History Lost in History

Olga Bancic is the badass Resistance freedom fighter you need to know about

Olga Bancic was a force to be reckoned with. Her bravery and determination to always stand up for what was right should be an inspiration to us all. But who was she? Bancic was born in 1912 to a working-class Romanian Jewish family, and her life wasn’t easy. She began working in a mattress factory at the age of 12 in order to support her family. The conditions spurred her to join a workers’ union and participate in a strike. Despite her young age, she was beaten and arrested by strikebreakers, sparking her strong belief in workers’ rights. 

Bancic would later become a strong force in unionist and left-wing activism in Romania. She faced arrest and imprisonment multiple times, but never stopped fighting. 

As fascism started to spread throughout Europe, Bancic’s political activism ramped up. She joined the Spanish Republican cause, made up of liberal democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists, to fight the fascist takeover of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. During that time, Bancic transported weapons and assisted soldiers at the front. She, unfortunately, had to flee in 1938 when it became apparent that fascist victory was in sight. She later moved to Paris where she met and married Alexandru Jar and gave birth to their daughter, Dolores.

Bancic was always a fighter, but it was during World War II that she truly became a hero. Since Bancic and her family were Jewish, they were in grave danger when Nazi Germans occupied Paris. She and her husband left their daughter with a sympathetic French family and took up arms in the French Resistance. They joined the FTP-MOI (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans de la Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée), a group of immigrants and refugees who fought against Nazi occupiers. She took part in dozens of acts of sabotage against the Nazis occupiers, working as a manufacturer and transporter of explosives as well as a messenger.

Unfortunately, authorities put an end to their Resistance activities in 1944, near the end of the war. As immigrants and political dissidents, they lacked the same kind of protection that other French Resistance members had. The Gestapo specifically targeted them, releasing propaganda posters denouncing them as foreign terrorists and calling for the arrest of the “Manouchian group,” so named after the group’s leader, Missak Manouchian. The French police worked with the Gestapo to arrest the fighters. Bancic and twenty of her comrades were arrested and tortured.

The courts handed down a death sentence to the entire group without a proper trial. As the only woman of the condemned group, she was executed separately from the other members. It was illegal to execute women on French grounds, so her captors cruelly executed her in Germany. Her husband and daughter survived the war and were able to keep her memory alive. 

Olga Bancic was a strong and tireless advocate for human rights. She sacrificed herself for a country that disowned her and refused to protect her. France was not willing to defend her rights as an immigrant and a Jewish woman, yet she gave her life to defend the citizens of France. She faced betrayal and hostility from her government, but she fought for those who couldn’t fight.

Bancic fought to secure a better future for her daughter and so many others like her. It’s hard not to tear up reading her last letter to her daughter. In the letter, she tells her not to cry because “I believe that your life and your future will be much happier and brighter than your mother’s.” Up until her last moment, she thought of the future she hoped to secure for her daughter. 

We can all learn from Olga Bancic who was willing to sacrifice everything to create a better future. She braved terrible factory conditions, antisemitism, police beatings, imprisonment, torture, warfare, and even death. She wanted to create a fair and peaceful world. 

We should honor her strength and conviction and know that she did not die in vain. Bancic’s story shows us that it is not only presidents and politicians who create history but ordinary people as well. This woman, a mother, a mattress-factory worker, a convict, and a hero, was braver than some of the most famous men of her time. The world would be better off with more Olga Bancic’s. It is up to us to give power to her memory.

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History Historical Badasses

Gertrude Stein, the queer feminist at the centre of the art movement

I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her. 

Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.

The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her. 

Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.

And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously. 

Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions. 

At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity. 

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History Forgotten History

An ode to two forgotten generations of Sri Lanka’s history makers

I first heard about Minnette de Silva a couple of years ago.

She was a pioneering architect of Sri Lanka, forgotten long before her death. This appears to be the buzzword when it comes to Minnette – “forgotten”. It’s in the title, or at the very least, the first paragraph of every article about her published twenty years after her death.

She’s not the only person to be forgotten by the world, not the only woman, or Sri Lankan, she’s not even the only one to be forgotten in her own family. There are many people left out by “official” histories and public discourse. Minnette de Silva, and her mother, Agnes de Silva, are not the first.

Nor will they be the last.

What I find most unsettling about their stories, however, is that in wildly different ways, they each dedicated themselves to their country and achieved great things in its name. Yet, until very recently, I had never come across their names or achievements at school or in my daily life. 

Agnes was a suffragette who fought for women’s right to vote in Sri Lanka, and she got it. She was instrumental in the foundation of the Women’s Franchise Union of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), fighting for the rights of Indian Tamil women, and granting a franchise to women above thirty. Not that she stopped there, she went on to fight for Ceylon’s independence from British rule, which was achieved in 1948. 

Minnette, based on her story, seems to have shared her mother’s drive and passion.

She was the first Asian woman to be appointed an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was the first representative of Asia in the International Congresses of Modern Architecture. She pioneered the modern architectural style of Sri Lanka (years before her contemporaries caught up). She made it a point to incorporate local crafts and styles into her work, giving local artisans employment and recognition in the modern age.

She was also the second woman in the world to open an independent architectural practice under her own name. 

Her worldly social circle included Picasso, Homi Bhabha, Le Corbusier, David Lean, and Mulk Raj Anand. It paints a vibrant image of her early life that seems to only emphasize the tragedy of her much-talked-about lonely death. 

What little there is to be known of both Minnette and Agnes has already been saying. There is some poetic irony about being remembered as a forgotten pioneer, but my takeaway from them both is that I should have known about them earlier.  

Sri Lanka is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the first female Prime Minister in the world – Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was (briefly) Prime Minister before being appointed President of Sri Lanka, a role she held until the end of 2005. 

In 2018, Sri Lanka reimposed a law that had for the most part been forgotten. The law makes it illegal for women to purchase alcohol from, or work at, a bottle shop.  

As a country, we forget to remember the people who fought for it to be better, who returned home to establish themselves in Sri Lanka and let their home, and their people, benefit from their hard work and talent. It makes me wonder how much more both Agnes and Minnette could’ve achieved if they were appreciated, and celebrated by the country they clearly loved. 

It also makes me wonder how many more Minnettes and Agneses there are out there that I didn’t learn about in the classroom. It’s time Sri Lanka showed more pride in the stories that can inspire their young women to follow in the footsteps of the women who came before them and paved the way. 

In 2018, the World Bank concluded that 51.97% of the Sri Lankan population were women, more than half the island’s occupants. 

What would my country look like if we heard more about the Minnettes and Agneses, and fewer justifications about why we shouldn’t be allowed in bottle shops? 

We don’t have to turn elsewhere for role models or vehicles for our ambitions and dreams; they’ve been sitting right under our noses all along. Rubbing shoulders with Picasso and creating the architecture of the island as we know it, fighting for the rights we take for granted every day….and in sarees, no less. 

For more awesome history facts, follow our brand-new history Instagram account. 

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Broadway Pop Culture

Have you heard of ‘SIX’, the musical where women take ownership of History?

The cancellation of the 74th Tony Awards due to COVID-19 has left many amazing shows at the doors of their Broadway debut. One of them is ‘SIX: The Musical”, my personal favorite for the Best Musical Award; and a musical with a fundamental message.

We hear often that History is told from the winner’s perspective. Although this is true, we often forget that it is also told from a male perspective. This is the case of Henry VIII and his six wives. However, the recent musical ‘SIX’ shifts this narrative.

In the musical, the different wives of Henry VIII have form a rock band

If you have studied any English history you will remember this rhyme: “divorced, beheaded, died: divorced, beheaded, survived”.

It is generally used to help students remember the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, and their different fates, in the context of England’s conversion to Protestantism – which was motivated by Henry VIII’ s desire to divorce his first wife. However, that is all we remember of each of these women: their marriage.

SIX makes a whole rock concert out of it.

“I’m done ’cause all this time, I’ve been just one word in a stupid rhyme / So I picked up a pen and a microphone / Histories about to get overthrown,” they sing.

In the musical, the different wives of Henry VIII have formed a rock band together and compete about who should be the lead singer. Each of them sings about why they should be the lead, detailing their life and marriage.

In this way, we don’t only learn about the lives of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, who are still quite known today. We witness Catherine’s perspective when Henry announces that he will divorce her to marry another woman, we witness Jane Seymour’s love for Henry despite all of his faults, and also Catherine Parr’s career as a writer and a defender of women’s education after the king’s death. We meet a fun, sassy and carefree Anne Boleyn, a flirty Katherine Howard with a traumatic past, and a powerful Anne of Cleves who doesn’t need a man in her life.

The musical mixes funny comparisons with deep and important topics. It compares Henry VIII’s election of Anne of Cleves as his next wife to dating apps (a perfectly valid one, if you know the story) and sheds light on the abuse that Katherine Howard suffered at the hands of several men in power, leading to her eventual beheading.


History is told from a male perspective. ‘SIX’ changes that.

Moreover, the creators have admitted that each queen embodies the style and music of a contemporary artist. Catherine of Aragon is the Beyoncé of the group, the OG queen. Anne Boleyn has a cheeky, fun, and carefree personality that is reminiscent of Lily Allen or Avril Lavigne. Jane Seymour brings us a heartbreaking ballad that has nothing to envy to Adele. Anne of Cleves’ hip-hop influenced style makes her a new Nicky Minaj or Rihanna, and Katherine Howard could easily be our next Britney Spears or Ariana Grande. Finally, Catherine Parr brings all the queens together with her part-sad, part-powerful song that has the energy of Alicia Keys.

The show has a diverse, all-female cast that manages to give a history lesson in the form of an amazing rock concert. Not only that, but it also leaves the audience with an important reflection: the need to bring back women’s history from oblivion.

At the end of the musical, the wives end up realizing that they had let themselves be defined by their relationship with Henry instead of by who they are. They become all lead singers and join together to rewrite their stories.

Most of the historical women that everyone remembers, such as Anne Boleyn, are known as simply ‘wives of’ and ‘daughters of’. We forget that Catherine of Aragon commissioned Luis Vives’ book The Education of A Christian Woman which became controversial because it defended women’s right to an education. Anne Boleyn promoted England’s conversion to Protestantism. Catherine Parr was a writer, and the first English queen to publish a book under her own name (Prayers or Meditations).

Many women that we only know of because of their relationship to a man did incredible things by themselves. As Catherine Parr sings in ‘SIX’: “I even got a woman to paint my picture / Why can’t I tell that story? / ‘Cause in history / I’m fixed as one of six / And without him / I disappear / We all disappear”.

History is filled with amazing female characters that have simply been ignored. I am glad ‘SIX’ gives us the opportunity to change that, more so if it is in the form of a rock concert.

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Editor's Picks History Forgotten History Historical Badasses

Meet María de Zayas, the first author to publish under her own name in Spain

Although often forgotten, María de Zayas was a famous 17th-century writer and the first Spanish woman to publish fiction novels under her own name.

If I asked you to name the oldest female author that you can think of, chances are that you will say Jane Austen, or perhaps the Brontë sisters. Unfortunately, this only shows the prevalence of the perception that women did not write before the 19th century. But they did, and they did so well. We have simply forgotten about them. Or chosen to.

I want to bring to light the figure of one of those women from previous times who decided to be a writer: María de Zayas. I admire Zayas not just because she is Spanish like me, and therefore has been a role model of mine for several years now, but also because, unlike most of the female writers of the Medieval and Early-Modern period, she published fiction books under her name, and made a profit from it.

Let me tell you about her.

María de Zayas y Sotomayor (1590-1661) was the most famous female writer of 17th century Spain. We know of her existence from her written work, as, sadly, there are few documents that tell us anything about her life.

She published fiction books under her name, and made a profit from it.

Zayas was born in the Spanish nobility and, as such, had the opportunity to receive an education (albeit limited, as she was a woman) and travel to different countries, where she discussed with scholars and academics of the time. She began her literary career in the contests organized by the literary academies of her time.

María de Zayas became famous for her collections of short novels, each comprised of 10 novels under a common narrative frame: Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (Amorous and Exemplary Novels) and Desengaños amorosos (The Disenchantments of Love). She also wrote poems, that she incorporated into the novels and a play.

Most of Zaya’s novels focused on the limitations that women suffered in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were short, fun, and witty, aimed for a mostly female audience.

Many have considered María de Zayas to be the first feminist writer of Spain. She filled her novels with female characters that were brave and questioned sexist concepts such as ‘honor’.

This writer shocked her readers when she stated that the human soul was neither male nor female. Moreover, she dared to insist that women were not less knowledgeable because of lack of capacity, but because of a lack of education.

Most of Zaya’s novels focused on the limitations that women suffered in the 16th and 17th centuries.

She stated that: “the reason why women are not learned is not a defect in intelligence but a lack of opportunity. When our parents bring us up if, instead of putting cambric on our sewing cushions and patterns in our embroidery frames, they gave us books and teachers, we would be as fit as men for any job or university professorship. We might even be sharper because we’re of colder humor and intelligence partakes of the damp humor’.

María de Zayas dared to do something that seems very simple right now: publish fiction under her name. At the time, and particularly in Spain, women who wanted to be writers became nuns, such as Santa Teresa del Jesús or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. By being part of the Church, their access to (some) books and writing was acceptable, but their works were limited to religious themes, and therefore an appropriate interest for women to have.

Zayas did neither one nor the other. She wrote fiction, works that were entertaining, not moralistic. She signed them under her real name and made a profit out of their selling. She was a woman that earned a living as a writer. This is simple but was, at the time, almost unprecedented.

Zayas achieved incredible success during her lifetime. She was respected and admired by her colleagues. Writers that are now known by every student of Spanish literature such as Cervantes or Lope de Vega praised her work and recognized her as an equal.

Sadly, the passing of time worked against her. A hundred years after Zayas’ death, her work was still being printed, until it was censored by the Spanish Inquisition. They considered that it went against morality and banned its printing and publication. They thought that, by doing this, she would be forgotten.

She was. But only for a short time.

When I studied literature at school, I never learned about her. All the famous writers that appeared in my curriculum were male until we reached the 19th century. By the time I studied Spanish Literature at university, María de Zayas had obtained a paragraph in a chapter filled with pages and pages about her male colleagues.

Her writing was so controversial that it was quite literally censored by the forces in the Spanish Inquisition.

Surely but slowly, we are recovering the stories of those incredible women that history has asked us to forget. We are demanding them to be given the attention that they deserve. We are being inspired by their stories of courage and sacrifice. At least I know I am. I hope other people are too.

I hope we learn that the desire to write, to have a professional life, has always been inside women, throughout history. We have collectively chosen to forget. But now it is time to remember. 

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History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Meet Armen Ohanian, the belly dancer who defied every stereotype of a Middle Eastern woman

It would be easy to dismiss Armen Ohanian as just a famous belly-dancer, but she was more than just that.

Ohanian was one of the first women to bring Middle-Eastern dancing to the Western world, but most people haven’t heard about her before. Those who have heard of her only think of her as an “exotic dancer” rather than a gifted, talented, and complex human being. So who was this woman?

Armen Ohanian was born in 1887, originally named Sophia Pirboudaghian. She grew up in modern-day Azerbaijan in a wealthy Armenian family, where she received a vast academic and artistic education. Despite her privileged upbringing, she underwent an incredible amount of tragedy at a young age. She survived a devastating earthquake in her early years, which forced her family to relocate. She later witnessed brutal anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, which tragically claimed the life of her father. After a brief marriage, Ohanian lived, worked, and studied in Russia, Turkey, and Iran, learning the art of Armenian and Iranian dances.

She didn’t need to be Western to be modern

Eventually, Armen Ohanian accepted an offer to perform in London, and eventually became a sensation throughout Europe. Western audiences were quick to fetishize and commodify her style of dancing, which they only viewed as hypersexual belly-dancing. They reduced her to a sexual object without considering the traditions and talent behind her dancing. In reality, Ohanian was an incredibly gifted dancer and choreographer.

She revolutionized dance by merging modern free-dancing with traditional Armenian and Iranian dances. Ohanian embraced tradition and innovation alike, proving that she didn’t need to be Western to be modern. Some might say that she embraced Western fetishism to further her career. I say we cannot hold her responsible for the Western reaction to her art. Ohanian danced with dignity and pride in her culture. It’s her audience’s fault, not her own, that they couldn’t recognize her humanity.

Armen Ohanian’s talent extended far beyond her dancing. She was also a gifted writer and poet, as well as a political activist.

In her later years, she immigrated to Mexico where she was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party and translated political literature. She also wrote a number of memoirs and poems, which focused on her identity as a diasporic Armenian in exile. Ohanian was not only subversive politically, but in her everyday life. She was likely bisexual and had numerous affairs with both men and women. She divorced and remarried in a time when that was incredibly uncommon. Ohanian lived her life how she wanted to live it, and that’s beyond admirable. 

As a woman of Iranian-Armenian heritage, Armen Ohanian is a reminder that Middle Eastern and Armenian women have the power to be both subversive and proud of their heritage. I know firsthand that Armenian society can be very traditional. Seeing an independent, liberated, queer woman like Armen Ohanian gives me hope for other Armenian women. She is proof of the resilience of Armenian and Middle-Eastern women. This is someone who survived natural disasters, ethnic cleansing, xenophobia, and prejudice, but emerged stronger than before. She was a multi-faceted and complicated woman who couldn’t be confined to one category.

It’s impossible to define Armen Ohanian as simply a sexually liberated dancer, or a fiery political revolutionary, or a homesick poet living in exile, or an intellectual writer and translator. She was all of these things and more. I find a lot of inspiration in this incredible woman, who refused to limit herself to one art form, one talent, one career, or even one national identity. She was able to create a name for herself in a world that was hostile to the aspirations of Middle-Eastern women, and she did so with dignity and courage.

Armen Ohanian passed away in 1976, but her bold and resilient spirit still lives on in all of us. We could all take a page from her book and live our lives as she did, fearlessly and proudly, always in search of a better future.

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History Poetry Forgotten History Lost in History

You probably don’t know about Hettie Jones, a crusading Beat poet

You’ve heard of a Jack Kerouac, but have you ever heard of a Hettie Jones?

The Beat Literary Movement of the 1950s is coined for its explicit subject matter and bohemian lifestyle. Americans in the 1950’s lived in largely suburban towns and felt threatened by things like communism. Men went to work in suits and women stayed home to cook, clean, and tend to the children.

The rebel, beatnik, group of authors that made up the Beat Generation were iconoclastic. Much of their work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. They experimented with form and structure while writing about sex, drugs, and religion. Traditional literary houses rejected them and looked down on them as a group as being defiant, untalented, and unprofessional. 

I think that their being unconventional was the whole point, though.

They were the antithesis of mainstream American life.

They wanted to publish anything that was deemed inappropriate by society. These people were tired of the routine, and frankly, felt beaten down by the conservative lifestyle that they were stuck in. They were highly controversial in that they were the antithesis of mainstream American life and writing. Many of their works of poetry and prose focused on shifts of consciousness and escaping “squareness.” The stereotype around the Beats is that they were not in favor of what they considered to be straight jobs. Instead, they lived together, packed into small and dirty apartments, sold drugs, had sex with each other, and committed crimes. They are also known for exploring homosexuality, which was a highly taboo topic in 1950’s America.

Though they set many precedents together, the Beats still succumbed to the blatant sexism of the time. Most, if not all, of the women involved in the Beat literary movement were overshadowed by their male counterparts for no particular reason other than gender. These women were just as intelligent and qualified to question society as the beatnik men who have become well-known poets and activists.

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One of the most iconic, and downplayed, female poets of that time who deserves righted acknowledgment is Hettie Jones. 

Hettie Jones published 23 books- and yet, we forgot her

Hettie Jones is most known for her marriage to the famous Beat Poet Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Few people know that Hettie helped run Totem Press, one of the more important beat publishers, along with her husband. She went on to publish about 23 books, one being a memoir of her time spent with Amiri and the rest of the Beats titled, How I Became Hettie Jones (1990). She has also written for many prestigious journals, lectured writing across America, and began the literary magazine “Yugen.”

Hettie is one of my favorite poets, so I think that her writing deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement, right there with the boys who got so much praise for their work. 

Hettie’s writing is rooted in practical idealism. She left her family home in Long Island to go to college and to fully discover herself. When she graduated in 1955, she never turned back, and moved to New York City. She met Amiri while working at The Record Changer, a jazz magazine. He was a young, black poet with just as much intelligence and intensity as Hettie. They quickly fell in love and moved in together. They would go to poetry readings at cafes and bohemian bars, where they met many of the other Beat poets.

Hettie deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement.

When the pair founded their own magazine, they published the writings of many of the iconic beat players who could not find a home for their writing in the traditional sphere. Hettie was in charge of editing the works that were to be published in the magazine. It was here that she honed her craft and found power in the refined writing that makes her work stand out from the rest. 

By 1960, Hettie and Amiri had two children, were married, and lived in New York City. Being a biracial family, though, countless bigoted remarks were directed towards them regardless of the Beat scene. Hettie was on the receiving end of most of these cold stares and was able to see the world through the eyes of her husband and children. This affected her incredibly and eventually became a recurring theme in her writing.  

When Amiri became tightly involved with the Black Power movement, he was criticized for having a white wife. They divorced in 1968. Hettie thrived on her own though and made a living with her children while teaching and editing. Her separation from her husband also gave Hettie an outlet to speak up and finally publish works of her own. She has been quoted to say, “Without a him in the house, there was more space/time for her, and I tried to redefine the way a woman might use it.” 

To this day, Hettie’s writing is compassionate. She writes about her own experiences in a compelling manner while weaving in the issues that she cares about. Currently, Hettie lives in New York City, and is a writer and lecturer. In addition, she runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women where she recently published a volume of writing by incarcerated women.

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History Forgotten History

How Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba stood for the liberation of South Africa

It is no secret that women are the forgotten heroes of our past. Women have routinely been written out of history: Black Consciousness activist Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba is no exception. 

Growing up, my mother always talked of the women who had birthed South Africa’s democracy through their commitment to the liberation struggle.

I used to nod dutifully as she recalled, often with tears in her eyes, the sacrifices and pain endured by the women who inspired her, who taught her how to fight and how to love.

After all, love is the mark of a true revolutionary.

The Black Consciousness Movement is a well-known aspect of South African history. However, the names associated with the struggle for freedom are those of men, undeniably great, but by no means alone in their endeavors. I never questioned this, because ultimately, how can we remember those who we have never known? 

I learned about Steve Biko’s BCM in school and lamented the past imprisonment of my childhood hero, Nelson Mandela. But it was only at home that the women who fought for our freedom featured. Unfortunately, I was guilty of that tragic belief held by many young people: that my mother was not more knowledgeable than the teachers designated to educate me.

If we look to the women whom history has passed over, we can find strength in their resilience and hope in their courage.

I regret my arrogance and inattention to this day. 

A true freedom fighter, Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba is celebrated for her critical and endless role in South Africa’s struggle for liberation and equality. Born in 1950 in Krugersdorp, Matshoba went on to play an instrumental role in the demise of the apartheid regime. 

Matshoba followed in her mother’s footsteps, joining the South African Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) when she was fresh out of high school. At only 20 years old, she was sent to Ghana to represent the organization at its 1971 world congress.  

A year previously, Matshoba had joined the ranks of the South African Students Organization (SASO). She gained wide respect when later nominated as SASO’s Literacy Trainer, teaching the necessity of cognitive liberation using the Paulo Freire Method. 

Black Consciousness taught love and self-worth, strength and dignity. It was the movement which enabled a national understanding of the oppression that had allowed the white minority to sustain an apartheid state. Matshoba played an integral role in progressing the BCM. She advocated for the psychological and physical liberation of the oppressed, enabling conscientization of the reality in which Black communities existed. 

Matshoba was well-known for her radical politics and unfailing resolve in the pursuit of justice. She was quick to challenge ideas that undermined the core principles of Black Consciousness and equality. 

During her testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in July 1997, Matshoba recounted her past as a BCM activist and executive member of SASO. She spoke of her brutal encounters with apartheid security police, detailing the inconceivable torture and psychological abuse she was subject to. 

A poster for 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa
[Image description: A red and black poster with a crowd of protesters and the words “June 16 Mass Action for People’s Power”.] via South African History Archives.
Matshoba was first arrested in June of 1976 for her involvement in the Soweto Uprising and held in the infamous John Vorster Prison in Johannesburg.

Whilst imprisoned Matshoba joined forces with many other liberation activists, including veterans Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Fatima Meer. Despite their incarceration these activists continued to organize the revolution, protesting from within and conscientizing Black wardresses. 

Six weeks after her release Matshoba was arrested again, this time under Section Six of the Terrorism Act.

A week into her detainment she was taken from her cell and her ankle manacled to a large iron ball. She stood like this for several days. A policeman gave her a pen and told her to write a statement, detailing her personal history and involvement in SASO. She wrote only on herself. The officers repeatedly tore up her statement, forcing her to rewrite it each time.

On the third day her leg began to swell and she became delirious. Still, she persisted in her refusal to betray the movement. She was beaten, strangled and had her head slammed against a wall repeatedly. This continued for over a week. She was not allowed to sit. It became evident that Matshoba would not decry her fellow freedom fighters, or the cause to which she had pledged her loyalty. 

Matshoba was tortured, but she never gave up.

Physically weak, severely traumatized and denied her asthma medication, security police hoped that she would die as a result of her conditionShe was transferred to a detention facility where she recovered, aided by a sympathetic policeman who smuggled in her medication. 

Matshoba was then moved between several other detention centers, spending a total of 18 months in solitary confinement. 

In 1978 she was told she was being released, but upon arriving home was instead arrested and imprisoned for a further six months. On the day she was eventually freed she was served with a five-year banning order, effective immediately. During this period she was confined to a single magisterial district; her marriage did not survive. 

Unlike those who narrate history, Matshoba was acutely aware of the critical role that women play in times of revolution. She was known for fiercely rejecting her male-counterparts views on gender and continually refused their asserted authority.

She firmly believed that “a nation’s political maturity is measured by the political awareness of women.” 

There is a war of gender-based violence currently being waged on South African women. But if we look to the women whom history has passed over, we can find strength in their resilience and hope in their courage. These are the women who got us to where we stand today.

Matshoba stood for the liberation of her country, literally. It is our duty to rewrite her into history. 

As a South African woman, I take great comfort in knowing that liberation is in my country’s blood. It is our legacy.

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Editor's Picks History Forgotten History Lost in History

The world’s first author was a cool priestess with an even cooler backstory

Imagine a world where the pronoun ‘I’ isn’t used in writing.

The entire genre of narrative writing probably wouldn’t exist. Op-eds, personal essays, even music and poetry. Most of these writing styles are a product of our inner feelings and personal reflection, and are usually the styles of writing that we emotionally connect with the most.

It seems natural for this form of writing to always have existed, being so related to human opinion, but like almost everything else, it was invented by an author.

4300 years ago, in the Ancient Sumerian civilization, lived the princess of Ancient Sumr, Enheduanna.

She is history’s first known author, and she is the reason we use ‘I’ when we write.

Enheduanna was a triple threat of her time.

Her father, the king of Sumr, ruled when the old Sumerian culture and the new Akadian culture opposed each other and would often rebel against him.

Enheduanna was a triple threat of her time.

He appointed Enheduanna as high priestess, in an effort to bridge the cultural divide and bring peace to the nation.

Becoming high priestess meant that Enheduanna was able to receive an education in which she learned to read and write the languages of both opposing cultures, as well as learn how to make mathematics calculations.

[Image description: A relief of Inanna (also known as Ishtar)]
[Image description: A relief of Inanna (also known as Ishtar)]

It was with her acquired education that Enheduanna was able to unite both rebelling cultures via the 42 religious hymns she wrote, combining the mythologies of both cultures.

In those times, the form of writing used was cuneiform.

Its main purpose was for merchants and traders to communicate about their businesses over long distances – writing did not have a personal purpose, let alone a sentimental one.

So, when she began to write religious hymns and poetry, Enheduanna took the deities her hymns were dedicated to and humanized them.

In doing so she made the gods who once seemed so intangible feel emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, betrayal, love.

Her writing made the hymns emotionally relatable to read and connect with.

By playing on their emotions, she was able to appease the people of both Sumerian and Akkadian cultures, honoring their deities, bringing them together as one.

It was when she wrote her three hymns, Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra, and Inninmehusa, dedicated to deity Inanna, goddess of war and desire, that Enheduanna established a style of writing that was personal and attributable to the writer.

Thousands of years later, it’s impossible for us to imagine a world without saying ‘I’.

Inanna was known to be a powerful deity, so mighty that she transcended gender boundaries and was considered to be the very force who animated the universe.

In these poems, Enheduanna placed Inanna on a pedestal, marking her as the most important deity.

Her odes to Inanna marked the first time an author used the pronoun ‘I’ in a written text, and the first time an author describes their personal, private emotions in writing. It was the beginning of how narrative writing led to self-reflection and emotions could be recorded.

This is said to be her greatest contribution to literature.

An excerpt from one of Enheduanna's hymns to Inanna. It reads: Queen of all the ME, Radiant Light, Life-giving Woman, beloved of An (and) Urash, Hierodule of An, much bejeweled, Who loves the life-giving tiara, fit for High Priestesshood, Who grasps in (her) hand, the seven ME, My Queen, you who are the Guardian of All the Great ME, You have lifted the ME, have tied the ME to Your hands, Have gathered the ME, pressed the ME to Your breast. You have filled the land with venom, like a dragon. Vegetation ceases, when You thunder like Ishkur, You who bring down the Flood from the mountain, Supreme One, who are the Inanna of Heaven (and) Earth, Who rain flaming fire over the land, Who have been given the me by An, Queen Who Rides the Beasts, Who at the holy command of An, utters the (divine) words, Who can fathom Your great rites!
[Image description: An excerpt from one of Enheduanna’s hymns to Inanna.] Via Classical Art History

Above is an excerpt of one of Enheduanna’s dedicated hymns to Inanna. The full poem can be found here.

After the death of her father, Enheduanna was exiled in a coup, and it was when her nephew reclaimed the throne that she was reinstated as high priestess. She served as high priestess for 40 years, and after her death she was honored as a minor deity, with her poetry written, performed, and copied for over 500 years.

What Enheduanna succeeded in doing was taking the essence of emotions and translating them in a way that was able to unify two conflicting people.

She used emotion and ethos, and manipulated them in a way that began a form of writing that could connect with people’s emotions, rather than practical needs.

Know it was this Sumerian high priestess who invented it.

The creation of the written pronoun ‘I’ was the beginning of multiple perspectives being recorded.

It was the beginning of written storytelling.

So the next time you write in your private journal or read diary entries, the next time you study a soliloquy in Macbeth or read the emotional personal essays of critically acclaimed authors where the first person style is prominent, know it was this Sumerian high priestess who invented it.

Enheduanna changed history and humanity. Thousands of years later, it’s impossible for us to imagine a world without saying ‘I’.

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