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Gina Athena Ulysse
Gina Athena Ulysse
Gina Athena Ulysse is a Haitian-American artist-academic-activist. She is a professor at Wesleyan University in CT. She is the author of Because When God is Too Busy (Feb 2017)



Pedagogies of Silence on MLK Day

Jan15

by: on January 15th, 2017 | No Comments »

One of my oldest memories growing up in Haiti under an authoritarian regime is the sound of the phrase, ou konn ki es mwen ye? Whether uttered in a whisper, loudly, with sustained bravado stretched over every syllable, or with a chuckle, the meaning was clear. For the question was simply, do you know who I am? Honestly, I had no concrete sense what that meant until years later when I became conscious of the small ways I was taught what power is, how it operates, who has it, how it was wielded, who abuses it and who dared to challenge it.

There was an ongoing joke among some adults when presidential election results were announced which favored the dictator several millions to one. Who was foolish enough to cast that singular oppositional vote? Everyone knew these numbers were a sham. Some openly voiced their contempt and paid a severe price; many creatively subverted as others remained totally quiet. Daily survival, we knew, depended upon when and how one traded their most precious commodity: silence. It had use, sign, and exchange values that could be accrued.

I was shy, and more often than not, dutiful. The fear I embodied was visible as I bowed my head in the presence of grownups. There were codes by which we all lived knowing the difference between responses that were appropriate and the ones that were not. Some words, once spoken out loud, were not only directives that provided no guarantees of whom would not disappear, or get food to eat, but could also be evidence of troublemaking that no one wish would visit their home.

In the aftermath of migration to this country (also founded on dissent), I began to relish in expressing my freedom to speak. Out. Loud. Part of it surely was teenage rebellion, another was my education — indoctrination by an English as a Second Language curriculum that sold us the American Dream. I bought it and was lucky enough to have also learned this dream, as the great poet Langston Hughes wrote, had been deferred for many — including Black minorities whose ancestors came to occupy this hemisphere by way of slavery. The system, as it were, was stacked against us. As the unstoppable human rights activist, Ella Josephine Baker so rightfully put it, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it happens.” I use to imagine I was old enough to join the March on Washington wondering what it would have felt like to be there standing somewhere in that big crowd listening to Mahalia Jackson and being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.

I often say I have a difficult relationship with silence because I grew up under a dictatorship. So, I never took it for granted that as unequal as we may be in the eyes of others and especially the law, ancestors and elders fought and died for us to have our rights, even though we are still treated unjustly when we use them. Since protest is as American as apple pie, it was in this American spirit that we continue to exercise that right. As fraught as life has been in this system, it remained distinguishable from living under a ruler that demanded total allegiance and loyalty. Though it wasn’t structurally possible for everyone, one could still strive towards individuation and achieve it. As long as we understood “we have as much freedom as we are willing to pay for” according to McArthur genius, choreographer Bill T. Jones. Indeed, the possibilities of participation, at least existed. For democracy, as the old saying goes, is not a spectator sport. It took work. Civic engagement is more than a marker of citizenship, it is manifestation of a sense of duty to self, community, and country.

When the Black-ish episode clip about the recent presidential elections started to circulate days ago, I began to remember how I learned my fears of silence. I grew up in a time and in a country where girls and women were supposed to be quiet. As I meditate on the meaning of MLK today, in this country that I now call my own, I can admit I speak out precisely because silence is a structure of power that I refuse to recreate. I am reminded of his wise words, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Given our history, we must consciously resist impulses that threaten to further incarcerate us in states of negation.

 

 

Pedagogies of Freedom

Dec31

by: on December 31st, 2016 | 1 Comment »

On New Year’s Day, at home and abroad, Haitians and Haitiphiles are all about soup joumou. A squash based consommé laboriously made with chunks of beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, some kind of pasta, seasoned with epis-that concoction of Haitian spices, which was hopefully brought to perfection by an expert who uses enough scotch bonnet pepper without overshadowing the fragrant aroma. This soup is traditionally consumed to commemorate Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ proclamation of Haitian independence from France on January 1, 1804. Thirteen years after the only successful slave revolution started that abolished colonialism and slavery, Haiti became the first Black Republic in the world, second only to the United States.

For many of us, the soup is as much about its gastronomic delight as it is about redressing history. Under French rule, the enslaved population was specifically forbidden to eat this delicacy. As the story goes, that fateful day, Dessalines’ main squeeze Marie-Claire Heureuse Felicité Bonheur, outdid Marie-Antoinette and declared, Let them eat soup! Indeed, “the antidote to dehumanization has to be rehumanization,” culinary or otherwise, as Zingermans’ Ari Weinzweig has said.

As a child, I enjoyed avoiding those sprigs of parsley and rosemary to gobble up this annual staple. Here we were on Christmas talking soup plans, George Michael was dead, none of the family members could relate to my state of gloom. “Who?” “Wham! Don’t you remember ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-go?’” I sang to no avail. A couple bars of “Everything She Wants” — no response. “Careless Whisper” got me some I-feel-sorry-for-you hums while other lyrics did not resonate at all.

Minutes before, the speakers had been blaring our beloved Kompa rhythms. Not quite my thing, which is enough to get one’s Haitian authenticity card revoked by diehards. Blame it all on migration, as if we have never been plural. Depending on where you lived, resources, and what you had to spend, there were variations of the soup. In keeping with our diasporic tendency to rename things, according to Miami-based reporter Nadege Green, it has been dubbed “liberty soup” or “freedom soup” by younger Haitian-Americans. Dudley Alexis has a documentary in the works about it. Perhaps the greatest honor of all is the brand new Afro-beat mixed-genre soup joumou anthem by Alize Music featuring Paul Papi.

Lately, I have been meditating on notions of freedom and our not so common principles as presidential elections in my birth and adopted countries collided my worlds. Having grown up under a dictatorship, ironically, I feel primed to soon be living under an authoritarian regime. “All we have to do now/is take these lies and make them true somehow.” Yes, I know George was talking about his battles. I had my own. A Black woman who refused to be docile, I was struggling to complete my dissertation in an historically white institution, “Freedom 90″ was my personal anthem. “All we have to see/is that I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me.” In the aftermath of migration, it was music that guided my path to individuation. That’s why I lamented his passing. Decades later, the song still resonates. And in these times, it matters now more than ever. “Freedom/You’ve gotta give for what you take.” Someone in the kitchen knew the words. I wasn’t singing alone.

These days, you can find vegetarian and gluten-free soup joumou recipes online. I have been flirting with the idea of a pescatarian version as I imagine my aunt, a caterer, vigorously shaking her head at this sacrilege. Would it still be soup joumou? That depends, has nationalism ever really recognized its inherent differences? Haiti’s L’Union Fait la Force and the United States’ E Pluribus Unum are mottos built on contradictions from brutal colonial histories that have steeped the past in the present, yet remain unknown. Unity, under such conditions, is improbable without complicity in white supremacy, as well as our silence and absolute negation. For belonging is fundamentally based on a hierarchical system of ownership. The chains of slavery were broken long ago, but there remains unfinished business.

Happy 213thBirthday Haiti Cherie. Now, off to go get some salmon!

Photo: Andy Vernon-Jones

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation on Pedagogies of the Traumatized

Jul8

by: on July 8th, 2016 | Comments Off

Print: Amos Paul Kennedy Photo: Gina Athena Ulysse

There is a mini-poster by the journeyman printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. on one of my bookshelves. This black block print on cardboard contains an equals sign with the caption “Equality is a special privilege for Blacks these unitedstatesofamerica.” The USA is spelled out in lowercase (as presented), as a single word, bracketed by the stars and stripes upside down ― a signal of distress. I also keep a copy in my office where I teach to look at everyday as a crude reminder that in the eyes of the law, Whiteness is supreme, we (Blacks) were never equal, and know full well, we still are not.

We live in a market economy, where the value ascribed to Black bodies remains high only when we reinforce the state of our original conditions as human chattel. Property. Slaves. We were restricted by a system of codes, rules that managed our behavior and manners back then. In a sense, we still are. Lest we were to forget, or if and when we dare to question this order of things, the price for our disruption is a lashing of one kind or another from the seemingly benign, to the fatal. In her award winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric, the brilliant poet Claudia Rankine puts it this way, “because white men can’t police their imagination, Black men are dying”. The fact of our Blackness to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, is non-negotiable, since our belonging in this society has always been provisional. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. As the great James Baldwin once wrote, “we could hope to arrive only by imitation.” We are rewarded in the myriad ways we are accorded opportunities to uphold and re-inscribe White supremacy. So the message, just in case we didn’t get the memo, is clear: This is a White world. The story of our existence therein is one of inequity that, at the least, requires our infantilization to thrive, and at best, our absolute submission to survive. There are no boundaries and protection. Respect is exclusively reserved for Whites only. It is their birthright. We must stay in our place.

I woke up too early this morning and broke my own rule by going to social media. I inadvertently saw Lavish Reynolds’ livestream video of the police killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on my Twitter feed. Caught up, in a sense of outrage, disbelief, and shock, I tried to suppress it. I was still processing Alton Sterling as another victim of police violence days before, trying to decide whether to write about it. I decided against it (because I can), and also pondering like Roxane Gay ― what more could be said that has not already been said? My vocabulary does not need to expand to rephrase what members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been demanding in three words: Stop Killing Us!

I avoid these videos. There’ve been so many. They stay with you and threaten to desensitize you. They are numbing us to the spectacle of Black death according to Jamil Smith. More evidence of the normalization of a civilization predicated upon the near annihilation of a people and the fortification of a nation intimately structured with violence. That’s always been the hypocrisy in our moral values. We remain cavalier in our practices of discard and ‘so aghast’ by the racist rhetoric of he who shall not be named.

My FB feed contains continuous advice from folks warning each other to avoid encounters that will further aggrieve this trauma. Human chattel was always disposable. Property’s value depreciates. Slave need to be dominated. Each hashtag memorial, and media report that reverts to stereotypes, become new trigger points. Reminders of how White Power works. Last summer, the incessant assault on Black Lives prompted @eveeeeezy to suggest a more vigilant approach to self-care. It may have been delivered with comic relief, but “Calling in Black” was a cry of “Enough!”

Indeed, the devaluation, embodied or otherwise, takes its toll. #BlackLivesMatter made its way into the Ivory Tower with the student uprising last fall. Institutions, not made in our image, were forced to confront their Whiteness and their cultivation of “exclusionary practices.” Centuries later, we did not, and could not, escape the fact of our history. It has simply been digitized.

As an educator in an historically white institution, inspired by Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I have been confronting this dilemma personally and pedagogically. I have been reorienting myself interrogating notions of belonging to figure out collective and sustainable ways to deploy my intellectual knowledge in a manner to be of service to a greater good. That is the story I tell myself knowing the greater good often subsumes us and leaves Black folks behind. I have gotten more involved in institutional matters with a mature awareness of the potentials and impossibilities of some interventions. We can’t keep running away from the past. Besides, social media has assured we can only run so far; the brutality that used to happen in private is now ever so public. My optimism wanes and my patience continues to be tried with each new extra judicial killing, each exoneration. Each one is more confirmation of the deep rootedness of our inequality. We bear the weight of history so unequally. It is written on our bodies and etched in the color of our skin. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. That is the undue burden, the inequity we live with, that simply cannot be undone unconsciously. Its transformation, if that (I am not naïve), requires so much more than will. To bring about a modicum of change we must not only intentionally attempt, but also be determined, to shift. It will not happen par hazard. Because history has seen to it that the exchange, use, and sign value ascribed to Black lives remains unequal to that of Whites. We are differentially positioned and invested.

What story do you tell yourself to assuage the comfort you find in the social luxury of being in an unmarked body. Your silence is your complicity. Where is your outrage as we all bear witness to this moment?

Tribute to Karen McCarthy Brown: Author of Mama LoLa or the Book that Kept Me in Grad School

Mar18

by: on March 18th, 2015 | Comments Off

News that Karen McCarthy Brown passed away after years of deteriorating illness reached me earlier this month. I kept it to myself. When more official announcements from Drew University–where she was Professor Emerita of anthropology and sociology of religion — showed up on my Facebook feed this past Sunday, I shared it with the following comment:

Reading Karen’s Mama Lola kept me in grad school. Vodou got a human face from her. A tremendous loss, indeed.

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Theaster’s Way

Feb6

by: on February 6th, 2014 | Comments Off

Photo credit: Studio Museum of Harlem

Theaster Gates has been dubbed “the real-estate artist,” “the opportunity artist,” “an anthropologist, urbanist, activist — the 21st-century artist,” “the poster boy for socially engaged art,” #40 in Art Review’s “2013 Power 100, A ranked list of the contemporary art world’s most powerful figures,” and even “the Mick Jagger of social practice.”

His works include his signature Dorchester Projects, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House and numerous others. In 2012, he was awarded the WSJ innovator of the year art prize. In 2013, he was named a United States Artists fellow and also received the inaugural Vera List Center Prize for Arts and Politics. There are many more accolades than I can name.

So when I went to the Studio Museum of Harlem on January 16th for the activation of See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court (2012) — tables, chairs and desks salvaged from a now-closed public school on Chicago’s South Side, I believed the hype but still wasn’t sure what to expect.

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Yari Yari Ntoaso: An Upcoming Conference for African Women Writers

Mar12

by: on March 12th, 2013 | Comments Off

Members of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa Inc's Board of Directors. Credit: OWWA.

As International Women’s Day celebrations continue, the Organization of Women Writers of Africa Inc (OWWA) seeks to bring Black women writers to Ghana. Yari Yari Ntoaso: Continuing the Dialogue is the theme of OWWA’s conference scheduled to be held in Accra on May 16-19. The word yari, from the Kuranko language of Sierra Leone means future while ntoaso from the Akan language of Ghana translates as understanding and agreement. According to Conference Director, Brooklyn College Assistant Professor and poet, Rosamond King, “this Yari Yari will extend the dialogue of the first two Yari Yaris, which put hundreds of women writers and scholars in discussion with thousands of people”.

As stated on their website, OWWA is a nonprofit literary organization concerned with the development and advancement of literature of women writers from Africa and its Diaspora. It is associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information In 1991, the legendary activist-poet Jayne Cortez together with Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo founded OWWA. The Founding Board members of the organization are: J.e Franklin, Cheryll Y. Greene, Rashidah Ismaili, Renee Larrier and Louise Meriwether.

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Loving Haiti Beyond the Mystique

Jan3

by: on January 3rd, 2013 | 7 Comments »

I grew up in a country that most of the world degrades and continues to dismiss because it is broken.

Several years ago, I had a revelation. I was trying to sort out a problem, when it hit me. I am not Haiti. I may have been born in Haiti and may resemble Haiti and have its characteristics: something of anenfant terrible, too proud, too black, too strong, too spiritual and too confident. But I am not Haiti. I am not as broken anymore and that scares people. Often we find it easier to love that which is broken. It can make us feel stronger… better about ourselves. We tend to be less threatened by that which is in disarray or needs us to feel whole.

When Haiti attempted to piece itself together two centuries ago (209 years ago on this January 1st), many among those in power at home and abroad took calculated steps to ensure that it would remain shattered. All of my life, I have lived various aspects of the shame of this heritage. I have also been continually reminded I was born in a small place that is devalued and is trampled upon precisely because of its weaknesses. I persevere holding on to knowing my little country dared. It dared to step out of line. It dared to stand up for itself. It dared to try to define itself. It dared.

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Fractured Temples: Vodou Two Years After Haiti’s Earthquake

Jan12

by: on January 12th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Vodun practitioners from all over the African Diaspora traveled to Benin (formerly Dahomey), the birthplace of the religion, this week to participate in what is known as International Voodoo Day. This January 10 festival of prayers, libations, sacrifices and other rituals is the most important Vodun gathering in the world.

fractured wallAs a Haitian-American, I can’t help reflect on this most African part of our heritage in the New World especially as it is continually maligned by those whose knowledge is restricted to popular images that favor the macabre. Those of us who recognize and respect Vodou’s complexity know we must defend it because the religion remains trapped in stereotypes making it extremely difficult to dispel geopolitically driven myths too entrenched in the spectacular.

Growing up as a child in Haiti, I had no concept of what is referred to as “Voodoo” in the U.S. In fact, the more appropriate word, Vodou, was not part of my vocabulary. The tradition that some members of my family followed was known as “serving the spirits.” Even that phrase was not something we actively used, since our actual engagement was rooted more in daily practice than naming. Serving meant living in a world where the sacred and secular were blurred. So it was commonplace to see adults pour libations of water and coffee three times onto the ground upon awakening in the morning before even speaking to one another. Or sometimes they rushed to the outhouse, I would learn later, to expunge bad dreams that should not be spoken in order to deflect their mal-intention and prevent entry into the home. These and other very conscious acts of psychic repulsion taught me that serving the spirits was foremost about communion and protection.

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