In her book Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz said of Staceyann Chin, “To watch Chin perform is to watch the very essence of poetry manifested: her performances are imperfect, volatile and beautiful. Chin’s poetry is passionate and well-written, sure; but it’s her ability to communicate that passion in performance that is unparalled. She becomes the poetry.”
On Wednesday, April 15th, at 6 pm in Rocky 300, the Sexual Assault & Violence Prevention Program (SAVP) and CARES brings this renowned poet, performer and activist to Vassar for a Spoken Word event as a part of the two-week Sexual Assault Awareness Program. The event is also co-sponsored by the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers.
Charlotte Strauss Swanson, the SAVP coordinator, said: “Our goal for Sexual Assault Awareness [Weeks] is to engage students in activism and dialogue to raise awareness around issues of sexual violence. In doing this work, it is important to us to highlight how diverse groups, such as LGBTQ communities and women of color, are disproportionately impacted by violence.”
After looking into a number of spoken word artists and political activists, SAVP and CARES ultimately decided that Chin was an ideal choice to get the message across for Sexual Assault Awareness Weeks: “We are excited to bring Staceyann Chin because her poetry raises critical questions about violence against women, body empowerment, and the connectedness between multiple forms of oppression. As a lesbian woman of color who was born in Jamaica and later moved to the United States, Chin incorporates the intersectionalities of her identity into her poetry and feminist activism,” said Swanson. “We also value spoken word as an art form that is expressive, empowering, and deeply political and are excited about the opportunity to engage the Vassar community with this type of performance!”
Susie Martinez, an SAVP intern and CARES listener, said: “I think that we don’t often hear about the stories of queer women of color, especially when it comes to talking about sexual assault, and how different identities navigate such a traumatic experience. I think it’s powerful to see yourself represented in areas such as creative art and spoken word, which is what makes bringing in Staceyann Chin feel right.”
Born in Jamaica, Staceyann Chin is of Chinese-Jamaican and Afro-Jamaican descent, and has been vocal about her struggles due to her race and sexuality and how those two intersect: “I think now what I work hard to do is to articulate the identities that are still under the attack of racism and sexism. I represent the women of Jamaica who are unable to travel across borders to speak about their identities and their lives. I talk about people who are poor, and I suppose I represent people who might come to Sweden, who might find themselves invisible, or might find that they come up against larger things than what they are able to deal with,” said Chin in a 2009 interview with Trikster.
She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in 2009 published a memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, which she describes in the same interview: “It talks about growing up in Jamaica, about what it was like living in such a gendered identity, about being a kid with a loud mouth, about being abandoned.” When Chin first moved to New York, she associated the city with freedom: “I was lucky I came and found that thing I was looking for. I had no expectations. I only wanted to be alive, feel, and experience new things. When you feel as if you’re trapped in a situation, I suppose freedom looks very good,” says Chin in an interview with The Root. However, it wasn’t everything she expected it to be: “What I’m learning to do these days is be present in the life that I have and make the life that I have better. I thought if I found James Baldwin’s New York from Another Country, I would be so happy. I found that it isn’t New York that has made it so, but me being conscious of the smaller things and to not expect too much of the bigger things. I never expected to be a writer or poet here, or for people to know my name. And I realized I would be equally happy if that never happened. I was looking for something outside of myself to save me, but what I really needed to do was plot a path, follow it, and leave myself open for detours, unexpected pleasures and moments of failure.”
Today, Chin is confident in who she has become: “When I talk to my friends, they are not surprised that I became a writer or activist or loud-mouth talking about unspeakable things. In my heart of hearts, I was always a little girl born without a doctor in a one-room hut in rural Jamaica. I was always trying to shake that as a reality, lie about it, accept it and neutralize it. Today I know that it is a fact about me that is as irrevocable and unchanging as the color of my skin. I suppose what has surprised me most is that a country girl born with no doctor can become anybody.”
She has also published other books such as Wildcat Woman and Stories Surrounding My Coming. Her poems have appeared in several anthologies, such as Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, though she hasn’t published a book of poems yet, claiming that, “I haven’t put a published book of poems out because I think it takes a really long time to become a poet. And I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I’m still working on the craft of writing poems and what they might be if they were good poems. I articulate my identity within the work that I do, but I feel like some of it is still very clumsy in the craft.” Her work has also been published in The New York Times and the Washington Post. She is a winner of many awards and accolades, such as the 1999 Chicago People of Color Slam and the 1998 Lambda Poetry Slam. She performed in and co-wrote Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam, which was based on the HBO spoken word poetry television series. It opened on Broadway and ran until May 2003, winning a Tony award. Chin was also featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and 60 Minutes.
Of all her TV and radio appearances, Chin says, “To me, when I look behind me, it seems like I haven’t been up to much. So when people say ‘oh, you’ve been up to so much, and I saw you in this and that’, it’s kind of like I’m doing the same thing every day…I’m just plotting along and trying to do my part in a process of changing the world and making it better.”
Aside from Spoken Word with Staceyann Chin, there are a number of other events coming up this month to raise awareness for sexual assault. Swanson said, “On April 22nd at 6:30pm in the Sander’s Auditorium we are hosting a screening and discussion of the recently released documentary, ‘The Hunting Ground.’ The film exposes the impact of sexual assault for students on college campuses and the lack of institutional and administrative response to the issue. On April 29th we will also be co-sponsoring an acappella concert to raise awareness about violence against women. The proceeds will go to Family Services in Poughkeepsie. In collaboration with the Title IX office and the Office of Institutional Research we will also be launching ‘The Vassar Sexual Assault Climate Survey’ to better assess the needs of students on campus in regards to these issues.” In addition, CARES will be having an Art Show from 5 – 7pm in the Aula on April 14th, and a Speakout in the Faculty Parlor from 5 – 7pm on April 16th.
The organizers of the month’s events have high hopes for how they might contribute to sexual assault awareness: “We’re hoping that the event will raise awareness about issues related to sexual violence through the use of a creative art form and encourage meaningful dialogue amongst the audience,” said Swanson.
Susie Martinez added, “Overall, we hope that the programming for this month will continue to raise awareness about sexual assault on campuses, including at Vassar.”