Let the Black Woman Live

FROM A LETTER WRITTEN TO DR. W.E. B. DUBOIS BY ALVIN BORGQUEST OF CLARK UNIVERSITY IN MASSACHUSETTS AND DATED APRIL 3, 1905.

“We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects: 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears…”

The above excerpt, that I was alerted to on Twitter the other day, helped me think about something that has been on my mind for a long time. So it appears that a century ago, the black person was a borderline mythical creature who the rest of the world were unsure about and therefore came up with ridiculous comments like the above. I’d like to take it a step further and state that from my observations and personal experiences it appears that people think black people – particularly our women – don’t have feelings or are incapable of experiencing the world as every other human being does. This is the sort of thing I would have been very uncomfortable to write a couple of years ago because people don’t like to talk about race and its very real consequences, and so many of us believe that bringing up racial issues will cause us to confront the bubble that we live in. Well, I decided not to allow myself to be censored, and also to be honest about my feelings. And what I feel is this:

Like many others, I am really tired of negative depictions of black women in media and elsewhere. Black women are dehumanized in our society and I’ve come to realize the many ways that black women have it tougher than others. The facts are, and this is very clear when you look online, watch the television or just observe black women in public, black women are expected to attain a higher standard than others, not only that, an unattainable Eurocentric one, simply to prove our worth as human beings. It looks like we are not good enough as we are and as we come. This constant criticism of our appearance and our behaviour is exhausting.

Not only is our appearance critiqued, our behaviour is subject to scrutiny and contempt too. There are SO many stereotypes. My “favourite” is the mad–or angry–black woman, though what on earth is the matter with expressing emotion, why is it a problem when we react to things that hurt us? Isn’t it better than being passive and a doormat?

 “Whenever a conscious Black woman raises her voice on issues central to her existence, somebody is going to call her strident, because they don’t want to hear about it, nor us. I refuse to be silenced and I refuse to be trivialized.” — Audre Lorde

And let’s not forget that we are sexualized constantly. Here is an excerpt from Lorraine Hansberry’s informal autobiography that perfectly articulates the sexualization and fetishization of the black woman:

…I could be returning from 8 hours on an assembly line, or 16 hours in Mrs. Halsey’s Kitchen. I can be all filled up that day with three hundred years of rage so that my eyes are flashing and my flesh is trembling— and the white boys in the streets look at me and think of sex. They look at me and that’s all they think… Baby, you could be Jesus in drag— but if you’re brown they’re sure you’re selling!”

These standards of perfection and respectability we are expected to attain are ridiculous. We are supposed to look perfect – read: proper – all the time, our kids are not supposed to have a hair out of place (hello? They are kids!). If we have something amiss, we are torn to shreds, even by our own people. We are the least supported group of people in the world. The black woman is seen as a joke and people forget that they are dealing with the lives of actual people. Every year there are ridiculous articles trying to dissect the black woman, and almost all of them are negative. At times, it feels like we’re living in Foucault’s panopticon, always being observed and monitored. It gets to you after a while, somehow being a representative of your entire race, and not being good enough to escape criticism.

 “All too often in our society, it is assumed that one can know all there is to know about black people by merely hearing the life story and opinions of one black person.” – bell hooks

The title of this post was inspired by a song by the group Queen; a line from that song goes, “Let me live, leave me alone.” I would like to know what it feels like to live without being under the constant glare of a microscope. I’m tired of the double standards. I’m tired of having to be the representative for my entire race.

Does the black woman need to be compartmentalized and understood (and perhaps controlled)? What is the world’s sick fascination with us? Whitman said “I contain multitudes”, and I believe we all do, so why these same old tired tropes? How about acknowledging that we can be strong but we can feel weak too? How about we don’t have to look cover ready all the time? How about we’re allowed to express ourselves without the fear of being criticized? Society has one thing to do for the black woman, and that is to allow her the complexity of humanity.

While I’m writing articles on race, I always imagine the comments I’m going to hear from people because I’ve heard them all before. People will say things are better now than they were in the 1960s, some will say I’m over-reacting and being too sensitive, others will say that I should just ignore the negativity. In my opinion, the majority of these comments are not helpful at all because they are putting the onus on me to change my ways of thinking when the problem isn’t me, it’s the systemic racist foundation our society is built on and the self-hatred perpetuated by white imperialism and colonialism that are to blame for the ways that people in society behave. I believe I’m doing my part by refusing to remain silent about my feelings and experiences, and I will continue to do so.

And when I come across things like the Twitter hashtag #YouOkSis that was set up to raise awareness of street harassment towards women, and that soon noted that  black women experienced the more virulent attacks, it makes me realize just how pervasive the abuse is and how we should ALL be speaking out.

The black women I know are amazing. There are too many to list. They work hard, they work harder trying to exhort their kids in this crazy world that tells them that they are subhuman. I just wish for peace and quiet, and less finger-pointing and cruel jokes. When you think about it, it really isn’t too much to ask.

And a special THANK YOU to Joan for the inspiration ❤

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17 thoughts on “Let the Black Woman Live

  1. You touch the deepest part of my soul, and I want to scream. Why these mostly white conservative men harbor, and spew so much hate I can only understand as being fear, or just plain stupidity. I have certainly fought my own battles with sexual orientation, but that is not the first thing others see. The only thing I could ever do is speak out which is what you do so eloquently. Thank you Rowena.

    1. Debbie, thanks as always for your support and for your willingness to read my words. I truly appreciate you! I don’t know as much about the LGBTQI community as I should but I can imagine you have fought, and continue to fight, so many battles. Let’s not let people silence us! 🙂

  2. I expected that this problem was not so profound in your part of the world as it is here in South Wales. But good to know that you are holding fort. A brother’s tip though: It’s what we do that will change attitudes rather than what we say. They will despise us more for our eloquence. But that’s your point isn’t it? Why do our sisters have to prove themselves all the time!?

    1. Hi Webster,
      I feel a lot of people don’t realize what they’re doing/asking, but a lot of people are very much aware. And online people are a million times worse! And thanks for the tip:) I know it’s trying having to prove ourselves to people but at the same time I do like to surprise people, they mustn’t under-estimate me:)

  3. Brilliant! Such a brave and powerful piece. This is such an important issue that many people are unaware of. Thank you for speaking out!!

  4. LOVE this, and thank you for writing it and sharing. There are so many head nods to give, but my favorite is the acknowledgement that we are HUMAN (some people forget).

  5. Online, we seem to be exposed to so much more of society’s negative traits, people come out from their silent worlds with their issues, ignorance, limited experiences and narrow mindedness.

    Good on you for speaking out Rowena and sharing the frustration, we should not tolerate any of it, we need to be encourage black women to continue to speak out and be who they are and feel proud of themselves, just as all woman should on this issue in support. Bravo.

    I can’t help but remember the quote I read yesterday by Nelson Mandela on google doodle for Mandela Day:

    “that no one is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin, their background of their religion, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” and that

    “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

    We have to love our children, educate them well and open their eyes to the beauty of diversity in our world. It is they who become the new way in the world and whom we influence.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Claire! You’re so right; comments online and the pervasiveness of social media have shown me such a negative side to humanity, one that I didn’t want to believe for so long but now that I encounter it on a daily basis it’s very difficult to ignore it.

      I love that Nelson Mandela quote, I agree wholeheartedly with it, thank you for sharing! What we need is definitely more diverse education, more inclusive history programmes at school, and more dialogue, I think. I do have hope:)

  6. Sadly there’s actually a fair bit of science to back this up. There are studies where people are shown images of a white hand being prodded or pierced with a needle, and then shown the same images of a black hand. There are actual differences in the physiological responses of the viewers which indicate more concern is felt for the white hand than the black. If I remember rightly the research was accompanied by surveys which also confirmed this e.g. ‘on a scale of 1-10 how much pain do you think is being felt…’ so on and so forth. I came across the article on Slate if I remember rightly and although I’m grateful the findings do not apply to everyone (think it was 70% of non-blacks), it’s pretty sad to consider that at the basest part of the psyche there are people who simply do not ‘feel’ our pain. And, in particular, that of black women. Personally, I think narrative will be the only answer. Stories that are created and brought into the public domain, whether via reportage or fiction, are probably the only things with the power to re-organise the cultural psyche.

    1. Thank you for your great comment and also the link to the Slate article. Very sad, to say the least. Something that’s always concerned me is how people do indeed feel more sorrow for white casualties than those of people of colour, it’s tragic as we are all human and we all have value. I agree that writing personal narratives is a great way to “humanize” those of us society looks down on.

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