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‘Ebony Axis’ touches upon race and intersectionality with Kimberlé Crenshaw

This past week marked the launch of the third installment of “Ebony Axis,” a poetry zine for black women founded by LaShawn Simmons ’18. The launch event was held on Oct. 23 in the Intercultural Center (ICC) to a packed audience, which included special guest Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading critical race theorist who coined the term “intersectionality” and is on campus to receive the Gittler Prize.

“Ebony Axis” features poetry, prose and visual art that reflect the experiences and challenges of being a black woman. The event featured spoken word and musical performances based on the pieces in the zine. Published with the support of a grant from the minor in Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation (CAST), “Ebony Axis” contains work by current Brandeis students and alumnae alike. In her Editor’s Note, Simmons wrote that she started the zine “in hopes of carving a space for Black women on campus to be seen, and not discarded among the single axis framework that keeps our narratives obscure.”

Simmons completely transformed the ICC space for the event. Attendees who walked in were greeted by ambient low lighting and a table spread with copies of the zine. A makeshift stage was constructed at the front of the room using red cloth, flowers lining its border and a backdrop of several strings of twinkle lights. A soundtrack playing a mix of smooth and upbeat music wafted throughout the room. The event also included dinner, a hearty spread of chicken, fried plantains, rice and beans.

So many people came to the launch that all the seats were quickly taken and students began sitting on any available floor space. A steady flow of people continued to arrive, mingle and enjoy the food, so the performances did not start until well into the hour. During this time, Crenshaw danced along to the music with several students.

Simmons introduced herself as a “cultural worker or cultural practitioner” whose goal is to inspire conversations about social change through art. She explained the meaning of the title “Ebony Axis” refers to the color of black women’s skin, and how they often find themselves at the axis—or intersection—of blackness and womanhood. With this segue into intersectionality, Simmons presented Crenshaw with a painting by Chinyere Brown ’17 as a token of thanks.

Inspired by the event, towards the end Crenshaw briefly spoke about how she and Simmons should work together, and how necessary it is for spaces and events like the “Ebony Axis” launch to happen again in more places in the next four years.

Simmons said she thought the event was a success. “It was important for me to create spaces where Black women can feel free to express and love themselves openly and unapologetically. It was an honor to have Kimberlé Crenshaw present at the event. It felt so affirming to be seen and recognized by a woman who not only works to make our narratives visible but restore value to them as well.”

Geraldine Bogard ’20 began the spoken word portion with a reading of her poem in the zine called “I Thought I Loved My Hair,” which is about her journey becoming comfortable with her “soft, short, black and beautiful” natural hair instead of wearing extensions. Her honest words earned many snaps from the audience.

Alumna Nyah Macklin ’16 returned for the launch with a powerful vocal performance, reminding the audience of the memorable performances she gave during her time at Brandeis, such as the “National Anthem” during the 2016 commencement ceremony. Macklin sang two songs by Nina Simone, “Blackbird” and “Four Women,” both with stunning and soulful vocals.

Viola Dean ’18 performed her piece in the zine, a poem called “She and I,” with the powerful opening line, “They tell me that my womb gave birth to the entire world.” Dean spoke with ease to the packed room, captivating the audience in a tone both conversational and powerful.

Alumna Ashley Mae ’17 read two poems, one of which was from her recently self-published book, “Origins: Lamentations of the Blackbird.” Salena Deane ’19 read her poem “The Things I Hear,” about how she hears certain statements like, “You didn’t even sound black on the phone,” and “I don’t see color with you.” The poem ends with the question, “I am who I am. How bout you?”

Other performances included poetry readings by Nia Duncan ’20 and Herlyne Das ’18, a prose reading by Victoria Richardson ’20 and a vocal performance by Julivic Márquez ’17, who sang a song in Spanish and incorporated an interactive element by having the audience sing the chorus. The night ended with Keturah Walker’s ’18 unforgettable reading of her poem “Honorable Mention,” which incorporated music cues with her powerful reading.

Deane, one of the night’s performers, highly enjoyed the event, noting, “Like LaShawn had imagined, the event was monumental in bringing black women on campus together in a space where we could be ourselves. ‘Ebony Axis’ has not only given me a platform to speak my truth and my story, but to receive love and validation for my work and my blackness in return; something we, as black women, so need and require.”

Powerful performances aside, what shone through most throughout the event was Simmons’ astounding creative vision, which transformed the ICC into a beautiful space, both physically and as a community.

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