Saturday, 18 of January of 2020

Jacqui Alexander Provides Food for The Crossing

My Cultural Production workshop is coming to an end. The focus of this course was on the relationship between land, bodies and food. I have mostly focused on land and bodies. Today’s post touches on food. Not just food that nourishes the body but food that nurtures the soul.

This week I presented two talks. The first one was in an intimate classroom at OCAD for Johanna Householder’s performance class. The second was at a big lecture hall at University of Toronto for Alissa Trotz’s Women’s Studies students.  Alissa spoke to her students about the importance of cultural producers to use zines, blogs and social media to take up the space of uncovering and telling alternative and hidden histories. I told them about what I know best— my work. Currently I am working on an audio walk of the hidden Black histories of the Grange. I’ve always made art in order to articulate my thoughts and feelings but since returning to school, I have amassed a large collection of words that help me articulate and share what I know using written and spoken language.

Last night I went to hear Women’s Studies Professor, Jacqui Alexander speak. I am still reeling as I write this—still recovering from an experience that was so powerful it left me unable to speak or move for several moments afterwards.  Jacqui spoke the language of courage in a voice that is generally erased from academia.  The room was charged with energy and emotion. She dared to name the unnamable and give voice to the unspeakable.

She read us two paragraphs from a book she encountered twenty years ago that changed the course of her life. The book, a history of a plantation in the Caribbean contained just those two paragraphs about a woman named Thisbe. Her husband had committed a crime and since Thisbe worked with herbs and medicinal plants, she was accused of consorting with the devil.  She was tortured until she confessed her husband’s crime then beheaded and burned.

Jacqui was left wondering, why this woman, who in the context of the colonial Caribbean had no power, was such a threat that she had to be killed in such a public and gruesome way. She concluded that Thisbe’s power was both feared and coveted. She decided to find out more about Thisbe but searched in vain in the archives. This was a potent juncture in her research. It was only when she came to the realization that she did not know that she opened up to other ways of knowing.

Jacqui found Thisbe through healing work. Just as poisonous plants are often found in the same place as their antidote, healing said Jacqui, is the antidote to oppression. She gave voice to the bodies that crossed the Atlantic and pointed to the need for all of us, whether descendants of those who made the crossing or those who benefitted from their labour to go into the hold of the slave ship, to face our fear, to confront sorrow and grief and to find healing. Only then, she said, could we be released from its horror. She gave voice to the head on the pole, describing what it saw and experienced. She constantly reminded us to breathe as she led us into another dimension, a world hidden and obscured within the rational space of academia. It made me think about my own project and the impossibility of finding Peggy Pompadour, a slave woman, only through fragments in the archives. Peggy has to be sought in dimensions beyond the rational. I realized what I have always known. Like Thisbe, Peggy doesn’t live in the archives. I have to find Peggy within myself. I wanted to speak with Jacqui, to tell her how powerful this experience has been for me. I shook her hand but I couldn’t get the words out.

Luckily Ras Iville, of One Love Vegetarian restaurant, was there to nourish our bodies and bring us back into this dimension with his delicious corn soup. Cultural production takes risk, trust, courage, guidance and food. I slipped out after the Q & A, walking through the Grange, talking to Peggy.

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