Through the Lens of a Black Woman

This past Wednesday was my grandmother’s 78th birthday. As a called her I slowly took in the magnitude of that number, of all the decades she witnessed, of all the changes she felt in her country. Because of Moxie, feminism was, of course, casually on my mind and I started to ask Aaron Coulter about her experiences as a woman from the 1950s to today. She responded a bit puzzled and explained how the color of her skin was always the dominant issue in her experiences navigating society. Many of the social advances for women were specifically aimed at white women, while black women like herself were often left still oppressed. For example, when my grandma applied to a fashion school in New York City she was quickly disappointed to learn that it did not accept Negro women. Furthermore, Aaron had felt that the women’s movement during the 1960s was out of touch with her reality as a black woman. How could The Feminine Mystique address her experiences as one of the first black female supervisors at General Motors in Middle America?

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Although her personal life recounting does not clearly speak to her “womanhood”, my grandma certainly possesses strong opinions on female education and empowerment. Aaron’s graduation from Lincoln University signified the fulfillment of a legacy of educational excellence, which she would maintain in the generation to follow her. She recalled her own mother instilling the value of education in her mind from an early age. As she raised my mom, she continued to stress the importance of education, and additionally self-confidence. During my mom’s 6th grade year, my grandma spearheaded the school’s first trip to the nation’s capital.

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In later years, my grandma would be both an ally and source of encouragement for my mom as she navigated a recently integrated high school that recurrently attempted to stymie the ambitious spirits of black students. After a month of having her raised hand ignored in the classroom, the moxie my mom inherited from Aaron naturally kicked in and she got into an argument with her teacher and principal. When my mom told my grandma about the incident, Aaron swiftly had a meeting with the school administration. The following day, the school principal chastised my mother and told her to not tell her parents what happened in school. Upon learning this, my grandmother became extremely heated – how could the school tell her daughter what to do? How dare they try to rob her of her personal agency? And furthermore, what right did they have to impede on her daughter’s education?

This story, among many others, sticks out in my understanding of my grandma’s unconscious feminism. Whether historically viewed as “pushiness” or “bossiness”, my grandma’s self-assertion and ambition have been integral forces in the development of my identity. She has passed her moxie on to my mom, my aunt, my sister and myself.

Despite this, my mom (along with many other black women her age) still reluctantly, if at all, claims to be a feminist. After our many conversations about modern-day female oppression, my mom usually wraps up by disconnecting herself from feminism, choosing to separate her opinions from “all that feminism stuff”. It is clear that she is hesitant to claim being a feminist, despite her obvious accordance with feminist values. Although I have repeatedly explained to her the rising importance of intersectional feminism, my mom still finds it necessary to qualify my feminist rants with a quick, “, but make sure you’re viewing all these things through the lens of a black woman”.

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Although not as much as my grandma, my mom still seems to consider race a heavier factor than gender in society – and I don’t blame her. I shared a rather similar race-focused outlook on social issues before I attended Common Ground, a diversity-immersion retreat held by Duke’s Center for Race Relations. It took serious reflection and contemplation for me to realize the importance of BOTH gender and race in my life. I felt so naïve! As the white girls explained their gendered life perspectives, I felt so far behind and unaware. However, I soon recognized that my dual identity as a black woman was unique from that of the white women of Common Ground. How could I have ever fully recognized my gender identity when I was taught by my family that the color of my skin would always matter the most?

No matter its current trendiness, my feminism must always be intersectional. The experiences of black women cannot be reduced to the theories of academic feminism or the politically-correct musings of a feministing blogger. Although society has definitely progressed, from my grandma’s 1950s-1960s experiences, through my mom’s 1980s-1990s reality, to my own 21st century life, I will never be able to view my gender in the absence of my race. This intersectional twist is real life for me, Aaron, Leah, Erin, Nia and countless other reluctant/active black feministas.

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