from ( g h o s t g e s t u r e s )

performance writing

full moon.
      a summoning.
                  I become la Negrita
                                          and reveal
                                                      her secret life.

The doll was small, about a foot long, with a cloth body and a 1920s-style,
plastic Kewpie face. She was pitch-black like the new moon. Her arms
widespread without hands or fingers. Her legs ended in red booties
with white polka dots matching her head scarf and dress. The head
scarf was a crown of glory, reminiscent of slave head rags, Orisha head
wraps, African headdresses, and folded butterfly wings. The dress, made
of rough cloth, was high-necked, long, and trimmed in white lace. She
wore iridescent powder blue eye shadow, bright red rouge on puffed
cheeks, and a red-lipsticked mouth, pursed and ready to kiss or gasp
or giggle or blow. She looked like a mammy but she wasn’t. She was a
mix of 19th century servitude and 20th century glamour. Her hair was
sculpted plastic, meant to look pulled back straight (it certainly wasn’t
kinky) beneath her scarf. Only one raised plastic curl lifted up on the
center of her forehead. Her eyes were painted white with brown irises
and black centers. Spidery eyelashes added incongruous feminine allure.
Sweet and happy, familiar and strange, she was supposedly meant for
children but was given to me by an art historian friend who knew my
predilections. But how could someone give you back yourself?


  1. a pernicious figure in United States popular culture

  2. a fat black woman, simple, servile, and asexual, usually

depicted in a red and white dress, head scarf, and apron
(note: some negrita dolls in Mexico come with aprons as well)

  1. Scarlett O’Hara’s maidservant in Gone with the Wind

  2. a stereotype conceived in the nineteenth century

to make the omnipresence of defenseless black domestics
in white households seem less sexually threatening
(because who could be attracted to that?)

  1. a figure to cover prevalent sexual oppression of black women

  2. a black woman who exists only to serve, entertain, flatter,

caretake, and console whites; known for being especially loving
to her white charges and especially evil to her own children
(see Mrs. Breedlove in The Bluest Eye)

  1. a historical figure that still haunts contemporary consciousness

(and mine)–e.g. Aunt Jemima wearing a lovely strand of pearls

  1. a harmless black woman figure who exists only to love you

(what a doll!)

A mammy doll lying on the ground next to lilac-colored flowers

I thought of: my grandmothers, both gone, one from Haiti, one from
Alabama; the triangle trade; the third root; Mexican blackness on the
legendary small coast; the sensual, exotic body of la morenita; the
excessive, hidden body of the mammy; the Afro-rhythms of chilena
music; rap videos; racial loneliness; my singularity and hypervisibility
in Mexico; my isolation; my sexual exhibition; my pleasure in my own
consumption; eating negritos (cannibalism!); what it means to drink
rum. Struggling, I held the doll close. I looked at her from afar. How
did we mirror each other? The doll stood at a complicated nexus of
feelings and positions; it belonged to a culture not mine, yet literally
belonged to me, evoked something of my culture as well. Or gestured
somehow towards me. How to judge what she meant in Mexico or what
she could mean to me? In the desolate streets of the Distrito Federal,
I took pictures of my muñequita, my little negrita in different public places.

She traveled to the French bakery and sat with yummy croissants.
She hung with a mask over her face at a newsstand during the swine flu.
She sat on a monument in Parque Mexico. She hung out with kids,
played hide-and-seek in a garden. The images started to accumulate
into fantasia. I started to materialize her gestures, approximate her
ventriloquized voice. What could she say about herself? So blithe and
accomplished. I cut up French, Spanish, and English texts, including
my curriculum vitae, mash them up and record them on a tape recorder.
I have a costume made in her likeness and put it on. I want to turn
into her, turn myself into something else. I make a playlist of songs,
gather objects, and make dances. I create PowerPoint slides. I have
conversations and showings. I want to freak everyone out. I want to
figure this out. I design a ritual framework to try and ground everything.
I go to Tlaxcala and bring her to life.

Muño ( fantasia de la negrita )

( distillation / threshold / new moon ritual )
at the entrance, i stand in an elastic black dress
conforming to my body, a purple straw basket of treasures
and a silver basin at my feet

from the basket, i pull out a brand new bottle
of negrita rum: transparent, white

in the background, these songs:
“shirk”—meshell ndegeocello
“you go to my head”—billie holiday
“i know who you are”—björk

muñeca – 1. parte del cuerpo humano.
2. juguete en forma de figura de mujer o de niña

muñir –

convocar a una junta u otro acto semejante
sin. amañar, manejar, preparar, disponer,
manipular, arreglar, apañar
diccionario de la lengua española)


to summon, call, convoke
(cassell’s spanish–english dictionary)

muño               muñeca                        moon               yo                                                                                          

                        I summon – I call – I convoke

i open the bottle and pour a libation to the ancestors
i move the bottle in the air to the four corners
i cup my right hand and pour rum into it and drink
i cup my left hand and pour rum and let it fall into the basin
i set down the bottle and rub my rum-washed hands together
i summon the public
i take each person, cup their hands, and pour rum into them
they can drink it or let it fall
they enter the space


Read Marcus Clayton’s interview with Gabrielle Civil here. ( ghost gestures ) is available for pre-order from Gold Line Press.

Talking to the Dead

She doesn’t know why I left the other one who sees the dead was too young to be sent off to boarding school stayed home to witness


She is a history of black girlhood distilled by time and brutality.

(another) Ithaca

“We are all running out of time, and running out of a place.”