Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Fall 2011
The Arts—Weapon of Change, Tool of Healing for Salamishah Tillet MN '99, CEF '10
"The arts can give you a sense both of how the world is and how the world was," says Salamishah Tillet MN '99, CEF '10. "Even though it's not history, per se, a lot of the work that I do deals with the past, and the arts can give us a sense of the past. Through the arts, we can time-travel to places and people and worlds that we weren't a part of. As an academic and as a teacher, I think the arts give us a way of imagining beyond what our minds can do. They give us a sense of the future, but also an alternative world in the present."
An activist, writer, and assistant professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Tillet incorporates the arts into almost everything she does: her scholarship on the poetics and politics of the civil rights movement, her exploration of musical responses to the upheavals of that era, and—perhaps most personally—her work toward ending sexual violence.
In the late 1990s, Dr. Tillet and her sister Scheherazade used the visual and performing arts to create Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS), a multimedia performance focused intimately on Dr. Tillet's own healing and recovery as a survivor. They took the SOARS performance around the country to various colleges, universities, and community centers, "sharing the story of using the arts and activism as a weapon of change and a tool of healing," says Dr. Tillet. In 2003, they founded A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit organization that uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end violence against girls and women.
The two sisters soon noticed that their events attracted both women of color and men – two groups highly underrepresented in the larger movement to end sexual violence. "We also realized," says Dr. Tillet, "that teenage girls are the population most vulnerable to sexual violence, and they're the ones with the fewest resources."
To address this issue, the Tillet sisters created Girl/Friends Leadership Institute in Chicago. "It's been amazing working with the young women, just to see them take on this issue," says Dr. Tillet. "Some of them are survivors, and some of them belong to families of survivors, but the various forms of violence they see or experience are so much a part of their reality that they really want to figure out tools, campaigns, and policies to end it." Through the Girl/Friends Leadership Institute, A Long Walk Home is both working with the high school students to address gender violence and training the girls to continue their work through college.
As a result of her 2010 Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Foundation, Dr. Tillet was able to finish her debut book, Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in Post-Civil Rights America, this year. Slated for release in July 2012 with Duke University Press, Sites of Slavery will "examine how post-civil rights African American artists, writers, and intellectuals re-imagine slavery both as a metaphor for post civil rights citizenship and as a model for racial democracy, in their art and in their rhetoric."
Artwork from Dr. Tillet's forthcoming book Sites of Slavery. Photo: Chester Higgins.
Also a cultural blogger for TheRoot.com, Dr. Tillet is currently working on two other projects: a co-edited book on musical responses to the deaths of 1960s civil rights leaders and a new book of her own on Nina Simone, the civil rights icon and musician. "This comes out of my desire to go back to the period of the Civil Rights movement and look at how black radical thought and African American artists, like Nina Simone, were using both their poetics and their politics to change the world," Dr. Tillet says.
As she interweaves her research with the arts, Dr. Tillet says it's the "tangible feeling of pleasure" in the arts that keeps her going. "There's a way in which artists—who are not always dealing in the real, but in the realm of the imagination—allow us as audience members or as readers to just travel with them. I think, as a writer, as a teacher, and as an activist, there's so much potential and power in the artistic realm."