To Predestine and Condition – On Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention

"The highly publicized lawsuit was intensified by the clinic’s failure to deliver a white baby…"
Dorothy Roberts stood before a room full of people, showing a picture of what seemed to be a happy interracial family portrait. But it wasn’t a happy family picture, or even a success story. The picture staring down at that night’s crowd was proof and evidence to a lawsuit - it was a picture capturing the failure of a reproduction clinic to produce a blond hair, blue eyed child. It was a picture overtly publicizing the devaluation of black babies because of their race. It may be cliché to reference Aldous Huxley when discussing Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race In the Twenty-First Century, yet when covering Roberts’ account of the alarming push to find evidence behind the notion of ‘biological race' one finds themselves eerily remembering the eugenic utopia of Huxley’s novel, and the warnings it posed to the world. Deaf ears seemingly received those warnings. Robert’s Fatal Invention traces society’s tragic scientific credence of "biological race" and its possible implications in the rise of eugenics and justifications of social class stratification in the twenty-first century.  With extensive research, Roberts shows just how big of an issue race is for modern society; furthermore, how such a delusion (that race is biologically inherited) distorts and pacifies many Americans against purely barbaric, cruel, and unfounded practices against certain races, particularly African Americans. (more…)

Staking Our Claim: Writing Trans* Characters for the 21st Century

Before I attended Staking Our Claim: Trans Women’s Literature in the 21st Century, I was unsure of what to expect. The literature I’ve encountered that addresses trans* issues has been rare, and has almost always focused on the protagonist’s transition, as if the experience of being trans* starts soon before hormone therapy and reaches its conclusion at the end of a “successful” transition. The short stories the women at Staking Our Claim read from the new anthology, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, shattered these stereotypes of trans* literature with stories that were funny, poignant, and incredibly diverse. The event featured the writers Ryka Aoki, Red Durkin, Imogen Binnie, and Donna Ostrowsky; the four stories shared jumped from a farmer’s market in Hollywood, to a food-eating contest in the South, to a future Brooklyn, to a laboratory in 1922. And in all the stories, if any comments were made about the transitions of the trans* characters, they were never a central or pivotal point of the story.

Staking Our Claim: Trans Women’s Literature in the 21st Century from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

Much of the discussion following the readings dealt with the very topic that was on my mind before I attended the event: what does trans* literature look like, what does it talk about, and where can it fit into a larger canon of well-written, impactful fiction? Every writer expressed their desire to create trans* characters whose lives were not just about transition, who were navigating life with trans* as just one of the identities they held. As much as memoirs—and other self-representations by trans* people—are important and still woefully rare, these authors seemed to stress a need for, and a desire to create, a different type of representation of trans* people. The authors expressed a desire to create stories that combated the unspoken notion that all literature is cis-literature unless it is a documentation of the struggles of a trans* person. Instead, the stories included a diverse cast of characters—some trans* and some not—and described an incredibly varied set of circumstances, challenges and experiences of the characters. In short, these writers showed that trans* characters can be incorporated into the plot of any story and bring a new perspective to the narrative, and that this iteration of trans* literature is one that does not fall into a strict and stereotype-based binary of trans* literature as transition memoir vs.  (cis) everything else.  It is therefore with good reason that Sarah Schulman called The Collection (available from Topside Press) a “ground-breaking anthology.”

Check out each author reading her story below.

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Student & Campus Activism: Change Through Collaboration

Student activism has a rich history and legacy. From the protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War across U.S. college campuses to the more recent Chilean protests against the country’s education system, student mobilization has proven critical to the ever-changing landscape of social justice. Scholars and activists from around the country touched on this very subject at the “Campus Activism” panel at BCRW’s Activism and the Academy: Celebrating 40 Years of Feminist Scholarship and Action conference. Addressing issues of queer and trans* organizing, Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, and workers’ rights, the panelists underscored the indispensability of student and campus collaboration on local struggles to achieve broader visions of social change. Given the invaluable role of campus activism, I want to spotlight some of the student activism happening in the Barnard/Columbia community.

Abigail Boggs, Debanuj Dasgupta, Stephanie Luce, Sandra K. Soto, Jesse Kadjo, and moderator Catherine Sameh discuss campus activism. 

The present activism of Barnard and Columbia students should come as no surprise. The Columbia University protests of 1968, in which students demonstrated against university affiliation with the Vietnam War and Columbia’s construction of a segregative gymnasium in Morningside Park, are remembered for their large-scale acts of student subversion. Hundreds were arrested and injured by the police called in by then Columbia President Grayson Kirk, and the university shut down in the face of utter chaos. Protestors ultimately claimed victory when Columbia scrapped its gym construction plans and its ties with the U.S. Department of Defense. Students thwarted the university’s racist and militarist acts, but not without incurring police brutality and racial tensions between protestors.

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Knowledge, Activism and the Online Community

After recently attending the BCRW lecture, “Digital Community Formation,” I was struck by a connection between this talk and one held by BCRW last year, “Using Knowledge, Advancing Activism.” As a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies major, and someone about to graduate and in the midst of figuring out how to turn this academic perspective into a profession, both panels resonated with me in how they addressed feminist knowledge (be it academic or otherwise) as a tool for activism. Moderated by Laura Flanders, “Using Knowledge, Advancing Activism” occurred last September, with Rinku Sen, Jamia Wilson, and Dean Spade. The panel addressed the questions of what counts as knowledge, whose knowledge matters, and how we can bridge academic knowledge with activism. The panelists each presented their organizations as possible examples of how to answer such questions. Sen’s work at the Applied Research Center, for example, exemplifies how racial justice knowledge can be mobilized through extensive research, community organizing, journalism (Colorlines.com) and networking. Wilson’s organization, The Women’s Media Center, takes a different approach by training girls and women to be “media savvy” in order to increase women’s visibility in the media. Finally, Spade discussed how the Sylvia Rivera Law Project helps support trans people of color and low-income trans people to access services and protection from violence where law fails to do so. All of these organizations combine some sort of academic and professional expertise (law, media, feminist studies) with equally valid knowledge produced from lived experiences to carefully strategize their fights against injustice. (more…)

What does Shange think?

Ntozake Shange on Stage and Screen video is now available on the BCRW website.

On Wednesday, November 7th I had the pleasure of attending “Ntozake Shange on Stage & Screen” sponsored by Africana Studies at Barnard. The event began with a screening of Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, followed by a panel discussion and audience Q & A with Ms. Shange, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, and Monica Miller, Associate Professor of English at Barnard. With so much negative criticism surrounding Perry’s 13 million dollar film adaptation, the question burning on every one’s mind was, what does Shange think?

Ntozake Shange speaks into a microphone next to Soyica Diggs Colbert

I was relieved to learn that her thoughts aligned with the criticisms I’d been outlining in my head since I first saw the film over a year ago. Shange was frank:

In other words, Perry could not grasp the radical nature of the work, and it was clear, at least from an artistic standpoint, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

For the sake of having thoughtful conversation about the film at this event, I tried to watch it again; but by the time one of the protagonists, a teenage girl, started to wander dirty back alleyways filled with what appeared like crack heads and other dangerous looking persons in search of an abortion from Macy Gray who sanitized her metal tools with liquor in supposedly present day New York City – I walked out of the James Room. I could not suffer through the non-sense a second time.

Colbert, in her opening remarks for the post-film discussion talks about how Tyler Perry’s investment in the tradition of melodrama shapes his stage plays and films. In her analysis, the melodrama makes issues—and their resolution— clear-cut. With grossly over dramatic scenes, and two dimensional archetypal characters that his audience is familiar with, according to Colbert, the melodrama is “an easy answer to complicated problems”; and it is the point of accessibility into the work. But “plain,” “heard it before,” “yearn to hear again” melodrama, as Colbert describes it, is not the intention of Shange’s original work. I wholeheartedly agree with Colbert’s assessment of Perry’s strategy, but ultimately by equating melodrama with accessibility, Perry cheapens the intellect of his audience, and erases the biggest theme of Shange’s original work – the dimensionality of black women. Again, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

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SPEAK UP! Establishing Online Voice through Blogging

I see the blogging as major asset in my arsenal as a young activist.

As an accessible, equalizing platform, the blogosphere gives voice to those underrepresented in the mainstream media. With easy options for sharing and commenting, a blog can create online community, highlight critical perspectives, and serve as an opportunity for activists and feminists to engage in constructive dialogue. In the modern landscape of activism, blogging can be understood as necessary skill for any opinionated change-maker. But how is it learned?

Young woman with laptop surrounded by magazines

Last month, I had the pleasure of leading an innovative BCRW workshop for Barnard students called SPEAK UP!  Establishing Online Voice through Blogging with fellow Barnard student and renown teen blogger, Julie Zeilinger. Although incredibly beneficial on a personal, professional, and community level, blogging is not a widely taught skill set. Often, individual learning happens through a trial and error process with little support or formula. For many, the lack of facilitation, experience, or technical expertise becomes a hindrance for participation.

Inspired by the recent launch of the BCRW Blog, Julie and I endeavored to set up a forum to teach and encourage blogging among students as a means of self expression and activism. The event aimed to open a discussion on campus about opportunities and strategies for effective blogging; it was designed both to train BCRW Research Assistants in using our Center’s blog, and also to give members of the Barnard student body an opportunity to learn the basic skills and network with other users on campus.

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Ntozake Shange Speaks Nov 7 at Barnard

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Africana Studies at Barnard, distinguished alumna Ntozake Shange ’70 returns to Barnard next week to kick off a year of programming in her honor. Ms. Shange is a Tony award winning author, whose work includes the masterpiece choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. On Wednesday November 7, the year of celebration will begin with a screening of Tyler Perry’s 2010 screen adaptation of for colored girls, followed by a candid discussion with Ms. Shange, Soyica Diggs Colbert, assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College, and Monica Miller, associate professor of English at Barnard, about the original groundbreaking work and its adaptation.

For those unfamiliar with for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enough, C. Davida Ingram provided a great breakdown of the original production, the film, and the cultural context of both at Ms. magazine for the film’s release in 2010:

Colored Girls first took shape in 1974 as an electrifying performance by Shange and four of her close friends in a Berkeley, Calif., women’s bar, the Bacchanal. As they moved and danced, they recited Shange’s poems–about coming of age, heartbreak, sexual assault, redemption. The choreopoem went on to Broadway to win an Obie and be nominated for Tony and Grammy awards.

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