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Constance Alexander: Denied their humanity, these women of history must be remembered

The preface to DaMaris B. Hill’s new book of poems, “A Woman Bound is a Dangerous Thing,” confronts readers with a startling statistic: “Between 1980 and 2015 the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%.”

As indicated in the book’s sub-title – The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland – DaMaris Hill stands in solidarity with the hurt and the wounded, Black women who “feel the ricochets of injustice savaging the landscape.”

Despite the brutality of some of the subject matter, the poems are, according to the poet, “love letters.” They exemplify the African American tradition of honoring ancestors who, like Ms. Hill’s grandmother, treasured the family Bible.

“The book itself was like so many of us, beautifully scarred,” she says.

“The front pages of the Bible do not begin with the shaping of the heavens and the earth; they start with the ancestors.”

Before the fabulous illustrations of biblical stories and angels, Ms. Hill’s family Bible documented family history — names, professions, places of residence, births, marriages, and transitions of relatives, past and present.

When Hill was growing up, her grandmother could not keep the kids away from the Bible. “We wanted to interact with it constantly,” she recalls, confessing how she and her cousins could not resist looking through it again and again.

“My fingers stained with peanut butter and jelly pressed into the pages,” she admits, so much so that her grandmother finally purchased a children’s Bible for them. Although bound in white leather and amply illustrated, it was a flop.

“We found it to be a disappointment compared to the family Bible,” she declares.

Most startling in DaMaris Hill’s poems chronicling the incarceration of African American women is the extent of the Jane Crow types of oppression that Black women have endured over the centuries.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

One example is Joan Little. In 1974, she stabbed and killed Clarence Alligood with an ice pick. He had wielded the same weapon to threaten her life as he raped her. Two other women inmates who were also his victims testified at Ms. Little’s trial. Charged with first-degree murder, she was found not guilty on the basis of her plea of self-defense.

And there is also Ruby McCollum, taken against her will by the town doctor and soon-to-be-senator C. LeRoy Adams. He thought it was his right to exert “his white man’s pleasure, a Black mistress of his choosing to bear his children.”

On August 3, 1952, Ruby shot him dead. She was not allowed to testify at her own trial and was convicted of murder. Later, she was declared crazy.

Her poem whispers the word “paramour,” as if Ruby had a choice in the matter. As if she and her family could stand up to Dr. Adams, who had the power “to tear any black man to pieces.”

Gynnya McMillen’s story is more current. On January 11, 2016, she was booked into a juvenile detention center in Kentucky. Seventeen hours later, she was found dead. It seems she’d been restrained in an Aikido Control Technique, a move used to strangle people, when she refused to remove her sweatshirt in order to be searched.

She wears oversized sweatshirts.

Her anger makes hot air balloons.

They hide her bloom. In juvie,

they treat her privacy like a penalty.

DeMaris Hill, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, describes her powerful book as “a love letter to women who have been denied their humanity.”

“Every time I call a name in this book,” Hill explains, “presume that the person who bears the name is loved…Let these women dance among your days and with your night. Dream better lives.”

For more information about “A Woman Bound,” visit www.bloomsbury.com. Visit www.nytimes.com for an article by Caroline Randall Williams entitled, “Monument? My body is a Confederate Monument.”

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