Final Questions

•April 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Our focus on African American feminism this semester has been amazing. But learning about something in the classroom sometimes isn’t enough. Our professor tasked us with responding to the following questions:

What do we do with the knowledge we have gained?

How do we affect change in the lives of the people around us?

So we have learned all these wonderful and new concepts…

So what? Now what?

They’re a lot to put on a person. It’s difficult to condense everything that we’ve learned this semester down to a “so what?” response. I think we as students recognized the importance of taking this class – which answers the “so what.” We study Black feminism and other feminism because doing so is important. Because doing so prevents our identities as Black women, women of color and women of other marginalized populations from being erased. it becomes entirely too easy to buy into this “we’re all human and that’s all that matters” rhetoric – rhetoric that necessarily erases the ways in which we differentiate self from other. People too easily assume that such categorization is inherently bad when it isn’t. Its what people do with those categories, what people do to privilege one category over another that is problematic. 

So how do I respond to what I’ve learned so far this year? By ensuring that no one successfully erases my identity as a Black woman. Both of those elements matter. We may all be human, but the fact that I am Black and a woman makes my experiences different than yours. Being human doesn’t meant that we are all treated the same. People NEED to understand that. Doing so makes it easier to understand why something like Black feminism even exists. 

So I guess that’s my goal for now – getting people to understand that race matters. Sex and gender matter. And ignoring those facets of a person’s identity doesn’t make the oppressions associated with those identities magically disappear. 

We’ll see where I am in a few months. 

Protected: Code Switching and Making the Social Self

•April 27, 2013 • Enter your password to view comments.

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Being the change and all that jazz…

•April 20, 2013 • 3 Comments

I’ve thought long and hard over the years about how I would change those elements of the world that most distressed me. I always come back to the same conclusion – teaching and writing, my two loves. I think that both of these sectors breed activism – or at least they have a history of engendering activist thought. Many of the Black women who have influenced me have done so via the written word or their position at the forefront of classes I have taken. I think about all of the Black women professors I have had that have encouraged me to think more critically about the world I live in, and to engage the history that has created it. I think about authors like LA Banks who, before she was taken too soon, created fantasy lands in her novels which made it possible for Black women to be seen as heroines and saviors. This last bit is especially important to me because I think that there should be and needs to be a greater POC presence in literature as a whole. As an avid and voracious reader, I spend a lot of time reading novels that present narratives that cater to White audiences. And whether this is unconscious or conscious is irrelevant because the end result is the same. Literature is one of the few spaces where we can realistically create worlds where people can literally do anything – yet somehow POC always seem to disappear. I believe it was Toni Morrison who once said that she writes the books that she wanted to read. I want to do the same. And I hope that one day, as a writer or as a professor, I can encourage other young Black men and women to not only see the problems that lie before them as Black people and as gendered beings, but forcibly change those problems. Rather than complain about the fact that there aren’t enough POC in the books that I like to read, I need to take the time to create books that cater to that need. While I’m doing that, I plan to spend my time exposing readers to stories of that sort which already exist. 

We’ll see how it goes. 

What’s on my Mind

•March 26, 2013 • 6 Comments

A Declaration: Toward A New Politics of Black Female Sexuality*

Found this awesome article on The Feminist Wire today. The writer does a great job of condensing a great deal of what we’ve talked about in the last week regarding Black women’s sexual autonomy (and stereotypes regarding Black women in general).

I found his inclusion of the recent attempt by a Virginia woman to have Beloved removed from the high school reading curriculum interesting. She found the material too adult for high school students – reasoning often cited by parents who don’t want their children exposed to such horrors (in this case of slavery).

To which I respond – if we can’t have a real discussion about slavery in a classroom – traditionally regarded as a “safe space” (with exceptions, of course) – where and when can we? If we can’t expose students to a history that makes them uncomfortable in a classroom – where and when can we?

Negating the necessary story that exists within Beloved, also negates the history of sexual autonomy that Williams writes about in his essay. As he says:

…Black women’s sexual histories still remain muddied or excluded in America’s public education system. In high school I read novel after novel after novel about white women’s sexual lives (i.e. Jane Austen’s entire body of work, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter). In history I learned extensively about white women’s struggles and triumphs for erotic and sexual autonomy. Never in my public high school did I learn such a history or encounter such a novel about Black women’s struggle for sexual autonomy.

We can’t continue to ignore the history of the Black woman’s struggle for self-definition and free expression via sexual agency or otherwise. Our history in this country is fraught with the “uncomfortable,” – there’s no escaping it. Stop denying our history because the truth is too painful to deal with. If it’s painful for someone on the outside looking in, imagine how painful it was for the women that Beloved‘s Sethe represents. Imagine how painful it is for Black women of today who must live with the legacy that such an “uncomfortable” “intense” history has created. Stop trying to erase our history and the art that that history has created. When you really break it down, Beloved is a love story – it is a story about the ability to love freely, on one’s own terms without the shackles of slavery, or the metaphorical chains of social limitations. Beloved teaches its readers about the beauty of love without conditions. And that’s a lesson that everyone should be exposed to, regardless of how difficult the teaching of it is.

At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves – do we want the whole story, or do we only want the parts that make it easier for us to sleep at night?

Love and Power

•March 24, 2013 • 3 Comments

In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change

                                                                                                                      Audre Lorde

 

‘Nuff said. Seems like I can just wrap up this post right now and go.

Sadly, or perhaps not so sadly, I talk too much – so that seems impossible.

What isn’t impossible, however, is seeing how power as an abstract idea has been corrupted in American society and various other societies like it. In this country, power is often defined by money and domination – if you have neither of those things, then you have no power.

Simple, right?

Yes. Except for when it isn’t.

Power comes in so many forms, and often in spaces and places that don’t define money and domination as the alpha and omega of success. Recognizing power as empowerment, as a positive force that has the potential to uplift one another and foster unity, works to destroy the corruption and distortion that Lorde speaks of. When we recognize that our power emanates from within, that it comes from a place that no one can take from us (regardless of what they’d like us to believe), we take our power back.

Patricia Hill Collins describes love as one of those powers. And not just love as it exists between men and men, women and women, or women and men – but love for the self, for friends, love for the community and so on. I do think, however, that the self-affirming power of love begins with our ability to love and respect ourselves because when you love yourself, your ability to take people’s attempts to disempower you in stride fades into the background. And the power of oppressive systems to define power for you is diminished as well. Which, in turn, disempowers the system – because it loses the ability to limit our “energy for change.” 

Claiming the power that exists within our ability to love gives us the ability to define power on our own terms, and shake off the veil that perpetuates the myth of power as domination. 

Hair in Brazil

•March 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Hair in Brazil

In keeping with my post about hair a few days (weeks?) ago – I thought this link would be great to share with you. Brown/Black-skinned Brazilian women often face many of the same issues that Black/African-Americans face in the US – some would even argue that the issues of racism in Brazil are worse because they are more overt. That, however, is a different story for a different day. 

What’s beauty?

•March 19, 2013 • 1 Comment

I’ve always wondered how abstract ideas become normalized social mores – particularly how certain kinds of beauty become the foundations from which all other appearances are judged. I wonder what it was like, at the dawn of human civilization, when people were just people – before society and its constructs began telling us who we ought to be, what we ought to look like which people were people, and which people were simply commodities to be bought, sold, used and discarded. Were we freer then?

I’ve no idea how beauty is created, or how it is maintained, unfortunately. What I do believe is that our understanding of beauty is defined in many spaces external to our  selves. Some of these spaces we are aware of, some – not so much. Some of these sources have been defining the terms for us for so long that we see it as normal – television, movies, magazines, novels, the people who seem to have privileges that we do not have access to in the places that we frequent, even the people in our homes. And it’s easy to tell ourselves that those things don’t affect us – but being fed the same message time and again, day after day, year after year – it has to affect us at some point, right? The message has been the same since beauty became a “thing,” – whatever is beautiful at that moment is something that we do not have, but should desperately want. Luckily, in today’s world, it’s also something we can easily buy if we have enough money.

Even with that money, or whatever means used to obtain the beauty standard of the moment, beauty still remains a construct used to identify the other and define ourselves against it. Fat cannot exist without skinny, dark without light, tall without short. Naturally, whichever one is privileged changes from culture to culture, time to time. What I find interesting is that even in the face of the inevitable changes surrounding the standards of beauty – we individually tend to be unhappy about some facet of our appearance. Perhaps that unhappiness stems from things we didn’t know needed changing until some capitalist institution told us that the change was necessary. “Dove deodorant –  the secret to flawless armpits.”

I didn’t know that rough armpits were of sufficient epidemic status to warrant special deodorant, but now I’m wondering if other women have the same “problem” and have already corrected it. Or, worse, how long I’ve had it and how many of them have noticed.

Its small things like this that create beauty standards. And it’s always small, seemingly innocuous things that make up a larger, more detrimental system aimed at telling us how we are supposed to view ourselves. Women need the right hair color (I believe ombre is in now), the right mascara (the kind that doesn’t run, elongates your lashes to your hair line and takes you from eye-lash to eye-stache in seconds), and, now, the right arm-pit.

While I doubt that this latter point will be reinforced in very many spaces, it still represents a standard that someone somewhere decided needed establishing. Regardless of what our cultural beauty standards are– someone is always left feeling alienated by them.  This is why we need to ensure that women and men, young and old, define themselves on their own terms. Then the beauty standards are reduced to optional guidelines, rather than absolute necessities.