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 ❤