By Farah Jasmine Griffin
My mother is a feminist who never would have embraced the term. In this way she is not unlike many Black women of her generation. A child of the Depression, she was a teenager during World War II, and a mother of a preschooler and a young adult during the tumultuous days of the 1960’s. She was the spoiled youngest sibling of two older sisters, and the girl-bride who married her teenage love. Hers was a conventional marriage and she seemed perfectly happy with that. She alternately worked as at a garment factory seamstress, and stayed at home as a homemaker when finances provided. She yielded authority to her husband and carried herself like “a lady” at all times. And yet, she possessed an odd defiance on gender matters in her family and community.
For instance, my aunt observed a certain custom: she believed a man should be the first to walk across the threshold on New Year’s Day. If a woman preceded him it ensured a year’s worth of bad luck. Few things rattled my mother more than this superstition. “Why would a woman be bad luck? Seems like men have brought us more bad luck than all the women we know combined!” With her, it was philosophical. The core of her belief about women’s inherent abilities forced her to challenge such long held practices in her family. She resisted them almost as much as she resisted white supremacy. Where her peers celebrated being the mother of sons, she cherishes her role as the mother of daughters. She still resists any one that provides excuses for domestic violence and sexual abuse. Her willingness to buck convention on such beliefs and practices extends beyond her confrontation of superstition and stereotype.
At one point, a thirteen year old in our community was the victim of a gang rape. She conceived a child during this horrific encounter. Unbelievably, the collective response of the mothers on our block was to ostracize the young woman. She was “fast.” She’d brought it on herself by going to the boys when they called her. She was “big for her age,” and acted “womanish.” They prohibited their daughters from associating with her less her ways “rub off” on them. I was the youngest girl on the block, and relatively privileged. One summer night, when our young neighbor was sitting on her front steps alone, my mother said, “You go down the street and you sit and talk with her.” At my mother’s encouragement I went to her. Eventually others joined us. And together we collectively fell in love with helped to care for her baby. The police were never called; the boys were never convicted, though each of them met horrifically violent futures.
My mother did not fear my neighbor’s carnal knowledge would have a bad influence on me because she knew that what I learned about sex came first from her, not from the street. And when I heard something on the street that sounded different from what I’d been told, I knew I could ask her, no holds barred.
But even more than her word, was her example. When my father died, leaving my mother a widow at the young age of 44, she mourned him deeply and profoundly. He had been her first and only love, the father of her two children, her protector and provider. Their relationship was legendary in our family and our community. Hers may have been the last generation in our community to wear Black during a period of mourning. Her older sisters told her, “It’s time to come out of that Black.” She did and thus began her transformation from young wife, young widow, to fully-grown, independent woman. First, she decided she never wanted to remarry. She took charge of her finances. She read books and took classes on household repairs and got her own tool kit. She learned to change a washer, caulk a tub, and replace a window. Even today my image of freedom is my mother, her hair recently cut, walking with me in the rain during a summer shower, as other women and girls cowered beneath awnings and under sweaters and bags — anything to shield their hair from water.
Most importantly, decades before Beyoncé, my mother raised her daughter to believe she could rule the world. Education was paramount to success and independence. Marriage was nice but not necessary for a fulfilled life (though she preferred children be reared by those who were married to each other). “You are dark-skinned, you are Black, you are not middle-class, and you are a woman. There are people who think those things should hold you down, but you are to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to you and once you’ve done that you are to create more opportunity for those who follow you.” She only told me I was beautiful once. Not because she didn’t believe I was, but because she didn’t want it to mean more to me than it should. “Looks mean nothing.” (She only acceded to affirm mine in the face of a middle school teacher having told a classmate that I wasn’t “cute.” My mother suspected colorism and she wasn’t having it, “She’s right, you’re not cute. You are beautiful.”) Here words were like mantras to me. Funny thing, when your mother believes the world is your oyster, you tend to believe it too.
When I began to learn the basics of feminism, particularly Black feminism, I realized my mother had actually set that foundation for me. She was uncomfortable with the term, because she identified it with privileged white women, and she never saw her struggle as separate from that of Black men, though she realized sometimes she had to struggle against them too. She believed, and continues to believe that our struggle ought to be for a world where Black men and women, all men and women, together are free from violence and want. I agree.