Today we’d like to introduce you to Leelee Jackson.
Leelee, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I am a playwright, so the journey for me started in high school when my youth pastor let me write a few church skits. That is when the interest sparked and I thought I could be a famous director or filmmaker. I took it so seriously, other students called me Spike Leelee. However, after taking a theatre class in community college, I was amazed by the freedom and power the playwright had and I guess that’s when I really started to pursue theatre specifically.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Writing has been smooth for my mental health. Writing plays helps me confront a lot of trauma that I’ve experienced. I’m a fat, Black woman. This is a guarantee for trails and obstacles. Though we have been around since forever, our bodies are still treated like this space (whatever space we are in) is not for us. That it’s a space we should be grateful to be in. It’s not just a few bumps in the road for us, we can handle that, it’s the fact that those who own the roads do not want us on it. That has been the most challenging part for me.
As far as advice goes, I’d say be alert. Stay sharp and value wisdom. How do you ask? The answer is simple really. Read. Read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Collins and Sula by Toni Morrison. Read In The Wake by Christina Sharpe and Venus by Suzan Lori Parks. Look at what they are saying and take it personally.
Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I contribute to the Black liberation by writing plays that highlight post-modern forms of racism in the U.S. Activist-playwright Amiri Baraka posits that all theatre is political. It sets out to challenge those on and off stage, and it all starts with the playwright. My political agenda is to represent multi-dimensional black cis, queer and trans women characters by focusing on their historical positionality. It is important to acknowledge disenfranchised people as people by telling and archiving their stories. In Fall of 2016, I interviewed black women in my social group who are outspoken about their frustrations with their hair, asking them one simple question: “Can you tell me about your hair journey?” I started this project as a research-based community theatre project and asked this open-ended question to get the participants talking about their hair. I was baffled to learn that many of their stories were similar, if not exactly the same. From that process I wrote, directed, and produced this one-act play titled Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave), 13 vignettes about black women’s experiences that are often overlooked but greatly impact the feelings we have about ourselves and other people as well as our mental and emotional wellbeing. My desire to create this play emerged from my own uncomfortable hair experiences taken together with my engagement with Black queer feminist scholar Evelynn Hammonds’ essay “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence.” Hammonds describes the continuities between black women’s lives under the sexual economy of slavery and middle-class selfhood in the early 20th century, underscoring how black women’s efforts to become legible as women/human, by emulating white standards of domesticity and adopting a politics of silence around their sexual victimization and sexuality, were met with violent rejection and backlash.
By remaining silent and endorsing prevailing notions of domesticity they participated in a failed politics of respectability. Not only did they encounter backlash but none of these practices allowed them to become legible as part of the “human” community. Instead, as “exceptions to the rule” they more powerfully illustrated how white supremacy depends on the idea that blackness and all the characteristics associated with black people have been understood to constitute non-humanness. The essay gave me a better understanding as to why I hated when people touched my hair and why I was afraid to ask them not to. Black women have been overdetermined by the social construction of sexual deviance; her constructed body is hypervisible, but what lies beneath this construction is invisible to society. This invisibility of black women is the common thread that weaves together my Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave)’s 13 vignettes. The play critiques the notion that black women can prevent anti-black misogynistic violence by changing how they look. Phobic reactions to black hair are symptoms of a more pernicious problem: a social structure that antagonizes black people for their physical attributes.
Do you have a lesson or advice you’d like to share with young women just starting out?
Find people, writers, thinkers who are concerned with what you are concerned with and writing about what you are writing about. When I was accepted to UC Riverside’s Master of Fine Arts program, my undergraduate professor urged me, “Find other Black people to write with.” I did not really understand why that was the one piece of wisdom he left me with, but now I can grasp the importance of being in the community as a writer. Studying something that is also your passion means that the work is often very personal. In academic settings, the other students may have never had the opportunity to engage themselves with thinkers like you, who write in your language and culture from your background. So, when they comment on your work, (or just do not understand it) they come from a place of craft or their engagement with white writers. But you are not a white writer. The language is different. So, find people who speak your language and send them your work. Read their work and give feedback. This has helped me tremendously and at the very least has served as a reminder that there is a “market” for my work and my voice. Even when my cohort and professors and sometimes family and friends, do not get what I am trying to do.
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