I wanted a tattoo to commemorate the completion of my first semester of grad school. So, being the sometimes-impulsive person that I am, I got one. On the right side of my torso: the Black Power fist and the feminist symbol combined into one. “Feminist Blackness” it says above it.
I get the tattoo sized on my ribs, making small talk (which I despise to no end) with the tattoo artist Ned, a white dude who sorta looks like Dax Shepard just with more tattoos. The walls were studded with his artwork. Mostly dragons, you know, the Japanese-style kind that are all serpentine and colorful. He asked if I went to Cornell, to which I replied “Yeah.”
“Oh yeah? What are you studying?” he asked.
“African American literature and Black feminist thought. Much of my work centers on Black women and Black female subjectivity.”
“Nice, dude. I bet that helps you get the ladies in the clubs,” he said, attempting to bond ever-so-masculinely with me.
“Umm, no. That’s not how that works.”
We stopped our chat because the stencil was good to go and he needed to prep his station. But the conversation stuck with me long after I got inked. “I bet that helps you get the ladies in the clubs?” That’s your response to my field of intellectual and personal study? Its primary purpose is picking up chicks? This bespeaks not an isolated incident but a lack of understanding of the gravity of what it is that people like me do. To Ned, and numerous others, what I “study” is simply that: like a lazy, poorly time-managed college sophomore who studies by cramming textbook facts the night before a prelim. You learn it, you test it, you let it go, and get back to partying.
I wonder what my mom would have said to Ned. “Umm, I know you ain’t gon’ just sit there and say that I’m some kind of pick-up line. I am not the one. Keep playin’ with me. I outta school you on what it means to be a Black woman, then you’ll really have something to tattoo on yourself. ‘Getting ladies in the club,’ you must be out your damn mind.” Yeah, I bet you that’s exactly what she’d say. Like, verbatim, brows lowered, towering over him as if her bark made her grow six inches in height. She would tell them him how it really was, how it really went down.
Ned’s remark is a product of thinking about knowledge as abstract and factual and able to be clocked out on that fuels the idea that studying Black feminist thought is something to be capitalized on, like a surplus in revenue. Ned, like so many others have done and still do, instrumentalized Black women and their thoughts, seeing them only as means for masculine use. Like the trope of the Strong Black Woman, instrumentalizing Black women obscures their own feelings and subjectivity, marks them as means and what and who they can be used for rather than subjects of their own authority. Ned thought I used Black women, perhaps because in his mind they were so strong, unfeeling, and obdurate that their patterns of social and economic disenfranchisement were naturalized, which meant that they resembled tools to be deployed rather than people to be considered. “Mules uh de world,” said African American anthropologist, writer, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston of Black women.
Black women are rarely “known” because the imposition of the characteristic of their innate, unending strength disallows them to focus on their own lives, always being used for the well-being of others, primarily men. Strength is deployed to tell lies about Black women. The trope is used by those in power in hopes that it moves from simple performance of an expectation and becomes a naturalized identity. As professor of women’s studies Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant argues; “Psychologically intrusive, the discourse of strength renders the material and relational aspects of oppression into realities Black women should endure rather than injustices worthy of their outrage and challenge. To the extent that this is accomplished, the discourse promotes the apparent reality of ‘strong Black women’ whose ‘inborn’ qualities make talk of female oppression within racism conceptually untenable.”
In whatever form—writing in a journal, publishing tracts in public discourse, my grandmother calling my Aunt and telling her about some silliness on TV, or my mother’s bark—Black women must speak, for if they cannot they are lost and forgotten as some of the most important movers and shakers of national history, flattened and relegated to a state of abjection, starved of that which allows us all to become ourselves: voice, language. “Silence is starvation.” As the ever-insightful and demi-god-like Toni Morrison has said, “She [the Black woman] had nothing to fall back on; not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may well have invented herself.” Drop the mic right there.
So what Simone de Beauvoir, feminist theorist known most for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, says about women may still not capture the way Black women come into themselves. Where Beauvoir says, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” perhaps when speaking of Black women it is more accurate to say this: one is not born, nor becomes, a Black woman—she creates herself.
[image via x]