I’d be a fool and a hypocrite to even suggest that I’m deeply familiar with every black woman intellectual or that, when it comes to black women’s experiences, I’m somehow omniscient. This is noted in order to highlight the systemic problem that exists. My sistas are continually being stripped of their bodily autonomy, the respect they deserve and their seat at the table. They are expected to construct and re-construct their lives around the superficial desires of their male counterparts and the insensitive impositions of white communities. And, it all boils down to the absurd refusal to believe that black women are human and that the value of their humanity is not degraded by virtue of the fact that they have been born both female and black. They are here; they are “doing their work”; and, they are changing the world.
I do not write this article as a “Renaissance Man” of Morehouse. I write this as a man lucky enough to go to a school that is in such close proximity to the intellectual energy of the women of Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University. I write this as a man inspired by the resilience of Sista-Gods like Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker and Toni Morrison. I write this as a side-kick and friend to sister-scholar-activists who could talk circles around me any day about Politics, Math, English or Philosophy. I write this as the best friend of a woman whose swagger and charisma puts my pimp card to shame. I write this as a student of Dr. Beverley Guy-Shefthall’s feminist theory class. And, most of all, I write this as the son, grandson, godson, nephew and cousin of phenomenal black women. You inspire me to be a better person. You are the wielders of truth and the bearers of life. You are extraordinary.
And in my dreams I’m slapping the heroine to her senses, because I want them to be women who make things happen, not women who things happen to. Not loves that are tormentosos. Not men powerful and passionate versus women either volatile and evil, or sweet and resigned. But women. Real women. The ones I’ve loved all my life. ‘If you don’t like it lárgate, honey.’ Those women. The ones I’ve known everywhere except on TV, in books and magazines. Las girlfriends. Las comadres. Our mamas and tías. Passionate and powerful, tender and volatile, brave. And, above all, fierce.
Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women. Suddenly the politics was being slowly removed from feminism. And the assumption prevailed that no matter what a woman’s politics, be she conservative or liberal, she too could fit feminism into her existing lifestyle. Obviously this way of thinking has made feminism more acceptable because its underlying assumption is that women can be feminists without fundamentally challenging or changing themselves or the culture.
Many feminist thinkers writing and talking about girlhood right now like to suggest that black girls have better self-esteem than their white counterparts. The measurement of this difference is often that black girls are more assertive, speak more, appear more confident. Yet in traditional southern-based black life, it was and is expected of girls to be articulate, to hold ourselves with dignity. Our parents and teacher were always urging us to stand up right and speak clearly. These traits were meant to uplift the race. They were not necessarily traits associated with building female self-esteem. An outspoken girl might still feel that she was worthless because her skin was not light enough or her hair the right texture. These are variables that white researchers often do not consider when they measure the self esteem of black females with a yardstick that was designed based on values emerging from white experience. White girls of all class are often encouraged to be silent. But to see the opposite in different ethnic groups as a sign of female empowerment is to miss the reality that the cultural codes of that group may dictate a quite different standard by which female self-esteem is measured.
To understand the complexity of black girlhood we need more work that documents that reality on all its variations and diversity. Certainly class shapes the nature of our childhood experiences. Undoubtedly, black girls raised in materially privileged families have different notions of self-esteem from peers growing-up poor and/or destitute. It’s vital then that we hear about our diverse experience. There is no one story of black girlhood.
the fact that “love your body” rhetoric shifts the responsibility for body acceptance over to the individual, and away from communities, institutions, and power, is also problematic. individuals who do not love their bodies, who find their bodies difficult to love, are seen as being part of the problem. the underlying assumption is that if we all loved our bodies just as they are, our fat-shaming, beauty-policing culture would be different. if we don’t love our bodies, we are, in effect, perpetuating normative (read: impossible) beauty standards. if we don’t love our individual bodies, we are at fault for collectively continuing the oppressive and misogynistic culture. if you don’t love your body, you’re not trying hard enough to love it. in this framework, your body is still the paramount focus, and one way or another, you’re failing. it’s too close to the usual body-shaming, self-policing crap, albeit with a few quasi-feminist twists, for comfort.