Modern Day Sojourners: Working on Womanhood in the 21st Century

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Photo and graphic by Micaela Adams

Photo and graphic by Micaela Adams

By Maryemma Graham

I grew up in the South during the “King Era,” surrounded by violence. Yet my girlhood was relatively safe due to the protective environment my parents provided and the tightly-knit communities in which they operated. They were activists of a particular generation: education and religion were both central to their lives. Social progress meant breaking down the barriers of segregation; it did not change the structure of families or the need to care for and nurture their own. I was conscious of living in that nurturing world, one where many people supported and guided me—most of them women until I transferred to a public university away from my home. I assumed that all girls felt safe and protected as I did, since most of those I knew made seemingly smooth transitions into adulthood. What I know now but did not know then was how incredibly fortunate — and naïve — I was.

As we engage in remembrances of a man and a movement on January 19, we cannot ignore how different that world was from our world today. We live in a constant state of crisis from which there is no respite. Some of us retreat to safe havens in silence, not knowing what to do. Violence is present at home and abroad. The militarization of America, events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Brooklyn and Paris all associated with an endless cycle of death, tragedy and terror signify new world order that is reprehensible. Leaving the sit-ins behind, we invent new ways to make public our outrage. At die-ins we find comfort in communion.

We might consider then, at least two orientations with regard to the observances of this 2015 King Holiday. One the one hand, for those who walk on the hallowed ground of King, we remember a fearless fighter for social justice, yet a man like any other. One the other hand is the reality that the struggle for civil and human rights is bigger than any one person. Seen from this perspective, the celebratory moment is eclipsed by compelling cautionary tales confirming that our work is not yet finished.

Returning to another historical moment seems appropriate here, one that takes on new meaning with each remembering. In May 1851, Sojourner Truth had a rare opportunity when she took the podium at the Women’s Rights convention Akron, Ohio. In an instant she became the quintessential symbol of triple jeopardy: a former slave, a free black and a woman. She challenged progressive-minded women and the anti-slavery community in general, refusing to keep the issues of slavery and women’s rights separate. Exposing her breasts to punctuate her womanhood, she proclaimed fearlessly, “Ain’t I a woman!” One can only imagine the assortment of responses that her boldness generated.

More than one hundred fifty years later, the need to strike a blow for womanhood remains, Truth’s words threaded in our consciousness. But womanhood does not just happen. Girls grow into women, a process we cannot take for granted. Today, we have finally admitted that young women are more often the victims of outright violence, both physical and social. This is not knew knowledge; the situation has simply become worse, having become part of the fabric of our social landscape, easily hidden from plain view.

A Chicago-based organization has been striking that necessary blow for womanhood for some time. In fact, they call it what it is—Working on Womanhood. They are who and what I think about this King Holiday as we look at work still to be done. W.O.W. is the sister program to the ever-popular Becoming a Man (B.A.M.), a success story in its own right. While W.O.W. has yet to have the curb appeal of B.A.M., the program goes about its work in a very systematic way. They know that there are not enough opportunities for young women to gain a stronger sense of identity, to develop the necessary social, emotional and behavioral competencies, especially as they enter middle school. Here they have found their focus. Without these competencies, school age girls will have little chance of learning how to effectively resolve the multiple conflicts in their lives, to stay on track in school, and to grow into self-sufficient adults. Youth Guidance as the parent organization has a full professional staff and more than enough evidence of the positive effects of appropriate intervention, mentoring and targeted programming. The have made and continue to make strides in lowering the staggering statistics we so often cite regarding early teen pregnancy, gang violence, and sexual abuse.

Some believe that these young women represent that significant population that the Civil Rights Movement left behind, those whom feminism prefers not to engage. These young women are not necessarily breaking down barriers or climbing the corporate ladder. Yet they are modern day Sojourners, who force new definitions of womanhood to the surface, because the ones they have inherited no longer fit. They are the girls whose transition from girlhood to womanhood is fraught with uncommon difficulties that include mental and medical challenges. What has not changed is the desire to be part of a vibrant, cohesive community, one that shares common values and thinks about itself in meaningful ways.

W.O.W. gives young women a chance, but it’s our chance as well. We might even be able to let go of long held assumptions. That girls need less than their male counterparts because they are naturally survivors and have greater access to models in their mothers, their grandmothers or other women in their lives that keep them grounded; that they more easily learn those social skills making it possible for them to adapt rather than drop out; and that they can transform the art of self-sacrifice, something they learn early, and find meaning to their lives in socially acceptable ways.

Certainly we can find some support for our assumptions. But what they really tell us is that we see only what we want to see. If King reminds us to keep social justice on the nation’s agenda, Truth gives us the much needed perspective, insisting that we won’t get very far without paying attention to those complex issues that surround not only race, but also gender. Sojourner Truth was a woman of action, stepping out of her “place” when she needed to, even aware of the invisibility that still plagues us.

We do not glamorize pathology when we focus on the lives of young women who have little access and privilege. Instead we create the space for dialogue between them and among ourselves. For W.O.W. it means girls listening and talking to each other in a judgment-free zone.

I’ve met some of the women of W.O.W., and I am convinced that they already know what it took me years to learn: going from girlhood to womanhood is not automatic. It is not just about being a woman, but becoming one. We grow, yes, but that growth is subject to more routine interruptions for some girls than others. If they are lucky, they might come to the conclusion that Margaret Walker did in Growing Out of Shadow. For Walker womanhood was to maturity, when “we become conscious of our common humanity and struggle to be free,” she wrote in 1943.

I do not know what the everyday lives of many girls are like today, but I know that the women of W.O.W. care enough about each other as individuals and as a group to challenge assumptions about them. What they show us in no uncertain terms is that those socially and culturally embedded practices, often rooted in economic disparities impact girls of color to a disproportionate degree. They must be and are the difference in each other’s lives.

As we go from sit-ins to die-ins, we are engaging the legacy of the Civil Right Movement that catapulted King into prominence. When we work on womanhood, and by implication manhood, we create a living legacy that is continually transformed and reshaped, one that secures the kind of future we can all share. We become yoked together. Youth Guidance has made sure that we don’t repeat our past mistakes that allowed us to forget the most vulnerable in our society. The Civil Rights Movement’s unfinished business is their business.

So what if girls ruled the world, we ask? What will be different? I am well past my girlhood, and even though I parented two daughters, I dare not speak for a generation who thinks and operates in ways wholly unfamiliar to me. What I know is that we must have modern day Sojourners like the young women of W.O.W, who map out a deliberate path and point the way forward. They learn and teach us.

The next stop for the young women of W.O.W is a visit to the White House and a meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama. They’ve earned the right to speak, and they demand they we listen.