A Worldview Without Labels: Lessons from My Mother

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by Jade Perry

Hey, well... I consider myself... consider myself a... a Black feminist."

I heard everyone take a breath: low, steady breaths from my father, a soft sniff from my mother (who battles allergies with a fervor), and a distracted sigh from my brother.

The rest of the conversation was a blur, but I do remember trying desperately to explain the differences between the feminism movement, third wave feminism, and how that was different than Black feminism (or womanism, depending on how people identified), etc., etc. I do this type of thing, this type of explaining, for college students for a living. It's a different ballgame when it's your family.

I remember my mother's slight exasperation with my explanations when she said, "You forget... we were alive when these kinds of things started!

I'd come home for a respite from my crazy work schedule. I hadn't been home in a while. You know how it is when you've been gone for a while. You've got all these new discoveries, philosophies, and viewpoints. Somehow, you feel that they all need to be explained, so your family can know this "different" aspect of you. Explaining things, in my family, has always worked better across a dinner table.

I gather that I took more from that exchange than anyone else did, honestly. Maybe because I had been contemplating how I would make my confession for most of my first night back. Yet, the conversation went on, seamlessly almost. It weaved other things: updates on members of the family, funny anecdotes and stories, but still no clear cut expression of how they felt about my confession.

I learned most of what I know about Black feminism from my mother. Before I learned the names and works of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, my mother taught me about acts of resistance. She never called herself a feminist, a Black feminist, a womanist, or any other term. I think generations past made her wary with stereotypes etched in her subconscious (you know, the "bra burning", "male-bashing" sort of stereotype). But maybe I was underestimating her (I've done that enough before, you know). Perhaps it was that her free-spirited individualism made her raise an eyebrow at any label that she had not defined for herself. Yet the fact still remains that most things... almost everything... I know about Black feminism, I learned from her.

When I went to first grade, she chose a school that had a curriculum of African American history. We learned about Booker T. Washington & W.E.B. DuBois. Though I could not fathom the historical complexities or philosophical differences between the two, I knew they were great men with great ideas that related to those who shared my identity. She chose a school that, although mildly impoverished and affected by its neighborhood context, taught me Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were. That was significant for me, a black girl, in the 90's, in Southwest Philadephia.

Acts of resistance in our home may have seemed subtle by certain standards. Yet, they were consistent. They came in the form of learning ABC's from an alphabet book that featured Black children in playful configurations of each letter. They looked like the various years she took me to the African garment storefront in University City to buy outfits for our school's African Heritage Day. They looked like the Kenya dolls she bought me on holidays despite my desperate pleas for Malibu Barbie.

These acts of resistance were a steady stream books about women from various communities of color: singers, authors, activists. They were the encouragements to watch documentaries with my dad, to go to museums of art and culture, and to understand that there was a world outside of the suburbs we'd moved to. They were her refusal to let me perm my hair, even when other parents tried to convince her that I needed the silky strands that only a perm could give me. They came also in the form of allowing my "artistic freedoms" for my hair in press & curls, braids, buns, mohawks, and twists.

These acts were subtle but they shone in the way she wore pants in the pulpit of my childhood church. I cannot count the times she was "pulled to the side" and asked to wear skirts. I cannot count the times that she showed up wearing whatever she felt like wearing. Eventually, we all started wearing what we wanted.

When I became a woman, I noticed her lamenting the fine strands of her hair that were caught in the brush. She'd been flat-ironing and coloring the short, sassy, fierce cut that she had and going through "the change of life". I knew that the best answer would come in what some might call, another act of resistance. "Ma... why don't you just wear your natural curls?"

She doesn't know, that I know, that she is Black feminist. She would never say 'cause she doesn't get along well with labels. But I know. She taught me most everything there is to know.

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