GRIEVING: (PODCAST EPISODE #2 TRANSCRIPT)
Hello everyone, this is Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, also known as Olomidara Yaya, and I’m the host of the Manifestations of Yaya. If you’ve read the first post, I want to thank you so much for your continued support. Manifestations of Yaya is a new initiative that charts the intersections between art and healing. I'm really excited to be here with you all for my second post on this blog.
The Origin of the Name Yaya:” Bibliomancy, Naming, and Retrieval
I have a deep, deep love and obsession with books. One of the saddest things about being in quarantine for me right now is my inability to go to libraries and archives in person. I have a kind of spiritual relationship with books. They always call out to me. I can walk over to a bookshelf, pick something off the shelf, open the page and find something that is exactly what I need to hear at that moment.
This process of bibliomancy is actually where the name of Yaya comes from. I remember when I was in art school at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I kept drawing this one particular femme figure. She held an extremely powerful presence, and she kept coming out in my sketchbook drawings. As I channeled her figure in my sketches, I felt that her name was Yaya, and I wrote Yaya on her forehead without knowing what the name meant at the time.
Coincidentally, around this time, maybe a year before, my first niece was born. I remember her mother and I discussing how it would be difficult for the baby to be able to say Kenyatta. So many adults can't say it properly. When I did my Fulbright in Nigeria, they told me that I was not pronouncing my own name right. “They” as in all of the Nigerians that I met. I believe they pronounced my name as “Ken-Yeht-Tah.” It was such an interesting vibration that I had never been called. I've been called “Ken-Yoda,” “Keyona,” “Kirara,” and many different types of variations of
my name. But I remember suddenly telling her (the mother of my first niece) in a very cool, calm, and collected way, “Oh she’ll just call me Yaya.”
About a year later, when I was constantly channelling this particular femme figure in my drawings, I visited the Decker Library, this amazing library at MICA where I studied for my undergraduate degree. I really loved going to an art school that had such a huge emphasis on liberal arts. I spent so much time rummaging through the stacks in college. These experiences at MICA are where my love for art that intersects with really intense research comes from.
That day in the library, I remember feeling deeply drawn to this one book on Haitian art., I was flipping through the pages when I saw a femme figure that held the same commanding presence of the women that I was drawing at the time. When I looked at the title of the work, it said Yaya. When I read that, I remember just looking around in that moment like “Oh my goodness, This is… Whoa. What is this?” These things happen to me all the time, and I definitely don't believe them to be coincidences. There have been so many manifestations and circumstances like this for me, and if you know me personally, you're probably laughing right now because it can get pretty weird.
Later, I found out that the name “Yaya” is translated to “High Priestess” in a lot of different cultural contexts. The “Yaya” in my name and for this blog/podcast series is central to what this project is about. Understanding the meaning of this name “Yaya” has inspired me to think about how I can show up as a High Priestess in my own life, in my own journey as an artist and healer, and in my artistic practice.
Going back to my love for books, I really do have a problem. I literally spend so much money on books. It’s my addiction, and it's really bad. I constantly run out of book space all around my home. I'm looking around right now, and it's just piles and piles of books. So many that I'll probably never be able to read every single one of these books in my life. But somehow I insist on having them around me. I remember speaking to my good friend Jen Everett, and she was talking about this idea that just by having her books around, they still feed your work through osmosis.
Currently, I'm obsessed with The Famished Road by Ben Okri. I'm a huge, huge fan of Nigerian literature: the storytelling, the cultural contexts, the politics of the land, the land itself as a character, and the spirits of the land. I really love how all these elements coalesce into these sonic-scapes, these colorscapes, these whole worlds. It definitely vibes with me on an ancestral level for sure, for sure.
I decided before COVID-19 happened that I wanted to read 50 books this year. I have a reading challenge on Goodreads that I really, really love. Last year, I set my goal for twelve books, and I was able to reach that goal. I shared the list of the twelve books that I want people to know that I read. (I probably read twenty-four books, but we don't talk about that.) I really want to read the whole Famished Road trilogy, and right now as we're gearing up for Fall semester during the current quarantine, there’s been much more time for me to read.
“Is the World Ending?” The Historical Present & the Refusal to Return to “Normalcy”
I’m based in California in the Bay, and the 2020 fire-season is raging right now. We just experienced a rare series of lightning and thunderstorms (which resulted in the ongoing). At first, I was like “Oooh get it Shango, get it Oya, get it y’all!” But now, those storms have resulted in the ongoing wildfires (dubbed the LNU lightning complex fires) that are raging across the northern California landscape. Just as we started to ease into being able to go outside a bit (using social distance practices) during this pandemic, it is no longer safe now if you have asthma like myself and my child. It's just unhealthy air, again.
Dark orange skies hang over the San Francisco skyline as seen from Treasure Island on Wednesday, Sept. 9, due to multiple wildfires burning across California and Oregon || Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
I remember my son yesterday, he asked me: “Is the world ending?” I was like “Oh my gosh, poor baby!” I had to just stop everything at that moment and give him a hug because, to be honest, I really didn't have an answer for him. I wanted to say yes. Because in a way, there are so many major cultural shifts that are being required right now. Edges are being snatched everywhere. There's this kind of mask that is being ripped off of white supremacy, white liberalism, and all of these different institutions of power. It’s revealing how people wield power unjustly. What is this new era that we're going to walk into post-pandemic? I've been thinking about this as so many people have been asking me: “Do you have your syllabus? Do you have this? Do you have that? Are you ready for the school year? Are you doing this, are you doing that?”
In response to these questions, I'm telling folks: “I’m Black.” I’m a Black womxn. I know that might be seen as the “wrong” thing to say right now. When I say that, I mean that there was just so much civil unrest. Breonna Taylor's killers are still free. There's so much injustice that is still ongoing. Present. Here.
For us, to all of a sudden pretend like there weren’t protests in every single state in this nation to fight for justice for George Floyd and his family, to just pretend like that didn't happen, and to just go on back to so-called “business as usual” in these spaces where the same people that have been able to profit and benefit off of their privileges can just continue to function in the same way and not have to do any work or labor to address their privileges and power. Or, within their bunkers, they quickly learned the right things to say so that they can continue to go undetected and not have to do the work. I've been peeping this a whole lot. As we used to say when I was little “I peep you. I see that.” Currently, I’m just at a loss. In this blog, I really wanted to focus on critiquing and examining this idea of “returning to normal.” This idea of facing the aftermath of the very traumatic things that happened to our society collectively as opposed to this rush to return to normalcy.
I remember in 2016, my collaborator Tyler Matthew Oyer and I underwent this piece called “Exploring the Nowannago” together. In that performance, Tyler and I are tethered to each other by a double-noose. The idea for this work came to me while I was dancing to Junior Walker & The All Stars. You know that song that has the line: “shotgun shoot 'em 'fore he runs, now do the jerk, baby.” I remember hearing a line in that song that said “it’s twine time, it’s twine time.” When I heard that, I was struck by the joy and fun within the song juxtaposed with the spectres of “it’s twine time,” the mention of the shotgun, and that phrase “shoot ‘em before he runs.” It was then that I had this thought of: “what if I was connected to somebody by this double noose, and we had to do this fight for our own freedom while we were chained to each other by the Historical Present.”
I get a lot of my best ideas when I'm dancing. I have had this practice of dancing in my room since I was about four or five years old. It's when I can think and it allows my channels to be opened up so that thoughts and ideas can come to me.
Tyler and I first did this piece at MoAD, the Grand Central Arts Center in Santa Ana and the Getty. By now, we've done it at so many different places, and each time it really has become an embodied ritual. I kept thinking during this time of 2016 of “what does it mean to really explore grief and trauma as it continues to be ongoing?”
Everyday when we scroll through Facebook, we see another Black person being murdered by the police, and it is terrifying. Each time that Tyler and I do the piece, we end up adding new elements to the piece. We never perform the same piece twice, and we don't know what's going to happen. It's not choreographed. I remember us wanting to make the piece longer for GCAC in Santa Ana, and I remember me doing a lot of really deep thinking about the aftermath of a family member being lynched, for lack of better words. I just kept thinking in particular about the mothers, the sisters, and the women. How do you go about your everyday rituals of living like feeding your kids, doing the dishes, trying to see if you can claim their bodies...all of these different elements.
So I remember saying “Tyler we have to build this into the performance.” In the second suite in the performance, we actually practiced getting up off of the ground very slowly. It's an extremely slow movement and engagement within that piece.
In many ways, I feel like right now, during this time, I'm in that space.
I'm trying to get back up after everything that has transpired, but in our American capitalist society, we’re being told to “work, work, work. Forget about that. Just go back to work. Go do this, go do that. We’ll revise our mission statements, we’ll do this, we’ll do that, and everything will be great!”
I have this strong, strong, strong urge to resist all of that and to say “NO.” We're all sheltering in place differently. We all have different intersections of being, and it's not okay to just snap back into “okay now I'm going to finish up my commission. Okay now I'm going to ship a million works to the gallery. Okay now I'm going to have this stellar syllabi that's going to help all of these students do these amazing projects right now ,and everything's going to be great and I am going to make the best of quarantine, we’re going to do this! For some of us, it is hitting us entirely different, and in this post, I want to say that that's okay.
It's okay to grieve, it's okay to still be in that space of reckoning, and right now what I've been focusing on the most is resting and letting wisdom come to me while I rest.
Resting and still keeping Breonna Taylor and her family in my thoughts. This transpired in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. It's where my family lives, it’s where my best friend is, it's where I grew up. These things hit me a whole lot differently, and I'm realizing that there's this urge to return to normal, or to return to everything like nothing happened. Or you know, “put the anger in your work,” put the rage in the work, do something in your work.
Sometimes the grieving process is the work.
Sometimes this idea of “I have no clue what just happened here and it totally does not feel okay. I'm not okay, this nation isn't okay, those ancestral voices that have been enslaved in this land, the genocide, all of these things that have transpired in this space is not a residue that requires us to return back to work.” If we don't face these very difficult vibrations that have been stirred up, we're going to be doomed to continue to repeat this process over and over and over and over and over again. That's what history continues to show us.
For all of you creatives and sensitive people out there, if you are resistant to being told “okay now it's time to start class, now it's time to do this, and now it is time to... you know force myself to be in a particular space because that's what everybody else is doing,” I really encourage you to know that you don't have to. I found that by taking that reverence and time for my practice in 2016, I was able to make some of my most powerful work.
In that time, I realized that I couldn't make any work at all. I was in such a space of grief, being so close to death all around me. What I did was gather together with artists that I admired, friends, people that inspired me, and I started hosting these conversations called If We Must Die: Conversations About Art, Social Justice & Healing (1, 2), and it was required that everybody bring at least one item, something that they've been chewing on, that they've been trying to reconcile with. It could be anything: a book, a video, a song, something someone said to them, whatever it is that you want to bring to this discussion, and it had a major rule that there were no spectators allowed. You had to come, and you had to witness, and you had to participate. Also, I asked that everybody bring a dish or something. Obviously we are now in the COVID-19 era so we can't have those gatherings and be able to collectively support each other in our grief in that way, but there is Zoom, there is screen sharing, and there are so many different ways for you all to create a space to have these conversations.
What I found then was that it created a space for me to realize that I'm not alone. That I'm not the only one who is really trying to grapple with these tensions between our historical present, these tensions between this residue that we all were born into. Yet erasure continues to be persistent as well as this insistence upon historical amnesia, this repeated underlying message: “you need to forget, you need to move on, that was a long time ago, don't worry about it, remember that time we did that in the past that was really good?”
Currently, I have this insistence on the now, on being present now, on asking “What are you doing now? What are you doing now to change your thinking, to shed all those harmful thought forms?” For me, that is radical. This insistence upon addressing oneself in the present is a radical contribution to any movement. “How are you willing to transform yourself right now during this time?” This question ripples out into any and all facets of being.
These questions are really heavy on my mind right now at the time of writing, and I think that it is such an important and powerful time to pause and be present with this shift. To be present with this discomfort. To be present with it means to no longer accept roles that perform labor for other people simply because it’s what you've been conditioned to do throughout your whole life, your ancestor’s lives, and so on and so on. What does it mean to shed the thought-form that “I cannot do anything on my own, and I have to have other people do this labor for me because those are the situations that my ancestors created, and so on.”
Just like this double noose that I speak of, Tyler and I work with this highly charged ritualized object in which there is no winner. We're constantly doing this tug-of-war between the past and the present. That piece was built to become this intense catalyst to make us think about all the ways in which we are chained to each other.
I feel like that is what this moment is now.
I refuse to forget. I refuse to engage with historical amnesia.
One of my favorite poets of all time, Lucille Clifton, says “they want me to keep remembering their story, but I keep remembering mine”. That always just sits in my bones in such a powerful way, and I feel like this is the moment that we're in. It's okay to grieve, it's okay to not be able to make anything. It's okay to take your time with the paperwork or whatever bureaucracies that this system is manifesting for you. Whatever disease that those modalities are causing for you...it's totally fine to take a pause and say “you know what? Not right now”.
It’s just so eerie because first it was the fires from all the burning buildings that were destroyed during the June uprisings, and now, it’s these fires from the forests across the Westcoast. We have not known a space within these past six months when something wasn't burning. I think that that's telling us something. I really think we need to respect that, and we need to listen to that. During this week or whenever you read this, I invite you to try to think of ways that you can honor what has transpired. How can you honor that within yourself, how can you take a pause?
One of my biggest things is not doing labor for other people and choosing to rest as a form of radicalness. The project House Full is just so phenomenal, Black Womxn Getting Rest, and The Nap Ministry. I have been taking lots of naps, writing down my dreams, sketching in my sketchbook, having really powerful conversations with my seven-year-old son, and just being present in the moment.
Being present and refusing to forget. Refusing to go back into the same dynamics. I feel like these uprisings, these moments, while they are destructive forces, they are also gifts. I'm looking forward to what I want to plant in the wake. At the same time, I'm still in the aftermath. I’m still there. To close, I'm going to leave us with this passage from the first chapter of Songs of Enchantment from the Famished Road trilogy by Ben Okri.
From "What We Didn’t See" Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri
"The seven mountains ahead of us. We didn’t see how they are always ahead, always calling us, always reminding us that there are more things to be done, dreams to be realised, joys to be rediscovered, promises made before birth to be fulfilled, beauty to be incarnated, and love embodied. We didn’t notice how they hinted that nothing is ever finished, that struggles are never truly concluded, that sometimes we have to re-dream our lives, and that life can always be used to create more light.
"We didn’t see the mountains ahead and so we didn’t sense the upheavals to come, upheavals that were in fact already in our midst, waiting to burst into flames. We didn’t see the chaos growing; and when its advancing waves found us we were unprepared for its feverish narratives and wild manifestations. We were unprepared for an era twisted out of natural proportions, unprepared when our road began to speak in the bizarre languages of violence and transformations. The world broke up into unimaginable forms, and only the circling spirits of the age saw what was happening with any clarity.
This is the song of a circling spirit. This is a story for all of us who never see the seven mountains of our secret destiny, who never see that beyond the chaos there can always be a new sunlight.”
And so there it is. Ashé. Thank you so much for reading this post, I wish you good health and that you be as well as well can be right now. Please go check out Episode 1 if you have not done so already. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any feedback, questions. You can also follow me on Instagram at @manifestationsof. I hope that this was able to touch you and move you in some powerful ways.
All my best.