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She has an uncanny ability
to step into someone else's shoes, such as a southern
white supremacist. "I'll put myself inside their heads
and say, 'I'm going to trace back. I'm a white supremacist
who would do horrible things to Sarah Jones in an alley,
but once upon a time I was a kid in a bassinet.' What
happens to you as a child is so integrated into who
you are for the rest of your life that you have to do
painstaking work to keep learning, keep incorporating
the reality that you know is yours, instead of what
somebody else passed on to you. You have to relearn
who you are as a human being."
This desire to "push" people
stems from her own struggles with racial identity: her
mother is European and Caribbean, and her father is
African American. "The struggle that's going to take
the longest is learning to be confident about my beauty
outside of Western constructs of what's beautiful. I'm
going to have hair that is this texture until the day
a little funny and fuzzy and soft, and I like it. I
have to accept that lots of black men with hair just
like this-because of the way racism is structured and
intraracial racism works-won't find me attractive. That's
a hard thing to deal with, but that's part of my reality,
and it's up to me to process itand
not my hair."
Her parents' divorce forced Jones
to leave Bryn Mawr college and return to New York City.
"I was aimless, wandering through my days, attending
hip-hop parties. I found myself singing along to lyrics
that I had no business singing. Me, the 'Bryn Martyr,'
standing there going on about bitches and ho's being
shit. I found myself doing that and said, 'Wait a minute.'"
when she began soaking it all in-talking to people on
the street and frequenting poetry slams. "I was writing
in my journal the kind of where-am-I-who-am-I-where-on-earth-am-I-going-do-I-have-any-gas?
poems-the really bad ones." But they weren't that
bad. Jones turned those poems into rich and passionate
verse embraced by the notoriously choosy New York poetry
scene (she won the 1997 Nuyorican Grand Slam championship).
The poems ultimately became Surface Transit.
Performing Women Can't Wait!
has strengthened her connection to women's struggles
around the world, yet Jones hesitates when asked if
she calls herself a feminist. "That's a good question,"
she says. "I don't know if I do. I call myself a womanist.
No, that's not true. I'm a feminist and a womanist."
She frowns at those who defend the
push-up bra as empowering and was similarly offended
when a club introduced her as New York's "spoken-word
vixen." "We are a long way from a dominant feminist
consciousness among women," she says. "You could more
easily get women to pool their efforts under the banner
of thinner thighs, at this moment in time, I believe,
than you could under equal rights and equal opportunity."
How will her experience with Equality
Now affect her work? "I sure can't do anything that's
not worthwhile anymore. If I do, it hurts. Because I
know what it's like to do something that feels like
it needs to be done. I almost feel like I've redefined
art for myself.
"There is a learning process that
is painful for me sometimes," she continues. "I feel
kinda like I'm at one level on the ladder looking up
and trying to throw certain voices or certain experiences
that are underrepresented into the fray, and I'm going
to take a lot of flack for it, and that's alright. And
if I decide that I'm done taking flack for it, or that
I've changed my mind, or that I've evolved into a new
place in my thinking, then I'll write something new
or change the play. But right now, it is energizing.
Even the painful stuff is energizing. It's all growth."
is assistant editor at Ms.
Check out www.sarahjones.cc
for dates and locations of Surface Transit, which
will be on the road this fall in Atlanta, Los Angeles,
and Miami, among other cities.