Black women friendship and sisterhood legacies misogynoir movements patriarchy sisterhood support
I See You: Why Black Women Continue to Depend on One Another2/02/2016
by Jacqui Germain Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday was on January 7. Writers all over celebrated the 125th anniversary with favorite Hursto...
Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday was on January 7. Writers all over celebrated the 125th anniversary with favorite Hurston quotes and thoughtful commentary on the legacy of her writing. She’s most well-known for the seminal 1937 text, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in addition to authoring numerous other equally brave books, plays, short stories, poems, and essays. Their Eyes Were Watching God has been translated to the stage and the silver screen, and sits proudly on many bookshelves both in and outside of the academy. Today, few would dispute the book’s significance, or the gravity of its author’s wisdom and craft, but as is often true with artists of color, Hurston’s posthumous fame dwarfs the recognition she received while she was alive.
Few know that Hurston died in a Welfare Home, and was buried in an unmarked grave in 1960. Few know that her work went largely unread for years afterwards. In fact, Their Eyes Were Watching God was almost lost in its obscurity, as were her other works, and even the location of her remains. But do you know who looked for her? Do you know who found her and pushed her writing back into the literary light? Do you know who, with help from a friend, paid to have a headstone made 13 years after Hurston’s death? Alice Walker, another black woman writer, with her own impressive resume of work, most well-known for her 1982 novel, The Color Purple.
“We’re us with all of our parts…We have our Langston, we have our Dubois, we have our Zora, we have our Nella, you know—it’s a very good medicine, it’s a very good way to be—whole. We want to be whole.” – Alice Walker, from her 2003 lecture at Barnard College
But then, isn’t that how it’s always been? Black women are the ones who look for and find each other. We’re the first and sometimes only ones to notice our absence at all, to feel the void when one of us goes missing, is erased or shut out, is ignored or dismissed. Aren’t we so often our own search parties? The guardians of each other’s bones and legacy? Isn’t it always up to us to find each other? To say to one another, I see you. You are here—and mark the Earth with a rock or a hashtag in service of memory. Isn’t it always up to us to find each other?
The past couple weeks (the last few months, I mean, year and a half / couple years / decade(s) / so long for so many of our foremothers) have been especially rough for black women in this movement. Sometimes it’s white supremacy, and sometimes it’s patriarchy; many times, it’s both. Sometimes it’s neither.
Lately though, I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of aggressive, violent misogyny being hurled at black women by not all, but still too many black men. Their brazen homophobia and transphobia is standard; their casual—even criminal—attitudes toward gender-based and sexual violence are regularly displayed. In too many of these cases, the violence and aggression comes from black men who claim some sort of pro-black posturing. The same black male comrades we black women have linked arms and blocked highways with. The same black comrades we’ve grieved for and with, exposing ourselves to all manner of gendered bigotry, harassment and targeting—all in service of a movement built to support and fight for collective liberation. And still, so often black women freedom fighters are met with violence from the very people we’re fighting for freedom with.
The relentlessness of this aggression wears on black women and can produce a kind of exhaustion that threatens to engulf and swallow. It’s an exhaustion that can weigh down our tongues and take up so much space, we nearly disappear—and all our work, wisdom and voice along with us. So in resistance to that, let the following letter be me mounting a virtual search party. Let it be a floodlight and smoke signals all at once. Let it be two warm hands cupping your face, holding your cheeks saying, I see you. You’re here. Let it be the thing that lets you feel found, if you need it, and encourages you to look for and find others. Ashe:
Letter to black women freedom fighters, the black women movement-building and resisting in all the ways we’ve come to understand resistance:
I know you’re tired. We’re all tired of this shit. Of hearing it, of experiencing it, of being asked to prove it, of fighting against it, of dying from it. Of dying from it. We remember the casual sexism in movement meetings, the homophobic slurs tossed around at protests, being cat-called in the middle of an intersection while facing off with rows of riot police. We see the black men who make light of inter-personal violence, even suggest it as a viable option, but mask it as a joke so they can name our frustration something else. We see all of it and we remember all of it. Many of us understand this violence intimately, tangibly. And by many of us, I mostly mean all of us, though I don’t have the numbers to back that up, aside from the knowledge of this world being what it is for black women.
But I see you. You’re here. You exist. Even in spite of the world being what it is for black women. The black men who are sick of your resistance and leadership, who might wish you elsewhere, and who perhaps embody that wish with their harassment and vitriol, want you to disappear. And if you have disappeared, it’s okay. Our bodies, despite what they’d have us believe, are made to survive, and sometimes survival means shrinking, and folding into ourselves for a kind of conditional safety. We mustn’t be angry with our bodies for how they’ve learned to survive, but we should teach our bodies how to survive better.
For such lessons on survival, I turn to our history. Our foremothers left us these gifts. Our struggle is part of a long, winding legacy of continuously fighting this shit. Whether they talk about it in the documentary or not. Whether there’s a chapter in the book on us or not. We know this already. We’ve been experiencing violence and oppression from our black male comrades for generations in the midst of participating in collective movement work and building our own resistance spaces. The exhaustion that wears us thin is not new. We come from a long line of black women freedom fighters who’ve been erased from the history of black resistance and survival. But we also come from a long lineage of black women search parties. We’ve been looking for and finding each other for decades, even across time and space, even across languages. We find each other.
This is how we survive—by black women persistently looking for and finding each other. Since August of 2014, I’ve relied heavily on this to survive. Time and time again, other black women have found me, made me feel seen, and encouraged me to look for other black women who had been pushed into the void. Being lost and found again and again teaches me how be braver with love; all the most successful search parties are drenched in it. Being lost and found again and again is also a lesson in collectivism. After all, we have to be willing to look for each other. Continuing this sort of legacy isn’t inherent; it requires that we work to continue it until, hopefully, we don’t have to anymore.
But in the meantime, take comfort in the fact that some of us are actually invested in learning how to love all of us better. We’re queering our search parties. Becoming brighter flood lamps. Excavating our own histories to make sure all our foremothers have headstones. This is the work of continuing legacy. “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond,” declares another foremother, the inimitable Gwendolyn Brooks.
And indeed, we are.
Jacqui Germain is a poet and writer based in St. Louis, MO. Her work has been published on Blavity.com and Salon.com, and her debut poetry chapbook, "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," is forthcoming from Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.