A priestess dressed in white grabbed and held me in New Orleans' Congo Square. The Black Arts Movement Conference at Dillard University had ended. It was the evening of September 11, 2016, and as the organizer of that conference, I still had bills to pay. The priestess rocked me back and forth and in a voice that spoke of Black bodies long gone said, "The ancestors are pleased." She held me tight as tears mingled with dreams unrealized. "Don't worry about the money. It is a distraction. You will be repaid a thousand fold." I had not been held like that in forever. It was a holding of a soul space by a woman who did not know me as more than an acquaintance but was demanding an audience with my soul: soul-to-soul communications in a place long ago where slaves danced in freedom worship every Sunday. How appropriate that I was here on Sunday asking for my soul's freedom. The voices of the ancestors spoke through Nana Sula, and I listened.
This type of healing connection to the ancestors is discussed in Toni Morrison's essay, "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation;" she speaks of "... the way in which Black people looked at the world. We are very practical people, very down-to-earth, even shrewd people. However, within that practicality, we also accepted what I suppose could be called superstition and magic, which is another way of knowing things.... And some of those things were "discredited knowledge..." (61). The knowledge that Morrison speaks of is an awareness of spirit, of the ancestors, of a need to communicate beyond that which is seen. The ancestors were speaking through Nana Sula. Just as W.E.B. Dubois speaks of double-consciousness, Black women must speak of spirit-consciousness, that connection to the ancestors that is always pulling Black bodies, particularly Black women, between two worlds as they negotiate a universe filled with racialized minefields.
These minefields can take the form of racialized symbols that cause the mind to travel to dark and desperate places where home, culture, and Black bodies are not safe. The festering legacy of chains is one of those symbols. Africans stolen from their homeland, crowded ships with bodies piled, the auction block, and mass incarceration are all linked by chains. Shackled from one generation to the next, raped Black bodies birthing babies, sharecropped to extinction, mass migration, servants, redlining, gerrymandering, and the invisible chain that stretches as far back as 1619 and the first enslaved Africans touching American soil speaks to the history of Blacks in America.
This invisible chain is the guide to Black women in America. However, it is in the 1960s and 1970s that the chain similar to the term "Black" is redefined with the words, art, music, dance and literature, written by Black women, telling their stories, their sorrow songs through art that shouts: "Black Power," and cries in the night wrapping Black bodies in blankets tinged with anguish and rocked by hope. Their voices are submerged but whispering, "Art is freedom. Follow me." This invisible chain forever connects us to our ancestors allowing the Black woman to rebirth our history and stand in its power. It is in that history that those Hidden Voices, the women of the Black Arts Movement emerge.
These Hidden Voices are examined through the lens of Black Feminism with a narrative of resistance through art. What does it mean to be a Black woman in America, and how does the experience of Black womanhood from slavery to present time define the African-American woman? This essay examines the link between the enslavement of the African female and the dominant society's placement of the Black woman in the role of "other," thereby ensuring the usurpation of her physical body and voice. I argue that the Black female artist has reclaimed the essence of Black womanhood and empowered the entire Black race through the art, poetry, theatre and prose of the women of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). My research focuses on the art and lives of Amina Baraka, the wife of the late Amiri Baraka; Black Panthers Charlotte "Mama C" O'Neal and Judy Juanita; and Civil Rights icon and photographer Dr. Doris Derby. I research hidden voices that have not been privileged, voices in communities, families, and academia. My work examines their survival and renegotiation of space through the filter of slavery, the Black Liberation Movement, the Feminist Movement, sexuality, trauma, and resistance. How did these women walk a tightrope in a highly politicized cultural environment, and how did this affect their work as well as their survival? What or who influenced the creation of their art, which will be discussed in terms of the political act of being an African-American woman and the use of space, art, and culture as a form of resistance?
This resistance is nurtured through Black Feminism with a central narrative described as ancestralness; whereby, the ancestral tools of poetry, art, music, and community allow the Black woman to discover her inner mecca beyond white privilege and colonization. This ancestralness negates the African-American women as "other" by opening the door to ancestral DNA and an innerness where art and community are privileged through an awareness and power in Blackness. Charlotte "Mama C" O'Neal clarifies this term with Kenyan hip-hop artist Kamau Ngigi, who maintains that, "Wahenga could be ancestralness" as described in the Kiswahili language of the Swahili people. "In the dictionary they describe it as an elder who sits on a native council, but Wahenga, according to the people, are long gone ancestors." I use this African term as a means of recognizing the African Americans' African roots. These "long gone ancestors" are still embedded in our being, in our Blackness.
In order to document the Hidden Voices of the Black Arts Movement, I walk with my ancestors and those of the Black Arts Movement so that I am granted permission and knowledge to tell their stories with the hope that my words bring justice to the long gone and present-day women of the Black Arts Movement. Their stories, their lives, are written in the earth, hidden and in plain sight for all that thirst for the knowledge enfolded in the hearts and minds of Blackness. That rich Blackness that carries the ancestral voices of ancient African culture is intertwined in the DNA of Black America. It is a giant that when awakened is all encompassing with knowledge of the survival of Black Americans. As a race, we could not have survived the Middle Passage, Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and mass incarceration without that DNA.
This DNA is centered in the Black womb that has been problematized to the point that the image of the Black woman negates her existence; whereby, she endures in a liminal space, crowded by images of Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, Welfare Queen, and the angry Black woman that borders on psychotic in its depiction of rage and violence. Who is the African American woman? My research illustrates how the Black female is recreating her image based on her historical past beyond colonization. Using the images...