Ain’t I Black and a Woman, Too?7/18/2014
Last week, someone responded to one of my posts saying (more or less), “I have always considered myself a woman first and a person of color...
Last week, someone responded to one of my posts saying (more or less), “I have always considered myself a woman first and a person of color second.” I read her sentence over and over again as I tried to understand what she meant. But making sense of how she posits herself in the world never came to me. I do not say this to invalidate this woman’s feelings or how she chooses to identify herself, as I don’t know her like that, but I have always been equally Black and Woman, Woman and Black. (And I always will be.)
In my confusion, however, I did find myself asking, “Why do we even have to prioritize one before the other in the first place?” Indeed, I have asked this question countless times before, and will mostly likely continue to ask it for the rest of my life.
And still, I have encountered many individuals and circumstances that have asked me to choose and rank which one I would be first and foremost. Growing up, my father taught me to be proud of my Blackness. He introduced me to hip-hop music and the work of many great Civil Rights Movement leaders and Pro-Black/Afrocentric scholars. For this, I am grateful. But I was surprised to learn how many of the Black men he introduced me to as cultural icons, were also misogynists later in life. For many, being Black is equated to being a Black man. And historically, the issues of Black Women have been secondary to those of Black men. (Evidenced by the #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen conversation on Twitter and President Obama’s focus on the My Brother’s Keeper campaign.) Yes, I support and love and celebrate Black men. But it became clear to me that this love and support is not always reciprocal when it comes to the needs and visibility of Black Women.
As I took Africana Studies and Women’s Studies courses in college, this Black/Woman binary was even more apparent. In Africana Studies, I learned about Molefi Asante. In Women’s Studies, I learned about Gloria Steinem. In neither class did I learn about Barbara Smith. Nevertheless, I had a few gifted professors who understood that the binary was unnecessary. In their classes, I learned about intersectionality and womanism and Black feminism. I read authors like bell hooks and Toni Morrison and felt something come alive in me. It is in honor of all of these Black Women that I am so zealous about being Black and Woman, Woman and Black. (Never one without the other.)
When I worked at a non-profit focusing on reproductive health and women’s rights, I was always vocal about the reality that we didn’t just work with “women”, but we worked with Black and Brown Women. Specifically, Black and Brown Women of very distinct social identities, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. Thus, our approach had to be culturally sensitive and competent. My colleagues heard me, but I don’t think they always felt me, as the importance of addressing the intersections of race, class, and gender were pushed to the side. It became clear that it was White Women who got to be “just women” and it was White Women who determined what the needs and desires of all women were.
A few years ago, SlutWalk was a major movement and women all over the world were advocating for the right to own their bodies and their sexualities. As images from protests from all over North America surfaced on my social networks, I was once again reminded how often Black Women are asked to choose either our Blackness or our Womanhood… or risk being erased. I’ll never forget being enraged when I saw a young, white woman gleefully holding up the sign: “Woman is the nigger of the world.” (This saying is originally credited to Yoko Ono.) It is hard for me to articulate why I find this statement so painfully offensive. But mostly, I felt like millions of Black Women were told we do not exist and we do not matter—that we are the lowest of the low. And that if we did want to exist (but still not matter), we had to prioritize our femininity over our Afro identity.
So, where does this leave us now?
Where it has always left us. For now, the only people who can assert and affirm the necessity and significance of Black Womanhood are Black Women. This is not to say that we do not need allies in Black Men or White Women (or anyone else, for that matter). This is not to say we do not have allies who are Black Men and White Women. But this is to say that we have a responsibility to uphold our own selves and each other, so we can get to a place where Black Women are accepted in entirety for who we are. That is why spaces like For Harriet are so critical to our survival. In these spaces, we do not have to be one or the other. In these spaces, we can be Black and Woman and everything else that we are.
In these spaces, we are made (and make ourselves) whole.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, storyteller, and teaching artist living in Southern California. She is a graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She has performed in New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Washington D.C., and Southern California. For more of her wit and work, visit her website (michelledenisejackson.com) or follow her on Twitter (@MichelleJigga).