She Knew Because She Looked: Africana Womanism
Sometime during my formative years of undergraduate work, I was enrolled in a non-traditional literature course. My instructor was Clenora Hudson-Weems, and her reputation preceded her syllabus. Her presence was intimidating, as she often would hike a foot up on a desk in close proximity to your face and gauge your response. Her hair grew without manipulation, her clothes held to the movement from before, and she jingled to keep syncopation with every head turn, every page turn, every question turned.
It was there in Tate Hall at the University of Missouri that I was to first learn about feminism, and rather quickly, why feminism didn’t define me. I knew immediately and innately that feminism didn’t pair with me. I had never felt subordinate to a man in any way. Up until this part of my life, I rarely had to think of my womanhood aside from puberty and the quickening of my heart around boys with bright teeth and equally bright minds. I never felt helped nor hindered by my gender and in comparison to being Black on a White campus, it seemed an inconsequential state to frame the world. Every familial example in my life showed me that if men were firm and productive soil, it was only because of the whole and complete fertility from women. Myopic as I might have been about the historical plight of women domestically and abroad, the condition of being a woman took a back seat for me to the condition of Black people, Black families, Black children. Feminism didn’t include these caveats, and it was through this course that I realized I needed to think of what that meant for me; more so, what that meant for Black women.
Because the world didn’t and wouldn’t think about Black women at all. The world didn’t and wouldn’t care about me.
Through the course I was introduced to Hurston and Marshall and reintroduced to Morrison and McMillan as a means of identifying and understanding what it means to be a Black woman communally, nationally and globally. This was defined as “Africana Womanism”. At nineteen and still on the cusp of understanding my womanhood and sexuality, I found I could dissect these texts for literary analysis, but the application was awkward and yet–appropriate; akin to the feeling of putting on new shoes when the old previous pair had worn threadbare.
“She knew because she looked.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Each lecture and discussion unlocked an aspect of my being that had been lying dormant, waiting for maturity and development. As with exposure, I began to consciously look at my Black womanhood within the context of the environment I was in. I gained the awareness that though I might be–in this small blip of time–prospering and thriving, there was no guarantee of it continuing in the future. History had already made it difficult for women who looked like me to do so with little ridicule, violence or shame. I felt a great responsibility to claim authenticity of who I was as a Black woman, but felt apprehensive to proclaim it on a campus where both Black and White people were befuddled by my Black face, my micro-braids, and my love for alternative rock. I felt I had limited ability to fellowship with Black men as my own personal pursuits aligned with the dominant culture on campus. These pursuits did not go out of its way to extend welcome to them, and technically did not extend welcome to me, though I dusted my feet on the rug and walked in anyway. I knew my privilege was in part by assimilating into a culture that did not always make room for me, but I for it. I knew it because I had fresh eyes to look and receive this as the state of Black womanhood, the state in which I was born unto.
Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of my Black womanhood on a predominantly white campus began to create descriptors of me that go beyond “friendly” “smart” and “articulate.”
I am authentic, unapologetic and whole.
As my personhood succumbs to increased years, there is a striking realization that being authentic, unapologetic and whole are celebrated on superficial levels by those who maintain power and influence. But for Black womanhood, these attributes are rejected by society vehemently. To be a Black woman from any branch of the diaspora means to appease others (and not self) for preservation of the unstable ego pervasive among traditions of the dominant culture. When appeasement is not enough, it is then the Black woman’s position to fix, to apologize, to cower, or to reconcile. Doing so means to be broken in spirit and mind so that backlash, whiplash or tongue lash does not feel the rip of pain. The benefit of this reward is the hope of being accepted fully within the constructs of both gender and race–a reward that will never be given.
So I take my chances on not receiving the reward of ease and acceptance because I don’t have the privilege of even enjoying it–now I have looked, and now I know. I do, however, take great satisfaction in knowing that interjecting my Black womanhood over marble thresholds makes the prize lackluster.
“I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me.”
― Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Through the insertion of Black womanhood, I work with my community and for my community to dismember the inequalities that reward the subordination of the Black diaspora. The expectation to pacify or comfort the dominant culture in their woes of embracing those who have been subjugated by their un/intentional privilege is not a mantle for me to bear. I do not have the luxury to negate, forget, or remain silent on what it means to be a Black woman as some have the luxury to not think of me at all. With lack of luxury comes the necessity to work fervently with the aim of projecting the truth of the Black woman as a whole and complete being, competent in establishing a remarkable existence.