In 1981, bell hooks, renowned author, feminist, professor, and social activist, released her book, Ain’t I a Woman?, quoted above. The title is a nod to a speech given by Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in 1851 in which Sojourner makes the case that enslaved Negro women are not regarded as women by men whether they are making the case for or against women’s equal rights.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages,
and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody
ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best
130 years later, bell hooks took this idea and expanded on it in the wake of the modern Women’s Rights movement of the Sixties and Seventies in which she critically points out through personal accounts and deeper analysis that the white feminist movement did not regard race as relevant, often leaving Black women left out of the conversation in the fight for equality. It’s a phenomenal read, one that unfortunately, seems to still be relevant so many years later.
Shortly after the death of RBG and the rushed nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, there was buzz to revive the pink pussy hat demonstrations in protest of the nomination. In a Facebook group of which I am a part, a woman posted a caution to white women to be mindful of inclusivity as many women of color did not feel that the pink pussy hat was representative of their participation.
Now, there is some debate about what part of our anatomy we are referring to with the hat–vagina? vulva? I thought the hat was a symbol of protest to Trump’s ascension to the presidency because of his declaration that he, in fact, grabs women by the pussy. That being the case, I can assure you that on a Black or brown woman, nothing that he would be able to see and grab down there is pink.
One respondent to the post, while claiming she didn’t care what color the hats were, felt that we should not be distracted by “small battles” between us. I felt compelled to point out that Black women’s fight for inclusivity is no small battle. Sojourner Truth took up the mantle 170 years ago! Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging that it was a mistake to belittle such an important issue, the respondent stuck to the fragility playbook. First, she accused me of suggesting that we don’t protest at all which I did not do. Then, she said that snotty words were being used. No idea what that was about. Yet, there was zero acknowledgement that her calling the fight for inclusivity a “small battle” was problematic.
I just sighed and kept it moving.
And that’s usually what we do, sigh and move on. Believe me when I say that most Black folks are trying to live life with some semblance of joy and satisfaction. We know racial bias is out there, but it would be debilitating to one’s sanity to expect it with every interaction. So when it shows up, sometimes all we can do to preserve our peace is to sigh, keep it moving, and search for the next moment of joy.
My own pivot was to turn my sights towards The Queen’s Gambit, a new Netflix show about which everyone was raving. I generally trust my peeps and their entertainment choices so I was all in. I nestled into my bed with my computer poised for the long haul and the cat snoozing at my feet. As the opening minutes rolled out on the screen, I was intrigued and even sympathetic to the little girl whose life had changed so tragically with the death of her mother. Vulnerable and alone, Beth, our protagonist, was swallowed up by the high walls, stern wooden staircases, and towering adults welcoming her into the orphanage.
Drawn into this tiny child’s plight, I was jarred to attention by the voice in the distance. We, the viewers, are assaulted by a stream of obscenities and screams from a character hidden among the rooms and corridors of the orphanage. To my ear, the voice was adult-like, spewing words like “cocksucker”. The shocked curiosity on Beth’s face was matched by the frustrated glance between the headmistress and the orderly as in unison, they utter the name of the culprit, Jolene.
In true storytelling form, the screenwriter and director had done their job. They signaled to us that eventually we would meet this mystery troublemaker, Jolene, and she would likely serve as a contrast to Beth, our innocent, strawberry-blond heroine whose face graces all of the series’ promotional materials. Another signal as to for whose gaze this content was made.
As the minutes ticked by, I had forgotten all about Jolene, distracted by Beth’s slow, detailed orientation into her new home. The headmistress’s subdued sense of control suggested a sinister nature that had yet to be unveiled. And then we meet Jolene, a sassy Black girl who is revealed as the resident expert on the good drugs. Everything in me sunk as I was face-to-face with the age-old archetype of a Black female character. Jolene had already made her debut off-screen. She was loud, aggressive, hypersexual. Perhaps I let my guard down, but I really did not expect that this offering in 2020 would present this lazy, unimaginative, and played-out characterization of a Black girl.
I tried to push through, to sigh and keep it moving but I couldn’t continue my viewing. I was hurt so I turned it off and took to Facebook to express my dismay. Most felt my frustration, others felt a bit of shame that they had been numb to what I had noticed. My fourth grade teacher–yes, my fourth-grade teacher found me on Facebook–said she understood my feelings, but wishes that I had watched it through to the end.
Hmm, the end. Spoiler alert. You mean when an adult Jolene magically reappears after being absent for all of the episodes since the beginning, declares she’s a paralegal having an affair with a white lawyer at her law firm and decides to give her life savings to Beth for her to play in a chess tournament? The end–where I get to see this lone Black female character portrayed as a Jezebel and a Mammy in one shot? I passed. My friend, Kate, offered the most interesting critique when she said that Jolene gave Beth her life savings and she did nothing to even deserve it. Mind. Blown.
This is how white feminism continues to fail Black women. We’re supposed to sit through our discomfort for the cause of elevating white women’s presence and power in the world. Now, there’s all this talk about girls having a renewed interest in chess. People far and wide are heaping praise on this miniseries for its “legacy.” Are you kidding me? In this day and age, white mothers would never let their daughters tolerate being portrayed as nothing less than empowered and strong. Your girls are superheroes now, saving themselves and each other. Meanwhile, Black women are out here saving the Republic, one vote at a time, and still forced to see ourselves in the same old tropes.
Back in October, Trevor Noah interviewed Chris Rock about a few key issues, including the BLM movement. I highly recommend watching this interview. In it, Chris poses the question, “What is the ask?” He’s down with the movement, but he believes that Black folks need to have clarity and think big about what are we really asking for from White America.? Asking cops not to murder us does seem like a pretty low bar.
In the wake of the pandemic, the glaring disparities in healthcare, economics, education, etc. have been laid bare before us, making a compelling case for reparations. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones details a comprehensive argument in The New York Times article, What Is Owed, articulating the vast array of opportunities and assets that have been systematically denied the very people who built this country. The facts are simple–the collective wealth and power of the United States is a direct result of four hundred years of free slave labor. While individual prosperity can be attributed to a long-standing system of advantages from policies intended to exclude and discriminate.
But, the repair that must be made does not just involve these larger issues, like obliterating police brutality or creating pathways to building generational wealth. The fight against the mindset and behaviors that come with the scourge of white supremacy is a daily discipline that usually requires white people to step into discomfort again and again. The pats on the back to Black folks who use their voices and stand up simply are not enough because this is not our work to do. You are not the allies. You own the frontlines.
I don’t begrudge anyone who watched The Queen’s Gambit beginning to end. Locked in, we’re all in search of really good storytelling. But, imagine how powerful it would be if those same women who are raving about this movie would flood the film’s social media platforms with words about the representation of this Black character in equal measure? If you accept whatever is given to you to validate your white gaze, then you are not making repairs, you are complicit in doing more damage.
We often hear the complaint that Black people make everything about race. Most things are about race, but not in the way people might think. When a society is constructed on the unjustified elevation of a race and establishes its institutions and power structures on this premise, to challenge that society is to fine tune one’s awareness to every facet of that premise–media, language, behavior, relationships–everything. So, if you are truly invested in righting the many wrongs resulting from this construct, you are committing to the nonstop work that it requires.
And that is the ask.
Top image courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com
To learn more about bell hooks, see this article penned in 2019 by Min Jin Lee about the impact of her legacy.