There are three kinds of people on tube at 6am: holiday makers, people coming from low paid night shifts and people going to high paid day jobs. All of them are missing out on good sleep time, only one of them for something enjoyable – thankfully I am in that category.
This first woman, whose age remains mysterious, is casually dressed in a fleece with flat comfortable shoes and looks like she is on her way back from a cleaning job. I imagine her arriving home, where home is a room which she shares with her husband and two children, because with her wages, even working every hour God sends won’t allow them to live any better. She gets home and out of her work clothes, and lays her head on the mattress for a short moment lying toe to toe with her oldest daughter, awaiting the alarm for school, and for the next shift to begin.
Next to her on the tube, another woman has bags under her eyes to match the dark grey of her designer handbag, and is living I am sure, in quite different conditions. Maybe she has left her partner asleep again in their swanky apartment so she can get an early start. Is he is annoyed that she is not present, is he proud of her focus and ambition, or he has resigned himself to a relationship of passing ships in the night? I imagine she is on the way to a corporate job maybe in finance or the legal sector. She walks with a sense of pride into her office, knowing she has earned her right to have her name on her office door, and maybe to have her coffee just the way she likes it.
And then there is me – I wonder what they see? She looks quite basic at 6am on the tube. She has had some sleep so she doesn’t look too tired, but has a slightly serious look, resting-what-face do they call it? She looks distracted like maybe she is mentally unpacking her suitcase to check she has everything. Where is she going alone looking so young. Maybe to see family in her homeland or to use her student loan for a girls trip to Europe? Has she just ended a relationship or maybe she has just been dumped and that is why she is travelling alone, maybe to look for a holiday romance? She just looked up and smiled at me, how lovely.
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.
My grandma has a cheeky sense of humour, a keen smile and doesn’t mince her words. I love her company. She knows exactly what she thinks and what she wants and she doesn’t hesitate to state it openly. She is 88 and comfortable in her own skin. So when I called her to say I wanted to learn to make sorrell she told me she was out and I had to come another day. When I rang her bell she opened the door and greeted me with a smile that would melt a snowman, and a gentle hug from her tiny frame. This is the woman who nurtured my mom in her womb and gave birth to her. This is sacred ground, and she is the queen of it.
She begins by telling me she’s grated all the ginger before I came, to speed it up. I explain to her I am taking notes, and ask her how much ginger to use and she says ‘a lot’ – that’s the best I’m gonna get as far as details are concerned. I impress her with my knowledge of how good ginger is for our health and she smiles a smile that says “your mom did a good job”.
She finds the pot full of grated ginger and as she takes off the lid I’m engulfed in the overwhelming aroma. The pot is bigger than most and when I ask why she bought a pot so big she answers me with a look that says ‘it must be obvious’, and explains that its for cooking rice and peas for when the family come around. We don’t use her big pot nearly enough.
She takes out a packet of linseed held shut by a rubber band and throws in a tablespoon. As she mixes it in, she casually recalls a story of almost having a miscarriage. The doctor in Jamaica told her to take some linseed with ‘something from the sea’ (she can’t remember what it was but hopes it will come back to her, I try my best to jog her memory in case some future child depends on it, to no avail) – and her baby was born healthy. Her sister, she remembers, had the same experience with the ‘something from the sea’. She talks about not having money for doctors and using natural remedies and how the free NHS makes healthcare accessible but then lacks the wisdom of mother nature.
I tell her I’m thinking of going and she tells me she’s about to cook, which means I’m staying. I arrived starving from London once and brought food on the way to her house. She is not easily offended but I knew not to do it again. Why did I think she wouldn’t have food on the stove? I’m used to millennials. As we eat she tells me she doesn’t like to ‘cook sparing’ meaning just for herself, because she likes to feed anyone who pops in. I want to be the kind of woman who has a pot that’s way too big to ‘cook sparing’.
Here is her recipe in her own words:
- A lot of ginger
- Some linseed (depending on how much you want to make)
- Enough sorrell
- Some sugar (to taste)
- Sanatogen or whichever wine or even some rum (to mek it taste good)
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.
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.