Black Womanhood is a Spectrum

When I was younger, I used to believe that Black womanhood was solely synonymous with strength. After all, I was raised by a single mother who always stressed the importance of being strong in the midst of adversity, since that’s what she had become accustomed to while trying to raise three children alone. She believed that she had to be strong because single mothers encountered challenges on a daily basis and they couldn’t let their children see them sweat. This insurmountable strength was necessary not for herself, but for her children who looked to her to fulfill the duties of superwoman since the other parent was not present.

My mother made it her goal to pass on these same values to my sister and I while we were growing up. The essence of Black womanhood, in her opinion, was unshakable strength and self-reliance. We were taught that we shouldn’t rely on anything or anyone but God and that if we wanted our dreams to come true, WE had to make them happen. Life had taught her that she must fight for the things that she needed and wanted as a Black woman because people weren’t always dependable. She didn’t want us to have to endure the same struggles that she had to go through, so her vehement message to us was that independence and strength were necessary tools for a Black woman to lead a successful life.

For so long, I believed that these were the only tools that Black women needed and used them in my own life. Though I was born in an impoverished area and attended schools that had inadequate resources,
I was determined to be resilient and assert my independence. I excelled by coming into contact with organizations, such as the Memphis PREP Program, that exposed me to a variety of educational and networking opportunities. When it came time for college applications, I filled them out and mailed them off myself because like mama said, if I wanted something to happen I had to make it happen myself. Ultimately, I attended Vanderbilt University and became the first person from my immediate family to graduate from college.

Once I graduated, I was sure that what got me through an institution like Vanderbilt was my strength. Talk about overcoming a wide set of challenges! It was here that everything I had been taught and believed my entire life was tested: resiliency, faith, my intelligence and independence. Though I am a better person because of the experience, I no longer attribute unwavering strength as the thing that got me through my struggles. It would be untrue to say that I kept on strong with things despite my circumstances. I wanted to quit and contemplated doing so at different points throughout the four years. It would be untrue to say that my self-reliance got me through my obstacles. I wouldn’t have graduated without several people who offered guidance and support, including family members, friends, line sisters, professors, and mentors.

After graduation and even today, I still face a variety of challenges as a Black woman living in contemporary society. These challenges have led me to re-think the notion that Black women need to be strong and exactly what encompasses Black womanhood. Strength is definitely an aspect, but it is not the only thing that guides Black women’s efforts. Black womanhood is multifaceted and that’s the beauty of it all. I believe it’s ok for Black women to encounter failures and want to throw in the towel at some point. I believe it’s ok for Black women to not always have the solution to every problem. I believe that it’s ok for Black women to experience an array of emotions including love, anger, hurt, excitement, and fear. I believe it’s ok if we don’t always have it together. I’m thankful for the lessons and values that my mother has passed on to me, but also grateful that I can formulate concepts based on my own experiences as well. Black womanhood, in my opinion, is beauty, strength, resiliency, struggles, failure, wanting to give up at times, sisterhood, dependency, support, weak at moments, sacrifice, fear, and love. Overall, Black womanhood is a beautiful, fluid spectrum of humanity.

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Why There is Still a Need for Black Feminism (in 2014)

“The distorted male-dominated media image of the Women’s Liberation Movement has clouded the vital and revolutionary importance of this movement to Third World women, especially Black women. The movement has been characterized as the exclusive property of so-called White middle-class women and any Black women seen involved in this movement have been seen as selling out, dividing the race, and an assortment of nonsensical epithets. Black feminists resent these charges and have therefore established The National Black Feminist Organization, in order to address ourselves to the particular and specific needs of the larger, but almost cast-aside half of the black race in Amerikkka, the black woman…”

The above excerpt was part of The National Black Feminist Organization’s Statement of Purpose. Founded in 1973 by notable black feminists such as Florynce Kennedy, the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) was designed to give Black women a voice and space to express their struggles. For too long, Black women were put in a unique position where they had to choose their race over their sex in the Civil Rights Movement and their sex over their race in the Women’s Liberation Movement. However, it proved to be virtually impossible to choose one over the other since Black women experienced oppression primarily because of the intersection of their race AND sex.

This concept of Black women facing a “double burden” because of their identities surfaced long before Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” and perhaps has been around since African women were brought to this country. Being both Black AND woman allowed slave masters to rape slave women, exploiting their bodies for an increase in productivity and revenue. Being both Black AND woman allowed states to coerce women into sterilization because of the fear that too many Black babies meant people paying more taxes into the welfare system to support these children. Lastly, being both Black AND woman allowed negative depictions of Black womanhood to be perpetuated in the media, particularly the images of Black women as being hypersexualized, loud and lazy, and the contradictory image of Black women being good “mammies” to White children but unfit mothers to their own.

The founding members of NBFO recognized these struggles and were adamant about seeking the inclusion of Black women in society, since they had often been excluded from movements against racism and movements against sexism. Initially, this seemed like a powerful idea and the organization garnered widespread support from Black women. However, because members could not come to a consensus about strategy and politics, the organization became inoperative in 1977. 37 years after the demise of one of the first organizations to address Black women’s issues in a feminist context, it is sad to say that we, as Black women, haven’t made too many significant strides because we continue to live in a society that thrives off of our marginalization.

In 2014, Black women are still being subjected to sterilization, brutality at the hands of White men (mainly the police), and those same negative images of Black women are still lingering in society. We are still welfare queens, angry bitches, and according to Chris Brown, disloyal hoes. Black women continue to experience oppression because of our “double burden,” as we receive backlash from African American men and White feminists. Within Black communities, we are told that we are using feminism to dehumanize Black men and destroy the Black family and White feminists think we are far too angry and aggressive. Our issues continue to be placed on the back burner and today we can’t even find inclusion in the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative, let alone gain our own space and establish an organization like NBFO. When will enough be enough? It’s time that Black women stop taking a back seat and waiting for a “better time” to address our concerns.

I know I am tired and I’m sure others are. In the words of Audre Lorde, “What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” The time is now to vocalize our experiences and make them known to whoever will listen because our silences never have and never will protect us.

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