MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

One Hand in the Fire, the Other in the Flames. Unthere Black Women

By Kneo Mokgopa 17 March 2021

Ultimately, I hope this thing becomes about you, the narratives you hold and speak about Black women and the place in which you find yourself in relation to the oppression of Black women. (Photo: Henry Holt and Co / Wikipedia)

To be a Black woman is to be a negated subjectivity, a thing that exists as the vehicle for all of the worlds sin and violent nightmares, for all of the worlds fear and tempestuous desire — its playground, its prize, its dirty cloth to clean the anxious, traumatised mess in which we find ourselves.

Kneo Mokgopa

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“You want to understand how power works in any society, watch who is carrying the shame and who is doing the shaming.” — Shailja Patel

Growing up, I was taught all kinds of myths about Black women. I was taught, on the playground, in Disney films and from the Generations soapie that women are delicate things, that women are unambitious and are happiest waiting for men. That Black women who worked were lesser women who could not attract a man. I was taught that women were bad, that Eve created sin, that when women menstruate, their presence rots the meat, curds the milk and curses the people they may be around. That, when women masturbate, birds come to the windowsill to whistle “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton. That girls have cooties. That the pursuit of women will bring you nothing but misery.

Through the legend of virginity, I was taught that only men could make girls into women by penetrating them, that women feel no joy from sex but “give it up” to please men whom it is women’s duty to please. Amongst all of this absurdity of myths and lies, I was taught that Black women are not human, but domestic agents, unintellectual and absent from history.

Being taught that women possess a monopoly over beauty, grace, kindness and mindfulness has had very particular consequences. As a child, it persuaded me and my peers to adopt and internalise these narratives as scripts for our self-actualisation. It meant that to be a boy, I had to relinquish these characteristics declared to be exclusively feminine and embody their opposites — not beautiful but menacing, not graceful but forceful, not kind but belligerent, and not mindful but oblivious. As an adult, the narratives we build about Black women govern my interactions with and beliefs about Black women, govern how I respond to the pervasive reports of rape and sexual assault against Black women and govern the kinds of relationships I am supposed to be prepared to have with Black women.

These are scary things about which to write; the stakes are so high.

Because they had looked into the Ark of the Lord

Growing up, I was made to remember my grandmother as a Coloured woman from the Eastern Cape that spoke is’Xhosa. Recently, my mother has been trying to connect with her maternal family and learn more about the circumstances that surrounded her killing. When my mother was seven, my grandfather killed my grandmother by bludgeoning her to death against a tap in Katlehong where they lived. Few things were said about my grandmother alongside those about how she died. For instance, that she was Coloured and that Coloured women are all alcoholics, that she was unspeakably beautiful and had the audacity to know it, that she was considered a scandal in the family for being fair-skinned and conceited, and that she took out a life insurance policy before she was killed and nominated her children as beneficiaries.

“O batla chelete ea ka mme a ke ke a e fumane” (“he wants my money and he won’t get it”), she would say about my grandfather to my mother and my mother’s sister, two of four children that survived their first year.

Near the end of 2020, my mother met with my grandmother’s family in White City, Soweto, and again in Matatiele, Eastern Cape. We learned that her father was Coloured and that her mother was Black. We learned that growing up, my grandmother attended an elite grammar school in Lesotho where she learned to speak and write in English. What she learned from her education in Lesotho opened her to a successful career at the Ellerines head office. She was favoured by her employers and earned well, more than what my grandfather was earning. She was a highly-skilled, beautiful, and successful Black woman in apartheid, living with this handsome and strong man in Katlehong.

Then the trouble started. For whatever reason, my grandfather insisted she leave her job at Ellerines and take up a lower-paying job at the firm up the road from where he worked. She obliged him. However, even here, her employers were impressed by her and she was promoted and given more responsibility at the firm. The word is that he hated how successful she was and felt emasculated. That’s when the beatings started. She was being beaten on Fridays and Saturdays, never on the face, never in such a place or such a time that would bring attention to the matter, to him. Always in such a way that would fold her up seven times like a paper plane and throw her into the pouring rain. She began drinking to numb her body in preparation to be beaten. They say there were many meetings between the families to discuss the beatings, to end them. However, they continued. Apparently, the beatings were made worse by her indignance towards him during the assaults, how she refused to make herself small, to enlarge his sense of self. And then, one evening, he killed her.

“ke kopa o ba shebe bosiu bo bong, ke hloka ho bua le mme oa bona” (“please watch them one night, I need to talk to their mother”), my grandfather asked his brother the night he killed her. His brother obliged him. Perhaps because that’s what you do with men — you oblige them. Or maybe because that’s what you do to Black women — you discipline them.

This story rends me, and I’ve struggled to know how to approach knowing it, fulfilling it. It still feels like something is supposed to happen, something big and resolute and certain. And I don’t know what my responsibility is to it. It is my first reference point when I think about Black womanhood, what can happen if this society decides that you are both a woman and Black, what can be done to you. The specificity of that determination. Mostly I think about what my responsibilities to Black women are, in particular in respect of the solidarity we share in anti-patriarchy consciousness and activism. I think about how, in as much as racism and patriarchy are structures of oppression that we share, I am not a Black woman as much as I am Black and queer, how different we are. I think about the rich tradition of feminist resistance to oppression and how little of it I know.

I don’t know what I’m doing, more so in this article. I don’t know what I’m trying to get at here. Writing this has been carefully yet vigorously looking for a splinter at the heel of my palm, there, maybe. Otherwise, writing this has felt like coming closer.

I know this piece is about her, the way grief never ends but changes, dissolves itself into the blood, spit and children. I know this piece is about me too. Ultimately, I hope this thing becomes about you, the narratives you hold and speak about Black women and the place in which you find yourself in relation to the oppression of Black women.

There’s no beginning, middle or end, perhaps fitting considering the poly-centric and nonlinear forces that manage and perpetuate the social construction of Black women. In this meditation are some sprawled thoughts on narratives, their evocativeness and power to govern the narrators and the narrated. It is also a piece about solidarity amongst and similarities between Black women and queers, the shame we recognise amongst one another, the oppression we are able to perpetrate and perpetuate against each other.

I lost my heart in the dark with you

In White Tears / Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Colour, Ruby Hamad describes the villainisation of Black women in narratives created for the maintenance of White supremacy and how Black women are compared to White women to dehumanise them. Hamad cites Edward Said’s Orientalism in describing how the Orient (everywhere that is not the West) is described as a space where women of colour exist as sexual creatures, unbound whatsoever by the demands of morality, how the Orient is a space that is not ‘sex differentiated’ and described as ‘feminised’ compared to the masculine Occident (the West). Hamad explores the meanings of the Pocahontas Myth distributed by the Walt Disney Company which presents Pocahontas as a young woman that falls in love with a White Englishman, John Smith. Considering British colonisation as an eventuality, Hamad explains, Pocahontas saves Smith’s life and adopts Western civilisation. In the sequel, subtitled Journey to a New World, she willingly chooses to voyage to England to represent her people to the British Queen and there falls in love with another White Englishman, John Rolfe. With the Queen’s blessing, she and Rolfe sail away to Virginia and live happily ever after. In reality, Hamad tells us, Pocahontas was only 10 years old when middle-aged John Smith landed in Jamestown, Virginia. Pocahontas and Smith did not have a sexual relationship and it is “highly unlikely she ever saved his life given the only record of that incident is in Smith’s own highly embellished writing, in which he presents himself as the object of many a Native maiden’s affections and claims to have been saved in the same way more than once.” Her real name was Matoaka. “Pocahontas” was her childhood nickname, meaning ‘playful one’ in English. After being kidnapped and held in captivity for a year in England, she converted to Christianity, took the biblical name “Rebecca”, married John Rolfe, had a child by him and was hailed by English society as a successful “civilised native”.

In the myth, Matoaka is an object of nature, capable of leaping through waterfalls unscathed, speaking to animals and painting with the colours of the wind. Ruby Hamad extrapolates the function and significance of the 400-year-old legend and explains how the Pocahontas myth represents “a passive sex symbol, the ‘Good Indian’ who unites the white man and the Native, the civilised and the savage, the past and the future.” However, as Hamad unpacks in her book, Pocahontas’s fictional attraction to a White man serves to authorise White men to “conquer, assimilate and destroy Native culture”. Further, Matoaka’s princess status was a myth designed to imbue her enthusiasm for Western culture with particular gravitas and meaning.

The making of myths to engender Black womanhood such as the Pocahontas myth is not exclusive to Disney but is present in lay conversations, in “Eish, uyabaz’ abafazi banjani/ Yeah, you know how women are”, in the roles we assign in the home, in what we mean we call women gold diggers and in the styling of private girl school uniforms.

In Rape: A South African Nightmare, Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola explores narratives and myths that centre on Black womanhood and describe certain South African women as ‘unrapeable’ — not that they are safe from being raped, but rather that it is safe to rape particular groups of women in South Africa, because the narratives that circulate around them portray them as perpetually consenting and undiscerning and because there will be no consequence for it because of who these women are believed to be. Professor Gqola unpacks the significant linkages between rape and race and shows how rape was literally and symbolically used as a colonising instrument.

In Chapter 2, Professor Gqola describes the creation of the Dutch East India Company and the origins of colonialism in the Cape and explains how gender and sexuality were critical sites at which colonial power is created and maintained. Professor Gqola explains the importance of sexuality in the creation of colonial Otherness, citing the measurement and dissection of genitalia as presented in Dr Yvette Abrahams’ work, The Great Long National Insult, as well as the development of a pseudo-medical/pseudo-race-science as presented in Dr Zine Magubane’s book, Bringing the Empire Home.

“Race and gender work in similar ways. Part of violent gender power is in celebrating attributes associated with the masculine and ordering the world in terms of opposites, or binaries. If masculine and feminine are opposites, and there is nothing in between, then when masculine is celebrated, feminine as its opposite has to be debased. This means that those who are marked as feminine are also debased in relation to those marked as masculine. … In the end, patriarchy produces a condition of women’s unease in their bodies. Manifestations include the awareness of women’s bodies as dirty, excessive, which then need to be disciplined, hidden, and worked on obsessively. From being told that their vaginas smell like fish, to being taught that menstrual blood and body hair are dirty (they curdle milk, they rot meat, they contaminate others), to being punished for taking up space, women are socialised to believe that there is always something wrong with us.” — Dr Pumla Gqola, Rape: A South African Nightmare

Our missings, bound together

“People don’t accept mothers who drink too much wine and yell at their child and call him an asshole. … Because the basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, Mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child and holds his dead body when he’s gone.” — Nora Fanshaw, Marriage Story

To be a Black woman is to be a negated subjectivity, a thing that exists as the vehicle for all of the worlds sin and violent nightmares, for all of the worlds fear and tempestuous desire — its playground, its prize, its dirty cloth to clean the anxious, traumatised mess in which we find ourselves.

The difficulty, it appears to me, lies in locating Black womanhood in post-coloniser-settler societies like South Africa. In South Africa, Western, or White, forms of social intercourse and identity-making remain privileged against all others. In other words, one must adopt Western ways of dressings, the English language, a Western diet, and other Western practices of how one greets, stands, what one believes to be beyond here, how families are structured. In such an environment and as many writers have pointed out, to be a Western(ised) woman is to be the physical embodiment of morality and is perhaps best captured by the mystique of the virtuous, innocent, chaste, Christian, White woman. It is to embody the absence of sin, the absence of labour, purity, to be unceasingly vulnerable and unendingly delicate — the Virgin Mary.

In South Africa, Blackness has successfully been constructed as the agency of labour upon which our economy runs. Constructions of womanhood believed to be indigenous to southern Africa are constructions of the agency of labour. The ‘Homelands’, to which Black people were forcibly transferred and from which Black people come, were labour reservoirs for White-owned mines and farms. Black womanhood in these contexts is chiefly concerned with labour — reproductive labour, domestic labour, homemaking, child-rearing, psychic labour, emotional labour. Being uMakoti is to work, before anybody has risen, right through into nightfall. The imposition of duty and labour is, it appears to me, far more concerned with the carnal body and its ability to produce labour compared to Western constructions of Womanhood. Consider the unending stream of paintings of Black women carrying all manner of objects on their heads and carrying babies on their backs, clearly trying to valorise ‘ombokodo’ whilst perpetuating the narrative that Black womanhood is chiefly concerned with physical labour. Consider too, an aspect of the matter with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and Caster Semenya and the history of other women like her. It is clear that the IAAF has a particular kind of person in mind when they call for women athletes, and that person does not have strong shoulders and a deep voice — this is not a woman in the West. And so women like Caster must be spectacularly vanquished, physically interrogated down to her molecular and hormonal composition. The same way we tried to vanquish Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, the way we torture and destroy trans women by denying their womanhood.

Black women in South Africa are asked to embody such contradictory constructions of identity — the infinitely fragile poise of Western womanhood and the agency of physical labour of constructions of womanhood believed to be indigenous to southern Africa. Each construction is present in the other, coloniser-settler constructions of womanhood are not absent of labour, being made the moral vehicle of a people can be just as dehumanising as being its oxen, inasmuch as being uMbokodo is also a way of refusing Black women humanity by rendering them the hospice for a failed revolution. And the institutions that co-create these contradictions veil their work in the language of morality, in divine scripture as well as science, codes of ethics, marketability, defunct models of the family unit, in the language of respectability. And all of this before even considering Black women who are also queer.

Black women can be dangerous too, as political agents, as deans of law, as medical doctors, as mothers. It is not true that being a Black woman excludes Black women from the agency of malice, of authoring trauma, of draconian, nationalistic and patriarchal policy enactments. This is surely not news but is perhaps subdued by our political discourse to reserve the monopoly over violence, dominance and oppression for men.

As queer feminist critiques on the unified category of ‘women’ has grown, the categories and meanings of being queer and queer practice have expanded both in terms of the context in which queer identification is applicable but so too in terms of the seditious potentiality of queer politics. I think Black women who do not identify as queer have a lot in common with queers, if not for the impossibility of satisfying the subjectivity divined for you then for the necessary divergence from the traditional social practice allotted to you and the self-invention necessary to exist in this environment as a Black woman. According to a book review by Alok Vaid-Menon of No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity by Dr Sarah Haley, the term queer was used to described Black bodies, ideas and behaviours that challenged racial norms before it was used to describe homosexual desire. Dr Sarah Haley argues that “Black women occupied a liminal space of gender ambiguity”, their bodies were demonised as “less sexually differentiated than white women’s” and existed “outside the binary categories of woman and man”.

“From these bits and pieces, it has been difficult to know where to begin or even what to call her. The fiction of a proper name would evade the dilemma, not resolve it. It would only postpone the question: Who is she? I suppose I could call her Mattie or Kit or Ethel or Mabel. Any of these names would do and would be the kind of name common to a young Coloured woman at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are other names reserved for the dark: Sugar Plum, Peaches, Pretty Baby, and Little Bit — names imposed on girls like her that hint at the pleasures afforded by intimate acts performed in rented rooms and dimly lit hallways. And there are the aliases too, the identities slipped on and discarded — a Mrs, quickly affixed to a lover’s name, or one borrowed from a favourite actress to invent a new life, or the protective cover offered by the surname of a maternal grandmother’s dead cousin — all to elude the law, keep your name out of the police register, hold the past at a safe distance, forget what grown men did to girls behind closed doors. The names and the stories rush together. The singular life of this particular girl becomes interwoven with those of other young women who crossed her path, shared her circumstances, danced with her in the chorus, stayed in the room next door in a Harlem tenement, spent sixty days together at the workhouse, and made an errant path through the city.” — Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments, 2019 DM/MC

Kneo Mokgopa is the communications manager at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They write in their personal capacity.

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