Athambile reflects upon the resistence amongst African-American women in the 1800s and how this influences the struggles of black women today.
I’ve been reading a book by Paula Giddings, Where and When I enter: the impact of Blackwomen on race and sex in America. Reading a book about the history of African-American women led me to consider my own narrative of what it has meant becoming a woman at a time when people are rushing towards a post racist society as though history had no bearing on our present.
I first encountered the narrative of resistance amongst African-American women when I read Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a woman”. It’s a stirring piece from a speech she made in 1851. It was the first evidence I saw that slaves in America didn’t accept their fate at the hands of slave owners. They resisted. Understanding the resistance of black women through a slave narrative has widened my perspective on the importance of being a woman and I how I make the rights I have a real life experience. Once upon a time women were at the bottom of the food chain where they were mere objects that could be bought and sold. The children they bore were not their own but they became part of a system where they were sold before they were even born. The assault on women’s bodies has a history beyond what we see in the form of rape and domestic violence today.
When I read about the resistance of black women in Africa, especially South Africa I was moved when I realised that once upon a time black women in South Africa had the status of minors. Their movements and inheritance were dependent upon the sons and male relatives they had in their lives. Prioritising the education of black women has a brief history in relation to how white women were protected and often benefited from systems that oppressed black women.
Knowing what I know about black women who have challenged the limitations placed on them because of their class, gender and race I realise I am not a renegade, I just happen to have read and met other black women who are comfortable in their own skin and know that I can live my life as though I were dancing to the rhythm of my own music. Beyond my home of many mothers (my mother, my aunts and grandmother) who were working class women, loud, big, crass but economically oppressed in a system of apartheid, it wasn’t until high school that I began to realise that there’s another narrative for being black and female in the world. When I started high school I encountered a group of senior girls who set the standard for what it meant to be a “cool black girl”. They oozed confidence and set the standard for what it meant to be a black girl at a time where Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera became popular or black women who resembled the petite femininity we saw on TV that did not reflect what we saw in the mirror.
The senior girls in my school were not the prototype. They were opinionated, smart (they cared about not only passing academically but forming an opinion about what mattered), they laughed out loud, very loud and didn’t listen when teachers told them they were being loud they didn’t toe the line. They were big girls, tall and they had presence when they walked around the school (I didn’t think of them as bullies, except for maybe Soso who had a stinging sense of humour). I moved aside for them in the passage not out of fear because they were seniors but mostly out of awe. And when they spoke to me as though I mattered I became a star-struck junior. They also had wonderful names that were distinct: Navabe (who was many years ahead of me but became infamous for starting a trend of wearing her socks differently and her girdle on her hips much to the teachers’ chagrin) Zoya, Vangile, Ghana (who had the most eccentric dress sense I’d ever seen), Duda (this was actually her surname), Thulani and many others who gave me a different representation of what it means to be black and female in the new South Africa. They were often in trouble for sneaking out of the hostel and drinking when they should have been. They dared to break the rules.
Zoya had dreadlocks even though the school had colonial rules about how we were supposed to wear our hair. They became my example of what it means not to be the norm and to be comfortable in that category. They were nobody’s darlings. I think about them when I read about the resistance of black women in South Africa and African-American women in America and realise that a different resistance took place in my high school. The representation of black female bodies has always been under siege but I am lucky to live in a time where this is being challenged. It’s okay to be loud, opinionated or not. It’s okay to consider being a wife or not. It’s okay to be who I want to be on what I think of as my terms. And when I think about this reality I am drawn to Anne Julia Cooper‘s words: “Only a black woman can say ‘where and when I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole…race enters with me”. She said these words in 1892 when black women in America for fighting for equal rights and ending slavery. These words remind me of the importance of what it means being a black women and the gains that have been made and are yet to be made. Liberating women, in this case black women who are still oppressed, is not about eliminating anyone else. It’s about liberating the human race from sexist, racist, classist ideas that are dangerous for now and future generations. When we consider the history of black women, it’s not enough to consider it through one lens but multiple eyes and consider the complexity of gender, race, sexual orientation and class and recognise the privileges I have: the privilege of being comfortable in my own skin.