This is the second part in a four-part essay by Piriye Altraide. You can read the first part here.
“And they had each accepted it without question.”
As this is the pernicious nature of the ideologies. That internalised form of social control, making certain views seem ‘natural’ or invisible, such that they hardly seem like views at all, just ‘the way things are’. Values and assumptions implicit, often unrecognised, yet permeating all the artefacts and culture of a given time, entering and shaping our national discourse.
And they can eventually destroy you — a slow, psychological death. If you are lucky, the death may be mitigated earlier than later. Or you may die, and not know you have died, or deny that you have died and keep pressing on as if your way of “dealing with it” is okay, and then much later discover the death, and then begin the journey of trying to recover and resurrect that which had died, and grieve for wasted time. But how will you know if nobody tells you? What does one do when life commences without even a chance for the ego? Begins in rejection, on-going humiliation and self-loathing? These are the "the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident” (Toni Morrison).
The issue of racialized beauty intersects and interrelates with that of representation, of whose umbrella it sits under. [Here, the hydra is at work]:
There is a clear link between representation and perception. A lack of 'diversity' not only influences how diverse peoples see themselves, but how they are seen (or not seen) by those of the dominant culture. It is not simply about the amount of representation but the type — and recurrence of that type. The fact that there is a long history of distortion of marginalised identities in narratives written about the (so-called) “other” does not help. Literature (and by extension other creative/narrative mediums) can be windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. As windows, they offer "views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange". They are also sliding glass doors, through which the reader can "walk through in imagination to become part of that world". And they can be mirrors, transforming human experience and reflecting it back to the reader, allowing them to see their lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. This is why then, "reading (and viewing) become a means of self-affirmation. We seek ourselves, our mirrors, in books, story and literature."
Ironically and paradoxically, fiction can be most powerful for this because of its necessary 'truth'. It can be easy to say ‘truth’ is conceptually out of vogue, that Roland Barthes’s author is dead, and the text is now about reader response. Even its name announces artificiality, yet it must somehow be true to hold the interest of its readers, telling them about experiences both imaginary and relevant to their own lives. It is this deeper “truth” that is so poignant. The power of this truth, the power of stories to move audiences, is what allows the building of empathy, the bridging of gaps, the illuminating of suppressed and erased voices. The understanding of lived experiences that are very manifest, very now, very here. Writing provides the opportunity to enter another’s world. Indeed the call to arms is essentially this: all narrative has the power to impact culture and individuals...it's up to creators to choose.
And as creators we will choose. Most hallowed be the taking up of tools, the reclaiming of stories, the language we will express them in. Most hallowed be understanding the lived experiences. Translating them into language. Making them palpable. What we may call:
Theory: as a role player in the transformation of human societies.
Theory: as a means to uninvent the world.
Theory: behind a movement. Behind art. Art: an active element in such change.
Theory overlap theory intersect theory cross over theory—
deliver the struggle of men and women to free themselves.
Most hallowed be our words. “Writing is indeed one of the most powerful tools of protest which can allow us to transcend, to live passionately, imaginatively and creatively beyond embodied and genealogical pain” writes Natalie Harkin. “Our words are weapons, our books are time bombs, already breaking down the many barriers on their way across the world”. To resist. To uninvent. To empower. To take control.
To write our own bodies. To possess our own voices. To re-label. To remake.
To “speak loud, speak unsettling things and be dangerous...”
– Natalie Harkin
Sometimes I’m kicking underwater.
“But our bodies too are archives where memories, stories, and lived experiences are stored, etched and anchored in our bloodlines deep. They ground our creativity in what become personal and political acts of remembering, identity making and speaking back… re-map events and landscapes, piece together lives
– Natalie Harkin
Healing is two steps forward, two steps back. I’m assessing the damage. You need to be rescued before you can breathe. But first you need to know you’re drowning.
I am a dark-skinned woman. Doubly oppressed—subjugated by patriarchal family, dysfunction, subjugated by society in two and more parts: Stay there. Don’t move—we want you to stay. down. there. Which means it is hard for me to extricate which part of my past is playing up when I sit nervous in a café, warding off a panic attack, waiting for my coffee. Thinking the man next to me is judging me. Thinking me stupid and insecure and weird and horrible and undesirable and unattractive. Noticing the awkward placement of my bag, my stumblings, my indecisive, uncertain movements. That he is just singing the same song as everybody else, the ‘forever tune’ placed in my head: You are undesirable you are bottom of the ladder bottom of the ladder bottom of the ladder.
(And halt. I’m thinking):
… Which isn’t to say this is every dark-skinned woman’s experience. Which isn’t to say it’s always or has always been like this, even for me. It’s never one way or straight forward or easy or “one size fits all”. Be careful of the single story, dear Reader. Again, the nuances. The individualities.
But this is to say that we, women like me, are all impacted by the same hegemony and colonialist attitudes and perceptions in different ways and to varying extents. Some worse than others, some being able by circumstance and placement and fortune to be shielded or supported more so than others. By the fortune of exposure to better education about themselves. By community, family, more tolerant country or society.
Is… also what I’m thinking (excuse my mind as it runs ahead. Or don’t excuse it):
At the end of the day, when all is said and done, this piece— poem-ish, story-ish, essay-ish— will be swallowed up by them and maybe move them ever so slightly but then disappear. The fatigue in trying to appeal to wider society. Whiter society. As a good woman in a good space said, “All that energy wasted on trying to change other people’s minds, we can spend on building up ourselves.” That’s what I think that’s what I think that’s what I think. And even what I have produced, late and jaded and broad it’s… well I’m not entirely sure what it is. But…
I should be here tomorrow. Early in the morning, perhaps. I’ve seen the start of something. I’ve seen the start of many things. Sometimes they stay, in my mind, as something true. Something self-evident. Such that it will negate the “truths” of before. Sometimes they don’t stay and they shift and stir. Saplings in the wind. Sometimes get bent and trampled.
And so I sit.
Piriye Altraide is a Nigerian born writer, spoken-word artist and self-proclaimed dancefloor extraordinaire. Piriye’s work centres on identity, belonging and the journey to self-acceptance in the context of the African-Australian diaspora. Piriye has featured at Afro Hub, Girls on Key and for Multicultural Arts Victoria. She is a 2014 Perth Poetry Slam finalist, co-curator of RMIT’s Un-lecture series, and has had her work published in Mirrors of Africa.