The Joy(s) of Being A (Black) Woman

18 Apr

I taught a class of Black Women’s Stories this semester and it culminated in a moment of clarity and a recognition of joy. When speaking with a black woman scholar whom I both admire and respect, I shared some of my concerns about the course and how while the stories are certainly powerful, many narratives of black womanhood concentrate on pain, including my own.  I shared that I was excited about the class because it allowed me to collect all of my favorite black girl/woman stories and teach them—teach myself—but that I did not want anyone to walk away feeling like black womanhood is an altogether negative experience/reality.

After acknowledging the importance that such a class exist, particularly in an institution that might otherwise render black womanhood invisible and insignificant, my mentor asked a poignant question: “What about the joy of being a black woman?”  She said, “With all the struggles attached I have never wanted to be anything other than a black woman.  I have never wanted to be a man.  And I have never wanted to be white.”

While I had escaped penis envy all my life, as a child I did wish for whiteness—though my memory does not distinguish if it was the skin or the privilege attached to it that I most longed for. 

My mentor challenged me to have my students read a story about the deliciousness of black womanhood and not just the struggle/s and oppression/s.  When I asked what book she was talking about she had no answer, but I realized that every book written by a black woman about being a black woman contains this bliss—even though it is sometimes hidden and tucked around survival and sacrifice.  I realized that the things and women we read, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Joan Morgan, Cheryl Clarke, Ntozake Shange, Rebecca Walker, Meri Danquah, Patricia Hill Collins, Marita Golden and others, were writing about being (fully feeling/loving/embracing/learning) black and female.  An acknowledgment of the discrimination is not a rejection of all that we are.

While there was a repetition of pain fostered in an inability to not break (resisting or embracing strongblackwomanhood) stereotypes, ambivalence about love/relationships/life, witnessing  loveless partnership, experiencing passionless sex, fearing forced celibacy and loneliness, the inner workings of incest, anger, secrets shared, abandonment, mama and daddy issues, and depression…we read a range of pieces from my life.  “Strongblackwomen” “in search of our mothers’ gardens” with “home girls” fighting “the myth of the superwoman” and declaring “a black feminist statement” while “using anger to respond to racism” and finding the need to face ourselves in our sisters, “eye to eye.”  Dreaming of “blue eyes” and “the days of good looks” when “lesbianism was an act of resistance.” “Lusting for freedom,” pouring balm on “wounds of passion” while the “willow wept for me,”…with me, I found myself in “Sula” because she wanted to make herself, not somebody else, just like me– and fought off “whitegirls” “shifting” through “bone black” ashes on my brown black skin and fighting with and for “endangeredblackmen,” realizing finally that this experience was “For Strong Women” and “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

From Barbara Smith’s Introduction to Home Girls to Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought to Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider to Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost we analyzed black women’s experiences of discrimination but also her experiences of joy.  Pleasure.  Power. Love.

I asked my students to go back to every thing we had read and pull out the joy!  The joy of being a black woman.  And we assembled in a classroom circle calling out how the stories teach black girls to be unapologetically themselves and find joy in friendships and relationships with other black women, even unconventional black women.  How romantic relationships begin with hope and anticipation, anxious waiting and “good love” and good lovin even if it sometimes ends.  About sisterhood and friendship and moments of escape and dreams—finding love, inspiring love, writing love, loving yourself, being erotic in every endeavor and enjoying life. Finding power, yes power, and loving black men (and women) as friends (and lovers) and the good side of mothering—and art as an escape and poetry as a medium and being sexual and sexy “like a grown woman” before you are grown and how blackness defines blackness and there is pride and purpose in being a black woman feminist revolutionary. Being free and beautiful in your own self. Moving to music and making love through song, we found black women to be innovators, spiritual healers, inheriting creativity and security and using tears and each other to move forward and on.

I can borrow their words or use my own but we realized in that moment that all along we had been reading about joy, hidden beneath pain, in the everyday experiences of being a woman of color.  It was beautiful and telling. And above all JOYFUL!

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6 Responses to “The Joy(s) of Being A (Black) Woman”

  1. Danielle April 18, 2011 at 1:45 PM #

    Thanks for this! This is a great idea for a class and I wish more schools had ones like it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a bi-racial woman who identifies as black more but was raised more than half my life by a white woman (10 to present, 23), I have gone through a lot of thinking about where my experiences fit in on the scale of other black womens. My father was an amazing black man who always told me to proud to be a black woman, to not conform and change myself for white norms, to always know my heritage and embrace it. My mother, without the experience of a black woman, still allowed me to develop my unique identity and always supported me the best she could. As I get older I realize more, I have been given the privilege of whiteness through my mother at times, but I myself have never been viewed as a white woman by those around me. So I affirm my experiences as that of a black woman who understands much of the bi-racial experience as well. Even with my varying forms (or lack of) privilege. I am also not straight (bi-sexual, pansexual, whatever helps people understand a bit better), atheist, and “radical” (read black feminist leaning towards more collective forms of economy and governing). With all this, its been hard to find others to identify with and be accepted by. Massachusetts has a small black population and my location and upbringing often leaves me feeling isolated from black women and white women alike. I have experienced penis envy and have wanted to be white plenty of times when younger.

    But with all that being said, my own joy comes from the struggle to constantly be myself. Its been hard feeling like an outcast, alone, strange, undesirable, or estranged from some women. Its also been awesome knowing who I am, what I stand for, the kinds of people of I want in my life, who I can love and stand with, the kinds of justice I want to see and strive towards. All my struggles have helped mold me and have also helped me consistently stay true to myself. I will not change to make you more comfortable. I will not be ashamed of who I am anymore. I will always be proud of who I am, while still acknowledging I can be wrong and make mistakes and do stupid shit. I think this is my joy in being a black woman. Not having to apologize for being who I am. For having my own experience. For loving and caring for and believing in what I want to believe in. The writers you named have a lot of that too, knowing that their experiences give a unique perspective to what could improve the human experience and also what makes it so difficult. Despite all of the pain and struggle, each of us know intimately how much that makes us who we are, coming out alive in spite of it is what is joyful. Being able to speak, teach, learn, listen, and continue, in whatever condition it may be, is a joy. The things we go through as women of color around the world could make some people cripple and crumble under the pain. And some women do, sadly and understandably. But without trying to emphasize a strong woman stereotype, I still see that as a beauty in resilience, in strength, and in just constantly working to stay true to who we know we are. Without speaking for anyone else, this is what I see as some of the joys of being a black woman.

  2. Asha April 18, 2011 at 8:38 PM #

    Yes yes yes! Thank you for writing this post. I love that you and your students discovered joy in the very places we go to look for narratives of trauma. I wish could have been a fly on the wall during one of those conversations. This was necessary today. Thank you. I’m reading for exams now and I am inspired to notice all the joy in these texts that I love.

  3. Guzelk April 19, 2011 at 1:20 PM #

    The BEST class I ever took was African American Women Lit class. The teacher was Vashta Lewis and it was an amazing experience. We read wonderful things about the Joy of being a black woman. Without her I (who understands most things and is above average intelligence) would have never understood Beloved, one of my favorite books of all time. Since i am a teacher i have shared the joy i found in that class with many, many students. Dr. Lewis died shortly after i took the class. I count myself blessed for having had her as an instructor. I am sure your students feel the same.

  4. travelling womanists April 19, 2011 at 1:34 PM #

    thanks so much for this insightful piece. i enjoy the fact that many of my experiences as a black woman are positive and that i can work alongside my friends and family to understand the positive and negative aspects of being we. I hope to read more pieces like this that celebrate not only the joy that we find within pain but the joy that we can easily identify because it is clear and present and positive.

  5. Kjen April 20, 2011 at 10:34 AM #

    A cool concept post and class. Thanks for also pointing out how the joy co-existed with the sad times, because I know I have deliberately bypassed books and movies when I thought it was just focusing on the pains and hardships of life.
    I think Ta-nehisi Coates said something along the lines of if people just focused on the negative that is normally highlighted they would think that we/Black people/Black women SHOULD be depressed and dang near suicidal. But life isn’t like that. It’s a mix of pain and pleasure, love and hatred, and yes, even joy.

  6. Lynx May 3, 2011 at 6:34 PM #

    I have just finished reading Sula and my favorite part was Nel’s speech where she declares that the worst thing about her husband leaving her is that it means sex will be denied to her.

    She found joy in sex and owned it in her darkest hour.

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