Black Women, Black Criticism, and the Unremovable Veil of Jezebel – The Feminist Wire

Black Women, Black Criticism, and the Unremovable Veil of Jezebel

In her groundbreaking text, Hine Sight: Black Women and the Reconstruction of American History, black feminist scholar Darlene Clark Hine makes a distinction between black women and girl’s experiences “under slavery” and “after slavery.”  She opines that under slavery black women and girls placed priority on protecting their sexual being, however during freedom, while both violence and the threat of violence, sexual and otherwise, remained in tact, emphasis on safeguarding their sexual image increased.  Of course, the preservation of both sexual being and image were always and continue to be significant sources of simultaneous anxiety.  To be sure, the distinction that Clark Hine makes seems to operate on a continuum, not monochrome.  That is, angsts over our sexual beings and/or images are constantly influx and intermingled.  However, the rage and course of the river shift often, depending on context.

When I entered academe ten years ago, I fancied it as safe space—a world away from the violence and the continuous threat of such “out there”—a world most definitely unaccompanied by ubiquitous black female stereotypes.  I was wrong.  For black women choosing not to “stay in their lane,” academia can be a microcosm of the life world “out there.”  I learned this lesson approximately 1 year, 7 months, and 11 days ago—the last time I wrote anything for the public sphere.

Growing up, I was always a firecracker, one to speak my truth as I viewed it, regardless.  My parents encouraged it.  However, it was my intellectual mentors who fortified it.  Like an M.C. they pushed me to “go hard” no matter what and no matter who.  I spent years in the cut learning the critical grammar of bell hooks, Michele Wallace, Hortense Spillers, and others like Stuart Hall, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Ferdinand de Saussure, etc. etc. While in graduate school my mentors seemed to take extra care to ensure that I was equally sufficient in multiple fields and ready to parlay with the best of minds regardless of context.  They trained me as a multi-disciplinary critic and I loved it!!  That is, until the day I decided to actually use those skills in the public domain—post graduate school.

I was punished.  I wrote a critical book review essay that spoke my truth as I saw it, regardless.  I knew it would cause tension.  However, I never imagined fire.  To my mind, I was jumping into a game of intellectual hopscotch, just as I’d seen my male colleagues do many times before.  Naively, I thought it was my turn.  However, I learned quickly that the game of intellectual criticism is not only gendered, but also has psychological, emotional and reputational (and thus, representational) risks—if you are a black woman.

I was a newly minted black feminist scholar of religion…who critiqued the work of a tenured black male scholar.  Among all other sorts of criticisms re: staying in my lane, people asked, “Are they fucking?”  Really?!??  I pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at Sigma Chapter at Clark Atlanta University in 1995.  I know full well how to let things that people say about or to me, “roll off my back,” and have been known to withstand the harshest of criticisms without even flinching.  However, the idea that my work as a black feminist scholar of religion and black cultural critic was somehow underpinned by some sort of fantastic and unscrupulous sexual liaison between the author and I sent me into a year long deep depression and almost two years of silence.

I had spent years researching linguistic and representational deployments of the Jezebel trope in scholarship, religion, and popular culture.  I never imagined that I too would be reconfigured and cast with the veil of Jezebel.  How the hell did that happen?!?  I’m a scholar—an academic M.C. (so I thought).  I was intellectually honest—true to my call as a researcher and writer, and true to my reading of the text.  Moreover, I was true to the community in which I feel led to serve through my works: black women and girls.  Still, truth seeking and speaking comes with a fee.  I paid it.  Then I disappeared.  I tightened my circle and stopped communicating with male colleagues.  Clearly, it wasn’t safe.  My sexual image was at stake.  I was being read, but not on my terms.  I was devastated.

For me, “wellness” has always been intricately connected to speaking and seeking truth(s).  However, doing so as a black female academic in academia made me sick.  Literally.  Over time, I realized that it wasn’t the practice of truth speaking and seeking that made me ill, it was the behind the scenes and/or thinly veiled raging waters of the gate-keepers of hetero-sexist patriarchal respectability politics that threatened my well being, and the alienation and censure that sexism produced in some sectors of academe that made me sick.  “Perhaps Fanon was right,” I thought.  There really is no ontological resistance in terms of perception.  I was their Jezebel.  I had to be.  Why else would a black woman be courageous (read: “crazy”) enough to publicly critique a black man?  I must be a woman scorned—a loud talking, Jezebelian, angry black woman, all rolled into one.  Not.

In an essay entitled, “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, the Jokes of Discourse, or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed,” a comparative reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed, inspired by Ralph Ellison’s essay, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” Hortense Spillers argues that if you have the luxury of writing about a phenomenon and are thus situated toward it in a particular manner, words (“letters”) can be manipulated (“changed”) in a variety of ways to tell a story that may be either liberative or oppressive (“yoke”).  Therefore meanings, even once reduced to the ideas of others, cannot be fixed.  Instead, they are constantly being realigned and reconfigured, although sometimes appearing stabilized by routinization and mass-production.  Truth speaking and seeking, regardless, enables black women academics to not only remain healthy, but to change the letter and loosen the yoke.  When talking about “Changing the Letter” and the seemingly permanence of black female stereotypes several years ago, Spillers declared to me, “we are not to ourselves who we are to the world!”  I concur.  Resistance lies within.

Still, if wellness (for me at least) resides in intellectual honesty, and intellectual honesty allows one to “change the letter and loosen the yoke” of structural sexism outside of and within academe, at least for moments at a time, how does one remain well within that context when its metalanguage secretes and infuses capitalistic notions of competition between male and female scholars, black and otherwise, which effectively mock the superstructures, sexism and otherwise, we’re supposed to be critiquing?  I don’t have the answer to this.  However, what I do know is this: in addition to individual resistance, community is essential to survival and success in the academy, particularly for women, and especially for black women.  Still, community isn’t always what or where we think or hope it is.  My community arose mainly among people, some of whom I’ve never even laid eyes on in person, who connected with the greater historical narrative of sexism within the black diaspora, too often re-appropriated and maintained in black academia.  It is this community that loved me into speaking and writing again, and whose names I call as I write publically for the first time since March of 2011, and…whose ongoing, fearless examination of “community” pushes me forth to speak truth about the existing system of power relations within blackademia, regardless.