Saturday, August 2, 2014

#OITNB and the Sacredness (and Necessity) of Women-Only Spaces

The ideas raised in the following posts may have emerged in various forums prior to this one.  I hope that my views and opinions add something to the current discourse pertaining to these issues.  Happy reading everyone!

Currently, I am sitting in your run-of-the-mill, standard coffeeshop in a considerably small-ish city in a collegiate's "mecca" in New England (from this description alone, you might be able to pinpoint exactly where I am at the given moment).  I'm catching up on the necessary social media for the weekend and noticed the following photo circulating on Facebook:

According to the caption adjacent to the photo, these quotes come from a recent interview conducted with Uzo Abuba from the Netflix series Orange is the New Black for Vanity Fair.  A convergence of ideas, as it always seems to happen to me:  I'm reading up on literature preparing to write a paper on black women authorship, audiences and cyberculture, coming off of the high from a conversation with a dear friend from yesterday about why #OITNB and the space the series has created is so important, and noticing the people and action occurring around me in said coffeeshop during the moments of me attempting to tune all of it out in order to focus on the large volume of articles and books that I have to read to finish this long overdue paper - the question that emerges for me in this moment is "why can women-only spaces be nurtured, desired, and supported in a prison setting?"  My apologies for the run-on sentence!  My recent acquisition of a graduate degree in English doesn't prohibit me from purging all of my thoughts out fairly quickly absent of consideration of sentence structure and syntax.  Especially when I'm passionate about something, you just have to let me run with it, as I'm about to do now.

Looking around the coffeeshop now and also thinking about the experiences that I've had in this area with regards to "othering" and feeling like an outsider, I notice that people here try so hard to be "different" from everyone else.  I see various styles of dress, hairstyles, even the types of technology people are using (there are at least three computers within a finger tap of my own and they each are different brands) and languages being spoken (within earshot, there are conversations occurring in Spanish and in English - some of the joys of living in a college town:  being surrounded by a rich tapestry of cultures).  I, myself, happen to be different than what people would deem the "normal" black woman.  I am fairly plus size and tall.  I am VERY proud of my natural hair.  I am extremely quirky, clumsy, awkward and really don't care $20 whether or not someone is uncomfortable in my presence.  I love classical music, techno, house, electronic music and jazz.  I find pleasure in attending art exhibit openings and I have a desire to be fleunt in multiple languages including French, Spanish, Portuguese and various forms of Creole.  Though I believe in a higher being, I'm not that religious (I actually take issue with most religions in how they've rendered women and their participation in leadership roles within their communities).  I am a playwright, poet and blogger (obviously LOL) and have a desire to one day take on journalism (I have this problem of wanting to speak my mind regularly LOL). AND, I'm EXTREMELY college educated as I have a bachelor's degree, two graduate degrees, working on finishing a graduate certificate and preparing to endure (yet again) the daunting application process of applying to doctoral programs.  According to text books and the discourse generated by mainstream, dominant culture, I shouldn't be any of this.  But of course, defining the "normal" black woman is next to impossible because I have the pleasure of belonging  to such a heterogeneous group but many people find it easier to lump us all into one "box" so that it's easier to "deal with us."

Some theories, in so many words, state that differences can lead to conflict, which might explain why I've had a difficult time adapting to where I currently live as not only am I different from everyone else, everyone here strives to either be different or "apply" for membership in the dominant community by owning certain types of cars, eating certain types of foods, and living a particular type of lifestyle.  Like I've been instructed to do in academic settings, I'm going to make an attempt at answering my own question.  Here it is again if it got lost in the moment of me celebrating myself (yes, it's important to embrace "a moment in vanity" from time to time):  "why can women-only spaces be nurtured, desired, and supported in a prison setting?"

Prior to beginning the discussion, please note, I am not, by any means, endorsing or encouraging the prison system as a place for members of marginalized communities to be relegated to for I take issue with the Prison Industrial Complex and the reasons for many Black and Brown people being incarcerated today.  I want to explore the issue of the solidarity and empowerment created in these spaces due to the popularity of the series Orange is the New Black.

From what I've gathered from the series and also from conversations with my dad, who happened to work in an all-women's prison prior to his retirement, the state of incarceration forces homogeneity.  People are stripped of their ability to incorporate some of the daily rituals associated with identity that they would have had prior to being in prison.  They must wear similar uniforms, share in the work load by having "chores" to complete (i.e., working in the kitchen, electric shop, laundry room, etc - I will never call what they do "work" because they are not paid a living wage for the amount of stuff that they do), eat the same food, and have next to no time alone (with the exception of solitary confinement which serves as a form of punishment).  In some cases, they can wear makeup, style their hair per personal choice, and choose the "families" that they would belong to while being incarcerated. Even coming in with different physical markers and indicators of cultural and ethnic differences denoted by language, region of origin, hair texture, and skin complexion (yes, it is more complicated than that but for the purposes of the theory I'm proposing, I'm limiting it to this), they are stripped of basic ways of being individuals.

In a community where you are one in the same, there are moments people can come together in beautiful ways simply because they don't have any other barriers preventing them from being able to understand and converse with one another.  I will never forget that one episode of #OITNB (my apologies that I can't specifically cite the specific episode at the moment) when all of the women were partaking in a dance-off. For that brief moment, there was laughter and camaraderie.  In other instances, the women were able to rally around a specific cause, i.e., getting rid of "Pornstache."  This makes me also think about how much Daya's "family" rally around her to make sure that she was being taken care of during the first trimester of her pregnancy despite her not being able to speak Spanish - they still took her in regardless.  Also, think about how much these women can really "be" themselves!  Not trying to conflate the two, but I can recall of the times when my parents let me host slumber parties and how much fun we had sitting around in our pajamas and being around young women just like me.  Even the power that's had during conversations with my friends today in the privacy of one another's home!  I believe that in order to empower a community, we need to find where we all connect and in many cases, we can only do that in a private space.

Recently, I had to read Elizabeth Alexander's book The Black Interior (2004).  Quick reference:  she was the poet at President Obama's first inauguration.....please don't let that be the defining moment for you as she is a professor at Yale University and has added some rich material to the discourse on Black cultural production.  Please look her up!  In it, she talks about how private spaces, particularly living rooms and other gathering spaces in people's homes, have become sacred spaces for producing and maintaining culture. I used this book for a paper I wrote on a play that used jukejoints similarly.  Just think about the conversations that you're able to have out of earshot of strangers!  Think about how YOU are during those moments.  I hope that this helps you to consider the "theory" that I'm proposing here.

Orange is the New Black is revolutionary in so many ways!  I'm glad that this series gave me an opportunity to really think about spaces for women's empowerment!  There's not too many times where I can even think to talk about women from different circumstances coming together.  Though is is not an ideal situation nor is every time a moment of solidarity, #OITNB has rendered a possibility, even if it is when women from marginalized communities are incarcerated.  Sometimes, you have to exaggerate the reality to realize the potential.

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