For some, a daily experience encompasses struggle or mild annoyances which at its core serve to teach or to learn from others. “They don’t want you to survive,” these are the meandering voices of oppression well into the night. As the audience tuned to live the experiences of Angela Bowen and filmmaker Jennifer Abod, there was a general feeling of admiration and inspiration.
On Thursday Sept. 26, a screening of “The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen,” hosted by Clark Arts and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Traina Center for the Arts featured the film’s director, Jennifer Abod as the night’s guest speaker.
Approximately 60 people attended the event, ranging from students in film studies, women and gender studies students, faculty, and other members from the Clark and Worcester community.
The film touched on the large subjects of womanhood and identity, as well as the intersectionality of race and gender as experienced by Bowen. More pressing was Bowen’s personal life and how she strived to live authentically even if it meant being persecuted.
It was an endearing experience to learn how Abod became Bowen’s lifetime partner, and later her wife, and seeing how Bowen continued to live on through Abod’s work. Abod presented the audience a historical documentary depicting Bowen’s life from a young dancer full of life, to a dance teacher, and later, a social activist fighting for Civil Rights and gay and lesbian groups.
Having a passion for social change and values of justice endowed by her mother, for Bowen being a social activist was not enough. Bowen became the first black woman to earn her doctorate in Women’s Studies from Clark University in 1997. Bowen went on to become an educator and encouraged her students and many others to do the same.
A remarkable moment during the film—and when the audience rejoiced—was one of Bowen’s past interviews. Bowen, who was openly lesbian and a social activist at the time, fired back, “I have the right to exist!” in response to a white male audience member questioning why it mattered to be “out” in public.
After the film, there was a Q&A session with Abod making the night’s event a bittersweet experience. A widow with the memories of Bowen forever on film, it took Abod ten years to complete the film. Abod expressed how it was important for her to portray Bowen in her entire self and to tell the truth.
Influenced by Audrey Lorde, another black female Civil Rights activist, Bowen once asked Abod, “Who would believe your stories?” unless she told them. In a way, Abod’s film was demonstration of this promising message.
“One of the things that Audrey Lorde always said is ‘it is political to survive.’ They don’t want you to survive. They don’t want an Angela Bowen to survive… they don’t want lesbians to survive, they don’t want blacks to survive,” said Abod.
Abod continued urging the audience to listen and to feel Bowen’s message, “They don’t want the people of Puerto Rico to survive [in reference to Hurricanes Maria and Irma]. Right? So our job is to survive… and not for yourself alone. You must survive.”
Abod empathized how it was important to deconstruct oppressive power structures in the American society today by focusing on individuality. Abod used herself as an example by powerfully acknowledging her white privilege to the audience. For Abod, it was necessary for her to understand her hidden biases to be able to see Bowen completely and tell her story.
“When you participate in social movements you add your piece, whatever that is, whether it’s in the arts or the school system or whether it’s in medicine… when you know what you want to do you add your piece,” she said.
Abod continued, “Our movement in terms of understanding the limitations of gender stereotypes… [that] Men can be fathers and love their children, [that] women may or may not have children. You may love who you love and do what you do but it wasn’t like that [in the past] … it’s difficult in some places. We added our piece and every time it comes back at us there is a reverberation of what we were hoping for and what we believe was possible that push us forward.”
Abod concludes that “It’s in our hands. Each one of us has to decide what our piece is going to be… and our strengths and our weaknesses… Nevertheless, the passion for social justice not for yourself alone. Follow your dreams and sticking to your habits… I don’t think it has changed…”
Abod tasks the audience to “add your piece” and that “each of us must decide” because it is not a matter of social responsibility but accountability for oneself and others. Abod urges us to listen and to have truly listened to the voice that is not just begging to survive but to have lived.