The Historian as Curandera
The role of a socially committed historian is to use history, not so much to document the past as to restore to the dehistoricized a sense of identity and possibility. Such “medicinal” histories seek to re-establish the connections between peoples and their histories; to reveal the mechanisms of power, the steps by which their current condition of oppression was achieved, through a series of decisions made by real people in order to dispossess them; but also to reveal the multiplicity, creativity and persistence of resistance among the oppressed.
In the writing, I chose to make myself visible as a historian with an agenda, but also as a subject of this history and one of the traumatized seeking to recover herself. My own work became less and less about creating a reconstructed historical record and more and more a use of my own relationship to history, my questions and challenges, my mapping of ignorance and contradiction, my anger and sorrow and exhilaration, to testify, through my personal responses to them, to how the official and renegade stories of the past impact Puerto Rican women. To explore, by sharing how I had done so in my own life, the ways that recaptured history could be used as a tool of recovery from a multitude of blows.
In writing Remedios, I made myself the site of experimentation, and engaged in a process of decolonizing my own relationship to history as one model of what was possible. As I did so, I evolved a set of understandings or instructions to myself about how to do this kind of work, a kind of curandera’s handbook of historical practice. The rest of this essay is that handbook.
To do exciting empowering research and leave it in academic journals and university libraries is like manufacturing unaffordable medicines for deadly diseases. We need to take responsibility for sharing our work in ways that people can assimilate, not in the private languages and forms of scholars. This is the difference between curanderas and pharmaceutical companies.
As if all my prayers have been answered, comes the answer to what Ive been trying to ask.
Here’s something I wrote.
In it, I write a little about the history of Audre Lorde’s ‘Open Letter to Mary Daly,’ and one point in the narrative is the ‘Second Sex: 30 Years Later’ conference at NYU in September 1979, where Audre Lorde met with Mary Daly and where Audre Lorde delivered ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.’
There’s a linearity to the narrative in the piece I wrote that I want to add a little more texture to around this event. According to Audre Lorde’s biographer, Alexis De Veaux, Lorde’s speech occasioned the writing of other letters. One was penned by conference co-organizer Jessica Benjamin on behalf of several other organizers. As De Veaux paraphrases, she charged that Lorde’s critiques were ‘legitimate but essentially divisive,’ and Lorde’s ‘accusations of racism paralyzed, rather than permitted, any comfortable discussion’ of the topics that were supposed to be central to the conference.
In a review of the conference published in the women’s newsjournal off our backs in December of 1979, Carol Anne Douglas sought Benjamin’s point of view in response to Lorde’s speech. She writes:
Later, I asked Jessica Benjamin if she wanted to reply to Audre Lorde’s charges for the record. Benjamin said that “Some of the criticism that was leveled at the conference seemed to be about the mere fact that it was so intellectual. We did succeed in discussing some conflicts because we had such a firm commitment to using theory as an opportunity for dealing with urgent problems in the movement. We would like the conference to be the basis for future experiments—for people to realize that intellectual work can be helpful for the feminist movement. Some of the anger put on the racial issue was displaced anger with having a conference on theory to begin with. There is a danger of losing the feminist vision if people don’t understand that theory is very political” (26).
In case what she said in the relative private of correspondence wasn’t insulting enough, Benjamin publicly diagnosed the anti-intellectualism of Black women as the central point of contention around the conference.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the same thing occurring today. Partly because the same thing happens with such regularity that it’s one of the most dependable features of feminisms structured by antiblackness. So I wanted to open up the essay I wrote to show how it wasn’t simply an issue between Lorde and Daly, but that it was and is a structural issue.
An excellent treatment of Lorde’s confrontation of Daly organized around a set of pivotal historical conflicts that continue to dominate mainstream feminist discourse today. Coming from my disciplinary location (religious studies) I would be eager to expand the conversation and include consideration of Lorde’s critique of the way Daly silences Afro-Diasporic religious traditions (and especially goddesses/spirits) in her theology, despite her appropriation of “bodies and struggles” with African roots. This is not to detract from your analysis here–in fact, it would only be strengthened by a discussion of these issues.