It is day 15 of our arduous journey through the veldts of Nigeria (or are we in Cameroon yet?). Our tracker Adeola has discovered new tracks and scraps of fibers from obviously foreign cloths. She can find a single iguana track amongst a bevy of crocodiles, this one can. We listen intently that these “men” are probably several hours, if not a day away. We find evidence of them through their encampments, their excrement and their litter. Yes, litter. Can you imagine- these foreigners, these soldiers, these baby snatching, people annihilating, genocidal rapists also throw their unwanted refuse upon our beautiful, sacred ground. Well if you can march hordes of innocent groups of human beings to ships waiting to whisk them away to be enslaved, massacred and destroyed in a whole different place on this globe, throwing down unwanted garbage must not mean much. I guess it truly lies in one’s perspective, does it not?
I think to myself, “Did I travel back in time for this?”
And before I can answer, images of the next few centuries spring forth as vividly as the greens and browns presently ahead of me: slavery, men and boys hanging from trees, Emmett Til in his coffin, the Civil War, ghettos, heroin, crack, Rodney King, Ronald Regan, Flava Flav, the riots in Newark, Chicago and LA, apartheid and AIDS. Internally, the answer is clear. The rest of the women notice my hesitation and far-off look in my eyes and immediately they know where my mind has gone. They wait patiently as I gather my wits about me. It’s all so overwhelming at times. From one existence to another in mere minutes, then from that existence to here-it is all staggering to think I am recreating my past as my future remains uncertain now- the whole butterfly/chaos theory thing. Try to explain that to a group of Amazonian warriors attempting to rid their land of oppressors and see where it takes you.
It took weeks and weeks to convince my group of fighting women I was actually a woman from their future who has returned to the past to go back in an attempt to right the wrongs done to one group of my ancestors by another. Perhaps the laser light pen (bought at a flea market to amuse my cats) and Nintendo DS (note to self: energizers do NOT time travel well) helped to tip the scale of doubt to my side a bit. It took several days for me to even convince them that a person bearing my skin tone could have even come from their same mothers. My complexion, hair texture, shape of my lips and nose were all odd but strangely reminiscent of theirs–albeit, a highly watered down version; or as sister Iruwya said, a highly “whitened” down version of them all. She has a biting wit about her- she is not ever afraid to speak her mind, heart and especially her soul. Once she was convinced of the atrocities to come, she, the non-believer became my staunchest advocate and friend. At night, I think back to the times this whole adventure began. I bounded in the matter of what seemed to be minutes from 21st century woman, to 19th century “lady” and then to here and now, the Africa of my not-so ancient past.
But, now I stand, clothed in a strange compilation of Victorian European garb mixed with the bits and pieces of textiles I have found on the dead and dying of White men and African brothers alike-the strangest mosaic of African-American-European aesthetics this time period has probably ever seen; my hair in tight ringlets surround my face, mane-like; no matter what–I am home.
But now is not night and there is no time to reminisce. It is dusk and the heat, still shimmering in waves from the ground below, attacks us. The cross bow (yes, with laser light pen attachment-sold separately) strung across my back grows heavier with each step that I take. Not even the adrenaline brought about by the sight of the fires ahead, the smell of the cooking meat and the unquestionable shouts and laughter of the White men ahead can alleviate the ache in my mid-back. I look around me and see the familiar smiles of my new sisters: once warrior women of their king in Dahomey, they fight alongside of me now to try and thwart the death of our culture, our names, heritage, land and lives. “Come” says Tayari in Yoruba (a language I never knew while living in New York in 2011, but one I can easily understand and speak now). The rest of us nod. Our evening activities have just begun.
The above excerpt taken from “The Strange and Accurate Depiction of the Life and Times of Luisa Fuentes as Miss Dorothy Winterman, Lady of Leisure and Haberdasheress Extraordinaire In Her Journeys Through Time and Oppression: A Memoir”.
Okay, so the above memoir does not exist in either fiction or reality. It is a part of an explanation of the newest and most original Steampunk outfit that debuted at the Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey the weekend of May 20th, 2011. My name, however, really is Luisa Ana Fuentes and I really am of numerous mixed heritages. I’m a steampunk and my character’s name is (you guessed it) Dorothy Winterman, Lady of Leisure and Haberdasheress Extraordinaire.
Miss Winterman, if you please, was born after I began exploring the Steampunk genre and community in 2010. At that point I really only saw the European Victorian side of the things and went out and bought the “mandatory” goggles, bustles, corsets (well, those I pretty much had already and that is an entirely different submission) and I made myself a little hat to perch upon my head. Miss Winterman became a lady of leisure who traveled in airships, was captured by pirates, became a pirate, yada, yada, yada. The exact same story could be heard from many a rouged lip and did not really fit “me”.
The “me” to which I refer is an opera/Broadway show tune singing, belly dancing, wanna-be martial artist, attorney who speaks several languages, loves metal and Rasputina and Kletzmer music. I am of mixed ethnicities and cultures. African (which I will refer to as Black here), Japanese and British – that’s just my maternal grandmother. My grandfather, born in 1903 in Tennessee, was the son of a slave. My grandmother, born in 1910 in Trinidad, was born under British rule. My mother was 22 when her mother’s home became independent from the rule of its oppressors. My father fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and advocated for the Civil Rights Act of 1963. I have seen the death of Fela, Arthur Ashe and apartheid and the rise of the Williams sisters, BET, the Tea Party and President Obama. But hatred, doubt and “ isms” all remain as strong as ever. I am a strange testament to their existence and yet would not exist had not certain members (who shall only remain nameless because their names are now lost to time) of my family bucked the system and laid with, slept with, were raped by or married someone very different from them in skin color, ideals, religion, background and social status.
I am of African, Scottish, French, Trinidadian, Spaniard, Japanese, Cherokee, Taino and Caribe-Indian decent born of mixed parents who themselves were born of odd and delightful mixtures themselves. Add in Scottish, French, Spaniard, Cherokee, Taino and Caribe Indians and you will have named all that we in my family know about and admit to being. I used to wear leggings, tunics, thongs and nail polish. I made the “strange” decision to stop battering my hair with chemical relaxers and allow it to grow out of my hair in its natural state and made new friends while losing others during this transition. I have been educated in ways my grandmother would have never dreamed possible and can stand up to challenge a White person with knowledge and questions without worrying about being found swinging from a tree later that evening.
As a child of privilege (let’s all admit there are few truly poverty-stricken role-playing individuals with limited education, interests and finances. Few of us have not been privileged in some way during our lives to even have discovered these genres, cliques, communities, etc.), I have had a chance to be a non-conformist, rabble-rouser who had enough of an artsy family to find safety in my oddness. With that, I was also given license to research, learn, experience and dissent. I was one of students at Sarah Lawrence College who took over our administration building in 1988 demonstrating our anger at not having enough multicultural class offerings. I attended Rutgers University School of Law in Newark and worked as Notes and Comments Editor for the Womens’ Rights Law Reporter and now I am a staff attorney working for a legal services organization that provides free legal services to the poor and underprivileged. Needless to say I have been sensitized to race, class, gender, oppression and “-isms” for decades.
Thus, entering this new and unique world of Steampunk I noticed how similar everyone was: goggles, bustles, underskirts, parasols, hats of all shapes and sizes and…mostly white people. Every once in a while I might see a darkened face with a similar background-educated, privileged, and considered the “bizarre” one amongst their friends/peers. But something was missing.
In the meantime, the hats I made for myself and friends gained so much positive attention that I became a hat maker/embellisher and began making and selling fancy little items thus adding the final title to my Steampunk moniker. But still, something was missing.
Let us again be honest: the Victorian age is over. It was a time that exists no longer, like the Bronze age, the Stone age, the Disco age–it is defunct. We can imitate, incorporate, and inculcate its ideals, ideas and aesthetics into our lives, homes, clothing, speech patterns and word usages. We can learn their dances, play their music and eat their recipes. But we no longer live in that time. This is all fine and dandy and part of what I love about our growing community. Couple this with the addition of lasers, time machines, steam-powered ray guns and robots and my nirvana has been reached in terms of nerdy geekdom. But again, something was missing. At least for me.
I became friends with Ay-Leen the Peacemaker and learned of her blog and that of the Steamer’s Trunk (see specifically her March 2011 post) and saw there were other ways to imagine a Steampunk world/existence than just participating in tea parties and imaginary dirigible races. I could explore the lands and cultures of my past and incorporate their looks, clothing and histories into my interpretations- there is no one right way to “do” Steampunk. Period. And my Steampunk could reflect me and still be part of the larger genre. Excellent.
Then, one evening I awoke from a dream (sounds very “Twilight” I know). In that dream, Miss Winterman was standing among bodies of White men in differing military uniforms. They were dead or dying. I/Miss Winterman had a cross bow with a red laser light shooting out its pinpoint accuracy onto a Joshua tree not too far ahead. I stood, Captain Morgan-like on what I knew to be a Dutch military man. All around me were clearly African women soldiers all dressed alike with the same or similar weaponry, but likewise standing as I was upon the chests of other fallen European male soldiers. We all shouted and whooped and hollered in victory-my sisters and I. We had defeated our enemies and Africa (yes, all of Africa) was safe from continued plunder and rape. That very morning I did a Google search of “African Warrior Women” and came up with several pages of images (some offensive and verging on the pornographic while others disseminated amazing information) I found fascinating and beautifully terrifying.
I learned of the Amazons of Dahomey Warriors (factoid: Moammar Kadafi uses a version of these warrior women today- take a moment and notice that his bodyguards are all women), the Nupe women warriors and Queen Amina of the Hausa (take that Boudica). I then sat and daydreamed about what Miss Winterman would/could do in Africa in the 1700 and 1800s with Steampunk-driven technology and the fierce women warriors I had just learned about. I admit to having a wild imagination, but I never knew it to be so…well…creative. My mind’s eye saw this: a strange costume compilation of European Victorian clothing mixed with African textures and textiles, earthy colors and a violent back story. I saw Miss Winterman running through the African forests and glades and veldts and lowlands fighting off the encroaching human poachers as they attempt to advance their quest to dominate and enslave a continent. I envisioned Miss Winterman rummaging through rucksacks and manbags for money and rations. I imagined her taking useful articles of clothing from the corpses of African and European slave traders and adding them to her dwindling Victorian garb so make a semblance of “proper” lady-wear. That night I hit eBay for items and supplies, raided my closets and costume drawers and began sewing.
The finished outfit debuted on Saturday, May 22, 2011 at Steampunk World’s Fair in Somerset, NJ. The reactions received were pretty much what I expected. Some people enjoyed how “different” it was and then I explained the meaning and history. Some, mostly women, loved the empowered stance it took. Others marveled at the fact that I made it myself from cloth and stuff. Others just wanted a photo taken. Few people asked me the meaning of the outfit and to them I obligingly taught them my knowledge of the Dahomey Amazons of Benin.
However, this is where those not inclined to accept multiculturalism shined, most looked upon me as if I had several heads all breathing fire. Some people openly stared, others shook their heads. Many gave me such a wide berth in which to walk and made it obvious they would rather parlay with the zombie corpse of Stalin. I am not the only person who noticed it either. Was it the face-paint? According to one friend who knows me well the face paint even scared her. Was it the cross-bow that appeared ready to fire? I saw scarier weapons being carted about by children. Was it the non-traditional, non-conformist, non-European, non-Colonial oufit? DING, DING. Or perhaps it was a delightful combination of all three (3).
During the fair there was a film crew filming various aspects of the fair, including the Flash Mob and rally. I was at
both. Every time I walked into the frame, down the camera went. Many people with whom I was standing were interviewed whereas the camera-person would not even make eye contact with me. HOWEVER, the very next day when I wore a less challenging (yet still a cultural outfit paying homage to my Asian heritage) outfit with a cheongsam, brown leather waist cincher and a mini hat I was approached not only by those who had ignored me and steered themselves far far from my presence, I was also interviewed for the film by the same person who 24 short hours previously had overlooked my existence.
Needless to say, no matter how my outfit was received I was quite pleased with it and plan to wear it to other events this summer. Apparently, it is time Miss Winterman took some time off from her grueling task of professional leisure -ing to return to the atrocities committed in her cultures during the Victorian era to right the wrongs with the freedom fighters of that day. I am already working on an outfit that will combine the looks of Cherokee, Taino and Caribe Indian warriors. Oppressors, be very afraid, Miss Winterman knows where to find you and she has a laser sight. Hats, however are still available. One can be both deadly and stylish at the same time.