An Ode to the Motherless Feminist

 

So much of what women learn, so much of what shapes our lives from early childhood to adulthood, we learn from our mothers. Their roles in our lives are pivotal. Most of the ordinary feminism we learn (for those that label themselves with the f word) comes from our mothers. They are our first connection to the world, the ones who teach us right from wrong, the ones who’s voice becomes our conscious.

Well, what about those of us who don’t have mothers? For a long time I questioned if my experiences and knowledge as a Black woman were valid, just because I didn’t have the same experiences of those around me. Just because my knowledge didn’t come from the same place. Because I couldn’t relate.

I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I’d had my mother. Would I be totally different? Would I still be a feminist? Would she?

Mothers play pivotal roles in the creation of radical Black feminists and womanists. We can see if from people like Alice Walker and Audre Lourde to Margaret Walker Alexander. They pass us oral traditions, family history, and ways of life. Even if there’s not always agreement on their advice/opinions, it’s still there for pondering.

I am slowly beginning to realize that my experiences are valid. I did not have a biological mother, but I had other mothers (word to Patricia Hill Collins), and in Black Feminist ideology they are just as important, and more than that they are important to me. I had women who nurtured me, taught me, appreciated me, raised me, and loved me in the absence of my mother.

I am still Black, still a Black feminist, and my opinions still matter. I just speak from a place of my own and not from everyone else’s. It took me a long time to see that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Cranes in the Sky

“It’s like cranes in the sky. Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds.” -Solange Knowles

More than ever, I feel a connection with Solange’s Cranes in the sky. It is a representation of where I am in my life right now. I am trying to outrun problems that are coming after me that seemingly have a speed like Usain Bolt, and I the speed of a 90 year old with bad lungs (I actually do have terrible asthma).

Here’s one thing you should know about me (besides my asthma): I have a knack for avoiding/running away from my problems. If I ignore it, its not really there, or at least that’s my theory. One other thing you should know about me: I didn’t expect to have so many problems. I mean, come on! How many problems can an 18 year old queer Black girl have for crying out loud?? I haven’t even been alive for 2 decades, but I have the fatigue of someone who’s seen the world and all its problems. I routinely feel like the walls are closing in on me the more conscious I become of the world and my place in it.

Black feminist theory and it’s emphasis on Black history, culture, intersecting oppressions, and knowing in general is cool, but I wish one Black feminist writer/ intellectual would tell me what to do with the feelings that come with knowing. I can only imagine the absolute chaos that comes with true genius. I know that the world doesn’t give a damn about me. I know that I and everyone who’s come before me has had to overcome imaginable pain. I know that I am the dream of my slave ancestors, I am the reason for their graves, for their fight and struggle, failures and successes. I know that I will pave the way for Black girls who come after me. I know of the pain and suffering and the beauty that is intertwined with my people’s history. I know the difficulties of articulating things that I know in my soul to be real with other people, difficulties I’m experiencing right now. But what am I supposed to do with that??? Do you understand what I’m asking? How do I take all of this in? All of this history? The gratitude? The feelings? They’re like cranes in the sky, and this construction project is nowhere near complete.

And that is what scares me.

Black Women In Academia: Purpose Pt. 2

 

“To be Black and female in the academy has its own particular frustration because it was never intended for us to be here.” -Nellie McKay

As a queer Black woman who has recently entered higher education, it has become so clearly evident that these spaces were not created with people like me in mind. When I walk on the Academic quad, when I enter my dormitory, when I enter into classrooms, the registrars office, the library, and generally anywhere else I feel my otherness like a physical being. I feel that extra mile that I’ll have to go before I have even walked it. If I want a curriculum that is centered around me and those who are like me, I have to seek it out. If I want a role model/mentor who looks like me I have to search for her, but even then she will not be in my major because there are no Black woman professors in my major.  This is my reality. I cannot help but wonder if other Black women on this campus can feel what I feel. Do they feel their arms shake from perpetual reach? Do they see their shaking limbs in comparison with our white counterparts? Do they too question their purpose in this ivory tower?

In “Words if Fire” the anthology of African American feminist thought, Margaret Walker Alexander details the struggles that she and other Black women she knew, like her mother, faced in their quest for higher education. She recounts having to move from school to school and job to job, her minimal salary, her denial of Tenure, and the struggle of balancing her family and her job all while facing racism and sexism in the academic world. This is not only Margaret’s story though.There are countless women who experience a tumultuous career on the basis of their race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. Whether they are undergraduate, graduate, pursuing a doctorate’s, becoming teachers/professors, scientists, filmmakers, artists, IT specialists, etc.

What scares me, is that in 2016, Margaret’s journey could be my own. I don’t necessarily want to be a teacher, but I know sexism and racism are a long way from dead in American, especially in American academia. I know it when kids in class who ask for my notes won’t acknowledge me outside of class, when I know I will be just another face to most of my peers after the semester is over, when I am excluded again and again by white people and other people of color. Sometimes you can’t help but question if there is something you lack, or a flaw that you possess that makes people so apathetic to your right to be here and be who you are, even if that doesn’t mesh with who they are and what they want.

I cannot go in depth about all the twists and turns of being a queer Black woman in academia until I have complete my time in post secondary education. Until then, I have this insight and a million and one questions that may or may not be answered.

 

 

Purpose: Questions on Losing Your Way and a Promise I made myself

I am in my first year of college, and I often find myself trying to answer the ever-present question of “why am I here?” Not with obvious solutions, like “to learn” or “earn a Bachelor’s degree” but with answers that will satisfy my soul.

Why am I, a black woman, here at a predominantly white institution? Is it because I am expected to be by friends and family? Because both my sisters graduated and its just a thing women do in my family? Maybe I’m here because I believe this degree will bring me one step closer to smashing the patriarchy? Am I here because I honestly love cinema as an art form and hope to devote my life to it after I graduate? Do I have something to prove? Or because I didn’t want to be unconventional and not go to college?

Why am I here? 6.5 hours away from everything and everyone I’ve ever known and loved, immersed in a sea of new. Am I here because I like torturing myself? Do I enjoy pushing myself to the brink of hysteria? Did I come just to say I went to college? Or because I truly and honestly believe that I can change the world? Have I come here to challenge every racist, sexist, homophobic, notion that has ever existed? To shoulder new burdens and challenge new waves of oppression? To achieve what others may not have the opportunity to? Have I been fed one too many narratives about “the best four years of your life”? Am I here to exist, just because Audre Lourde taught me it is a form of resistance? Will I find myself in College? Get free? Crumble under the weight of life? Embody the characteristics and dreams of known and unknown Black feminists and womanists?

These questions raise another important inquiry: If I don’t know what I’m doing here, should I have come at all?

Should I never have started on a road even if I couldn’t have known that I would lose my way?

Maybe I ask to many questions, or not enough of the right ones.

I only know of this for certain:

I am Black.

I am Queer.

I am woman.

I am here.

And while I am here, I will be reborn again and again, against all odds, and never stop searching for the answers I seek.

 

 

 

 

13th

Firstly, to anyone who hasn’t seen Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th I recommend that you watch it. It is insightful, artfully crafted, and innovative. It details the use of the 13th amendment to ensure free Black labor after the abolishment of slavery, describing the different ways its effects have persisted into current day and the way it keeps Black men oppressed and jailed. I have one critique for 13th, however. It doesn’t talk about the effect of the 13th amendment on Black women as largely as it focuses on Black men. It doesn’t detail its effect on our rise as the head of family structures, on our incarceration, on its effect on our relationship with Black men, on our mental and emotional health, or on our fight for equality on our feminist movement. 13th wholly neglects the female gaze, which I question as I think of the invaluable role Black women play in the Black community. Yes, Black men have struggles, they have been trodden over, tricked, and they deserve better. But so do Black Women. Our invisibility has lasted long enough, and I hope to see it disappear.

Mental Illness Stigma In the Black Community

Crazy, insane, retarded, dumb, mad, etc. are all words originally used to describe someone with a mental disability, though they became especially popular in the black community once they took on new connotations as praises.  Have you ever wondered how the modern day contexts of these words strayed so far from their original definitions? There is still a correlation between these words’ original definition, and the stigma around what they label as it pertains the Black community however, one that we will explore in depth. Mental illness stigma is something that has existed in the Black community for a very long time. Mental illness has never been largely or publicly discussed among Blacks, at least not in a way that produces disability rights and abolishes stigma.  Mental illness stigma in the Black community can be attributed to lack of education on mental health, absence of discussions on stigma, and ignorance of pre-existing conditions but can be abolished through the education of Blacks on mental illness from credible sources.

When the conceptof Stigma was first created by the ancient Greeks it was a physical mark that had the purpose of exposing a trait (usually negative) about the morality of the person who bore it. The concept of stigma has since progressed from physical signifiers to metaphorical ones. Stigma, as defined by Erving Goffman means “the co-occurrence  of its components-labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination(…)”(Stigma and Social Identity 1).

This is why education on stigma is crucial. Stigmatized individuals hold many of the same ideals and beliefs that non-stigmatized individuals do and should not be judged so harshly on one aspect of who they are. Miseducation and/or lack of credible information on mental health help fuel misconceptions about mental illness and the way it impacts your life. These misconceptions often come about from negative experiences or perceptions that someone may have come by previously. For example, patients can be mistreated and misadvised from the hospitals/ treatment centers they sought refuge at, and others who witness their progress or hear of their treatment will be wary of seeking treatment from those places and an air of distrust develops in the treatment process.

Many people also may not be aware of pre-existing conditions or histories of mental illness that may run in their family. People who have family members who have/had mental illnesses and disabilities are more likely to develop them as well. People may be affected daily by a mental illness and not know it, or not know that it is the reason behind them losing functionality. On the other hand however, someone may know of a family history/ be diagnosed but not seek treatment due to fear of unwanted stigma, or being limited due to their diagnosis. Due to the marginality of the Black Community in America, it is the prior that causes many African Americans to forgo treatment.

Ceasing stigma in the Black Community is no small task, of this I am aware. I know that it will take time, dedication, and patient discourse. I am also aware that the Black community is not the only one in which Mental Illness stigma is a prevalent problem but the stigma that mental illness gets is a unique one in the black community. It has to start with Queer Black women. As most Black Feminist Literature acknowledges, once the lowest of the low in the hierchy are freed, everyone else will be too.

Always Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a movie set in Brooklyn New York in the 90’s. The movie, which was written, produced, directed, and starred in by Spike Lee, Depicts racial tensions in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in the wake of a heat wave. The tensions start when Buggin’ Out, an Afro-centric character challenges the owner’s (Sal) lack of Black inclusivity on his wall of fame in the restaurant where Mookie, the main character works. He brings up the point that Sal only has White Italians on his wall of fame, but he makes all his money from the African American community in which his shop resides, and would like to see more Black people on the wall. Sal responds that only Italian people will go up on the wall of his shop and after a few more exchanges Sal asks Mookie to escort his friend out. Buggin’ Out then gets the idea to boycott Sal’s, and the underlying racism that he and his family contributes to the community.

It is not until the end that Buggin’ Out finds people who will back him up in his boycott. Radio Raheem, a man who walks through the neighborhood carrying a boom box that is blasting Public Enemy and Smiley, a mentally disabled man who sells pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcom x together that he draws on in markers. Raheem and Smiley agree to join Buggin’ Out because of the similarly negative encounters that they had the same day at Sal’s. The three men approach Sal’s after closing and the interaction become explosive. Sal shouts expletives and slurs at the men, who shout right back. The scene escalates, until Sal smashes Radio Raheem’s boom box with a bat that he keeps behind the counter, and after a moment of stunned silence, Raheem lunges across the counter and an all-out brawl breaks out. The police are called, and they restrain Raheem from strangling Sal and he is held in a chokehold until he dies. The police officers kick and scream at his motionless body to get up, but it is no use. They remove the body from the scene and officers on foot push the crowd back as they drive away. A riot ensues after Mookie throws a trash can through Sal’s window.

From a solely racial standpoint, this movie depicts very clearly the racism that is very prevalent among non-Black shop owners in predominantly Black neighborhoods. It is also an accurate depiction of Police brutality, one that is sadly, still resonating with truth in 2016. However, from a place of intersection of race and gender, the movie is heavily male. The only women in the movie are not complex characters.

These women: Mother-Sister and elderly woman who watches the neighborhood through her window, Mookie’s sister Jade, The Latina mother of Mookie’s child Tina and her mother, the mother of a boy who almost got hit by a car, and Ella the only girl in a friend group that is majority male.

Not only are these women all depicted in different ranges of the Angry Black Woman stereotype: The bitter old woman, the “tired of yo shit” sister, the potty mouthed dramatic Latina baby mama, the tough Black mother who whoops her son in the street, and the token girl accent to a trio of boys;   the only one who says anything that contributes to a greater Black consciousness is Jade. She responds to Buggin’ out when he asks her to join his boycott by saying that though she means no offense, his energy could be put to better use and better causes. Patricia Hills Collins states in her chapter on controlling images of Black Women “Taken together, these four prevailing interpretations of Black womanhood form a nexus of elite white male interpretations of Black female sexuality and fertility. Moreover, by meshing smoothly with systems of race, class, and gender oppression, they provide effective ideological justifications for racial oppression, the politics of gender subordination, and the economic exploitation inherent in capitalist economies.” (96)

Just like many other platforms and recounts of racial issues, Black women’s narratives, roles, and responses beyond hysteria are not included in this film. Representation matters, and there is none that expresses Black women’s complexity in this film. Considering that the central theme is always do the right thing, you would think Black women would play a larger part in the film since our morality and strength in situations of injustice have been invaluable to the Black Community.