This final installment of my interview with Rita Williams-Garcia is a little different. Take a look at this image and tell me what you see:
I first came across this image in the feminist gallery at the Brooklyn Museum; the following blurb explains how this needlework inspired a contemporary feminist artist, yet makes no mention of the presence of an enslaved black woman, and how HER unpaid domestic labor might have enabled the central white female figure to later have the leisure time needed to pursue her creative impulses. I sent the image and blurb to Rita, and then asked her the question below:
In this exhibition, acclaimed artist Kiki Smith presents a unique, site-specific installation exploring ideas of creative inspiration and the cycle of life in relation to women artists. Kiki Smith: Sojourn draws on a variety of universal experiences, from the milestones of birth and death to quotidian experiences such as the daily chores of domestic life. An important eighteenth-century silk needlework by a young woman named Prudence Punderson, The First, Second and Last Scene of Mortality (Collection of the Connecticut Historical Society), which provided original inspiration for Smith’s installation, is included in the exhibition. Punderson’s stark depiction of a woman’s journey from childhood to death in the years leading up to and immediately after the United States gained its independence intrigued Smith because rather than following the stereotypical rites of passage in a woman’s life of the period—marriage, family, and domestic life—this young woman chose to depict a life of the mind for her subject, presenting a woman engaged in creative work.
I thought it was daring of you to show a black woman who is the antithesis of the doting mother (“mannish,” hard, single yet NOT the stereotypical mammy). Historically, domestic work has unevenly burdened black women and Cecile explicitly rejects the model of womanhood represented by Big Ma. Can you discuss the challenges of being a mother and an artist and a political activist? Why do Cecile’s girls embrace poetry when “it” is the rival for their mother’s attention? Does Cecile ultimately empower her daughters as much as she has damaged them?
Self, Self, Self, versus The People. The notion of being of and about the self permeates OCS from the time Cecile leaves her daughters to the time the Panthers knock on her door. Through Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, to Ntozake’s experimental “Bridge Running” performances, and long before, the marriage of self and self’s work with societal roles has been at the core of any female artist or activist existence. The woman artist/activist is always asked to justify her choices in ways that no one asks of male counterparts. No one asked Picasso to justify his personal life and familial responsibilities. No one asked this of Dr. King. It is unthinkable. Monstrous, even, that a woman could walk away from mate and children, or her role as caretaker, to pursue self interests, particularly in decades past.
Within the Panther Movement the conflict was an especially paradoxical struggle for women. These young black women supported the cause, fought shoulder to shoulder alongside their men, and held positions of power within The Movement. Even so, the Black Panther Movement was undeniably male dominated (see Elaine Brown’s A TASTE OF POWER). These women had given all to the cause, and had also lost all a woman could lose, starting with personal freedom and ambition, children, mates, family, etc. Their passion, conflict and resolution is echoed in Nikki Giovanni’s “Revolutionary Dreams,” which begins “I used to dream militant/dreams…”
When Feminism took off in the early Seventies, the Black Panthers (men) were concerned that Black Women’s interests would be diverted, and as a result, the Movement could be weakened. So, while tradition shouted, “Choose, Black Woman. Are you for yourself or for your family?” The Movement shouted, “Choose, Black Woman. Are you for yourself or for the people?” And then there were the Feminists!
I imagined Cecile’s claustrophobia and her wanting something audacious. Her self. What comes out of her self—and that it wasn’t necessarily her children. Being an artist of some kind is hard enough today, and a frivolous, unthinkable pursuit in decades past if you didn’t have means or support. An artist needs access to herself and to the world. She needs more than a minute to breathe.
I dreamed of Cecile being comforted by poems the way the faithful are comforted by Psalms. Poetry saved her soul; Louis Gaither saved her life. Still, these were not enough. A warm home, food, the love of a man, daughters, and books of poetry to read were not enough. She had to think of her poetry. Write her poetry, and not just on the walls or on cereal boxes. She needed the space to roam and be about her work. I had to make her big, taking big, unapologetic, man-size steps. What an entirely selfish thing to be! Unheard of for an ordinary black woman (although many Black women through history had been poets and writers). And when she had her opportunity, she left to gain her self. As appalled as we might be, children live with mothers who are absent in one form or other and they don’t get an explanation or justification. These absences become “life” to the child left behind—not that it’s all right. It just is, and has its effects. Delphine is always putting the flashes together, studying her mother, incredulous–but fully knowing–that this monstrous woman was in fact, her mother. From a careful distance, Delphine is always trying to understand who Cecile is, and how she came to be. She looks at herself and her sisters and considers each endowment Cecile has left them. Vonetta is needy. Fern (gotta love the child who insists upon herself in every way) can forget about something or someone she’s loved intensely. In herself, Delphine can only see a few physical similarities. It would be too much to impose too much self-awareness on this child narrator, no matter how knowledgeable she is.
I could have gained permission for Cecile to pursue herself and her art by making her more sympathetic, but I like that she’s both limited and strong. When Delphine is in the kitchen for the first time, a hard won permission—paradoxical in itself—both “Ceciles” throw the knife into the sink while Delphine washes the chicken; there is the Cecile who’s letting Delphine cook (do the domestic thing; be with her), and the Cecile who doesn’t want her daughters there in the first place.
With all of this focus on cause and art and self, wouldn’t a child be resentful of a focus that’s away from them? I thought about Nikki Giovanni with her young children, that she was at the height of her power when her children were young. That she had her own printing press. That her children often accompanied her to coffee houses and would chant her poems in the background of her own voice.
There would have to be some resentment on the girls’ part towards all things Cecile, including her poetry. If this were other children, in other times, they would have entered her kitchen without permission, handled her papers, tore up her poems, and broken her printing press. This can’t work here because Cecile is unstable, an unknown. Following the truth of the character, she would have done them great harm. Instead, I think about the late Tupac Shakur commenting on his mother, activist Afeni Shakur, and her time spent with “the cause.” Resentful as he might have been, he could not divorce himself from “the cause” he had grown up in, and was ultimately a person of deep consciousness and purpose. So, while Delphine, Vonetta and Fern might have resented Cecile and her poetry, they searched for themselves within her and her work. Cecile’s absence left her daughters with a deep impression of conscious and subconscious longing. She left Fern wanting her milk, Vonetta wanting to be picked up, and Delphine wanting to quietly be with her—even to the point of learning to give up her voice and wants. Even long gone, Cecile is in the walls on Herkimer Street, with her writings. She is in their imaginings (although we only really hear this from Delphine). Instead of crying, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern sing their “la-la song.” Searching for connection, Vonetta surmises that one of Nzila’s poems is about them. It is a logical thing to be jealous of or resentful of the very thing that has taken their mother away (and that’s only partially true). But can you divorce yourself from your mother even if she wasn’t there? Each girl carries a piece of Cecile. Wouldn’t they carry a piece of her poetry as well?
I generally don’t like to destroy the fiction for readers by talking about it so intimately, but I did enjoy writing this. Thanks, Zetta!
**Giovanni, Nikki. “Revolutionary Dreams.” The Women and the Men, Poems. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1975.