If you aren’t already familiar with the brilliance that is Katie King’s inimitable way of poking around in the past, get yourself over to this, this and this pronto. King, a student of Haraway’s, has that same knack for drawing together the disparate elements of the zeitgeist in ways that are both alarmingly clever and crazy-insightful
As I’ve been working my way through 1970s feminist art activist uses of the past, I’ve been playing with King’s idea of the pastpresent “how the past and the present continually converge, collapse and co-invent each other,” the emergence of which she traces to something in the 1980s.
I argue that the critical wedge inserted into history making occurred earlier, in the mid to late 1970s among feminist activists who made history along lines quite different from those of academically-oriented feminist scholars. In the chapter I’m currently writing I explore two pieces from 1977-1978 in depth to reveal the ways the past was manipulated, embodied, and recast along activist trajectories and the divergences this created among people working and writing about women’s culture.
In the mid 1970s the community of knowledge producers involved in exploring the women’s culture trope still included both activists and academic feminists, who continued to publish in the same journals and present at conferences together. However, as the works I discuss in this chapter make clear, some activists were heading off in directions that would ultimately lead to the women’s culture wars.
Perhaps most troubling for the relationships between professional historians and activist artists was the tendency of artists to embody historical figures. The desire “to be” someone from the past speaks volumes about the pull of the past for contemporary feminist activists. That merger of personae reveals the emotional resonances of the struggle to find female agency in a historical legacy of their own creation.
Having unraveled the fabric of history so to speak by pulling on the thread of sexism, by the mid 1970s feminists found a space wide open. Historians within academia began moving “beyond” the addition of women to the chronology of history to argue for separate narratives of equal importance, while activists began rummaging around in the attic of memory for other inspirations.
As Suzanne Lacy, an activist working on contemporary violence against women, delved deeper into the subject, she began to uncover its historical roots. She found, for example, instances of “trafficking in women” during the 19th century that paralleled her present-day concerns. This interest in the migratory experience of Chinese women became part of a site specific performance in 1977, entitled The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron created with Kathleen Chang in which Lacy portrayed the “real” Cameraon and Chang created a fictive identity Leung Ken-Sun. While the title of the piece suggested a sweeping biographical depiction of the historical figure, the resulting piece was anything but. However that same year, a biography of Cameron, Chinatown’s Angry Angel appeared, written by a largely sympathetic Mildred Crowl Martin, who does not appear to have been a historian.
When the Journal of American History reviewed the book, it was assigned not to a women’s historian but to a historian of California, who noted that the author
does not, however, view the social and cultural aspects of racial contact in a historical perspective and does not expose the ambiguities of the crusade. The lack of footnotes or specific references the immediacy of a memoir of a remarkable person.
“Immediacy” perhaps even “intimacy” might be said to characterize Lacy’s approach as came to identify with Cameron depicting her as “like” her own literal foremothers, and depicting her as “parallel” to the situation Lacy found herself in with the Chinese (American) community of San Francisco.
Lacy acknowledged Martin’s research in the credits to TLTDC although her depiction of Cameron’s “life story” offers a completely different approach. Leaving the writing of traditional histories to others, Lacy’s “life and times” involved selective re-enactments of moments that never could have been between the rescuer and the rescued. However Lacy’s impetus is the same motivation that sent historians off in search of these women as well, the belief that women in the past have done something historically significant. What Lacy did with that information is where things diverged and the community of knowledge producers began to fragment.
As Lacy explained
The Life and times of Donaldina Cameron … grew out of … desire to deal with this historical controversy. As an art form, performance combines experience and ideas into enticing blends, in this case a narrative which opens up inquiry into that powerful abstraction, racism.
Yet whose racism against whom is not immediately clear. Is it Cameron’s racism against the Chinese women she attempted to help? The racism of the white community complicit, at least tacitly, in the sexual exploitation and oppression of Chinese women? Of the native born (white) community against (male) immigrants?
The approach, the “enticing blend” of “experience and ideas” is performing of the experience of the “idea” in this case history. TLTDC offers a performative history in a three part play, explained by Chang as “a combination of dramatic reading and acted monologue” in which the form mirrored “the difference inherent” in the statuses of the two figures.
Act I, the approach, purely visual, the two women gliding by, silhouetted by the sun, that first performing for the invited and the unsuspecting, reenacts the approach to Angel Island’s immigration station, yet changes it, because the rescuer would not have traveled on the “turn of the century schooner,” that brought Chinese women to Angel Island.
Act II, the auditory, eavesdropping on the “private conversation’ as Lacy/Cameron and Chang/LeungLeung
Act III, finale, in which Cameron and Chang as themselves converse about the “political and emotional issues that were raised during the creation of this piece.
Gender trumps race in Lacy’s vision of this history. Her fear was that the audience would “ denigrate the contributions of our women heroes. In justifying her description of Cameron, Lacy wrote in a 1978 essay documenting the piece that Cameron’s “passionate commitment – though perhaps not sophisticated by our standards – to righting very cruel wrongs and her courage in the accomplishment of change gave her the qualities of a hero”
“Our standards” what does that mean in 1978. Is it acknowledgement of the tremendous power imbalance that existed between rescued and rescuer? In the staunch Presbyterian attempts to convert and Americanize the saved women? Lacy frames her commitment to Cameron in additional terms of present day “racial pride when we frown upon the need to be with women of other races, especially if that need arises because of, not in spite of, cultural differences” In a plea for sisterhood, Lacy argues “I believe that one can identify by gender as well as by race.” But “as well as” is not the same as “at the same time” as though one could parse out aspects of identity to “be” on a given day. Lacy ambiguously notes her art “may be cultural imperialism, a charitable and ultimately self gratifying process, or it may be a suggestive model” words which could as easily apply to Cameron’s work as well.
Chang is even more forthcoming in her remarks, stating that she suspected Lacy “of having a white missionary complex.” She committed to the project, only to back out, when Lacy’s idea of reframing around Cameron emerged. Chang was “delighted” Not only would this approach enable us to explore historical events; it would offer our relationship as an example history’s impact on real people , now, in the 1970’s.”
“History’s impact on real people now” how to unpack that short, but laden, phrase? “History” is a thing in the present acting of its own accord on who? Descendants of the Chinese forced brides? They are “real” which means what, that the people of “history” are somehow “unreal?”
King’s pastpresent “the past and the present continually converge, collapse and co-invent each other” happens again and again as the piece, its documentation, its repetition and reference continually revise and recast TLTDC
At the time of TLTDC the first major treatment of Donaldina Cameron was not even under way yet (Pascoe received her M.A. at Sarah Lawrence in 1980 and Ph.D. from Stanford in 1986). Pascoe’s subtitle the search for female moral authority hints at the transitions that have occured since 1977 when TLTDC occurred and perhaps explains the modifications to the 1978 essay in the 2010 anthology Lacy published of her writings.
The original 1978 essay documenting the piece appears largely the same with several key exceptions. The language is altered to omit the notion of Cameron as a hero, the piece is “ironically” titled The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron, “people” substitute for “women” in the discussion of cross racial alliances and the article concludes by noting that the piece “provocatively suggests more questions than it answers and walks an ambivalent line through the minefield of race.” Now what “present day” standards are at work? I don’t begrudge Lacy the right to recast her life. Why not, we are all continually in the process of doing so. What interests me is the why. In her introduction to this volume, the art historian, and friend of Lacy, Moira Roth writes of witnessing the original performance and refers to the 1978 article from Chrysalis (originally authorial credit only for Lacy and Linda Palumbo, Chang restored in the 2010 version) referenced as “chapter 6.” Why the alteration without annotation? I would suggest that it is the transformations within the feminist world around the idea of women’s culture, and the accusations of its acritical, ahistorical, deracinated celebration of women’s collective past that rendered the alterations necessary prior to publication.
But the original did not, it most emphatically did not embrace ambivalence on Lacy’s part as she plunged instead headlong into the breach with all the heady 1970s optimism and hopefulness for liberating women through history.
Revisioning the re-envisioning of history in a story made all the more complicated by the death of Chang, which provided yet another moment of repetition. In 2006 Lacy as an act of remembrance for Chang, who had moved to calling herself Kathy Change, created “a series of postcards tracing their original performance up the hill and a revised edition of their broadsheet ANGEL ISLAND TIMES PAST.” This time narrative is cut free, perhaps floating in the tragedy of Change’s self immolation in 1996 “to call attention to oppression and war.” In documentation for the second “performance,” Lacy described the piece as “a look at the history and current situation of cross-race relations between Chinese and White women” and recalls “process of coming to a deeper understanding of how our ethnic identities and histories impacted our present artistic collaboration.”
Layers upon layers of archaeologies of meaning, the same actor reacting and reenacting performance past/performative past. More than anything I wish I had Chang’s perspective of the piece. What did she think of having her name left of the original essay? How did she feel about her participation decades later?
I’m also left wondering what narrative accounts of history can be found in the multiple history makings surrounding TLTDC. That first narrative is easy to nail down– in 1977 it was still possible to argue for a cross racial sisterhood that celebrated the agency of “women” in the past. By 1978 documenting that without crediting Chang, which I’m hopeful was an editorial error not a decision of Lacy’s part, is troubling. The context of the 2006 event, the sadness of Chang’s death shifts the focus of the piece so that the story told is that of Lacy’s friendship with Change, not the original art work itself. The 2010 revisions speak to the larger outcomes of the women’s culture wars. To present that enthusiastic hopeful exuberance is impossible and thus it become a cautionary tale about dancing through minefields.