All photos by Robbie Sweeny
I want to do “A House Full of Black Women!” —Amara Tabor-Smith
These were the words that came falling out of Amara’s mouth, sweet and easy, like fat golden corn falls ripe and juicy off a late-summer cobb. It was mere hours after the soul-stirring finish of Amara’s 2013 presentation of He Moved Swiftly’s “Room Full of Black Men” and I was still speechless with awe at the majesty that had taken place there. We were two sister-friends of 40+ years having some kitchen table-talk and debriefing the show. A house full of Black women??? I didn’t know what that was; neither did Amara. But what our heads didn’t know our bodies could feel: a She-presence that came into the room, something thick and round, wide-bellied and dark. Not the so-called inferior-dark of white supremacy, nor the despised-feminine dark of patriarchy. This dark was a radiant-dark Mother Force, primordial and rich in beauty and mystery. Amara’s words had called open a portal and this spirit, House/Full of Black Women, was now with us at the table. With chills running up my spine I looked at her. “Yaaasss Amara, oh my god, YES.” She looked back at me with sharp eyes, her lips in pursed determination, and nodded her head three times, resolutely.
Dear Beloved House/Full,
Mother of Black Woman Medicine
Who Restores and Transforms…
At first I watched from the sidelines, quietly stalking you while Amara joined forces with her long-time collaborator, the formidable Ellen Sebastian Chang. Together they gathered a circle of Black women who began showing up in places you would not expect to see them, doing things you would not expect to be done; shaking aloose preconceived notions about what constitutes art, audience, theater and performance, making a place in the streets of Oakland for this new/not-new thing Amara had named Conjure Art.
At that time—in addition to the challenges of a chronic health condition and the heart-wrenching death of my mother a few years before—I was dealing with an extended crisis around housing and resources and so was usually too unwell to show up in person for the various House/Full “episodes” that were taking place around town. Instead, I mostly learned about you through girlfriend chats with Amara and photographs. Then one day Amara said to me, “we’re gonna do a 24-hour song circle for Black women.” Which sounded so glorious it made my eyeballs pop with excitement, until she finished her sentence with, “and I would like you to lead the opening prayer.” All I could say, with tears in my eyes was, “I can’t. I know you love me but I am not worthy of the job.” I can’t… because I spend my days feeling empty and lost, choking on despair. I can’t… because I am worn all the way down from the struggle of just barely making it. I can’t… because I don’t have anything of value to say to anyone right now, let alone a whole ass song circle full of Black women, who deserve the very best and should have an opening prayer from someone in far better shape than me… Amara let me cry-talk for a while then leveled her gaze at me and said, “This is not a show. I am not asking you to perform. Just come as you are. I know you can’t see right now but I still see you. I know your power. I know your magic. Just come and speak what your tongue knows to be true. That’s all you have to do and it will be enough.”
And so I did that, brought my true tongue, unvarnished and vulnerable. At first it was hard because I felt so exposed with all my pain and struggle hanging offa me. But word by word I just kept going, feeling my way with authenticity as my touchstone. And I soon found out this was indeed enough. With the breath and bodies of all the women in the circle holding and supporting me, before I knew it I was in the flow of prayer and praise, no longer feeling broken; the magic had begun. For the next 24 hours, 75 or so of us sang and hummed and made sound together continuously without interruption. We howled and sobbed, raged and bellowed. We napped when we needed, nibbled on snacks, moved our bodies and shared sleepy-wild laughter. Leaving nothing out, we filled that massive room with Black Woman True-Tongue. Together we brought down a fiercely powerful healing–on the city of Oakland, on the Black women and girls of our bloodlines and most importantly, on our own beloved selves.
This is what you give us, House/Full: an embracing invitation to, as Amara said, come as we are, to entrust it all to your circle. Tucked and pinned into the folds of the full spectrum of our Black Womanness, we bring offerings of sweet bread and tears, comfort and courage, for you House/Full, our Sacred Ground. Mother Who Turns Jagged Edges To Magnificent Joy, you are our bowl of sugar, our honey water cleansing. When the poisons of systemic racism and misogynoir have us confused about who we really are, you still see us. By the bright light of your gaze we learn to treasure one another when, through the eyes of a sister, we re-find truths we have forgotten we know. You remind us we deserve to be held, our stories honored. You insist we are worthy of being seen and heard, fully and with the deepest love.
Never do you ask us to explain any aspect of the unique intersectional web of oppressions we each have to fight against every day as we do the endless work of challenging the structures of greed and what Ellen calls “the lies of whiteness.” You make a place for Black women to gather and bear witness to one another as we make revolution. The House/Full revolution is Black women creating a culture of loving mutuality and radical acceptance, mending and tending, as together we stitch the fabric of renewal. For our people, for our ancestors, for ourselves and–whether they know it or not–for the world. While we tarry in your healing presence, the lost ones who work against our aims, the hungry ghosts who would rather dominate than love, feast on the entrails of their own rotting flesh, devouring themselves into annihilation.
Some say House/Full performs. “Ha! We do not perform,” we whisper amongst ourselves. We pour libation to the Deep Dark Bowl of Ancient Feminine Mystery, wherein all manner of Black Woman genius, power and beauty dwell. We sit at the table of She-Who-Brings-A-Thickness-Of-Blessing. Where Black woman pain is offered up to communal digestion, and the metabolic powers of our togetherness are activated and unleashed. By dancing and resting and processing and remembering together we conjure medicine in your name, House/Full, to serve the sacred work of your alchemical mission: That Black women be free, so that all may be free.
 “New” as in contemporary. “Not new” as in expressive of and grounded in ancient healing practices of earth-based ritual and medicine-making traditions.
 As in processions.