15 August 2011

"A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood" by Beah Richards

Preface:  Just overnight from posting my previous blog,  Skeeter's Sisters: And Some of Them are Good (Reflecting on Insidious White Woman Normativity in “The Help”), responses from white women friends, colleagues and anonymous readers are disparagingly full of vitriol than of witness.  Being peculiuar as I am, I lack the 'care what others think about me' gene and live my authentic self being more intentional than not to select my words carefully, wield them skillfully and use them responsibly.  Therefore, this morning's repose to those comments come from a poem written by Mother Beah Richards in 1951 which validates my 21st century appall at the atrocity of liberties taken by white women -- even with some of the good ones in their midst -- against black body and wombs of black women. Like I penned yesterday:  Same spirit, ever more insidious, different generation.
"A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood" by Beah Richards  1951

For my known and unknown maternal and paternal BlackWomen ancestors who both slaved and worked (for barely liveable wages) in White folks’ homes for centuries…
by Beah Richards  1951
A Black Woman Speaks…
Of White Womanhood
Of White Supremacy
Of Peace

It is right that I a woman
should speak of white womanhood.
My fathers
my brothers
my husbands
my sons
die for it; because of it.
And their blood chilled in electric chairs,
stopped by hangman’s noose,
cooked by lynch mobs’ fire,
spilled by white supremacist mad desire to kill for profit,
gives me that right.
I would that I could speak of white womanhood
as it will and should be
when it stands tall in full equality.
But then, womanhood will be womanhood
void of color and of class,
and all necessity for my speaking thus will be past.
Gladly past.
But now, since ‘tis deemed a thing apart
I must in searching honesty report
how it seems to me.
White womanhood stands in bloodied skirt
and willing slavery
reaching out adulterous hand
killing mine and crushing me.
What then is this superior thing
that in order to be sustained must needs feed upon my flesh?
How came this horror to be?
Let’s look to history.
They said, the white supremacist said
that you were better than me,
that your fair brow should never know the sweat of slavery.
They lied.
White womanhood too is enslaved,
the difference is degree.
They brought me here in chains.
They brought you here willing slaves to man.
You, shiploads of women each filled with hope
that she might win with ruby lip and saucy curl
and bright and flashing eye
him to wife who had the largest tender.
And they sold you here even as they sold me.
My sisters, there is no room for mockery.
If they counted my teeth
they did appraise your thigh
and sold you to the highest bidder
the same as I.
And you did not fight for your right to choose
whom you would wed
but for whatever bartered price
that was the legal tender
you were sold to a stranger’s bed
in a stranger land
And you did not fight.
Mind you, I speak not mockingly
but I fought for freedom,
I’m fighting now for our unity.
We are women all,
and what wrongs you murders me
and eventually marks your grave
so we share a mutual death at the hand of tyranny.
They trapped me with the chain and gun.
They trapped you with lying tongue.
For, ‘less you see that fault-
that male villainy
that robbed you of name, voice and authority,
that murderous greed that wasted you and me,
he, the white supremacist, fixed your minds with poisonous thought:
“white skin is supreme.”
and therewith bought that monstrous change
exiling you to things.
Changed all that nature had ill you wrought of gentle usefulness,
abolishing your spring.
Tore out your heart,
set your good apart from all that you could say,
know to be right.
And you did not fight,
but set your minds fast on my slavery
the better to endure your own.
‘Tis true
my pearls were beads of sweat
wrung from weary bodies’ pain,
instead of rings upon my hands
I wore swollen, bursting veins.
My ornaments were the wip-lash’s scar
my diamond, perhaps, a tear.
Instead of paint and powder on my face
I wore a solid mask of fear to see my blood so spilled.
And you, women seeing
spoke no protest
but cuddled down in your pink slavery
and thought somehow my wasted blood
confirmed your superiority.
Because your necklace was of gold
you did not notice that it throttled speech.
Because diamond rings bedecked your hands
you did not regret their dictated idleness.
Nor could you see that the platinum bracelets
which graced your wrists were chains
binding you fast to economic slavery.
And though you claimed your husband’s name
still could not command his fidelity.
You bore him sons.
I bore him sons.
No, not willingly.
He purchased you.
He raped me,
I fought!
But you fought neither for yourselves nor me.
Sat trapped in your superiority
and spoke no reproach.
Consoled your outrage with an added diamond brooch.
Oh, God, how great is a woman’s fear
who for a stone, a cold, cold stone
would not defend honor, love or dignity!
You bore the damning mockery of your marriage
and heaped your hate on me,
a woman too,
a slave more so.
And when your husband disowned his seed
that was my son
and sold him apart from me
you felt avenged.
I was not your enemy in this,
I was not the source of your distress.
I was your friend, I fought.
But you would not help me fight
thinking you helped only me.
Your deceived eyes seeing only my slavery
aided your own decay.
Yes, they condemned me to death
and they condemned you to decay.
Your heart whisked away,
consumed in hate,
used up in idleness
playing yet the lady’s part
estranged to vanity.
It is justice to you to say your fear equalled your tyranny.
You were afraid to nurse your young
lest fallen breast offend your master’s sight
and he should flee to firmer loveliness.
And so you passed them, your children, on to me.
Flesh that was your flesh and blood that was your blood
drank the sustenance of life from me.
And as I gave suckle I knew I nursed my own child’s enemy.
I could have lied,
told you your child was fed till it was dead of hunger.
But I could not find the heart to kill orphaned innocence.
For as it fed, it smiled and burped and gurgled with content
and as for color knew no difference.
Yes, in that first while
I kept your sons and daughters alive.
But when they grew strong in blood and bone
that was of my milk
taught them to hate me.
Put your decay in their hearts and upon their lips
so that strength that was of myself
turned and spat upon me,
despoiled my daughters, and killed my sons.
You know I speak true.
Though this is not true for all of you.
When I bestirred myself for freedom
and brave Harriet led the way
some of you found heart and played a part
in aiding my escape.
And when I made my big push for freedom
your sons fought at my sons’ side,
Your husbands and brothers too fell in that battle
when Crispus Attucks died.
It’s unfortunate that you acted not in the way of justice
but to preserve the Union
and for dear sweet pity’s sake;
Else how came it to be with me as it is today?
You abhorred slavery
yet loathed equality.
I would that the poor among you could have seen
through the scheme
and joined hands with me.
Then, we being the majority, could long ago have rescued
our wasted lives.
But no.
The rich, becoming richer, could be content
while yet the poor had only the pretense of superiority
and sought through murderous brutality
to convince themselves that what was false was true.
So with KKK and fiery cross
and bloodied appetites
set about to prove that “white is right”
forgetting their poverty.
Thus the white supremacist used your skins
to perpetuate slavery.
And woe to me.
Woe to Willie McGee.
Woe to the seven men of Martinsville.
And woe to you.
It was no mistake that your naked body on an Esquire calendar
announced the date, May Eighth.
This is your fate if you do not wake to fight.
They will use your naked bodies to sell their wares
though it be hate, Coca Cola or rape.
When a white mother disdained to teach her children
this doctrine of hate,
but taught them instead of peace
and respect for all men’s dignity
the courts of law did legislate
that they be taken from her
and sent to another state.
To make a Troy Hawkins of the little girl
and a killer of the little boy!
No, it was not for the womanhood of this mother
that Willie McGee died
but for a depraved, enslaved, adulterous woman
whose lustful demands denied,
lied and killed what she could not possess.
Only three months before another such woman lied
and seven black men shuddered and gave up their lives.
These women were upheld in these bloody deeds
by the president of this nation,
thus putting the official seal on the fate
of white womanhood within these United States.
This is what they plan for you.
This is the depravity they would reduce you to.
Death for me
and worse than death for you.
What will you do?
Will you fight with me?
White supremacy is your enemy and mine.
So be careful when you talk with me.
Remind me not of my slavery, I know it well
but rather tell me of your own.
Remember, you have never known me.
You’ve been busy seeing me
as white supremacist would have me be,
and I will be myself.
My aim is full equality.
I would usurp their plan!
and plenty
for every man, woman and child
who walks the earth.
This is my fight!
If you will fight with me then take my hand
and the hand of Rosa Ingram, and Rosalee McGee,
and as we set about our plan
let our wholehearted fight be:
Postscript:  Thank you Aishash "Cultural Worker"  Simmons, Barbara Kellom, Beah Richards, and Big Mama'nem.

14 August 2011

Skeeter's Sisters: And Some of Them are Good (Reflecting on Insidious White Woman Normativity in “The Help”)

It has taken me 24 hours later, Sunday worship, and a talk with Mama to get me in a righteous space to respond to the movie, “The Help.” I am most grateful that God allows for righteous indignation (Ephesians 4: 26-27) or else I would be sinning big time with the meditations of my heart!

As a bibliophile it was unusual that I saw the movie before reading the book. However, with life moving in such swift transitions over the past six months, by the time I caught the wave of the rave, the movie was opening in my neighborhood. What I expected was to see a film which hired a lot of black actresses in silent roles – typical of Hollywood and life beyond celluloid where the spooks at the door (literally and metaphorically) were oft seen and not heard. Still, I purposed to see a film where black actresses were working. I also expected to see happy white girls who lived to make life miserable for the other and outsiders. These two expectations were sufficiently met.

Conversely, I did not expect my heart to be snatched out of this suburban theatre and esconed once again in the dirty South. A South, namely Texas, where I knew those maids because they were kin to me; where I knew those white women because they were mysteries to me; where I knew even in my young knowing that white people had a monopoly on the easy life and black people were expected to make it so for them. So I cried.

As I watched Abileen (portrayed by the imitable Viola Davis) mammy Mae Moebly, from the first scene to the final when little Mae asks Abileen as she was leaving having been fired, “Are you going to get you a new little girl?”, I traversed from deep sighs to deeper sobbing. I cried for the love black women gave to little white girls and boys which was usually repaid in insult. I cried because I watched my Democratic womenfolk mammy and serve Republican white folk who red-lined our neighborhoods, charged the Poll Tax, and sat on juries to convict on color more than on circumstantial evidence. I cried because Mama'nem, the vast of black mammy ancestors, gave away so much of their good heart to little white people and having so little of this affirmation left over to give to us – their bone, their flesh, their skin, their kin. I cried, envious of the ample lap ever available to the little white girl, when all the story told was of the next generation of little black girl being coached to serve the next generation of little white girl. So I cried, a lot.

I cried also, because I know, in my lifetime, the daughters and granddaughters of the white women portrayed in this movie. Same spirit, ever more insidious, different generation. I met one of them in seminary when doing a group project where I was the only black, and black woman, in the group. Of course, without discussion, the white woman took power of the pen and paper; the alpha white male took the seat at the head of the table; and they together began to answer the questions set before us – as a group assignment – as if the other three of us people of color were invisible. When they came to a question that neither of them knew the answer I offered the answer. This little white girl, being some 20 years my junior, poised her pen over the paper and refused to write down the answer. I repeated the answer to which she positioned herself as interrogator, “How do you know that?” As my Mama said, “it is not what you say, it's how you say it.” She asked the right question the wrong way. The collision of her indignation at her lack of knowledge and my confident knowledge hung thick in the air as I refused to justify my presence at the table.

She, holding the pen and refusing to let it dance with the paper, blushed deeply as I calmly turned the paper away from her, wrote the answer in my most flourishing penmanship and purple pen, and read off the next question. For the group to answer. She had nothing more to say for the rest of the project and relinquished the paper to my pen to finish recording the answers. When the convener called us together to a lively competition of who got the most answers correct, not only did our team win, our team was the only table who got the question in question correct! Again, that little white girl, I can call her so being 20 years my junior, indignantly and emphatically asked, “How do you know that?” Again, I refused her the luxury of bullying me into justifying my seat at the table of knowledge. While our table, minus her and the alpha white male who had walked away from our table and rejoined his peers across the room before the results were announced, celebrated at being the victors in this theological mini-decathlon, she writhed in clear discomfort of my ability to do her no harm. To answer her, with anything other than silence, I would have done her harm. Being a grown black woman and womanist, I seek to do no harm, or at least mitigate harm, to another. That little white girl in seminary just couldn't bear the thought that a black woman possessed knowledge superior to her cache of trivia. She just couldn't phantom that I would not mammy her into feeling good by my being silent or otherwise responding to her intimitable airs. I cried watching this movie because that little white girl had learned some very bad habits, had inherited some awful social graces, and embodied racist norms inherent of nurture not infused by the nature of Imago Dei.

Five years later, and mere weeks ago, I met another little white girl professing being called to Christian ministry who demanded I allow her to bully me into a conversation in which she was clearly not my social, intellectual, spiritual, or theological peer. And, like little children do when they cant have their way, she threw a tantrum in the middle of a gathering and garnered all kinds of attention to her pouting and spouting because in response to the most blatant, racist and ignorant comment I had heard from anyone in our denomination, I quietly corrected her, sought to deflect her escalating diatribe of pseudo-intellectualism with gentleness, and offered my ability to do her no harm. I cried in the movie because Hilly Holbrook's granddaughter so needed to avenge her ignorance, brashness and mean spiritedness that she falsely accused me taking something of hers – her power to demand full participation in denigration of the spook in the doorway (I was the only black woman in attendance). Her sole defense for asserting her position was, “I am from Texas and black people don't....” Hilly's granddaughter, which I shall heretofore name my experience with this little white girl of whom I am 30 years her senior, called the law enforcers of our gathering to further demand I give an account of what I did to upset her so. I cried in the movie because I wanted one more conversation with Hilly's granddaughter to merely ask her, and ask of her generation of racist white women in my most sincere Abileen voice, “Miss Hilly, aren't you tired, yet?” I long to ask her if she was not indeed tired of sifting through righteousness to hold fast to whiteness. I long to ask her if she was not indeed tired of being afraid of others outside of Texas, femaleness and whiteness. I long to tell Hilly's granddaughter that it was not too late for her to have a Skeeter Epiphany in the name of Jesus. I cried, so hard and so long because Hilly's granddaughters are still giving birth. To seminarians. To clergy.

As I watched The Help, I cried because I could not leave the theatre hating white women. Besides hating being such an exhaustive endeavor, I cried because I am grateful for Skeeter Sisters in my life. I couldn't hate all white women, because some of them are good. My mother and her sisters have long worked for white women. My 89 yo senior aunt still works for white people. Whether as maids entering from the back door to raising white kids to taking in laundry, Mama'nem speak of the goodness of white people towards them in an era which authenticates the content and context of The Help.

Mama tells of working for Mrs. Ava Folks in Lily White, a subdivision of Houston of which its name announced its populous and fiercely guarded demographic. Mrs. Folks took notice of Mama's detailed handiwork on finishing garments. She would sew an outfit and Mama would finish it with nimble fingers and keen eye for detail. Mama says that Mrs. Folks was good and fair and generous. She paid Mama justly and often gave Mama useful gifts of fabric and excess from her coffers. Mrs. Folks was so benevolent, Mama named my sister after her. I heard this story a many a day. I cried watching the movie because there were not enough “good white women” portrayed on the front lines of the eve of the Civil Rights Movement; because the white women who would have been good were portrayed as neurotic, alcoholic and opportunistic. White women: and some of them are good.

Just as I have encountered many of Hilly's granddaughters, I have also encountered white women who are good, not merely tolerant, benevolent, or kind towards me, but inherently good – seeking righteousness where they could instead choose privilege, passivity and protection. One of them who is good encouraged me in seminary to preach truth which was unpopular. One of them who is married to a former boss keeps in touch with me long after the white liberal reaction to the Rodney King Riots quelled. One of them works for queer justice understanding that black church folk approaches this hot topic from a distinct cultural location. One of them opened her palatial home and offered her expensive car to me for four years as I visited my son in boarding school on the East Coast. One of them seeks out my perspective on matters pertaining to women, not just black women; to holy texts, not just texts about homosexuals; to raising babies, as she is raising her own while marveling at the relationship I have with my teen son. I cried in the movie, a lot, because some white women are good, courageous, not at all intimidated by the ring leaders of racism prevalent in Hilly's daughters. Some of them are good.

Skeeter’s Sisters: some of them are good, first; white by creation; and friend by choice. For that I give God thanks and praise.