An Ode to Communion

We fight because we are afraid of knowing who we are.

It is always easier to disagree than to find places of agreement,

 places of balanced authenticity and self-knowing.

War is but a camouflage of our self-doubt and our lack of self-compassion.

For with compassion for our deepest selves, we realize there is no individual,

but rather dividual beings sharing in a common universal experience,

a common struggle to balance between our self-desires and the needs of community,

to find harmony between our self-knowing and the ultimate knowing of Self.

Harmony is always more difficult than discord.

Balance is always more difficult than radical bipartisan politics.

Yet still,

Freedom does not mean making choices merely from our personal desires,

but rather overcoming our inclination to divide and conquer,

over-standing our need for community-in-diversity,

and liberating ourselves from the strife of individual politics, individual needs, individual belief structures

to become a true embodiment of communion.

 (Originally Written Monday, October 14, 2013)

As we reflect on the current political and economic state of the United States as well as many nations throughout the world, I would suggest that we must begin to wonder and even imagine a governmental system based on communion rather than merely capitalistic competition, community rather than endless discord, and harmony and balance rather than dictatorship or individual self-interests. How do we as a human collective find the balance?

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The Òrishà within Us…

Beloved Òsun, thank you for showing me the divine within me. Thank you for granting me access to the orisha that I am. You are the mirror of my own sacredness. I love you as I love myself. Ashé!

In the Yorùbá cosmology, the òrishà are the deities, the sacred embodiments, who guide us through life, mirroring our realities in order to show us our greater potentiality. Yet, the òrishà are not merely sacred beings “out there” or “above and beyond us” that guide us from the “other” realm. We, too, are òrishà. The worlds of the spiritual and the material are constantly entwined and intermingled. This is not necessarily a customary reflection on Yorùbá theologies one might hear or encounter today, but the beauty of African religious traditions like Yoruba is that there is abundant theological and cosmological flexibility. In the Yorùbá cosmology, according to Ifá, it is said that the anti-gods of the left, the ajogun, are 200 +1  and the deities of the right, the òrishà are 400 +1.

These numbers are not meant to be exact. What is most significant about this cosmological notion is the +1, which signifies the ability for new spiritual beings to be added and included in Yorùbá cosmologies and theologies. This +1 demonstrates the centrality of theological and cosmological flexibility to the Yorùbá life-world. There is no one Yorùbá cosmology nor is there one  theology, just as the Yorùbá peoples themselves are numerous and diverse. Thus, in any particular context, often the òrishà that is most significant to the concerns of the particular community are emphasized. In Trinidad, Shàngó is often seen as the most prominent and most important òrishà. While in Oshogbo, Nigeria, Òshun reigns supreme. Thus, new gods and old gods refashioned and made new can be added and adapted to the needs of the Yoruba life-world. I would like to suggest that this theological and cosmological flexibility and diversity provides a basis for us to reflect on our own place in the universe. The above cosmological diagram provides only one among various ways of understanding the Yorùbá cosmology. The scholar Kólá Abímbólá suggests that all Yorùbá cosmologies should be considered functional rather than dogmatic and static. Thus, this cosmology is based on policing, law, and order. From this perspective, rather than Olodumare, the main creator deity and often considered the “Supreme God,” Èsù, the deity of the crossroads, who takes all sacrifices to the other gods and acts as a mediator and a judicial leader, is at the highest point of power. Yet, once again we must remember this cosmological diagram is functional meaning that Èsù is not always either the most important or the most powerful. In this cosmological hierarchy, humans are below the òrishà and thus conceived of as other than them. However, can we imagine humans as having an important function in the universe that would constitute us as not only cosmologically significant but as òrishà as well? After all, the renowned Shàngó of lightening, thunder, and rain was an aláàfin (ruler) that became a great ancestor and then a great òrishà. In actuality, it is relatively uncommon for a human being to become an òrishà. Yet, the narrative and mythology of Shango teaches us something nonetheless about our own human-divine abilities and about the òrishà that lies within each of us. It is to this òrishà to whom we must also give thanks and sacrifice. The following odu provides an glimpses into our òrishà nature.

…Olóòyìmèfún, when s/he was going to establish a farm on a piece of land that belonged to Olówu[,] s/he was advised to offer sacrifices to her/his family’s Ancestors, S/he offered sacrifices to her/his family’s Ancestors, Her/his sacrifices could not be appropriately presented. S/he was advised to offer sacrifices to the divinity of the market place,  S/he propitiated the divinity of the market place, S/he was not accepted. S/he was advised to offer sacrifices to her/his personal divinity called Orí, S/he offered sacrifices to her/his Orí… until she became bald. S/he was advised to offer sacrifices to the goddess Earth, S/he propitiated to the Earth… The Earth sank. S/he was than asked to propitiated Olúbòbòtiribò the most important of all sacrifices. S/he said: “I know that my physical head is the symbol of my personal divinity, I know that the earth is the symbol of the goddess Earth. I know that my father is what is being referred to as the family’s Ancestors. I also know that my mother is the one you are calling the divinity of the market-place. But I do not know what Olúbòbòtiribò, the most important of all sacrifices, is.” They [i.e. the Ifá priest/essess] replied: “People’s mouths are what is called Olúbòbòtiribò the most important of all sacrifices.” What do we propitiate at Ifè? Their mouths, Their mouths are what we propriatiate at Ifè. Their mouths. I gave to the calabash, I gave to the plate. Their mouths. Their mouths are what we propritiate at Ifè. Their mouths. I am concerned about the welfare of those of my household, I am concerned about the welfare of passers-by. Their mouths. Their mouths can no longer be against my interests. Their mouths. Their mouths, Are what we propitiate in Ifè. Their mouths.[1]

Just as our physical heads signifies our personal divinity and the Earth symbolizes the goddess of the Earth, we may think of our physical mouths as symbolizing the òrishà of humanity, in general. Thus, when we feed and give sacrifice to the human spirit, body, and mind, we feed the human community and the universe. When we give ebo, i.e. sacrifice, we give gratitude. As I have previously stated, ebo is not merely a blood sacrifice, it is any act of divine communication. We are doing ebo when create and build our spiritual-material relationships and when we repent for our wrongs and shortcoming providing the sacred space both within and around ourselves to be our deeper òrishà selves. As omoòrishà meaning “children of the òrishà,” we too are òrishà. To be an òrishà, does not mean to be perfect, rather it means being a mirror of truth and a catalysis for transformation. We are òrishà: when we love, when we give, when we dance, when we cry with joy, when we heal, when we mend, when we destroy to build again, when we grow, when laugh to transform, when we truly and authentically exist…

Òsun, ye ye o! Beloved Òsun may your beautiful waters continue to wash us with wisdom and truth and reflect back on to us our own sacred humanity. Ashé!


[1] Odu Òwónrin Méjì from Kólá Abímbólá, Yorùbá Culture: A Philosophical Account, 63-64.

A Poem: Beyond a Flower’s Beauty

Beloved Osun, I have much gratitude for your warrior spirit that gives me the weapons to survive and your honey nature which reminds me to be sweet and to not lose faith in the potentialities of human connection. Ye ye o!

Beyond A Flower’s Beauty

Flowers wilt in comparison to your beauty

Your soul radiates sincerity

And your imperfections are a mirror of your soul depth

The ability and potentiality within

The divine that seeks to manifest

Making soul-flesh,

Sacred matter that weeps with the tears of the universes’ pain

That dances in order to set life free

That loves to unleash truth

That cares to find harmony in the present

Rending the mundane extraordinary and wonderfully made

This soul-flesh,

Incarnating itself in your everyday thought, move, reflection, and care,

Radiates beauty into my I-existence,

This being that refuses to be rendered into an object, into merely a me

Making dreams and fairytales into possibilities

Turning fears and apprehensions into hope and faith

 

So, flowers wilt in comparison to your beauty

And though you are imperfect

Your imperfection is your divine splendor

You step into it with assurance and yearning

Not for the perfect

Not for the appealing

Not even the fascinating

But for the enchantingly genuine and real

The majesty and transcendence hidden within

The crevices of the commonplace

Those openings into the spirit world

That takes us not above and beyond

But rather bring us more abundantly into the present

Allowing the divine to shine from the right-here-and-now

 

So, yes, flowers wilt in comparison to your beauty

Because they can only aesthetically approximate

What you embody and seek within

Ashé

A Poem: The Rainforest & The Foreigner

This poem was originally written on December 11, 2010. This original version can be found in my very first blog posting. Reflecting on this poem has important for where I am currently, so I have updated and expand it.


The Rainforest & The Foreigner

The rainforest of my heart is overwhelmed by your foreign occupation

Of this space, this place within the locus of the I that breaths, lives, and strives unceasingly

To survive in this world where “love” is hardly a noun and never a verb

Yet, with seemingly indigenous knowledge you plant new seeds in this undomesticated garden of my soul-heart,

Bending down on your knees in the dirt, in the mud of my sorrows to bring new life, new branches, new blossoms with your own nature

Sprouting new possibilities where fire, thunder, and unnatural disaster have left internal devastation and pain

Planting roots in this soil, this place, this environ of healing chaos, sensitivity, and strength Where the raindrops fall more abundantly in your presence

Out of sadness, out of fear, but mostly out of hope

Clearing a path for a new experiential terrain

Hoping that my native self may be loved and cherished rather than silenced, tamed, and maimed

Made to wear new costumes to fit others customs

Made to wear banana skirts, forcing my native tongue into foreign song

Yet, may it be quite the contrary,

Allowing my wild nature to be a flowering of possibilities beyond our eyes, beyond our hearts’ desires

Allowing my life world to flower in conversation, communion, and intercourse with thine

But in the meantime,

The rainforest of my heart is overwhelmed by your occupation

Are you France, Britain, or some other imperial other?

Do you come to colonialize, destroy, and plunder?

I cannot help but ponder if you are truly making home or merely passing through in wonder:

Am I a “new world” awaiting your discovery?

Am I a museum of extraordinary and unusual spectacles?

Am I the Hottentot with my butt exposed for so-called scientific measurement, but truly your personal pleasure?

Do you merely wonder what lies between the folds of my thighs?

Does my apron fascinate you, allowing you to re-live your own primitive desires?

Am I your venus noir, a black sexual fetish?

But does my native self otherwise offend you and put you on guard?

Thus, is this just another day in a much longer adventure? Just another voyage into the Other?

Or, do you find the possibilities of beauty, home, and love in this wild forest that is the self that before you unfolds?

Which of these paths are you truly prepared to uncover?

Are you a spectator or a dweller in this rainforest that is my heart- and soul-home?

 

Yet, even if you come here to rape and plunder,

This rainforest will never be torn down by your unnoble agenda

You may render me into buttocks, breasts, and thighs

You may dissect my clitoris for answers to my erotic power

You may lynch me and swing me from my own branches,

Allowing my blood to flow like rain,

You may leave me to die,

A new crucifixion

But you will never know my secret, my ashé

These roots, these branches of my rainforest will never be domesticated by your imperial mind games

You lost your native self a long time ago

When you sold your mother nature to the highest bidder

Hoping for gold, merely this-world glory

When you could have had the universe at your beck and call

And you will not find her again through your lies and disguise

You painted over you blackness with whiteness, and so now you can only glimpse at her through my own soul-nature

You are left merely to colonialize and globalize

Hoping you can sell others your white lies, hoping to turn your nothingness into something

Yet, you are the one who truly dies to life

You sold your mother

For you, there is no rebirth

There is no womb that can regenerate your death-dealing flesh

Your name will be burnt into ashes

Rendered into nothingness on the tongues of both the ancient and the young

Your dying legacy will not be rejuvenated

Your sun will cast no more shadows

My silhouette will be the last glimpse of life you see

For this native rainforest that I call home will continue to sprout life abundantly

So, you decide whether you are Britain, France, or an Other like me?

Choose wisely.

Death and life are just around the corner.

Do you want to live wildly and abundantly free in this rainforest of undomesticated possibilities?

Or do you want to die in your colonial dreams of conquest, rape, and murder?

Once again,

Are you a spectator or merely a dweller?

From Voodoo to Vodou: Un-doing the Lynching of Haitian Vodou

While many Americans spent there Thursday and Friday preparing for the Christmas weekend, indulging in the practice of material consumption in the name of Jesus Christ, reports began to surface about the lynching of Vodou priests in Haiti. Thus, in the midst of Christ-merryment, Vodou priests known as mambo and hougan, were being beaten, hacked with machetes, and burned in the streets based upon misplaced fears and assumptions that Vodou priests were spreading Cholera, a water-borne disease that has reportedly been responsible for more than 2,500 deaths since October. It is not a coincident that these accusations are the resulting after-affects of Pat Robertson’s claim that Haitians long ago  “swore a pact to the Devil.”  Since the successful 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution against the French and the 1914-1934 “post-colonial” United States occupation,  the Euro-western world has long-awaited an opportunity to reclaim power and authority in the first black republic in the world. Accordingly, Robertson claimed that perhaps the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was “a blessing in disguise,” which would allow for “a massive rebuilding” of Haiti, or in other words, an underhanded opportunity for the Euro-western world to politically, socially, and religiously re-build Haiti as it has previously attempted. Positioning Haiti as impoverished has allowed the Euro-Western world to become the “civilizing saviors.” The African theologian Engelbert Mveng, stated the following, to this effect:

… poverty is defined first of all in function of one’s conception of the human beingOf course there is capital, of course there is the class struggle, of course there is the exploitation of human being by human being. And so of course there is a theology of violence, just as there is a theology of the rationality of the state. But for us Africans, the world institutionalized poverty has other roots as well, and it is perhaps these other roots that are more serious, more important, and more relevant to the present moment: slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, racism,  apartheid, and the universal derision that has always accompanied the “civilized” world’s discourse upon and encounter with Africa—and still accompanies it today. Strange, is it not, that in the immense literature that we have on the poor today, Africa is always looked down upon and derided? There is a type of poverty that I call, “anthropological poverty.” It consists in despoiling human beings not only of what they have, but of everything that constitutes their being and existence—their identity, history, ethnic roots, language, culture, faith, creativity, dignity, pride, ambitions, right to speak… we could go on indefinitely.” [1]

This sort of anthropological impoverishment has robed African peoples throughout the world of their own human dignity. As such, while the notion of rebuilding Haiti sounds humanitarian to most, hidden beneath the excitement about rebuilding, restructuring, and human rights initiatives , there is also an implicit and impoverishing condemnation of Haitian Vodou and its communities. These more recent attacks are merely a manifestation of a much long history of the ideological, social, political, and physical lynching of Haitian Vodou and its devotees. By consequence, Vodou priests and devotees are constantly being put in the position of rendering an apologetic reply to the Euro-western Christian world to explain away their perceived deviance. Thus, recent articles have attempted to alleviate Euro-western Christian fears of “voodoo” by claiming among other things that: one, Vodou is compatible with Christianity and its theological principles, and two, Vodou is not a polytheistic religious tradition. This is not to say that these latter claims are either true or false. The problem lies in that they place Vodou and its devotees in a position of having to answer-back, such that the parameters of the conversation always happen based on Euro-western Christian terms, and therefore impoverish Vodou of its own terminologies, philosophies, and theologies. Some Vodou practitioners might see themselves as believing in one God, a sort of diffused monotheism, but others might and rightly so clearly claim that they do not or that the question itself is irrelevant. Why should Vodou have to be considered compatible with Christian theology, whether or not it in fact is, in order to be considered a viable and moral religious tradition? Why should Vodou have to be monotheistic in order to be understood as its own humanitarian and theologically sound orientation? In general, the media does not help in this respect. Journalists and others continue to circulate articles about “Voodoo” and its extraordinary practices, and thus continue to position the religious tradition within the limelight of the spectacle. As the spectacle, the treatment of Haitian Vodou and its practitioners is historically comparable to the rendering of the South African woman Sara Baartman as the “Hottentot Venus,” the so-called sexual primitive, beginning in 1810 and the “scientific” lynching of her body particularly her curious “apron” in 1815. Haitian Vodou has similarly had to deal with its portrayal in the media as “Voodoo,” a notion tied to Western imaginings about “black magic” just as European white men imagined the primitive sexuality of black African women. Haitian Vodou has also undergone a physical murder and dissection at the hand of Euro-western “authorities,” in general, and some Christian communities and priests, in particular, who have blamed Haitian Vodou practitioners for Haiti’s problems without considering the long Euro-western direct and in-direct political influence that has explicitly participated in the impoverishment of the Haitian nation and its communities.

Christians are so quick to condemn Haitian Vodou and its devotees in the name of Jesus Christ that they forget to stop to wonder how they might either directly or indirectly be participating in a state-sponsored imperialism. Christianity has been for too long tied to the “Roman” empire and its political and social agenda. Christians too quickly forget that Jesus was not an advocate for the state but rather was a revolutionary rebel against the state and its perverting powers. He was lynched because he stood against the colonial and imperialist imposition of his day. Thus, Mveng furthermore notes that joined to anthropological improvishment is a theological improverishment, in which Christian communities are unable to “recognize Christ as a person.” [2] While honoring his birth and lavishing themselves in gifts for Christ-merryment, Christians too often forget his life purpose. By focusing upon his death, Christians are able to re-create Jesus as the prosperity messiah and as the crusader of the Western world, enabling people to forgo dealing with his this-world life-transforming ministry for his Jewish community.

Haitian Vodou and other African indigenous religious traditions have for too long been submitted to a state-sponsored Christian condemnation that has wrecked havoc in their communities and has participated in their continued imporishment. Christian need to stop and wonder: if Christ came back today would be he participate in this imperialist agenda or would he be the prophet turning the money tables over in the temple? The question is not for me to answer. Yet, the answer to this question if generated out of compassion and the honoring of human diversity may lead to a thriving of a new diverse religious community in which multiple religious subjectivities can co-exist and in which religion will truly be separated from the state and its political agendas.

(Photo of a 2007 Vodou ceremony in Long Island from http://rootsblog.typepad.com/rootsblog/2007/09/vodou-child-vod.html).

Hail Vodou! May the vodou continue to sustain their people and may their people not lose faith in the face of trial and tribulation. It is their Vodou that helped to free themselves from French colonial oppression and it is their Vodou that will free them once again.



[1] Engelbert Mveng, “Third World Theology—What Theology? What Third World?: Evaluation by an African Delegate,” in Irruption of The Third World: Challenge to Theology, Papers from the Fifth International Conference of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, August 17-29, 1981, New Delhi, India, edited by Virginia Fabella and Sergio Torres (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), 220.

[2] Ibid.

A Ritual: Dance and Release your Ashé!

Osun, ye ye o! Beloved Iya, I give you thanks for showing me my fertility, my own divine ability to create, my own sacred ability to shape the universe! Ashé!


Women, Ladies, allow your breasts to hang and show their fertility. Allow your breasts to be free, so that you may generate fertility in your life and in the universe. Our breasts have been reduced to sex objects and baby feeders, but our breasts are the symbol of our divine fertility, our creator goddess identities. So, in the midst of the night, when there is you alone, bare your breasts as our ancient sister ancestors did and dance! Find any music that carries you. Let the spirit pull you deeper into yourself. Allow your body to move freely, unrestricted, uninhibited. As you take up space in your body, allow your breasts to embrace the loving air. Allow them to sway and swing as you move, as you generate ashé in your hips, in your arms, in your thighs.

(“My Moment” by Artist Kevin R. Simon)

It does not matter if you can dance. This is a ritual for you and you alone. Allow yourself to be free without being hindered by judgment, embracing the darkness of the night as your healing space. Allow the darkness to bring you a sense of comfort and warmth within your own body. As your breasts move, feel their ashé, their power.

Honoring our African ancestors begin to dance in a ring, the reversal of time and space opens the gates for divine communion and creative potentiality. Begin to walk, leap, dance in a counterclockwise circle allowing the spirit to carry you. Do not think! Just move! Free yourself to be fully and actively present in your entire body. Embrace its curves and contours. Our bodies movement generates our ashé, our power-to-make-things-happen. Allow your bare-breasted body to be the vessel of divine creative energy. Release all worries, all concerns, all doubts, and just move, creating spaces and places for healing and transformation within yourself.

So just move! And when you cannot move anymore prostate to the floor allowing your whole body to take this position of reverence and thanksgiving. Give thanks to your guiding spirit and let this spirit speak through and to you. Ashé!


Hail Orisha! Osun, ye ye o!

Washing our Ori in the Rivers of Osun

Beloved Iya Osun, mother of fertility, of sexuality, of feminine empowerment, of wealth may you continue to wash over me, protecting me, guiding me, sustaining me. Ashé!


 

Òbàrà Méjì

Òsòló the priest of Awòn

Casts divination for Awòn

On the day she was going to wash her Orí of wealth in

the river

‘Would it be easier for me’? she asked

They told her that it would be easy for her

But she was advised to perform sacrifice to Òsun

She offered the sacrifice

Life then pleased her

She started having children

She afterward took all her children to Òsun

‘Death must not kill the child of Awòn,’

they instructed

Life pleased them so much

Òsun took good care of her ad her children

And also petted them all

She was dancing and rejoicing

She was praising her Babaláwo

Her Babaláwo was praising Ifá

She said it was as her Babaláwo had said

Òsòló the priest of Awòn

Casts divination for Awòn

On the day she was going to wash her Orí of wealth in

the river

Òsòló is here really

S/he is the priest of Awòn

Don’t you all know that good Orí is what Awòn

washes in the river?[1]

 

In the Yoruba world-sense, the bird is the symbol of women. The bird motif points to cosmic divine authority, ase, in general, and the powerful mothers, the àjé, fondly known as àwon iya wa, “our mothers.” The bird symbolizes the deep connection between the feminine powers of women, the mystical powers of the cosmos, and the great Iya, Iya Ilé, the mother of the earth (our ultimate home and shrine). The powerful woman is the bird woman, the woman with the powers of the cosmos, the woman without whom the world would cease to function. The oba, the Yoruba king, is crowned with symbolic birds. These birds signify the importance of women to his authority and his acknowledgement and harnessing of the powers of the divine cosmos. Even the oba, cannot ignore the “bird women,” the great mystical women whom can both create and destroy.

In this Ifá sacred text, it is Awòn, who like the birds at the banks of a river, dips her orí, i.e. her physical and spiritual head, into the waters of Osun. Awòn is actually a long-necked bird found by river banks; thus, in my interpretation of this text, she seems to signify the connection between Osun and women, in particular, and between Osun and the feminine side of all human beings, in general. Awòn is the wo/man with the good orí, the wo/man whose “head” is filled with loving-kindness, who has gone to the banks of the river in search of easy. Like Awón, many of us wonder, will our way be easier? Like Awón, many of us have good orí, but our way has not been easy; it has not been filled with wealth. Osun is the god/dess of feminine power, sexuality, and fertility. However, she is also the great Ìyá of wealth. Thus, especially in Oshogbo, Nigeria, her devotees both men and women shout her name in praise. Osun, ye ye o! We all need wealth and fertility. Fertility is not merely about the bringing forth of children, though Osun is widely known for her procreative powers. Fertility is about growth and procreation in all aspects of our lives, for we can give birth in many ways and to many things. Similarly, wealth is not merely about the attainment of money. In ancient times, money in the form of cowries was not only a form of financial exchange. It was and still is a spiritual currency. Cowries have been used for centuries as a tool for divining the wisdoms of the divine cosmos. Thus, wealth is about overall abundance: financially, socially, spiritually, physically, and mentally.

(“The Medicine Bird” by Artist Yoruba Artist Victor Ekpuk; See www.victorekpuk.com)

The Awón, the bird, is our wealth to come. May it be our medicine, healing what has ailed us! But, we must first give ebo, sacrifice. Giving ebo, giving sacrifice, is not merely what we have been conventionally taught; it entails any practice that has been initiated to specifically acknowledge and honor the cosmos and/or the divine within: creating sacred art, food offerings to the orisha, masquerading, dancing, feeding one’s community (as Ifá says the mouth, too, is an orisha), planting a garden, etc. This past evening my ebo, my way of honoring my communion with the sacred, was through creating a ritual bath. I burned my candles at my altar to my ori, my Ìyá Osun, my ancestors, and all the other spirits and orisha that guide and secure my life. I made sure to refresh my food offerings and sprayed my altar space with rum to ignite the energies of the spirits and orisha that would come to feed and abide in my consecrated ritual space, and then with water to provide clarity and healing. Water is the greatest and the purest of all medicines.  I then went about creating my ritual bath formula. I used:

  1. 1/4 cup of Jojoba oil
  2. 1/4 cup of Unscented baby-mild Pure-Castile Soap
  3. 2 drops of frankincense essential oil
  4. 2 drop of cypress essential oil
  5. 1 drop of jasmine essential oil
  6. 1 drop of peppermint essential oil
  7. 1 drop of lavender essential oil

If you would like to try making your own ritual bath, pick essential oils that best address the issues you would like to work on and I recommend using oils that deal with your spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical health collectively, or you can pick on particular area to focus on. Not exceeding 6-8 drops of essential oil in each bath (since essential oils are extremely potent and can irritate the skin), create a mixture that best suits you and your goals and tastes. I used Jojoba oil as a carrier oil, which is often recommended, but other oils work just as well as a base. However, you can use as little of the carrier oil or as much as you want depending upon your specific body needs. I tend to use more oil so that my skin will not dry out from taking a bath, especially since it is winter.

During my bath, I  meditated on being enveloped in the sacred. I was the Awón dipping myself into the water to be cleansed and renewed, a sort of personal baptism, through which I could be spiritually rejuvenated and reborn. Such rituals are needed periodically, so that we may remain centered and focused on our divine life purpose. As an Omoosun, i.e. child of Osun, I took this time to reflect upon Osun’s message for me. However, you can utilize this ritual bath to reflect upon and be immersed in the glory of whichever spiritual being most guides and helps you, whether that be Jesus, Shango, Shiva, Yemaya etc. The important thing is to cultivate a practice for self-divine renewal. We all get beaten down by the world at times, and thus initiatory practices in the spirit are important for reminding us of who and why we really are.

After my bath, I went to my altar space and sitting bathed in the candlelight I began to look through the Ifá corpus. I came upon this oduÒbàrà Méjì, a message to me from the spirit world. For when we do ebo, the spiritual world will find ways of speaking back to us. I have shared this message I received with you, so that perhaps you, too, will feel encouraged. May you know that your good orí has not gone unnoticed and that wealth, i.e. fulfiling abundance, is on the horizon!

May we be like Awón, dipping our orí in the rivers of Osun, and find easy and wealth! May our good ori attain the acknowledgement it deserves! Osun, ye ye o! Ashé!



[1] Ayò Salami, Ifá: A Complete Divination (Lagos, Nigeria: NIDD). Though this text is gendered male in its translated form, I have changed nearly all references to gender the text female. The Yoruba language does not encode gender grammatically; however, translations into English tend to masculinize these narratives, giving men a more central depiction in the religious culture. I have chosen to gender the text female to signify the importance of women in this tradition and which even more seems appropriate with this text given that Osun is the deity that attained respect and acknowledgment for women. Remember that the Ifá sacred literary corpus is not the same as the Christian Bible. It is an oral text that has in the recent years been written down in part, but it is essential still oral in nature. Thus, you will find different versions of the odu from town to town and from babalowo to babalowo.

Your Love Language… Words of Affirmation

Osun, beloved Iya of the rivers, beloved mother of fertility and sexuality, I thank you for your rejuvenating spirit. May you continue to grant me the spirit of love and perseverance. Ashé!


My last reflection was on choosing to love, generating a love that is built out of a mature choice to sustain and build affection and intimacy. Today, I would like to reflect on how one begins to actualize this mature love. Gary Chapman, the author of the book The Five Love Languages, argues that our five universal love languages are:

  1. Words of Affirmation
  2. Gifts
  3. Acts of Service
  4. Quality Time
  5. Physical Touch

Yet, his theory is that we each have a primary love language, and if love and appreciation is not communicated in this primary love language then we will not feel loved, even if the person is communicating love and appreciation in all the other four ways. When I originally read this book, I discovered that quality time was my primary love language and that words of affirmation was my secondary. Yet, overtime, this has changed and it is words of affirmation that has become the most important expression of love for me. For most it is difficult to verbally express and thus actualize their feelings in their being, and thus it is the expressions of love that are verbally communicated that have come to mean so much to me. As I have previously reflected, words of affirmation can sometimes be rare to come by in a world where we are so quick to judge. Yet, some may say that anyone can say, for instance, “I love you!” And, to some extent that is true, yet because I believe words have power, have ashé, what we say even out of fabrication can create, destroy, or renew.

Today, for many, physical touch is their primary love language. They only know how to communicate through the flesh and “between the sheets.” The body is our temple and hence it can be a channel of love, but if we are minimizing love to sex, we are not feeling and receiving its true purpose in our lives. Touch becomes a powerful expression of love only when we have learned to be touched first in our hearts and souls and then on our bodies. Consequently, I think that our primary love language can tell us a lot about where we are maturity wise in relationship to love and life. Yet, physical touch is not necessarily a lower form of love. It can be the highest, as the divine energies of Osun and the ancient Egyptian goddess, Bast, have demonstrated to us. Yet, the image of the Hottentot Venus reminds us that Venus energies can be manipulated and distorted. Consequently, physical touch is the least mature form of love when we have not learned to use our body temples to experience the divine in ourselves and others, but it is the highest when we actualize our yogi and yogini selves through sensual movements that bring about divine communion. Similarly, acts of service represents a love grounded in the maturity of the present, in the realities of our responsibilities to our selves and those around us. Yet, when these acts of service become acts of servitude, we are not loving maturely and deeply. By extension, gifts, which can be a materialistic show of affection, can also be a means of recognizing the divine power of matter in our material world. It is not by accident that there are so many “art” forms among indigenous communities. These “arts” are gifts that acknowledge the divine communion between the spiritual and the material, that recognize that without the material the divine cannot manifest in this world. Quality time, like gifts, recognizes our material presence in the world and our need to be met materially and experientially. Lastly, words of affirmation can be generated out of fabrication and lies or out of the deep divine within. Yet, none the less, words of affirmation always speak power to truth, as it is said. Even when they intend to corrupt, their affirmative quality can override the most devastating of circumstances. Words of affirmation demonstrate our ability to be emotionally present. Human beings were given the gift of language to create. Words are one of our most powerful gifts. They can be used to destroy, they can be used to hate, but they can also be used to affirm and love. Words connect us to the whole of the human community. They are our ashé, so may we use them wisely and affirmatively.

Ask yourself, what is your love maturity level? What does your primary love language tell you about yourself? How can you strength your connection to divine love? Even if words of affirmation is not your primary love language, it can be a powerful way of building your love maturity. It can be a beautiful way of affirming your physical connectedness, your gift receiving and giving spirit, your spatial and emotional connectedness, and your commitment to your communal responsibilities. So, even if only for yourself, use words of affirmation to build upon your own divinity and in the process you will build upon your love maturity, your ability to connect divinely and affirmatively with the beings of the universe. So, may you find words of affirmation that lift you into your higher self! Ashé!

Osun, ye ye o!

Choosing to Love…

There are always days that are harder than others and yet I am thankful for the strength to rise and to awaken to the sun. I give gratitude for the love that dwelth within my heart whether or not it is ever appreciated. Beloved Osun, may you continue to abide with me through the storm. Ashé.


So few people ever choose to love. They wait for it to capture them by surprise. They wait to be captured, and yet they do not ever think of the possibility that love is partly a choice. They live in the world of Cinderella and movie fabricated love. Yet, in reality, the love that lasts a lifetime is the love that one chooses to give. When one gets beyond the puppy infatuation, when one reaches beyond first tier romance, one must cultivate a mature love wherein one chooses to actively participate in loving and being loved.

When I first read Toni Morrison’s Love, I was angry with disappointment because there was nothing loving in her narrative of twisted infatuation and lust. I felt robbed of a sweet narrative of black love, a love grown out of gentleness, patience, gratitude, and openness. Yet, there were none of those things in her story.

…I saw all kinds of mating. Most are two-night stands trying to last for a season. Some, the riptide ones, claim exclusive rights to the real name, even though everybody drowns in its wake. People with no imagination feed it with sex—the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that—softly, without props.[1]

Maybe too few of us have the intelligence to love “without props,” to love softly and gently, to love kindly without control, manipulation, and despise. How do we go about cultivating this intelligence in a world were rape has become an art? How do we even know love when the word have been turned into a weapon of mass destruction? So, now when I look over Morrison’s work on Love, I understand its dark stormy quality, its overwhelming reality. I did not want reality. I wanted hope. But now, I just want a truth I can build on to create a new and different world where knowledge is not a means of othering and destroying. I want to find another soul that’s not afraid to choose to love and be loved, another soul who is not bound by conventionality.

I call myself spiritintimacy in honor of the deepest and most beautiful of intimacies. This is not an intimacy born in the flesh, nor an intimacy merely cultivated in the mind. This is an intimacy that resides in spirit, that resides in the part of the self that connects one to all of existence. This is an intimacy that allows one to live and love transcendently in the present. I truly hope that for myself and for all sentient beings, for despite the pain of rejection, denial, and neglect, if one is fortunate enough to reach this deeper connection, one is truly and abundantly blessed. And, having the courage to believe in this deep love and intimacy is a gift in and of itself.

Thus, for those of us who are love’s believers, that pray at its temple and attempt to discern its doctrines in our life, I leave us with another narrative reflection by Toni Morrison, written out of the pain of slavery but an ultimate belief in the divine in us all:

Uncalled, unrobed, unaniontd, she let her great heart beat in their presence… Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing—a wide open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees….

It started [this] way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her heart.

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughts; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it had. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And my people they do not love your hands. Those the only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put your hands on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than your eyes or feet. More than your lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, here me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”[2]

Even in the slavery of the present, loving is never impossible, but we must make the choice. May we find the strength to love and to be loved in the present! Ashé!

 

Osun, ye ye o!


[1] Toni Morrison, Love, 63.

[2] Toni Morrison, Beloved, 102-104.

The Black Venus & The Signification of the Prostitute: Sexual Monsters, Primitives & Whores

I would not usually place my intellectual writing in a public forum, but I think that this paper that I have struggled so hard to write has something important to say that someone may need to hear. So, for my readers, I appreciate your willingness to hear me and your reflections and comments are very welcome.

 


(Painting by Kellie Romany, entitled “Labiaplasty”)


Introduction: The Prostitute as the Sexual Monster

From the historical and cultural milieu of the “enlightenment” cities of Paris and London, the nineteenth-century marked the “discovery” of the “sexual monster,”[1] an admixture of sexual perversity and primitivism. While prostitutes, whores, and les filles de noce had long existed prior to this period, with the colonial conquests of the West into “savage” and “primitive” worlds, the nineteenth-century marked the merging of the monstrous and the filles de noce. According to Foucault, the sexual monster is a development arising out of the eighteenth century in which connections were made between the monster, a perversion of natural and civil law and, the masturbator, the common sexual deviant. While Foucault situates the sexual monster in the second half of the eighteenth century, it seems that it is in the nineteenth century that the sexual monster proper is discovered, and numerically, morphologically, and judicially identified, categorized, and then condemned.

It is my contention that an environment of normalcy develops and creates the cultural context for the co-mingling of the monstrous and the sexually deviant. For instance, in his The Taming of Chance, Ian Hacking notes that “Only around 1840 did the practice of measurement become fully established,” and thus it was in the nineteenth century with the influence of Auguste Compte’s postivist philosophy that we can find “the roots of the idea…that one can improve—control—a deviant subpopulation by enumeration and classification.”[2] Moreover, attempting to understand the seeming modern cultural imperative of normalcy, Lennard J. Davis points out that while statistics has its origins in 18th century with Gottfried Achenwall’s assessment of the state, statistical analysis was not applied to the body until Bisset Hawkins in 1829 and l’homme moyen did not emerge, even in professional jargon, until later in the century with the French statistician Adolphe Quetelet.[3] Thus, one could contend the sexual monster proper does not explicitly take form until the nineteenth century when, as Foucault contends, “a technology of human abnormality, a technology of abnormal individuals appears.”[4]

With the advent of a scientific methodology based on measurement and a discourse of normalcy, the sexual monster transformed the prostitute, the white sexually deviant woman, into the primitive—creating a mixture of the animal, the human, and the sexual. Thus, the prostitute became an extraordinary body not only as a gendered and sexed being, but moreover as an embodiment of primitive otherness. Consequently, while it is in the eighteenth century that Carl Linnaeus adds a fifth human subspecies, homo sapiens monstrous, partly based on assumptions about the Hottentot women and her mysterious “aprons,” and the Hottentot man and his supposed single testicle,[5] it is in 1810 that Sara Baartman—providing material “evidence” of primitive monstrosity and promiscuous sexuality—makes her debut in London at 225 Piccadilly and becomes infamously known as the “Hottentot Venus.” As T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting argues, it is through the image of the venus noire that the prostitute and prostitution takes on newly perverse social and cultural meanings.[6] Consequently, this paper explores the prostituted body, as a site for encoding the extraordinary, as not merely a sexed body or even a gendered body, but as a primitively other body—as the sexual monster.

 

From Whore to Sexual Monster: The Hottentot Venus and Constructions of Sexual Primitiveness

The monster, according to Foucault, is an anomaly of both nature and society. Thus he contends that monstrosity cannot merely be a mishap of nature but rather denotes a disruption of “civil, canon, or religious law.”[7] Thus, monstrosity extends beyond the parameters of disability, which still abides to the law, and is to the contrary “the kind of natural irregularity that calls law into question and disables it.”[8] The monster is essentially, and according to Foucault “by definition the exception.”[9] Yet, he contends that in comparison to the eighteenth century, the monstrosity of the nineteenth century is not necessarily a type that can be discovered without a trained clinical eye. This monster is rather a mixture of “eccentricities, kinds of imperfection, errors of nature.”[10] Consequently, the sexual monster emerges into the nineteenth-century as a perversion not only of civil and natural law, but also of moral decree.

The creation of Sara Baartman as the primitive and sexual spectacle became a material manifestation of monstrosity and perverse sexuality that “respectable” English and French gentlemen and women could observe, poke, and prod out of curiosity in exchange for money. As the spectacle of the extraordinary, as Crais and Scully elaborate,

The Hottentot Venus became the first figure from African to “win publicity” in the nineteenth century. From 1810, Sara stood for more than just herself, just as scientists, scholars, and the post-apartheid nation would again demand of her in different ways after her death. Her body became the foundation for the later far more stylized entrepreneurial forms that constituted the nineteenth-century freak show and for the development of racial science.[11]

Yet, her body as an emblem of both monstrosity and perverse sexuality would set her apart from other forms of freakery. Inspecting her genitalia and her buttocks, through their trained clinical gaze, the white male scientists “discovered” and detailed the “hypersexuality and uncontrolled drives in the female Hottentot body,” a body that was understood as part human but unequivocally animalistic. Thus, as Crais and Scully argue the “Scientists married primitiveness to sexuality, the instincts, and urges revealing the essence of the lower species.”[12] Thus, one could contend that Sara Baartman became the sexual monster per excellence of the nineteenth century. Under the clinical gaze, her body signified a double negation both the monstrosity of nature and the monstrosity of conduct, and provided the basis for an understanding of women, in general, as sexually primitive, and prostitutes, in particular, as sexually monstrous.

Figure 1: 1810 based drawing of the “Hottentot venus” on display in London

 

Lombroso and the Venus Noire: The Prostitute as Sexually Perverse & Primitive

In 1893, at the end of the nineteenth century, Cesare Lombroso coauthored with Guglilmo Ferrer La donna delinquente, which would become a seminal yet, deeply problematic work on female criminality. First published in Italian, Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson note that “[t]his work, more than any other book in Western history, determined directions taken in the field of study, albeit in recent decades by providing a backdrop against which feminist criminologists have lobbed very different ideas.”[13] Thus, as problematic as it may be, it constitutes a significant cultural conversational piece on the relationship between gendered bodies, the primitive, and criminality.

Utilizing the “primitive”—particularly, Hottentot women, Native American women, and other so-called “savages”— as an explanatory framework for female perversion and criminality, Lombroso argues that sexual deviance is derivative of women’s innately primitive nature. Consequently, the Hottentot Venus and her equally sexually monstrous cousins become the litmus test for white female sexual perversion, and in particular, a “scientific” explanation for the female prostitute. As Crais and Scully note,

Sara Baartman had been reduced not simply to men’s image of her body but to men’s image of her genitals and the ways the organs of sexual pleasure stood for character, her very being. White women, even the most civilized, were liable to fall victim to their animal instincts and passions, to revert to their Hottentot selves.

Thus, ontologically and morphologically, “European prostitutes” whom had previously been merely whores, a woman-for-hire, now “became degenerate women, literally women who had become more Hottentot.”[14] Theorizing “prostitution [as] closer than criminality to woman’s primitive behavior,”[15] Lombroso concludes that to some extent all (white) women have a Hottentot self, and thus sexual monstrosity and primitiveness—like Foucault’s common masturbator—is an ordinary and primary character of every woman that must be controlled and repressed. Through the figure of the Hottentot Venus, in particular, and the primitive sexual monster, in general, who both represent a position of double exceptionality, it seems that the cultural and judicial atmosphere was created and facilitated for a discourse of monstrosity that in its interrogation of conduct “is no longer juridico-natural but juridico-moral” and thus for these otherwise normative (white) women, they become primarily scrutinized under “a monstrosity of conduct rather than the monstrosity of nature.”[16]

Figure 2: Physiology of Russian prostitutes. (Lombroso, La donna delinquente, 1893.)

Figure 3: Physiology of Russian offenders. (Lombroso, La donna delinquente, 1893.)

 

While the female nature remains a terrain to be carefully assessed for deviance by the trained clinical (male) eye—such as for anomalies of the brain, vulva, buttocks, and face—, for the prostitute and sexual promiscuous woman, their conduct is what ultimately demonstrates their monstrosity. Thus, while Lombroso is able to often identify the criminal woman based on certain anomalies and masculine features, on the other hand, he notes,

…in prostitutes we have women of great youth in whom the “beauty of the devil,” with its abundance of soft, fresh flesh and absence of wrinkles, masks anomalies. Another thing to keep in mind is that prostitution calls for a relative lack of peculiarities such as large jaw and hardened stare which, if present, might cause disgust and repulsions; it also requires that such peculiarities be concealed through artifice. Certainly makeup—a virtual requirement of the prostitute’s sad trade—minimizes many of the degenerative characteristics that female criminals exhibit openly.[17]

As such, one can assert that the Hottentot morphologically based proclivities of the prostitute are thus carefully hidden under their “aprons.” Making connections between the adoption of domestic servant attire by prostitutes—noting that domestic servants were often seen as sexually available in comparison to their male employers’ respectable wives—and the Parisian obsession with the “Hottentot apron,” Sharpley-Whiting argues that in nineteenth-century Paris the “apron” became a fetishized representation of “the corrupting and venal sex, the prostitute’s sex, or the sex of one who has prostitute proclivities as signified by her trade and dress – that is, the maid.”[18] Like the Hottentot Venus, who was able to partially hide the proof of her degeneracy between her thighs, Lombroso constructs the prostitute as a more atavistic woman (than the common female criminal) that is able to keep veiled her sexual monstrosity under “the apron [that] covers the apron.”[19]

The “apron” of the prostitute, or the sexually promiscuous woman, provided a cover for her innately primitive morphology and temperament. Accordingly, based on perceived anomalies of the female genitalia, Lombroso, as Sander Gilman argues, correlates blackness as exemplified by the Hottentot woman to the prostitute, such that “The primitive is the black, and the qualities of blackness, or at least of the black female, are those of the prostitute” and thus by consequence, “The perception of the prostitute in the late nineteenth century thus merged with the perception of the black.”[20] The primitive and particularly the noire venus emerge as primary examples of the undisclosed sexual perversity of women, particularly the prostitute. As such, Lombroso contends,

Primitive woman was rarely a murder; but she was always a prostitute, and so she remained until the end of the semibarbaric period. Atavism again explains why prostitutes have more regressive traits than do female criminals… The prostitute… has a greater atavistic resemblance to the primitive woman—the vagabond Venus—and thus she has greater dullness of touch and taste, greater fondness for tattooing, and so on… This is because criminals are exceptions among civilized people, and women are exceptions among criminals, women’s natural form of regression being prostitution, not crime. Primitive woman was a prostitute rather than a criminal.[21]

Thus, the primary transgression of the primitive woman, who was envisioned as bad, masculine, and innately promiscuous, was not crime but rather sexual perversity, and hence the (white) normative woman, whom was generally understood as good, feminine, and civilized was seen as being most susceptible not to crimes such as murder, theft, etc. but rather to her sexually deviant and repressed primitive nature.

Figure 5: Negro Venus and Patagonian girl (Lombroso, La donna delinquente, 1893). Editor’s note: Although there is no indication that this [negro] woman had broken the law, Lombroso uses her photograph to demonstrate the supposedly savage, masculine appearance of black women, traits he then uses to illustrate his theory that criminals are atavisms. In the case of this young South American Indian, too, Lombroso is trying to draw a connection between “savage races” and criminals. (See Lombroso, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, 149, figures 20-21).

Within this nineteenth-century cultural milieu, the prostitute became “the vagabond Venus,” the venus noire, who exemplified the most deviant and perverse of sexual transgressions. This black venus cultivated a discourse through which the prostitute could be understood in the nineteenth-century and far beyond. Despite the fact that, as Sharpley-Whiting notes, black prostitutes represented a minority in nineteenth-century Parisian society, white male desire for the exotic and the extraordinary, projected the black venus as the epitome of modern prostitution.[22] Accordingly, Sharpley-Whiting contends that while,

The Roman deity of beauty, Venus, was also revered as the protectress of Roman prostitutes, who in her honor erected Venus temples of worship. Within these temples, instruction in the arts of love was given to aspiring courtesans. It is the latter image of prostitution, sexuality, and danger that reproduced itself in narrative and was projected onto black female bodies. The projection of the Venus image, of prostitute proclivities, onto black female bodies allows the French writer to maintain a position of moral, sexual, and racial superiority.[23]

We can substitute “French writer” here for the “white western man,” in general, for this cultural phenomenon became an embodied script for cultural interaction and social postitionality throughout the nineteenth-century western world. Moreover, I would contend that it is through the cultural phenomenon of the black venus that we can begin to understand the politics of signification and othering at the root of prostitution and sex trafficking in our present era.

 

L’Autre: Prostitution, The Black Venus, and A Politics of Othering

Unfortunately, the Hottentot Venus is not a cultural phenomenon of the past. The black venus has been transformed into a cultural logic of othering in which, as Sharpley-Whiting notes, “black females” and other prostituted selves, I would add, “are perpetually ensnared, imprisoned in an essence of themselves created from without: Black Venus.”[24] This cultural emblem has transferred the double exceptionality of the sexual monster, its exclusion based both on its primary otherness and its perceived sexual perversion, on to the prostituted bodies, in general. Thus, in my conceptualization of this cultural and political issue, prostituted bodies are not merely the bodies of women who are “women-for-hire,” in particular, but also the bodies of women, such as black woman and other others—children, indigenous women, etc.—, who are imagined and constructed as sexually available and willing.

A product of the ancestral legacy of Hegel and western male thinkers prior to him, the postitionality of the other in relationship to the self has long concerned western feminist philosophies of female subjectivity. While Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, famously proclaims, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”[25] and thus rejects the secondary status of women as other to men, she projects woman’s inability to be “equal” (to men) as a product of their womanliness that they must overcome. She, thus, argues that women must learn to “enact the fact of all humanity in their personal existence.”[26] Yet, Luce Irigaray argues that the problem lies not in the conduct and mindset of women, but rather in that “the fundamental model of the human being remained unchanged: one, singular, solitary, historically masculine, the paradigmatic Western adult male, rational, capable.”[27] Thus, others were essentially “only copies of the idea of man, a potentially perfect idea, which all the more or less imperfect copies had to struggle to equal.”[28] Consequently, for Irigary, Beauvoir’s inability to see woman as an other, in and of themselves, represents “a theoretical and practical error, since [her assertions] imply the negation of an/other (woman) [d’un(e) autre] equal in value to that of the subject.”[29] Thus, Irigaray fundamentally argues that l’autre should not be seen as essentially the other in relationship to the self, but rather that the other should constitute its own subjectivity. She contends, “Instead of refusing to be the other gender [l’autre genre], the other sex, what I ask is to be considered as actually an/other woman [une autre], irreducible to the masculine subject.”[30] Irigaray theorizes a move away from a model of singular subjectivity to a model of dual subjectivities, which are understood as different rather than ontologically mediated in relationship to one another. As such, Irigaray insists that “we must be careful to treat the other as the other,”[31] rather than a reflection of the self, i.e. masculine subjectivity. Thus, “man” does not remain the self, “man,” too, is reconstituted as the other.[32]

Irigaray’s conception of l’autre, the other, provides an important template for considering other subjectivies beyond the man/woman paradigm. As she contends, the problem with the positionality of the other is not its alterity but rather its perceived relationship to a sole subjective position. I do not intend to overemphasis or distort otherness—and therefore leave no ground for conversations regarding sameness—, but rather to discuss a means for allowing alterity to exist as merely a description rather than a negation. The religious historian, Charles Long made the following remarks to this effect:

…on a descriptive live, one cannot deny that there are peoples and cultures of dark-skinned, kinky-haired human beings who do not wear clothing in the manner of the cultures of the investigators, and, in addition, they express very different meanings regarding their orientations in their worlds. While this may be true on the descriptive and analytical levels, the fact that these characteristics were noted as the basis for significant differences is often unexplored. In other words, what leads one to locate differences within what is the common? More often than not, the differences that bring a culture or a people to the attention of the investigator are not simply formed from the point of view of the intellectual problematic; they are more often than not the nuances and latencies of that power which is part of the structure of the cultural contact itself manifesting itself as intellectual curiosity. In this manner the cultures of non-Western peoples were created as products of a complex signification.[33]

Long is concerned with the very politics of difference and intellectual curiosity that signified Sara Baartman as the Hottentot Venus and then the black venus, in general, as the embodiment of the sexual promiscuity of the prostitute. This type of politics of difference and othering, which had its roots in the colonial project, creates, according to Long, “empirical others… a cultural phenomenon in which the extraordinariness and uniqueness of a person or culture is first recognized negatively.”[34] The black venus (and her prostituted cousins) is exactly this sort of cultural phenomenon.

Yet, Irigarary’s model of alterity provides a lens through which we can restructure these signifying practices into practices for cultivating an understanding of the diversity of human subjectivies. The self—the white, western, male, singular notion of humanness—must be replaced by a model of l’autre in which subjectivity and humanity is conceived of as multiple and dynamic. Only in providing room for subjectivies can others be known and understood on their own terms rather than through the lens of a normativizing gaze. For prostituted bodies, politically, this means understanding their multiple and diverse embodiments as not only a reflection of perversion but rather a manifestation of merely their alternative subjectivities—meaning that, for instance, prostituted bodies can no longer be the exceptions to the rules of rape and violence.[35] To conclude that prostituted bodies are not capable of being raped is to continue to uphold a white, western, and masculine subjectivity that privileges white female “respectability” as the only viable form of humanity. Consequently, the politics of prostitution and sex trafficking brings to the forefront that as long as our legal system operates on the basis of a common citizen (with a singular subjectivity), extraordinary embodiments will continue to be exploited, raped, violated, murdered, and rendered invisible.

Irigaray, however, calls for a politics of alterity that would allow for “special rights,” contending that “the lack of special rights for women does not allow them to move from a state of nature to a civilized state: the majority remain nature-bodies, subservient to the State, to the Church, to father and husband, without access to the status of civilians, responsible for themselves and the community.”[36] Yet, the notion of “special rights” seems to undermine the otherness of the masculine subject that Irigaray wishes to attain. How then do others participate as political subjects in a judicial system that operates based upon the singular subjectivity of the white, western, bourgeois, masculine self? This thus brings us to Wendy Brown’s arguments, in her States of Injury, in which he points outs,

The postmodern exposure of the imposed and created rather than discovered character of all knowledges—of the power-suffused, struggle-produced quality of all truths, including reigning political and scientific ones—simultaneously exposes the groundlessness of discovered norms or visions… Our alternative to reliance upon such normative claims would seem to be engagement in political struggles in which there are no trump cards such as “morality” or “truth.” Our alternative, in other words, is to struggle within an amoral political habitat for temporally bound and fully contestable visions of who we are and how we ought live.[37]

Yet, as Brown states, the question remains as to whether we are willing to give up the foundations of morality and truth, in order, to live in a political milieu peopled by multiple subjectivies. For Brown, this means moving from speaking of “I am”—a reversion to a fixed and solitary subjectivity—to instead speaking politically of “I want”—in order to recover a sense of being prior to sovereign subjectivity.[38] Giorgio Agamben, similarly states, that since the fundamental nature of the state is formulated based upon the inclusion/exclusion paradigm in which the sovereign power creates its meaning out of exclusion, i.e. the bare life, the state will forever participate in a politics of omission, that is,

…until a completely new politics—that is, a politics no longer founded on exceptio of bare life—is at hand, every theory and every praxis will remain imprisoned and immobile, and the “beautiful day” of life will be given citizenship only either through blood and death or in the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns.[39]

For our purposes, this bare life, this exception, is the prostituted body—the bodies of exploited black venuses, whom have been deemed the exception to normative morality, nature, and judicial order, and thus essentially constitute non-citizens. As this essay has attempted to demonstrate, the extraordinary bodies of the prostituted are at the center of a politics of othering that by deeming them sexual monsters and hence exceptions continues to participate in their exploitation, rape, and trafficking.

 

Conclusion: Re-Thinking the Extraordinary and Bodies that Matter

What does it mean to view prostituted bodies as “extraordinary bodies”? This essay has explored the terrain of prostitution as a discourse on gendered/sexed, cultural, and morphological otherness, in order to uncover the terrain of the extraordinary as the cultural playground in which both norms and deviants are created. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson suggests, “the meanings attributed to extraordinary bodies reside not in inherent physical flaws, but in social relationships in which one group is legitimated by possessing valued physical characteristics and maintains its ascendancy and its self-identity by systematically imposing the role of cultural or corporeal inferiority on others.”[40] Yet, these same extraordinary bodies introduce “challenges to the cultural status quo,”[41] and in this sense, I would contend that the extraordinariness of prostituted bodies is in their trans-flexibility or, in other words, their embodied trans-gression, their ability to take on and trans-form the “norm.” The prostituted body is transcoded[42] with multiple and conflicting meanings that speak to the social power struggles for “correct” identity and social positioning. In this sense, the prostituted body is the body through and on which conflicts about marriage, race, ethnicity, religion, immigration and sex/gender are encoded and even re-inscribed. The prostituted body, thus, in general, is the materialization of a politics of otherness and othering that participates in identifying alterity as essentially negative and in need of repression and control.

Through their “spoiled identities,” in the words of Erving Goffman,[43] prostituted bodies implore the “normate” to explore how their otherness “shore[s] up” the legal, the political, the sexual, the moral, the social, and the religious self.[44] It is often assumed that prostitution is a system or even a career in which women “exploit” the needs and desires of men or vice verse men “exploit” the economic needs of women. Yet, as this essay has attempted to illustrate, the prostitute is not really any individual person but rather a phantasm, more precisely, the signification of persons as other, such as: the “sexually liberated” female body, the economically deprived, the religiously anomalous, the ethnic, the polygamous, the grotesque, etc. I would contend that in many ways, the prostituted body is the abject body par excellence—the exception to the masculine and bourgeois subject position and its sovereignty. As Judith Butler puts it, “This exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed thus requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject bodies, those who are not yet “subjects,” but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject.”[45] As Butler further more iterates, these abject bodies which do not completely materialize define the boundaries of and “materializ[e] the norm,” and thus participate in the qualification of “bodies that matter.” Consequently, Butler implores us to consider, “What challenge does that excluded and abjected realm produce to a symbolic hegemony that might force a radical rearticulation of what qualifies as bodies that matter, ways of living that count as “life,” lives worth protecting, lives worth saving, lives worth grieving?”[46]

Located within a postitionality of abjectivity, the prostituted body can provide a means for us to reformulate our politics of the extraordinary. In coming to except prostituted bodies as une autre subjectivity, we are forced to reorient our very ontological and moral existence to account for beings, and thus to address alterity as a description rather than an ethical judgment. It is only through this process that we can begin to challenge the types of bodies and embodiments that “matter.” This essay, thus, necessarily leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and yet I hope that it has provided a lens through which to re-think the politics and culture of prostitution and to theorize the extraordinary, the exceptional, and une autre differently.

 

Bibliography

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Brown, Wendy. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Butler, Judith. “Introduction.” In Bodies that Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Crais, Clifton and Pamela Scully. Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy” In Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso, 1995.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Foucault, Michael. Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975. New York: Picardor, 1999.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Gilman, Sander L. “The Hottentot and the Prostitute: Toward and Iconography of Female Sexuality.” In Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness.

Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Hacking, Ian. The Taming of Chance. Cambridge: UP, 1990.

Irigaray, Luce and Noah Guynn, “The Questions of the Other,” Yale French Studies 87 (1995): 7-19.

Lombroso, Cesare and Guglielmo Ferrero. Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman. Ed. Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson. Durham: Duke University       Press,  2004.

Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Aurora, Colorado: The Davies Group, 1995.

Portlock, Karin S. “Status on Trial: The Racial Ramifications of Admitting Prostitution Evidence Under State Rape Shield Legislation.” Columbia Law Review 107 (2007): 1404-1436.

Razack, Sherene. “Race, Space, and Prostitution: The Making of the Bourgeois Subject.” Canadian Journal of Women and Law 338 (1998): 338-376.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

 


[1] See Michael Foucault, Abnormal, 60.

[2] Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, 5, 3.

[3] Lennard J. Davis, “Constructing Normalcy,” 26.

[4] Foucault, Abnormal, 61.

[5] See Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus, 15.

[6] T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives.

[7] Foucault, Abnormal, 63.

[8] Ibid., 64.

[9] Ibid., 58.

[10] Ibid., 72.

[11] Crais and Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus, 80.

[12] Ibid., 133.

[13] Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson, “Editors’ Introduction,” In Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, 3.

[14] Crais and Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus, 147.

[15] Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, 149.

[16] Foucault, Abnormal, 73.

[17] Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, 143.

[18] Sharpley-Whiting, Black Venus, 65.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Sander L. Gilman, “The Hottentot and the Prostitute: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality,” in Difference and Pathology, 99.

[21] Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, 148, 185.

[22] Sharpley-Whiting, Black Venus, 72-73.

[23] Ibid., 7.

[24] Ibid., 10.

[25] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 267.

[26] Ibid., 713.

[27] Luce Irigaray and Noah Guynn, “The Question of the Other,” 7.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 8.

[30] Ibid., 9.

[31] Ibid., 17.

[32] Ibid., 18-19.

[33] Charles Long, “Introduction,” In Significations, 5.

[34] Ibid., 90.

[35] See Karin S. Portlock, “Status on Trial: The Racial Ramification of Admitting Prostitution Evidence Under State Rape Shield Legislation.”

[36] Irigaray and Guynn, “The Question of the Other,” 14.

[37] Wendy Brown, States of Injury, 48.

[38] Ibid., 75-76.

[39] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 11.

[40] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies, 7.

[41] Ibid., 38.

[42] See Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 5, 58, 191-192.

[43] See Irving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

[44] Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies, 8.

[45] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter, 3.

[46] Ibid., 16.