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POW-WOW: Expressing Themselves
2008-02-01

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BY MORGAN MCDEVITT

As the DJ lowered the volume, fading out a techno version of Dreamgirls' We Are a Family, Lucy, the MC, made her way to the elevated platform that served as a stage. A group of 20-25 predominantly Black lesbians found their seats and fell silent in anticipation. They knew it was time for 'warm fuzzies.'

'Right now I ask you to get up from your seats and hug the other women in this room. Give them some power!' said Lucy.

'Warm fuzzies' is a weekly ritual to remind these women that they are loved and welcome, and for some of them, it may be the only hug or kind word they hear all week. It is just one of the many ways POW-WOW ( Performers or Writers for Women on Women's Issues ) empowers the black lesbian community.

POW-WOW gathers every Tuesday night at Lee's Unleaded Blues, 7401 S. South Chicago to freely express themselves through poetry, song and dance. C.C. Carter, the group's founder and artistic director, had more than just poetry readings in mind when she created POW-WOW five years ago. It is rituals like 'warm fuzzies' at the beginning of every Tuesday event, and a safe space like Lee's Unleaded Blues that brought Carter's vision of security and open expression to life.

Carter spent over 10 years in the competitive slam poetry scene and three years on tour for her book, Body Language. Throughout her travels, she experienced homophobia first-hand and witnessed lesbian writers who opted not to do their lesbian material for the sake of doing their work period.

'I was met with challenges from being a woman, being a woman color and being a lesbian woman of color,' said Carter.

Even in an all-women setting, Carter was still met with homophobia and was shocked to receive even more discrimination from predominantly Black audiences.

'Homophobia in the African-American community is huge, which is why a lot of people don't come out,' said Carter, who feels there are a lot of issues surrounding this, stemming back to the civil rights movement.

'During the civil rights movement you fought for civil rights, you didn't fight for lesbian of gay rights,' said Carter. This idea of picking one's battles during that time has since segmented populations within populations, said Carter.

Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, which was located on Chicago's North Side, used to hold an open mic night once a month, and proved to be safe environment for lesbians but not specifically lesbians of color. After they folded, Carter received an offer from a club owner looking to do some 'different kind of promoting', giving Carter free reign over the club's Wednesday nights. It was this offer that provided POW-WOW with their very own space. POW-WOW has since moved to Lee's Unleaded Blues on Tuesday nights. What started out as 12 women on that first open mic night has grown to up to 70-80 women and men each week.

Although the organization was founded with lesbians of color in mind, it is open to the public.

'Gay men come in there all the time. Men are more than welcome but they have to check their privilege at the door,' said Carter.

Carter has also created a Men's Initiative, giving men the opportunity to take the mic once a month. One of POW-WOW's biggest concerns is not only providing freedom of expression to lesbians of color, but also advancing the cause for all LGBT concerns.

'Straight men eventually have to have some sort of relationship with a woman, whereas gay men never have to have a relationship with a woman aside from their mother or sister; we both need each other though,' said Carter. 'Lesbians have been there for gay men through HIV and AIDS and they need to be there for us for things like breast cancer and the LCCP ( Lesbian Community Cancer Project ) .'

Carter has also created the POW-WOW Performance Ensemble compromised of women of all ages and ethnicities who will take their performances and poetry to the streets. Tour dates have not yet been set, but plan to include college campuses and conferences across the nation.

Carter's future vision for POW-WOW transcends the stage by educating women artists and performers on how to make a living from their art.

'Any given Tuesday you can see women getting 'their hustle,' selling their CDs, paintings and T-shirts. It's like a vendor fair. For some of these women it's difficult, paralyzing, to work in a corporate work force because of things that have happened to them in that setting,' said Carter.

The training program is called 'Making Art Work' and will assist women from conception to implementation, allowing them to express themselves and be fiscally sound.

'Powwow' is a Native American term that means coming together and celebration of 'like people' to preserve certain elements in their heritage. This concept of gathering to support and create can be found any given Tuesday night. Some Native Americans used the dreamcatcher, POW-WOW's logo, to help block bad dreams and catch good ones. In POW-WOW's case, bad words and hurtful language are blocked, while good ones and positive language pass through to comfort and inspire.

POW-WOW will be celebrating its fifth anniversary Tues., Feb. 5, 6-9 p.m. at the POLO Café, 3322 S. Morgan. The evening will showcase Tony Award winner Staceyann Chin and two-time Lambda Literary Award winner sharon bridgforth, as well as six Chicago HBO def Poetry poets. Tickets are $30 ( or two for $50 ) ; they can be purchased by e-mailing POWWOWChicago@yahoo.com or by visiting Women and Children's First, Center on Halsted or Lee's Unleaded Blues on Tuesday nights.


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