August 2007


Anything we love can be saved, Alice WalkerIn the Sixties, many of us where plagued by the notion that, given the magnitude of the task before us… our individual acts were puny…

I sometimes felt ashamed that my contributions… were not more radical…

It has become common feeling, I believe, as we have watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired, is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings out of shame. This is the tragedy of our world. For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile…

Sometimes our stones are, to us, misshapen, odd. Their color seems off. Their singing… comical and strange. Presenting them, we perceive our own imperfect nakedness. But also, paradoxically, the wholeness, the rightness, of it. In the collective vulnerability of presence, we learn not to be afraid.

In this book I am writing about the bright moments one can experience at the pile. Of how even the smallest stone glistens with tears, yes, but also from the light of being seen, and loved for simply being there.

This collection of essays, letters, articles and speeches, subtitled “A writer’s activism” ranges across topics as diverse as motherhood, Winnie Mandela, daugtherhood, Fidel Castro, dreadlocks, Malcolm X, political activism, Audre Lourde, writing, FGM, and cats. It reads like the best kind of blog, a collection of various thoughts and memories and ideas, some deeply personal and some openly political – and all engaging.

Somebody, send Alice Walker a cookie.

Oh, and hey, does this sound familiar to any women bloggers out there? It refers to an incident that occurred during a sit-in protest in Georgia, back in the day:

A mob of white supremacists who threw rocks and bottles and foul language at me, and at the women and men and small children who had joined our protest… They actually felt, at the time, that by expressing a need to be black and free, in a society constructed by white supremacists to serve their own racist ends, I was insulting everything they stood for: their ancestors, their religion, their “Southern Way of Life”, the sanctity of the white skin itself.

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Eve, Petrina BrownIt was widely accepted for most of history that women knew instinctively what was best for women in labour. The success rate of midwives appears to have been high compared with that of doctors. Home deliveries were infinitely safer than those in hospital, as hygienic practices were not followed by doctors and nurses who had little knowledge of bacteria and cross-infection. The ‘old wives’ were much more patient and also less likely to interfere, they seldom used instruments, and rarely inserted their hand inside a labouring woman, unlike the male doctors. Their technique was natural, which in turn meant fewer complications, and the midwives’ patients had great confidence in them…

Although midwifery was free from domination by male doctors during this period, midwives were not free of interference from the religious authorities… In 1591 the midwife Agnes Simpson was burned at the stake for trying to relieve birth pains with opium: God was being deprived of the earnest cries from women who would beg for mercy in their agony… It was also felt that a woman in childbirth was vulnerable to supernatural forces, and many midwives were suspected of practising witchcraft. The caul, placenta and umbilical cord were rumoured to be treasured ingredients for the cauldron, and a stillborn child was also important in the rites of witchcraft. Members of the clergy suspected that many midwives chose their profession in order to facilitate their double lives as witches, and there are records of midwives being executed for allegedly murdering newborn babies and dedicating their souls to the Devil.

This is a very readable trip through recorded history, from Classical to the present, on – well, it does what it says on the cover. The main topics are around fertility, contraception, pregnancy, birthing and the care of babies, with a little diversion here or there. What can I say? It isn’t a penetrating analytical work, and I didn’t agree absolutely everything said, but on the whole it struck me as sensitive, well-researched and even a bit feminist. If this is a subject that interests you and you haven’t read much about it before – it’s as good a start as any!