a toxic Bennington bubble. it seemed like a way for me to ground my fragmented world of mutual support in reality: women of color that are making vastly important work, and highlighting the need for community. still, i’m not finding what i need. i feel like my role in her work is this lost puppy that she kind of doesn’t have the time or energy for, but the first thing she said to me was, “We have to save this black girl from Vermont!” i'm having a similar kind of feeling to one i have every time i’m outside of institutional whiteness. i once again feel like an impostor. i feel like a traitor.
the communities i’m seeking out are necessary to my well-being. in some capacity, they are always in the process of being created at Bennington but, when the common narratives involve whiteness and massachusetts, it’s incredibly easy to feel isolated. i am used to feeling fragmented—like i don’t belong. being mixed, i fit nowhere because of my skin, because of my hair, what i watch, what i like to listen to, etc blah blah blah. it escapes the paradigms that people create and enforce about race (& identity in general). categorization is comfortable and easy, it gives us direction--helps us make choices, helps us summarize narratives. categorization makes things less complicated, but it doesn’t work. there is always slippage. and still, even a “dream” like Bennington (my 16 year-old self thought) seeks structure. as i read, as i write, even as i interact with people, i become both a fantasy and a nightmare for both white and black people. i am in this liminal space. people “get it” on a conceptual level, but not on a relational one. they are fascinated, but they don’t feel it.
bottom line: being a mixed black girl raised in a very very white world (a white system) has made me incredibly anxious. it has made me constantly apologetic. it has made me seek out authority. it has caused so much pain. it has made me hate myself. and the problem is that i speak out and silence myself at the same time. i put qualifiers around everything i say and write. i am still so afraid to speak up. i am complicit in my oppression and the oppression of other marginalized folks. i deny my desires, i invalidate my own pain by saying it doesn't matter. by saying that my own brown-woman life doesn't matter enough. i want to be careful too, because it’s important to recognize that i am not in immediate danger, and other people are, but i think it’s necessary to draw the institutional to the personal and intimate.
this is obviously beyond black and white. even in institutions that claim to value and support people of color, they fail us again and again. we are segregated, isolated in whiteness, criminalized, condescended to, silenced, sexualized and seen as undesirable. institutions don't support us. and we live with these things everyday, and have different relationships to these institutions, and we benefit from them as simultaneously as they come from traditions of erasure. i can talk about my positions of privilege; i can convince myself it’s all in my head; i can say “i hesitate to say this...” (believe me, i do); i can try and apologize for feeling like i'm not talking about the “right thing" in this political climate. but honestly, i think i am. i am mad that i think about whiteness ALL OF THE TIME. i am mad that i am never just enough, that i don't fit. all of the theory tells me, all of the books tell me, all of the intellectuals tell me: there is power in marginality. it disrupts the narrative, it fragments, it demands space, and it demands revolution. i believe it (I HAVE TO). it is so powerful. but it is so lonely. SOLANGE TELLS ME THAT I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE MAD. and here i am, crying into my computer, screaming into a void, wondering who i can go to for comfort.
my conversations with white people, especially when they concern questions of power and privilege, often have a strange hesitancy them. in which i become an authority that has some kind of final say. this hesitancy is real. no one wants to fuck up. let me tell you, i don’t know enough, i don’t want to fuck up. i am glad people are working through their relationships to their own whiteness. i love sharing the knowledge that i am gaining navigating this institution with others. but you can only point out the institutions and systems so much, and then you just start to reinforce them. i am tired of seeing more donald trump on my screen, than hearing, prioritizing, and being a part of the voices of those who are creating, healing, and organizing (because i want to figure out how to do those things!). it’s necessary to be afraid, to know what’s going on, to pay attention...but it’s imperative to seek out other narratives.
the moments that hurt me are those when i’m expressing my own pain, my own loneliness, and instead of feeling comforted by these friends, i have to comfort them about their own white guilt. lately, i feel as if i’ve been doing much more of the comforting that i want to--making it more comfortable for people to confront themselves. people of color do it all of the time, every day, because we have to. even in writing this article, i am compelled to explain this pain, to make a more valid argument for the people that can’t relate. in doing that, i silence my own needs and deny my own humanity. i’m mad about whiteness all the time, but that anger is a blinder. it keeps me embedded in the status quo. i can say, “FUCK THE SYSTEM” all i want, or i can create a world.
in her song, “Holy,” Woods has this line: “I’m not lonely, I’m alone, and I’m holy, by my own.” and that’s the dream, right? being able to value oneself in the ways you deserve and need. space for oneself where it feels like a choice instead of deprivation. really, it’s about being able to have the environment you need to thrive. instead, i’m eating mozzarella cheese balls, while watching a movie about basically a bennington boy (because i hate movies too, because mixed love/black love/queer love isn’t represented in mainstream cinema, especially when it doesn’t involve the slave narrative, or the mammy narrative, or another trope of black womanhood, but don’t get me started). i have started to have a more and more difficult time talking. i spend more time in silence, i laugh less, i cry less. in this loneliness, in this constant searching, i have stopped giving myself the space to feel.
trapped: i still reinforce whiteness. don’t get me wrong, i love white people. and i’m not disowning them. the problem is that i love them, and they don’t love me enough to create the spaces for me to love myself. the problem is that i love them. that love (and the desire that i’ll be validated and loved back) makes it almost impossible for me to demand the space i need to feel joy. that i love them, and struggle to find, create, and have the energy to sustain positive relationships with people of color: where we fight, and disagree, but still affirm & support. i’ve been raised, and continue to learn, in an environment that erases and silences us as it claims to support us (let’s talk about the Democratic Party or the Women’s March). that i love them and i don’t love myself has separated me and isolated me from everybody. it has made me feel like i am unworthy of the love i need in my life (platonic, romantic, what-the-hell-ever). and i know better, right that's the problem...i know better. i just don't feel better.
being mixed, being a person of color in a world of conditioned whiteness, is radically fragmenting. i am learning to dig further into the tensions in my own being and in my own communities. the most fundamental of which is the tension between selfishness and selflessness -- the ways in which one needs to claim space and create space for others. the balance is difficult. i come into places where i don’t fit and don’t work: anxiously mediating silence and sound, adapting constantly to mold myself to the rules and attitude of institutions and groups.
when you internalize the notion that institutions aren’t enough, the malleability doesn’t work--it’s liberating and deeply disjointing. what happens after? that’s what i’m trying to figure out in the relationships i’m creating, sustaining, or letting go of out of necessity. in the time i’ve spent at Bennington, i’ve been able to form really vital relationships with people of color (especially women of color). these moments -- when we recognize this constant searching, these dull pains, our capacities for joy/movement/energy/agitation/activation -- are heavenly. we look each other in the eyes -- silence finally broken. we laugh. we dance. we hold each other close. but they are moments -- not rare, not ephemeral, but interrupted -- spaces we hold together, time that we give each other. this is not a world. I WANT A WORLD: not only of people of color, but of people who lift each other up in the way that HEAVN lifts me up.
i’m finally starting to feel this black feminism (a plurality of experiences, creating communities of support, a myriad of other things that i’m just beginning to grasp) in my body -- which is probably why i’m so angry and so tender. you don’t reach this perfect state, you don’t reach a utopia. but this dream of a world is imperative to my survival -- it demands i seek out better connections. there’s always work involved, but i’m starting to see things happen, feel things happen, that remind me why it is necessary to show myself love and care. if i cannot do that for myself, how will people believe me when i tell them that’s what they need? you’ve got to feel it -- not just think it.
i don’t want to keep asking people’s permission to feel. i don’t want to feel bad about being vulnerable. please make me stop. please let me live.
i keep saying that i’m thinking about healing—what it means to demand (hell, just take) the space for joy in our lives—and this section from Ntozake Shange’s Cypress, Sassafrass, and Indigo seems like an apt way to end this (plus the end of “Breadcrumbs”):
Emergency Care for Wounds that Cannot be Seen
Hold the victim gently. Rock in the manner of a quiet sea. Hum softly from your heart. Repeat the victim’s name with love. Offer a brew of red sunflower to cleanse the victim’s blood and spirit. Fasting and silence for a time refurbish the victim’s awareness of her capacity to nourish and heal herself. New associations should be made with caution, more caring for herself.