Gina Athena Ulysse

“We wonder …if it is the sound of that rage which must always remain 
repressed, contained, trapped in the realm of the
 unspeakable”   bell hooks

 

And if that rage is not uttered, spoken, expressed then what becomes of it?

So much has been written deconstructing the mad white woman relegated to the attic.

Less is known of black female rage for there is usually no place for it.

Its very articulation is a social death sentence especially in mixed company.

Her rememories stay crushed in her body, her archive.

She dare not speak.  Shut your mouth.  Careful.

There is a place for unruly little girls like you who do not know when to be quiet.

When not to offend white sensibilities.

When not to choke. When to submit.

Shhhhhh—Take a deep breath.

Swallow.

There is no safe word.

Days after January 12, 4:53:10pm when the earthquake ravaged my birth country, I told one of my dearest friends that part of me secretly wished I could just go on top of Wesleyan University Foss Hill, get on my knees, raise both arms in the air and just scream on top of my lungs until I was totally spent.

Just don’t let anybody see you, he warned me. We laughed it out and talked about consequences of being deemed unhinged. Indeed, the last thing I need is for people to think I have come undone. I am already outside of the box and something of an endangered species. I am a tenured black woman.  A black Haitian woman at that.  A black Haitian woman who has always spoken her mind way before tenure. A black Haitian woman without a recognizable last name as I like to say to those unfamiliar with my birth country’s class and color politics. I have ascended to and made a space for myself in a new social world that in many ways eluded generations before me without such access or had other freedom dreams. As Bill T Jones has so aptly put it, I have had as much freedom as I have been willing to pay for.  That said, I am an “established” faculty member at a small but well respected university, albeit one whose expressive breadth and professional maneuverings upset disciplinary lines to create “nervous conditions”[1] among purists. Though I was trained as a cultural anthropologist, I cannot afford to lose it, and certainly not in public. I am also an activist, a poet/performance artist and multi-media artist.

So, I did the next best thing, I consolidated all my energies and exposed my pain and rage on stage.

I had been performing my one-woman show “Because when God is too Busy: Haiti, me and THE WORLD” for several years now.  In one of its earliest renditions, I describe this work as a dramatic monologue that considers how the past occupies the present. In it, I weave history, theory and personal narrative in spokenword with Vodou chants to reflect on childhood memories, social (in) justice, spirituality, and the incessant de-humanization of Haitians.

My first full post-quake performance was on February 4th at the chapel of my home institution. Although I was on sabbatical, I volunteered to perform in part because I simply needed to let it out. This work, which contains musings on my relationship with Haiti from the aftermath of migration in my early teens through a grueling graduate school experience, is part coming of age, part conscientization and part hollering.

It was during the early years of my graduate training that I began to actively perform in part to retain my childhood dream of wanting to be a singer, to ground myself and allow my creative spirit to breathe through a restructuring process that threatened to desensitize me. Performance for me then was a cathartic act of defiance. It became a platform to express my newfound acceptance of the fact that silence is just another structure of power that I simply refused to recreate. A rejection of docility. It was a determination to disclose that, which, must be kept private, if we are not to disrupt the order of things and reap the rewards of playing along. Complicity is condemned. After earning the doctoral degree, and once I began teaching full time, performing became a lifeline, a space to exercise an opposition to the contained or bifurcated self required by professionalism. Most importantly, it has always provided me with the space to continually engage my commitment to Haiti.

Performance for me is what I call an alter(ed)native—“a counter-narrative to the conventionalities of the more dominant approaches in anthropology… It connotes processes of engagement from an anti- and post-colonial stance, with a conscious understanding that there is no clean break with the past. With that in mind, alter(ed)native projects do not offer a new riposte or alternative view, rather they engage existing ones, though these have been altered… co-opted and manipulated to ‘flip the script’ and serve particular anti-and post-colonial goals.” Hence, I begin with the unequivocal premise that colonialism had fractured the subject. Determined to not leave the body behind, the alter(ed)native is a mindful and loving attempt at a gathering of the fragments in pursuit of integration. In that sense, the alter(ed)native is unapologetically a political project.

On the stage, I am motivated by a sheer will to step into and confront the growing and gnawing web of a recurring black Atlantic nightmare with unspoken gendered dimensions that remains archived in our bodies. It is trapped in aspects of what Carl Jung calls our collective consciousness, for lack of a better term.

I did not intend to do this nor was it completely par hazard. Rather, the auto-ethnographic process of deconstructing the personal, in which I engaged in my first book on Jamaica (where I did my doctoral research), spilled into my internal dialogues about Haiti.  As a result, I found myself using my past to make connections to the social that further revealed national and international trends that have been inscribed ad infinitum and could still benefit from more visceral explorations.

The more that I perform, the more it has occurred to me that in fact, we actually know very little of the primordial of Haitian experiences. Though we have seen countless images and heard the cries, the wails especially recently. Random woman covered with dust roaming the street. Searching for their loved ones. Screaming. These are roving disoriented beings historically perceived as devoid of logic.

The show always begins with me chanting somewhere on the premises or in the audience (never back stage). The chant becomes a loop as I walk through the parameters of the space (often to form a circle) until I face the audience then take center stage.  Prior to the earthquake, I chanted the original lyrics I remember from childhood:

Noyé nape noyé

(Drowning we are drowning)

Noyé mapé noyé

(Drowning I am drowning)

Ezili si we’m tonbé lan dlo, pranm non

(Ezili if you see us fall in the sea, take us)

Métres, so we’m tonbé lan dlo, pranm non

(Goddess if you see us fall in the sea, save us)

Sové lavi zenfan yo noyé napé noyé

(Save the lives of your children, because we are drowning)

 

After the quake, I changed the words. By the time, I performed on February 4th, there had been over fifty aftershocks. Estimated death was being reported then at 200,000 and the mass graves were being filled with the unidentified. So then drowning became trembling.  Trembling the earth trembled. Trembling we are trembling. Ezili should we tremble again, hold us. Save the lives of your children because the earth is trembling.

I used repetitions of this chant as a portal – to access the body and keep it present. It is interwoven between pieces as a reminder of the ultimate aim of the work. We had gathered here to process and discuss a major catastrophe. I stopped the performance halfway through to present a dispatch from Haiti. I closed the show with words of a conversation with a friend.

After that night, I began to improvise in other performances. I shortened the “me” parts of the original text (and analyses of past moments of conflict in Haiti as these were becoming less immediately consequential given the urgency of the current situation) and began to include voices of people in Haiti. By the time, I did my last performance at LaMaMa on December 13th, all the original pieces were abruptly interrupted with dispatches from Haiti, of people whom I had either encountered online or interviewed during my two post-quake trips.  Their voices made the performance current. Most importantly, the stage became a platform to give immediate visibility to those without. The show then became a hybrid living newspaper.

With each performance I did in the past year, I became increasingly aware of the fact that we do not know or have never confronted Haiti’s pain. We have talked about it. Written about it incessantly. Some have actually engaged with it. Still we have never sat with it in its rawest form and let it be.  It has always been smothered. Shhhhhh. Not in public and certainly not in mixed company.  Somatic theories tell us that in many ways some of it is still there. Trapped. It remains unprocessed trauma.

This past year, in light of the impact of the earthquake at home and abroad, I began to think more and more about the absence of discussions of psychoanalytical explorations of the experiences of  Haitians in the aftermath of the Revolution. We have no substantive record of those moments of fracture, of pain when screams stemmed from deep within before they found constructed expression, sometimes in rage. The little we know of those moments come from the fearful gaze of colonizers. What did we sound like to ourselves? I keep wondering what could Ayiti – this land where spirits inhabit permanent resting places in nature – tell us about the collective and individual sounds we made in the aftermath of the Revolution.

The earthquake for me is another pivotal moment of collective horror that must not be smothered especially since we have so many tools with which we can record and are recording it.  In the latest installment of the show, I interrupt the personal with individual quotes and statistics about post-quake conditions. The Vodou chants are there as signification of the ethical that is to highlight the moral imperatives at play. Coupled with history, this weave is now deployed to foster more textured and multi-vocal possibilities. This approach is particularly relevant especially since daily life is not compartmentalized. Indeed, people live, make and remake themselves in a messy world that continuously begs for interdisciplinary crossings. I begin with the premise that theory alone simply cannot enclose the object of study, as anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has succinctly put it.[2] So I go deep within.  I collect what I call my ethnographic collectibles (excess bits unfit for publication because they were too personal, too raw or seemed trivial) and recycle them. I shut out the world to access that which I have been socialized to repress. Trained academic. Repress. Digging deep to finds ways to express a history of violence. Repress. I consciously and rather expertly manipulate my voice and let it out knowing I am crossing boundaries. Re-sowing seeds that caused white fears of a black planet. Exposing bourgeois attachments to the restraint. Trading with different forms of capital. Undoing reason. More specifically undoing enlightened reason.[3]

To perform a reassembly of the fragments Toni Morrison[4] insists needs to occur in a clearing, I select the stage to confront the visceral embedded in the structural. Performance becomes a public clearing of sorts, a site to occupy and articulate the embodied. The primeval. Releasing sound bites of the horror. Unhinging the raw. That which for black women must too often remain unspeakable.

 

Wailing is my chosen method of intervention.

 

 


[1] Taken from Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) as reiterated in “Nervous Conditions: The Stakes in Interdisciplinary Research” Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic fieldwork by Liisa Malkki and Allaine Cerwonka  (2007).

[2] Trouillot, Michel Rolph. 1992. The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory. Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 21: 19-42.

[3] I thank Gillian Goslinga for pointing out the qualification. Indeed it is enlightenment that is at stake.

[4] Beloved 1987 Knoft

 

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