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A Series of (Un)related Events: Forty-Five Years After The Black Woman: an Anthology*
It starts without context. Cast as insane, volatile, undeserving of sympathy for their unjust outrage stemming from who-knows-what. No one can know, because it stems from nowhere, this rage, or rather anger, a hissy-fit. Because rage is built up, resting on a solid foundation of reason. “You’ve gone mad, mad, I tell you, mad.” Ni-Ni-Nicki she just mad… “Oh my god, she’s gone crazy,” they say, because crazy isn’t crazy for a reason. It’s just crazy.
Black women, monolithically consolidated into a Hottentot caricature of everything they are not, have experiences comprised of a series of (un)related events: outrage the product of a historical legacy of erasure and straight up disses—individual, institutional, you name it—construed as coming “out of nowhere”; social and economic penury the result of gendered labor opportunities and racially-motivated geographic and career foreclosures utterly erased from cultural memory. Black women cannot become, or more accurately cannot reinvent themselves as, Black women because to be seen, to be recognized, as human, valid bodily matter, is to be accepted as a citizen. And to be a citizen, in the U.S. at least, is to “Come on. Let it go. Move on,” as Claudia Rankine says.
“Let it go. Let it gooo!” Elsa sings in Frozen, a Disney flick that had everybody—like, everybody—geekin’ for months on end. We are urged to let everything go, get away from the past, from what has gotten us here. Become “one with the wind and sky,” don’t think about this earth, this ground that is saturated with the blood and sweat of they whose funny names we shall not speak. Only “the storm” is allowed to “rage on.” Indifferent and indiscriminate weather catastrophes are permitted to rage, not people who have been wronged by other people, asserting their personhood in the face of its plunder. “The past is in the past,” Elsa sings some more, and that is where all those who have benefited from the past’s horrors would like to keep it. Related to everything, but not. (Un)related.
They say they came first as indentured servants. But that didn’t last long. John Punch, after running away from bondage (a.k.a stealing himself) in 1640, got a life sentence in bondage when his two white cronies didn’t. They say Punch is a relative of Ann Dunham. They say “All Negroes or other slaues already within the Prouince and all Negroes and other slaues to bee hereafter imported into the Prouince shall serue Durante Vita [for life].” And then they said three-fifths. Of course we can see that race mattered, that racism sprung in close fetal propinquity from the same loins that birthed exceptionalism, greatness, a hilltop city.
So we must know, too, that “racism irrevocably changes gendered relationships,” says Sharon Holland.
Expediency was the name of the slave labor camp game for white slave owners. When it was expedient for white dudes to work female slaves as if they were bullish, mammoth men (though the equation of “men” with strength and physical fortitude is suspect. Sojourner Truth plowed and ate as much as any man—when she could get it; Patsey from Northup’s 12 Years A Slave consistently picked more cotton than any dude too, “lightning-quick motion was in her fingers as no other fingers possessed,” Northup wrote), female slaves were treated, essentially, as genderless. When their vaginas could be infiltrated for the pleasure and power of white men, female slaves were just that: female slaves.
Rape of Black women was quotidian, a display of power, domination—or, perhaps, just an enactment of it. Can these Negresses even be raped? they’d ask themselves, or not. No, of course not. The Black woman is unrapeable—she’s a Black woman, she exists to fuck and be fucked.
One in five Black women experience rape at least once in their lifetime. Twenty-three and a half million Black women nation-wide. Four million seven hundred thousand Black women raped. Four million seven thousand Black women who are three times more likely to suffer from depression, thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, twenty-six times more likely to abuse drugs, four times more likely to contemplate suicide, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Black folks disproportionately live in high-crime, impoverished, under-funded, under-resourced areas, making living in those areas highly stressful. So stressful, in fact, people living in those areas often express symptoms similar to war vets with PTSD.
What era am I talking about now…?
“Black is beautiful,” “I’m Black and I’m proud,” “natural Black beauty.” Mantras that flung from tongues in defiance of imposed racist aesthetics, in defiance of denigrating ideals of humanness. Black that shit up, we said. And love it, love it hard, ‘cause that’s when it becomes true. Yet Blacking it up often made it only Black, and it had to stay Black. And Black women were just Black. They had to be; they couldn’t be Black women. Because Black only had a dick. Or has.
The Black Panthers did the damn thing, totin’ guns, all suave and debonair in black leather, stunna shades on before stunna shades were even a thing. Badass MF-ers. But what of the badass women? They were prone if Stokely Carmichael had his wish. Or two steps behind their Black man. Make it three for good measure.
And that’s where they went wrong. “Racism and chauvinism are anti-people. And a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too,” Toni Cade said. How you gon’ be revolutionary and leave out most of your population? That ain’t just bad politics; that’s suicidal.
Black nationalism, while I love it—be bold in your Blackness, no doubt, and love it fiercely—was only titularly down with the sistahs. And it was usually a Sistah with a capital “S,” a symbol, an image. Cynthia Enloe writes that Black Nationalist women are frequently urged to fulfill the roles of “ego-stroking girlfriend, stoic wife or nurturing mother.” And these “helpmate” roles are nonthreatening to male nationalists. Don’t be threatening, for we might have to critique ourselves. We might have to realize that The Man is us too.
My partner, a Black woman whose tenacity is unmatched, whose intellect exudes a genuineness that quakes stability, feared my rejection of her hair. Seen by me only in extensions, with a weave—still her hair nevertheless—trepidation clutched her, history mocked her. And it almost won.
“Babe please don’t be upset with yourself,” I asked in a text. The vibration—one, two, three, a four page sms haunted by a teetering textual lachrymose—was hefty with a desire, a plea, to be seen, and then to be loved nonetheless. “You’ve inherited (well, we’ve all inherited) a legacy of a cultural environment that denigrates particularly Black female hair. Your reasoning is in no way stupid in my opinion—it is a keen understanding of the historical. But I promise you that I will neither think less of you, nor love you less, nor ask you to ever change anything about your appearance for me. While I have my issues with the prioritizing of standardized aesthetic beauty as that which implicitly validates people, I’ll say this, and I mean it: you are beautiful to me, whether bald or with the locks of Samson. You may be nervous, which is fine, but I guarantee that I will still look at you in utter awe and love you as I have been.”
I can only hope that she believed me. Though the narrative of history, justifiably, may tell her to be skeptical.
Babe, as the ruthlessly living Black woman you are, I laud your very existence. Not as a fawning admiration of beauty or sexual acquisition as has often been how it has been connoted, but for living, for surviving, for stealing life from a world that continuously tells you not to be. Your hair, then, is a ruthlessly garnered site of parrhesia. Bold speech; I am here; I will be; and I will be all of me. “The natural is sacrilegious,” Cenen says in “Ebony Minds, Black Voices.” And white/male supremacy is the religious Law of the blood-saturated land.
Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: an Anthology was published in 1970. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, that was the year my mother was born. I wonder if she’s read it. I doubt it. But that only means she hasn’t seen the words combined in script on off-white pages whispering back to her. Mom knows everything in the book, I imagine. Eleanor Traylor, in her introduction to the 2005 edition, says The Black Woman is comprised of “inscribed conversations that emerge from the kitchen.” And mom was in the kitchen, with grandma, conversing, speaking, inventing. One of the joys of my childhood as a young Black boy surrounded by grown, bold Black women was listening to this invention. As I eavesdropped, I witnessed history, quite literally, being made. I kept my eyes on their world, paid attention to what went on. And here I am, a conduit for their truths, “Go[ing] home,” as the elderly man Eula Biss encountered urged her, “and writ[ing] it all down, every single detail.”
Living, surviving, is an act—a process—of rebellion. That living in the face of imposed death, sanctioned death, beatified death, is itself liberatory. And it is a struggle on all fronts. Black women turning to one another, revolutionarily and familially, is rebellion. Insurgence. Chaos. And transformative revolution lays its head in chaos. That turning toward one another invents bonds. Are women simply women? Is Black simply Black? No, and the turning is validated.
My mother only occasionally showed effusive loving affection. But she lived in love, always. I used to forget, like Bob, the white dude Paule Marshall’s “Reena” used to date, that being Black is not merely about pain, injustice, getting fucked over. Love exists too. Marlon B. Ross responded to an email I once sent him as I became steeped in Black pain: I think we sometimes overlook in our theory how identification brings pleasure and how pleasure itself can disrupt unjust hierarchies of identity, he said. Taking pleasure in being a black straight male or a black queer male or whatever does not mean contentment with hierarchies that cause oppression; it means using the pleasure that comes from social differentiation (of all kinds) against those hierarchies.
And in gifting me with those words, Marlon loved me. And now I can love Blackness too. If only I would have listened, saw, felt what my mother was expressing all along, I, like Pilate in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, could have loved more.
October 26, 2015. Spring Valley High School, Columbia, South Carolina: I wonder if, when he woke up, put on his uniform—protecting and serving—he said to himself he’d carry the torch of white male brutality against Black female bodies. Which is to say the torch of white masculinity. Which is to say the torch of whiteness. Which is to say the torch of America with a capital “’Merica.”
I wonder if she, exhausted as with any other day, thought that she’d have to justify, once again, her existence, her self-possession. Which is to say I wonder if she thought to herself, I exist in this world as a Black woman. Round 6,570.
Deputy Fields—powerlifter like me, white not like me, subject to the smog of male supremacy like me, bred in the cauldron of America like us all—was performing a routine. “Either you come with me or I’ll make you,” he said. And Black bodies, of course, never submit willingly. Or, the “I’ll make you” referenced, too, the shoehorning of this Black woman into “The Black Woman,” the “hoodrat,” the “nigger bitch,” the chattel. Movable property. Partus Sequitur Ventrem in the flesh.
No need for time to get up, to move herself—she wasn’t going to. Or she didn’t have to. Or she wasn’t supposed to. Take her down, the desk too. Slam her again for good (or bad) measure. Drag her, put her on display for all to see—or not. Was she seen? No one said anything; no one moved. Was she seen? Who was seen? What was seen?
Don’t dare interrupt whiteness, maleness at work. “I’ll put you in jail next,” Fields says to another student. He wasn’t talking only about himself. He wasn’t talking only about the other student either.
The papers say the woman wasn’t hurt. But they don’t know that. They don’t know what else happened decades, centuries ago. Just then or yesterday. To her or not. It all blends together as if it’s all the same thing, at the same time, to the same person. Sometimes it is. Most times it is too.
I saw the video, as with most other twenty-somethings’ doses of national news, on Facebook. “No! You are not serious right now, yo,” I said to myself, chillin’ in my bed, clad in my Cornell hoodie, wanting to unsee. Or to see again, but differently. I emailed the sheriff, re: The Unacceptable Behavior of Deputy Ben Fields:
As I hope your department knows, Deputy Ben Fields was recorded using unnecessary, violent, incessant force fomented, I would assert, by his adherence to discourses that cast Black bodies as threatening, criminal, and unruly. Deputy Fields, mired, no doubt, in the arrogance and legacy of his white masculinity—exacerbated by the state-sanctioned authority of a badge—enacted that white masculinity onto a Black female body, denigrating its integrity, validity, and right to exist boldly in public educational space. That Deputy Fields acted in such a violent and abusive manner toward this Black woman—who was in no way physically threatening—should not be condoned. Know that this is no isolated incident; that this is buttressed by a precedent of white men violating Black female bodies for their own glorification and racial and gendered valorization.
I request that, because of his unconscionable actions, he be removed from the force (an ironic term, no?). If you have not seen the video of his actions, view it here: https://www.facebook.com/shaunking/videos/937383839633868/
Please act on this, as the reputation of your department, as well as law enforcement writ large, is at stake.
This is not protecting and serving; this is violating and abusing.
No “Best,” no “Sincerely,” no “Regards,” warmest or otherwise.
And he was removed from the department.
And as I reread it I feel like I went too easy on him. Why did I say “Please”? Why did I “request”? Why am I asking? Was I charmed by whiteness again? Well, let me redact and demand instead. I provide no option, and the consequences, I assure you, are dire.
Which is to say, as Joshua Bennett does, “When I say, ‘I do not believe in Hell, but there are nonetheless men, dead and living, I wish Hell upon,’ understand I am first a historian of suffering.” We—she, much more than me, much more than so-called “us”—have suffered. At the hands of many incarnations of Deputy Fields. So if I may pretend I am a believer: I, unapologetically, wish Hell upon you.
Black women are marked. Like Cain, though Black women as a group committed no murderous fratricide, they walk about under the threat of violence. And they don’t have a god to protect them. Or like Canaan, though Black women’s parents did not gaze upon the nakedness of their father, they are coerced and urged to serve their kin as punishment for a misdeed. The role of Black women throughout the early and mid-20th-century was that of a bridge. The backs of Black women, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa have noted, were bridges on which everybody and their dogs treaded. They were explanatory crosswalks, Black women, explaining things to fathers, sisters, white feminists, brothers, artists, Black separatists—whomever. And after all that, Black women say,
I’ve got to explain myself
I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.
Black women were called many things—Matriarchs, Jezebels, Auntie, Girl—by others, though Black women were rarely seen, disallowed to call themselves something, unnamed people. “The Black Woman,” Trudier Harris wrote in 1982, “has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.” To be called something by someone else—especially to be called outside your name, an offense that, where I grew up, got you smacked in the mouth—always works for the caller, serving their benefit, fitting their reality, not yours. Black women were instrumentalized, bent into a weapon to be used by others against her—a stick of dynamite crafted to ignite and blow up in a domestic space surrounded by the worries, burdens, laundry, emotions, and whims of everyone but herself. All throughout the 20th-century Black women were used. White activists capitalized on the parallels between Black oppression, but only to betray Black women in the end by using the Black movement as a host only to later disregard the concerns of Black women, and the Black movement in general. To the implicit question Toni Morrison asks, what do Black women think about the Women’s Lib Movement?, she answers “Distrust,” because “Too many movements and organizations have made deliberate overtures to enroll Blacks and have ended up by rolling them. They don’t want to be used again to help somebody gain power—a power that is carefully kept out of their hands.”
Being dissed by white dudes, Black dudes, and white women did not make Black women happy campers. “You think Christ had it tough?” Reena said, laughing intermittently. “I was crucified five days a week and half-day on Saturday. I became almost paranoid. I began to think there might be something other than color wrong with me which everybody but me could see, some rare disease that had turned me into a monster.” Again, as always, Black women were used for their goodies. Even the whole idea of the (white) Women’s Lib Movement “is plagiarism,” stolen from Black women, as one anonymous Black woman said in the feminist publication Off Our Backs in 1971.
I wonder, as I often do as I learn about Black feminism, what my mom would say to these women. “Y’all better take that mess somewhere else. Uh uh, I ain’t having that in here. Better go somewhere ‘fore I really give you something to cry about. Keep playin’ with me.” Don’t mess with mom dukes.
Black women, it has been said, are like the miner canaries of the nation. Their status is a litmus test for the overall toxicity of the nation. But while miners, for whom it is imperative to know that toxicity, welcome the return of the canary, America, as a “mine” governed by white heteropartiarchy’s “epistemology of ignorance,” wishes for its canaries to remain suffocated in order to preserve its fantasy of delectableness. Black women assess the damage of the nation, and as we know from Cherríe Moraga, “To assess the damage is a dangerous act.”
In whatever form—writing in a journal, publishing tracts in public discourse, my grandmother calling my Aunt and telling her about some silliness on TV, or my mother’s bark—Black women must have a forum in which to speak, for if they cannot they are lost and forgotten as some of the most important movers and shakers of the national history, flattened and relegated to a state of abjection, starved of that which allows us all to become ourselves: voice, language, the Word. “Silence is starvation.”
An ode to the way Black women make resilience an art. To the way Black women hurt, cry, feel weak, grow exhausted, don’t want to take care of anyone. An ode to their vulnerability, their imperfection, their flaws. They are strong, yes. And they are unceasingly weak. And everywhere in between.
An ode to how Black women sing when no one is listening, because that is when they can listen to themselves live within the all of themselves. When those Black girls, like my sister, snaggle-toothed and full of life, jump rope and chant amongst themselves they are building monuments to genealogical artisans that looked just like them, that spoke like them, that let out sighs of exasperation heavy with the weight of being in their bodies. Can you hear them, singing, humming—the neuma of Black womanhood flourishing.
An ode to momz, grandma, TT, auntie, cuz. To Mrs. Stokes, the illest fourth grade teacher ever. To bell hooks, Angela Davis, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, Hortense Spillers, Melissa Harris-Perry, Patricia Hill Collins, Mary Helen Washington, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston.
An ode to those Black women whose names have been left off the record of history, whose efforts went unseen. You were integral, I promise. And I give thanks. An ode to Jasmine Mans, Alysia Harris, Zora Howard—three of the dopest spoken word poets you’ll ever hear. An ode to Lucille Clifton, who celebrated precisely because “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
An ode to you, Black women, because imagining oneself, inventing oneself, is a rebellious act.
*This essay was written in October of 2015, published in 2016, thus making the subtitle seem off by one year. I assure you, I can do basic math.
Marquis Bey is a Ph.D. student in Cornell University’s English department. His work focuses primarily on contemporary African American literature, Black Feminist Thought, and Transgender Studies. He has published widely in both academic and popular venues, with essays on feminism, Blackness, trans theory, and Black feminist atheism. Find more of his work athttps://cornell.academia.edu/