“Experiential Discourse” Takes The Stage At SisterSpit

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Artistic activism by women of color?? Sign me up

Last night, SisterSpit, “a night of storytelling and poetry” hosted by Barnard Student Life, kicked off the semester with powerful performances from students and guests alike. Staff Writer Zöe Sottile attended the event and wrote about her experience there.

As its contribution to MLK Legacy Week, Barnard Student Life hosted its third annual SisterSpit yesterday. Though unfortunately student MC Vanessa Chadehumbe was unable to make it, the other MC, Kidd Mathews, brought a rousing sense of energy and community to the event. Kidd described the night in Sulzberger Parlor as an “event for self-identified women to express themselves, to engage in artistic activism, to engage with the community, to be here and be present”.

The evening consisted of performances by six women of color, whose work considered issues of activism, equality, sexuality, and racial justice. Four students began the night with incredibly brave and personal narratives. Phanesia Pharel, BC ‘21, for instance, first read a poem about Haiti, her parents’ home country. She spoke eloquently about the insecurity of being trapped between two worlds, feeling like an outsider both in Haiti and America. She then recited two poems by Haitian poet Danielle Legros Georges: “Intersection” and “A Dominican Poem”, which both contemplate nationality and fragmented identity. She closed her portion of the night by reading one of her own poems about her mother, immigration, and the complex ways that we inherit experiences and identities.

Then, Medina Shah, BC ‘21, shared two powerful pieces that both contemplated the ways marginalized people support each other. She began with a poem written for her Profits of Race course in the fall semester that expressed her desire to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as a South Asian Muslim woman. The poem beautifully and subtly explored the complexities of supporting another marginalized group’s struggle while acknowledging that that exact struggle can never be shared. She then read a personal narrative about her relationship with wearing, and then taking off, the hijab. She remarked that the decision to wear the hijab had a variety of consequences: she felt that she was “wearing it for other people”, not herself, but also that she had “joined a sisterhood of veiled women”. She ended the poem by stating that “The hijab is a beautiful thing, it was a beautiful thing for me”, but also that “identity is fluid”, and finally called for her sisterhood to continue to love her.

After, Naina Durga, BC ‘20, addressed her poem to those who “ask why my English is so good”. She tore through stereotypes about India while also weaving in the colonial history that shaped the identity both of the nation and its inhabitants. The themes of her poem, like many of the works read last night, revolved around issues of identity, nationality, and belonging. Like many of the poets, she expressed an inability to fit within tightly defined social categories.

For a change of pace, MC and host Kidd Mathews, CC ‘18, offered up her own brave and expansive pieces. First, she offered a response to her Art Humanities teacher, who asked students whether the curriculum should be expanded or not. Matthews proclaimed art “one of the most human forms of engagement with the world”, and that specific artists’ work constitute “visual and tactile representations of the microcosm of society from which they come.” In Matthews’ view of art, there’s a space for everyone – as she said, “making art allows experiential discourse necessary to understanding multitudes of human experience.” She blamed the resistance to expanding Art Humanities’ curriculum on intellectual elitism and indolence, pointing out the unfairness of a professor asking a black, queer, female student to defend her own representation in the classroom. Switching tunes, Matthews read a poignant and heartbreaking poem called “If I Could Have One Phone Call With My Mother” that ended with concluded, beautifully, with: “I don’t want to let any hate get in the way of all this love I have for you.”

The stunning student performances were then followed by two featured performers. First, Roxbury-born poet, singer, and rapper Oompa, who released her first album in 2016, performed two poems and a song. The first poem, “Space-Time Continuum”, used black holes and supernovas as a way to discuss the intergenerational trauma of poverty and mental illness. She prefaced her next poem by stating that she tends to write specifically for black queer masculine of center women, a population often not given artistic representation or outlets. She then read a piece that discussed the danger of competing for masculinity with men in an attempt to be “one of the boys”. The piece was littered with explosive lines, like,“No man’s hunger turns meat into flesh” or “they watch me unbecome one of them.” Oompa ended her compelling performance with a song about the foster care system that called on children to love and support each other.

Finally, NYU graduate and three-time Grand Slam champion of NYU’s slam poetry team, Crystal Valentine, took to the stage to offer three poems about race and identity. The first, “How to Oil Your Edges”, used haircare as a way to discuss spirituality, intimacy, and sexuality. The second used her own lisp as a starting off point to discuss slavery, South Africa, and the way psychological trauma can cause speech impediments. She proclaimed that, “Trauma never leaves the same way it enters” – a sentiment that resonated with several of the earlier performances. Finally, she read a poem addressed to Kylie and Kendall Jenner that approached cultural appropriation with both humor and a cutting critical gaze.

Most of the performers last night spoke specifically about their own layered, complex identities. Social justice tends to divide people into categories: race, nationality, gender, and sexuality are all treated as distinct and discrete. These powerful poets’ narratives demonstrated the immense complexity wrapped up in every individual’s identity. Sulzberger Parlor was full of the warmth and comfort that only comes when we make space for each and every person to express the multitudes of their experience. I left the night feeling awed and inspired by the raw talent of these performers and also wondering what would happen if every space at Columbia made space for the many and complicated pains, struggles, and perspectives each student carries with us.

Kickass Sister Spit logo via Barnard Student Life Facebook page.

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