Diving Into the Wreck (Photo by Caroline Matas)
This semester I began working as a Graduate Assistant in the HDS Office of Admissions. Since I’ve started working here, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and articulating why I love HDS, and how I’ve changed since coming here. This blog post arose from a discussion I had with my fellow Graduate Assistant here, Carly, about how my academic explorations have influenced my personal life.
Last year, during my first semester at Harvard Divinity School, I took a class called Piety and Protest: Women and Religion in Contemporary America with Ann Braude. In this class, we examined case studies of women’s protests within, and against, their religious faiths. Through the various books we read, I became very interested in the ways that women used their bodies to register and enact protest. I was intrigued by the ways that women’s clothing and bodies have been re-signified and re-marked to critique and fight back against various forms of gender discrimination. This interest led to my final paper, which was about the potentiality of tattoos to interrupt patriarchal body projects. This line of inquiry has informed much of the work I’ve done since, which has focused on what bodies mean, how bodies move through space, and how bodies and subjects are discursively produced in different contexts.
Writing that final paper for Piety and Protest was the first time I had engaged with these ideas academically. I was so excited to have new language and an entire library of work done by feminist scholars to think through these issues. I already had one tattoo, but the entire time I was researching and writing my paper, the thought kept flitting through my mind that I should get a tattoo that very intentionally was a feminist statement—a way to mark my body, a body gendered and racialized as white and female—with what I wanted to say. I spent hours pondering different possibilities, to decide what tattoo would symbolize my political beliefs, my commitment to anti-racism, to intellectual and embodied decolonization, to issues of gender and sexuality. I wanted to show, loudly, that I was fighting against patriarchal readings of my body. By literally inscribing this symbol in my flesh, I was able to intervene, in one small way, in how women’s bodies are torn apart, objectified, viewed through the male gaze, and subjected to a litany of cultural violence on a daily basis. I knew that was what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t figure out what the right tattoo was. What could possibly say all of this? What would have the heft, the weight, the history behind it, to carry all of these messages?
The following spring, I preached at a HUUMS worship service (HUUMS stands for Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students, which is a faith-based student organization here at HDS— read more about it here). The sermon was about one of my favorite poems, Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. The poem takes us into a shipwreck, which represents the physical, structural, and cultural violence that has been enacted upon women.
“I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.”
(Excerpt from the poem.)
In the sermon, I spoke about how Diving into the Wreck is a call to re-write the narratives that have left out women, people of color, anyone marginalized, anyone non-normative. It is a call to reshape the myths, to include the stories that must be told. It is a call for an ontological and epistemic shift. After giving this sermon, I decided that the phrase “diving into the wreck” would encompass everything I wanted to represent with my tattoo. I had also been talking about this with one of my closest friends here, and we decided to get the same tattoo—mine on my left arm, in her handwriting, and hers on her right arm, in my handwriting. Together, we are bound in the possibilities of re-imagining that Adrienne Rich hails in Diving into the Wreck. My tattoo is a marker of my time at HDS, of my academic growth that began in that Piety and Protest classroom my first semester, of the friends I’ve made here, and of my UU religious community here. My tattoo also serves to locate me in a long lineage of women who have not stayed silent. My tattoo reminds me, every day, to dive into the wreck.