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!