From Harriet Tubman to Assata Shakur, Ida B. Wells to Sandra Bland and Black Lives Matter, black women freedom fighters have braved violence, scorn, despair, and isolation in order to lodge their protests. In A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing, Dr. DaMaris Hill honors their experiences with at times harrowing, at times hopeful responses to her heroes. Here, Hill answers some questions about the inspiration for her book, the state of the prison system in America, and how her work relates to our 2020-21 theme of CouRage.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that learning about incarceration rates of African American women in America was one of your primary motivations for writing A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing. Could you tell us more about how/why this specific concern compelled you to write this book?
While researching and exploring another book, I became aware of the history and contemporary culture of incarceration and how it pertains to women. The most influential historical book was by Dr. Kali N. Gross, entitled Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910. The public advocacy and diligent research of The Sentencing Project was also very influential. One of the statistics that The Sentencing Project shared was that over a decade the incarceration rates for women increased over 700%. For Black women, this statistic was higher peaking at over 800%. I was changed by this information. I continued to write about women and incarceration. I see incarceration as an extension of the legacy of bondage that is juxtaposed with freedom within the context of American democracy.
One aspect of your book that is striking is the fact that it is written in verse. I know you come from a creative writing background, but I’m still curious to know why you chose to tell these women’s stories this way (rather than as a historical narrative or academic study, for example). What do you think poetry lends to the subject matter that other forms of narrative could not or had not?
In my opinion poetry is similar to sculpture. Reader’s encounters with poetry allow for a type of complexity that is not always available in academic study and historical narratives. The women that I write about in A Bound Woman Is A Dangerous Thing are complex and should be honored in a way that renders their complexity. I consider these poems as types of praise songs.
If there was one thing that you hoped people learned about the current state of the prison system and its relationship to race and gender in America, what would it be?
I often discuss how the patriarchal leanings that often accompany American democracy are rooted in the social hierarchies. They influence the social valuations of people based on race and gender. Black women are in the intersections of these two specific styles of social oppression. As a result, Black women are often undervalued within the context of American democracy.
This is further complicated by the fact that it is rarely acknowledged that Black women served as a type of technology for American democracy. By this I mean Black women were exploited in two specific ways in early America. The first was their physical labor and duties associated with the chattel slave system. The second was the exploitation of the Black woman’s body, particularly her reproductive capabilities and womb. Black women were made to produce generations of people that were forced into the chattel slave system and therefore sold and used as a form of currency in early American democracy. It is always important to acknowledge and remember this.
Our annual theme this year at OCH is Courage and Rage. We couldn’t pick between the two, because we felt that both were so intertwined at this specific moment in time! Even the words themselves are intertwined: CouRAGE. So many of the women in your book seem to embody both of these traits simultaneously, as well. Is there one specific figure in A Bound Woman who you feel was really able to harness both of these forces to shape their communities or enact change?
CouRAGE is an accurate and complex word for the times we are in. I guess courage and rage are two elements that contribute to the complexity of these women. Courage and rage operate simultaneously in the lives of these women. I feel that each of the women in the book embrace the fact that anxiety is a part of the process of gaining courage. In kind, I think each of these women understood how to be strategic and visionary within the context of oppression and exploitation.
Considering the degrees of oppression and exploitation each of the women in this book experience, the rage some of them felt may have been justified. It is also remarkable that even under the direst of extreme oppression and exploitation that these women in the book managed to retain and activate their wits. These women used their intellectual dexterity to be strategic about the ways they countered the dehumanizing oppressive systems associated with race, gender, class, and etc.
***30 free copies of Dr. Hill’s book will be given away to participants as part of this event***