Poetry is Not a Luxury: Art, Activism & Peacebuilding

By: Joanna Hoffman, Events & Communications Manager

I was no captive dove
on a flight of fancy flouting
and flaunting a plumage
of atrophied wings

I knew the cost of flight
the craft of steering clear of glass

— Marion Bethel, “Tobacco Dove” from Bougainvillea Ringplay

marion bethel
Marion Bethel

When Bahamian women’s rights activist Marion Bethel saw poet and The Color Purple author Alice Walker read in London, her life was fundamentally revolutionized. “I was mesmerized, fixated, captivated,” she told The Nassau Guardian. She dropped out of her law school exams and spent the summer writing a book of poetry. The experience taught her an invaluable lesson: “That writing was a way to be a cultural activist.”

Bethel went on to write a second book of poetry; write, direct and produce a documentary, Womanish Ways: Freedom, Human Rights & Democracy 1934 to 1962, on Bahamian women’s suffrage; and serve on the Committee of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. She sees her art and activism as inexorably intertwined, and creative expression as a way to ensure that the stories of women fighting for peace and justice aren’t lost to the generations to come. In an interview with Peace is Loud, she told us:

My community in the Bahamas and the Caribbean was shaped both by the injustices of genocide, the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism, and by the struggles of my ancestors and foreparents for freedom, human rights and social justice. My engagement in peace work is about confronting these injustices through activism and art and affirming the imagination, creativity and work of my community in social transformation.

This kind of social transformation is exponentially enhanced by art, which has the ability to cross socioeconomic and geographical borders like few mediums of its kind. History can be selective, favoring the voices of the loud and powerful, but art is a great equalizer, ensuring that everyone has a voice. To be truly inclusive, movement-building needs a creative mechanism that does not discriminate based on education, income, or one’s place in a power structure.

Sonya Renee Taylor

Poet and women’s rights activist Sonya Renee Taylor, Founder of The Body is Not an Apology, echoes this sentiment in an interview with Autostraddle:

…Art is an essential element of how we make the messages of activism accessible and how we invite new people into the dialogue and how we open up new minds to the issues. Everybody isn’t going to go to the lecture, everybody is not going to go to the 400 level class, everybody is not going to go to a protest. But you can find someone at the spoken word event, at the art gallery, picking up a poet’s book, and being changed by what they hear or read. It’s a more subversive way to change the minds of the masses.

Taylor’s peace activism work comes in the form of fighting against the physical and emotional violence inflicted onto our bodies, and viewing self-love as a radical form of healing and justice. Her movement began from the tremendous response to her spoken word poem, The Body is Not an Apology, which led her to start a digital media and education company of the same name. The Body is Not an Apology now reaches half a million people each month with the powerful message: “We believe that discrimination, social inequality and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others.”

Samina Ali speakers
Samina Ali

American Muslim author and gender activist Samina Ali also sees art as a way of opening minds, as well as eliminating stereotypes and bridging divides. As the curator of the International Museum of Women’s virtual exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices, Samina illuminated the multi-dimensional realities of women’s lives to challenge fears and misconceptions of Muslims and Islam within and beyond Muslim communities. There could not be a more poignant time for this kind of project. Regarding the exhibit, Samina told us:

The sad reality is that many of us have grown accustomed to –- and comfortable with –- seeing Muslim women portrayed as victims. Yet each and every one of the women included in the exhibition is noteworthy — a cutting-edge artist or writer, a revolutionary who is upending her community’s and the world’s limited notions of what a Muslim woman is capable of doing, a pioneer fighting for women’s and girls’ rights. It’s these women who are the answer to extremism, who are leading the global jihad for peace!

Samina hopes that through Muslima and stories like those in her novel, Madras on Rainy Days, audiences and readers will discover that building peace is a process that comes from dismantling misconceptions, especially those attached to women. Madras on Rainy Days, which was the winner of France’s prestigious Prix Premier Roman Etranger Award and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in Fiction, focuses on a young woman’s arranged marriage and political awakening in a poignant, deeply personal way.

“I believe that change must begin from within,” she said. “But we don’t suddenly change. We change because we see a piece of art that moves us to imagine a world we hadn’t believed possible before.”

In its purest form, art is not simply entertainmentit is a conduit for sharing life experiences, connecting people across divides, and, as the women here have shown, building the path forward to the peaceful and equitable future we all deserve.

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