Would someone care to enlighten me as to when conceptualizations of black femininity became saturated with generalizing, self-loathing, and essentializing stereotypes of the black woman? Apparently, I did not get the memo – because here I thought black women were multiplicitous and diverse, not a stagnant and uniform people.
It all began when I attended a talk at the University of Toronto in which the guest speaker – and reason for my attendance – was erotic novelist and black activist, Sister Souljah. As a lover of her books – having read two so far, The Coldest Winter Ever and Midnight, I came with the intent of hearing her response to one question and one question alone: why did Midnight, who was characterised as this beautiful dark skinned Sudanese, Muslim man, and embodied (and damn near, epitomised) black hypermasculinity and hypersexuality, choose a non-black female as his love interest?
Midnight was a necessary accessory to my budding womanhood at the time of our first meeting. I remember reading it in the twelfth grade and swooning over by this fictional and almost mythological character of sorts. However, in the same way that I possessed a literary crush on Midnight, I too detested him. For he, forcibly rejecting black women as his love interest, instead finds love in Akemi, a Japanese woman.
After long winded questions about other aspects of her novels, a spectator finally asked the question I was too scared to ask: why was Midnight’s wife not black? But, as soon as Souljah answered the question, the response that I had long awaited became the response I wish I had not heard.
She argued that her reasoning for choosing a Japanese woman rather than a black woman was because black women, she claimed, act in manners that are not beneficial to themselves. Our certain ways of speech, our ways of dress, and our attitudes are more abrasive than others. Using terms such as “militant” when describing how black women love, she seemed to denote that, implicit in black femininity, was hostility and anger (oh, how I love the essentialised notions of the “angry black woman”).
Well hot damn, I was – to say the very least – more than stunned. Without a single attempt to contextualize any of the claims she made, she denounced the character of every single black woman in that room.
But she is definitely not the first to make these claims. This construction – or shall I say, misconstruction – of black femininity has plagued the black woman for quite some time. This monolithic, misconstrued, essentialised and non-contextualized notion of black femininity is, simply put, defamatory toward black women.
The gendered racialization of my mannerisms – for example, the fact that I like to speak assertively (and sometimes loudly) or use expressive hand gestures when I speak, that I enjoy challenging my peers (male or female) in witty repartee and discussion – are all unjust characterizations that have often been used as a framework for misguided rhetoric surrounding the racialised woman. Rhetoric that includes: claims to her fearful or non-receptive self, her unapproachable exterior or, my favourite, the reason why the heterosexual black woman is finding herself alone and man-less time and time again in comparison to her non-black female counterparts.
The essence of black femininity is not homogenous. It is fluid and hybrid, crossing intersections ofclass, shade, geographical location, sexual orientation, privilege and lack thereof.
Black femininity is a myriad of characteristics because the black woman is a myriad of persons. She is a woman of different hues who is perceived and received differently by wider society. Her encounters with race and femininity differ greatly on many levels. For example, her geographical location compounded with her social class alters the way she adopts and performs black femininity. I, growing up in the lower class sectors of Toronto’s inner city neighbourhoods, received black femininity harshly and gave it back just as harsh. I was taught to be tough, strong, and fearless, relying solely on myself.
However, I am one black female, of one particular geographical location, belonging to one specific social class. Black women span across geographical locations, residing in hoods and suburbs and gated communities or residing nowhere, possessing no homes or claiming no geographical locations. They belong to middle classes, upper classes, and middle-upper classes to working classes, educated, and non-educated classes. Hence, I, as a black woman, am in no way a universal being, nor am I an archetypal model of black women. I am me.
Thus, I repeat, black femininity is a myriad of characteristics because the black woman is a myriad of persons.
Tyrone Speaks is a column written by Christiana Collison on the subject of black feminism. It appears every other Wednesday in commentary. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.