During my childhood in the Deep South — surrounded by antebellum homes, plantations and the residual psychological, physiological and emotional damage of slavery — being called a “woman” was almost considered an insult. “Woman” implied something basic, crude, unfinished — a woman was nothing if she wasn’t a “lady.”
A “lady” understood the pivotal role she played in the lives of her family and community. She was educated with a clear understanding of Black history in America. She was a civic activist who pushed for societal reform without ever sacrificing her femininity; and she never, ever, ever, engaged in casual sexual experiences — not merely because she was painfully aware of the stereo-typical depictions of Black women as whores and Jezebels, but because she also understood that her body was her temple, not to be sullied by the random hands of those who didn’t respect it’s intrinsic value.
After years of soaking in the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, then broadening my scope to Gloria Steinem and Carol Hanisch, I came to the startling realization that “ladyship” was a manipulative creation of men who wanted to define womanhood on their terms, contextualizing the sacred-feminine into a subservient box labeled “My Property.” As a “lady” who had fiercely wrestled with the unapologetic stranglehold of ethnic oppression side-by-side with African-American men from Jena, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California, this was a lightening-rod moment in my evolution as a feminist. I began to slowly inch away from “race” issues, segueing into more aggressive language in my denouncement of patriarchy as opposed to the racialized institution of America at-large.
I joined in the ranks of feminists who believe that sex is just science, abortion is just a medical procedure and love is just a fable. I chuckled with them at the pathetic lives of “ladies” with their archaic morality who would never know what it meant to be the captains of their own fate, forever yoked to men who would never hand over the wheel. I can say with no hesitation nor regret that it has been exhilarating to both narrow and broaden my focus to women’s issues, joining a global sisterhood that faces mirror image challenges not dependent upon race, religion or economic status, and I remain dedicated to the fight for women liberation around the world; still, I experienced a cognitive dissonance that I’ve only recently been able to define:
I’m still very much that “lady.”
I know too many exceptional men to demonize the whole as the masterminds of a vast patriarchal plot; I’ve witnessed too often the crushing marginalization and disenfranchisement of the African-American community, and I refuse to place that battle on the back-burner, shouldering the broader mantle of feminism instead. I am passionately pro-choice, while still respecting the possibility of an instant connection between mother and unborn child that transcends science. I believe that my body is still sacred and that sex is a gift to be given and received between two people who at the very least have a basic respect for each other and know how to spell each other’s last names.
More importantly, after doing deep introspection while writing “Three White “Hoes” and Betty White: The Unspoken Double Standard,” I realized that feminism in the Black community has very different textures than it does in the White community, and that, I, as a Black woman, do not have the luxury of shrugging off my ethnicity. Equality, not just for women, but for Black and Brown people around the globe must be achieved; it is critical war that must be fought parallel to eradicating the dehumanizing subjugation and violence that plague all women — and that fact can neither be diminished nor ignored.
In Brenda Verner’s 1994 article, The Power and Glory of Africana Womanism, she states with blinding clarity this budding feeling that’s unfurling within me:
“Africana Womanism in essence says: We love men. We like being women. We love children. We like being mothers… We want families and harmonious relationships. We are not at war with our men seeking money, power and influence through confrontation. Our history is unique. We are the inheritors of African-American women’s history, and as such we shall not redefine ourselves nor that history to meet some politically correct image of a popular culture movement, which demands the right to speak for and redefine the morals and mores of all racial, cultural and ethnic groups.”
This masterfully describes a movement that I believe is taking root among Black feminists, and it is not to be divisive, but to be true to our culture, our heritage and our experiences, while not sacrificing our independence and diversity. This school of thought illuminates that color-blind feminism is a myth and that we can no more shed our “Blackness” than our vaginas. Our scope of activism encompasses our men, our children, our community, as well as ourselves — the historical definition of what is often patronizingly referred to as being a “lady.”
While this may be true — and I own it with the blood, sweat and tears of the many great ladies throughout our collective history that came before me — in the words of sister Sojourner Truth:
“Ain’t I still a woman?”
*Artwork by Dawn Okoro