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May 2014

Liberating The Black Female Body: Thoughts On The Voices Of bell, Janet, Shola and Marci

Four Black feminist thinkers, writers, creators, educators and scholars, bell hooks, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch and Marci Blackman gathered for the second talk (in a series of three talks this week) titled Are You Still A Slave: Liberating The Black Female Body, which I live tweeted as I viewed it on The New School’s Livestream feed. Many interesting points were raised and their unique perspectives and world views were apparent throughout the talk. Shola has an effervescence and optimism that made me view her creativity through the lens of the carefree Black girl. Janet has a wisdom about trans women’s experiences and a sense of beauty, being feminine and glamour that she is unapologetic about in terms of finding it empowering. Marci brought another perspective in terms of creating art that represents people like her that she doesn’t see mainstream and an aesthetic that she also described as “sexy” (it so is) albeit not femme. And bell hooks brought a sense of perspective and knowledge over time and experience albeit not absolute or law. I think it is important to recognize what each Black woman brought there because liberating Black female bodies means practicing self-love and expression of what that liberation looks like. Thus, it is more than their ideas shared but their actual presentation that I consider as well.

This talk, more than anything in my entire life as a Black woman and a womanist made me realize the importance of not placing Black feminist forbearers and prominent public voices on pedestals and recognizing their humanity by accepting that they can be wrong, that we can disagree and that they are as imperfect and fallible as we everyday Black women are. There’s really nothing more patriarchal in this context than deciding that there needs to be a Black feminist “leader” (in this case bell books simply because she’s older, credentialed and accepted by mainstream feminism as a voice, and at times a unilateral voice over womanists/Black feminists as a “monolith” and thereby dangerously so) whose views become absolute to use as something to punish and harm other Black women with. This perspective—of accepting that bell hooks is also imperfect—informed my entire interaction with and interpretation of this talk and the previous one as well as engaging any of her work throughout my lifetime. Though several topics were raised and most of them I tweeted about in my live tweet, there’s three topics that I will discuss here: Beyoncé and the concept of the liberated Black female body, Black women and sexuality, and Black women as valued activists.

With my most compassionate honesty, I must admit that I was incredibly harmed by, hurt by and repelled by the way bell hooks spoke of Beyoncé. I found it to be incredibly unloving, violent and harmful. bell hooks herself has created a template to approaching Black bodies and Black people with love (i.e. in her books Salvation: Black People and Love, Communion: The Female Search For Love, The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, and All About Love: New Visions) and she did not utilize this template for Beyoncé. By referring to aspects of Beyoncé as “anti-feminist” and a “terrorist” for young girls, bell hooks engaged in hyperbole and violence. I honestly felt triggered and it felt like dealing with the racism of White feminists and the essentialism (where bell hooks is absolute) and misogynoir of Black men where Beyoncé and bell hooks (and other prominent Black feminists) are concerned, respectively. It made me think of Audre Lorde’s essay “Eye To Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger" and how at times we reserve our most unloving critique for each other as Black women.

"Anti-feminist" is a violent claim when not true. Absolutely Beyoncé has areas in her life where she reifies patriarchy and capitalism, like many women; valid critique can be made there. But "anti-feminist" is not the same as "patriarchal" because everyone is socialized under patriarchy; however, everyone does not actively target feminists for harm. "Anti-feminist" implies malicious intent meant to harm feminists specifically, not women in general (i.e. via misogyny, misogynoir, transmisogyny) as not all women are feminists. "Anti-feminist" implies active violence versus Beyoncé being on a journey in her own feminism and perhaps at an earlier phase than credentialed academic feminist scholars are. I’ve mentioned before that her participation in facile neoliberal campaigns like Ban Bossy seems more about acquiring “credentials” as a “legitimate” feminist than the belief that those campaigns are more radical/more important than her music or how she lives her life, because clearly those campaigns are not. However, where her journey has been important is in her music with compelling womanist messages challenging beauty standards, sexual empowerment and agency, rewriting motherhood and marriage as places for power and affection without shame for Black women, sisterhood and friendship, self-esteem, admitting vulnerability where Black women are not allowed to, presenting nuance between strength and weakness versus existing at either pole and so much more. 

I was so thankful when Janet Mock and Marci Blackman chimed in about their perspectives on Beyoncé. Janet’s story truly touched me about how important it was for her to see Destiny’s Child as a transgender teen girl of colour, and see their bodies, performances and presence amidst spaces usually reserved for White teens. She also mentioned the empowerment she receives via Beyoncé’s music in terms of sexuality and being able to exist as beautiful and without shame and what that has meant to her as a trans woman of colour. Janet Mock made it clear in the talk and later on Twitter that she believes Beyoncé is at the center of her own image creation and universe.” Marci Blackman mentioned the reclamation of images for Beyoncé and while bell hooks challenged reclamation even being possible, I feel as if that has been our experience as Black people from an ontological standpoint. I mean, we are legitimately reclaiming our stolen humanity. If reclamation of images is not possible then I really don’t understand how we can ever reject the internalization of ourselves as non-persons because of the legacy of chattel slavery and the reality of anti-Blackness and misogynoir. If image reclamation is not possible while envisioning new images as well, how can we reclaim our humanity itself when that was stripped away as well and is constantly attacked via anti-Blackness?

Beyoncé is nobody’s slave. Clearly her body is a liberated one where she chooses how she presents herself, knows what empowers her and frees her, is aware of how people speak of and denigrate her body (and you have to actually know to her music to know this, versus only reading insulting articles and hearing radio singles) and challenges those denigrations by living the life she chooses where she can decide what liberation looks like for her. I mean, she’s a Black woman who is called a “slut” for being sexually intimate in a cishet theist State-approved monogamous marriage with her husband, all statuses assigned privilege and without insult when they belong to Whites. This is a misogynoiristic projection on her but this projection alone is clearly one she rejects through her art and her choices.  Part of the issue here is that Black women have to decide what a liberated yet sexual and liberated yet asexual body and life looks like. I don’t feel as if this was adequately conveyed during this talk, so though the talk was mostly good, a lot remains unanswered.

If Beyoncé is not liberated as sexual, in control, with agency and self-esteem and someone like me who is asexual is also not liberated since “celibacy” (and to be clear, celibacy is not asexuality; heterosexual and queer people can be celibate and conversely some asexual people have sexual intercourse) became a laughing matter during this talk (which I found very triggering actually) then who is free? What does a liberated Black woman look like and what does she do with her body? I questioned this before for myself in my essay Black Womanhood, Asexuality and Agency. And then when the room mentioned celibacy as if this is a joke and bell hooks suggested people need less TV and less celibacy, the message was incredibly convoluted and messy. It simply reveals that again, womanists and Black feminists are not perfect, not meant for pedestals, are human and have lots of decolonization around sexuality to do. The binary that sex equals freedom and lack of sex equals oppression is false and patriarchal. The binary that sex equals shame and lack of sex equals goodness is false and patriarchal. Nuance and rejection of binaries, informed choices and decolonization in terms of sexuality are critical and ongoing processes for Black women. 

bell hooks regularly speaks of envisioning new images and Beyoncé is providing them. Choice. Agency. Freedom. Removal of shame. Pleasure. Connection. Love. Things that are denied Black women regularly. But this is oppression? This is “terrorism?” bell hooks clearly should have been more loving and less rigid in terms of the politics of respectability where Beyoncé is concerned. bell hooks trots around airports with Gloria Steinem yet Steinem’s record of transmisogyny or how she pillared Hillary Clinton (who’s involved in the same imperialist White supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchal system as President Obama while anti-Blackness means that President Obama is held accountable for inventing a system that predates him and he’s only a part of while Hillary Clinton is a White feminist icon) as a feminist in the 2008 election and ahistorically so, in a way that Melissa Harris-Perry had to check her on were not spaces of deconstruction in this talk. @tgirlinterruptd discussed this as well on Twitter this morning, how White feminists remain not “deconstructed” as Black women like Beyoncé are treated as "Ham radios you can take a part and look at the pieces for your own curiosity and goals."

And honestly, I am experiencing deep anxiety over this portion of the talk because let’s be clear, hateful “thinkpieces” will surface that will use bell hooks’ words as absolute (which is in opposition to womanism—to create hierarchy of knowledge/persons and then use that to harm other Black women deemed “below” ones “on top”) to justify their racist and misogynoiristic contempt for Beyoncé, who honestly is being used as a vehicle for anti-Blackness and misogynoir against everyday Black women. The attacks will come. The "bell hooks said ‘terrorist’ so she hates your fave and thereby you are trash too" attacks will come. This is why critique that is loving is important. I never want Black women to be silent about critique of other Black women over fear of the White Gaze, the cishet Black male gaze or the “respectable" Black gaze. But the notion that denigration must occur or the critique is not valid, that introspection isn’t possible without self-hatred, is one rooted in the same imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy that bell hooks has critiqued for decades. Using a racially loaded, White supremacist term such as “terrorist" with Beyoncé is a grave violence that is ultimately going to harm everyday Black women like me. And though bell hooks is not responsible for other people’s racism or misogynoir, her words as weapons when combined with her status can harm other Black women, and it will. And I really don’t look forward to it at all. I really don’t.

People really need to examine when did it become acceptable to channel all of our own unexamined self-hatred as Black women and for other people who aren’t Black women, channel their anti-Blackness and misogynoir at Beyoncé in a way unmatched for any other Black woman in the public eye. This dehumanization by making her a symbol or a “product” (since Black men, for example, continue to refer to her this way, thinking that this dehumanization is acceptable and I should want to have a conversation with them starting from this place of misogynoir) of what is both desired and hated is violence. This projection comes from a place of a perceived dearth of examples which is actually false. Beyoncé is among a long list of Black women, who are artists and feminists that I value and I believe have something to offer. I don’t have this problem where she has to be perfect to be my “feminist leader” because feminism does not need a leader. People are mistaking womanism and Black feminism for patriarchy if they think it needs one leader—whether someone like Beyoncé or someone like bell hooks—to remain un-critiqued and absolute. That’s not feminism. I am at the position in my own womanist scholarship and life experience where I can value some and critique some perspectives, even from bell hooks. I do not pedestal her thoughts above my own for my own life. While I respect our Black feminist forbearers and study them and know their work intimately, ultimately I create the map for my own life. I am my own womanist cartographer.

What can bell hooks teach me about sexuality and sexual orientation when I identify as asexual and that’s something she doesn’t even deeply address in her writing (beyond discussing the controlling image of asexuality via “mammy,” which is violent and in opposition to asexual as a sexual orientation) while addressing heterosexuality and queerness in ways that at times are shaped by the politics of respectability, someone who caused a triggering laughing session on celibacy during this very same talk? I’ve been blazing my own path almost completely mapless on Black womanhood and asexuality. What can bell hooks teach me about religion when I am an agnostic atheist and she’s a Buddhist and doesn’t heavily incorporate the notion that Black non-believers exist in her writing?  I’ve found Sikivu Hutchinson more helpful on this. What can bell hooks tell me about street harassment when she’s older and is driven everywhere or flies, when she has the means to not live in areas where street harassment for Black women is especially virulent? I am the one whose work on street harassment is actively and violently plagiarized as Black women’s experiences on street harassment are Whitewashed or silenced. I’ve found talking to other Black women peers more helpful on this topic than anything bell hooks has written. What can bell hooks teach me about online misogynoir when she doesn’t seem to value the Internet (and has alluded to this several times) or really notice the work of Black women online captured in pieces such as Ebony’s “Black Feminism Goes Viral?” She of course is attacked for her work, but online space is a different climate of attack that she doesn’t really know about. What can bell hooks tell me about being an assault survivor when she’s never really gone into detail about what sexual assault does to our lives, specifically, though she discusses patriarchal violence in general and sexual violence in media? What can bell hooks tell me about the loss of a mother, and both grandmothers, something I’ve not seen in detail in her work, where I feel a maternal absence in my life (and admittedly that’s why I clung to her work in my early 20s after my mom died; something I don’t need to do now as I am my own cartographer for the map of my life now in my 30s, though I value reading about many other Black women’s journeys and not only bell hooks’ journey) in a painful way? I’ve found turning to Alice Walker has been more helpful on this.

bell hooks is not the expert on all things Black, woman, Black woman, womanist/Black feminist or life. She is however, human, fallible, brilliant, interesting, accomplished, usually compassionate and thoughtful and a trailblazer in many ways. But I gotta blaze my own trail. Janet Mock gotta blaze her own trail. Beyoncé gotta blaze her own trail. Black women gotta blaze our own trails. We can do this while valuing eachother’s paths as long as we are valuing eachother’s humanity. And when the critique is not loving, when it is violent, it is not valuing humanity. bell hooks harmed Beyoncé’s humanity in that moment and I felt like she harmed mine as well. This doesn’t erase all of her work but proves that she is a fallible being like the rest of us and doesn’t need a pedestal.

Speaking of the valuation of humanity, conversation surfaced during the talk about activists earning money and doing work. This is difficult in that feeling valued in terms of our work impacts our valuation of ourselves and how we treat our bodies and minds. Being that Black women’s labor is regularly devalued, I found it difficult when bell hooks mentioned that activists cannot expect renumeration from the same system that we critique (she mentioned this in the previous talk as well) because while theoretically this is true, we still have to eat. Shola Lynch chimed in with balancing not doing the work solely for the money but also needing to survive. Janet Mock mentioned that her primary goal was to create something that could help other trans women who come after her even if her book Redefining Realness did not sell, but thankfully the latter isn’t the case. And there is nothing wrong with this. We have to move past the model that activists—especially Black women—have to be suffering to prove “truthfulness” about the fight against oppression. We don’t have to suffer harm or suffer fools who think we should be harmed. I love that Marci Blackman said "stop saying you’re pretending to be a writer and say you’re a writer." Clearly Black women also have to learn to see the value in our own work as well.

I felt disconnected from bell hooks’ stance as she is a published author and taught at Yale before, the type of school that would reject my doctoral application if I applied as their students and professors plagiarize my blog and tweets and it’s among the 30-50 colleges whose IP addresses appear in my Stat Counter daily, as I struggle daily. This is my reality. I struggle with debt from Sallie Mae and without stable income while I’m told my activism should be devalued as much as possible. Surviving in capitalism is not the same thing as being a capitalist. I reject the notion that the exploitation of my labor is okay since I shouldn’t expect anything from the system that I critique. Several womanists/Black feminists that I talked to online during the talk feel the same way. While all four of the Black women on that stage created their own pathways in some ways—Janet Mock as an author and trans woman of colour activist who has a past working for People.com as a journalist; Shola Lynch as a filmmaker; Marci Blackman as a fiction author; bell hooks as a Black feminist scholar, author and educator— they still all are on pathways that are rare and reveal privilege for Black women in terms of education and access. Many Black women who are activists have no clue how they are going to pay for things tomorrow. Black women deserve to be paid for our labor. And liberation for our bodies means respecting the labor that involves our bodies, minds and emotional/intellectual genius. 

While the topic itself was about liberating the Black female body, I feel that the real takeaway is about how the Black women in that talk experience their own sense of liberation. I mean, there were four smart, capable, accomplished Black women agreeing and disagreeing on perspectives concerning Black women, freedom and empowerment, speaking our own experiences, not through White female or Black male mouthpieces, speaking of ourselves as subjects and mostly respectfully disagreeing on perspectives. This is who Black women are. Complicated. Nuanced. Imperfect. Passionate. Thoughtful. Interesting. Creative. Vulnerable. Resilient. Hopeful. There was no more important a moment to me than any moment when Shola Lynch, Janet Mock or Marci Blackman disagreed with bell hooks. This is critical. bell hooks is used by many—especially feminists who are White women/Black men—to silence Black women. Her writings are treated as absolute and as if other feminist voices—even ones that are her peers, not necessarily my generation or younger—don’t exist and as if her words should be weaponized against Black women, versus understanding that feminist politics for Black women includes nuance, elasticity and perspective.

It is critical that each Black woman gets to define herself and has that definition respected, without debate, as humanity itself is not debatable and the suggestion that it is reveals anti-Blackness and misogynoir. It is critical that each Black woman gets to define her womanist or Black feminist politics and principles and have many sources and voices to listen to while defining it (versus making Beyoncé or another public figure her martyr to project on) and have that lovingly critiqued, not degradingly and hyperbolically critiqued where it harms her and other Black women. It is critical that Black women have the safe space to speak these complicated truths and opinions without having these truths and opinions weaponized to harm other Black women and if that harm happens, being aware enough to deconstruct it versus immediately accepting that harm as truth.

What the lesson should really be from this talk is that many sources and perspectives from Black women create the knowledge that informs our politics (and literally everyone else’s anti-oppression politics; I mean who is cited or used without credit to shape everyone else’s ideas) and perspectives and that alone requires inclusivity of many voices, including Beyoncé’s, including bell hooks’, including Janet Mock’s, Shola Lynch’s and Marci Blackman’s; including everyday Black women who aren’t credentialed withs status. And this inclusion must center the recognition that there was never any one leader or voice meant to be essentialized as the only voice in the complicated history and tapestry that makes womanism and Black feminism what they are—that makes Black women who we are. 

Related Post: Protecting lack Girlhood: Thoughts On bell hooks’ and Salamishah Tillet’s Discussion

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    tök érdekes írás (nagyon hosszú). arra a pár hónapja lezajlott beszélgetésre reflektál, amiben bell hooks (akit még az...
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