“I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” ~Sojourner Truth
“Ain’t I a woman?” Soujourner Truth asked. And throughout my life, I have often asked “What is it to be a woman, and who gets to say what that is?”
Growing up, I knew that barrettes, dresses, barbies, baby dolls, stylish, neat hair were expected of me. My brothers wore short box haircuts and were expected to assume “boy” roles that involved playing sports, playing with trucks, train sets, and be little men in the making who had to be strong. I knew that babies came from my mother and that modesty was expected of women and girls. As a little girl, looking up into my dad’s eyes gave me a sense of safety and calmness because he was my protector—and his honed muscles created an image in my head that my dad was superman. And even though I saw my mom spend hours doing house work with us, go to college and achieve a degree with kids in tow, I never saw my mother as super woman. During the marriage, she was just my mom, with all of the assumed social expectations of that role.
And while these where my family dynamics and my observation of gender roles within in my family, outside of the household, we were a black family—a concept that came with its own notions of our status in the world. My mother wasn’t just a woman, but a black woman. And as a black woman, I saw my mother have to abide by many spoken and unspoken rules. I saw my mother not have full authority over her body. I saw in her the remnants of the control of black women’s bodies during enslavement pre-emancipation ― in her, the recent past of forced sterilization of black women that my grandmother would talk about.
For a lot of my childhood, my mother wore long skirts, because, wearing pants was seen unfit for a woman in the sect of Christianity we were a part of. I saw her scrutinized for wearing makeup. I saw the push to suppress any kind of exuding of sexuality. I witnessed community members bad mouth her when she did embrace her beauty and body. I saw retaliation and consequences of my mother being outspoken both within the house and outside of the house. To be too outspoken outside caused problems within larger society because many perceived outspoken black women as anger-filled vessels whose bodies were desirable but whose vocal expressions should be suppressed unless singing a melodic tune.
This suppression, lack of autonomy, and body shame created in me a lot of dissonance growing up and has driven my desire for autonomy and to be in charge of my womanhood. I’ve gone through many versions of being a woman throughout the years: makeup and no makeup, straight hair and natural hair, confident and not confident. Simple decisions like hair style had consequences within the black community and especially within dominant society. I have gone through period of being less outspoken in hopes that this would gain me acceptance as a civilized “woman” within society, but learned that black women even within the post-emancipation period have yet gained the right to authentically express our experience without retribution no matter how it is expressed.
Cultural appropriation of our bodies—the attributes once mocked, oversexualized and taught to keep hidden—has become the norm. Those hair styles once stopping job opportunities, now hip. Our colorful speech is now a mainstream expression for emphasis used by those that still look at black women as inferior.
Recently, I have been proud to see black women gain strides, become honored more for their achievements that were hidden, and for black women to thrive in all aspects of their intersectionality. Also, with pride and autonomy, I feel more protective over my right to be me—my right to say who I am as a black woman—as a woman—as someone who rightfully can embrace all aspects of my black body so badly abused and shamed throughout history. While the bonds of slavery no longer exist, black women continue to be abused within the society under new guises—through police brutality, through public social media “lynchings”, and through silencing and cultural appropriation.
Yes, I am a woman—a black woman, a mother, a partner― with the autonomy to define that term beyond constraints of terms like cis imposed upon me by dominant language that doesn’t fit with my cultural reference, experience or vernacular. I am a woman beyond the constraints of the term woman—one who embraces my childbearing womb once sterilized, one who embraces my curves beyond sexualization, one who embraces my sexuality. And this celebration of my womanhood is not a threat—but an invitation for others to celebrate who they are as well—as celebrating Spring is not in protest of Winter. And even with this celebration, In 2017, like Sojourner, I still have to ask most days, “And ain’t I a woman?”