Wanda’s Picks April 2021

Alabama artist Michelle Browder, pictured, is in town working at San Francisco’s Box Shop in Hunters Point to build a 15-foot public monument, “Mothers of Gynecology.” The sculpture will honor Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy, enslaved women from plantations in and around Montgomery, Ala., who were experimented on in the 1840s by the so-called “father of gynecology,” Dr. J Marion Sims. They had no power to decide. A statue of Sims remains standing prominently in Montgomery. – Photo: Yalonda M. James, SF Chronicle

by Wanda Sabir, Arts and Culture Editor

Wishing everyone a blessed Resurrection Day and, to those participating, a blessed Ramadan fast this 2021 season. 

How does one stay connected given the elimination of illusionary landmarks? We’re rehearsing: (-1) minus one, (+1) plus 1? Empty space with masks that cover everything except the windows to a soul living temporarily in flesh and this presents a dilemma. 

I am struggling with sanity, reality questionable except those things I can still touch, like earth and water. What I see is not to be trusted. Images appear manipulated. 

We doctor our faces so that in Zoom we look our best or choose to show up silenced or on mute, camera off. It is easy to lose oneself in such normalized environments. It is easy to lose others. 

We check the participants listed and can’t see everyone’s name. Who’s in the chat? Is the chat enabled? Can I save the chat? Why would I want to chat? 

Reminds me of undergraduate lecture halls at UC Berkeley when I was a student there. The speaker didn’t know who was in the room or to my knowledge care. 

However, in the more intimate virtual spaces we do want to know, which is why we enable everything and if possible have transcribing so no one is left out of the conversation, which is as rich as it is accessible to all thoughts and feelings. 

I have been attending a series of Our Freedom Sanctuary meetings hosted by the Acorn Center for Restoration and Freedom. Gina Breedlove, Medicine Woman, Sacred Sound Healer has been facilitating these free, donation-based workshops for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color), no one turned away, with primacy to Black women. 

Mothers of Gynecology” project honors the lives of enslaved women Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, whose bodies did not belong to herselves, so their white owners leased them to J. Marion Sims to experiment on them, supposedly to cure them of fistula.

We are sounding through the chakras, the last two weeks heart and throat. To get to the throat we breathed through the pelvis. Had to figure out where that was for a moment; then Gina suggested the Kegel exercise.

I remembered from womb work after and before childbirth to prepare the uterus and then to tone it thereafter.  Birthing is a rigorous exercise. And for those who did not have a uterus, they could also participate in visioning that space.

I think about Michelle Browder’s “Mothers of Gynecology” project honoring the lives of enslaved women Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, whose bodies did not belong to herselves, so their white owners leased them to J. Marion Sims to experiment on them, supposedly to cure them of fistula. 

Instead, these Black wom(b)en endured horrific torture without anesthesia. The myth – Black wom(b)en, Black people feel no pain despite the visible and audible evidence to the contrary present with every slice, cut, intrusive instrument. 

Think about these wom(b)en when you think speculum, forceps, Black maternal health. Sims’ ghost lives on in the high rates of Black wom(b)en child maternal mortality, despite the social, economic or educational level of the mother or family. Blackness still trumps race and gender equity. 

“Mothers of Gynecology” will stand tall in Montgomery, not far from the backyard office Dr. J. Marion Sims operated out of. The piece will embody a retelling of the women’s story while shining a light on ongoing racial disparities in the healthcare industry today. On April 4, Wombfulness Gatherings™ and MAAFA San Francisco Bay Area will host the Libations and Prayers Ceremony for “Mothers of Gynecology,” 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. at The Box Shop, 951 Hudson Ave., San Francisco 94124. All are welcome, especially BIPOC. For information visit them on Facebook.com/anarchalucybetsey or at anarchalucybetsey.org and facebook.com/maafabayarea.

Right now, Browder is working with artisan Dana Albany at her Box Shop studio in San Francisco to complete these three monumental statues. May 9, the foundation will be laid in Montgomery where Sims’ offices stood and stand. 

I saw his office building, and in another location at City Hall, his statue glorified with that of other criminals. I believe the confederate flag also flew. 

My visit for Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Institute’s opening reception for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice lynching memorial and the Legacy Museum, from Slavery to Mass Incarceration, was just after Memorial Day where the City of Montgomery honored both outcomes of the Civil War. 

I wondered what the Black children visiting the capital thought when they realized this alternative celebration was about their freedom. I wonder what the white children thought when imagining what it would feel like to have that kind of power over another human being? 

Browder’s “Mothers of Gynecology” centers the focus. The ideology is not lost in abstraction. Black women as breeders kept the slave system supplied with workers. More babies were born in captivity than imported from Africa once this form of capture was outlawed Jan. 1, 1808

This meant the manufacture of human beings specific to a particular kind of life was a particular type of demonic enterprise. These three wom(b)en, who were emblematic of the worst capitalism imaginable, presented a problem if the leased “womb” did not function. 

“Honor the wombs that bore you,” Allah says in the Qur’an (4:1).

In a Wanda’s Picks podcast interview from March 10 with Michelle Browder and JC Hallman – a writer and researcher who is writing a book about Anarcha, the woman whose history is more easily traced and documented than the other “Mothers” – Hallman states what he learned that from the barbaric medical practices on Black women emerged a system of care developed in response, where these women took care of each other. This kind of caregiving continues today. 

While the Mothers of Gynecology story was not as well-known until recently, the story of Henrietta Lacks, whom I call the Mother of Modern Medicine, is; her centennial birth is Aug. 1, 2020. Her immortal HeLa cells are still curing disease. 

Wombfulness Gatherings™ and MAAFA San Francisco Bay Area are curating the Libations and Prayers Ceremony for Mothers of Gynecology Easter Sunday.

On Sunday, April 4, 2021, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., there will be Libations and Prayers for the Mothers of Gynecology at The Box Shop, 951 Hudson Ave., San Francisco 94124. All are welcome, especially BIPOC. For information, visit them on facebook.com/anarchalucybetsey or at anarchalucybetsey.org and facebook.com/maafabayarea

Michelle Browder was one of the Gaia Wom(b)an presenters at the first bi-monthly “Wombfulness Gathering” for Black wom(b)en. The next Gathering is May 22, 10-12 noon. For more information, visit wombfulnest@gmail.comfacebook.com/wombfulnest or call 510-255-5579. 

“Honor the wombs that bore you,” Allah says in the Qur’an (4:1). The root of the word for womb (RHM) is the same as Ar-rahman, Ar-rahim – beneficence, mercy, grace and compassion. At this point in time, all human life comes through a womb. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not, the point is, if this wom(b)an decided not to bear young, there would be no life – yours or mine. 

My young mother said she had no prenatal care, that after nine months she went to the hospital and they yanked me out with forceps. Mama said if you complained the white nurses would slap the patients, so she kept her mouth shut. Hers was such a rare case, the attending physician brought in an entire class to watch her give birth. Charity was a teaching hospital and in the charity war, I don’t think the patients were asked for consent probably signed away at admission.

There was no acknowledgement of the beauty of life and giving birth and the inherently beautiful Black mother- she-vessel, she-chamber, she-force-of-life. 

There was no conversation, no anesthesia. After they pulled me out her young body and stitched her up, they gave me to her, “a living baby doll,” she said. I was born with a string of flesh in my mouth and the doctor took a hot iron and seared it off. Again, no medicine for pain – babies don’t feel pain either. 

Could these assumptions be based on the fact that we have no voice? Audible, the absence of power mutes the sound and negates the vibration, an affirmation communication prompts between living beings. The Black wom(b)an (girl child) does not exist – she, inhuman. She, not worthy of contemplation. 

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in collaboration with SF Playhouse, Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s ‘[hieroglyph]’

The play currently available on demand at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in collaboration with SF Playhouse, Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s “[hieroglyph],” asks a similar question: When will Black wom(b)en and girls’ voices be amplified publicly and behind closed doors? And I include here gender nonconforming Black wom(b)en, all of us together, because we are all included in the silencing. We practice allyship for protection.

Allyship is a form of accompaniment – witnessing from the inside. “I see you,” is a start. Agreement is not a prerequisite for belonging. We will find a place where we agree and build on that premise. We need all our people. 

We see this practiced in Dickerson-Despenza’s play. There are so many relationships explicated here between these pages danced on the stage. Margo Hall, new artistic director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (LHT), is a magician in her elegant navigation of an alternative theatre space – film.

The cast is equally gifted in their ability to capture and translate this wonderful work on the stage via screen, which gives the urgency of this story primacy: Black girls, Black women, are at risk for sexual violence. Black girls and Black women are being violated. There is a direct correlation between the peoples of fictive worlds and the earth’s violation in the Great Storm where the levees broke, contaminating water and land and killing so many people. 

Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza with the cast of “[hieroglyph]” at the San Francisco Playhouse mainstage. Dickerson-Despenza’s “[hieroglyph]” is presented by San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and will stream on demand March 13 – April 3, 2021. – Photo: Jessica Palopoli

In the play, young protagonist davis despenza hayes, 13, portrayed brilliantly by actor Jamella Cross, tells her story through her drawings. Her artwork provides a road map none but her astute art teacher, ms. t – actor Safiya Fredericks – can decipher. 

Davis’ loving father, ernest hayes – actor Khary L. Moye – is trapped in his own demons and worries. NOLA post-Katrina, transplanted in Chicago – the father-daughter are still swimming with dead bodies two months later. The mother is not there, which further complicates the story. 

Then there is the art teacher, ms. t, who establishes a bond with the child right off. There is something about davis, who joins the class mid-semester, whose craft and skill she admires. There is even what one could call a soul connection evident in a linked synergy to a shared if unnamed trauma neither can articulate initially. 

davis has nightmares which are staged really well. Sometimes she is up all night and then drags herself to art class where even on a bad day, she still answers all the questions posed by ms. t. 

The characters Dickerson-Despenza writes are human and have experienced a tragedy most of us cannot conceive let alone contemplate when sexual violence is added to the cocktail.

Art is so powerful; one wonders what davis would have used to articulate so beautifully through those nightmares which woke her from sleep had she not had her drawing pad and pens. What stories is davis sharing? 

ms. t suggests to ernest, davis’ dad, at a parent teacher meeting that he look at the drawings and talk to his daughter about them. davis is failing all her classes except art. ms. t suggests he think about why his daughter is doing so well in art. ernest looks at his daughter’s portfolio filled with the faces of people met at the Superdome who died. 

Later on, when the father asks davis what the coded language in the pictures means, she does not want to share; however, her father sees something is wrong and agrees to find his daughter a therapist. davis, who is grounded until she picks up her grades, especially in math, invites a friend to help her. 

“[hieroglyph]” is part of an award-winning 10-play Katrina Cycle of plays Dickerson-Despenza is writing focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina in and beyond New Orleans. Through the beautifully portrayed stories of characters davis despenza hayes, ernest hayes and ms. t, all still swimming in the sorrowful waters of post-Katrina, Despenza suggests we stop judging our children and their friends and pay closer attention. In this scene, davis and her classmate leah are studying together for an algebra test. – Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Leah – actor Anna Marie Sharpe – davis’ friend from school, who likes her and is also good in math, helps her pass her test. For this, ernest, who is sad davis doesn’t want to spend time with him on her birthday – there is a show at the museum where he works that he wants to take her to – instead lets davis spend the night with her friend. He doesn’t know the girls have other birthday plans. 

The playwright paints adults who care about davis, adults who struggle with themselves yet are not so self-centered that they are unreliable. This is especially true for ms. t. Fredericks’ champion pays attention to the details and does not stop at unraveling the narrative davis is intentionally writing. Perhaps this is the beauty of childhood, the kind of childhood davis had prior to Katrina and the Superdome and its indelible impact on her life. 

Parents need to pay attention: The signs are there.

Can a man protect and still honor the agency of the girl-child he is protecting? Can he keep her life separate from his? Too often men act like they were raped, when it is their ego that is raped – how dare he harm “my” daughter? he thinks. davis as possession blinds the protector to the true victim.

This pandemic has increased the danger women and girls are living with. I wonder where they are finding a safe bed. I wonder about homeless children, runaways, sexual exploitation – the playwright was influenced to write one of the characters based on the story of a child in Chicago gang raped and whose body was thrown under a bridge. 

Trauma is on the table, yet the father who is trying to keep his job and take care of his daughter while in limbo about his marriage, pushes it to the side. Parents need to pay attention: The signs are there. It is not often that we see a Black father play with his daughter like these two characters do. 

The characters Dickerson-Despenza writes are human and have experienced a tragedy most of us cannot conceive let alone contemplate when sexual violence is added to the cocktail. [hieroglyph] ignites multiple explosions, like cluster bombs. davis’ friend, leah, book-smart, is also traumatized. What [hieroglyph] suggests is we stop judging our children and their friends and pay closer attention.

[hieroglyph] is part of an award-winning 10-play Katrina Cycle of plays Dickerson-Despenza is writing focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina in and beyond New Orleans. The play is fully produced and filmed on stage at San Francisco Playhouse, and is presented as an on-demand video stream through April 3, 2021. 

Patrons may support the organization of their choice by purchasing tickets, $15 – $100, from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org. To listen or watch a Virtual Wanda’s Picks interview on Facebook with Margo Hall, artistic director of LHT, go to https://www.facebook.com/wanda.sabir/videos/10224972454289502.

Visit wandaspicks.com for the full April Picks, which is updated throughout the month, so keep sending fliers and posts about events. Also, listen to wandaspicks.com/radio broadcasts. Follow the blog so you don’t miss any updates. The podcast airs from blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.

Night Rain – for Brianna – by Wanda Sabir ©2020 All rights reserved

We are the girls who get up when pushed down
Shake off the pain and keep walking ignoring the blood dripping from ripped shirt
Taking off the offensive item
Our shame in the dirt where we drop it
In the dust
The clouds a place to hide until we can re-member where we placed our hearts

II
We are the girls who grit our teeth to keep our tongues from jumping out of our mouths
We are so full of ourselves we have to open channels so that we don’t explode
We levitate
Fly and try to remember boundaries
Human boundaries
Limitations and rules adults press like gravity
When we’re into grace and gratitude and escape

III
We are the girls who don’t have addresses
Girls you can’t find
Girls you’d better appreciate now, ‘cause ya blink and it might be forever
We are that impossible to grasp
Hold
Destroy

IV
Destruction
That is a problem
We are the girls who abhor reformation
We like flying instead of walking
Leaping and singing instead of sleeping
We lay me down to sleep when we die and not a second before
We too busy thinking and plotting and planning our future to doze off

V
We the girls who get sent to the office

Learn to smoke cigars with the principal
And blow smoke and laughter in teachers’ faces
We are the smart girls
We are the girls who figure it out long before the answer is discovered
We only ask for a small royalty cut
We are the girls who know her worth and make a world pay and pay and pay
We not taking any checks
Nope
Gold, silver and . . . pearls
We like the trade

VI
We are the mean girls
We are the girls that will cut your throat before you think about cutting ours
It’s easier that way, ‘cause we are the kind of girls you either love or hate
The binary is hella clear

We step over the dead,
Burying our secrets with the slain
We travel light and don’t allow hitchhikers
We are not into charity and well, if we have enough to share–
We probably won’t
Yeah, we that girl!

VII
We hard ‘cause we learned drinking formula, the formula
Even family is unreliable
Family can hurt you worse that an enemy
Something about the blood
The way family organs are stitched together along a seam (that fits perfectly next to kin)
Carry a seam ripper and amputate it before it atrophies
A prosthesis is better than gangrene
Cut your loses
Talk mean
‘Cause the world ain’t feeling no pussy cat
Wear your armor, cause the armor gets respect and respect spends a lot further than
kindness
Fear is an even better deal, but fear is hard to sustain

Ammunition is expensive
And then you need a firing range and ducks

VIII
We are the girls who give birth to themselves
Who never had a mama
Who don’t miss what they never had

IX
Mean girls make it rain, so carry an umbrella.

X
We are the girls who live in cars
Who walk the streets
Who ride BART all night
Whose looks will rip your heart out

We are the girls wishing for a bit of peace
But all we find is trouble
We are the girls who call home and hang up before there is an answer
We are the girls who erase memories
And feel so alone
We are the girls who can’t forget and can’t forgive
We are the mean girls
Tough and strong and invincible
Between layers insecurely latched
We admit
“Mean girl” is a persona that can’t last

This poem was selected as the San Francisco Public Library’s Poem of the Day for April 5, 2021. Learn more at https://sfpl.org/books-and-media/san-francisco-poet-laureate/poem-of-the-day/poem-day-archive

Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.