Women and Space

Image by Frank Schott

Whether it is defined as a container for things or the relation between things, the nature of space is often limned with the body-matter of women. Ever since Plato first introduced the existence of space and claimed the nature of space as the figure of the mother, women have become the body-matter for man (Plato 65; Best 184, 187). This linking of space and woman leads to a conception that woman is seen as “the body, the earth, the springboard for man,” which, as Irigaray suggests, enables men to place themselves as a higher subject whose “only connection to the corporeal is his imprint left upon ‘his’ object – the body of woman” (Best emphasis 187).

This hierarchal thinking is parallel to the relation between man and space, in which men see their countries (motherland) and languages (mother tongue) as feminine. In fact, not only countries such as Britain and France are characterized as women—“Britannia stands for Britain, Marianne for Republican France”—cities such as New York, Los Angles, Paris and so forth have also been characterized as women (Best 181). In Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, Marina Warner calls Paris as a feminine city (36). She describes the public space of Paris as a feminine flesh and the buildings as having “bosomy and vaginal contours…pillowy roofs and open-mouthed entrances” (36-7; Best 182). Also, drawing on Scott Fitzgerald’s description of New York as an “essentially cynical and heartless” woman (143), Sue Best comes to see New York as “an active libido”—she has “a clitoris at the entrance to her harbour” (182). Furthermore, Los Angeles is also named by scholars such as Joan Baudrillard (1983) and Edward Soja (1989) as the representation of woman (Best 182).

If we change our scale into a domestic view, we also find that the representation of our home has been always a feminine one. In Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a house is a “maternal” feature: “a warm, co[z]y, sheltering, uterine home” (7; Best emphasis 182). It was as though our home serves as the womb of our mother, where we receive foods, waters, sense of security and comfort. This metaphor of home is parallel to the earth we are living, in which we gain foods, water, materials for shelter, and even natural cycles such as climate and nutrients from our Mother Earth. And yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world, the space that we are living, the womb that we come from. The rise of technology and industry has led us toward a modern and convenient life. However, under the influence of capitalism and the rising of consumerism, we come to “forget” about there is only one Mother Earth. As even it vanishes little by little, we still take everything in nature for granted and keep consuming. If our planet were a woman, we were all cannibals, as our lives are fed on the blood and sacrifice of a single living female body.

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre links the female body to the contemporary neo-capitalist space: “The ways in which space is thus carved up are reminiscent of the ways in which the body is cut into pieces in images (especially the female body, which is not only cut up but also deemed to be “without organs”!)” (355). Lefebvre’s description calls attention to the danger that lies underneath this shifting of space and female representation in the contemporary time: from the maternal body to the sexually available female body and now towards “the fragmented female body of postmodern industry” (Best 183).

Furthermore, the female body has been linked to the image of the cyberspace. The association between the female body and the cyberspace is derived from a stereotypical thought that women are technologically incapable, which, is derived from the separation of labor between men and women, whereby women participate mainly in cooking and childcare. Drawing on this, Judy Wajcman calls for a re-definition of technology because this thinking is indeed gender-biased (137). In fact, cyber-feminists claim that women and technology together are viewed as a double threat to the rational patriarchal order (Huyssen 71) and thus, a gender-biased idea in which men are technologically capable while women have always been re-emphasized. Alternatively, some feminists suggest that by embracing cyberspace as female space, women can actually change the “male-defined technological landscape” (Toffoletti 24). As Sadie Plant suggests, “Cyberspace is the matrix not as absence, void, the whole of the womb, but perhaps even the place of woman’s affirmation” (60). By embracing the cyberspace as feminine it becomes possible for women to liberate themselves from the structure of patriarchy.

Image by Frank Schott

References:

Best, Sue. “Sexualizing Space.” in Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. ed. Elizabeth Groz and Elspeth Probyn. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. pp. 181-194. Print.

Fitzgerald, S. F. “My Lost City.” in The City: American Experience. ed. A. Trachtenberg, P. Neill and P.C Bunnell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print.

Friedberg, A. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space. trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Plant, Sadie. “The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics.” in Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. ed. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows. London: Sage, 1995. Print.

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. trans. D. Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. Print.

Toffoletti, Kim. Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and The Posthuman Body. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007. Print.

Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. Cambridge and Oxford: Policy Press, 1991. Print.

Warner, M. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. London: Picador, 1985. Print

 

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The Ring Shout and the African Presence in America

In African American and/or Black American culture, the African and or ancestral presence is both visible and invisible. The ways to name what is Black American is in music and the infamous cuisine that has come to be called “soul food.” The production of highly consumed products of Black labor and the descendants is more American than apple pie. For example, no one realizes the blue that appears in the denim that Americans wear so regularly, the corn they consume, the peanuts, soy, rice, the domestic tools, or the music that is deemed “American” owes to Black labor. Those things are often highlighted during Black History month when America pays lip service to the numerous contributions that Black Americans have made to the consumption and wealth of the country. However, the spiritual and religious contributions are often absorbed in the Black church or the way in which funerals are called “home going services.” The ring shout is a spiritual practice that has roots in the Gullah/Geechee culture of the coastal region of the Carolinas and Georgia and is seen in various places of Black culture. It is largely visible during Church services but the actual ring shout as it has been since the first ships were brought to North America and resides in the coastal region of Southeast America.

The Gullah and Geechee people that inhabit the coastal islands of Georgia as well as, North and South Carolina are the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people that were forced to inhabit these regions during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. These island people worked the rice plantations, dyed garments with Indigo through techniques that the Africans brought from Yorubaland. These dying techniques are seen in the sacred dying practices known as Adinkra[i] in present day Ghana and Adire (the sacred dye practices of the Yoruba) with the largest concentration residing in present day Nigeria. The art of Adire which are associated with the Yoruba deity known as Osun/Oshun (O shoon)[ii]. The Gullah and Geechee people are also known for their basket weaving techniques that use the sweet grass of the coast.[iii] However, despite having drumming and drums outlawed from the Anglo/English Colonies of North America the rhythm and spirit of the culture did not die.[iv]

Instead, the Africans and their descendants had to find new ways to keep the rhythms alive. Therefore, stomping, clapping, and oral sounds were ways that the enslaved Africans could keep their musical, oral, and ancestral traditions alive while subversively appearing to acquiesce to their subjugated position. Yet, during and after slavery those who were the descendants of the enslaved and the newly emancipated were forced to assimilate to an unachievable standard of whiteness and respectability. Many who were enslaved and later emancipated were illiterate and therefore the culture was retained through oral history. Consequently, many who were enslaved were sold repeatedly and died with their history. Others as a form of survival often denied or erased their enslaved and African ancestry. While some in an act of defiance retained the oral lore and history that their ancestors retained despite the dehumanizing project of chattel slavery. Places like Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St. Vincent, and Louisiana are places where people can retain a large bulk of their African past. The Gullah and Geechee people are also a part of this body of historical retention.

The ring shout is the earth based ancestral practice that the enslaved performed in order to connect with spirit, remind themselves that they too were fully human and are spiritual beings, and to pay homage to their ancestors. Unfortunately, if It wasn’t for the work of the McIntosh County shouters,[v] Julie Dash’s film, “Daughters of the Dust[vi],” Haile Gerima’s film, “Sankofa,” Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salteaters, Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men and Their Eyes were Watching God or Luiseh Teish’s Jambalaya. African/Black Americans would not know that they have an African/Indigenous influence that does not align with Christianity.

The ring shout is a dance and song ritual that is performed in a circle that rotates counter clockwise. There is a lead singer that performs a call and response style of singing the participants respond as the lead calls out songs and rhythms are performed while the dancers rotate in a circle. There is a rhythm keeper who bangs a large wooden staff on a plank of wood which replicates the drums that were removed. Singers stomp and clap as the ring shout continues. The counter clockwise rotation replicates the ways in which Candomblé priests in Brazil[vii] perform during rituals, the Vodun of Haiti/Benin[viii], as well as priests of the Ifa/Orisa tradition in Yorubaland and Cuba.[ix]

Recently, cultural historian Rashida Bumbray has made it her mission to retain the oral, spiritual, and ancestral lore of the Ring shout[x]. Rashida Bumbray[xi], is a New York based performance artist that has studied extensively the Gullah/ Geechee people of the costal South east and the intricacies of the Ring Shout. Her installation “Run Mary Run,” was performed in Weeksville which is a former town located in Brooklyn that was the place where freemen and women of African descent lived after they were emancipated from slavery. Weeksville was discovered in the 1960s when a black historian that had a pilot’s license flew above Brooklyn and found the location. Since the re-discovery/reclamation of Weeksville[xii] there are cultural activities that commemorate the freed people that inhabited the town. Weeksville, unlike Seneca Village,[xiii] it remained intact because unlike Seneca Village it wasn’t turned into a park or paved over. Instead, it was never incorporated into the Brooklyn grid.

In addition to her installation “Run Mary Run,” hip-hop recording artist Common utilized Bumbray’s installation for his video “Black America Again,” which she (Bumbray) performs a solo in the beginning and then she and her troupe perform a ring shout[xiv].

Like many Black/African Americans I was taught and forced to ingest that we were enslaved, Lincoln freed us, Rosa Parks gave up her seat and now we are citizens. The human stain that became the ways in which blackness is quantified in this country is why many are forced to imagine their legacies before and during the Holocaust of the Trans-Oceanic Slave Trade. Nor could one imagine that we have a spiritual and cultural legacy that surpasses the ships crossing the Atlantic into North, Central, and South America or the various Oceans during the Global European expansion that brought Africans across the Pacific and Indian ocean during the same time-period. I use the term Trans-Oceanic because although I am focusing on American and the Trans-Atlantic my job is to also reveal/recover that the slave trade was not just the Atlantic but involved all the sailable bodies of water.

Instead, cultural anthropologists such as Bumbray and the breadth/celebrity of artists like Common people of African descent are reminded that we too have an ancestral/cultural legacy that began before our arrival on the shores of the Americas.

[i]http://carolventura.com/Adinkra.htm

[ii] http://www.bbc.com/news/business-25919537

http://www.enca.com/nigerian-artist-revives-ancient-art-tie-and-dye-cloth-making

[iii]

http://libguides.ccga.edu/c.php?g=282583&p=1882631

http://www.saveur.com/gullah-basket-weaving-charleston

[iv]

https://thisisafrica.me/lifestyle/drums-allowed-afro-rhythmic-mutations-america/

[v] http://www.geecheegullahringshouters.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxPU5517u8c

[vi] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104057/

[vii] http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/09/16/216890587/brazilian-believers-of-hidden-religion-step-out-of-shadows

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCaXwCEYlLw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMwG6T0izKQ

[viii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jy7q_m4sKqI

[ix] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C38PReem1wE

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOJj_MNIBUg&list=PLlXj2wgxw0-8SXIE6eYnZFeoO4FxpEFZh

[xi] http://rashidabumbray.com/

[xii] http://www.weeksvillesociety.org/

[xiii] https://timeline.com/black-village-destroyed-central-park-6356723113fa

[xiv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMNyCNdgayE&t=1043s

 

 

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