Poetic Resistance: An Interview With Dominique Christina
By Vincent Emanuele
17 February, 2015
Dominique Christina is an award-winning writer, performer, educator, and activist. She holds five national poetry slam titles in four years, including the 2014 & 2012 Women of the World Slam Champion and 2011 National Poetry Slam Champion. Her work is greatly influenced by her family's legacy in the Civil Rights Movement and by the idea that worlds make worlds. Her first full-length poetry book, The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm: A Colored Girl's Hymnal, published by Penmanship Books, is available now. Her second book, This Is Woman's Work, is set for publication in October 2015.
Back in November, 2014, I met Dominique at the Earth at Risk Environmental and Social Justice Conference, which took place at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco, California. Without doubt, she performed two of the most memorable pieces of spoken-word-poetry I've ever encountered, engaging and confronting the audience with vibrant observations concerning race, love, death, motherhood and violence. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dominique.
(Vincent) In a recent interview, political activist and philosopher Cornet West said, "You see, anybody in America who tells the truth about the barbarity of white supremacy and its legacy must be willing to die." With activists from Ferguson to Oakland taking to the streets and demanding radical action, how do you process the historical and contemporary legacy of white supremacy in the U.S.?
(Dominique) White supremacy is as old as Moses. It is the backdrop of civilization and permeates the consciousness of everybody everywhere, it seems to me. It is an awful legacy. It's the monster that is always hungry; the one that gorges itself on bodies. Cornel is right. Naming agents of power has always been dangerous. What I am interested in is fighting differently. Marches, boycotts, sit-ins, protests, are all historical inheritances. They have never really resulted in those who put their bodies in the streets occupying formal positions of power. It has never kept the state from killing us. I'm not interested in rehashing the same old subjects in the same ways. I am interested in usurping power. I am interested in dismantling it. And I have no evidence whatsoever that that can be accomplished by being polite…or even disruptive. It requires a reframing of things, and certainly the decolonization of our minds.
(V) How do you think movements fighting against militarism, policing and racism could be more effective?
(D) They can be more effective by refusing to fight from an inferior position. We can't ask the state to stop mass incarceration, which is really neo-slavery, to stop racial profiling, to stop legal barbarism (police brutality). Slaves on plantations outnumbered their slave masters. Prisoners outnumber guards. Free people know they do not have to ask. Free people know to take what belongs to them. I am in no way a pacifist. Nonviolence is a strategy and it can be an effective strategy but I am traumatized by the legacy of bodies washed down Main Street, pepper sprayed and tear gassed. The historical template that always asks the oppressed to be polite and ask nicely and wait traumatizes me. No. I'm rebellious and unapologetic on purpose. I do not expect the master to give me one damn thing. I'm not asking him to. I know how to show up powerfully and how to insist. I'm not the “let's go to the polls and change things” kind. Not that that is an exercise in futility necessarily but laws legitimize all kinds of illegitimate shit. I can't organize around that.
(V) In 1939, in a segregated New York City cafe, singer Billie Holiday performed a rendition of Abel Meeropol's poem about racism and lynching entitled "Strange Fruit." Almost 75 years later, author bell hooks refers to American pop-star and cultural icon Beyonce as a "cultural terrorist." Can you discuss the modern cultural landscape for black female artists? How do you see yourself in this long line of influential creators? Is bell hooks correct in her assessment of Beyonce?
(D) Black women are the mules of the world. We are not permitted access unless we can become palatable to white folks and we cannot do that unless we shape shift and mute the parts of ourselves that are the most urgent. I agree with bell and I know that's not a popular position. Beyonce has become the new Jesus for the younger generation. Her bumper sticker feminism is so beguiling to girls who clamor for the same kinds of visibility. But when I look at Beyonce I see someone with a blonde wig who has been thoroughly constructed and that repels me. Black female artists deal in the perpetual fight about authorship and agency. Very few of us have it. That is by design. I am foolish enough to hope that we will stop dancing a jig long enough to say the things that matter and that we will fight for our integrity and resist being puppeteers.
(V) Unfortunately, various portions of black culture and history have been commodified and appropriated by the dominant white culture in the U.S. What role does cultural appropriation play in reinforcing stereotypes?
(D) We are always appropriated and commodified. It implies that we are mere ornaments, dangled to amuse white culture. Miley Cyrus decorates herself in black women on stage; they are props and nothing more. There is nothing new under the sun, right? This is an old, old mechanism. We are not enough to stand out front as ourselves. But our style can be co-opted and validated when it is operating from white bodies. Fuck that.
(V) The Washington Post recently ran an article that showed only 70% of white Americans have one black friend who they regularly hang out with. How does one begin to examine the intersectionality between class, race and gender within the context of ecological collapse and a hyper-alienated and segregated society?
(D) We have abused our natural resources and they respond by becoming unfamiliar to us, right? We are a nation of buffoons, swallowing every old lie and passing them on to our children. We operate in silos. We are unwilling to be challenged, unwilling to stop exploiting, unwilling to interrogate the ways in which we are connected. Social media is how we interact with the world. We are profile pictures and tweets. We have forgotten to be relative to each other. It is easier to subjugate a people who have no reliable foundation.
(V) In what capacity do you see the arts functioning in the future of political resistance? Do you pressure fellow artists to incorporate politics into their work? Is there a clear, or clean separation between some forms of art and social struggle?
(D) Art has always had a relationship with resistance. It is the way an individual accuses, condemns, and shines a light on the unlit, unblessed stories. Art should be radical. It should be dangerous. I don't pressure anyone to do anything. Everyone has an obligation to their own beating hearts. For me, saying anything at all is an act of resistance. I'm not supposed to be here. I'm not supposed to know what I know. I'm supposed to exist in the margins. I am deliberate, therefore, about standing in the center; naming and claiming and telling truth to power. I don't know if there is a clear separation between some forms of art and social struggle or not. I do know that there is no separation whatsoever for me. I do know I write because I will die if I don't. I do believe I am obligated to re-flesh the bones of the people who preceded me…impossibly possible people who could have given up…but didn't.
(V) How have developments in internet and communication technologies aided or hindered your work as a radical artist and activist?
(D) Hmmm….I guess technology aids me in my work in the sense that it offers greater access and visibility. There are women in South Africa, Asia, Australia and the UK who write to me thanking me for a particular poem; a poem they would not have ever heard without the benefit of the internet so I'm grateful for that. I think we can become hallucinatory as a result of technology too though so it's a slippery slope for me sometimes.
(V) No one would argue that David Lynch's movies clearly illuminate political issues, but his work says a lot about modern society and human beings. Do you find that various forms of art outside the scope of political resistance inform your political views? If so, what artists, movies, songs or pieces of literature have influenced your work that wouldn't be obvious to the casual observer?
(D) I mean…I love a lot of the canonical writers. Writers that were intensely white and male and of course I'm neither of those things but I gather much from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, and E.E Cummings. I also read a lot of Nietzsche. I think I hear the kind of disaffected angst in their work that I also carry albeit for different reasons in some cases. I am a huge fan of the playwright August Wilson, and author Toni Morrison. They write ancestrally and I am interested in that.
(V) Without doubt, the living world is continuously devastated. Right now, the planet is on the verge of total biological collapse. Sometimes, it's hard to stay motivated and sane. Many of my friends ask, "What's the point?" But defeatism and cynicism are not acceptable responses to injustice, particularly from artists. What advice would you give young creators who understand our ecological realities, yet continue to paint, struggle, grow, sing, design and resist?
(D) Revolution is the sound of your heart still beating. And as long as it is, you have work to do. Do it. Without apology. Do it. Bravely and nobly. Do it. Exist, insist, and by all means, resist.
Vince Emanuele is a writer for TeleSUR English. He lives, organizes and writes in the Rust Belt. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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