Welcome to part 2 of my interview with the amazing Theresa Davis where she gets real about race, gender, and spoken word. Join me in getting to know one of Atlanta’s hottest performance poets, Theresa Davis!
Liza Wolff-Francis: Can you speak about how you address issues of inequality based on race and gender in your poetry.
Theresa Davis: When I talk about race in my poetry, it does spark conversations because people want to know how those things could happen. I have a poem that goes to street harassment. There was a while there when I had the long dreadlocks and I’m walking through Little Five Points and these young white boys are following me and they’re like “Yo Marley, we know you got some of that.”
Following me and you’re going to assume that because I’m black and I have dreadlocks that I am a pothead and that I’m going to sell you pot. And for whatever reason, you feel like it’s okay for your sixteen-seventeen year old behinds to follow me through a public place shouting Marley at me.
When I did the poem, it was for a mixed group and then having the conversation with a white woman who said, well I think they were complimenting you. I’m like, “Complementing me? How do you work that out?”
She was like, well you know, Bob Marley’s an icon. I’m like No, they weren’t saying, ‘Wow, you sing really nice, they were asking me for drugs. How is that a compliment? They made all kinds of judgment calls about me in that one comment. It was racial, it was sexist, it was crazy. It was a whole lot of things happening, but now I don’t think there was a compliment buried anywhere in there.
So, the conversations are interesting, but I try to approach them with my honesty, knowing my honesty may not match up with what someone else believes or cares about it. I talk from my personal truth. This is how I feel about it. You don’t have to feel this way about it, but this is what goes on and hope that if you disagree, we can have a conversation. The belt poem, for example, has gotten me threatened on Facebook.
Liza: Wow. Why?
Theresa: According to his message, I was an evil bitch and I was going to get what was coming to me. If you’re upset because I asked you to pull up your pants, then maybe you should just pull up your pants, or do something better than threaten me on social media.
Liza: That’s crazy. Do you think it’s related to you being a woman and asking guys to pull up their pants?
Theresa: Yeah, I think it was meant to intimidate me. I get asked to come to schools and do that poem a lot. So, it’s like I go to schools and do this poem and at the end of it the girls are giving a standing ovation and teachers are too. And I’ve done it a couple of times where guys who are sagging will try to laugh me off the stage, which only hypes my intensity and makes me focus on them because I am a teacher. They don’t know that part about me so the teacher face goes on and now I’m talking to ‘you’ and I guess that can be kindof intimidating, especially if you’re one of the cool kids and now this girl you like is standing on her feet giving a standing ovation because she would like you to pull up your pants too, thank you very much.
I’ve had conversations with kids about that poem where they think I’m calling them slaves, where they think I’m being racist in the poem. I’m like, there’s nothing racist in the poem. Race only comes up as far as making the connection to the middle passage and it doesn’t even come up as words, it comes up as images. So if you’re thinking that, I’m thinking you’re pulling out that image and you’re calling yourself that instead of me. Cause I never said that.
I’m trying to remember what famous poet said this and I can’t remember, but the jist of it is that poets have this power and in times of war or times of great confusion, where the people are all in an uproar, the poets are the first ones to get taken out because they are the ones that are going to tell the story better than the story itself. As poets we take that risk. We get up and we share our soul and some people may not like it.
During the Bush years- I did a lot of shows. George Bush was great for poems. I had to retire a lot of poems when he got out- I was like ‘Dammit.’ (laughing) I did this show in a place called White County, which should have been my clue, and having this guy who was a staunch Republican, he was the videographer, and he refused to record me. He didn’t turn it off or anything, but he wouldn’t make sure I was framed up or anything, like if I moved, so it was just crazy shots. And then he proceeded to walk on the side of the stage and to verbally go off on one of the organizers who brought me there about how I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about and why is she here, and all this other stuff, to the point where I felt really unsafe.
Race issues came up in some of my pushier poems, mostly bad politics and all this other stuff, but somebody had to ride with me out of the county because I did not feel safe.
Words are powerful. I’ve had police at protest rallies pull me off to the side and say, ‘If anything happens, we’re going to arrest you first because of your inflammatory words’ and I’m like ‘Whoa.’ But I think it’s very powerful when you can hold an audience’s attention and they respond well to whatever you’re saying.
It’s always a dicey thing when you’re talking about any kind of issues, just in casual conversation, but especially if you can craft it into a way where a lot of people gravitate toward the message and they start asking other questions, maybe to authority figures or maybe to other people in their lives that are doing whatever the atrocity is that you’re talking about and they see and it brings their focus to the world.
Liza: Often in the past, women of color and white women have fought for equality as women, though not always in a united front. Many women of color have felt un-included in feminist movements they perceive to be run by white women and white women have felt un-included in movements run by women of color. Do you have ideas about how all women can come together?
Theresa: I do. My issue in working with any group, because I stand in a lot of different circles and it’s really a struggle because people will try to put you in certain boxes. As a queer woman, as a black woman, as a radical woman, as an educator. All these things come into play in who I am. I choose my battles very well I think when it comes to certain things. I have been involved in things where I didn’t feel my voice was being heard, which means I just had to talk louder, and I don’t think a lot of people own that they have that power.
A lot of the things I’ve seen or witnessed where people aren’t getting along is that mostly they’re not getting along because they’re not saying why they’re not getting along. I know in the past I was one of those people who would just sit and listen to people make decisions about or for me, decisions that I didn’t necessarily agree with, but who knows that if I don’t say anything about that? When you don’t voice your opinion, you’re agreeing with whatever’s happening. We get on these tangents about being PC or being fair to everybody. The world is not fair; it never has been fair. So, if you want something, you have to speak on it. If you don’t speak on it, then you can’t complain about why you don’t have it later. That’s not only just women working together, that’s people working together, period.
With whatever group I’m working with, my goal is first to all acknowledge that we are all human. We all have issues. We all have things that we have to do, but if we’re going to come together about this, we have to focus on what we’re talking about and not let the other stuff get in the way.
If we’re talking about women’s rights, then it doesn’t matter what skin you’re wrapped in, it’s the rights of women. If you’re talking about queer rights, it doesn’t matter what skin you’re wrapped in, we fight for this together. I have stepped away from groups that I’ve felt that they’re like “we’ve got this umbrella, we’re all one, peace, kumbaya, but you don’t even know what you’re focused about.
Sometimes you have to step out on things. If your voice is wanted, if your influence is wanted, then people will figure out a way to make that happen. And if it means that people have to sit down and shut the fuck up for a minute, then that’s what will happen.
One of the big problems I see is that people don’t speak up. And you can see it happening, like a train wreck. Oh, now you’ve just quieted yourself into the box you’re not going to be happy in and later you’re going to be upset, although you’ll work with these people but you’re not happy the whole time.
The other thing is to focus on the issues and not the people around the issues. The issue will still be the issue regardless of what the people around the issue look like. We tend to lose our focus and this society counts on that. It counts on bringing dissention into groups so that you lose your focus.
I was sitting in on a conversation about gender and gender roles with queer women. I knew I couldn’t say anything because I wanted to make sure they were going to make sense of it at some point. But the conversation came down to gender roles as far as being a butch or stud or being a femme.
Having butch women say they thought it was wrong for two femmes to be together and they thought it was wrong for two butches to be together, that a butch should be with a femme… I was just flabbergasted, like way to take yourself out of a box and put it in five more boxes. It just sounded so heteronorm to me and I don’t have a good poker face. When somebody says something crazy, I don’t know what my face does but people look at my face and say, Uhuh, see, she don’t agree either. And they wait for me to say something, but because I kind of don’t identify as either, I’m just a woman who loves women, I didn’t feel like my input would be positive, so I held my tongue. I wish I hadn’t, in hindsight.
It’s stuff like that, we all come together to have this great conversation and even in our coming together, there’s this thing that pulls us apart because I don’t think everybody quite understood what the whole point of the conversation was or they couldn’t get over their own politics to actually be open to the idea of these other relationships happening.
Liza: Well and you’re talking about breaking down gender stereotypes and suddenly within the group…
Theresa: yeah, and you’re creating a whole new stereotype and following the heteronorm. It’s a crazy way of thinking to me.
Also as women and how we deal with each other, as women, we’ve been programmed to think, this woman is competition- in all things.
As queer as I am, it’s funny, I can glam up and be all pirate hot sexy as I want to be and have an attractive man come shake my hand and then have the woman come up and grab his arm. I’m like, ‘I am sooo with another girl. That’s my girl right there. I don’t want your guy. He’s safe. You don’t need to do that.’ But that’s part of what’s ingrained. Even better would be to get rid of all the TV and media, to go back and talk to people where we actually have to talk to people and know who they were.
Liza: You address Domestic Violence in your Mother’s Day poem. How do you think violence against women can be stopped.
Theresa: I don’t think violence against women will ever stop. I think that as long as they’re people in this world who create, and women create on a big level, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t want that creation to happen.
When you have a society that basically thinks so little of women and takes such great effort to take away rights of women, to try to regulate how you protect your body. As long as you have a society that harps on that, women will always be in a position of potential violence. Right now I feel like we as women are being abused by the entire government, but if I say that, I’m being hysterical like a woman and so all these other things that have been piled on by men about what a woman is, become an issue.
I think at a home level, domestic violence could be addressed again with talking about it. I think a lot of women don’t talk about these things. When you don’t talk about it, nobody knows what’s going on. It becomes acceptable to some point. We’ve had issues in our scene where domestic violence is happening and people pretend not to see it and those who do see it are accused of meddling or whatever, so it’s like this big issue that everybody wants to talk about but nobody really wants to talk about it.
As long as we live in a world where women are seen as inferior, women will always be targeted. Just like as long as we live in a world where being a person of color is seen as inferior, we’re always going to have a level of violence perpetrated against that thing or that image.
The way the world has changed in the past decade is truly frightening to me. Just the things that have been happening in the news lately, it’s insane to me. Crimes against women. Crimes against children. Crimes against people of color. It’s bizarre, but these are all groups that in this patriarchal world are considered inferior and they are all treated as not worth much in the bigger picture of things. And without women, there is no picture, but I don’t think men believe that. The minute they figure out how to clone themselves it’s off.
I would love to be able to say yes we can stop this, but realistically, in the world we’re living in… I carry myself in a way that I think people know, You don’t fuck with Theresa. They see me and they know ‘she will fight back.’ I’ve been married twice and in one of my marriages, I think because my family was so close and I don’t hold my tongue about much, my wasbeen got very very angry and I could see it and I said, I see where this could go. I wasn’t some woman who he could hit me and I wouldn’t say, Mom, or Dad, or brothers…go roll up on someone…
He knew that and at the last moment he ended up punching the wall. And I said, I’m glad you got that out of your system. Fix the fucking wall and leave. We’re done with this.
If the person in your life knows you have a connection with your family and knows that connection is stronger than anything else, that definitely helps some of those Domestic Violence in the home situations. But so many women come from hurt places. That in itself just hurts my heart. So many young people I meet now come from these hurt places. They feel so unloved and unwanted in their homes and in their families and their lives. Working with them, I just know, ‘the first boy that tells you anything that sounds like love, you’re going to fall for it. And you’re going to be a statistic. I tell them, “I don’t want you to be a statistic” and “this is what a statistic is.” I’m always talking very plainly to the young females I work with about how you will and will not put up with and how you hold yourself. You don’t walk around looking like a victim, you walk around looking like you own this world, like this is “my world.” And you hold your head up and you look people in the eye. You own your humanity. So hopefully, still teaching, I’m making a difference.
Maybe these young women I’m working with will someday have the answer about how the violence can stop. A lot of change is going to have to happen before that.
Liza: Thank you Theresa!
Theresa: Thank you!
Thank you for reading Matrifocal Point. Join us again on Monday for more!