issue 227 - January 1992
Purple politics and the
white woman's dress
Can black and white unite under feminism? Amryl Johnson
takes a personal look at the politics of identity.
A teacher who was working with some 17-year-old students on Sylvia Plath's poetry told me how she finally gave in to their request to visit the poet's grave. When they got there one of the girls threw herself on Plath's grave screaming 'I don't want to leave her! I don't want to leave her! Leave me here! Leave me with her!' Another member of the group, by way of explanation, said: 'It's all right, miss. She's a feminist.'
At the time the teacher told me of the incident we were being made forcefully aware of different sections within the women's movement. Lesbian Feminist... Socialist Feminist... Heterosexual Feminist... Radical Feminist.. the list went on. I wryly mused on where I should place the teenager.
I did not see these definitions as identities so much as labels. They seemed to be saying not just 'this is what we are, but more clearly 'this is all that we are.' I appreciate that the very essence of who we are, our experiences and ambitions cannot help but result in feminism meaning different things to different people. But the restriction seemed like a straight-jacket when there was so much more to be reaching for.
And where did black women fit into all this? It is nonsense to assume that because we are black there will be total harmony. In moving away from these labels we also were creating our own. Black Feminist... Feminist of Colour... Black Lesbian Feminist... And Womanist.
I was already well aware of the impact that writer Alice Walker's definition of womanist' was having on some black women - particularly those in the United States - when I was invited to talk at a conference held for teachers at Birmingham University on 'Black Female American Literature'. The main writers were Maya Angelou and Alice Walker; the books to be discussed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Colour Purple.
According to Alice Walker: 'Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.' These colours also seem significant when Maya Angelou writes: 'The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled', but later goes on to say how daylight reveals it to be no more than 'a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman s once-was-purple throwaway'.
It is obvious why many black women find 'womanist' satisfying. It feels as if it was designed for them. Much richer, fuller and rounder, it encapsulates their experiences the way the word 'feminist' never could, and consequently cannot help but be a better and more comfortable fit than the white woman's dress.
Equally there are black women who have fought long and hard for what they want, are now well on their way to achieving it, don't take any nonsense from any man, are supportive towards other women and if you tried to attach a label to them - 'womanist' or other - would throw it back at you.
Yet the experiences of black women and white women are clearly different. Black women in white-dominated Britain, for example, are having to deal with as much racism as ever. Nothing can make you immune to it. Not education. Not success. There will always be whites who see you as a threat. You are black, therefore inferior, the descendant of those who were treated as being less than dogs. So what are you doing with as great a command of English as themselves and now in a position to live next door? We are upsetting their values.
Suspicion and mistrust because of how they have been treated has fostered racism in blacks towards whites. It has not been easy for those black women joining feminist groups thinking, 'I am among other women so will find some comfort here', to find themselves on the receiving end of blatant racism as well as having to deal with their everyday lives. There were undoubtedly some white women who feared their burden would be twice as heavy and the journey twice as slow when black women joined their groups.
But there are faults on both sides. I confess that I was counting notches when I asked an English friend if there was anything in her own history which could compare with the rape of slavery in mine. The thought passing through my head was: 'Look how much more I, as a black woman, have suffered compared with you, a white woman'.
I am far from the only black woman who has fallen into this trap. I have heard tales of women who, before forming their own black groups, joined ones which were predominantly white assuming that the weight of their experiences would give them the right to lead or that the other women would look up to them, envying their burden. I also know of an instance where friction and the subsequent demise of a supposedly multi-ethnic group came about for precisely this reason. There are lessons to be learnt by both sides.
For instance, I was young and foolish when I asked the question about slavery. I would not dream of doing so nowadays. I now understand that experiences are relative. The white friend who talks of a childhood where there was abysmal poverty, of vicious beatings or sexual abuse, talks of the struggle which has taken her from where she was to where she is now. This is her own understanding. The collective suffering of millions of blacks being sold into slavery is mine. I could sympathize, but not having been through her experiences cannot truly comprehend any more than she, who could sympathize with mine, could truly comprehend. Nevertheless, her experiences are as totally vital to her as mine are to me.
I am a black woman and I am strong. Contrary to the myth, not all black women are strong. I know my resilience and I recognize my determination. I know that there are feminists and there are feminists. There are women who during the daytime wear a badge which shines more brightly than anyone else's yet on social occasions you would not recognise the giggly female hanging onto the dull boyfriend's every word as being the same woman.
But as a poet/writer who leads Creative Writing workshops in schools I am well aware that this generation boasts young women who will not be getting engaged at the age of 18, who will insist on as good an education as their brothers - or in some instances a better one. We look to this generation for greater unity and better understanding. But that is the future.
What about now? There are women being raped and brutalized by their husbands or lovers, too afraid and in other instances too private to prosecute. Sometimes these women may speak to us with a facial or bodily expression or they may let something slip during a conversation. Some of us are stronger than others. Whoever these women are, black, white, women of colour, often all they need is moral support, someone who will reach out and say: 'It's OK. I/we are here for you. Now go ahead and do what you know needs to be done.' We have to reach out and continue reaching out to them.
Let's be aware of ethnic, class and individual history. But let us concentrate on supporting each other. There can never be a total agreement about what a Feminist Movement should be. The very nature of the hunger and determination which motivates us may appear to be taking us in different directions as we reach for separate goals. We cannot deny that part of ourselves. Yet, these goals are one and the same. When we stop fighting and bickering among ourselves, we realize that what we are up against, more often than not, is oppression. Oppression from the opposite sex, in some form or fashion. There are bridges we can build.
We can have more forums where women from different ethnic backgrounds can sit and talk through their differences and be honest with each other. We should begin with this understanding: 'Yes, I am different from you. How could you expect otherwise? But as women we are united in our vulnerability. We are all of us in danger of being victims. Let's deal with these issues which will help us to unite.' This may sound simplistic but it is a fact. It has to be done. We have to build bridges.
I have as many white friends as I do black ones, true and honest women who have stood by me through the years. Many of my friends have survived and have succeeded against the odds. The odds being men who did their best to reduce them to the rubble in order to deal with them. There is something I have promised myself and I am determined to do it. I will bring them together in one room. When we raise our glasses, the toast will be a simple one: 'To us!'
Amryl Johnson has written many books including Shackles (Sable Press, 1983) and Sequins for a Ragged Hem (Virago, 1988). She was born in Trinidad and has lived in Britain since the age of 11.
I had marvellous parents who were semi-literate but believed in education. There were eight of us. Girls and boys were treated the same. My mother would say: 'In the country there are women's jobs and men's jobs. But here [we were living in a Cape Fiats township] everybody must do everything.'
Poor as they were, they put us all through school and at the age of 18 1 had a teacher certificate and a job in a primary school. The first eye-opener was when I learned what a pittance I was going to earn, It was little more than a domestic servant - yet I'd have to maintain the smart appearance of a teacher.
Salaries are decided along both colour and gender lines in South Africa. I was at the bottom of a six-layered system which has the white man at the top and the African woman at the bottom. This is one of the reasons women's liberation took so long to catch on with African women. I wasn't going to fight any great battles to be on a level with an African man. He was nowhere I wanted to be. I wanted to be up there with the white man.
But having said that, I have never been able to split myself up. I can't say: 'Now I am black. Now I am a woman.' It doesn't matter to me why I am being pissed on. I feel very, very angry, whether it is because I am a woman or because I am black. And I have had problems with movements that ask me to concentrate on fighting racism - and forget about being a woman. Or those that say I should fight sexism - and forget about being black.
Anyway, almost immediately I started my teaching job disaster struck - I fell pregnant. Disciplinary action was taken against me and I was banned from teaching for two years. This is usual practice for black women teachers in South Africa.
I had no choice but to work as a domestic servant, It was hard, back-breaking work. But worse, it was dead-end. There should be progress in life. But if I was in domestic work how could I earn enough to make sure that my daughter would not be in domestic work? I vowed that I would make sure - somehow - that my children never went into domestic work
When I was four months pregnant with my third child my husband left me. He decided that the job of being a husband was too difficult for him and went on an extended holiday. This was the most down period of my life, Here I was poorer than I had ever been. Being educated did not help - it made it worse. I could see what was wrong and It mad me angry and frustrated.
After four years in domestic service I finally got another teaching job. But because I was a married woman they would only employ me on a yearly contract basis. I decided to qualify as a high school teacher and with my first pay check I enrolled myself in a correspondence course. Two years later I qualified.
For the next ten years my life was centred on education. I took an exam through the University of London and a degree in history through the University of South Africa - both by correspondence course. I joined the South African Committee for Higher Education and for the first time came into contact with coloured people and white people on an equal footing. We got to know each other as human beings. People listened to me - an African woman - and heard things they had not heard before. That really boosted my morale.
Then came the school boycotts of 1976, 1978, 1980. Fate Is ironic, 1 was by now teaching in a prestigious white girls school. These girls had ambitions, futures mapped out. Meanwhile my gorgeous, clever, black children were doing nothing. It was insane. At meetings I spoke against the boycotts. I pleaded 'Bantu education is bad - but it's better than no education'. Those meetings reduced me to tears. I nearly became a mental case.
At this point I got a scholarship Columbia University and fled to the US - leaving my teenage children with my mother and sister. On my student and stipend I was able to support myself and my family in South Africa. I had money! I had a room to myself! I had hot water, electricity, a gas stove!
I studied sociology and did a business course so that when I returned to South Africa I would work in industry to make money - and use the sociology for voluntary community work. I returned to South Africa - and I could not find a job. Here I was, in my mid-30s, with matric and two degrees - and unemployable. Only then dld I at last see what I hadn't wanted to see: that In order to be needed something I would never have - a white skin.
After several months the Cape Argus did a story on me. It got a lot of publicity. I was offered a job in the United Nations where I now work in New York, My children joined me, got higher education. And six months ago I got married again - on my own terms. No violence, no infidelity. I have managed a lot on my own. I can do it again.
I think that you have to take charge of life. You can't wait for others or for political movements to do it for you. Sure, you need to be aware, be in touch with movements. But you need to integrate that into your own personal struggle and forge ahead.
Sindiwe Magma has written a vivid autobiography, To My Children's Children (The Women's Press. London, 1991).