Special thanks to my friend Ruby Sales, activist, poet, archivist, fierce thinker and founder of Spirit House, for contributing today’s column here on Something Within.
I have been thinking about grief. Back women’ grief that is. Far too many Black women wear an aura of grief that cuts across class, color, sexuality, age, religion and sexual choices. Initially, I thought of it as individual grief that reflects personal unhappiness. But, something about the pervasiveness of the grief chewed at me. It dawned on me that perhaps I am witnessing collective grief or social grief that is connected with the uncertainty of meaning place and identity in a changed world that fragments and diminishes Black women’s identities and roots. Where do we move and how do we stand in a world that claims to be beyond race, gender or sexuality? This declaration obliterates the main ingredients of our lives and generates in many of us unspeakable, internalized and incoherent loss.
I do not know about others, but I know that I still wake up every morning Black, female and lesbian (or bi depending on what day you catch me and how the spirit moves me). Everywhere, at home and in other parts of society, I feel the weight of racist, sexist and heterosexist slander, practices and policies. Yet, the media, and all other instruments of state propaganda, sometimes even our families, leaders, teachers, ministers and best friends, tell us that our grief is solely personal and comes from our individual defects or baggage.
Count the number of magazines and advertisements that tell us that we will experience unspeakable happiness and fulfillment if we lose thirty pounds, wear the right clothes, eat right foods, choose the right man or follow a “successful” person’s guide to making it. Almost every TV channel shoves the lives of the rich and famous at us as appetizers to feed our hunger and grief. Reality after reality shows further our loss and grief by fragmenting our relations to each other in round after round of contests that reaffirm the message that only mean- spirited and women- hating women win and prosper.
I don’t deny that Black women sometimes engage in behavior that further adds to their grief. But I do think to solely focus on our personal defects robs our grief of social roots and saves the power brokers from moral, social or spiritual responsibility for the chaos and injustice that they perpetuate on us, our communities and other communities around the world.
According to the propaganda of the powerbrokers, women create dysfunctional families, especially Black women whom they slander as the most unfit mothers. According to the popular rhetoric, we bear and raise urban beasts, hoodlums and morally and socially deficient children. They tell us that family flaws mean that everything is broken. If the family is sick, then our mothers are sick; it also stands to reason that we must be a sick person and a sick race or gender. Collectively, we all lose because this blame game robs us of one of the important historical cornerstones of Black survival and hope. No, families are not perfect and some have perpetrated monstrous harm upon some of its members. Rather, I am saying that we must view families within social optics.
All around me I hear the words of our dear dead sister, June Jordan, the poet and my friend, “Everywhere we go the tide seems low.” This is nothing new for Black women. We have navigated low tides from captivity, enslavement, southern apartheid, northern racism and a 21st century capitalist technocracy.
Today the world calls us whores, immoral mothers, welfare cheats, and b*tches, and we believe them Our children gang up on us on the world stage in discordant rap sounds of bitches, whores and bad mamas. Even our daughters tell us in monolithic fire spitting words that to be a black woman is to be crazy or in far too many instances unloving authoritarians. In many ways, the culture of whiteness diminishes our images in their eyes. We are no longer for each other a family and a resource.
And, we weep for our lost children whom we feel that we can no longer protect in a capitalist technocracy that reduces their lives to unessential waste. How do we help them find the meaning of their individual and collective lives under this weight? As a matter of fact, how do we find meaning in our own lives?
Can we collectively find the will, vitality, hope, courage and reason that led Black women to declare in 1915 that they could carry their “burdens in the heat of the day?” We are here today because they did! This is not to say that they were perfect and unbruised by the blows both inside our community and in the nation. Yet, Mamie Garvin Fields captured the vitality of their daring and their spirits when she concluded that everywhere she looked in the Black community there was something to do. She saw our collective condition in 1915 not only as a burden but as an opportunity to play a major role in shaping the American project of democracy and community building. As Black women, we still must work “in the heat of the day.” For the community of grieving Black women, we do not stand without tools and examples. There is a balm” in our legacy that will offer comfort in this mean and unjust world. If only we will recover, renew and expand this tradition? Who will “join this standing up?”
© Ruby Sales, New York, April 11, 2008