Audre Lorde, a namesake of this column, was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She came to prominence during a time in the 1970s when women were fighting for ultimate liberation. Women on the frontlines of this battle were labeled feminists. A feminist is defined as a person who advocates for women’s rights on the basis of equality of the sexes. Feminists wanted agency over their bodies, financial and occupational equality in the workplace, and laws against harassment and discrimination.
The average housewife was under the rule of her husband. Until 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed, married women could only get a credit card with their husband’s signature, and unmarried women couldn’t get one at all. Feminists urged housewives to see themselves as more than mothers and homemakers, to put their college degrees to good use, and create their own paths. But, there was a growing chasm in the women’s liberation movement that put Black and white feminists on opposite sides.
Black women have always fought for women’s liberation. As far back as the Suffragist movement, Black women have always rallied for equality of the sexes. But, Black feminists have always had to consider their plight in the fight, the intersection of their blackness and their womanness. So, as white feminists focused on gender equality, and the urgency for wives and mothers to enter the workforce, Black women were already in the workforce—and had been for generations.
The option to stay home to wife and mother wasn’t a viable option for Black families who had to navigate the racial disparities that challenged their existence. The pay disparity was a harsh reality for women, and a painful reality for Black people. Black feminists often had to check their fight for gender equality at the door, so they wouldn’t emasculate a man who spent his every day beaten down by society. Black feminists grappled with the dichotomy of race and gender, and often had to prioritize one. And still today, as women battle for equal pay and freedom over our bodies, racial injustice continues to plague our lives. So, how does the Black feminist choose between the path of gender equality, and the plight of her Blackness?
There’s a famous black and white photograph of Lorde standing in front of a chalkboard where “women are powerful and dangerous” is written. The word that stood out to me most was “dangerous.” “Powerful” felt like a given. Women maneuver so much. We carry children, and lead countries. So, there’s power in those abilities. But, there’s so much to unpack in the word “dangerous.” Contextually, I never understood the use of “dangerous” to mean lethal or harmful. I took it to mean we are necessary pot stirrers. Intentional shit starters. Strategic at shaking up the status quo. The word dangerous in that sentence means a woman is standing on the throne of protest every time she makes a decision for herself, every time she honors a selfish choice, every time she shoves her value and worth on the world. Because we still exist in a society where sexism is systemic, and continues to lurk in the halls of justice, a vocal woman is dangerous. A vocal woman can shake up the nucleus of traditional family values. A smart, vocal, free woman could create the kind of change we need to see in the world.
I was shaped by three smart, vocal, free Black women. I always looked to my grandmother, mother, and sister for the answers to my questions of womanhood. I paid very close attention to how they navigated their paths, while they managed their plight. They each stood firmly in the spaces of wife, mother, and working woman, while consistently being confronted with their Blackness.
My grandmother grew up in Birmingham, Alabama when Jim Crow laws were the reality. Though she couldn’t enter certain spaces as a Black person, or drink from certain water fountains, or sit comfortably on a bus, she could take advantage of the education opportunities available to her. She went to college in her late teens, then went for her master’s not long after. She married, had a child, and went to work every day. With the threat of violence always looming, this very smart woman decided to create a path of personal freedom, despite her plight.
My mother was a kid who wasn’t supposed to make it. Statistically, poor children from broken homes who are shuffled around to different relatives, are supposed to become adults who exhibit unshaken instability. Her parents separated when she was young and she lost them both in her early teens. As the oldest sibling, she naturally took on a caretaker role that prepared her for the job of motherhood. She had decided early on that being a teacher was her path, but with two children staring down her progression, that dream often took a back seat.
As a Black woman, raising children on her own, she had to provide. There was no other option. There was no room to dream when lives had to be taken care of. But, understanding that her plight was not in control of her path, she found a way to pursue her dreams. She even found the marriage that finally gave her the agency to love, nurture, and maintain her voice.
Like so many Black women, my sister hustled through single motherhood for decades. I watched, in awe, as she shuffled around three kids, went to work, and maintained a home on her own. My sister is a voracious reader, the inherently scholarly sibling who absorbs information quickly. I always believed reading was her outlet, her way of escaping the hectic nature of her existence. And while she escaped into fictional worlds, it opened a world of possibilities in her own life. Options beyond her proverbial hustle.
For much of my childhood, I was shielded from the harsh realities of the world, as it pertained to race. My community was diverse and loving. When I stepped out of that bubble I began to understand my Blackness in a way I never had before. And as a young woman, entering industries of toxic male dominance, I had to consistently check in with myself, sending my brain a reminder of who I am, at my core. I am smart, powerful, and strong. I have a voice. My thoughts are valid. I deserve to be here. Trust my instincts. Keep my third eye open. I was consistently checking in with myself, so I wouldn’t get lost in what often felt like a world I was at war with. A world that wasn’t set up for me to win.
One of my first jobs was as a hostess and server at a popular pizza restaurant. I was excited to be making my own money. I had moved into my first apartment, with a friend, and it felt like I was seamlessly moving into adulthood. Most people who dine at restaurants know nothing about the toxic culture of the industry. It’s normal for chefs to yell at cooks and berate servers. Over the decade I spent working in restaurants, overt flirtation and sexual advances became a regular thing. And this behavior was often overlooked by management, who typically lacked the training to properly handle these issues.
At this first job, I was sexually harassed by a very large, imposing man. I was nineteen, new to this adult world, and unsure of my choices. When he’d back me into a corner, I’d hear the reminders in my head. I am smart, powerful, and strong. I was lucky to be working at a national chain that had strict policies against harassment. My co-workers encouraged me to tell management what was happening, and I remember the thoughts that gave me pause. At the time, I wasn’t sure what my path in life would be, but this job felt like all I had. And as a young Black woman, who had been checked about my tattoos, and piercings, and the length of my skirts, I wondered if I brought the harassment on myself.
In my naivete, I knew nothing about the legalities of workplace conflict. In my understanding of my culture, I knew the believability of my story was low. Maybe my inherent predisposition channeled this large Latin man, made him push me into a dimly lit room, and tell me the dirty things he intended to do to me. Maybe my fear made no sense to my plight. I was concerned the white manager, who was the source of the checks about my attire and appearance, wouldn’t believe I was a victim. But, I shared my truth and he did believe me. This was the first moment in my life where the balancing act of my path and my plight would play out, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
More times than I often like to admit, my dealings with Black men have been the most painful to my path. Oftentimes, Black men have an expectation that Black women should be wholly receptive to their wants and needs. We should smile when they command it. We should put colloquial conversations with them before the importance of work. We should be flattered by whatever name outside of our own they wish to call us. We should be grateful when they choose us. And at all costs, we should trust their leadership.
Having been raised by a Black man who doesn’t adhere to any of these wants and needs, I entered my dealings with Black men with blinders on. I thought our cultural connection would always provide me with protection. But, over and over again, the fact that they too are men, who carry an assumed power over me, was slapped in my face.
It was a Black man, an ex-boyfriend, who attempted to rape me. It was a Black man, a choreographer, who touched me inappropriately when I went to audition for a music video. It was a Black man, a police officer, who laughed in my face when I reported being followed and harassed in the subway. It was a Black man, a bus driver, who locked me on the bus with him because I wouldn’t acknowledge his flirtations. And because of my Blackness, I would share these stories with friends and family in low, hushed tones. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I also didn’t want them to be wrong.
Black feminists who dealt with similar situations grappled with sharing their truth, or seeing another Black man go to prison. Sharing their truth, or seeing another Black man lose his job. Sharing their truth, or seeing another Black man gunned down by the police. Tears would stream down my face, but this conflicted protection haunted my insides.
I once entered into a working relationship with a Black man who was very tapped into the production world. He had access to expensive equipment and tons of connections. I found him to be a bit overzealous in his admiration of my work, having only read a few things in classes we took together, but I wanted to build this relationship. It could be beneficial to my path, which I had figured out by this point in my life.
At one of our first meetings, we sat in his office discussing projects, and he digressed into a confession about how much he always wanted to get to know me. He had wanted to hang out, outside of class, but I always seemed focused and busy. And I was. I picked up on his attempt to make me feel back about being serious about my work. I was taken aback on the inside, but smiled politely on the outside.
He would schedule other meetings over drinks, and offer me rides home, since I didn’t have a car at the time. At each of our meetings this man would call me “boo.” A term of endearment I have no issue within romantic relationships or innocent flirtations, but I was building a professional relationship with his man. Every time he called me “boo” I cringed, took a deep breath, and tightened my lips. On a trip to check out equipment, he called me “boo” in front of someone else, another man who was under the assumption I was a professional, and not this man’s love interest.
So, I finally said something. “Rahima,” I said. He chuckled, confused. “My name isn’t boo, it’s Rahima.” He chuckled again, uncomfortable. His apology was dripping with bravado, condescension, and insecurity. We finished the equipment run and I never heard from this man again. As a Black woman, my plight was supposed to allow this sort of behavior from a Black man. Even in a professional setting, I was supposed to blush and be flattered by him even wanting to throw a term of endearment my way. In this instance, my plight hindered my path and I lost out on an opportunity.
I often joke that I’m a card-carrying feminist. And those who don’t understand the definition often ask me why I’m a feminist. I understand the question to be rooted in this grappling, this unfortunate space between my race and my gender. My feminism is questioned because at every turn I’m expected to choose between fighting for my rights as a woman, and fighting for my rights as a Black woman. I’m expected to choose between my path and my plight. But, all of my life experience, and what I observe in the world, has helped me to understand that every fight is blended.
Audre Lorde said her poetry comes from “the intersection of me and my worlds.” So, when I continually have to cross the intersection, I am reminded of the women before me who kept showing up on the other side. The women before me who blended the fight. I am reminded that I am who I am, not in spite of my path and my plight, but because of them.