Last month, I was invited to deliver a speech as one of the international guests speakers at the 17th Annual Black Magic Woman Festival in Amsterdam. Myself, along with Indian American artist Sheetal Gandhi, were asked to deliver a “Mind Slap,” a term used by the organizers for speeches intended to stir things up a bit. I must admit, I was a bit hesitant about the expectation to deliver a controversial speech that spoke directly to Dutch media and society at-large. After having been confronted with resistance by some of my earlier remarks regarding race and racism (not many though), I wasn’t so sure whether or not I wanted to rattle things any further.
I think my essay about racism in the Netherlands had done enough stirring for everybody involved. I also did not want to set myself up as some sort of easy target for individuals looking for a scapegoat to direct anger towards, as opposed to confronting pressing issues directly. No thank you. I was not interested. I instead, decided to focus my remarks on a sort of charge to the young women who the festival targeted.
Surprisingly, my speech was very well received, both young and old alike thanked me and acknowledged that not only did they find my remarks inspiring but “true” as one elder told me when she saw me towards the end of the evening. Later that weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Fall performance of Jetty Mathurin’s “The ConsulTAANTE” at DeLaMar Theater, one of the country’s most prestigious theaters. It was while sitting through her two-hour performance with her daughters and their significant others, or shall I say laughing through her two-hour performance that I marveled at a real live Black Magic Woman in action. (Despite the fact that I didn’t understand a lick of what she was saying as the entire performance was in Dutch).
Soon after, I interviewed Jetty Mathurin over a home-cooked meal by her eldest daughter, Glynis Terborg, and later, Ernestine Comvalius, the Director of Krater and Biljmerpark Theaters, the organizations that largely supports the Black Magic Woman Festival. I’ve learned so much about these two warrior women, phenomenal women, that left me encouraged and excited about recording and sharing their stories.
Both women are from Suriname and have different but similar tales of uprooting and coming to the Netherlands. They each found their own way, despite obstacles and challenges, as two Black women in a country where there weren’t many women, let along people, that reflected their own identities women immgrants, as Surinamese, as Black people. Despite various experiences, they both believed in themselves, broke down barriers and created a path where there was none. They are trailblazers, phenomenal women who have established themselves and a new example for what Black women can achieve through their own fruition and with the support of their communities.
I recognize these women for the Black Magic Woman that they are and am inspired to become an even better one myself. It also makes me reflect on the numerous young Black women here in the Netherlands whose paths I’ve crossed, who are asserting themselves and creating their own paradigms, via various platforms. Women such as Nicole and Glynis Terborg, Patricia Kaersenhout, Jennifer Baarn, Seada Nourhoussen, Saundra Williams, Judith Leysner, Bel Parnell-Berry, Dana Saxon, Heidi Lobato, Esperanzah Denswill, Iris Kensmill, Efua Heyliger, Joelle Raus, Ama Korateng Kumi, Silvia Martes, Bēylul Yosef-Ykeallo, Faranú, Hodan Warsame, Stephanie Afrifa and Jennifer Tosch and many others who I have yet to meet – are doing the damn thing. To all of the aforementioned and those unnamed, who are here in the Netherlands, making a difference, striving to tap into your unique potential, day in and day out, conjuring magic in the evenings and under full moons, as your sister in power, I salute you.
“Letter to the Black Magic Woman”
17th Black Magic Woman Festival
November 9, 2012
I would like to both thank Maureen Healy and Saundra Williams for inviting me to participate in the 17th edition of the Black Magic Woman Festival and congratulate them in advance for a job well done. I would also like to acknowledge Ernestine and Director of Biljmerpark Theater Ernestine Comvalius for being such a gracious hostess. I would also like to congratulate Patricia and Jeanette on a powerful collaboration.
As you all know, the theme for this year’s Black Magic Woman Festival is “Be You.”
Before I begin, I would like to ask by a show of hands, how many of you all know what Adinkra symbols are? For those of you who are unaware, Adinkra symbols are aesthetic symbols attached to proverbs that are a part of Akan culture, which is comes from Ghana, West Africa. There is a very popular Adinkra symbol, Sankofa which means to go back to your past and fetch it. Before we can move forward as a collective this evening, it’s critical that I go back to my roots to explain a little bit about the experiences and events that created the woman that you see standing before you today. In essence, I will share with you some of the personal experiences about myself that make me, me.
First and foremost, I am a Black American woman. In the States, there have been times in my life where I have said, I’m not American, I’m an African! And then I travel to other parts of the world and the first things that come out of people’s mouths are “America! America!” sometimes I’ve even heard, Obama! Obama! Depending where I am, I’ll say no, Jamaica or Nigeria. Anything but America because of course, for whatever reason, people automatically assume that America means money and then I have to explain that the Americans with the real money are the other Americans and they don’t look me.
Secondly, I am a daughter of New Orleans and let me be clear. Contrary to popular belief, all Black Americans are not the same. New Orleans, where we say, “hey baby!” and eat gumbo and second line is different from ATL where they say “hey shawty!” or Los Angeles or Chicago or Do or Die Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. New Orleans is a magical city, what some people call the most Caribbean, most African city in the United States of America. When people die, we dance in the streets. During carnival, we masquerade as warriors. And no matter what I do, or how long I’m away from home, I can’t get rid of my accent.
Next, I have to share that for a vast majority of my life, I’ve been surrounded in a sea of Blackness, where Black Power and Possibilities have been explored, celebrated and realized. It is from this framework and understanding of self that I move about the world. I’ve gone to Black schools, I have Black friends and lovers, I’ve lived in Black neighborhoods, I’ve studied Black Studies, I practice a “Black” or African religion, I work in Black Institutions, I read Black books, listen to Black music, I travel to Black places and basically, I’m into Black things.
So now that I’ve introduced myself, I would like to take the opportunity to ask, who exactly are you?
Are you Black?
• The first thing I ask people who are phenotypically Black, and when I say Black, I mean, despite how light or dark you are, or how curly or straight your hair is, there are certain cultural markers that are expressed in the Black community from here to Salvador de Bahia or Lagos, Nigeria.
• So that’s why I then ask, are you an allochtoon because dominant white culture, the nation-state has labeled you as one?
• Do you embrace your own cultural heritage or do you try your best to assimilate into mainstream society by speaking perfect Dutch, forgetting your language (or not learning it), hanging out with all Dutch people and playing make-believe that you aren’t different in any way? Are you one of the people who say that you are color blind to avoid talking about race and taking ownership of your identity?
• There are communities of immigrants in the States that have been there for a few generations and if you ask them who they are they will tell you: I’m Italian, I’m Jewish, or my favorite, I’m Puerto Rican. In some cases, these people have never been to their “homeland” but boldly proclaim their ties their cultural narrative.
• I understand how frustrating it must be to always have to explain your background especially if you were born here, just because someone doesn’t think that you belong or believes that you should go back to where you come from. But should you deny the things about your heritage that makes you different and stand out in a special way?
Are you Magical?
• How powerful are you? I ask this question because a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog in response to the movie Alleen Maar Nette Mensen. In the essay, I said that beyond being utterly disgusted by the degrading racist and sexist images of Black women throughout the film, I left the theater shocked, that the movie was screening in theaters in the first place. I was surprised that there were no major protests or boycotts, prior to the release of the film. That there wasn’t a public outcry to shut that movie down. Of course there were many discussions and debates organized when the book was published and even after the film has circulated around theaters and KLM airplanes for the past couple of months. However, I ask you, are you powerful? And for those of you who thought the film was funny, I urge you to read Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro. An enslaved and colonized mind is the worst kind to have.
• How many of you read the book and were as equally disgusted? How many of you refused to the see the film because you know how problematic it was?
• In my essay, I quoted Zora Neale Hurston who said, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say that you enjoyed it.”
• Some of you may be aware of the Nina Simone movie that is in production in which Zoe Saldana was selected to play the Black goddess, Ms. Simone. As Black women and men, we have been outraged! Not a day passes by that we aren’t posting on facebook, writing blogs, and speaking out against the fact that instead of honoring the memory of the legendary Nina Simone, the director decided to hire a light skin actress, put her in black face, with a prosthetic nose and kinky wig. We are protesting this now and will continue to do so.
• I believe in magic. I’m surrounded by a group of men and women who manifest their realities. We believe in the law of attraction and visualization. During the new moon, we plant our intentions into the universe of things we would like to manifest in our lives. At the full moon, we release all of those things that do us not serve us, all of our fears, doubts, and the attitudes, behaviors and people that are holding us back from being our best selves.
Are you a Woman?
• In 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered a speech, “Ain’t I Woman?” at a National Women’s Convention in Ohio. She asked this question because there are times in which society and even white feminists would make us believe that women of color don’t matter. That our opinions are insignificant. That our bodies are dispensable, whether we are the victims of sexual abuse and violence in our homes or our bodies and sacredness are exploited in music videos, magazines and films. We are told that our voices shouldn’t be heard.
• I ask, how much do you value your own womanhood?
Do you love your hair? Your real hair, the hair that God gave you? (Not just the hair that you bought from the mall?) Do you love your curves? Do you love the skin that you are in?
• Are your standards of beauty defined by Eurocentric aesthetic value? Do you wish you were blonder, thinner, whiter? In a society where Black men seem to value any woman other than a Black woman, and where many of us have problems with it, because despite the fact that we don’t talk about this publicly, I know what kinds of conversations go on behind closed doors, do you still feel valued? Do you feel loved? Do you love yourself?
• Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe that every day is a day full of new beginnings? Do you feel pretty? Sexy? Beautiful? Smart? Powerful? Or do you wake up, look in the mirror and feel uncomfortable with what you see? Now don’t get me wrong, we all have days when we wish we were thinner or in my case, I sometimes look in the mirror and say God, why didn’t you create me with a bigger butt? We all have things about ourselves that we would change, but the question is, do you love yourself despite your imperfections?
And lastly I ask, are you a Black Magic Woman? Whether you are of Dutch Caribbean, continental African, Asian, Turkish or Morroccan, there are many examples of women who have led the way for you to be here today. Do you know the names of your female ancestors and the brave women in history who have made it possible for you to be express yourself freely?
In the spirit of Sankofa, I can tell you the names of my own Black women freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Black women writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. Black dancers like Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham. Black women activists like Assata Shakur, Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis. Black women scholars like bell hooks and Audre Lorde. And even Black women icons like Oprah and First Lady Michelle Obama. And I can also call out the names of my ancestors – Gladys Calvin, Verna Bush, Ada Calvin, Rose Marie Wilson, Rose Lewis, Hilda Dave and Stella Agenor.
Can you call out the names of your own female ancestors and predecessors? The women who were the first doctors and lawyers, actresses, and priestesses, teachers, dancers and activists? If you don’t know their names, what’s stopping you from finding out and writing their biographies and producing documentaries about their lives, not just for yourselves, but for the young women and girls who are following you? Individuals like Maureen and Ernestine and Jetty Mathurine have done their job. Now it’s time to do yours, to pick up the baton and to achieve even more than they could have ever imagined accomplishing.
In closing, I would like to ask who were you when you stepped foot into this theater tonight and what kind of women do you want to become when you leave? Will you allow your life to be dictated by others whose framework won’t provide them with an understanding of your personal narrative? Or are you ready to create your own destiny, defined by your own terms and fueled by your personal passion whether they like it or not? I implore you to “Be You.” Not because everybody else is taken, but why would you want to be anyone else? And finally, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am a Black Magic Woman. And I know that you are a Black Magic Woman too. Thank you.