Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Defending ‘Our Mother’s Gardens’

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In her landmark work In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker wrote: “What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time? Our great-grandmothers’ day? Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer’s lash? Or was her body broken and forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)—eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children—when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion?” Many of my students do not know who Walker is. But as they listen to me read her words during a discussion of Women’s History Month they are quiet as death, contemplative, and, perhaps, newly enflamed. As students of female sacrifice, many of them know the savage politics behind her canvas. They are intimately aware of the blood price women of color must pay to be free in this so-called post-feminist society in which white male lawmakers trivialize sexual assault with dangerous tautologies like “forcible rape.”

Recently, the mainstream media buzzed with news reports that a Libyan woman had reported being gang-raped to a group of foreign correspondents. A MSNBC reporter described the victim as middle aged, well-spoken and respectable (the victim was actually estimated to be in her 20s or 30s), implying that her credibility was beyond reproach. As a “respectable,” upstanding woman, her rape would surely be an affront to her community. Preemptive reference to rape victims’ social station is a now familiar device in the rape reporting game. Over the past few weeks, the gang rape of an 11 year old Latina girl also made headlines, eliciting controversy over the girl’s portrayal in both mainstream media and in the community where the assault occurred. Whenever a rape case becomes high profile, the inevitable questions about the victim’s reputation, race, whereabouts, and alleged complicity in the assault are trotted out. Yet seldom is there any analysis of the sociopolitical conditions that legitimize rape and the connect- the-dots rape reporting game. And seldom is there any analysis of what gives men license to violently occupy women’s bodies. There is never any connection made between this kind of sexual terrorism and state power. Hence, these connections are especially urgent now given the unrelenting wave of anti-choice anti-abortion legislation that has swept the nation since the midterm elections.

South Dakota recently passed a law requiring pregnant women to wait three days before they made a decision about terminating their pregnancies. Under the new mandate, championed by the state’s governor, women must receive counseling from a doctor before they have an abortion. It is the only state in the nation to impose such a requirement. Other pending legislation includes requiring that women receive ultrasounds before they make a decision to terminate. Health care reform foes have also spearheaded legislation that restricts private insurers who participate in new government mandated health exchanges from providing abortion coverage.

One of the most pernicious civil liberties’ rollbacks is HR.3, the House-sponsored legislation that would give the I.R.S. the right to question women who had abortions about whether they became pregnant by rape or incest. The bill has been dubbed “Stupak on Steroids,” after Democratic Congressman Bark Stupak, who crusaded against abortion coverage under health care reform. According to Mother Jones magazine, the bill “extends the reach of the Hyde Amendment—which bans federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake—into many parts of the federal tax code. In some cases, the law would forbid using tax benefits—like credits or deductions—to pay for abortions or health insurance that covers abortion.” Women who are audited could be forced to reveal why and how they had an abortion, further ensuring Big Brother’s reign over their bodies and destinies.

There is a connection between this kind of state-sponsored terrorism and the brutal occupation of women’s bodies through rape. Yet in the U.S., the term terrorism is only used when dark-skinned racial others are the perpetrators of “strategic” geopolitical violence. Violence against women can be isolated to aberrant male predators, not the predatory terroristic human rights violations of the state.

Recently, a student in my Women’s Leadership Project group expressed her vehement opposition to abortion. She argued that a woman who has sex should be prepared to accept the potential consequence of an unplanned pregnancy. Like most young women she was taught that going through with an unplanned unwanted pregnancy is a supremely moral decision. After all, self-sacrifice under inhumane conditions is what is expected and required of women. Validation through a baby that one cannot take care of is ok, while validation through sex is not. In this regime, the consequence of pregnancy for women is a biologically determined life sentence, one that males cannot and will not be forced to serve. Women who don’t agree to this life sentence are immoral, rather than the society that does not provide for every child regardless of class or race. Some of the most vitriolic responses I’ve ever gotten to my writing were from anti-abortion foes, primarily men, who see a white supremacist plot behind black women’s support for abortion. But it is not white supremacy that dictates black women’s allegiance to the legacy of female ancestors who could not control their own destinies. And this is perhaps the profound power of Walker’s work. In search of her mother’s garden, she “found (her) own.” Honoring the great grandmothers whose artistry and personhood were denied symbolizes the revolutionary right of women to control their own destinies, tend their own gardens, to ensure that terrorism cannot continue to disguise itself as legitimacy and law.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Infidel Books).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Spring Book Tour and Appearances

March 16, Freedom From Religion radio interview,, 12:00 p.m. EST

March 20th, Center for Inquiry, Costa Mesa, CA, 4:30 p.m. (Hollywood appearance rescheduled to June 5)

March 23, USC Center for Occupation and Lifestyle Redesign, 3:00 p.m. (Imagining Transit)

March 29, Interfaith Voices,, EST tbd

April 1, Michael Slate Show, KPFK 90.7FM, 10:00 a.m.

April 3, Revolution Books, Los Angeles, CA, 2:00 p.m.

April 16th, Institute for Humanist Studies Conference, NYC

April 17th, Brooklyn Ethical Society, NY, 11:00 a.m.

April 20th, Zion Hill Baptist Church, Black Skeptics & Faith Community Roundtable, L.A., 6:30 p.m.

April 28th, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL

April 30th, L.A. Times Festival of Books, Atheists United table, 12-2 p.m.; Revolution Books, 2:20-3:30pm

May 13, Eso Won Books, Los Angeles, CA, 7:00 p.m.

May 15, San Diego Humanist Society, 6:00 p.m.

May 27, Revolution Books, Berkeley, CA 7:00 p.m.

May 28, San Francisco Atheists, 5:00 p.m.

June 5, Center for Inquiry, Los Angeles, 11:00 a.m.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Writing Life: Questions for Author Niama Williams

Dr. Niama L. Williams is an author, speaker, intuitive counselor and homeless advocate who has written 11 books and will be launching a poetry series to honor the homeless in Philadelphia during the summer of 2011.

When did you begin writing and what was your first motivation?

Well, there was the 5th grade poem about loneliness and death at the top of which my teacher at the time wrote “Good!” and then there were the multiple notebooks of poems my middle school English teacher suffered through with virtually no complaints. To this day I write grammatically correct sentences because of this patient, devoted woman (thank God for Ms. Brown!). I’d have to say though that my commitment to writing as a profession and vocation began in the late eighties when I worked as a library assistant at the University of California at Irvine. I knew then, as I militantly read Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker at the Information Desk between helping patrons, that I wanted to create work my aunt the day worker could read and decipher and that would help her face the realities of her work and her life.

I believe in the commitment of the Black Arts Movement artists; that we as Black writers must create work that challenges our audience and equips them with the tools to face meeting Mr. Charlie, whatever color he may be, every day. Meet him and all that he represents yet survive, thrive, achieve and change our conditions—for the better.

You often blend deeply personal themes with sociological and political references. How do your lived experiences and world views influence your writing style?
I wish I had a cogent, logical and rational explanation for the style of writing that pours out of my pen. I thank God every day for Toni Cade Bambara’s THE SALT EATERS, which convinced me it was alright to be a writer between forms who did something a bit unusual. I think Nikki Giovanni’s essays had something to do with it too.

I can only tell you that the personal is extremely relevant in my writing because how we meet the world, how we process what happens to us and the events and circumstances we create through our thoughts, plans, and feelings; how we deal with all of that I only understand and process through my writing. I write memoir and personal essay not because I think my life is so important; I write memoir because I have been through several rungs of hell, and I want to save others who are survivors some of the angst, mistakes, and calamities that I have endured. I want to show others one method of surviving and thriving; I want them to know they are not crazy to react, think or feel about something the way that they do, that someone else feels exactly the same way and she is rational.

I interact intimately with the world, including the world of film and television; I think Eliot would be proud of the way I weave in cultural references with his reverence for the inclusion of history. I do that one because it is unconscious and two because I want readers to have fun devouring my books and poems; I want them to catch references and laugh out loud or go, hmmmmmm. I want certain things in my work to be familiar because I cover some scary territory and those bedrocks of comfort along the way are important.

What form of writing do you believe that your voice is most powerful in, poetry or fiction?
Arrrgggghhhh! I wish, wish I could claim being a writer of fiction! The best I can do is claim memoir, poetry, and personal essay. I love good fiction, but writing is not my forte. I call my longer prose works novels because they tell a story, but in a very unconventional manner. You will pick up one of my novels and you may find a short, essay, poem, film critique or discussion of a television show all within 100 pages. I’d love to be artsy and call it avant garde, but the reality is in the midst of all that stuff lurks the thread of a story and I am counting on you to find and follow it.

Samuel Delany thinks I don’t write worth a damn, but I think there is a hint of laziness as well as a desire for my readers, like Eliot wanted of his readers, to dig a bit for the relevance and common thread. He wanted his readers to work a bit because he cared so much about history and culture; he was terrified of the old world dying through lack of knowledge. He also loved to pack his work with the occasional inside joke for his friends.

I want my readers to do a bit of work, but I also want them to have fun. To have their chests puff out when I make mention of the tv series Brimstone and they know what I’m talking about; to nod wisely when I refer to the conspiracy theorist cop on SVU who reminisces about the young girl in jeopardy on his block growing up whose dire situation led him to serve where and how he does.

Who are some of your major literary influences? Which writers challenge and confound you the most?
I love me some T. S. Eliot. When I discovered him, I read “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” and all of the references and notes Southam provides in that wonderful book of his. I then read every biographical essay I could about him because there is that part of me that wishes to be “across the pond” and never return to American shores. I loved that he became the quintessential Englishman though his birth and upbringing made him as American as they come. I also love the deep, makes you struggle to understand it erudition of his work and the desire beneath it that culture and cultural references not die. I think that love for tradition and the preservation of tradition comes from the love I felt and experienced from my grandparents and my mother. You loved old people and you respected them because they knew more than you did and if you were lucky, they might tell you something that could save your ass one day.

To say I like the idea of blending the old and antiquated into the new as Eliot so brilliantly does, with a level of artistry and craft (his similies, metaphors, symbolism, etc.) beyond compare, well, I give myself away and indulge in understatement.

I simply adore with a healthy dose of “loving fan” because there is consistent artistry and craft in their work as well Toni Morrison (THE BLUEST EYE, the best novel ever written), Alice Walker, no equal to THE SALT EATERS anywhere, no equal in hilarity to the “Sort of Preface” to GORILLA MY LOVE (Toni Cade Bambara); when is John Edgar Wideman going to win the Nobel ….

As a professor of English, what are three of your desert island books? Which titles would you recommend for young aspiring writers of color?See, this is why interviewers always want to kick me in the head; I anticipate the next question. On a desert island I would need The Bible, THE SALT EATERS, GORILLA MY LOVE, THE COLOR PURPLE, THE BLUEST EYE, THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR, DAMBALLAH and every one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If I were comprising a list for young writers of color, I would add a couple by Sherman Alexie (THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN or the one about the serial killer) and THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG by Andre Dubus, III. A dash of Robert Hayden too, so we don’t forget our elders, and James Baldwin’s THE FIRE NEXT TIME so we see how a Black man can write like the most brilliant scholar breathing and still not get his props. Who studies Baldwin? No one. No book-length serious scholarship according to one of my sources. Shameful.

For more information on Niama Williams, keep an eye on her blogs and Facebook pages:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Echoes of Commonsense Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson


"With the fresh release of her thought-inspiring title, erudite author of Moral Combat: Black Atheist, Gender Politics and the Value Wars, Dr Sikivu Hutchinson, among other things, discusses her inspirations for writing this relevant title, and how topical issues in the book can help our modern society. Sit back and enjoy the hot dialogue conducted by Echoes of Commonsense editor Nathalie Woods."

Q: What is the relevance of your book to the advancement of morality in the world, and where can readers find it?

A: The book assesses the social construction of public morality in America vis-à-vis race, gender, sexual orientation and class. For the past several decades, much of mainstream public morality has been framed by the Religious Right’s millennialist values wars against social justice and human rights. In this universe, being moral is all about taking rights away from others in service to a narrow nationalist racist sexist notion of what it means to be authentically American. Chris Hedges and others have identified this upheaval as Christian fascism...