Last week, Twitter buzzed with what poet Lucille Clifton called “the terrible stories” when a writer who was more enamored by R. Kelly’s absurdity than angered by his pedophilia opened and salted Black girl wounds. The brilliant "Hood Feminism" team of Mikki Kendall and Jamie Nesbitt ([email protected] and [email protected]), created the #fasttailedgirls trending topic and in poured testaments to what James Baldwin already told us: “You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.” Like R. Kelly apologists, the aunties, mothers, and other women of the community had accused these would-be women of “asking for” their own violations. Such is the pedagogy of patriarchy—its victims become its most impassioned teachers.
The dangerous thing about mothering a Black girl is desiring her freedom while perceiving its impossibility. The war between desire and perception sometimes births delusion—in this case, the wishful thinking that the men we love will do to us only what we allow. Not all men are perverted by the worst of patriarchy, but how to teach our daughters discernment when the litmus test is too often our own bodies?
I don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know that it is not by dumb luck that some of us survived with our spirits intact. Somebody somewhere told us a usable truth. Somebody somewhere taught us to give a damn about ourselves—at least enough to undo the damage of their (willfully) blind spots. It is in the spirit of giving a damn that I praise the women who taught me to take care of myself in ways that would allow me to un-become a lady and become a woman many times over.
Praises be for the woman with two bathrooms and a basket of bangles. I imagined that she spent all of her free time trying on colorful bangles in one of her bathroom mirrors. Her quiet house helped me to imagine all the wonderful ways a person could be with herself.
Praises be for the woman who taught me to make up a bed with this advice: “You always keep the pretty side [the finished side of the top sheet] on your skin. Remember to keep the pretty for yourself.”
Praises be for the woman who told me she kept a man but never kept one. If anyone had a problem with that, she said, he was welcome to rent the apartment next door.
Praises be for the woman who taught me how to live and love with another person without losing myself. She and her husband orbited around the house, each one always aware of the other, but also enjoying their own space. She taught me to always have a television free to watch your own show.
Praises be for the woman who taught me theology when my newly-found religious piety had somersaulted into paranoia. I was convinced that I was hell-bound because I’d been fooling around in a car when a Yolanda Adams song came on the radio. “Baby,” she’d said, leaning toward me, “You think God has time to care about who you’re [touching] and to what song? People are dying in the streets!”
Praises be for the woman who taught me needlepoint. She taught me that with all the things that were out of your hands, it was good to use them to create peace or beauty when your mind can find neither.
Praises be for the girl-woman who responded this way when someone made a remark about her thick thighs and second helping. “My mama said only a dog would want a bone so they can just sniff me and leave me alone.”
Praises be for the woman who taught me all of the syntactical constructions of the word “hell,” as in, “What the hell? Hell if I know. Hell, why’d you ask? Tee-hee hell!” So when someone with a blond wig and wire-rimmed glasses told me that curse words were for those who weren’t intelligent enough to find other language, I knew that was a lie outta hell.
Finally, praises be for all the women I’ve met on pages, characters who feel like kin. For Miss Hazel, for Shug, for Bull Jean, for Big Mama, for Sula, for Baby Suggs, for the women who taught me how to survive loving men, for the women who are teaching me how to survive loving women, for the women who taught me it wasn’t my fault, for the women who taught me what I could control, for all of the women with all of their usable truths…Thank you. I will remember to tell my daughter what you said.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta. She tweets: @afrenchwriter