Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Your Community Ain't Like Mine

Subtitle: And How You Make Sure I Know That I'm Not Welcome. A recent look around the blogosphere and mental cataloguing of episodes of epic fail prompted me to think about community, and lack of community, and "exclusion" right now. These are some of my (incomplete, choppy, certainly not perfectly worded) reflections.

Part One: Realize that parents are people. Realize that parents are the same people you knew before… Realize that parents can be activists, but they are also parents. -Noemi

when you have a child
no one finds it tragic.
no map records it as an instance of blight. -Alexis Pauline Gumbs


They would chop me up into little fragments and tag each piece with a label... Who, me confused? Ambivalent? Not so. Only your labels split me. -Gloria Anzaldúa

I’m teaching a class this summer in black women’s history. The other night, I previewed a film about Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Commonly described as “unflinching” and “uncompromising, she was active in anti-lynching and civil rights agitation. She was also a suffragist. One of her friends was Susan B. Anthony. The relationship between the two women hit a rocky patch in the 1890s, when Wells married and began to have children.


Wells-Barnett noticed that Anthony’s attitude toward her changed. In the film, Paula Giddings, one of Wells-Barnett’s biographers, noted that Anthony began to “bite out” Wells-Barnett’s married name.

Eventually, Wells-Barnett felt it necessary to call Anthony out about it:
Finally, I said to her, “Miss Anthony, don’t you believe in women getting married?” She said, “Oh, yes, but not women like you who had a special call for special work. I too might have married but it would have meant dropping the work to which I had set my hand. She said, “I know of no one better fitted to do the work you had in hand than yourself. Since you have gotten married, agitation seems practically to have ceased. Besides, you have a divided duty. You are here trying to help in the formation of [the Afro-American] League and your eleven month old baby needs your attention at home. You are distracted over the thought that maybe he is not being looked after as he would if you were there, and that makes for divided duty.”*

Anthony was questioning Wells-Barnett’s dedication, her supposed prioritization. She had her own perception of what Wells-Barnett’s activism should’ve looked like and resented the change. What she didn’t understand, according to Wells-Barnett, was that “I had been unable… to get the support which was necessary to carry on my work [and] had become discouraged in the effort to carry on alone.”

I thought about this question Noemi asked wrt community-building:
[E]ver think why parents stop being involved in community events and meetings?

What does it mean when what you believed to be community abandons you?

I also thought about Kevin. He has, to put it lightly, been disturbed by the attacks on First Lady Michelle Obama by feminists who question her “feminist creds” and deride her dedication to family. “This shit goes way back, Kev,” I wanted to say after watching that documentary.

What I had said to him when he noted all the “Stepford Wife” comparisons, was “WoC are never supposed to prioritize our children and families.” Defined as laborers, our work is always presumed to better serve someone else's needs or goals. That other women think they can tell us how to be feminists is no surprise.

But my answer had it shortcomings. It’s not so much a matter of priorities. One thing I’ve learned by studying early black feminists is that some of those divisions are false—their activism was shaped to improve the lives of women, their families, and their communities. There was not necessarily a sense of "divided duty." Activism is not always easily divisible into neat categories. That's why those black clubwomen believed "a race can rise no higher than its women." That's why Anna Julia Cooper wrote
Only the BLACK WOMAN can say "when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me."

Susan Anthony's distress and the more spiteful critiques of Michelle Obama fail to take into account this interconnectedness. But these critiques prompt me to think also of Little Light's words, about how threatening our love and our attempts to define our lives and our activism for ourselves can be perceived:
It is time for us to acknowledge that our love is an act of war.

It seems distasteful to say. It feels wrong. Our love, our lives, our nurtured gardens and families, we say, these are not weapons. These are not acts of violence. To us, they are not.

Nonetheless, there are those who insist breathlessly, endlessly, that they are...

The very act of not getting to define everything for the rest of us is the end, for them.

Part Two: To build a community, parents and children should be welcome and not feel they can’t attend a meeting/event because of their baby(ies). ... [D]on’t you want the next generation to care about the same things you care about? When will this happen? -Noemi

[F]eminists have a choice in deciding what community they belong to. And they are implicitly choosing to stay away from and otherwise distance themselves from communities that make them uncomfortable or worried for any reason. This has consequences for the communities that they refuse to work with. Most importantly, it has consequences because WOMEN belong to those communities that they refuse to work with. -BfP

If feminism is supposed to work to improve the lives of all women, if it about forging connections and building communities for women, period, then I don’t understand this either. Oh, not so much the OP, though I think it does make some false divisions.

But the comments. At the very least, feminists should respect other women’s choices to have or not have children. But outside and within some feminist communities, childfree women are under excessive pressure to conform to what is considered normative. Those who choose not to have children are regarded as suspect, strange, threatening. Their choices are dismissed as temporary or mean. Those who don’t have children, but for reasons other than choosing not to, are pitied, regarded as incomplete and barren--which has to be one of the coldest words I’ve ever heard used to describe a human being.

As the mother of one child I get only a tiny bit of that, and it is wearying. I am routinely asked, “You really don’t want any more? What if you get married? What if a, b, or c happens?” Often, the implication is that I am selfish, both for not wanting to invest the enormous amount of time and effort required to parent a baby and because my son will be “alone” or “lonely.”

You know what my response to that is not? Attacking other women. I don’t think I have had some magical experience that childfree women are sorely lacking and will forever be deprived because of. I can honestly say that many days, I only survive motherhood. I don’t master it, I don’t excel at it.

But how do you nurture and create community when things like this stand? When women are called “moos,” “breeders,” and “placenta-brains” and their children “widdle pweshuses” and “broods?”^^ When you cast your community as one in which women who have children and women who are childfree are diametrically (perhaps, diabolically) opposed and that mothers (gasp) are taking over the movement and leaving slack that others have to catch up? When it becomes clear that some of us are not welcome into your community? When your remarks indicate that you are, in fact, chillingly “independent of community?” I borrowed that phrase from BfP and the moment she said it, my mind began clicking.

All kinds of feminists can nod when I write about the lie that is the capitalistic ideal of “rugged individualism.” They can see the cruelty and efforts at social control when I talk about the attacks on poor mothers that begin and end with “Why are you having kids and who do you expect to take care of them?” They can see the patriarchy at work in the divide and conquer strategy that is the “mommy wars.”

But they can’t see the damaging individualism inherent in their feminism. Of course, I don’t mean in choosing not to have children—familial and community obligations are commonly fulfilled by all of us, not just mothers. I mean the sentiment revealed in expressing aversion and revulsion towards women who do have children. As Noemi asks,
why is motherhood and heavens forbid, single parenthood a step back in the eyes of activists and feminists? If the choice to terminate a pregnancy is radical, why isn’t the choice in being a mother radical?
I mean feeling that it's okay to demean and dehumanize whole groups of people because they made a choice you would not or because of their age, and repudiating any suggestion that said groups can be an important part of your community.

They can’t see the analogy between conservatives saying, “Who do you expect to take care of them?” and some feminists “roll[ing] their eyes when someone brings up childcare.” They can’t see the divide and conquer so apparent in “women with children v. childfree women.”

If feminism is about meeting “our” needs and some of “us” are mothers, why is it seen as a hostile takeover if I ask about childcare? If I express concern about keeping a roof over our heads or clothes on my child’s back? If I write about how my feminist consciousness is often raised by my experiences as a mother? If that is what your feminist community is about, then to quote Noemi again, “This is not community. This is not a welcomed community.”

Part Three: What new skills and influences will single parents give their children if the community doesn’t think it’s important for them to be involved? -Noemi

you have chosen to be...
in a community
that knows that you are priceless
that would never sacrifice your spirit
that knows it needs your brilliance to be whole -Alexis Pauline Gumbs


I struggled for a few days trying to find the words to say what I wanted to say about my community of WoC, why I feel it as community, why I think other women feel it as community. Should I use the words mutuality, reciprocity? Should I use the word vulnerable--because in the loving and trusting, in refusing to hold ourselves "independent of community," we do make ourselves vulnerable, but we also make ourselves strong. "Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be," wrote Audre Lorde, "not in order to be used, but in order to be creative."

I don't know the exact words for an accurate description. I do know that I don't feel that I have to compartmentalize. I don't have to spend a lot of time developing a defense of why this or that is a "feminist issue" with clearly, neatly defined parameters. I don't feel that there are parts of who I am that I cannot discuss or bring into the community.

I do not feel the false divisions. Why?

Because if I had to choose one word to describe Alexis Pauline Gumbs, it'd be love and I am humbled by how it infuses her words and actions.

Because cripchick expresses pride in our kids as they journey to become revolutionaries. Also, I'm convinced the sun shines out of her.

Because Fabi, Noemi, Lex, Mai’a, and Maegan and others write about revolutionary motherhood.

Because I find myself wanting to take that machete out of BA’s hands and go off on people who make her feel “gunshy" and I know Donna does, too.

Because women cheer when Baby BFP speaks.

Because Sylvia virtually cheered me through that PhD and I smile each time I think about writing her name-comma-Esq.

Because Lisa writes letters to her Veronica.

Because BfP invites us to take our own journeys and come together to share the discoveries.

Because Adele always hears me. Always.

Because Kameelah writes of creating community with her students, centering their art and the way they see the world, and she invites us in.

Because Anjali answers my questions about caring for our communities on macro and micro levels.

Because BA agonizes when she wonders what La Mapu learned about the importance of WoC voices when she witnessed an event in which those voices were, once again ignored.

These are just a few reasons, a few examples of the sense of accountability, to each other, to our children, to our work on- and off-line (and thank you, Aaminah, for helping me to understand that). Maybe this isn't unique to my community. But as WoC, a community that finds us and our work and our involvement "priceless" is not common. What WoC do commonly discover in feminist communities are
real experiences of having hard work devalued – many members of a supposed community literally saying, your work is worthless, you’re haters, critique sliding off like teflon.

But back to that accountability, that rejection of "independent of community." I finally found words that reflect some of what I feel. And me being me, of course I found them in a book. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins writes,
[T]he conceptualization of self that has been part of Black women's self-definition is distinctive. Self is not defined as the increased autonomy gained by separating oneself from others. [S]elf is found in the context of family and community--as Paule Marshall describes it, "the ability to recognize one's continuity with the larger community." By being accountable to others, African American women develop more fully human, less objectified selves. Rather than defining self in opposition to others, the connectedness among individuals provides Black women deeper, more meaningful self-definitions.

Part Four: We are sistas with brown skin we knew that from jump. … [N]o one could understand what it was like… to wonder if this silence this ignoring this "forgetfulness" is planned or just the final realization that while talking about you is sufficient, privilege and entitlement means you can be ignored pretty fully and suffer no consequences, because someone is always eager to take your place -BlackAmazon

[I]f feminists can’t even be called on to point to the work that other feminists are doing... well, then there’s no fucking feminist movement. -BfP

I mentioned the example of BA and La Mapu last so that I could roughly segue into this. I’ll begin by saying that inclusion is rarely worth a damn--it is used as a substitute for "bona fide substantive change."** It’s arrogant to think it’s up to you to “include” us in feminism. We’ve been there, part of the foundation, existing as "the bodies on which feminist theories are created."

And you know what? People who think they have the power to include also often exclude.

Yes, in a specific sense, I’m talking about the Brooklyn listening party. I hurt for Mala, especially when I read this:
Pero it’s not real enough for people who said they would come to a listening party to support something that means alot to me and other hermanas that I love. It’s not real enough for them to visualize my carrying a stroller with a 30 poundish toddler up and down subway stairs, walking miles not for exercise pero so that I don’t have to buy subway fare and can afford milk, walking to change a bag of pennies, thinking of pawning some earrings. It’s real enough for me to go talk to young people about identity, media, gender and race, pero it’s not real enough for people to think it’s important to support what we do beyond a cursory pat on the head for a job well done little spic girl who we can’t even be bothered to name. I have been invited to two national conferences this summer, pero there is no money to get me there and of course the orgs who want my face, my race and my gender can’t be bothered to actually spend money. They will find another woman of color, mami of color, Latino blogger to take my place, one who they deem more worthy because they can pay their own way or because they play the game well, etc etc.

I hurt for BA and La Mapu and Ms. Poroto and all of us.

And, yes, I was angry, too, about the listening party, about the general reception of the SPEAK! CD, about how it is reflective of how the voices and efforts of WoC are regarded.

From the moment BA wrote this
ONCE AGAIN

with people this time being extended the olive branch and courtesy of the voices of my sisters and the hospitality of my BEST FRIEND

have not tried to help contact or even SPEAK one iota

and did not have the COMMON FUCKING DECENCY to return contact on PERSONAL INVITATIONS.

I wondered, how is it made, this decision about which feminists are important enough to support? Why do I read about this book, and that appearance, and this podcast, and yay, yay, yay when it comes to white feminists…

But everything is eerily silent when it comes to the work of WoC?

The vows of support,

the “oh, yes, ‘your issues’ are important!”, ***

the “I totally recognize how very necessary your voice and your experiences are to feminism,” it all melts away, words belied by (in)action.

Not just this time.

I am left thinking of the name of Donna’s blog and the quote from which it is derived:
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

I am left wondering, like Noemi, why are we a luxury?

Expendable and interchangeable--important enough to be invited, too insignificant for anyone to develop a real idea or plan for how we are to get there.

Flighty and abstract, with all that focus on love. Or, as Nadia says,
our solutions are disregarded as being…
-too imaginative, not practical
-amatuer, short sighted
-not real organizing / change-making / “movement building”

In/Ex-cluded.

Part 5: For within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. -Audre Lorde

[T]hose tools [of patriarchy] are used by women... against each other. -Audre Lorde


Things I fully expect to happen in the aftermath of this post and this one and so many others: WoC themselves will continue to be ignored, while their words and theories are appropriated, depoliticized, made more "palatable."

There will still be attempts to define how our work, our activism, our "priorities" should look--and justifications for why our failure to adhere means we can't be part of certain of communities.

People will continue to scream "get off your ass and do it yourself, stop bitching, stop complaining, stop crying racism, stop stop stop, pull yourselves up by your boot straps and just DO IT!" while simultaneously ignoring that we have been "just doing it" forever with no need for outside motivation and admonishment.

I will from time to time, get angry, feel isolated, say, "Fuck this! What is wrong with you?!"

Then I will sigh, and take comfort in the fact that "there’s us.

it’s the best thing about being us."

I will take comfort in the fact that we know

our words are not a luxury

our love is not a luxury

we are not a luxury. We know that... and quite often, that is enough.

__________________________________
*Toni Morrison read this part of her memoirs in the film, but you can find it and the quote I mention a few lines later, here.

^^ETA: Clicking links led me to this critique by mzbitzca

**PHC, Black Feminist Thought, 6.

*** Wherein "our issues" are always about our victimization, never about our activism and agency--that's objectification, too.

16 comments:

lex said...

Elle,
This is so brilliant and powerful and needed that it is bringing me to tears. Thank you for writing this. This is exactly the type of community building theory creation that we need. I am going to read this again and again. I hope you are crossposting it at Revolutionary Motherhood too!

infinite love,
lex

Blackamazon said...

I love you so much

mrs. o said...

Excellent and emotional post elle. I cry as I read it again and although your words are true in that we know we are not a luxury, I still feel so despondent at times. As I read bfp and noemi's blogs I wonder, Why is everything such a struggle and is it my fault because I am not making the right decisions? Why is my son struggling in school when I am a teacher? Am I not doing enough for him? My mind seems to know this is not be true, but my heart makes me feel as if I will die wondering what MORE could I have done for everyone else but myself.

arma said...

beautiful post.

Maegan la Mala said...

Ay it took me a few days to muster the courage to sit down and read this in one sitting pero thank you for it mujer. It is put together so well.

ms noemi said...

ah, digesting/ingesting this. Thank you. thank you.

elle said...

thank you all

Adams said...

There's such power and truth in this post. Thanks for writing it.

nezua said...

brilliant....and beautiful and bold.

superlagirl said...

Amazing.

isabel said...

Ah I thought I left a comment telling you how incredible this was and thanking you profusely for writing it and informing you it's one I'll come back to, but apparently not, so - FIXED. heh. seriously though, amazing work.

amandaw said...

I do not have any children yet. I want to. But I may never be able to -- able to conceive, able to survive pregnancy, or even able to survive raising a child either way. I just don't know, and won't know until we feel ready to try. And we haven't felt ready yet.

I feel so much more welcome in the company of mothers who are womanist/feminist-minded, oftentimes, even when I feel like I could be totally fine if I never had children myself. I don't understand how these people can be excluded from an honest attempt to better women's welfare.

There is love and affection and community in family, and that is a powerful, powerful force to be tapped into. And my family includes mothers and fathers, includes aunts and uncles, includes sisters and brothers and cousins who do not have children and never will. It includes the children of other family members. And they are all, each, equally my family. They all contribute to the family, a unique and special contribution that could come from no one but themselves. And there is so much power in that, and it makes me so sad to think that there are those who resent a good portion of their own families -- in a literal (blood) and metaphorical (community) sense -- and shut themselves off from this incredible force.

Bella said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I wish this post had been on Shakesville instead of the "waaaaah, I had an inconvenient time getting sterilized" one.

I decided long ago that I didn't want children, and it's been the right choice for me. But the sheer hate and vitriol and short-sightedness and white privilege of the "childfree communities" is something I never want to be near again. I wish I could hammer this post into every one of their heads, but they'll never goddamn listen. Fuck them.

JustMe said...

what a fabulous post elle. bookmarked.

fa_ikaika said...

here from stephiepenguin. Ashé-o.

whatsername said...

I decided long ago that I didn't want children, and it's been the right choice for me. But the sheer hate and vitriol and short-sightedness and white privilege of the "childfree communities" is something I never want to be near again.

Yes, this. I ran into the same thing and was just shocked and appalled.

I was less shocked by what happened at Feministing, sadly, but still appalled.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...