Feminists We Love: Farah Tanis

February 7, 2014
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Farah Tanis

Farah Tanis

Farah Tanis is a transnational feminist and human rights activist. She is co-founder and Executive Director of the Black Feminist Organization Black Women’s Blueprint. She launched and Chairs the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. ever to focus on Black women and their historical and contemporary experiences with sexual assault.  Tanis is a 2012 U.S. Human Rights Institute Fellow. For the past seven years she served as Almoner for the Havens Relief Fund, was on the Board of Directors of Haki Yetu working to end Rape in the Congo region of Africa and the Board of Right Rides which provides safe rides home to women and queer people in New York City. Tanis founded the Museum of Women’s Resistance (MoWRe). Currently housed at Black Women’s Blueprint’s HerStory Archives, MoWRe is internationally recognized as a Site of Conscience. Farah Tanis created Mother Tongue Monologues, a vehicle for communicating Black feminist praxis at the grassroots and for addressing Black sexual politics in African American and other communities of the Black Diaspora.

Aishah: Foremost, I must thank you from the depths of my Spirit for making the time for this interview in the midst of preparing for the fourth annual Mother Tongue Monologues. I honestly do not know how you do it all, Sister. In the words of our grandmothers, “Who are your kinfolk? From where did your people literally come?”

Farah: My first knowledge of my kinfolk came from my grandmother in whose home I was raised the first years of my life. “Nou se neg Guinea”, “neg Benin” she would say, referring to two countries in West Africa to which I have never been. A proud Haitian, born in Haiti, a land my ancestors took from French colonizers literally through blood, sweat, tears and revolution in 1804, I consider my kinfolk to be Haitians and West Africans. However, the question “who are your kinfolk, especially for people of African descent can be very complicated, if not just painful. Many in the African Diaspora don’t always feel a sense of belonging no matter their location in the vast geography of this planet.  We are all displaced, and so I believe that your kinfolk are those you deem to be kinfolk, regardless of place of birth. My wife is African-American tracing her U.S. lineage back to Mississippi, and I was also raised here in this country where I’ve been considered African-American. And so, I am deeply honored to also call African-Americans my kinfolk, as through their labor for justice, they made it a little easier for me and millions of folks from the Black Diaspora to live here in this country.

Aishah: Your powerful answer is a great segue to my next question. You are a visionary organizer and activist who has spent almost your entire adult womanhood building, supporting, working at, and/or leading grassroots organizations, whose focus is on Diasporic African women’s human rights in the broadest definition of the term. Using the words of the brilliant, clairvoyant, and radical African-Carribean-Feminist-Lesbian-Scholar-Activist-Santaria Priestess Dr. M. Jaqui Alexander from her Signified Project interview, “Why did you come here? I don’t mean coming to the US or Brooklyn. Why did you come here, ie come into this world for what reason?”

Farah: My life’s purpose is to continue the work of the great women of my lineage, a long line of Vodoun priestesses—to shift energy and to move mountains, collectively with others, mountains that bar the paths to justice, peace, safety and freedom. I want to be clear that I myself am not a priestess in the literal sense, not like my foremothers, but I do understand my place/power on the wheel of life. I came here to fulfill what I believe is my destiny, to be a part of creating a new, more just world, to promulgate the living legacy of great Black women who’ve traveled this road before me and write a new chapter in Black feminism that makes it explicit that Black women can be unified, are powerful beyond measure, and they can work to turn this world right side up again. Like our Black feminist foremothers, we may not be able to accomplish all of it in this lifetime, but I think of the whole thing like trying to open a tightly shut jar of sweet jam, sometimes several folks have to try, and they loosen the lid, before finally one actually opens it.

Aishah: I see your paradigm shifting activist and organizational work as a part of a multi-generational continuum of Diasporic African women who have built grassroots institutions in the service of our communities throughout the world. Who are some of your role models?

Farah: I have been blessed enough to have lived in the time of Myriam Merlet, a Haitian woman and one of the greatest transnational feminists to ever live. She was not only my role model, she was my mentor. Having died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Myriam has left a gap on this planet and in my heart I doubt can ever be adequately filled. Fearless, brilliant and bigger than life, she worked to get the first law passed in Haiti against rape in 2006. She taught me how to speak and stand without flinching in the face of horrific injustices. She taught me how to still and quiet my mind, and how to steady my gaze even while the opposition is shouting.  One other great woman, I have never met but whose writings and speeches and life examples left for us in this generation, is Ella Baker. Ella Baker, the great African-American civil rights activist is indeed another role model in the way she led and in what I saw as her humility and deep consideration for the greater good. She understood the profound wisdom in sometimes just “getting out of the way” so that people could have a voice. My favorite quotes of the great Ella Baker are,

strong people don’t need strong leaders

within which is contained a message to the leaders of her day. Another of my favorite Ella Baker quotes is,

the major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…

Aishah: Let’s talk about the inspiring (yes, I’m biased!) Black Women’s Blueprint (BWB). After learning about your extensive herstory as an international organizer and activist, I honestly don’t even know how you had the wherewithal to co-found another organization in 2008. Why did do it? What does the literal name “Black Women’s Blueprint” mean and how is it implemented in the organization’s mission and structure?

Farah: Black Women’s Blueprint began meeting in sister circles in 2008, on living room floors, backyards and around kitchen tables, where we grappled with the state of Black women in the U.S. across ethnicity/nationality, class, sexual orientation, identity, etc.  Our main focus was the 2008 Democratic Primaries. While we developed our personal, critical consciousness, parallel to this process was the political and public debate around the Obama/Clinton primary elections where Black women were being asked whether we were voting our race or our gender.  Both democratic candidates presented their “blueprints” for change but neither took full stock of the particular problems Black women are facing within their communities and in greater society (violence, the feminization of poverty, increase imprisonment of black women among others). What was manifesting itself was the cultural tendency to erase Black women by conceptualizing white women as speaking on behalf of the rights of the sex and Black men as speaking on behalf of the race.  Something had to be done to unearth the intersections of race and gender in our own lives as Black women.  Black women needed to offer their own voice, their own “blueprint” for change that equally reflected and benefitted us, thus Black Women’s Blueprint was formed.

Aishah: As you know, I’m a survivor of incest and rape. I believe it’s important that all of us who are able (many are not) publicly name the abuses that happened to our girl and woman bodies against our will. There is so much shame and blame amongst all victim-survivors of sexual violence.  And yet, Black women are often taught and expected to protect the men perpetrators in our communities so that they are not brutalized by the white supremacist criminal (in)justice system. Dr. Charlotte Pierce-Baker writes in her book, Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape,

We are taught that we are first Black, then women. Our families have taught us this, and society in its harsh racial lessons reinforces it.  Black women have survived by keeping quiet not solely out of shame, but out of a need to preserve the race and its image.  In our attempts to preserve racial pride, we Black women have sacrificed our own souls.

BWB is the convener of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (BWTRC) to focus on sexual assault against Black women in the United States. {Full disclosure, I am a Commissioner}. While TFW readers will hopefully read about the Commission on your website (www.myfreedomlounge.com ), is there anything specific that you would like to highlight about this groundbreaking initiative our interview?

Farah: I think that in addition to goals and mandates for truth, justice, healing and reconciliation outlined in documents about the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Violence (BWTRC), which I believe speak for themselves and make provide clear reference in those very words, to why we launched the BWTRC, people need to understand the following and they need to be outraged. We are owed a great debt as Black folk, as Black women. The United States is one of the few places in the world where mass rapes have occurred systematically against an entire race of people (Black women) and there has been no outcry, no processes for justice, no acknowledgement, no recognition and yet we still flinch when we hear the truth about these deliberate and sanctioned violations and their continued impact and influence on the culture of violence against Black women today. Just as the Holocaust and other periods of war on bodies, on cultures, and on the souls of peoples reduced to victims are well documented, their memories constantly conjured and honored, so should the systematic rape of Black women in America and everywhere under chattel slavery and the hundred plus year period immediately following. My hope is that by naming the work as we have named it, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we can give acknowledge the war that has happened here against Black women and their communities and we can begin to heal and engage in a process of reconciliation within our communities and end the intra-community violence and fragmentation around gender; and demand justice at the systems level, in whatever way we as a people define justice—actual meaningful resources that allow Black folk to address issues of violence, an end to the dearth in information, education, economic opportunities that continue to contribute to violence against women and girls in our communities.

Aishah: Too often marginalized communities can easily get caught up in what Native American feminist scholar-activist Dr. Andrea Smith calls the  “Oppression Olympics.”  Since sexual violence is a global atrocity that knows no racial, ethnic, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexuality, class, religious boundary, will you please share why Black women are the sole focus of this groundbreaking commission?

Farah: We fully understand that our liberation is intertwined with that of all oppressed peoples and we stand in opposition to any competition for first place as “most oppressed.” Having said that, what makes Black Women’s Blueprint unique is our specific focus on Black women and our departure from the rubric of “women of color” which we find also often supports racial hierarchies and doesn’t fully allow for Black women to deal with the ever-present history and legacy of slavery, sexual and reproductive exploitation, and subsequent periods of holocaust. Black women are the sole focus on this Truth Commission because Black women, and their sexuality have occupied a definitive place in the U.S. labor, political and sexual economy and that cannot be ignored. As a survivor myself, I know that the sexual abuse that happened to me at the age of five, was not an isolated incident. My mother was raped and so were my grandmothers and great grandmothers by their own kin and by slave masters. We declare a Truth Commission on Black women and their experiences with historical and present day sexual assault. We do this for our ancestors on plantations where Black female bodies and their sexual and reproductive relationships were indeed an integral part of the political economy; our sexuality, part of a market economy which created wealth for masters who understood and actually organized their lives around what our bodies was worth. As with many other Black women I know, I still feel the impact every time I open my eyes and look around me, in communities systems and our own kin benefit from and partake in white patriarchy. They partake in male supremacy. Never again should my Black brother get gender benefits from racism, not in our names, not over our bodies. We declare it, not just for ourselves, but for our ancestors whose iron-willed bones lay at the bottom of the Atlantic. We do this for our offspring and the future generations not-yet-born who deserve to live in a world, in communities and in homes where there is no rape, no molestation, no violation of any kind.

Aishah: Mother Tongue Monologues (MTM)! Okay Sister, MTM is another example of your conceiving yet another visionary program in the service of communities of African descent with a focus on women and girls. In a few short years MTM has become its own phenomenal annual entity, which uses culturally specific theatre/performance/music to educate and celebrate while simultaneously raising funds to make sexual assault prevention based on collaboration and community based initiatives possible across the African Disapora in the United States.

In 2013, MTM took a bold and courageous step by examining one of the most taboo topics in Black sexual politics – lesbianism, same sex love, and gender non-conformity. Frankly, under your leadership, MTM, did what very few non-LGBTQIA identified nationally recognized organizations have been able or willing to do. MTM “Queered the Line” in an African centered-framework. Your honorees were from the African Diaspora (African-American, Jamaican, and Zimbabwean). In the context of institutional and individual heterosexism and homophobia, this could’ve been viewed as organizational suicide and yet, BWB took the necessary (my words) risk. Speaking as one of the honorees, it was an incredible experience to have all of my identities that are embodied into one celebrated in the community from which I come in this lifetime.

(Video from #MTM2013 Opening and Awards Ceremony)

Let’s talk about #MTM2014, which has a powerful mission and goal.

Mother Tongue Invitation 2014 Co-Chairs ImageFarah: Our Fourth Annual performance of Mother Tongue Monologues is occurring on Saturday, February 8, 2014. The Matinee program will begin at 2:00pm at the Brooklyn Museum, Iris and B. Cantor Auditorium, 200 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. The program will culminate in a post-performance reception honoring Barbara Smith Author, Activist and Independent Scholar who has played a groundbreaking role in opening up a national cultural and political dialogue about feminism, race and sexuality.  It will also honor Melissa Harris- Perry Author, Educator, Political Scientist, Television Host and Liberal Political Commentator, MSNBC who has provided new analysis on the lives, the internal and external experiences of Black women.  Mother Tongue features poets, drummers, dancers and actors dramatizing and imitating how Black communities react to sexual assault. They will speak of the devastating silences and insidious allowances that impact sexual and racial dynamics and that remain intensely controversial in Black communities. This year’s performance entitled, Mother Tongue: Monologues for Truth Bearing Women, for Emerging Sons and Other Keepers of the Flame, will lay the groundwork for justice, intra-racial healing and reconciliation and will intentionally engage its audience in deeper conversation about one of the most contentious subjects in Black sexual politics—the violence of Black men toward Black women. You can still get tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/518650

Aishah: How can one support the work of BWB?

Farah: With this year’s Mother Tongue Monologues, we’ve launched Take Back Our Lives, an online fundraising campaign on Indigogo to democratize community education about sexual violence and to spread the word about how we can actually take action to end rape. With the support of the community we will spread knowledge, we will take action, and we will insist on safety as a right, a standard, and an expectation. With support from the community we will insist on and provide access to anti-rape information, and make these available to every single person in every community that people who give will help us reach. Information will no longer be in the domain of the few who create curricula, instead, we will make accessible language and education that can help all understand what rape is and what we can do to prevent it. To support the campaign go to http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/take-back-our-lives/x/214519

Aishah: Finally, how do you take care of yourself?

Farah: The ways I take care of myself are by feeding my soul through spirituality and prayer, and through morning meditation, spending time alone at sunrise, early in the morning. I have also recently started doing yoga which is wonderful. I also try and go away at least twice a year for personal retreat. When I’m gone, I turn off my phone and I bring no laptop.

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One Response to Feminists We Love: Farah Tanis

  1. michael on February 10, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    great interview

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