There are elements of feminism that I share and elements which I reject. I saw an episode of Black-ish that summed it up for me. The show portrays with great humour, the life, experiences and concerns of a middle class African-American family making its way in the world. In one very interesting episode, there is a moment of tension centred around the fact that Bow, the mother of the family, is wants to get her husband Dre a plate of food, while hiding it from her feminist mother. Bow’s mom catches her in the act, and admonishes her for her ‘old fashioned behaviours’ which she says are setting a bad example for her young daughters. Dre’s aunt, an elderly African-American woman, interrupts to defend this simple act, which she describes with great poetry, as being practiced by the women of her generation as a way of restoring a sense of dignity to their husbands who experienced consistent insult and hostility in the world. It was in fact, the way women said ‘I see you and you matter’ to men who in the workplace, were treated as less then human.
To begin with, this made it clear, that any feminism that ignores the complex identities and struggles of African, Caribbean, Asian, Latino and even poor white communities, renders itself useless for people who are not white and wealthy. This is why womanism is essential – to help us to understand how issues of gender and race combine to multiply the burdens placed upon women of colour. We have different dynamics that have to be considered. How clear cut are the answers when the men in your community face oppression on the basis of race and/or class and women face the multiplication of gender, racial and/or class injustice? The issue of justice becomes multi-layered.
It also reminded me that neither women nor men exist in isolation, so to discuss how women can flourish, demands that we look at men and women together. As I watched this episode, it reminded me of the many times I saw my mom make my dad a plate. She never felt burdened by this; it was second nature for her to take care of him in this way and he was appreciative of it. But the truth is that my dad loves to cook! On many occasions my dad has beamed as he listens to us compliment what he has spent ages creating and preparing for us to eat. My mom and dad demonstrated a kind of synergy, taking it in turns to ‘make plates’. It taught us why concrete roles do not work – a couple and a family needs flexibility to be able to cope with the different challenges and seasons of life. Men and women need to be responsive to the needs of the other, so that each can find the space to grow and evolve into who they truly are.
So I will be a womanist over being a feminist any day of the week. This is about freeing all women from all kinds of oppression which prevent us from flourishing as people crafted by God’s own hands. It liberates all of us, when women can stand confidently in their own skin as individuals, in relationships or families and society as a whole. It’s about creating a world where instead of being pressured by external expectations or an idealistic role, I can freely choose to make a plate for someone I love, and someone else can recognise that I also deserve to have someone make a plate for me more often than not.
He looked at me like I was car he wanted to steal, to take his time to break through the security systems and drive me off to an undisclosed location. He told me he loved me too soon – like a crow bar slipped between metal plates, he was deaf to the alarm that was blaring in my ears warning me of his far from noble intentions. He didn’t know that to love was not to possess another but to liberate them; and he was woefully unprepared for the cacophony of my freedom. When he told me I was everything he was looking for I know he believed it, but in truth I was that, and too much more. The more that would be sliced, chopped and squashed into the mould he’d pre-prepared for ‘his woman’. Confused by my refusal to wear the dresses and lipstick he had chosen, he grew increasingly distraught as it dawned on him that I was correct when I told him he had never met a woman like me in his life, but it wasn’t in the way he had hoped. I’m sure other women had confirmed that his current approach would get him what he wanted; to own and use and eat his fill. But today he learned new lessons.
I am glad he asked me if I would ‘get my body back’ after giving birth to our hypothetical children, because it was then I realized that he would always ask for more no matter how much I gave. This unintended confession alerted me to the knowledge that to build a life with him would equal a slow suffocation allotted to those who love generously, partners who are fluent in love of self but ill-prepared for the sacrificial love of another. Being a man of significant means, he was wrongly (and sadly) convinced that the status it afforded him warranted my trust and commitment. He did not seem to recognize that having money in the bank did not make him a good catch when the bill for his affection was a price no woman should afford and I would refuse to pay. When what he wanted was to exchange my soul’s joy and life’s purpose for his luxury homewares and designer clothes – I decided to keep hold of my laughter and buy my own. He told me once that men from his culture never cooked, I said that was strange and asked if they were known to eat. When he notified me that in fact he hired a chef to cook his meals for the week I was intrigued. He continued to explain that he was too busy to cook but when he got married his wife would handle it all. I heard the word ‘would’ as he held my gaze and the tension began to climb up my spine. By his eye contact I knew that he was giving a command that he hoped would sit like a seed in my mind, to produce the fruit he would later consume with great delight. As he stared at me, I tried to remember the last time someone had given me an instruction the way he had done, with the subtly of a glare. I knew in my own mind, that to allow myself to be tied to this man, but be to infantilise myself, giving the freedom of my maturity over in exchange for a second childhood. I never saw him again.
She gave her heart
To the man who took second place in her imagination,
The almost-but who held the hope of love but not its substance.
Each morning she woke from first place dreams of destiny to live the disappointing reality of Mr X.
What ifs robbed her peace.
But be grateful, her mother told her, to wake up next to regret rather than empty space.
She glimpsed the passion that had held her soul like a pillar to the ground, but in a flicker – gone.
Blown out by whispered anxieties and silent screaming anger,
Drowned in the shouts from this shell of promise who still found the gall to demand his kingship.
She had waited, now he did, for the birth of the remedy which choked her with the cord that gave him life.
Each stolen breath quickened her suffocation – the end of her hope for a new future; white and clean and unmade.
Love, they said, was hard work
But enslavement they did not warn her of.
May each woman know the curve of her own waist and the sturdiness of her ankles.
May she familiarise herself with the thoughts that grow like delicate shoots and sturdy oak trees in the field of her mind.
May she be certain of what sets her heart aflame whether for love or anger and be attentive to the sound of the alarms.
May she be confident of the divinity engrained in her bones by her creator, remembering her head is adorned with a crown of his words.
May she claim as her own the scars that decorate her frame like diamonds and prove that she has overcome.
That she may dance on beds of scorpions without fear of their sting, and silence the hissing snake by the power of her countenance.
So when alone she knows herself to be in the company of a legend and is proud to sing boldly without accompaniment.
That she may walk with friend and lover through the gallery of her soul, explaining to all the art of her existence.