Reading the Work of Black Women: Respectability, Rage, and Restorative Justice
“So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women?”
Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”
As Deborah J. Cohan notes in her article “Rage and Activism: The Promise of Black Lives Matter,” the rage of Black people is rooted “in systemic white racism” and “BLM is in many ways a call to rage” and a call to increase visibility and agency (Cohan 39). Telling an oppressed person they should not express rage is a way to shut down discourse, but some activists are dealing with the byproducts of rage, namely the impact of rage upon their individual health and spiritual well-being. In the above mentioned article, Cohan goes on to cite Patricia Hill Collins: “Oppression works by disconnecting people from whatever they are impassioned about” (Cohan 41). She also highlights a point made by Christine Northrope: the visibility of living authentically, an authenticity that sometimes includes anger, can be used as “personal jet fuel” to effect change, or, can be internalized, suppressed, and self-destructive. Since the work of social change is difficult terrain, it seems inevitable that without the right tools, activists may very well internalize their struggle, since the struggle is already deeply personal. Activists who have been doing the work of rage, protest, and putting themselves out in public are working on ways they can recharge themselves and heal: both from the necessary anger and the repression of selfhood that occurs by internalizing The Politics of Respectability. They are restoring and redirecting their energy by recognizing the effects of punitive internal and external anger: seeing the productivity of rage while also coming to terms with the impact of living in a constant state of rage and subverting the potential for burnout.
In her recent article for Bitch Magazine, “Some of Us Are Brave: Radical Black Care is the Revolution” (a title that invokes All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave), Tamara Winfrey Harris explicitly outlines Black women’s self-care as a revolutionary act. She outlines how Black women “have collectively internalized the myth of superhuman Black female strength, using it to shame ourselves [themselves] and each other for prioritizing our own health and well-being.” Harris goes on to explain how she is researching Black girlhood and how mothers teach their daughters a bootstrap mentality as the solution to their myriad of obstacles even if they, throughout the course of their lives, have suffered illness because of this mentality. Harris points out the harm in expecting Black girls to just become thick skinned without seeing the harm done by this philosophy. This point is especially underscored when she brings out:
We don’t nurture our daughters and sister friends from being sick, exhausted and overwhelmed, because we are sick, exhausted and overwhelmed, and our mothers and mothers’ mothers were, too. We have bought into the body- and soul-killing stereotype of Black female indestructibility and so confuse being the mule of the world with strength. And we can’t see any other way. This has to change. It is killing Black women and preventing us from accessing our collective power. We have to reject the idea that overburdened and unsupported is our natural state of being. (Harris)
As the Black Lives Matter Movement gained more momentum in 2013, we began seeing nationwide and transnational protests using the mantra “No Justice, No Peace,” sometimes followed by “No Racist Police,” pointing to just one, albeit major, institution of white supremacy which directly causes suffering, disproportionately, to Black people. This phrase hearkens back to what Dr. Martin Luther King said when coming to mediate for jailed Vietnam War protesters in 1967, “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.” To pinpoint the phrase much earlier, it can be found in the biblical book of Isaiah: Justice will bring about peace; right will produce calm and security” (Chapter 32, Verse 17). Peter Tosh echoes this statement in his 1977 song “Equal Rights”: “Everyone is crying out for peace, yes, no one is crying out for justice.” According to University of Pennsylvania linguistic scholar, Ben Zimmer, this “has been a staple of the U.S. protest movement, especially in New York City, since the late '80s,” and during the 1987 protest of the racially motivated murder of Michael Griffith, it was organizer Viola Plummer who said, “from the death of Michael Griffith on, we declare that if there is no justice there cannot be peace" (Zimmer). Having no peace has great physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences on the oppressed, and scholars have sought to highlight the ways people who are in a continual state of traumatic, yet necessary, opposition to an unjust society are stuck “holding the bill,” re-traumatized by their struggle. Not only are Black people laboring for their own liberation, but they are doing so at their own peril. Black feminist thought has presented the nuances of this life: reconciling the fact that they are expected to live a type of martyred existence where they are merely surviving. Black feminist thought asks us to see the intersecting expectations we put on Black women and femmes due to the systemic oppressions they never asked for, to deal with their own pain, often alone. Black Lives Matter organizer Patrisse Cullors describes the trauma that produces these feelings:
To not be able to feed your children is traumatic. To witness people being kidnapped from their community, put in cars and handcuffed, you know, at 12, 13-years-old is traumatic. To witness people receive life sentences in prison is traumatic. And so if there's no sense of healing, if there's no way out of that, I think that leads to a significant amount of apathy in our communities, and so Black Lives Matter has created a track towards healing. (“The #BlackLivesMatter Movement: Marches And Tweets For Healing”)
Many activists are trying to mitigate the costs to their personal well-being by practicing self-care and strategizing to help those whose personal life circumstances have brought them to institutions: a station in our society where people deem it’s “too late” for you. This generation of activists in The Movement for Black Lives highlight the need for restorative practices and try to subvert the politics of respectability.
Defining The Politics of Respectability
In the article “Black Women and the Politics of Respectability: An Introduction” detailing their success with a Call for Papers dated last year, Ralina L. Joseph & Jane Rhodes shared they wanted to have conversations surrounding “The Politics of Respectability” that were as popular as the oft cited “Double Consciousness” by W.E.B. DuBois. Joseph and Rhodes articulate: “From hip-hop fashion and lyrics, to popular media, to the Internet, and to public sites of protest and civil unrest, African Americans remain acutely hypervisible and under surveillance a century after [Evelyn Brooks] Higgenbotham’s subjects began advocating for strict codes of behavior” (Joseph and Rhodes). Their participants outlined the intricate nature of behavioral policing involved with respectability politics: from the “good” transperson/”transnormativity” embodied by figures such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, the deradicalizing of Rosa Parks by elites, to Shonda Rhimes both embracing and defying respectability politics to create entertainment (Joseph and Rhodes). The term “good” is loaded with white supremacist semantics, and add to that the intersection of gender with race and class and you get how fraught the expectations are for Black women.
To enact justice, in terms of respectability politics, would mean eliminating the accepted practices of shaming and dehumanizing done to Black people who do not conform to a normative structure on white supremacy’s terms. So, as society undertakes its, as The Movement for Black Lives “Platform” succinctly puts it, “War on Black People,“ according to Harris and others who I will outline shortly, Black women especially put the same unyielding pressures on themselves as the institutions which oppress them.
For instance, The Movement for Black Lives is calling for:
An immediate end to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black youth across all areas of society including, but not limited to; our nation’s justice and education systems, social service agencies, and media and pop culture. This includes an end to zero-tolerance school policies and arrests of students, the removal of police from schools, and the reallocation of funds from police and punitive school discipline practices to restorative services. (“The Movement for Black Lives”)
If we follow Harris’ line of thinking, that radical change comes from radical self-care, Black women have also been enacting zero-tolerance policies on themselves, perhaps because that’s what institutions have laid out for them as normal. In Brittney C. Cooper’s text Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women uses Anna Julia Cooper’s conception of transcending respectability politics: “Demands for respectability assume that unassailable social propriety will prove one’s dignity. Dignity, unlike respectability, is not socially contingent. It is intrinsic and not up for debate” (B. Cooper 14). Demanding “respectability” implies that those who operate outside of social boundaries are somehow no longer human. This binary is harmful; the same impulses that may drive some to creativity may cause others to withdraw and still others to inflict harm. The one being artistically creative may be more socially acceptable, but someone reacting with anger may be using that creative impulse to be visible through rage--both are using survival techniques. The Movement for Black Lives Platform suggests restorative thinking that gets to the root of conflict develops leadership qualities, builds trust in communities, and does not “further isolate offenders” (“The Movement for Black Lives”). They emphasize the harm in “zero-tolerance” policies, another institutional practice that plays into respectability politics. Yet as Brittney C. Cooper emphasizes about Anna Julia Cooper, A. Cooper’s theory of the Black female body as the source of hope and “possibility” represents the necessary “restorative” and positive intonation of Black women, and, to go further, this would mean Black female bodies require the most care and reverence in the struggle for Black lives. B. Cooper points out that during slavery, it was Black women who were most “valuable” to white slave owners due to their ability to produce children, which “made them vulnerable to endless sexual exploitation” (Cooper 20). This means the recent #SayHerName hashtag activism scuffles with this very issue. Not limiting A. Cooper’s theoretical framework to merely a biological determinism, because it was much more than that, B. Cooper points out:
Whether the orienting Black body included a pregnant woman, a young man, an embryonic, gender neutral body, or even her own body experiencing various modes of segregation, [A.] Cooper’s work can be read through tracking the various invocations of invoking Black bodies as a mechanism for theory production itself. (B. Cooper 24)
The idea is: if we learn to liberate the most marginalized in our social system, every marginal person can benefit. Self-care is so important for Black women who must, by virtue of the subject, theorize about the Black body while also living in one. B. Cooper traces this idea in the realm of Black women as public intellectuals: “Race women took it as their political and intellectual work to give shape and meaning to the Black body in social and political terms, to make it legible as an entity with infinite value and social worth. In doing so, they hoped to create liveable terms upon which Black women could be both known epistemologically, and upon which Black women could live and engage socially” (B. Cooper 45). She goes on to point out the inherent gender and sexual conservativism inherent in respectability politics which polices women’s bodies in harmful ways that makes them doubt themselves and their intentions. Black women have been trying to reclaim themselves since all the way back to chattel slavery (B. Cooper 47).
As Audre Lorde points out in “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,” Black women’s bodies are routinely unrecognized, even by “scholars.” She ruminates: “Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women?” The entirety of the essay is about how Mary Daly released the book Gyn/Ecology, a text supposed to examine the mythological nature of the “Goddess” archetype, and yet all the figures she examines were western-european women (Lorde 90). This essay is significant in the context of reclaiming Black lives and bodies. It shows the rage of Black bodies being erased (highlighted by Lorde) and the obliviousness of a white woman (Daly). White society continues to erase the labor and presence of Black lives, a violent and militaristic activity, similar to hoping indigenous cultures move out of the way and are silent. Not all Black women have the platform of Lorde, but this is the rage that works metaphysically to make Black women physically sick from erasure.
Revering Black women as historical public intellectuals with a specific agenda, not just some group who has only recently been making contributions to the public sphere reminds of the preface to the fourth edition of This Bridge Called My Back entitled “Catching Fire” where Cherrie Moraga says, “I watch how desperately we need a political memory so that we are not always imagining ourselves as the inventors of our revolutions; so that we are humbled by the valiant efforts of our foremothers; and so, with humility and a firm foothold in history, we can enter upon an informed and re-envisioned strategy for social/political change in decades ahead” (xix). Moraga also states revolution is both “physical and metaphysical” (xxi).
So, when The Movement for Black Lives says they want to deal with social problems using restorative practices, this is an attempt to reclaim Black bodies, Black women’s philosophy, and disrupt the Western prison and military industrial complex that contributes to housing and erasing Black people who refuse to adhere to respectability politics. In Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts also presents the framework of Anna Julia Cooper to show how Black women’s bodies are undermined using a series of stereotypes to disable and house them in institutions. She lists: “Bearers of Incurable Immortality,” “Jezebel and the Immoral Black Mother,” “Mammy and the Negligent Black Mother,” “The Matriarch and the Black Unwed Mother,” “The Welfare Queen and the Devious Black Mother” (5-20). All of these stereotypes represent the violence of claiming a group of people are “degenerates” through their very biology. She notes, “The new biodeterminism presents drugs, poverty, and race as interchangeable marks that inevitably consign Black children to a worthless future”(Roberts 20). “Black children are born guilty,” she says (Roberts 21). This is the crux of biological determinist white feminism and “the cult of true womanhood,” so white women are just as culpable as white men at perpetuating and colonizing minds with respectability politics. We also see this rationale used to shame trans, gender non-binary, gender non-conforming and otherwise queer people along with poor folks. White women sometimes fail to see how this contributes to slut-shaming/”she was asking for it.”
In reviewing Melinda Cooper’s [racking up Cooper bonus points here] book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, for Dissent Magazine, James Chappel summarizes her main talking points:
She covers a vast number of themes: welfare reform, deindustrialization, the AIDS crisis, incarceration, spiraling inequality, the return of religion, and the role of securitized credit markets in mortgages and student debt. These discussions bring together intellectual, political, economic, and cultural history into a satisfying, and sometimes exhilarating, unity. These familiar stories, she shows, are bound up in one overarching narrative: the installation of the nuclear family, and not the state, as the privileged site of debt, wealth transfer, and care.
Within the last 10-20 years critiques of neoliberalism have proliferated by white authors who are only beginning to wrestle with the financialization of the individual, yet, Black women’s intellectual framework has been dealing with this very problem since they arrived on this continent. In an anti-racist society, these proliferations of thought would be seen as reiterations of earlier philosophies of ontological experience, not awed “new” material. Unfortunately, that is not how we are training scholars at many U.S. institutions. Again, Lorde echoes here: “Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women?”
Radical Self-care and Restorative Justice
Many Black activists are recognizing the Black feminist framework and applying it to their own self-care along with creating a pedagogy of self-care. One such activist is Adrienne Maree Brown, the co-creator of the Octavia Butler inspired project, Octavia’s Brood, where Brown and Walidah Imarisha draw inspiration from the philosophical wisdom of Butler’s life and work (the project was also turned into a book of the same name) to rally science fiction writers and imagine what the world would could look like if in line with social justice concerns. Her 2017 book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, uses a materialist spirituality to explain how Black folks can take part in the process of agitation and liberation while not further traumatizing themselves. The subtitle, Changing Worlds, is a reference to the worlding that takes place in science fiction. She offers the book, as she feels Butler would have wanted to, “a cluster of thoughts in development, observations of existing patterns, and questions of how we apply the brilliance of the world around us to our efforts to co-exist in and with the world as humans, particularly those of us seeking to transform the crises of our time, to turn our legacy toward harmony” (A. Brown 4). She encourages folks to read her book nonlinearly, skip around where she features sections with choice advice (which she emphasizes you can take or leave) using principles of nature: element, fractal, adaptive, interdependence and decentralization, non-linear and iterative, resilience and transformative justice, creating more possibilities (A. Brown 38).
The bibliography she weaves, along with the artistic sensibilities needed to craft a book like this are astonishing, yet, I can see the cynic thinking this is not a book that also encompasses political philosophy since it is non-linear and deals in materialist spirituality. In her personal life she claims identity with: investment in permaculture, working with others not like herself, pleasure activism (ala Audre Lorde “The Uses of the Erotic”), healing and midwifery, writing and art. The materialist spirituality is especially engaging and you can see the way Brown has been the protege of a sci-fi writer and philosopher such as Butler:
I thought then and I think now: This can’t be all. No one survives this way. Not long term. This can’t be the purpose of our species, to constantly identify each other as “other,” build walls between us, and engage in both formal and informal wars against each others bodies. I feel miraculous. It’s confusing to feel so miraculous when so many people hate my skin and my history. (A. Brown 15)
Ginny Brown, a polygamous gender nonconforming queer writer, in her article “Five Questions to Ask Before Getting in an Online Argument,” she recognizes the need for health and safety when engaging with hateful people online. A transnational feminist concern on the rise, she details her ideas for self-care when going toe-to-toe with virtual strangers. After all, just because the transnational framework encompasses the global online, what some might deem impersonal is deeply penetrating, all from the seeming safety of your own device: desktop or laptop computer, or, more intimate, a 24/7 beckoning cell phone. To begin, Brown asks “What am I trying to accomplish?” and she encourages people online to figure out why they are engaging with, for instance, an online comments section. Are the goals educational? Is it a way to support someone who feels marginalized? Her other considerations include to make sure the argument is laid out so people can easily understand and empathize with it. She also says if you’re looking for instant gratification you likely won’t find it (G. Brown). Such is education. One of the ways Brown incorporates respectability politics is she encourages the respectability of a well-thought out argument versus an incoherent or emotional one. However, she doesn’t deny those emotions exist, she just doesn’t want online activists to spin their wheels to their own detriment. She admits engaging in online arguments can be a way to affirm yourself and take your power back, but also wonders if time may be better spent: “Sometimes speaking up is a way to take back power or a feeling of safety — it’s a way of affirming that you matter in the world, too, even if the other person won’t hear that. Other times, jumping into the conversation will just invite more attacks on that vulnerable spot, and you would be taking better care of yourself to step away” (G. Brown). A major take-away from Brown’s article is to determine if the person you’re arguing with only seeks to harm you. If so, consider if you can handle that; consider your mental health.
Radical Dharma was written by three Black practitioners of Buddhism, 2 of them women, two queer: Jasmine Syedullah, Ph.D., Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, and Lama Rod Owens. These activists point out early on when speaking of their roads to practicing Buddhism two particular questions they had when going in: how would they reconcile the colonial aspect of religious appropriation of Buddhism to deal with overcoming trauma from racism (since colonization is racism)? And, how was becoming a practitioner of a set of religious practices designed to soothe different from becoming the “good negro,” an attitude that caused them much pain? In a prior book on Zen Buddhism, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, Rev. angel Kyodo Williams encourages seekers of spiritual comfort to seek out, in addition to Buddhism, African-derived Yoruba, Santeria, Voodoo, Hinduism, Sufism, and Islam (Williams 2). She goes on to describe the colonial religions (in less harsh language as I am choosing by calling them colonial) associated with Christianity as passive and part of many people’s traditions by virtue of being American (Williams 3). She reminds of Sojourner Truth’s revisiting and reimagining Christian lore for her speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women all together ought to be able to get it right side up again! And now they are asking to do it, the men better let them!” In later chapters Williams discusses spirituality as much as she does warriorhood and fearlessness. Fast forward 17 years to Radical Dharma, Williams shares the pages of the text with two of her mentees.
One of her mentees, a Black queer Lama, Lama Rod Owens, sums up the impetus for healing Black lives, even while they fight for liberation:
And I’ve had to connect to the sense of never feeling good enough. I’ve had to learn to create a language around that and to be vulnerable...because, at the end of the day--let’s just say white supremacy is completely eradicated--that’s great, but I’m still going to experience this sense of inferiority and this woundedness. I think we get distracted with trying to end white supremacy and oppression and racism, but there is still this work of healing that needs to be done for everyone, and we need to bring more attention to that piece. Healing can be started now. I get pushback from people who say, “No! We need to end oppression. Or we need to end all these systems.” I think that’s how we get lost and distracted from the work of healing. I’m working to end racism and oppression but at the same time I want to be liberated. I want to thrive. I want to be happy” (Owens, Syedullah, Williams 78).
To this, Rev. Williams responds: “This is something that’s challenging for people to understand--the notion of transforming society from the inside out. We’re so in a framework of dichotomies that many people are like, ‘We have to do it outside first’”(Owens, Syedullah, Williams 79). Rev. Williams seems to imply there are multiple ways to come upon change, not one prescriptive answer. Change happens on the inside, outside and all around. Lama Rod also emphasizes he had to overcome his own feelings of inferiority and cites James Baldwin as the inspiration which led him to see radical love as an answer (Owens, Sydullah, Williams 82). He says, “We can have this rhetoric of overthrowing oppressive systems, but we have to balance that with the work of overthrowing the oppressive system operating internally that keeps us enslaved” (Owens, Syedullah, Williams 82). Jasmine Syedullah goes on to say that after she spent many years in meditation, her spiritual practice included protesting the prison industrial complex, including the state-sanctioned execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, a founder of the Crips who became an youth anti-violence advocate and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. The “respectable” narrative aside, Syedullah notes her view on incarcerated people is a spiritual one: we are all human beings deserving of dignity.
Rather than informing on the internal affairs of gang life, he [Stanley Tookie Williams] was choosing to align himself with the nameless--those with no selves to defend from the threat of death row. I clasped hands with strangers. We wrapped each other’s rage up with our voices. We stood as a terrific body of dissent against the cold and death, armed with nothing but the fullness of our attention, our witness, our whole selves. (Owens, Syedullah, Williams 93).
Art is another practice that is considered a luxury, but, in a selection from Sister Outsider, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde disagrees. She says profoundly, “The white fathers told us: I think therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us--the poet--whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free” (Lorde 38). It’s important to incorporate artistic mediums and revere the power of affect, the transmissions they can incite, that scholars in the academy are coming back to with the popular affect theory formations. Lorde continues, “For within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were supposed to kneel to men” (39). She calls poetry “the way we help give name to the nameless” and says it’s an essential way for women to express the deepest parts of themselves--those parts that are still genuine--as a way of survival (37). In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins discusses Black and Afrocentric feminist epistemology, and that tradition yielded “blues singers, poets, autobiographers, storytellers, and orators” (231). Collins notes only a few have been able to defy Eurocentric male paradigms in favor of this Afrocentric epistemology. She notes Alice Walker listed Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holliday, and Bessie Smith (all singers and poets, Hurston also a prose author) (Collins 231). Black women desire to be agents of knowledge on their own terms but are often silenced by the cult of masculine “reason.”
In terms of restorative justice scholarship, Elizabeth Beck approaches the topic with reverence for the previous work done by women of color, beginning her article “Transforming Communities: Restorative Justice as a Community Building Strategy” with: “Building on the conflict resolution values and practices found in Indian and Aboriginal communities, and those of many other indigenous people, including African tribes, Western criminal justice theorists and practitioners began to imagine a new response to crime and its aftermath in the 1970s. Specifically, theorists and practitioners argued that although the typical criminal justice system response to a crime is to determine who did what to whom and what punishment the offender deserves, a broader set of questions might be more beneficial to victims, offenders, and communities” (Beck 380). At the end of her article Beck emphasizes that in order to restorative justice to work, not just as an add-on, as the system of justice, more scholarship is the key. I would imagine much of that scholarship can be done by parsing through the literature of Black women, and my hope is there are more educators and scholars ready to accept the challenge: to defer to the work already done in the journey to heal Black lives.
In her interview with George Yancy, “What’s Wrong With All Lives Matter?” Judith Butler discusses the privilege implied with always being told your life matters, and the despair that comes with being told you are not “mournable.”
The point is rather to consider those ways of valuing and devaluing life that govern our own thinking and acting, understanding the social and historical reach of those ways of valuing. It is probably important and satisfying as well to let one’s whiteness recede by joining in acts of solidarity with all those who oppose racism. There are ways of fading out whiteness, withdrawing its implicit and explicit claim to racial privilege. (Butler and Yancy)
When thinking of restorative practices, I am considering the ways which Black people, particularly Black women, have been so bombarded with devaluing their own lives that to value them enough to care for themselves, not just survive, is a radical act. In a society where we are bombarded with messages which tell us we do not hold intrinsic value, that we are only worth what we produce, Black women’s philosophy reflects a historical awareness of this feature of modern capitalism. It shows way towards unapologetic expression of emotion as much as it shows pathways to healing. Therefore the activists detailed in this paper who are using a Black feminist framework are a starting point for scholars who wish to know how we can find our value as human beings in a society defined by white capitalist heteropatriarchal sexist values. And as for white people, on the whole, it’s time we start revering Black feminist thought, not using it as an add-on.
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