For as long as I can remember — and long before I had the language to describe it — I’ve dealt with the contention between the collective cause of Black empowerment, about which I am very passionate, and my individual autonomy. Before phrases like “dominant culture” and “institutional oppression” were a part of my vocabulary, I picked up experientially that “society” expected less from me due to my Blackness and gender. If society expected less of me, members of my family and community expected more, and I quickly embraced academic over-achievement as my golden ticket to liberation. Attached to these ideas about what makes for a quality Black citizen were ideas about what makes a quality woman – how she speaks, dresses, and behaves, what she aspires to, and what she rejects. So, throughout my adolescence, the identity I was constructing was informed by notions of respectability. In large part, that was very positive for me; I made decisions guided by the desire to be a good example to other Black girls and women and to be a representation of a strong family legacy. But experience also taught me that neither the way I conduct myself in private nor the way I present myself in public would control the narratives projected upon me. Respectability would not save me.
One of my earliest memories of learning that lesson was when I was 17-years old. I stood at a corner waiting to cross the street at a busy intersection in Downtown Seattle, and a young man of probably the same age yelled out “ay!” repeatedly in my direction. When I ignored his advances (because you don’t come at me like that), he proceeded to replace “ay!” with “bitch.” Over and over again he called me a bitch to my back, and each time he said it I was more embarrassed, more hurt, and more eager for the walk light to turn in my favor. When it did, I walked away still rattled by the unpleasant experience, but mostly by the revelation that my notions of “good” womanhood betrayed me before I was even a woman.
I share this about myself in lieu of conversations that I’ve seen spark up lately regarding Amber Rose’s Slutwalk LA as well as Minister Farrakhan’s speech at the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Million Man March. On the surface, these two public demonstrations are unrelated. But I found the speeches by Rose and Farrakhan to be in direct dialogue with one another as well as a broader conversation about how we situate sexual autonomy and gender equality in the quest for Black empowerment.
I’ve heard critiques of Farrakhan’s speech that denounced his patriarchal approach when addressing women and many of his politics in general. Many reactions to Amber Rose’s Slutwalk interpret the event as a promotion of promiscuity. So, I decided to watch both and base my opinions on primary sources (confession: I watched about 45 minutes of Farrakhan’s speech because that ish was two hours long and I had gotten the picture). I concluded that to completely denounce or subscribe to either one of the perspectives that these speeches seem to represent does a disservice to how we envision the future of Black empowerment and liberation as a whole. So I’ve begun thinking about how we find a sweet spot, or if there even is one. We must awaken to the ways that colonization, racism, and media as an agent of their proliferation have disrupted our dignity and understanding of self, which I believe is part of Farrakhan’s message. But we must dismantle the idea that those of us who have been violated and repressed should suffer under the weight of responsibility for our oppressors’ actions, one of my take-aways from the Slutwalk.
While I watched Rose’s Slutwalk speech on YouTube, it occurred to me that I had seen her image in tabloids, magazine spreads and video clips probably hundreds of times before I had ever once heard the sound of this woman’s voice. But I had heard many opinions voiced about her, including those of men who had been her intimate partners who had reduced her to nothingness in public interviews and songs. During her speech, Rose succumbed to tears when recalling how she felt among hearing her estranged husband Wiz Khalifa recite the lyrics, “I fell in love with a stripper…fell back out of love quicker.” Rose displayed vulnerability in rare form, from recounting an instance of being slut-shamed in school at the age of 14 for an act she did not do to being called “just a bald-headed stripper from Philly” while in relationships with famous men. But at the climax of her message she stated, “I want to forgive Kanye for what he said about me. I want to forgive Wiz for what he said…I suggest you guys do the same…” On the one hand, I found this moment incredibly powerful as it was a demonstration of Rose taking a higher plane than those who hurt her and promoting forgiveness as a means to self-empowerment. On the other hand, and as a good friend of mine illuminated for me today, it was a reminder of the expectation that women should swiftly forgive and protect even the men who harm them.
Coincidentally (I guess), one year ago today I wrote an essay that I never published entitled “On the Assault to Black Women’s Bodies.” It was in the wake of the murder of Mary Spears, a 27-year-old Black woman who was shot in a club by a man whose persistent advances she had rejected. At that time, I wrote,
“I’ve reserved a great chunk of my concern for the violent displays of injustice toward Black men by the penal system and law enforcers. So, now I’m struggling to manage my solidarity with that cause and my heartache over the abandonment of Black women’s physical and emotional safety…I need some language for that space between the grotesque horror of Black (male) death and the sequined cabaret of Black female sexual liberation.”
One year later, I’m grappling with the space between Farrakhan and Amber Rose. But rather than attempting to fill this gap with language, I am bringing these polarizing views into conversation with one another.
Farrakhan said during his speech, “Black woman, you are not the second self of man alone. You are the second self of God. And as the second self of God, any man that would disrespect a female is an enemy of God because she is the greatest gift from God to a man.” I can admit this: I am both exhausted by and constantly suspicious of men who speak about women’s worth from a patriarchal and religious framework. I begin to squint my right eye and shift my head toward the left when I hear phrases like “second self of man” and “gift from God to a man.” But since I like to champion intergenerational communication and active listening, I challenged myself to sift through my dissonance and glean a message. Farrakhan’s delivery alienates some just like Amber Rose’s Slutwalk does. But the ideas he shared with the crowd at the Million Man March paralleled some of the principles I had grown up with in my family, at least to the extent that I’ve always known my family to be grounded in faith. And that faith has contributed to my view of myself as an agent of a higher power and a servant to my community, with a right to my own self-determination but a responsibility to something greater.
It has taken years for me to break away from the socialization that “goodness” and respectability determine my value as a Black woman. I thought about the times I’ve felt most empowered by anyone, including the opposite sex. There is something very important, I think, about male figures who instill love and value into girls and young women from an early age. In adulthood, though, my priority is to feel like an intellectual equal in conversation, to be able to speak uninterrupted, and to not have my ideas paraphrased to better suit a man’s language or perspective. My priority is that my space is respected and that my feelings are viewed as human before feminine.
Also, rather than fearing the implications of a woman owning her sexual agency without shame — which is what’s happening when we accuse Amber Rose of “promoting promiscuity” — I think we should table notions of promiscuity and virtuousness, focusing instead on the idea of sexually responsible behavior. My idea of sexually responsible behavior has nothing to do with the number of sexual partners one has had, but rather concerns sexual safety, issues of consent and respect, and emotional health both with regard to your own feelings and how you engage with others’.
Being a certain kind of woman has not saved me from being humiliated, abandoned, dehumanized, judged and labeled, even by intimate partners. And there may never come a time when I don’t think of my own identity and choices in the larger context of my lineage and community. But in thinking about the sweet spot between respectability, liberation, and justice, I think of a quote that Hip Hop Artist and activist Gabriel Teodros posted on Facebook not long ago, “Keep defining yourself by what you’re fighting against. When that fight is over and the monsters are gone… you will inevitably recreate them. Because without them… who are you?”