Reflections on Mama Saartjie, The Saartjie Project Performance, and My Womanline
Reflections on Mama Saartjie, The Saartjie Project Performance, and My Womanline by Ananda Leeke
Copyright 2008 by Madelyn C. Leeke.
Excerpt from That Which Awakens Me: A Woman's Poetic Memoir (IUniverse, Inc. - December 2008)
On the eve of what would have been my grandmother Frederica (affectionately known as Freddie) Stanley Roberts Leeke’s 93rd birthday, I found myself sitting in a “black box” theater at the DC Arts Center on 18th Street in DC. If Freddie were still alive, I know she would have been eager to sit beside me. And then I remembered that her spirit and the spirits of my ancestral womanline were with me. So I called out their names silently to honor their presence:
My mother Theresa
My grandmothers Frederica and Dorothy
My great grandmothers Iona, Ida May, Eunice Ann, and Florida J
My great great grandmothers Cratter, Fannie, Ida, Mille Ann, Nancy, and Elizabeth
My great great great grandmothers Sarah, Jane, Carolyn, Martha, and Ann
My great great great great grandmother Ella
The memory of Nina Simone singing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” serenaded my spirit. Hearing Nina’s voice made me think of the women in my family who sacrificed so I could experience firsthand what it means to be free. My head bowed to my heart and offered a prayer of thanksgiving. That’s when the black box theater transformed itself into sacred space for me. Moments later Jessica Solomon, founder of The Saartjie Project (http://www.thesaartjieproject.org/), a collective of artists and activists who explore the life and legacy of Saartjie (Sara) Baartman, appeared front and center. She stood tall and courageous as she looked into the eyes of her own mother and those of us sitting near by. Jessica humbly welcomed us into the sacred space with an invitation to witness and celebrate the birth of her creative baby.
The lights dimmed and the first of many amazing moments of storytelling, song, dance, and spoken word began. I was awe struck and baptized by the beautiful, talented women who offered gifts from their souls and wombs all in an effort to describe what it means to be born human, female, covered in Black skin, and robbed of your true identity and humanity like Mama Saartjie, a South African female ancestor hailing from the Khoi San tribe. Her person and voluptuous body were put on exhibit from 1810 to 1815 in Europe. Their performance left me speechless. It was uniquely theirs and cannot be compared to anything I have ever seen including Ntozake Shange’s 1975 chorepoem and stageplay For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
This morning I woke up before the sun kissed the sky and reached for my journal covered in purple, orange, and blue handmade paper with one of my original collages depicting a Black woman’s eyes and a collection of phrases: I have a voice. Strong. Clear. Joyful. True. My pen took instruction from my spirit and poured out what my heart encountered Saturday evening. See my reflections below.
#1 - Prologue
The morning echoed Alice Coltrane’s Translinear Light through my home. Her music and spirit joined my ancestral womanline in keeping me and my home nurtured and protected. Their presence allowed me to inhale the breath of liberation and exhale the legacy of limitation.
#2 – What is to come
This is the day that the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad.
Be glad you say.
Because we stand as free women.
Our voices are strong, clear, joyful, and true.
They speak ancestral truth.
We have volunteered to be griots of the feminine cloth … storytellers for a tribe of women who were not supposed to make it.
We stand as a collective of daughters gathered in Mama Saartjie’s name.
Be still and listen
#3 - What came
Their creative juices baptized the audience with song, dance, storytelling, and spoken word.
Our souls were anointed and opened to the obvious and inevitable:
....a mourning song reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit with images of Black women’s flesh burning while hanging on popular culture’s tree planted in a garden of music videos created by artists and companies that get massive play on BET....
....a resurrection urging us to forgive ourselves for the roles we have played and forge ahead by defining ourselves for ourselves as Mama Audre encouraged us to do and creating our own content and images with our own words, creativity, and power....
#4 – The first time I ever saw her face
The first time I ever saw her face was in a photograph of a watercolor painting.
The title read “Femme de Race Boschimanne.”
The artist was unknown.
Her eyes offered emptiness.
Her facial expression was cold and numb.
Her body was nude and vulnerable for all to see.
It was clear that she hadn’t given her permission.
#5 – Something ain’t right
My gut keeps telling me that something ain’t right.
That’s how I know that something just ain’t right.
Why are Mama Saartjie’s daughters still disrobed and disrespected?
When will this madness end?
#6 – This madness
This madness will end when Mama Saartjie’s daughters grab hold of the liberation she did not have a chance to see and use it to tell our stories with our own words and ways that promote messages of healing… that demonstrate our own R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our body temples.
When we walk in our truth, focused on moving forward, this madness will have no other choice but to die. So let’s get to steppin’ now before it gets to be too late. Let’s stop struggling with the powers that be and channel our inner-gy into our own being. That way we can walk easily, breath freely, and use each moment to practice our intention of choosing to love, care for, and honor ourselves.
#7 – The performance
Saturday night I sat with silent anticipation. It connected me the other members of the audience. The energy was electrifying. Creative excitement. Delicious and contagious all at the same time. And then it happened. Truth tellers and bearers of ancestral Black feminine light stepped onto the stage. They are women who walk Mother Earth as Farah Lawal, Binahkaye Joy, Jessica Solomon, Khadijah Moon Ali-Coleman Nia McLean, Clarissa McKithen, Blessing Okoroafor, Margaux Delotte-Bennett, and Chioma Oruh. We came to know them as the cast of The Saartjie Project. Their creative expression midwifed the birth of a buried past that some prefer to ignore, but can no longer escape from. They have brought with them the light of day demanding that we do something too.
#8 – The impact
Emotional hurricanes akin to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flooded my interior as my senses took in the meaning of each sister and story revealed on stage. It happened so quickly that I was at a loss for words. The cast’s depth poured itself out and into my womb. I was unable to critique or compare. All I could do was receive.
#9 – The messages revealed
The messages that I received from their performance that occurred on the eve of what would have been my grandmother Freddie’s 93rd birthday urged me to pick up my pen and paper two days later. My words were unexpected and uncensored. I was reminded of who and whose I am. I am the descendant of a bold and beautiful group of Black women. They sacrificed so that I could be here to celebrate my body… their bodies … our collective Black female body in ways that honor and demand the same R-E-S-P-E-C-T that Aretha Franklin’s anthem speaks of. I hear their voices reminding me to:
walk without shame for my body,
bask in its beauty,
revel in its rainbow of colors,
offer it kind and gentle touch,
allow it to keep company with honest, loving partners,
flirt with the sensuality of its flesh,
marvel at the mystery of its curves,
treat it like a holy temple,
and rejoice in the truth that it is whole and complete.