Grace Assogba ‘22

Alexandra Pemueller ‘22

My Sisters of the Yam:
bell hooks' Philosophy in Practice

I sat shivering in the white and teal operating room, looking down at my mess of a cherry colored ankle. Feeling defeated, I glanced back at the teary reflection in the arm of the metal chair, which felt more and more like a cage by the second. I couldn’t think about much but the full twist and snap back of my leg in the moments before we rushed outside to see the screams and crowds gathering outside. Bringing my mind back to the present I listened as the clock ticked behind me as I glanced at the medical tools in front of me, an array of foreign instruments that could only belong at the fingers of Edward Scissorhands himself. It was creepy and I was tired so I hobbled up, almost tipping over, as my weight fell on my right leg, pushing back the wet salt dripping down my face as I pushed open the door and to the other side where asleep in the waiting room chairs, I shook awake my sisters of the yam.

If you’ve never sat in Bapst Library, facing a mountain of work and romantazing away the isolating dread of academia...well I’m not sure what to say, but when I think back to that moment of wanting to be done with my first year of college, done with trial by fire -- otherwise known as the confusion and imposter syndrome of being a first generation college student -- I couldn’t see then that there was so much more to come in the the “Paris Noir” course taught by Professor Régine Jean-Charles in the unforgettable summer of 2019.

Ironically so, what better way to understand your education than to apply it? What I find revolutionary about that one summer in Paris is the sisterhood that blossomed in the face of unimaginable experiences, idealistic youth, and our relentless passion. On that fateful night,ten other women and I embarked on the educational experience of a lifetime. We spent an immersive summer learning about Paris Noir and the negritude movement from Paris to Bordeaux and back. We went to Vegedream concerts, ate food that took us back to heart warming land of senegal, dreamt of martinique and guadeloupe in heart-wrenching literature, and met with the modern activists of an awakened generation that were Amandine Gay, Rohkaya Diallo, and Assa Traore. No project, historical analysis, or the harsh realities that faced the otherside of what we were learning could’ve prepared us for what would happen next.

Fast forward to what was for many of us our last night in Paris, on a damp cobblestoned road in the heart of Bastille. I stared as two of my classmates fearlessly yelled at the French police who were beating the man in front of us bloody. His face looked blue, like the blue grey of the clouds when you know a storm is coming to let tears of acid drip down everywhere. Blood marked his shirt, the same blood that dripped from the hands of the officers. As I watched two of my friends, my classmates yelling frantically and in agony at the police to stop, already injured, as were the increasingly tragic events of the night, I found the strength to pull them away filled with fear of foreign unknowns. So much happened later in the aftermath of our encounter with the police but what was left was the shock and lingering trauma.

In the days following, there was a lot of talk about creating a space for the things we had encountered that night, witnessing police brutality first hand, ending up in the hospital only to see the police and medical system’s careless treatment of that same man and it became clear. “No level of self-actualization alone can sustain the marginalized and oppressed. We must be linked to collective struggle, to communities of resistance that move us outward, into the world” - bell hooks.

None of us imagine that we’d be witnessing a variation of the same issues we were used to seeing back home in the romanticized version of Paris we knew would never exist again in our minds. When faced with real life experiences of the themes we had been learning, you know quickly what’s often missing in the heat of activism or the strength in speaking out, when adrenaline and anger surpass fear so you face the normalized violence of society, is collective healing.

Amidst all that occurred we found power, as guided by our professor in knowing that our education, research and experiences are tools. Not tools for ourselves but our communities, and within this toolbox exists possibilities for change. Sometimes we look externally when it’s those tools that allow us to build spaces of healing in talks of justice, and reinforcing oppositional knowledge. It’s so that when we go out into the world, and we look to reimagine liberation no matter how miniscule as storytellers, as frontline responders, as disruptors, as healers, as artists, we know we can do so fearlessly. I don’t believe my classmates would’ve chosen differently their interaction with the French police, nor I despite my fears of escalation.  Equity, solidarity, and justice are met with a reprogramming that we can use to empower our communities and generations and fuel the agency of those who are often left voiceless.

So what are left of bell hooks and the radical notion of Black feminism in chronicles of afro-feminist teachings abroad? While Sisters of the Yam is about Black women and self-recovery, the lessons are ones that surpass the transgressions of race politics in America to the harmful assertions of color-blindness that poison French politics. In the birth of transnational voices on the Black Lives Matter movement stands conversations of healing and reconciliation in the face of state sanctioned violence, from our complicit silence against police brutality, and colonial holds of Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité -- or so they say.

Grace Assogba ‘22
November 2021