Dear Mr. Morton:
I read your article today, “When Will Black Historical Films Focus on Triumph, Rather Than Plight” and I have some questions for you.
First, why are stories of slavery not triumphant?
Are you descended from enslaved people like over 90% of black folks in America (and more than a few white folks)? I am. My paternal great-great grandfather fought in a Colored Regiment in the Union Army, later went to medical school and became a doctor. And his son became a doctor.
He was born a slave. Is his story not a triumph?
His great grandson–my father–earned two degrees from Columbia University and later became only the second black person in the history of the English Department at North Carolina State University to earn tenure and full professor.
Is that not a triumph?
My mother’s great-grandmother was a slave, around six when Emancipation came. She told my mother the story of her father being sold down the river to Mississippi. She never saw him again, but told my mother never to forget the story and Mama never did. She told me and told me never to forget. And now, I’m telling you, to bear witness to what happened, lest it be forgotten.
Is that not a triumph?
Mama’s tenant farmer parents sent her to Spelman College–the first in her family. She graduated, later earned a Master’s from California State University, then a doctorate from Atlanta University, then went on to earn tenure and full professor at Talladega College, a school founded for freed slaves.
Is that not a triumph?
I–the descendant of slaves on both maternal and paternal sides–graduated from Talladega College–my mother was one of my professors–graduated from University of Alabama’s graduate school–where some of the buildings were built by slave labor–and I am now a tenured, Associate Professor at a school that hired its first African American tenure track professor the year of my birth.
I own my own home. My credit’s pretty okay, though I owe a lot of student loans. I published some books. I’m happy. I’ve never missed a meal. I’m in love and all married and stuff.
Is that not a triumph?
Mr. Morton, can I ask you, if you are so concerned about the depiction of sexual violence of white men against black women in 12 Years a Slave, how come I don’t recall your taking the time to write an article about black men’s continual abuse of black women–ostensibly their own community sisters–in Hip Hop music? Or is black misogyny not a form of psychological bondage aka slavery?
If we can support Jay-Z–probably the best known Hip Hop artist of all time–who is a former crack dealer turned misogynist rapper-millionaire as a “triumphant” story, how come there is all this black protest–including yours– over Solomon Northup’s story?
Solomon Northup survived being kidnapped as a free man into slavery, sold down south, he was rescued as a result of a loving, interracial action team, he was reunited with his intact, nuclear family, and because he was a literate man–unlike so many other black folks, since there were laws against black literacy at the time–wrote a book about his experiences, one edition of which made it to The New York Times bestseller’s list.
From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom again–what’s not triumphant about that?
Did you know George Washington, our first President, and Thomas Jefferson, our third, as well as several signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders? How many times have you–or other black people–written articles in the mainstream press to protest PBS documentaries or films made on the American Revolution and its aftermath, abolition, and the Civil War?
How come I’ve never read an article written by you–or any of the other black protesters of 12 Years a Slave– in Huffington Post which reads, “A Documentary on George Washington AGAIN?! Dang!”?
Why is the story of white slaveholders triumphant, but not the stories of their slaves? Is it because, even with black people–whom I hope would know better–triumph is measured in financial holdings or paragraphs in history books, instead of moral fortitude? And do you ever wonder that if black people decide that enslaved black people aren’t triumphant enough to remember how we will get those paragraphs in history books to begin with?
Why are black people who are no longer alive–enslaved people– being made to feel ashamed for their being slaves, instead of being congratulated for surviving and passing down values to their descendants–like “y’all love each other,” like “leave no one behind,” like “God is good even when you can’t see the proof,” like “you can make it, even the toughest of times”?
How come we’ve stopped thanking them and started trying to hide them in historical closets?
Mr. Morton, do you want your descendants to forget about you and stop telling your stories if they decide you no longer fit a triumphant model?
Because you are currently playing the role of a murderous CIA Director in ABC’s Scandal. I love that show, and by the way, I love your work (going all the way back to Brother From Another Planet, which, oddly enough, depicted white-on-black violence and slavery themes, if I remember correctly.) And, well, I’m mad at you now, but I’ve always had a little crush on you.
I love that mole you have on your face. Not that this is important, but have you noticed I have a mole on my face, too?
Should I stop watching Scandal because you are playing a non-triumphant, horrible, black murderer-man on the show?–Because I won’t. I just can’t. I just love Scandal too much. Please don’t make me stop. It’s TV crack . And Kerry and Them with great outfits. And you’re so fine and sinister and very well-groomed.
Speaking of Jay-Z, I’m curious, are certain black people upset that 12 Years a Slave wasn’t made like their favorite Jay-Z rap music video–ending with Solomon driving back North in his gold-plated Bentley, pulling up to a mansion where his blond-weave- wearing wife answers the door wearing a mink coat draped over her bikini and thigh-high boots–and then, they both start spitting Hip Hop rhymes while young, scantily clad, biracial-looking, video vixens twerk around them ecstatically?
I should write that screenplay.
Mr. Morton, if I did write that screenplay, would you help me get it made into a triumphant movie about black history? Please support a sister.
I’m writing. I promise–which is why in addition to my not updating the blog like I used to, I’m supposed to be on a Social Media Fast. That is, until last night, when I sneaked on Facebook and read a comment thread where someone white was vehemently arguing against the depiction of violence in Twelve Years a Slave, the movie.
And then, I got really, really mad. And then, I didn’t get any work done.
I can deal with the Confederate Flag Toting Yahoos and their “I’m tired of hearing about slavery and now, shut up all y’all n*****s” routine. But there’s something about Nice Liberal White People trying to trash a movie made by a black man about slavery by using the “I’m made uncomfortable by all that slavery violence” excuse that just burns my biscuits.
Sidebar: I wish that some middle class black folks who are highly educated and nice, too, would join me in telling Nice Liberal White People that it is not really their place to talk about how black folks should make their own films about their enslaved ancestors. And also, that it doesn’t matter if Steve McQueen is British because the British Empire had black folks in slavery in the United Kingdom and in British colonies, too. And it doesn’t matter if Chiwetel Ejiofor is British, either, because his parents are Nigerian and some of his ancestral kin ended up as slaves in America.
That whole “black folks are still black even when they don’t live in America” thing is what’s called the African Diaspora, just so you know.
Anyway, I have not even seen this film yet because it’s not in my town. I live in a very conservation area and I’m not even sure the film will make it to my town. But I am a serious fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, going all the way back to his Kinky Boots days. I even saw him in Love Actually, which made me ask, “Don’t no black folks ever marry each other in the United Kingdom?” And of course, I’ve read the narrative of Solomon Northup; that was back in college, so I was excited, but after last night, I realized, it was time for A Teachable Racial Moment post before I get back to my writing.
So let me break it down:
First, you’re supposed to be upset by a slavery movie. That’s the whole point.
Slavery was bad, okay, no matter what Paula Deen tells herself. It was bad, and brutal, and dehumanizing for a lot of black folks on three continents for five hundred years. (In fact, slavery is going on right now in this country with non-black folks. But that’s another story.) Slavery is never supposed to give you a feel-good moment, unless somebody gets free.
When you read the classic slave narratives, like Solomon Northup’s or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom you need to remind yourself that these books were written in the age of censorship and also, delicate public sensibilities; they use a lot of euphemism in these narratives so as not to shock nineteenth-century audiences. Despite the lack of overtly violent scenes, Jacobs’s book still was shocking because she addressed the sexual exploitation and sexual assault of enslaved black women, and to a lesser extent, enslaved black men and black children.
I didn’t see Tarantino’s Django Unchained because I might have been offended by his use of violence to depict slavery, but rather, because I refused to give my money to a disrespectful, rude—and might I say, extremely corny—white man who thinks he’s been granted a Ghetto Pass. No you haven’t, Mr. Tarantino, and your black friends in Hollywood might let you get away with using the n-word in front of them, but you better not come to The Dirty South and try that out in the country, not if you don’t want to get a Grits And Streak-o-Lean A** Whipping By RayRay And Them.
As a survivor of sexual assault and childhood molestation, I completely understand that some people might be triggered by what has been called graphic violence in Twelve Years a Slave. I don’t want to diminish people’s trauma, nor am I telling them to “suck it up” and dash headlong into a situation that may prove emotionally detrimental to them.
What I am saying is, just don’t see the movie. But please–I mean, I’m begging you–if you are a white person, don’t proceed to lecture black filmmakers about whether it’s appropriate to depict the actual violence that happened to other black people because you–a white person– might get triggered by the violence. That’s one of those unfortunate “okay back to me” examples of white privilege that makes black folks want to cuss you out. It’s also extremely ironic–and not in a good way– considering that other white folks were the ones meting out the violence towards said black people.
Now, you don’t want to be that person, do you? Look, I’m just trying to be a friend here.
Further, movies about black history shouldn’t be expected to foster racial reconciliation between blacks and whites or start feel-good “conversations on race.” A black director is not a race. He’s a black director. And how come when, say, Unnamed White Lady writes a book or directs a movie, it’s not a “conversation on race”? Because you know what? It is to me.
I’m reading this book or watching that movie saying, “Dang, Unnamed White Lady, how come you don’t know one person of color unless she’s your sassy, celibate, unattractive black girlfriend who lives to tell you how fabulous you are and stroke your long, silky hair”? That lack is, in itself, a statement—to me—about race in this country, maybe because I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, but somehow, apparently, it’s not a statement on race to other readers or viewers. It’s just a film or a book about the “universal human experience.”
Do you see how that strange, double standard works? It’s odd, isn’t it?
For many Americans of all complexions, racial reconciliation has been the work that black art is supposed to do—”Race Work.” And yet, this Race Work has strayed away from its original intention of moving black folks forward in American society. These days, it doesn’t do that, because if that was the case, we wouldn’t have to keep doing the same work over again.
These days, Race Work resembles a clothed version of Sex Work, making the receiver of that labor feel good, but the pleasure–or racial understanding–of the worker is incidental and not important in the least. The worker is a conduit of pleasure or understanding—or both—but never an equal participant in the pleasure or understanding. And both Race Work and Sex Work have fleeting responses, too, resulting in that need to begin again. It’s like Negro Groundhog Day.
I can attest to that, having been on many “race panels on writing,” and on which I have decided to stop appearing. I’m just tired, because it’s always the same Race Work. I’m supposed to listen sympathetically to the grievances of colored folks about how they’ve been ‘buked and scorned, while at the same time, explain to a group of Nice White Liberal People how I do that hoodoo I do: how I write like a black person. Or rather, “Write about race.” And then, I hope that if I have been well-behaved enough, someone will invite me to a college or university and do the same thing and pay me for my Race Work.
But I’m not a race. I’m just Honorée.
I can tell you about racism in this country, but race is another matter. To begin with, it does not exist as a real, biological thing; it exists as a social and legal category, something a bunch of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century white dudes made up to justify their prejudice against varying groups of people with dark skin.
Now, I can explain that, but how am I supposed to talk about how all that appears in my writing when I’m just trying my best to be an artist, and when I really want to say, “Y’all could make my job as a black writer less difficult if I didn’t have to keep trying to figure out what the heck ‘race’ was, and then, how to write about it just to make y’all happy. Because I’m going crazy over here with all this cognitive dissonance and binary opposition and whatnot and what have you.”
As the kids say, Can’t a sister live?
I know Twelve Years a Slave is not going to live up to my lofty expectations; no movie can do what I’ve been waiting for since I saw Roots back when I was nine years old. That was a big moment for me, but now, I look back and see a campy miniseries. That was all I had then, though, and I’m grateful. It did its job for the child I was. But I’m a woman now. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about this country.)
Roots was about racial reconcilation, and many black films have continued that tradition, but Steve McQueen has expressly stated that his film is not trying to “start a conversation about race” and for that, I applaud him. One of the biggest issues with American audiences today is that they expect to feel good after seeing a film about black history. This is what black art is supposed to do, right? It should teach. It should uplift. It should make you cry but not too much so that when you leave the theater you might feel sad, but you feel admiration for what black folks have gone through. That’s why so many of those movies have those Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks.
And if you are a Nice White Liberal Person, in addition, you are supposed to feel guilty about the crimes of your ancestors, but never afraid that the present-day descendants of those folks are seething with anger over what was done to their ancestors. Never that.
But you know what? I don’t want to have to consider any of that when I’m watching a film on slavery. I’m just ready to see a real, good movie about some black folks, a film that makes me sigh in relief. I’m ready for a great film that happens to be about people who were enslaved. And I don’t want to be taught something on purpose. (If I want to learn something on purpose, that’s what, like, reading books is for.)
And I definitely don’t want to hear none of them Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks no more. Oh, I am so tired of those.
I just want a story about human beings that happen to be black and enslaved. I just want some art. And that’s what I heard Twelve Years a Slave was. And I’m ready for it. And then, I’m ready for another film like that. And then, another. Just keep them coming.
I wrote the following poem over ten years ago, after listening to John Coltrane’s “Alabama,“ a song he wrote in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an event which resulted in the deaths of four little girls.
At that time, I was living in Talladega, Alabama, only about fifty miles away; that ground carried spilled blood as well. As I listened to Coltrane’s song, I was greatly moved, even though there were no words. I was struck by the wisdom of the ancestors, how they have prepared messages for us before we were born. Today, I just wanted to share the poem I wrote with you, written in a time when I did not understand those messages; today, I do.
Let us remember the names of those children, who are now our ancestors:
Addie Mae Collins
The Book of Alabama: Chapter Coltrane
for Michael S. Harper
I’ve been plagued by spirits visitations
of death fire feeding off sheeted
breath Sometimes I see the bones
of God’s back turned to me
(Hands stroke the lynch knot
and bear the cup I beg to pass
There is no good news I was born
as wood a thrown match cutting
open the five wounds On this ground
I am a minor prophet)
And sometimes I see the loins of God giving
birth to Her son surely there is
prayer in my horn’s throat wine
in redemption I stand on limbo’s
chasm play Each note shouts gospel
(Things ain’t always gone be
this way This is how to get over
Follow the hoot owl witness
There might be consolation on this trail
grace at the tree’s root I’m bound for the other
side of water My feet ain’t meant to dangle)
Lord I know I’ve been changed
The only sound is morning I call You
by the thousand names You have
whispered to me in song
Speak Your red clay promise
that blood cries out rises from ash
that You will not rest on the seventh day
[from Outlandish Blues by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, © 2003.]
A few hours ago, I saw a public service ad online about doing something meaningful for September 11th, which, of course, was a horrible day in American history. So on this day, I’ve decided to celebrate my friend and beloved mentor, the renowned African American poet, educator and activist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez.
She celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday two days ago (on September 9th) and continues to bless us with her astounding poems and her courageous, do-right presence in the world. She is one of the most cherished people in my life. I cannot tell you how much I love her.
And, just as a slight, shallow aside, doesn’t she look really beautiful to be seventy-nine years old?! The picture to the right was taken very recently. And I promise you, she’s just as cute in person and she did not buy that hair, okay? It’s all hers, in its thick, wonderful glory. That’s what living a good life and eating a healthy diet can do, y’all.
I met “Miss Sonia” on the page before I’d met her in person, as if the case with many of us “young”—black poets. She knew my father, as he had been a member of the Black Arts Movement and I had read her germinal volume We a BaddDDD People, which had been published by Broadside Press, the same press (then) of my father.
Sidebar: I don’t know how “young” I am anymore, but I still feel like a girl around Miss Sonia. She can do that to you, and you must always remember your manners around her. At least, I do.
And so, when I finally met her in the flesh in my teens—I was sixteen or seventeen—at a small gathering at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was a bit surprised at how tiny Miss Sonia was. I was expecting a much, much bigger person to match the huge voice in her poetry, not the tiny-boned, petite woman I encountered. But she was commanding in an almost overwhelming way when she spoke to me. Her air was one both of graciousness and gravitas.
Thirteen or so years later, I saw her again at Cave Canem, the workshop retreat for African American poets. It was the summer of 1998 in upstate New York, and I believe that in a few years, scholars of black poetry will write about that summer, not because I was there—I’m not being modest, just honest—but because of the collection of black poets who were.
Cave Cavem had been founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, well-known poets. Elizabeth Alexander was there as faculty, as was Lucille Clifton—another woman who became beloved to me—and Michael S. Harper. The author and editor Eugenia Collier was there as special guest. And several of the fellows present that year are published poets now, including Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Shara McCallum, Kate Rushin, John Keene, Reginald Harris, Monica A. Hand, and R. Erica Doyle.
I was walking down the hallway of the monastery (where the retreat was heldthat year) when I approached the open door of Miss Sonia’s room. Out of respect for the privacy of a famous person, I kept my head down and tried to pass, but her voice snagged me.
“Hello, my dear sister,” she called out.
My southern home training required a polite exchange but I didn’t want to act like a “groupie,” nor did I want to trade on her past acquaintance with my father—already, I’d caught some shade from my contemporaries for being a “second” generation black poet. I poked my head in, tentatively.
“Hello, Ms. Sanchez. How are you?”
“I’m well, my dear sister. And you?”
“I’m good, thank you.”
She asked my name. Now, I really was in a quandary, and sure enough, when she heard “Jeffers,” she said, “Ah, Lance’s daughter!” She even remembered our first meeting, over a decade before. I was trapped, sucked into the identity of my father, when I was trying to make a name for my own self.
But the next few days weren’t so bad. In fact, they were life-altering. Her poetry reading that week ties as one of the best I’ve ever experienced—it ties with the one Miss Lucille gave that same week. When Miss Sonia read, it was like being in church. No, it was like being in church during revival week, with a full gospel choir, and fried chicken and lemon pound cake afterward, in the fellowship hall.
Over the years, Miss Sonia has become my good friend and my mentor, and I call her about once a month. Mostly, I pretend I’m calling to “check on” her, but really, I’m just calling to hear that voice, that combination of stern, no-nonsense and tender nurturing.–I remember the first time she said she was proud of me, I burst into tears. Right there on the phone. Yes, I should have been ashamed at my display. But no, I was not. I’d been waiting a long time for her to say those words.
Sometimes, I must admit, I do still marvel that I am sharing conversations and laughter with—and receiving wisdom from—one of my literary heroes, and I do have “groupie” moments, like when she calls The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison simply “Toni”. My heart sort of stops a couple of seconds every time that happens and I have to suppress a little squeal. I can’t lie. I mean, Toni. Morrison. But mostly, I just love to hear Miss Sonia’s voice and the way she draws out “hey” like a Birmingham, Alabama lady when she knows it’s me on the phone. And how she calls me “my dear sister” and makes me feel, well, dear.
If you don’t know who Miss Sonia is, here are some links for you to “refresh yourself,” in the words of another dear black woman. (My mother.) I hope that Miss Sonia’s words will bless your day the way she blesses mine, whenever I call her and she answers the phone.
Teachable Racial Moment (“Twerking” Late Edition): Forget Miley Cyrus. It’s ALL About Katherine Dunham.
For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Miley Cyrus’s VMA—ahem—performance, which included her attempt at the African/American dance called “twerking,” and which apparently convinced a lot of people that it was okay for women (of any race) without rhythm to try anything that involved booty-shaking.
There were a lot of parents upset that their Disney-loving kids were exposed to Miley’s sexualized antics with a man dressed like Willy Wonka on Crack Having Misplaced His Bifocals, a Big Football Finger, and Several Giant Stuffed Animals, not necessarily in that order.
But my personal favorite discussion about “twerking” was an article giving a scientific explanation of how to “twerk,” by a physician who clearly didn’t know how to “twerk,” and who might be shepherding someone into a serious and permanent physical injury. I mean, dang.
However, what has been interesting is that, in the middle of all this ink (or whatever it is, now that we don’t use ink anymore) generated about Miley and the “phenomenon” of twerking nobody has gone on record saying what needs to be said: how come black folks think “twerking” is a dance that sisters made up in the strip clubs to earn money and don’t know that West African women have been dancing like this for hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of years, and not for “nasty” purposes, either?
So black folks, don’t blame Miley for getting it wrong, because you got it wrong first. Blame yourselves and your own lack of cultural and historical memory.
That’s right. We are responsible for that white girl getting up on TV disrespecting and bastardizing African American culture. This is one of those “yes, I said it” moments. And I’ll say it again until the wheels fall off.
Now, let’s continue to the educational breakdown.
Decades ago in the twentieth century, there was a genius black choreographer named Katherine Dunham. She has been called the “matriarch of black dance,” and she introduced West African dance to North America. Honestly, she is as important to American dance history as Twyla Tharp.
Dunham influenced generations of black and white choreographers. Most importantly, Dunham helped to create respect for the field of dance influenced by the African Diaspora and its spiritual and cultural practices. Dunham pioneered the Western dance concept of “isolation”—keeping one part of the body still while moving another—and incorporating fluid pelvic moves into mainstream dance.
Pelvic moves. Sound familiar?
But those moves were ancient and Dunham just made them modern. They were West African dance moves. Moves that had been expressed for hundreds of years. Moves that were brought over on the Middle Passage, the journey of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. For example, while in Senegal, I saw “twerking” at a wedding being set up outdoors. No one treated it as “naughty” at all, either—or “American.”
Many of us blacks who have seen Dunham’s version of West African dance here on the stages of college auditoriums, community centers, gymnasiums—or in a Hip Hop video—have no idea that what we are witnessing are Diasporic expressions that she worked for nearly seventy years to bring to us and thus, reconnect us with our culture from across the water.
You know what white people do with their profound, European cultural expressions from across the Atlantic?
Well, if it’s a dance performance, they have other white people who carefully guard the particulars of the choreography, write articles about the history of the choreographer, give money to organizations so the dance can be performed, and then, dress up in expensive outfits to go see that dance performed. Like, on the stage at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Here’s a little list of those beloved European ballets: Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. We’ve all heard of those. But how many of us have heard of Dunham’s Treemonisha or Fantasie Négre?
And forget about Lincoln Center. You know what black folks do in gratitude for Dunham’s tireless work that eventually landed her in a wheelchair (because of dance-related injuries)? We take all that hard work and her African and Caribbean anthropological research, not to mention her deep spirituality—check out this little clip of her choreographed dance “Shango,” based on a spiritual ritual for a West African Orisha—we put some twists into it, and we take it to the strip club.
The. Strip. Club. I’m just going to let that marinate with y’all for a few seconds.
And for those without a “Magic City” nearby so brothers can make it rain on women they have no kindness or respect for, there is Youtube, where collectives like The Twerk Team use variations of their ancestors’ movements to dance to a trashy Negro’s rapping, “[Insert expletive noun for female dog] sit on my [insert expletive noun for male genitalia.]”
And no, I’m not going to link to The Twerk Team. Don’t even ask me to. Don’t even.
Certainly, Miley Cyrus looked “besides like a fool” on the VMAs, to borrow one of my grandmother’s expressions. She needed to go put some clothes on and consult her therapist, her mama, or both the next time she decided to jump up on stage. And what she was doing was about as close to “twerking” as an elephant on stilts trying to execute a plie. (Actually, I’m surprised there wasn’t an elephant on stage, since she had everything and everybody else up there.)
But Miley Cyrus believed she had the right to steal our dance moves because African Americans have not documented, archived, funded—making it rain don’t count—respected or protected our centuries-old African dance expressions the same way Americans of European descent have done for their culture from “the old country.”
Even if you have no money, you can read. And you can voice opposition to the constant sexualization and degradation of black cultural practices, which never ends well for us.
We black folks discard our cultural power, then get mad at white people for “cultural theft.” Certainly, in the past it may have been “theft.” But these days, it’s not. These days, it’s laziness on our part, and it’s our allowing the worst, trashiest elements to take over our cultural expressions because we don’t want to be “classist.” But it does not take a so-called “high socio-economic status” person to cherish our culture. It simply takes black self-respect and self-preservation.
Miley Cyrus has no respect for the profundity of black cultural expression—but why should she? What investment does she have in our culture? And didn’t she used to be a country singer? How many times have you seen a white country musician lift up his banjo and say, “did y’all know this is an African instrument?”
Miley recognizes power when she sees it, and she knows enough to exploit it. We black folks cannot throw a five-dollar bill on the ground and then get mad because someone else picks it up and puts it in the bank. And in this case, with “twerking”—or, more accurately, “traditional West African dance,”—it’s not a five-dollar bill we’ve discarded. It’s a piece of gold. And if Miley sells enough records, quite possibly, it could be a piece of platinum.
Two days ago, Twitter was all aflutter with online discussions concerning inequality towards women of color in the mainstream feminist community. In light of that discussion, I’d like to repost a piece I wrote (and presented here) three years ago. I thought to wait until actual Women’s Equality Day, but I thought it might be best to post immediately–a couple weeks early–and I sincerely hope it puts some of the recent discussions into historical context.
“The Truth About Women’s Equality Day”
(first posted on August 26, 2010)
I was reminded this morning that today is Women’s Equality Day. On August 26, 1920 American women were granted the right to vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. And indeed, this is a great day in history.
However, for Black women in this country, it’s not really a day that we can celebrate as a definitive moment. Because actually, to put it bluntly, this day is White Women’s Equality Day, the day they were given the right to vote. But technically, Black women didn’t become “equal” until the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965.
Why? Because Black women were specifically excluded from the U.S. Women’s suffrage movement in the nineteenth century. The early leaders of the movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, felt that the inclusion of Black women in their movement would hinder it.
In particular, Stanton was against paralleling voting rights for Black men, the Irish, Germans, and Chinese people with the White women’s struggle. She wrote in The Revolution, a publication in the nineteenth century, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”
I hope you know who Sambo is, y’all.
This racism in the movement angered Sojourner Truth, a tireless warrior for racial and gender justice in America; Sister Truth had been working with Anthony and Stanton, but then got ghost when she realized they wanted her to do the work but not reap the profits.
Later, in the early twentieth century, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett decided to start her own African American Suffragist organization in Chicago called the Alpha Suffrage Club, but at the major Suffragist march on March 3, 1913, the White organizers tried to convince Ida B. Wells-Barnett to march at the back of the procession.
Sister Wells-Barnett replied, “”I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.” Nobody saw her at the march, so they thought she had gone home, but when her delegation started down Pennsylvania avenue, she rolled right in there and marched with the other—White—suffragists from Illinois.
Most of you–of all complexions– reading this already know this history. But for Black women, this history is personal. It’s the major reason that it’s so hard for us to embrace feminism, and to embrace issues identified as feminist. It’s why it’s so hard for us to trust women outside of our community, and sometimes, even within, in the name of “female solidarity.” It’s easier for us to focus on the fight against racism because that’s been a consistent struggle within our fences.
Surely, in the Black community, we Sister have been told to put our own desires and needs—and yes, survival—to the side—because we have to consider Brothers first. But that’s only part of the issue.
The other issue is, nobody in the feminist movement is sincerely looking out for Women of Color, either. There’s been a good game talked, but when the stakes are high and Black women look behind them to see which White feminists have their back, all we hear is the wind. And in that wind, we hear the empty refrain, “Women, women, women.” But, we don’t hear anything acknowledging our specific identity as African American. Let’s not even talk about how the other groups of Women of Color are treated.
For example, recently, during the presidential campaign, we saw Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro take off after Barack Obama in The New York Times and make the campaign a “Black man vs. White Woman” issue; neither woman took the time to consider how hurtful this public discussion would be for us Black women, who had never had a chance to see even one person who looked like us in The White House, let alone two.
By the way, Gloria Steinem is the GODMOTHER of the only child of Alice Walker (the African American author of the The Color Purple).
At one dinner before a poetry reading, I was accosted by two young White female graduate students (who I had been having a great time talking to, by the way). They demanded to know who I was supporting for the presidential election. When I replied, “Barack Obama,” they smirked at each other and said to me, they thought so. It was clear that Black women always chose race over gender, they said.
I told them, “First, considering Hilary Clinton’s ‘Hardworking, White Americans’ statement it’s clear she’s choosing race over gender.”
“And second,” I said, “I have breasts and a vagina, but mine are brown, so you know, I can’t choose between race and gender.” (Yes, I actually said that.)
At another reading dinner, an elderly White woman angrily told me what Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro had already argued in The New York Times, that Barack Obama would never have been president if he had been a Black woman. She went on and on, to the point where I thought I would burst into tears. And I wondered, did she even see me? Did she understand just who she was talking to?
Then, I sucked it up, because if I was that angry, I wonder how upset Ida B. Wells-Barnett was, when they tried to make her march at the back of the procession.
In the aftermath of these reopened wounds, there need to be an acknowledgement of racism in the American feminist movement and a concerted effort made by White feminists to self-police. And there needs to be a real gesture toward healing. Notice that Hillary Clinton hasn’t once made an overture toward Black women to try to resolve her hurtful actions. Visiting Black churches and clapping off beat do not constitute healing. And let’s not even start talking about Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro and what they need to do. Where do I begin?.
So, I don’t celebrate Women’s Equality Day today, because contrary to popular mainstream American opinion, Women includes all American women, not just White ladies.
But I do celebrate those women who made this day possible for me, a Black woman. I give the credit to my Sister-ancestors on this day, like Sister Truth and Sister Wells-Barnett—not a day of equality, but a day where I at least have the right to talk about how it’s not equal. And I think that’s a good compromise, considering.
Most of y’all know that I am writing a book of poetry on Phillis Wheatley. I’ve been talking about it forever, and I’m furiously working on it right now, along with my novel.
Wondering how I am working actively on not one but two books and giving both my all? Caffeine! I’m not playing with y’all. I rise early in the morning on most days, drink some black tea, power down to green tea for noon, and then I get it going until I pass out in the mid-afternoon. It’s going well, believe it or now, but now, I’m wearing my hair in a ponytail every day and my house is looking like Who Shot John. And who has time to fold laundry and commune with the Muse at the same time? Not this Miss Lady.
Anyway, four years ago this summer, I read letters between Timothy Fitch, the owner of the slave ship Schooner Phillis and Peter Gwinn, the captain of the ship, which is assumed to be the ship that brought the child who would be Phillis Wheatley into Boston Harbor; the letters were on the Medford (Massachusetts) Historical Society website.
Here’s a link to the letter that sent me on this four-year journey to write a full poetry book on the life and times of Phillis Wheatley. (After I had been writing poems on her already for a previous four years. You do the math!)
I have my personal, sweet angel, a librarian at the American Antiquarian Society in Wooster, Massachusetts to thank for pulling this slave trade letter up–just like that!—on my laptop back in 2009. She’s a genius.
As I finish up this book–God willing–I’ll be sharing little tidbits on the blog from my journey of writing about this time, which has been very educational and even more emotional–lots of tears, because you can’t write about black folks and the eighteenth century and not write about the Middle Passage and the horror of slavery.
But now, the good news is that in the middle of those tears, I met my husband in Senegal while doing research for this book, and let me tell you, this man has provided a sturdy shoulder for me to cry on when the research for the book has led me to some painful, ancestral places.
By the way, there is no known illustration of the Schooner Phillis. The picture that I have included above is of the Brookes slave ship. (It is spelled both with an “e” and without in historical writings.) There are several other illustrations of the Brookes that were used by eighteenth-century British abolitionists to bring home the human atrocities of slavery. Here is the most well-known and commonly used illustration of that ship.
Now you know what you were wearing on your t-shirt back in the day. Don’t you feel good knowing?!–And don’t worry, I’ll talk a bit about the Brookes at a later date.