Black Women's Shattered Silence

Over the past few months, I have been collaborating on a chapter about black land issues with three amazing sista-friends, who are champions in the black agrarian movement. What is this black agrarian movement, you might ask? To me, this is the authentic process of enthusiastic, grower-activists reaffirming through political means, our ancestral connection with the land through growing food while caring for the earth and each other, always in honor of our ancestors. While trying to finish up our writing before our deadline, it dawned on me that it was women’s history month and because I had been so busy with the book I had not taken time to outwardly acknowledge and celebrate the women in my life. This blog post is dedicated to the sistas, who over the last few months of writing, inspired, encouraged, and held me up as we Reclaimed the voices of women growers through our writing. Aleya Frasier, Dara Cooper, and Shakara Tyler...I love you.

For many years, and even now, generations of black folks who migrated north to escape life in the south, returned home in search of spiritual nourishment, a healing, that was fundamentally connected to reaffirming one’s connection to nature, to a contemplative life where one could take time, sit on a porch, walk, fish, and catch lightning bugs. If we think of urban life as a location where black folks learned to accept a mind/body split that made it possible abuse the body, we can better understand the growth of nihilism and despair in the black psyche. And we can know when we talk about healing that psyche we must also speak about restoring our connection to the natural world.

- bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Discovery

Earth Mother, is how I’ve come to know her. The nurturing, comforting, healing goddess of life. Though just like a mother, she is not always kind in her lessons of growth for us, but always teaching, sharing, giving. I heard her call first, in the hills of Oneonta, NY, though I am sure it was not her first call to me. Being intimately in relationship with the earth has taught me a lot about the value of women.

My life as a community organizer and activist, dedicated to the simultaneous eradication and rebuilding of our food system, has placed many strong women in my circle, whom I have come to love. They are special to me because of my relationship to them, though we are all products of our environment. I am perpetually surrounded by powerful women in the food movement as well as the liberation movement for black people. I feel that we are all blessed to have so many strong Black women, ancestors and elders who have come before us, to guide, protect and grow us as we work for our families and communities. In fact, this is part of our history as black people in this country: A constant representation of strong, community-minded black women.

However, there is a narrative of black women being perpetuated, that doesn’t always support this reality. When I was in my thirties I went back to school to finish my bachelor's degree and attended an enlightening adult degree program based in experiential learning. At school, there was a psychology teacher on staff who told one of my friends that she was so impressed by my self-confidence and the way I expressed myself, and that I had captured the high approval of so many of my peers. My friend of course told me this, thinking I would enjoy the compliment. I, however, was a bit put-off. She went on to explain that this teacher felt that Black women weren’t always so self-assured, that we tended to be insecure, so I stood out to her. I immediately contradicted this story, to my friend, then sat in contemplation about this incident, as we drove home together.

My mind reeled against the opinion of this white woman toward Black women. It was completely opposite of my experience! Most of the Black women in my life growing up and during adulthood were strong women characters who nurtured me, as well as others in their lives. There are five women in my immediate family who are very strong, opinionated, warm and wise, and my extended family boasts of many more such women. So the idea of the insecure Black woman that this psychology teacher had, infuriated and intrigued me because I just didn’t know where she got that from.

When I got back home, I spoke to one of my close friends, who is an academic, about this incident and she confirmed that this was the common narrative among academics, especially in psychology. I was completely affronted by this preposterous notion, who were these people studying? Again, most of the Black women I have known throughout my life have a certain strength of character, even if we didn’t share the same values or life views. I never counted myself as special in this way. It would not be until years later, of dissecting this in my mind, studies and in personal trials that I realized the significance of this incident.

In doing research for the book chapter that I mentioned above, we conducted interviews of Black women farmers, and read many articles, books and papers about land and agricultural practices, on Black life in America and the Diaspora. Though stories about Black agrarian women were scarce, fragmented or omitted. My research, however, did point me to understanding the ways in which Black women historically, preserved and protected themselves and their families, by remaining silent. By creating and perpetuating an outward lie of conformity through silence, Black women, were able to preserve African cultural family traditions. At one time in this country’s history, this lie was about community survival.

More than 10 years later, the incident I had in college had cycled back to my awareness to offer some context. I was led to understand where the narrative of the insecure Black woman had been initiated and why. In Allesandra William’s article,” A Piece of Land: Black Women and Land in South Africa and the United States of America”, she explains how resistance was practiced by enslaved women in the South, as a culture of dissemblance:

“Historian Darlene Clark Hine defines the culture of dissemblance as black women’s actions and personalities which the outsider presumed to be openness, but on the contrary, was their way of shielding the truth of their private lives. With the invisibility of dissemblance, women adhered to a policy of silence and were able to create alternative images of black womanhood...In the environment of privacy and secrecy, black women could assert their needs of empowerment and self-respect.” (Williams, p. 36)

Because enslaved women were made to feel inferior, were mentally and physically degraded on a daily basis, (sounds too familiar & contemporary) on the plantation, this split image allowed them a space of integrity & personal freedom.

Without even realizing it, as a member of the society of Black women, I was privy to this deceptive existence. I was able to sit at the table with my peers, among our elders and imbibe the richly woven heritage of strength, care, and thoughtless devotion to community. These women, who led by example, never shared with us, that these were secret treasures. In fact as young people we didn’t notice the discrepancies between our lives at home and the way the world saw us. Our families and religious leaders encouraged us to express ourselves. They felt we had “come up” as Black folks after the civil rights movement and were now allowed to do so for the first time in this country. So we went forth in life, heralding that which we had learned through childhood to be our heritage, never having realized the lie that was our parent’s existence.

Recently an elder said to me, we had gains and losses in the civil right’s movement. The ability to discuss things with white people was among the gains. At first my mind rebelled at this as a gain, not knowing a time when I couldn’t say what I wanted, or speak my mind. Then I checked myself, upon realizing my privilege, and conceded. The reality of the Black story in this country is complex, riddled with undefined angles and hidden passages. The story of Black women is no less fraught.

Every little black girl was not blessed to have the childhood I spoke of above. And although the practice of silence was instrumental in our survival through time, these practices passed down, have many damaging implications within Black culture today. Unlike our ancestors, who utilized this tactic as a form of resilience and preservation, today’s Black women sometimes continue to present themselves to the outside world in a much different way, in order to gain the acceptance of the dominant culture. Likewise, the dominant culture has expanded the narrative lie of our lives to one of extreme negative proportions. The patriarchal, capitalist society-driven narrative of our existence, to the dominant world-imagination, had infused an avatar of our being to the masses. One which may resemble us in feature but has no substance of the real thing. The pervasiveness of these negative images have seeped into every corner of life, sometimes even convincing Black women of this lie, leading to a exasperated replication of certain behaviors.

However, thankfully, there are also counter narratives being drawn. Celebrations of Black women, like Black Girls Rock, or #blackgirlmagik, though none as impactful, to me, as Black women themselves stepping out of the shadows to lead. The maelstrom that is Black Lives Matter, has done more for the upliftment of women, queer and transgender folks, within the black community than anything I’ve experienced in my almost 50 years of living. Moreso, it has shattered the silence of Black women and unapologetically demanded the respect and acknowledgment of our participation in the on-going struggle for freedom of Black people in this country. And as a Black womanist-mother, raising a young black feminist, I feel blessed to be alive during this time of The Women’s Re-awakening.