Caring for Black Feminists like me

Over the last couple of weeks I have been discombobulated, primarily by the questions and experiences I have undergone within feminist spaces, thus, I have struggled immensely trying to articulate this confused feeling and space I find myself.

Feminism has offered me a window through which I can articulate myself and my ideas, this is a box I have firmly felt comfortable snuggling into and have always defended. With all its politics and problems, feminism has given me somewhat of a sound identity, it the piece that people use to come up with a shallow understanding of who I am. However, I have been content with this, but with growing criticism and my changing needs I have had as a woman, there were moments I have found feminist spaces to be very alienating.

I never thought in all my life I would be surrounded by a group of black women and feel so lonely. I began to question whether my notions of solidarity, safety and belonging to feminist ideas were too rushed or perhaps borne of a naïve, insecure rural girl who never real fit in anywhere.

I recently found myself in the company of older black feminists, a group of women that gather monthly in each other’s houses, engaging in  conversations, eating but most importantly, sharing what has been going on in their lives, with their children and careers. I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into the fold, I was surprised at how quickly I called it home. Usually, being within spaces where older feminists occupy a space it has felt alienating and unwelcoming.

The feminism I encountered was well articulated into complex rhetoric blended within humour that left my brain asking for a refresher course in feminism. I did not connect to the rhetoric, and perhaps my insecurities with the English language had more to do with my fears that the actual event itself. Nonetheless, in contrasting these two spaces I found one major difference, in the one space, I found nurturing.

These women could catch me, they could comfort me and connect with my pain and poverty in ways that other feminist spaces could not. They could remain silent for me, listen to me, not giggle when I struggle to articulate my feelings in English or even dismiss the relevance of my own feminist dilemmas. My feminism has always been personal, the connection to its political relevance is new to me, quite frankly it is an unintended consequence of being in university.

Feminist spaces I experienced in university rarely tugged at the very personal strings of my feminism, it is only within conversations of rape and sexual violence where the personal becomes a relevant narrative. I speak as a feminist who is a rape victim and I can find comradery among most feminist but those conversation leave me raw and open wounded. And yet, they offer no closure of healing following this hard process.

These spaces are created to be safe and open for my pain to flow through them, but they are not connected enough to catch me or be silent within me as my body remembers the pain it has gone through.

It’s not surprising to find that when I asked my friend how she found a recent feminist gathering and she said “it was amazing” and I felt so out of place, I even left early. For the first time, I could describe a feminist space as violent. These words still do not make sense to me as I write them, at the same time I ask myself whether feminist spaces meant to be safe or revolutionary? Can feminist be safe as well or am I expecting too much? Does revolutionary mean there is no time to patch my wounds or even hold me?

I am still trying to figure this out but I am aware that there are other things at play that have equally shaped my experience of alienation. The first being class, even between black women. Once again, how I speak, my frame of reference is shaped by my township upbringing and these spaces are dominated by young women who went to better schools, “speak better”. Women who could understand Audre Lorde and all the complexities she writes about and I honestly could not.

The reality of my limited education has meant that I have to read texts three times before I could understand them. Then,  there is the nagging barrier of the “twang” that reminds you that you’re not a “mainstream black feminist”.

Granted, all the “isms” of the world will always be there, we cannot fool ourselves into a false sense of uniformity even as black women. Our very dysfunctional systems have created gaps between black feminist spaces, we see this with religion and class as well.

To quote Audre Lorde “I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable”.

Bearing this in mind, we fail to call each other out on how we exclude others and speak for people and speak at other women about feminism. Feminist spaces need to be careful of militarizing themselves or making them ivory towers that alienate other women.

For coloured girlsOur feminism needs to honour what is kind within us and find room for this kindness to extend and become part of how we engage with each other. Feminism needs to care.

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One thought on “Caring for Black Feminists like me

  1. This. All of this, Athi.

    There was a time I didn’t understand the division between black feminism and the rest of it. But I finally get it now. I’ve never read Lorde but my thoughts have always been that as a black woman, I cannot separate one identifier from the other; it is a synergistic relationship between these two that ultimately shapes how I experience the world. How society sees and treats me is subject to a combination of these two, not one or the other, but the combination.

    I grew frustrated when I realised that feminism as a whole, that which did not recognise itself as explicitly black, was very dismissive of these experiences and my claims of them. It is most prevalent when white feminists simply respond with saying, “But I feel this happens to all women.” No it does not, it definitely does not happen to all women. Even within the sphere of womanhood there exist hierarchies and forms of privilege. And in these hierarchies, black women are at the bottom.

    The way I’ve had it, feminism as a whole has dismissed that my social class, my background of cyclic poverty, my educational background (or lack of it in certain regards) has significantly informed the relationships I form when I step out of my house. And that my status as a woman cannot be separated from my race.

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