Commentary: The V Spot

First, let’s talk about gossip. My initial reaction to the Will Smith assault of a fellow celebrity, and coverage about how he will be punished, is that we have more serious topics to be focused on. For example, learning that the wife of a Supreme Court justice was part of the U.S. Capital attack on January 6 seems to be a bigger conversation.

In recent days we also recently watched the scrutiny of Ketanji Brown Jackson by men who asked questions about racist babies, implied that she is easy on child pornographers, and referenced coded subjects of critical race theory and affirmative action. This disrespect to a Black woman’s dignity is at least as offensive as a one-line joke.

Also making headlines in recent days is the disgusting quote from Andrew Giuliani that he “looked under the hood” at his infant daughter and promised people at a campaign rally that “she’s gonna stay a woman.” His father Rudy, speaking at the same far-right fringe event, said his son — who has never held elected office — is ready to be New York’s governor because he was born “tough on crime.”

The thread between these events is how toxic our sense of masculinity continues to be, and what we choose to make the focus of our conversations and headlines. 

Many continue to see politics and policing as deciding how to subject “others” they see as inferior to incarceration, removal of voting and reproductive rights, restricting of identity, and exploitation that is both violent and self-centered.

How do we focus our conversations and headlines on rooting out authoritarian forms of masculinity before they dismantle democracy at home and abroad? How can the media elevate interest in what is underneath issues instead of gossiping on the surface of them?

Minnesota Women’s Press works on that second question. Our new Changemakers Alliance is focused on a third: How do we support women into seats of collaborative leadership and authentic justice to attempt to make up for the grievous mistakes that have been made so far? 

Roots of Violence

I mentioned that my first reaction to the Oscar attack was that it is not important in the overall scheme of things. Of course, it is representative on several fronts. [Here is a great summary shared by a reader. It opens: “Violence, and how we define it, is a bit astounding. It’s always only the obvious: weapons and war and physical force. Violence is a slap on Hollywood’s most sacred stage. It is never the ways in which we can tear people down. It is rarely recognized as racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, ableism, anti-queer, or oppression of any kind.] 

What resonated with me as a second thought was reading that last year Will Smith published a book that included his struggles stemming from seeing his father violently strike his mother when he was nine. It resonates because, on a very personal note, I know the man who assaulted me when I was in college was sexually abused as a child. 

Roots of violence, big and small, come from roots of trauma. Our society tends to ignore that. Of course we have rising rates of violence on the streets, in our homes, and on our public stages if we are not helping people who need to be helped get anything other than access to weapons and shame. 

This is why Healing Trauma is a major launch pad of discussions for Changemakers Alliance, to start next week with a powerful conversation we recorded with three victims of sexual trafficking and domestic violence. It was at least as joyous and inspirational as it was somber and raw.

As a society, we are attempting to reconcile the violence perpetrated against Indigenous and African American people, and how a system of capitalism and colonialism led directly to the trauma, violence, and polarized views of justice we see today. We also are simultaneously starting to understand the needs of addiction and unaffordable housing and job insecurity that weave throughout the lack of public safety we experience around us. 

Signage in the MIA “Supernatural America” exhibit

Defining Ghosts

I was at the “Supernatural America” exhibit at MIA recently. The exhibit was developed before the social justice reckonings and pandemic of the last two years, and many of the featured artifacts and artists are from the long ago past. The purpose of the collection, wrote the curators, was partly to showcase artists who notice that “national ghosts demand to be acknowledged, honored, and made amends to: settler colonialism, racialized violence, and the innumerable individual cases of these legacies that exist in our communities today. We must recognize that this haunting will not stop, and it demands us to shift our consciousness to deliberately make different choices in favor of love and justice as the basis of community and policy.”

In an oral interpretation of the exhibit, artist John Jota Leaños says: “I do believe that America is haunted by its refusal to acknowledge the past. This is not about Indigenous spirits coming back to haunt or mess with the consciousness and happiness of settlers; it is about American consciousness and its refusal to come to terms with something. As we know, when we push things down, refuse, they come up and bubble up in different ways in our lives. That is really what most of my work is focused on, this question of how to reconsider America’s creation story, to scratch the surface of history and to understand a different way of thinking of what America is and who it belongs to.”

One of the images I enjoyed was about an alien invasion of UFOs, by Chris Pappan. “The Osage believe that we came from the stars, that we are literally star children. That idea of alien life and people’s belief in paranormal ideas has become more popular, and I liken that as well to science or science fiction catching up with Indigenous knowledge or Indigenous thinking. … A lot of times in these Native American contexts, the UFO can represent literally the invading force of white European settlers coming in and destroying everything.”

Chris Pappan (Osage Nation, Kaw, and Cheyenne River Lakhóta, born 1971), See Haw Directs an Alien Invasion from the West, 2019. Graphite, colored pencil, and map collage on Evanston Municipal Ledger dated 1924. Private collection, courtesy of Blue Rain Gallery © Chris Pappan

Artist Bridget Cooks offered this commentary in the exhibit: “The supernatural for African American people is a pretty good explanation of life. It is a way that helps to explain why we are here and what is supposed to happen next. This is in terms of thinking about enslavement and ongoing discrimination. The supernatural, even through Christianity, promises that there is rest and reward after persecution. That’s one of the reasons why thinking about Christianity, in particular, as a supernatural gift, has been so appealing to African American people. It is not the only faith, but it certainly is one of them that helps you get through the day.”

The artists and artifacts in the MIA exhibit showcase, as the curators wrote, “the possibility that we might transcend the earthbound actions that limit what we can be.”

Renée Stout. American, born 1958. The Rootworker’s Worktable, 2011. Altered and reconstructed table, blown and hot-formed glass, found and constructed objects, oil stick on panel, found carpet, 78 x 50 x 30 in. Karen and Robert Duncan Collection, Lincoln NE. Photo: Renée Stout. She was featured in the oral interpretation of the exhibit saying: “I feel like in this culture, Man likes to be in control of everything and feels like they have all the answers to everything. It is uncomfortable to not be able to explain every aspect of the world. Things that are not easily defined make people fearful [because] you cannot pin it down.”

Personal Reflection (a work in progress)

Visiting the exhibit was an interesting intersection point for me, inside a few months that have been increasingly self-reflective. I am approaching a new decade since my birth, my two children are venturing away with their own relationships and futures, and my career is much closer to an end point of sorts. What do I need to say and do, with the energy and platform I have — and what more can I do with the hundreds of women I have gotten to know since becoming publisher of Minnesota Women’s Press?

Anyone who knows me well is familiar with my interest in what the five human senses we pay attention to do not measure: our connection threads to the past, the persistence of trauma, the evolutionary power of spirit, the non-linear construction of lives, the shape-shifting capability of any one story.

The MIA exhibits I gravitated to were about how to see time, and redefining concepts without dominant narratives. The Chris Pappan artwork of an alien ship and an Indigenous elder struck me as both quirky and wise — of course Native culture might see the infiltration of its world as a UFO invasion.

I also resonated with the exhibit commentaries that noted religion is a supernatural belief system just as ghosts are. Having grown up Catholic, I learned how a large segment of the population believes in the body and blood of Christ in artifacts of communion wafer and wine, stories of Jesus walking on water and rising from the dead, recitations, prayer to God for manifestation of power and strength and mercy and healing in grief. Since high school, I have come to my own conclusions about what might exist beyond our limited 3-D perspectives in linear time — the power beyond an individual’s senses and experiences.

As the Oscar commentaries have reminded us, the same act of violence can be defined in different ways: protection of a loved one, or inadequate replacement for comforting a loved one; declaring dominance, or an emotional response to a traumatic trigger.

For me, the path ahead is about helping to reshape two limited narratives into these:

1) Women are powerful leaders.

2) Reducing violence requires healing trauma.

Tom Friedman (American, born 1965), Wall, 2017, silent video installation. Photo courtesy of the Artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London © Tom Friedman

Changemakers Alliance

Minnesota Women’s Press continues to be a place where collaborative women’s leadership shows us a different way. Our new Changemakers Alliance network is about building a different future from the stories, the frustrations, the trauma, and the hopes we share with each other.  Join us, if you can, when we “Celebrate Badass Minnesota Women” on April 16.