Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

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Final Thoughts (Just for Now)

My favorite part of the class was the beginning. During the beginning of the class, we all had the chance to learn about Black Feminism and Womanism. We also learned about Black Feminist theory and the important people who shaped this theory. This website offers a great overview of Black Feminism and its historical context: What is Black Feminism? Learning this theory was very valuable to me because it allowed me to see the work we have done and the work we still have to do. Some voices have been heard but many have not.

With this new theory in mind, I have new, unconventional ways of identifying myself. Adichie tell us a Feminist is “a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes”. But, I do not have to identify as strictly a Feminist. I can identify as a Black Feminist, knowing Black Feminism argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together through intersectionality. Alice Walker gives me the option of being a Womanist who “is to feminist as purple is to lavender”. Still, I can identify in other ways that validate my experience and the experiences of The Other.

With that said, I am excited to liberate myself and excited to liberate others. I leave you with some words from Alice Walker on enjoying the work you do and understanding that “the prize is life“.


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Lessons for Virgin Girls

Danielle Evan’s book of short stories Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self starts off with the story “Virgins”. In the story, there are three main characters: Erica (the narrator), Jasmine (Erica’s best friend) and Michael (Erica’s other best friend). While reading the story, the reader gets a sense of what it is like to be a  young Black girl-specifically how being a young girl and being Black can intersect.

First Lesson: Safety can be created by the presence of a man and safety can be taken away by the presence of a man.

The story opens with Erica, Jasmine and Michael hanging out at the pool belonging to Mr. Thompson, their past elementary school principal. Erica notes that it may seem weird to the reader that she and Jasmine hang out with Michael. He is a guy and he has a group of guys that he could easily hang out with. Erica explains in an effort to clear the confusion and justify this type of friendship:

We hung out with him because we figured it was easier to have a boy around than not to. Strangers usually thought one of us was with him, and they didn’t know which, so they didn’t bother either of us. When you were alone, men were always wanting something from you.

Though Michael is a peer, he serves as a protective figure for the girls. As young teenagers they understand that safety is associated with a male figure. Erica says that strangers will bother them if Michael is not there. She specifies that these strangers are men, men who always want something. This “something” is left to the imagination of the reader making the reader fear what this could actually be.

Erica knows the reverse is true as well. Erica knows their safety can not be guaranteed with just any boy or any man. Even though Mr. Thompson is an authority figure anyone could reasonably trust, they still have their suspicions:

We even wondered about Mr. Thompson sometimes, or at least we never went swimming at his house without Michael with us…We felt bad for letting Mr. Thompson make us nervous. he was the smartest man either of us knew, and probably he was just being nice. We were not stupid, though. We’d had enough nice guys suddenly look at us the wrong way.

They do not expect bad situations to happen but they remain hopeful that they will not occur. This feeling of anxiety and vulnerability comes partly from their experiences of being girls.

Second Lesson: Body image matters–everything about your physicality.

Erica and Jasmine recognize the power of beauty standards. Erica alludes to skin color and the fact that something as essential to health as screenscreen can only be associated with Whiteness though “all three of us burned”. They talk about Michael’s girlfriend, a White Italian girl who is a part Michael’s pattern of White girlfriends. For Erica, this pattern justifies why Michael would never have an interest in either one of them–their skin color is not light enough. They notice that Michael’s brother Ron is attractive not for being talented, intelligent or witty but because he is “golden-colored skin, with curly hair and doll-baby eyelashes and the kind of smile where you could count all of his teeth”. Both Erica and Jasmine worry about how their body looks (how big their hips, breasts and stomachs are or how pretty their face is) and how they will be perceived. For Jasmine, the right physical attributes and the right amount of sex appeal translate to a respectable, long term relationship. Jasmine wants to be “the one [a boy] kisses in public”, not the girl a boy leaves for another.

Third Lesson: Safety is relative.

Erica feels that safety is not something she can achieve but rather something she can approach. More importantly, there is no standard or bar of excellence for safety. For women specifically, safety remains relative. Though Erica leaves her friend Jasmine in a potentially dangerous situation, Erica finds herself in another potentially dangerous situation:

…I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better. I was safer than Jasmine right now, safer than I might have been.

Erica is not exactly forced into the situation but she does not choose the situation for herself either.

We are left with a sense of hopelessness at the end. The ending is foreshadowed by the death of Tupac Shakur who wrote the famous words “it’s a setup…keep ya head up“. Does this awful ending have to be inevitable? How can you live life when you have to acknowledge daily how terrible it can actually be?


Your Average, Everyday, Basic Human Need

Watching the documentary When the Levees Broke in class reminded me of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We were reminded of how cruel the natural world can be while being reminded of how cruel people can be towards other people. The hurricane destroyed a large part of the Southeast region of the US, a region that is still mostly destroyed even after 10 years. Volunteer groups continue to visit that region in order to rebuild houses.

When I look back on the event, I remember the seemingly lack of urgency that the government had in helping those people affected. I remember watching the news and hearing that President Bush was on vacation even as the storm was reaching its peak. I believe that there was no excuse for waiting entire days before sending help and relief. These were people desperately holding onto their lives and searching for any beacon of hope in a dire situation. I remember the fact that my math teacher could no longer use her name at school because hearing the word Katrina was too traumatic. I also remember the notorious comment by Kanye West that seemed to express what many Black people felt at the time: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”.

I read chapter four (“Disaster”) from Melissa Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. The information she gathered as a lead researcher was not surprising. Yet, it was still very disturbing. Harris-Perry found that “while most White Americans saw the hurricane’s aftermath as tragic, they understood it primarily as a natural disaster followed by technical and bureaucratic failures. Most black Americans saw it as a racial disaster”. Harris-Perry continues quoting Black survivors’ accounts of being mistreated which they believed were due to racial biases.

However, the problem came down to your average, everyday, basic human need: the need for acknowledgment. Some people had this need fulfilled. Many did not. Harris-Perry quotes part of an account of a Black woman affected by Hurricane Katrina:

She and her family have dire material needs–for safety, food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine, and rest–but they also need to feel that someone acknowledges their humanity.

The woman wants someone to help her which they can do by listening to her, talking to her, helping her or even just by looking at her. I read an article that addressed how Hurricane Katrina survivors who were not White or Black were rarely if ever addressed. Take a moment and try to remember how the media covered this event: the pictures they showed, the words they used, the events they addressed. If you can acknowledge the people were forgotten and misrepresented in media coverage, you can acknowledge that race did play a large role in analyzing the effects of this natural disaster on our nation.

Though survivors had to focus on their basic needs, survivors had to reevaluate their relationships with each other and with other citizens across the US. A Hurricane Katrina survivor states:

Katrina was the great equalizer. I got frisked just like the woman next to me from the housing project. I had to stand in line in the hot sun, just like everybody else. I had to go to the bathroom, just like everybody else. I got yelled at to shut up, just like everybody else.

Interestingly enough, equalize can mean “to equalize” or “to make uniform”. It becomes apparent how this single word can take on different meanings for different groups of survivors. For some survivors, Katrina made social status dismantle so that citizens were made equal in how they were affected by the natural disaster and had to cope with the circumstances. For some survivors, Katrina made social status more apparent so that citizens were affected uniformly in such a way that reinforced institutional racism.

How far have we come? Who has their average, everyday, basic human need met?

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Fight Scars

Survival is such a large theme in this book. Skeetah is willing to risk his life to retrieve cow wormer for China and her puppies, knowing that the health of the puppies will ensure the survival of his family. After running from a guard dog, Skeetah emerges with four “angry” wounds that Esch has to help treat. Esch calls them “His own fight scars”.

Esch takes care of Skeetah after he is attacked by the watchdog the way that Skeetah always takes care of China after a dog fight. She wipes his wounds with a towel that has been washed, bleached and dipped in hydrogen peroxide. Despite Esch applying the bandage to wounds that are pretty painful, Skeetah does not winch. This parallels the way that China acts after Skeetah treats her wounds. Esch notes that, “[China] smiles lazily like a woman in a new Fourth of July outfit being complimented” after her wounds are treated.

I wonder if Skeetah imagines what it is like to be China. China has to endure very brutal fights, fights that are essential battles for survival. Then she must come back to be with her family of puppies, hope to heal quickly and wait (or rather prepare) for the next fight for survival. Skeetah could easily find himself in a moral dilemma. Risking the life of China means that his family may be able to survive for a little longer. But, saving China (by not risking her life in dog fights) could mean the end of his family. Whether Skeetah really thinks about the reality of life for his puppy is not always clear. After reading the section about China ripping the watchdog apart, the reader can sense that Skeetah enjoys watching dog fights. Maybe he enjoys watching China survive or maybe he enjoys watching someone/something die that threatened the survival of himself and his family.

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The Appropriate Age

One of the most interesting characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is Esch. Esch is a teenager and is sexually active. What is probably alarming to most readers is the fact that Esch started having sex when she was 12 years old. Esch often focuses on helping her brothers and and her father and winning the admiration of one of her brother’s friends so much that she rarely takes time to reflect and think about herself. In one of the surprising parts of her narrative, she talks about what comes naturally to her-what she knows she can do well:

The only thing that’s ever been easy for me to do, like swimming through water, was sex when I started having it. I was twelve.

It’s interesting that she compares sex to swimming, a skill that seems to be so essential to human life. At the same time, it’s a skill that humans have to learn and develop. Not everyone has the ability to swim. Not everyone has the opportunity to swim. Surprisingly, she starts having sex at the beginning of puberty for girls. For a girl, a period notoriously characterized as awkward and confusing. It is a time when girls begin learning about their body and how it will function and change over the years. But, Esch handles her first time well. She realizes that sex does not alter your body:

In the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror. Undressed and rinsed. Dressed again. My clothes fit the same. My stomach, my hips, my arms all fell in the same straight lines; there was nothing fine or curvy about me. I was still short and skinny, my hair big and curly and black, my lips thin. I didn’t look any different.

Most parents in the US refrain from talking to their children about sex until they are teenagers (preferably in high school). Esch does not have this support. So, it seems that she must learn for herself what sex is and isn’t. She can form her own opinion about her sexuality. However, there are still key factors related to sex that she has not learned about. When she has sex for the first time, it is not because she wants to. She reflects:

“[it] was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop, easier to let him inside than push him away, easier than hearing him ask me, Why not? It was easier to keep quiet and take it than to give him an answer

Esch does not understand consent. She does not understand that sex should be mutually wanted by whoever is involved in the activity. One could use this example to argue that it is inappropriate for young children or teenagers to start having sex.

Ward helps us bring up an important question. Does the appropriateness of a person’s sexual activity/life depend on the person’s age or their understanding of sex?

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To Make the Choice

In Chapter 30 of Americanah, the character Obinze is attending a party in England. Alexa, one of the guests, claims that England should “remain a refuge” and that people who have survived “frightful wars” must be allowed in. Alexa asks Obinze if he agrees and Obinze begins to think to himself.

Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.

Obinze has risked a lot to travel to England and live in the country as an illegal immigrant. Often when we think of an illegal immigrant, we imagine someone who as experienced a large amount of trauma. We imagine someone who now lives without love, family, friends, shelter, food and money. However, people leave their countries for many reasons. They leave to be with the people they love. They leave to create a new destiny for themselves. They leave to prove that they can. They leave because they are people like Obinze, people who are “merely hungry for choice and certainty”. They want to make decisions for themselves whether these decisions turn out to be fantastic decisions or terrible decisions. They want to have some certainty in their future, safety and security, certainty that is not imposed or determined by circumstance.

One can argue that Obinze and Ifemelu become expatriates. One could even argue that they are nomads since they seem to be continuously escaping (or running away from) choicelessness.  “Why would you leave this town/region/place?” is a question that we repeatedly ask privileged people. Perhaps we should be asking “Why aren’t there enough choices for you here?


Selling Out

Today, we talked about Chapter 33 of Americanah. Ifemelu opens the chapter by talking about the success of her blog. Her readers increase and she soon starts receiving emails from people who want to “support” her blog. People start off donating money but soon start to email her about the possibility of advertising their products on her page:

A fellow blogger who made hair butters first suggested advertising and, for a token fee, Ifemelu put up the image of a bounteous-haired woman on the top right side of the blog page; clicking on it led to the hair butter website. Another reader offered more money for a blinking graphic that showed, first, a long-necked model in a tight dress, then the same model in a floppy hat. Clicking on the image led to an online boutique. Soon there were e-mails about advertising Pantene shampoos and Covergirl makeup.

though her blog is primarily about race in the US, she receives emails from people who want to post beauty advertisements. They don’t want to advertise independent books about race relations or films about the immigrant experience. They want to perpetuate the current beauty standard in America. It’s clear that these ads will target Black women (and possibly other women of color) but these ads will not necessarily promote a healthy, attainable standard for Black women. These promoters advertise hair butter that will make your hair more bountiful (because women surely do not want short hair). These promoters want to advertise Pantene shampoos and Covergirl makeup which mainly offer products that many Black women could not use. Pantene’s “Truly Natural Hair Clarifying Shampoo” would work best for women of color with straightened hair. Covergirl’s Queen collection (inspired by Queen Latifah) does not cover all of the darker skin tones. But, it would be fair to assume that a beauty product created to target an ethnic group would likely not cover all of the possibilities (different hair textures, skin tones, etc.). Ifemelu struggles with fitting into the image of beauty that is perpetuated by American mainstream culture which makes the situation even more problematic. She is helping perpetuate the same images that continue to hurt her.

We talked about whether Ifemelu was selling out by caring more about how her readers respond to her posts than how she feels about her posts and allowing advertisements to accompany her blog. Whether we can agree on that or not, we can be sure that it is normal to see advertisements accompany most blogs–especially beauty blogs.

Thinking about advertisements in blogs reminded me of a funny video my friend showed me a few months ago:

In the video, a woman makes fun of popular natural hair videos. She holds up a product in the video at one point and says, “Now I’m going to trick you into buying a product you think I haven’t been paid to promote but I totally have”. Perhaps advertisements are not so problematic if we can recognize what they perpetuate.