Perhaps because of its subtitle, DaMaris B. Hill’s A Bound Woman Is A Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland might be read too literally at first glance. Hill, assistant professor of creative writing and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky, has selected the word “bound,” however, with intention—and she uses it as a multiple-entendre.
“Not every woman in the book has ties to incarceration, but every woman in the book has ties to being bound and defying the expectations that have been ascribed to them,” Hill says. “I was tied to women who were inspired to resist exploitation.”
The meaning of bound, in the contexts that Hill uses it, also refers, then, to belonging and to hurtling forward as well as to oppression. “I am bound in the sense of being beholden to others,” Hill writes in the preface. “In the African American tradition, we honor our ancestors.”
Hill does this by first writing about her grandmother as well as one of her poetic mentors, Lucille Clifton, whose work she wrote about for her master’s thesis before turning to the stories of the women who inspired this collection: black women incarcerated in Philadelphia in the late 19th century as featured in Kali N. Gross’ 2006 book, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love.
But at the time, Hill was working on a novel about incarcerated black girls in the 1930s. “Dr. Gross’ book is academic, but I was so moved by what I was reading that I finished it and immediately began to write poems,” Hill recalls. “I closed [Colored Amazons], and I could not forget these women.” Gross included transcriptions from the original court testimonies in the book. “It was easy for me to relate to being a black woman in a very respectable, all-white space pleading for her humanity in that space. I just thought about what these women experienced” and, instead of working on her novel, drafted 16 poems.
Hill also listened to material or read about women who resisted incarceration in the same way those women did. “I’ve decided through listening to them not to be suicidal,” Hill says. “My only other option is to resist this type of social inscription. I have to prepare to resist it every day.” This is why A Bound Woman spans a thematic trajectory instead of a chronological one. At the same time, Hill says, “This book was a meditation on how to resist this specific cultural time.”
Hill writes about her relationship to a poetic and ancestral legacy, continuing the tradition of poets such as Clifton and Sonia Sanchez, while paying homage to figures like Grace Jones and Zora Neale Hurston who have never been bound by convention. These stories of inheritance and resistance are followed by Hill’s personal story—that of a conflicted United States Air Force veteran whose son has struggled with addiction because of the sociopolitical climate in the nation she once served. The tensions, complexities, and nuances combine to make the work necessary, unsettling, and profound.
“I wanted to honor these women artistically, and the book is a dedication to my ancestors, blood relatives or otherwise—by otherwise I mean people who I may not be related to, to the ancestors I haven’t met yet but who are coming,” Hill says.
“When I write I think about my niece, I think about my granddaughter who is not yet born but that will come and will see that she is already loved—intently and intensely. I want them to know that. That you are loved, that you come from a legacy of women who have chosen not to die and not to be discouraged, and here they are.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator living in New York City.