Before the Word

Excerpt from Woven Knowledge: The Quilted Experiences of Cohort XX

Commemorating my first year as a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Before the Word, by Jennifer Rahim

Before the word


from the center womb of being

there only the painted cries 

of silence

the languished absence 

of sounds playing upon sounds

a music that can give meaning to one yet unformed.

Before the birth of speech

I am/am not myself

Even with name

I am the one busy

With the business of trying to find

Other ways of waiting

No longer able to bear the blows

Of my tongue’s unrooted lashings

I must speak

Lest the tongue’s rebellion 

against/within the tight-lipped prison

Of infancy where I hold it

In spite of/because of my desire 

To possess the word

(and I know that)

When the tongue rebels

Against its own self

A language is born

A Language is Born, by Rachel Watts

My mother was a poet and teacher, who loved words and lived in metaphor so that she could see beyond someone else’s definition.  She fell in love with and married my father, a storyteller and deep advocate for African culture and ancestral connections.  She quietly lamented that in Ghana we did not have books to read as children. He brought us all together on Sunday mornings to create, listen to, and tell our own stories/use our own words.  

I was an average student.  They never pressured me to do better in a school system that literally and figuratively taught us about pine trees instead of palm trees.  They knew there was way more to learn Before those words.

So outside of school they saw my need to move and make. They let me stay busy in the act of naming for myself and giving birth to my own speech.

It happened one day, she saw it first, the day being a curious learner came back naturally to me. Through the process of meeting and researching artists from Trinidad (the third country I lived in during my grade school years), I connected my active engagement outside of school with a learning expectation from within school.  I wanted more because the language that originally only my father and I understood, was being born for me to use elsewhere.

Rachel Watts Journey to the Doctoral Program (as of May 5th, 2021): 

I came to the Doctoral Program in Urban Education, a product of the early days of my schooling in countries that were colonized and grateful for all my parents allowed, taught, pointed at, and instilled in me. My first teachers, they encouraged me to question each context within which I lived and to find a way to define my own learning. This way of being, in all the places I lived, stemmed from making meaning of the world through the art I made and through experiences of cultural production by others around me.  As an arts education practitioner I have had the honor of working with and learning from artists and educators, young and older, in Trinidad, Ghana, and the USA (namely: Bay Area California, and New York City) in a diversity of community spaces and schools, inside and outside. 

Why I do this work stems from two sources:

  • First, a desire to make visible the power of the arts in generating liberatory spaces for people to imagine and co-create knowledge that taps into their authentic selves and allows them to build thriving communities.  
  • Second, a desire to investigate how euro-centered definitions of the arts and their assimilation into educational spaces has helped to maintain settler colonial structures rather than the liberatory spaces they claim to create.

I arrive at this moment grateful not just for my parents, but for their ancestors (who are my ancestors) and the communities with which I am connected as a result of them. I am grateful for the artists and educators who encouraged shifts, provided support, and pushed my thinking. Medaase for the opportunity to imagine between, underneath, around, and above the structures that bind us.

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