Womanist Wisdom: The Chickenhead in Me

“Feminism claimed me long before I claimed it. The foundation was laid by women who had little use for the word. […] I did not know that feminism is what you called it when black warrior women moved mountains and walked on water. Growing up in their company, I considered these things ordinary.” – Joan Morgan

About six months ago, I declared via Twitter [and this old article] that I am, without a doubt, a womanist. As I mentioned then, it wasn’t a conclusion that I arrived at without much internal conflict and debate.  But after spending two years of my undergraduate career at a college designed to empower and educate black women, it was an inevitable finding. I’m a womanist.

I began further researching womanism while enrolled in a class that dissected the life and work of Alice Walker, the woman who coined the term. Developing a discourse and dialogue around this newfound identity was important to me. I wanted to be well-versed in the topic (and make sure I wasn’t stepping feet first into some dung that would ruin my wedges), so I started delving into the works of Walker, Jacquelyn Grant, Delores Williams and James Hal Cone along with acclaimed black women feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde.

As I checked out book after book from the library about womanist theology, I was struck. A lot of their principles didn’t mirror mine. And that was a pill I refused to swallow. I knew that the core of womanism aligned with my life, but the perimeters … not so much!

Let me be honest, here. Like Issa Rae, I adore ratchet hip-hop music. Though I prefer to hear “conscious” rap in my headphones most of the time, nothing beats Waka Flocka Flame’s Pandora playlist on those late nights when I’m working hard and the to-do list isn’t dwindling. Oh, and the casual droppings of the b*$%h and ho bombs doesn’t keep me from bobbing my head to the music. Like the rest of the tworld, it’s a guilty pleasure for me to pick apart the basketball wives and the hip-hop lovers in Atlanta and New York. And I still expect men to open doors, cover tabs, and prove how chivalrous they can be.

I struggled with how my values fit into the womanist framework.  Somehow, I developed the thought that my behaviors made me “less womanist” because I didn’t identify with the traditional ideologies and discourse of what feminist/womanist behavior is “supposed to be.”

The puzzle pieces didn’t fit until I finally read Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. My college sister and fellow blogger Briana Barner of Having & Holding Love had been raving about the book for as long as I’ve known her. She even based her personal statement for graduate school on Morgan’s philosophies about life as a hip-hop feminist. So, after much encouragement, I added it to my extensive list of “must reads” and vowed to pick up from the public library at some point. It took two years, but I finally indulged – and those 200 + pages of wisdom changed my life and clarified my womanist principles.

This Amazon description describes it much more eloquently than I ever could:

“In this fresh, funky, and irreverent book, a new voice of the post-Civil Rights, post-feminist, post-soul generation has emerged in Joan Morgan: a groundbreaking and unflinching author who probes the complex issues facing African-American women today.

When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost is a decidedly intimate look into the life of the modern black woman: a complex world where feminists often have not-so-clandestine affairs with the most sexist of men; where women who treasure their independence often prefer men who pick up the tab; where the deluge of babymothers and babyfathers reminds black women, who long for marriage, that traditional nuclear families are a reality for less than 40 percent of the African-American population; and where black women are forced to make sense of a world where “truth is no longer black and white but subtle, intriguing shades of gray.”

Morgan ushers in a voice that, like hip-hop — the cultural movement that defines her generation — samples and layers many voices, and injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative, and powerful.”

When Chickenheads is all that and then some. As I reveled in this masterpiece, I realized that like her progressive foremothers, Morgan effectively changed the dialogue about black women and feminism in 1999. When this book was published, I was 10 and more concerned with Barbies than sexism and what exists to combat it. Or so I thought.

If I truly believed that the empowerment of the black community had to include its women, or that sexism stood stubbornly in the way of black men and women loving each other or sistas loving themselves, if acknowledged this both in print and in person then in any sexist’s eyes I was a feminist. Once I recognized these manifestations of black-on-black love as the dual heartbeats of black feminism, I was purged of doubt. I accepted his challenge with confidence.” – Joan Morgan

Though it took me 22 years to embrace womanism, I’m grasping that hip-hop feminists/womanists have been role models for me since childhood.

When I was a kiddo, I loved the all-female group, TLC. I performed their songs with a close friend, Tequia, for our friends and parents. We even put on a show, chalked full of choreography, for most of the neighborhood once. The last song in our lineup was Waterfalls – which I didn’t even know the words to. But as I aged and finally grasped the lyrics, I realized that my favorite song is an anthem that promotes awareness for HIV and gun violence. T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli were using smooth melodies and uptempo hip-hop beats to promote female empowerment. They are the epitome of hip-hop feminists – and they’ve been influencing me since the age of four.

Living Single, a show that featured four independent soul sistahs navigating NYC, was one of my favorite shows to watch when I was a child. At eight, I couldn’t relate to Maxine’s complicated affair with Kyle or Kadijah’s love triangle, but I still admired these ladies. I wanted to channel my inner Kadijah and beast the journalism world when I grew up. In the hip-hop era, when Queen Latifah was still donning her Nefertiti hats and dashikis, these feminists were changing the television game.

Even my amazing mom, who sacrificed her youth to raise two children and cultivate a prosperous marriage, taught me the importance of pro-sex autonomy when I was still a member of the itty bitty committee. She told me that my body was my own and I never had to share it with any man that I didn’t want to.

“I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones.” – Joan Morgan

I’ve been surrounded and influenced by hip-hop feminists and womanists my entire life. But it wasn’t until I embraced who I am that I had all of these epiphanies. Morgan’s reflections on her own life taught me that I don’t have to fit into the traditional concept of womanism. I’m a millennial, raised in the “post-Civil Rights, post-feminist, post-soul generation” who embraces hip-hop as an outward expression of my inner voice and who thinks Meek Mill is one gorgeous hunk of man meat (although he perpetuates excessive misogyny).

And what’s most important is that none of this makes me any less of a womanist. My square was never meant to reside in that circle.

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2 thoughts on “Womanist Wisdom: The Chickenhead in Me

  1. Love it! I too, found alot of myself in that book as well. Still discovering womanism/feminism for myself, but I definitely say that it found me before I found it!

  2. This book by Morgan really helped me define my feminism. I too was a feminist long before I realized it, but even after I started referring to myself as one, I struggled with the gray areas. I struggled with those things that I did and desired that seemed “anti-feminist.” But this book really allowed me to reconcile those things.

    I love that you mentioned TLC. When I think back on my younger years, I realize that TLC helped make me a feminist even though I didn’t understand it at the time. I remember they made me feel so proud to be a girl. And when I listened to their music and watched their videos I wanted to get up and do something, something big. I was so confused by those feelings. What I was feeling was good ol’ girl power and the big thing I wanted to do was start a revolution.

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