On Safety

black and white heart with small checkered inside

By: Micah Hobbes-Frazier

“One of the most difficult impacts of trauma can be a split between two essential needs: safety and connection. On the one hand people become the place of danger that you need to protect yourself from, and on the other hand people are exactly who you need to be connected to for contact, relationship and often survival and safety.”
– Generative Somatics

I think about safety a lot, both as a survivor of violence and as someone that is regularly called upon to support transformative justice interventions into violence, and community accountability processes. These are some of the things I find myself thinking about: what does real safety actually mean? what is it exactly? How do we create safety in the midst of ongoing violence? How do we maintain it over time? Especially in a world that is inherently unsafe, where violence happens all the time, and where we often don’t have access to the resources that help create immediate or long-term safety. And most pressing, what does safety actually look like when we don’t believe in throwing people away or locking them up in prisons?

Safety is one of two essential needs for us as human animals, the other being connection, and both are necessary for our continued evolution as a species. If a person giving birth does not feel (or actually isn’t) safe the biological process of labor and birth will stop. And if we are not connected to other people we won’t have the opportunity to procreate and pass on our genes. The need for safety and connection are so strong in us that pretty much everything we do is about navigating and trying to get these two needs met, especially after experiences of trauma/violence. Ideally safety and connection can exist together, meaning we are able to be safe in our connections and relationships, however, so often that is not the case. Most incidents of trauma/violence happen between people that know each other, and have some sort of connection and/or relationship. That very connection and/or relationship can also complicate the need for and attempt to gain safety.

What does safety look like if the person that was abusive/violent to you lives in the same house or same neighbourhood as you do, is in the same movement or organization as you are, or is a respected and active part of a community you are also a part of? The need for safety doesn’t disappear, however, what safety looks like in those circumstances becomes much more complicated. It is easy to think about safety as sending someone that is abusive/violent away, removing and/or banishing them from community, or putting them in prison. That is our current idea and usual practice of creating safety. However, Transformative Justice asks us to imagine what safety might look like without expulsion, without banishment, without prisons, and most importantly, in conjunction with accountability. Most studies show that accountability rarely happens outside of relationship and connection. It’s the relationship and connection that provide the support, leverage, and motivation usually necessary for real accountability. If that is true, how do we hold accountability thru connection while also holding and maintaining safety for victims/survivors? Especially if what they want and need for their safety is to not have any contact or connection with the person that was abusive/violent.

Transformative justice (TJ) and most other community accountability models, hold safety as both a core principle and a core practice of any intervention or response. TJ defines the principle of safety as “liberation from violence, exploitation, and the threat of further acts of violence”.  All Transformative Justice interventions and responses seek to create safety on three mutually reinforcing levels; individual (safety from immediate and/or future violence), community (establishing norms and practices that challenge and prevent violence, and state (shifting power dynamics and systems of oppression to prevent violence).  However, we are also forced to acknowledge that absolute safety on any of these three levels is not a static place, can never be guaranteed, and may not be possible to ever truly achieve. The reality is that given the current state of our world where abuse/violence is at epidemic rates on all three levels, especially in response to challenging power dynamics and resisting abuse/oppression, being completely liberated from the possibility and/or threat of violence may be impossible. I believe, however, that while the possibility of violence may always remain, we can create spaces where the threat of violence does not exist. I believe that safe spaces on all three (individual, community, state) are possible and necessary, although sometimes difficult to create and maintain over time.

Questions around safety force us to practice holding contradictions. However, even though the questions are sometimes complicated and we may not have all the answers, our transformative justice practice must still focus on establishing safety as a main priority for victims/survivors, and additionally for those that have perpetrated abuse/violence. This means that even in our pursuit of safety (and accountability) we will not engage in abuse or violence against those that are perpetrators abuse and violence. How we do this will depend on what is happening and/or has happened, what resources we have access to, our principles and values, and the level of accountability those that have been abusive/violent are willing to engage in. Somatic healing works with safety as being “self-generated”, meaning that our focus is on building the internal capacity for safety instead of looking to the outside world or external forces to create and maintain our own safety. Our typical reactions after trauma/violence are to seek safety by controlling our environment and/or by controlling other people and their actions.  Our survival thinking becomes: “if this person wasn’t allowed to be in this space then I would feel/be safe”, or “if that person would act in this particular way then I would feel/be safe”.  As real as this might feel and as true as it might actually be, the problem is that we don’t actually have control over other people and what they ultimately choose to do, or control over the external environment outside of our own homes (and often we don’t even have complete control over our homes, especially if we live with other people). We can make requests, and sadly those that have been abusive/violent and/or the broader community may ignore or say no to those requests. Unfortunately people that have been abusive/violent to us may continue to be in the same spaces we frequent, and may also continue to behave in ways that make us feel (and actually are) unsafe. Especially if they denied what happened, are still engaging in abusive/violent behavior, and refuse to engage in accountability. If we tie our own safety to other people and external factors that we have no real control over we may never feel and/or actually be safe. Thus we have to build and cultivate the capacity to generate safety for ourselves, or as Somatics would say we have to become “self-responsive”.

This does not in any way mean that victims/survivors are responsible or to blame for the trauma/violence they experienced. Whatever happened is not their fault, and it is crucial that we always understand that fact. Victim/survivor blaming does nothing to ensure future safety, and in fact actually detracts from it making us potentially less safe. If we focus on blaming the victim/survivor we don’t have to think about the very real issue of safety because our thinking becomes: “if the victim/survivor caused or is in some way to blame for their experience of abuse/violence, then as long as I don’t do/say/wear/act like that it can’t/won’t happen to me. Therefore I am safe”.  This type of reaction is completely normal because it provides a protective mechanism that shields us from feeling the fear, uncertainty, and lack of control that trauma and violence bring. It keeps us from having to confront, feel and acknowledge that absolute safety cannot be guaranteed, and may not even exist. Additionally it keeps us from having to accept and be with the fact that no matter what we do or how hard we try to create safety, the very real possibility of trauma and violence still exists.

So then what does it mean to be self-responsive and self-generate safety? It means building the capacity to make centered decisions and take centered actions that are aligned with and promote our own safety on all levels (physical, sexual, emotional, economic, political). It means building the capacity to make centered choices about who and what we allow and bring into in our lives towards creating the safety that we want and need. This of course means that first we have to know what it is we want and need for our own safety. It is this process of self-reflection that brings us deeply in touch with ourselves, which is the core of being self-responsive. Secondly, we have to have the capacity to make decisions, and to take actions that are aligned with our own safety. That capacity is both internal and impacted by the conditions in which we exist, and are making decisions and taking actions within. For example, a person may know that their safety would be best served by leaving an abusive/violent situation whether it is a living, employment, or other situation. However, if they do not have the resources necessary (financial, emotional, legal, etc) to leave or sustain themselves in a safe way once they do, it becomes difficult to actually take that action towards safety. Thus an important part of our Transformative Justice work is to support and increase the capacity of victims/survivors to be able to take actions towards safety, because self-responsive and self-generated doesn’t mean alone. Similarly to accountability, real safety is rarely possible outside of relationship and connection.

So that brings me back to the original question; what does safety look like in a Transformative Justice context? Well, there is no set or single answer because the circumstances and conditions of every situation are different, and every victim/survivor has different wants, needs, and capacities around safety. Instead of focusing on a static destination or single vision TJ works to develop a set of practices that are relevant to the situation (and conditions), and that align with our principle of safety; “liberation from violence, exploitation, and the threat of further acts of violence”. As we develop these practices we prioritize both the immediate and long-term safety of victims/survivors. What safety looks like for me as a part of a TJ intervention or response is supporting the capacity of victims/survivors to end immediate abuse/violence, and live free from the threat of future abuse/violence, always taking my lead from them and what they want and need. It looks like holding the complexity of creating short-term and long-term safety without needed resources (including alternatives to prisons), inside of shifting conditions, and often without accountability from the perpetrator of the abuse/violence. It looks like holding the belief that accountability and transformation of perpetrators is possible, while still being with what is currently happening, real, and true. And it also looks like holding safety in ways that don’t sacrifice connection, while also holding that it is not the victim/survivor’s role or responsibility to do that work (unless they want to). As a survivor of violence safety looks like and means always making decisions and choices, and taking actions that support, create and maintain whatever it is I want and need for my safety. It looks like being supported in those choices, decisions, and actions by people that I am in relationship with and connected to, and choosing to only be in relationship and connection with those that will support my safety. And it looks like accepting that my safety might not always look how I want it to because I can’t control other people. Ultimately it looks like and means remembering that even though others may not respect or agree with what I want and need for my safety, that I still have the right and the capacity to be safe and liberated from abuse, trauma, and violence. For me, that’s what safety looks like.

Black and white portrait of Micha

Micah Hobbes Frazier is a Black queer mixed-gendered facilitator, coach, healer, doula, dj, and magic maker; living, loving, laughing, and building community in Oakland, CA. In June 2012 he founded the living room project, an accessible healing justice & community space serving black & brown queer and trans communities. Micah is a talented and experienced somatic coach/bodyworker working primarily with queer and trans people of color (qtpoc) wanting to heal and transform their histories of trauma/violence. He is a commitment to creating spaces where healing and transformation are possible, and to using his magic to help interrupt, heal, and transform the cycles of trauma and violence in our families and communities.

Intervention & Intersecting Experiences

Illustration of many small flowers coming from one stem

By Kim Katrin Milan

Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to protect the ‘property’ of slaveowners. Enslaved African people were that property. “Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing (enslaved African people) who essentially were considered property.” That is still largely what they do.

I think that as Black people it is important that we set up community-based support systems so when we need help, we have places to call with people who aren’t going to murder us with impunity. Ciphers, kitchen circles, neighborhood watches and healing justice spaces are a few of the many responses that we have developed collectively. Personally, with folks that I know may be vulnerable for violence, I have been part of a phone tree of people they can call in an emergency. Structures like this are important for finding ways to navigate intimate violence while finding ways to evade the increasing levels of violence from service providers. Black women between the ages of 18 to 35 are most likely to die due to domestic abuse. Black Trans* women are disproportionately targeted. We are always the ones to take the best care of ourselves; these structures have been flexible and changing and have always been more reliable than anything external. These structures are significant for all Black people and is one of the many reasons why remaining grounded in acknowledging multiple and intersecting forms of systemic violence as we continue this work is an absolute necessity. We have so much to learn from each other, and so much misogyny and gender-based violence that will continue to plague our communities if we don’t address them.

“Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and
sometimes children…it’s possible to transcend the limits of your skin in a friendship…This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is love…Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul
friends.”

– Emily Rapp

So often this work that is unpaid and life-changing isn’t valued in the movements that are formed or in the institutions providing resources. Especially as Black women in this work, the violence that we navigate is not only street based but is also in our homes. I don’t think that counseling programs that are set up by these racist white institutions run by people with declared and undeclared prejudice against Black people are ever going to work to ‘rehabilitate’ our communities. They might provide a service, but they don’t provide care. When I ask for more in these situations of domestic violence I am thinking of community-based healing work, transformative justice, things that would involve our peers, that involve Black women, other Black people – I am interested in the ways that we change families, and communities and shift paradigms. As Black people we transform the world all the time! From Hip Hop to Jazz, we impact culture globally – as well as locally. I am completely convinced of our capacity when we are honest about the ineffectiveness of existing institutions. I am so interested in movements around transformative justice and prison abolition. Generation 5 has some really amazing approaches to healing domestic violence and child abuse and to healing communities via justice circles as held by Indigenous communities across North America. These processes recognize the need for healing to happen within communities and for accountability to grow, rather than to attempt to disappear social problems by disappearing people.

The things that are currently in place clearly don’t work and prison definitely doesn’t. With only five percent of the world’s population with twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population; if prison worked, the United States would be the safest country in the world. I am suggesting that things should be radically different.

We need to be willing to trust in our capacity to create the solutions we need in our own communities. We have a responsibility to make this world more ethical than the one we came in to.

Links:

Generation Five

Centre for Justice and Reconciliation


Kim Katrin Milan is a daughter of the diaspora, Arawak, West African, Indian and Dutch, hailing from Trinidad and living between Toronto & New York. Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning internationally acclaimed artist, educator, and writer. Kim is the co-founder and the Executive Director of The People Project, 8 years in the making; a movement of queer and trans folks of color and our allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism, and collaboration. A public researcher and human rights educator, she shares over 80 unique resources and presentations as well as delivered hundreds of workshops around race, gender, power, privilege, consent, creation, food and entrepreneurship. Kim also engages in community based healing initiatives including teaching Queer and Brown Girls Yoga. Check her out here

Claiming Our Clean Food Sovereignty

An Interview with The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective

by Adabu Brownhill

Adabu: Who established the organization? When?

BFFGC: The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective came out of the oppression of the Black Creek Community Farm located in the Jane & Steeles area, where infamous Jane and Finch is just south of the farm. The Collective was established by the Afro-farmers and local community members to address and dismantle racism and oppression as it pertains to our food system as well as the generational food oppression coming out of slavery. We are one of three local cross-cultural food access hubs in partnership with FoodShare Toronto funded through the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Access and Equity Toronto. We are still learning about some of our culturally appropriate foods from Africa and our vast afro food culture, we are also working to connect with other afro farmers in the diaspora from the Caribbean to share farming and food knowledge as it pertains to the afro-people’s experiences in the diaspora. The organization got started in 2013 officially after the Intensive Leadership Facilitation Training (ILFT), working to dismantle racism and food oppression in the food system as it pertains to the community. This training was done by “Growing Power” from Milwaukee and Chicago through the partnership with Foodshare Toronto local Empowerment Group (LEG), “Growing Food Justice For All Initiative.”

 

A: What is the main goal or vision of Black Farmers and Food Collective?

BFFGC: One of the main goals of the collective is to ensure that the “clean” (organic) food we grow gets distributed through collaborative partnerships such as pop-up communal markets in fresh food oppressed communities that are affordable and sustainable. Also encourage communal growing so food-insecure and oppressed members of the community can and will have access to clean and affordable local, culturally appropriate food that can be grown in Canada in the short growing season through collaborative efforts and participation.

A: Who is mainly involved with the organization? Do you have many participants from the Black community?

BFFGC: We are farmers, food growers, small food business owners and food-insecure families and individuals –eight members thus far. Our Collective presently are all Afro-people from the Caribbean, Canada and Africa. We get volunteers from right across the ethnic board. People have been stoked by what we’ve been able to accomplish this year, its magnitude, and the variety of crops we’ve grown.

A: Do you have garden space that you use to grow food? How does that work?

BFFGC: This year we rented a half acre of land from Fresh City Farms – a local organic farm that operates out of Downsview Parkc at Keele & Sheppard Ave, West. We had written formally to the Black Creek Community Farm steering committee in 2014 and made a request for an acre of the land to do the work we are now doing but our request was laid under the rug and locked away! We are now working towards our own farm and growing spaces in the city with future community collaborations wishing to address food security and food justice issues as they pertain to affordable and sustainable and other racialized communities.

A: In my experience agriculture in Ontario is extremely dominated by white people. What are your views on this? Do you feel that Black Farmers and Food Collective address the issue of environmental racism?

BFFGC: Yes, I agree with you but once upon a time we had productive and stable farming communities; this was how we fed ourselves and shared food with each other– trading through commerce and land ownership. After our younger generations left their communities for the big cities they abandoned their roots in the agricultural sector and assimilated into the wider food culture which has impacted us in a very negative way through many types and diseases and sickness. Historically we were also driven off land and much of  this lands  was used to redevelop middle to high-income communities, unfortunately just like like all the other oppressive tactics perpetrated against us these issues were swept under the rug! As a collective member I have the right to live, work, contribute, play and invest in myself and my community just as any other ethnic groups in Ontario and I can do it anywhere in any community I choose. This is what we do presently, we share space with such a high profile farm in the local urban sphere. Our encouragement to community is to empower them through a variety of engagements. We work with our community as they come and we meet them where they are presently but we ensure we leave them more empowered than how we found them through the work we are doing to dismantle racism and oppression and to empower ourselves and the community.

A:  Can you tell me about what kinds of things volunteers can get involved with?

BFFGC: Yes, we welcome volunteers to help us in capacities that they are knowledgeable or want to learn with us. We are still grassroots but are working towards developing and becoming an independent local cross-cultural food access innovation hub for Afro-people and other community members who wants to support our work and experiences.

For more information, check out www.blackfarmersto.wordpress.com


 

Adabu Brownhill
Adabu Brownhill (DurtyDabz) is a Black/Mixed, Queer, FemmeBro dedicated to fighting for Mother Earth and the Liberation of Black & Indigenous Peoples and All People Of Colour. She is a badass DJ as well as a passionate gardener. She strives to decolonize agriculture in Ontario and create farming/gardening spaces that are fun and kool for racialized folks. She dreams of a farm where People Of Colour be chillin’, bumpin hella beats, planting seeds, harvesting herbs and eating gourmet meals while making jokes and enjoying each other’s company. She draws inspiration from radical underground artists such as Junglepussy, Destiny Frasqueri (Princess Nokia), Jay Boogie and Le1f. Her favorite foods are spicy meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Our Constellation of Traumas

by Melisse Watson

Article and Artwork by Melisse Watson

 

When you feel sad, what does it taste like? I woke in the night with a bitter mouth and a dry throat from not caring enough to brush my teeth the evening before. That taste reminded me of sadness…not a memory; more of a familiar presence. With eyes cloudy, I watched the windows through which I imagined stars in a still night sky. No moon. Just the taste, the awareness, the reminder. The discouragement. I got up to drink it down, and as I swallowed, I couldn’t track the luke-warm temperature all the way down like you can with ice water. 

Ice water hurts my teeth I remember, so does hot tea. And I don’t like that all-the-way-down feeling anyway. I down another glass, tongue raw and upset with me. That reminder. Then I feel the water forming a new body inside of me, like a hard rain that pushes the edges of a creek to a lake, a swelling. It took with it the taste but not the feeling; I reconsider: Sadness doesn’t live as a taste on my tongue. I feel it in my stomach; that stillness, fullness, uncomfortable – that I could swallow and no longer give it a thought, even if sadness lead to my teeth falling out. I wanted to map other places that weren’t what they seemed. Other multi-dimensional, multi-verse maps to seeing myself better, like: anxiety in my hands, or the breaking of my own boundaries as an aching in the thighs deep as marrow.

In sharing many conversations with community around trauma; whether in passing or in disguise, reflection or in overflowings, I have heard and witnessed the anchors and burrows that trauma creates in our bodies, in some of our disconnect with spirit, and our quality of emotional and mental wellbeing. When I sat that night and asked myself what I would reclaim, what came to me was a map of sorts. Similar to the way I imagine a surgeon has a map of the inside of a body in their mind’s’ eye, or a chiropractor with a map of one’s bones, a cartographer or astrologer or traditional knowledge keeper – a map of the stars. A father, a map of the most certain way to keep his daughter safe – ‘map’ does not hold with it enough substance to describe the reclamation I imagined. I reconsider: not a map at all. Not drawn with elevation or terrain or roadways – but sets of places that connected and intersected one another, unmarked, without a legend for anyone else to see but yourself. I watch myself draw a line from my lack of self-esteem to my arched posture, with another pause between the two to name my fear. As the lines join points in pencil from my organs to my bones to my joints to the space around me and to each other. I reconsider; ‘constellation’ is much fuller and is responsible for reaching to hold the condensed light to the vast darkness. The ways we may reclaim our trauma and with it, ourselves, lies in the design and existence of the universe, and the patterns and connections that have lead those who migrate and journey home since the beginning – whenever and however we began.

Another reminder comes forward;

It has been two nights in a row without sleep, listening to and willfully feeding my addictions, leaning out the window to watch the night and to feel out these new body parts and transplants and fusions. Parts and connections that can reside outside of oneself, at any length and distance. Parts of oneself that can transform and shapeshift and awareness points like stars that sometimes take hundreds of moments to realize. A reconsideration of responsibility to oneself, and to others – two, four, six legs and more. Imagine, if you felt fear in all one hundred of your legs and they still carried you-you’ve got to have respect for that. And as a respectful gesture to ourselves – to the selves that battle patriarchy, phobias, ‘isms and skisms. Even with the capacity to be harmful to others (and we all have that capacity), we swallow the first stones. Always carrying them for miles before spitting them up. I see you. I see us.
I reconsider; maps have been made to tell a means by which we will find what we are looking for if we follow it’s guidance.

The whereabouts of people, places, elevation, dead ends.

Maps in textbooks that make the south smaller in scale so as to teach more than geology

Maps of our bones and body systems that are either able-bodied, or sick — no intersections, no autonomy

Maps of our genetic code, what washroom to use and how to have sex.

Maps of where our families came from except for the maps that they burned or buried with us.

And maps that tell us how to get to happiness, stability, how to put pieces together, fix what is broken, maps of manuals and each individual critical washer and bolt that are only manufactured in scarce, inconsistent, inaccessible amounts.

And if you do not have the map, then you will be lost.

I am tired,
I am tired,

I am tired,

I have been up for two nights now, and two days,
Exhausted for well longer than what the map of good self-care would say

What about when we don’t have access to these directions?
What about when we experience harm and there are no roads marked to bring us back from them?

What happens when I don’t feel love in my heart when I really reconsider love,

What if I feel love in my fingertips because they have such sensitivity, and reach, and motion?

And in my kidneys, because they are so unprotected.

I reclaim the ability to feel, name and indicate with a point and line with no legend for anyone. So that I may understand myself better. So that I may treat myself better. So that I may care to brush my teeth and not wait until I’m so thirsty to have water. And go to bed. Go ahead and design the constellations of your being; of yourself entirely, not just the weight. Reconsider all the ways we are told our trauma has to be designed to be valid. I consider that boundary crossing.

I keep tracing those points with my fingers, counting steps so I can see when complexities push up against them, maybe see them coming. What is the texture of being compassionate to yourself? In my case, reaching to feel for it (fingertips or kidneys) would reveal to myself enough. That, and not having such an obscenely dry mouth.

Note to self:

Draw a kidney, instead of a heart, on all letters and thank you notes from now on.


Melisse Watson
Melisse (Coyote) Watson is a polyracial Black-Cherokee identified queer artist driven by the capacity for art to provoke and contribute to social justice, community building and healing within systematically oppressed populations. Melisse is a multi-disciplinary artist and transformative justice community animator who began their arts practice in visual arts and poetry. Since, they have mounted an award-winning piece “I Was Born White” in the Toronto Fringe Festival, performed with Ballet Creole, Ill Na Na Dance Company and Drawing With Knives Co. Melisse has been inspired and determined to build a culture of rehabilitation, community restoration and shifting a paradigm of oppression through the arts.

Carpe Omnia

a multi-color of painted tapestry with black tassels

(Take Everything, For Lucinda, Ida Mae and the Rest of Us)

By: Jade Ariana Fair 

Old hands and old lands;

They have known my name.

Women in skirts wide and clanking like church bells,

Braced over tin basins, shucking corn and cleaning yams in the sun.

Old tasks spoken in old words

On African shores

On plantations

In the backyard of the house that I was raised in.

Old hands and old lands;

They have called my name

Sweat rolls steadily down her knit brows in sun so hot that it feels like the inside of someone’s mouth.

Her face in photographs was as stern as a mountain.

She told my grandmother that Kentucky comes from the Iroquois “Ken-tah-ten”

Bare foot Ida Mae taps me on shoulders in my dreams.

I wake up with words wet on my lips, spitting out salmon fat with eggs.

“Ken-tah-ten”

Land of tomorrow.

She calls to me, leaving trails for me to follow in red Kentucky dirt.

Land of tomorrow

I am the unfinished pages of my mother’s journal.

I am the high school diploma that was denied my great-grandmother.

I am her unacknowledged good grades, and the tests she had to take over and over again to prove she wasn’t cheating.

I am the rightful place she was denied in the Latin Club.

I am the stolen quills for the sixty-five million and more whose names have been lost, abandoned, or taken.

I am the ink well that illiterate hands dipped found Cardinal feathers into, knowing without having to be told that words are freedom and wordlessness makes you chattel for white men.

I am yellowed and wrinkled pages of torn bible passages, slipped from calloused hand after calloused hand at midnight in reeds.

I am the good teeth, strong back, clear eyes and naked childbearing hips that fetched a good prize at the state fair.

I am the screaming baby stolen moments after birth, dream-suckling for his mother.

Land of tomorrow.

My blood is hot sweat and pork grease and work songs.

My bones are a mortar and pestle to grind corn meal for frying.

My tongue moves quick like freshly unrecognizable feet covered in leeches from days of running in marshes.

My voice was made in dirt floor cabins, by hands dirty with pollen and pricked with thorns from cotton plants, rubbing balms and salves on the backs of children with scars caked thick and misshapen as mud pies on a playground.

My ribs are shoebox guitars played on matchstick porches, holding a heart that is not just my heart, my many hearts beating throaty voices of gospel choirs.

There is always the faintest taste of iron in the back of my throat. Blood and rust tickle my sinuses; I wake in the night smelling smoke. At first, I do not know whether the house has burned down. Then the stench of charred bodies, the burned strange fruit like Abel’s rejected offering.

Land of tomorrow. Land of tomorrow. Land of tomorrow. “Louder” she commands like an approaching siren.

“Scream. Scream like a train whistle, baby girl. Land of tomorrow. Land of tomorrow.”

“Shout it like hallelujahs at dawn” she says. “Shout it from can-see to can’t-see.”

Land of tomorrow. Land of tomorrow. Land of tomorrow. Land of tomorrow.

Mixing mud and water from dirty rivers,

I mould new mouths.

Mouths with teeth bared

Maybe grinning, maybe growling, maybe both at once, but always open.

When you deny me, it is with this mouth I speak.

Mouths red with lipstick, swollen and pursed lips

Having been beaten, or having been kissed.

Mouths full of rage sizzling like hot oil in cast iron pans, bruised and missing teeth.

When they bash me and the ones I love, I spit burning blood into the sky, raining acid stars upon their up turned, confused faces.

By the time you have seen this, it will be too late. I will eat you alive, I am not afraid to be a monster.

I dare you to forget what I have done in their names.


JADE ARIANA FAIR
Jade Ariana Fair is a self-taught multi-disciplinary artist, community healer and a conjurer of dense, celebratory worlds tinged with melancholy. Working across painting, performance, sound, and installation in Oakland, CA, Jade’s art sits at the intersection of the material and immaterial. Her performances have been featured in SOMArts 2015 “The News” series in San Francisco and Oakland’s LoBot Gallery in 2016. Her visual work was included in the “SPIRIT” group show at Oakland’s Qulture Collective.  In June 2016, she debuted a solo show “Them Are Weavers” of mixed media paintings at Black Spring Coffee Company in Oakland, CA. Her collaborative performance and sound project Earthbound was profiled in the East Bay Express in September 2016. As a healing arts practitioner and arts educator, she has been invited to share her practice with youth at Bay Area Video Coalition, UC Berkeley, Stanford University, The Allied Media Conference, and Peñasco Theater Collective Youth Arts Camp in Peñasco, New Mexico. She has read her written work in the 2016 “The Hundy” Series at E.M. Wolfman General Bookstore in Oakland. She dreams of rivers and they pool at her feet. Her work can be found at www.jadearianafair.com

Heritage Hall & Black History

by Denise Francis

     The base stones of 83 Essex Street, former British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church, were set in June of 1880. Its cornerstone was set on September 18th, 1880, as recorded in Guelph newspapers: The Mercury and The Advertiser. The contents of the cornerstone were described in the same article, “Copy of the Holy Scriptures, Hymn Book of the BME Church, copy of the 

Missionary Messenger, the organ of the church, and copies of the Mercury and Herald. The roots of the BME Church were in the American Methodist Episcopal Church and the Underground Railroad. In 1783, after the American Revolution, slaves accompanied their Loyalist masters into Nova Scotia and other British colonies north of the border, some traveling to Upper Canada (Ontario). There had been slavery in Upper Canada as early as the French regime, as there were known slaves in the Windsor area in the mid 1700s.

In 1793, Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe, an Anglican, regarded slavery as anti-Christian. As a result, he ensured the passage of “An Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves and to limit the term of contracts for servitude within this Province.” It was the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire, and while it was met with resistance from local slave owners, it abolished the lifelong enslavement of the children of slaves, and prevented further slaves from being brought into the colony.

Once news of Simcoe’s legislation reached slave states in the US, Upper Canada became the destination for many escapees, often with the help of the Native community on highland trails. It was upon those trails that the Underground Railroad was created in the late 1820s. The fugitive slave Railroad was originally a loose knit coalition of anti-slavers, most of whom were Hicksite Quakers, who began to aid and abet the movement of escaped slaves into non-slave states and Upper Canada. Once those slaves got beyond the reach of American law, they created communities in border towns like Windsor and Niagara, while others moved inland towards towns like Chatham and the Queen’s Bush Settlement (current day north Waterloo and Wellington counties) on a tributary of the Grand River.

Guelph was established as a village in 1827 and most former fugitives who came through or stayed in the town came north from Lake Ontario and the Niagara River crossings. Between 1793 and 1865, tens of thousands of African-American slaves entered Canada via the network of Native and white anti-slavery activists. President Lincoln ended the slave economy through an executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1st, 1863. Although slavery was not formally abolished in the United States, until December 1865, when the 13th Amendment became law after the defeat of the South.

Guelph’s place in all that activity was at first no more than a stopping place for most on their way to the Queen’s Bush in north Wellington and Waterloo counties, the largest settlement of escaped slaves in the colony. By the 1850s that settlement was disbanded, and many of the families and individuals dispersed to various communities, some to Guelph, north to Owen Sound and Collingwood or west to Chatham and a myriad of other places throughout the province.

Although Black benevolent societies and fraternal organizations were significant players in helping former slaves in Canada adjust to freedom and the climate of the north, they had a great many allies including Quakers, Native Americans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Anglicans. Other allies included Anti-Slavery societies, of which George Brown’s Toronto newspaper, The Globe was a staunch supporter. There were a number of reformers in the Guelph area who played local roles.

The neighbourhood of Essex and Waterloo streets had first become home to Guelph’s English Methodist Community who named the streets, and then to black settlers who found the community welcoming. Some of the Blacks had Caribbean or Loyalist origins, but more were from Queen’s Bush families. In the 1881 census of the province, two thirds of the 107 Guelphites of African-American origins lived in the neighborhood.

The building at 83 Essex Street ceased to operate as a BME church for more than 20 years from the 1970s to 1994. In 1994 a congregation was reformed under a minister from the Caribbean. The minister and her congregation left the BME Church in 2009. The Guelph Black Heritage Society (GBHS) was formed after the BME Church was listed for sale in November 2011. The GBHS’s offer to purchase the BME Church was accepted and the sale was finalized in December 2012. The Guelph BME Church building has been renamed Heritage Hall.

In August 2013, 83 Essex Street was designated a cultural heritage property by the City of Guelph. The plaque outside the Heritage Hall reads:

“Built in 1880 of local limestone in gothic revival style, the B.M.E. church became the centre of Guelph’s Black community. The city’s early black community of fugitive slaves from the United States settled near Waterloo and Essex streets as workers in area stone quarries. After worshipping in a frame church nearby, this stone church was built as a meeting place and a safe haven.”

The mission of the Guelph Black Heritage Society is to restore and maintain the historical former British Methodist Episcopal Church building. 83 Essex Street, now known as the “Heritage Hall”, serves as a community cultural and spiritual gathering space and promotes Guelph and Wellington County’s distinctive place in Southwestern Ontario’s rich Black heritage.

GBHS activities include providing the community the opportunity to learn about our community’s Black heritage by staging presentations during Black History Month, Emancipation Day and throughout the year; providing space for events, workshops, meeting space for clubs and other community groups, and providing members of the community with rental space for live events (weddings, concerts, day camps, and more).

The Guelph Black Heritage Society is in the midst of the “Rampin’ It Up!” fundraising campaign.  The purpose of this campaign is to achieve wheelchair accessibility into Heritage Hall via the Freedom Ramp, foyer and accessible washroom.  The fundraising goal is $50,000 and we will accept donations of labour and materials to help off-set construction costs.  The Guelph Black Heritage Society is a registered charity. Registration # 80158 3907 RR0001. Tax receipts will be issued for donations.

To learn more about our campaign or to make a donation at our  GoFundMe. 

contact us via email: info@guelphblackheritage.ca

visit our website and facebook


 

Denise Francis
Denise was raised in Guelph and is a graduate of the University of Guelph. Denise is a long-term employee of the Waterloo Catholic District School Board and works in the Human Resource Services Department. Denise is a founding board member of the Guelph Black Heritage Society and currently serves as President / Treasurer.

Work Hard, Stay Bumble

two men cutting down small trees and plants

by Timothy Paule and Nicole Lindsey

Timothy Paule and Nicole Lindsey are the power couple bringing buzz to, the city of Detroit in a pretty sweet way. What started as a cold, has transformed into a social enterprise, as the two playmakers are making bold strides with their nonprofit.

Together, the pair create urban bee farms, where the community is able to experience, firsthand, honeybees, conservation and their role in our ecosystem. Visitors to the hives, also have the incredible opportunity to see the inner workings of a honeybee hive, and even sample raw honey from the hive. Located on the eastside of Detroit, Michigan, The Detroit Hives is purposed to bring diversity and cognizance to bee awareness and rebuilding inner-city communities, introducing Detroit as a great place for honeybees.

Since launching in 2017, the urban bee farmers have been revitalizing the Detroit community through operating hives on vacant lots. The Hives’ team saw an opportunity to not only beautify the city but create health alternatives for the community. By housing honeybee hives in recently vacant lots, the organization achieves a Triple Bottom Line Solution (TBL) with environmental, social, and financial gains towards the sustainability of the community, the organization, and the environment.

Typically ridden with trash and debris, vacant lots are key contributors to common allergy issues as well as the negative stigma on the city. Although this was a challenge, Paule knew the risks and found it important to own the land utilized, to put it to good use. With all of the new traffic coming into the city, there is an importance in remaining localized. With assistance from the Detroit Land Bank, Paule and Lindsey were able to acquire their first land plot. Being a part of the city, the two know exactly where the city needs development. Encouraging others to invest in the community, the Hives’ team thrives on the importance of localization.

In occupying vacant lots, the organization is able to provide a healthy home for bees. For over 20 years bee researchers have reported massive bee die-offs, starting in the 1990s. In spring of 2013, the issue gained national buzz when a study showed that by spring, the average beekeeper loses about 45% of their bees. The widespread use of pesticide, climate change and the advent of extraneous pests, diseases and loss of habitat has caused the huge declination in bees. Most plants rely on bees and other natural pollinators to produce natural foods.

As bees require ongoing care season to each season, the team checks on them frequently, but observing their needs and fulfilling them. Monitoring the hive activity takes up a good percentage of the beekeeping process. They organize beekeeping tasks by the season, setting the bees up in spring to harvest honey, and preparing the hive for winter. This cyclical process ensures that the bees are healthy and happy to do their environmental duties.

As the environment changes, it is imperative for Paule and Lindsey to remain abreast of new information and education in beekeeping. They strive to spread this knowledge with the community, aiming to shift deep rooted fears about bees. For many people, honeybees are associated with wasps, often confusing people, perpetuating fears of the extraordinary creatures. The team continuously aims to cultivate a new outlook on bees. By educating the community on honeybees and their importance, a familiarity and appreciation can potentially be formed uprooting the fear of bees and their negative connotations. By spreading this awareness, the benefits of honeybees and their delicious honey are also emphasized.

Honeybees are amazing for the environment, the insects pollinate the plants and produce that we consume regularly. By pairing with other local businesses and nonprofits in environmental development, like, Detroit’s Peace Tree Parks, the bees are able to pollinate the plants and produce of these local gardens, producing food free of herbicides and pesticides. Dedicated to sharing the fruits of their labor with the community that they serve, the Hives’ team passes out the produce to their neighbourhood, providing healthy alternatives to the snacks/foods, normally, accessible in Detroit.

Honey itself has a plethora of health and healing uses that, when localized, leave astonishing results achieved in health issues such as pollen allergies, diabetes, and even weight loss. The honey is also great for skin, hair, healing wounds, and is an excellent source of antioxidants. To expand their reach, The Detroit Hives has partnered with, Detroit restaurant, Slows BBQ. The local staple uses a percentage of The Detroit Hives’ honey to create a signature Honey BBQ sauce. As both entities expand, the opportunity for reach expands as well.

The team is also working with the Detroit Land Bank for expansion. The goal is to purchase an acre per year. As they buy more land, the green land will be transformed into an environmentally stable space. For a larger impact, the Hives’ squad is currently transforming a vacant parking lot into a community greenspace. Partnering with the local beekeeping associations, The Detroit Hives are bringing the first ever beekeeping workspace to Detroit. Inviting other beekeepers to space, the social enterprise creates a hive of it’s on, sharing responsibility, resources, and profitability allowing for longevity across the board.

Furthering the importance of localization to the sustainability of the organization and community, Paule and Lindsey partner with local businesses to create revenue for all. Forging genuine relationships, as The Detroit Hives grow, the opportunity to create jobs becomes possible.

With all of the successes of the organization, Paule and Lindsey remain incredibly down to earth, continuing to place their focus where it’s most needed; the community. Their motto, “Work hard, stay bumble” epitomizes the efforts of this team, proving that their philosophy works. Knocking out goals left and right, The Detroit Hives’ team is single handedly improving the state of Detroit ecosystems, literally, from the ground up.


 

Timothy Paule and Nicole Lindsey
Timothy Paule and Nicole Lindsey are the power couple bringing buzz to, the city of Detroit, in a pretty sweet way. What started as a cold, has transformed into a social enterprise as the two play makers are making bold strides with their nonprofit. Together, they create urban bee farms, where the community is able to experience, firsthand, honeybees, conservation, and their role in our ecosystem. Visitors, to the hives, also have the incredible opportunity to see the inner workings of a honeybee hive, and even sample raw honey from the hive. Located on the Eastside of Detroit, MI, The Detroit Hives is purposed to bring diversity and cognizance to bee awareness and rebuilding inner-city communities introducing Detroit as a great place to “BEE”.

Black Lives Matter Toronto Tent City: Reportback

by Galme Mumed

On Sunday March 19th 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto organized a rally at Nathan Phillip’s Square, in protest against anti-Black racism in Toronto and specifically in response to the special investigations Units decision not to charge the police officer involved in the shooting and killing of Andrew Loku last July, it was also a response to the reduction of Afrofest to one day. Hundreds of people from various communities showed up to demand justice and to protest the continued erasure of Black people in Toronto. We stood at Nathan Phillip’s Square with members of our community as we honored, mourned and celebrated the lives of those we have lost but whose spirits live on.

CI-BLM BLM rally at Toronto Police HQ on March 27, 2016.
Uploaded by: willoughby, serena

I stood in the crowd and listened to Black storytellers put words to feelings all of us have felt but have not been able to express. I watched our elders lead us in prayer and reconnect us with our ancestors. I watched as Black people danced fearlessly and freely, even if it was just in that space for that period of time, to Music that has come out of Black struggle; the true sounds of resistance. A few hours later the rally was coming to end and the crowd was getting smaller, my self and about six of my friends drove from Guelph because we received a message from the organizers saying they needed more bodies for the tent city.

It was getting dark and really cold, some of the organizers and community members who have decided to stay the night got under blankets and start to prepare for the long night ahead. We had a fire going and we all joined in singing our favourite old school tracks and the many freedom songs as a way to keep our spirits high and pass time. About an hour after we started getting comfortable the organizers told us that police in riot gear and were about to move in on us and we needed to make a decision weather to stay or move to another location. The decision was made to pack up our tents and our fire and move to Toronto police headquarters on College Street.

We packed up our tents and those of us who had the capacity to move to the next location made a decision to continue on. Something told me that I needed to go and be apart of this. At this time nothing could have prepared me for how transformative and healing this decision was going to be for me, I don’t think any of us knew what we were about the take part in or how long this was going to be, we just knew we needed to be here and not anywhere else. We arrived at the police headquarters super late at night. We built our tents and prepared to go to sleep for the night. That first night was brutal that I could feel the cold in my bones, there was not enough blankets at all. Three of my friends and I held each other super tight hoping that our body heat would keep us a bit warmer. That was not the case because the whole night I was afraid to lay down and  sleep because I actually thought I would freeze to death, but I made it and realized that this was not about me it was about something bigger.

The morning was beautiful we all cuddled under blankets around the fire and sang songs, shared stories, laughter, and a space where we all felt safe and loved, most of us had never met before this occupation but it felt like we knew each other. We had Black and Indigenous elders stop by to give us some words of encouragement. We had Indigenous elders in the space keep the fire going, smudging the space and praying with us, it was after we were in the space we realized we were right beside the Native youth center, which was clearly not accidental at all. It was not until I am writing this I’m realizing that that whole day was preparing us for the violence and trauma we would have to face later that night.

On Monday March 21st at about around 10pm we got word that the police were going to come and try to make us leave. We all linked arms and formed a huge circle around our tents and the fire that has been keeping us warm. We stood there fearlessly and waited, we waited as we watched about over twenty police officers walk and form a straight line overlooking us in front of the police building. The head of police made an announcement stating that we can stay but we can’t have the tents nor the fire, we made a decision to not move and that their fear tactics will not work on us. There were police, firefighters, and men all types of uniforms. The pigs were mostly white men, they were all tall and huge. On our side we were mostly Black woman, there were also children, elders, disabled people forming the circle around the fire and the tent. I remember standing there as firm as I could to protect our tents and within seconds I watched police officers charge at us, they pushed us, they kicked us, they punched us, and they sexually harassed us. They flung the barrel of fire down to the ground near children, they destroyed and grabbed the tents from our hands and they threatened to shoot! All I could hear is creaming crying and but we were also fearless. They put our fire out but they sparked another fire in us that they can never kill. A pig grabbed me and threw me down on layers of fire wood, I have always known that we were not human beings in their eyes but that moment made things real. I cried like I have never cried before not because I was in physical pain, but I cried for every black person in that space and globally whose lives are not valuable and whos lives don’t matter and who are disposable and whose skin colour has been a target of violence.

Amongst the trauma and anger there was something magical happening something bigger than all of us. Minutes after the pigs left every single one of us in that space hugged in a huge circle and started chanting “I Believe that we will win” and it was powerful. One image that I have held on to and have not been able to forget was of an Indigenous couple and their baby in a stroller stand between us and the police, to protect us and to let the pigs know whose land this is and that they will not touch us. I was in tears as I watched them wave the Six Nations flag to let us know that Black lives Matter on Indigenous land. That night we all sat together sang freedom songs like our various ancestors did and we knew we were protected. We were sitting in the stolen front year of our enemy and we had no fear, because we were connected to something more powerful than this system.

The next morning our communities from various parts of Toronto and across Canada showed up! Everyone came strapped ready to go to battle, ready to build, ready to heal. They came offering anything they had to offer weather they were healers, artist, writers, cooks, business owners, Black people from all walks of life came to let us know they see us and if they come out tonight they might as well get ready for war. The place that brought us so much trauma and violence became our home because that is what we are capable of taking something that represents so much trauma and turning it into a world that we can all safely exist without fear. The donations were coming in like floods. There were mountains of blankets, the food was endless, we had hot dinners almost every night. We were able to feed our homeless communities and provide shelter for them. We were able to take care of our own, I can’t even explain how that felt being able to provide the people in our communities who have been fucked over by the system the most these basic things.

We lived amongst each other for fifteen days. We woke up the warm kisses, hugs and prayers of our indigenous elders. I watched them smug the whole space with sage. People who usually never share space shared space with each other, we spoke about how our struggles are connected how important it is that we continue to work with each other, how critical it is that we learn from each other and build meaningful relationships with one another. Indigenous organizers and black organizers were able to share knowledge and be in the same space infront of police headquarters! Like what the fuck? How powerful is that? How dangerous is that for this system that has been built on the back of our communities. I wonder why they never tried that shit again for the next fifteen days we were there. That space was transformative it was us reimaging together. Prior to this experience I heard a lot about transformative justice and Tent City showed me and example of what that looks like even if it was a very simple and small example. I stayed at Tent City every single night except one or two nights because I needed to be home, it was my community, I was protected, I was loved, I was cared for, I felt and believed that everyone in the space knew my live mattered and it was valued and it was important. We affirmed one another. We spoke about revolution, we talked about liberation, and we asked each other what ways we can show up for each other. We shared skills and we began a process of healing and building trust with one another. In the fifteen days we watched the space transform into a different space that reflected each day. There was an art station where artists can come and visualize our experiences, there was a medic station with everything we needed, there was a healing space where Black and Indigenous elders setup message beds and performed spiritual healing, there was the food station where our elders fed us foods that they know to be good for us. I imagined this is probably the closest thing to show me what living in a decolonized world would look like. I learned that Indigenous folks are not fucking around and that we have a lot to learn from them. We had addicts who became clean due to our elders working with them, we deescalated intense situations without involving any outsiders, we all lived together without any issue for fifteen days. we held members of our communities who are the most vulnerable the closest and did not shun them away no matter how “problematic” they were, I understood that none of us disposable to each other that we all need each other, we might be disposable outside of Tent City, but not here amongst our people.

Until we are all free and we will be, I will hold on to the small taste of freedom that tent city was for me. I will stand behind indigenous people in their struggle to reclaim their land and I know they are ready to stand beside behind us and beside us in our fight for our liberation the Universe has brought us all together for a reason. Let’s do this shit!


Galme Mumed
I was born in Hararge Oromia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old but my heart and my memories are still in Hararge Oromia. I believe I am here in Canada for a reason and have a purpose to serve both here and in my home. I am proud to call myself Oromo and Muslim and Black. I feel like my ancestors have left me with many teachings and gifts that I’m constantly trying to listen to. I am a revolutionary because that’s the legacy I was born into.

Speaking the Ancestors’ Names: An Interview with Obeah Opera

By Savannah Clarke 

Obeah Opera is a hand clapping, foot stomping, spirit lifting, magical musical sensation. Steeped in Black music, sung entirely a cappella by a powerful all-female cast, Obeah Opera is a retelling of the legendary Salem witch trials from the fascinating perspective of Caribbean slave women. It is a ground-breaking dramatic work that redefines the traditional opera form by moving away from its European classical standard and using an array of different musical genres mainly found in what is termed ‘Black’ music such as spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, traditional African, Caribbean Folk, Calypso, ska, R&B and reggae (taken from www.obeahopera.com).

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of hearing some excerpts of Obeah Opera. After feeling connected to the stories I watched on stage, I caught up with Nicole to hear more about the Salem Witch Trials, what inspired her to do Obeah Opera and the spiritual aspects they entail.

Nicole: A few factors were happening, it was around 2008 where I was investigating my spirituality. Since I work in film and television, I was on the road with a crew and a crewmember came to my room to ask something and he saw that I was burning a candle and that I had incense and water. So when he saw all of that, he went back and rumors spread that he called me a witch. Instead of freaking out I said to myself: that’s really interesting. In this day and age, people are asking me “are you a practicing witch?” So, that was one of the stems where I thought it was really interesting. Also, at that time I was investigating African spirituality and looking more within my cultural roots and/or the Caribbean and/or African spirituality. Just learning and discovering.

I would say that was the catalyst for me, outside of a few people encouraging me to write for stage. I am really committed to telling Black women’s stories. I’ve always said it’s really important we have writers. Creators of content, [who are] creating work. So it was a combination of things and with all of those things happening it was very serendipitous for me to stumble upon researching witches more and of course eventually the Salem Witch Trials came up, which was the most famous witch trials in the America’s. As well, the name Tituba came up. Tituba was made famous through the play The Crucibles by Arthur Miller. She was the first Black slave accused at the Salem Witch Trials. She was from Barbados. I thought that was huge! How did we just bypass that? It’s written in history. It’s referenced a lot but then she’s forgotten. So I started to do more research and what I discovered was, yes indeed Tituba was a slave from Barbados who was brought to Salem and that there were more Black women in the Puritan town. This is real historical facts… Although, there weren’t that much written about them, TItuba had the most information and her testimonial was also transcribed. The testimonials of a couple of Black women were also there such as Mary Black and Candy. I thought it was fascinating because people never thought this town had slaves in the late 1600s/early 1700s. It’s amazing to not only “stumble” onto Tituba and realize that there were other black women from the Caribbean who were brought as slaves but were going beyond 100 years plus from where slavery is usually popularized in the 1800s in America. So, it’s really interesting to see the different factors that brought me to this story but also realizing the different facets of what I’m dealing with in regards to Black women’s history and Caribbean history. Now the question in writing this story is not about the first crossing of slaves coming from Africa, it’s the second crossing of slaves coming from the Caribbean to America. What’s that story? We don’t talk about that. What was the stop from Africa to the Caribbean and then from the Caribbean to the America’s?

The other thing that really excited me was the word Obeah, which I found in some of my research. I asked myself how are these white men referencing Obeah? Which was another indication to me that certain practices from the Caribbean really stayed in this Puritan town. For me, I didn’t realize at the time how controversial it was to use the word Obeah in our communities because of the negative connotations it holds and because of slavery, how we were told if we practiced anything or used our drum, anything that represented us, we would be lynched and killed. So, we have literally inherited all the way up to present day that Obeah in itself is evil. Without investigating what it is and I’m not saying that people don’t use Obeah for bad but I’m saying similar to any practice or religion, we have both sides. In Obeah Opera, I definitely look at the positive, which included having grandmas who knew how to use herbs to heal and midwifery. We were women who knew of these things and that true power threatens men, especially white men.

This is all to say that a whole bunch of factors contribute to how Obeah came to be. I can say the base of it is based on claiming back my story. Which includes the Black woman’s story, stories of the Caribbean and Africa. My people, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I’m very committed to the vantage point of the women’s story and retelling/rewriting history from my people’s lens after being excluded from history for so long.

When I saw you do your performance in Guelph you also mentioned that a lot of the knowledge and stories you gathered came from a very spiritual place of trying to evoke the energy of your ancestors. Can you touch on what that was like for you?

Nicole: Yeah, it’s not a secret that it’s based on the Orisha spirituality practice. When looking at the play you will see that each of the main female characters represents an Orisha and have those characteristics. I also show in the play that slaves, which is known, would go at night into the forest to practice Orisha or celebrate who they were. In there, I wanted to really show the strength of the slaves to not only survive the middle passage but also have the innovations and intuitiveness to preserve themselves. Such as hiding their practice in Catholicism because a lot of the Orisha practice is blended in with the Catholic religion. Also, what’s written in the script is paying homage to our Caribbean methodology, which is based in carnival. In the script, each character represents a carnival character and holds those respective characteristics. As I develop as a storyteller, I am beginning to realize that my components of storytelling are evolving to be based on history and telling Caribbean folklore and spirituality.

When I saw you perform, it was really powerful for me especially being from a Trinidadian background. It was beautiful for me to see those stories be brought back to voices of Black women and it was incredibly healing for me. What does it mean for you to be able to reclaim and explore these stories?

Nicole: I think it’s taken me a long time but I think that I am fulfilled in my practice. I realized that I am extremely privileged to have been afforded the opportunities that have been given to me. For example, it’s not easy to mount a play and the fact that I’ve had the opportunity on more than one account to mount this work is more than incredible. And that means a lot to me. I’m really happy that earlier on in my life I knew exactly what I was put on this earth to do. Now, it just continues to manifest and evolve as I evolve. I am a storyteller. That is what I do. Outside of this privilege, I also see my responsibility in being able to create stories for my children and my children’s children…Right now I am fighting the good fight of not moving away from the stereotype and heralding who we are and our history. Not being ashamed. Embracing our culture and our music in all of it’s glory.

I would love for Obeah Opera to debut in Salem so I can honor the women and the ground they were on because the women were real, these aren’t characters they are real people in history that were ignored. When you speak the ancestors name that’s what keeps them alive. If I were to sum it up, that’s what I do. I speak their name. To hold that mantle up, it’s an honor. We have the responsibilities to keep and tell our stories.

The more I work with other Black folks to help in the liberation of our people the more I realize this work needs to go hand in hand with spiritual healing and connecting with our storytellers. How do you feel social justice movements can incorporate this type of work and bring about the healing necessary so we can feel grounded in moving forward?

Nicole: Wow, that’s a deep question. I think that inherently the work (storytelling) in a social movement in itself. Obeah Opera is that. The reason I say that is that I’ve been told on more than one occasion, not only from Black women but from women period, the fact you’ve put us on stage in this positive light infuses, induces and demands change because you’re shifting perspective. The work that is on stage has ritual, so in fact, you are healing. So that’s Obeah Opera and through this we are liberating ancestors because they’re being showcased and they’re able to tell their story. The whole thing about not being silenced anymore; Obeah Opera or anything through the arts becomes a vehicle for voice, so that in itself is a vehicle for social justice, because social justice deals with voice and demands justice. Obeah Opera, as I see, demands justice. That’s why I’m saying before Broadway, I’d love to go to Salem and just honour the women and what they lived through and what they survived through and let them know that they are not forgotten. The biggest thing, what has happened to our people, to Black people, they erase the history and if you have no history, you are nothing. That is part of the genocide. that is why people burn documents, because they don’t want you to exist anymore. So when you realize that when you claim back history, claim back things that have happened, claim back your religion or your heritage, that in itself is a social justice act. When you remember your ancestors and your history and bring it to the forefront, that is a social justice act. When you remember and step into who you are, that inherently is healing. So my message is that even just being is part of social justice, in the sense that acceptance is part of social justice, in the sense that speaking the ancestors names, claiming the history and demanding you are not forgotten is social justice.

Obeah Opera loves #blacklivesmatter because the women in Salem’s lives matter and they will not go down in vain and neither will we because we’re standing up and taking responsibility. Even the hashtag #oscarssowhite and the hashtag #broadwaynotsowhite is interesting because this year is an interesting year. The Color Purple was back on Broadway, Fela! was there for a very long time, we have Hamilton, we have Eclipsed, which is the first ever Black woman written, Black woman directed and all female Black women cast on Broadway. I look at that as a paved way because I’m like “I’m coming!”. You know what I mean?

Media and the arts play a huge role in social justice. It brings awareness, it propels the message. I even say that television is the greatest propaganda tool of all time. So being able to see the messages and hear the stories is social justice too. Nina Simone once said that “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times” and that quote changed my life. Or even Billie Holiday when she wrote “Strange Fruit.” Look at what art has done to propel the movement. Even beyond Malcom X, the people involved with Black Lives Matter and other people standing up; the music, the tools of media, all of those things play a huge impact and it also deals with healing.

Spiritual healing comes in ancestral acknowledgement. Spiritual healing come from acknowledging and understanding your history and claiming it. I think in particular with Obeah Opera we have to have a town hall meeting in a version of the play because people people were ripping down the posters saying thing was a devil ting and we called in the community to talk about it and I realized how it transcends what we were taught. We were taught that we had, what we believed in, what we practiced, our cultural practices, our religious practices we wrong and we were told Christianity is the only way. I’m going to be very careful because some people might get offended and say “Christianity is very important to me”. What I’m saying is that the healing comes into saying that who we were was not evil, we were not evil. We were told we were evil.

I want to end with a quote from the play. A quote from a song called “My Mother’s Name” and the words go “So I stand in my mother’s name and those before her who took on the blame, for all the daughters who inherited the shame, for all the women who will never be the same, I’m gonna stand”. That’s healing.


Nicole Brookes
Nicole Brooks is a Toronto-based filmmaker, director, performer, singer, playwright, composer, curator, teacher and ‘art-ivist’. She has developed the concept of “harmonized storytelling”; blending media and performing arts, Brooks has spent over 15 years envisioning narratives that illuminate the peoples of the African Diaspora. Through her company Asah Productions Inc., founded in 2005, Brooks has generated an impressive body of work for both stage and screen.  To learn and follow Brooks’ latest work, please visit www.obeahopera.com; Twitter: @obeahopera; YouTube: obeahopera.

Deep Medicine: Cotton Root Bark and Reproductive Justice

by Karen L. Culpepper

Herbal medicine, or plant medicine, is a healing presence and a major healing tradition across the globe. Every culture in this world uses plant medicine in some form for food, healing and/or ritual. As a clinical herbalist with a deep love for folk medicine, I have always had a profound interest and curiosity about how groups of people, specifically Descendants of Africans Enslaved in the United States (DAEUS), used herbs traditionally. I discovered the opportunity to explore folk medicine in depth while studying herbal medicine in graduate school and cotton root bark became my teacher. I was guided to write my thesis about cotton root bark from a historical perspective through the lives of enslaved women who used the root as medicine from a space of social justice and reproductive empowerment.

Who and where was the original source of this understanding about cotton root bark? Knowledge about the cotton plant dates back to Mandingo women who used cotton root bark as an abortifacient during the first trimester of pregnancy. In doing research, I found that these women had the knowledge of long lactation for birth control, ritual abstinence, abortion and other forms of contraception. By using the root bark of the cotton tree, they were able to control their fertility during stressful times when there were limited resources, such as during drought or famine. This brings up the notion that enslaved Africans brought along with them their own traditions, values and existing knowledge about various plant medicines. In fact, in the Carolinas, plantation owners wanted enslaved Africans from very precise areas of Africa specifically for their knowledge around the cultivation of crops such as rice. Although enslaved Africans were eventually taken to a new land with a new language, there were some similar plants, food and herbs and quite naturally the knowledge of cotton root was easily transferred into the cotton fields of the southern states in the US.

The horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, from the interior trek in Africa to the middle passage from, to the breaking in period to enslavement in the Americas, are indescribable and beyond imagination and comprehension. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss summarized in their book From Slavery to Freedom (1994) somehow things went from producing crops to the “traffic[king] of human souls.” There are accounts of women being taken from their native land in Africa who grabbed soil and swallowed it as they begin their trek, possibly making it to the foreign land of America. The middle passage, a journey from Africa to the Americas, took anywhere from 1 to 4 months. Enslaved Africans were packed so tightly on ships that they were forced to lie on their backs with their heads between the legs of others in poorly ventilated area devoid of fresh air and sunlight, filled with urine, feces and blood. Arrival to the Americas did not bring relief. Sweltering weather conditions, the further breakdown of the family unit, forced pairings and rape accurately describes plantation life, not to mention the labor intensive crop called cotton, which required year round tending, harvesting and processing.

In the midst of this horror, a new branch of medicine was born called Allopathic medicine, with a specific branch dedicated to enslaved Africans called Plantation medicine. Enslaved folks were seen as less than and not human, therefore should be managed differently. Scientific racism began to rear its head with diagnosis such as drapetomania: is a mental illness that caused Black slaves to flee captivity. Dr. James Marion Sims “the father of gynecology” restricted his research to enslaved women, yet all the illustrations were of white women. Even though there was anesthesia available, he did not use any because enslaved women had a higher tolerance for pain (interestingly there was recently an article in The Washington Post (April 2016) about this very subject: pain management and racial bias). Doctors were working to perfect c[aesarean]-sections on enslaved women without using anesthesia because of their “high tolerance for pain”. As a result, this reinforced to both enslaved Africans and enslaved African Americans to take their own health and wellbeing into their own hands.

Self care became more of an underground phenomenon amongst the slave community, specifically in the realm of women’s health. Enslaved women had knowledge passed down from generations within their families, other herbalists or root workers and from Native Americans. Oftentimes an herbalist tended to the slaves because a visit to the doctor would cost the plantation owner. There were slaves that were granted their freedom because of their skill-set. Some plantation owners even acknowledged “Black doctors sometimes produced better results than white practitioners” and there was even a case in which a Governor freed an enslaved herbalist for their knowledge around venereal diseases. With slave women already claiming the role as herbalists and keeper of sacred recipes and remedies, they naturally fell into the role of being a caretaker and midwife amongst their peers in the community.

Women’s health concerns were very common amongst slave women and cotton was ubiquitous. Enslaved women used fresh cotton root bark as contraceptive by chewing on it throughout the day. There was one incident where this enslaved woman was forced to marry someone and could not stand her husband. She was not sleeping with him at all and he reported this and she received quite a few lashings. Furious, she said you all will never get any property out of me, since the status of the child took the status of the mother. She kept her word by chewing on cotton root bark and never bore a child. In The Eclectic Medical Journal (1860), there was a first hand account of the power and efficacy of cotton root bark to induce abortion. “My attention was called to the bark of the cotton root by two or three planters in Mississippi, during the Fall of the year 1857 and I witnessed it’s action in one case of abortion. A Negro woman collected some bark of the fresh root and some green seed (about a pint she told me) and made a quart of strong tea and drank about half of it. I was sent for by her master, but the drug had brought about such energetic pains that it was impossible to check them and she lost her child”.

Using scientific language, we now know that cotton root bark is an emmenagogue and oxytocic. In other words, cotton root bark has the following effects in the body: increases oxytocin, contracts the uterus, inhibits implantation and in higher doses induces abortion. There were accounts of plantation owners learning of the use of cotton root bark amongst slave women. As word began to spread to white physicians, they began to use another herb, black haw, as the antidote to stop miscarriages or abortions already in progress, however they often ran out of their supply of black haw because cotton was so abundant. It is fascinating to think in the midst of such suffering, enslaved women created a subtle and impactful way to protect their fertility, empower themselves reproductively and support themselves and each other through the use of plant spirit medicine.


Karen L. Culpepper
Karen L. Culpepper is a clinical herbalist and licensed massage therapist in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Her work in the world is to heal through touch, her healing presence and the use of plant spirit medicine. She can be reached at embracingrhythm27@gmail.com.