Pussy Don’t Fail Me Now: The Place of Vaginas in Black Feminist Theory & Organizing

 

 

 

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Marchers in pink pussy hats — courtesy of Yahoo

 

#1 – I was on a plane heading to give a talk about the Movement for Black Lives when I felt menstrual blood beginning to leak through the seat of my jeans. Everyone who menstruates knows the dread and fear that happens when they can’t control this bodily function that by our age has been happening for the better part of two or three decades. I hurried to the tiny plane bathroom hoping it wouldn’t be too much of a shit show to squeeze my fat body inside and change a tampon with ease. Luckily I made it through the moment without too much embarrassment. But it would take many more months, a fibroid diagnosis, and a minor surgery to reduce my chances of bleeding on airplane seats all over the U.S. of A.

 

#2 – A couple of years ago, a collective of Black feminist women that I write and panel with about the politics of sex and pleasure were accused by a senior scholar who attended one of our panels of “writing from our pussies.” This was offered derisively as a critique of the seriousness of the work we do together.

 

#3 – After this weekend’s historic and inspiring Women’s Marches all over the country, I happened to see a few trans folks naming and calling out the pussy-centered culture of the marches, and reminding those of us who are cis, that vaginas aren’t a prerequisite for womanhood. The march was filled with white (cisgender) women reveling in the opportunity to wear their very pink pussy hats and shirts, and talk freely about their vaginas in public. I was not able to attend a march, but the nostalgia for both the movements of the 1970s and the Riot Grrl Days was palpable, even in the pictures. Many transwomen, however, pointed out the ways in which a focus on vaginas can marginalize womenfolk that don’t have those parts.

 

 

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It looks like we are at the dawn of a new era in feminist organizing. (Although it bears noting that this new era actually dawned when queer Black feminist women began organizing under the moniker of #BlackLivesMatter. But I digress.) As both a scholar and an activist, it feels really important to me in this moment to say that we owe our movements for social justice our best thinking, our best terms and concepts, and our honesty.

 

So let me begin with a question: What place does pussy have in feminist organizing and thought? That is the more general question. But y’all already know that when I say feminist thought organizing, I’m talking about Black feminism, and the ways this conversation matters to Black women and girls, cis and trans.

 

I am convening this particular space today, because I want to work through this question, not because I have all the answers. This blog is and has always been a space where we work things out. And in this moment of organizing, we need more spaces for that. I am working through my questions here as a cisgender Black woman, who grew up working class and graduated from college first generation. I am now solidly middle class. I desire to be in community with, an ally to, and co-conspirator with my trans siblings. But I never declare myself an ally because ally is a process and a set of actions, not an identity. I am also a scholar of gender studies, who is interested in some of the intricacies of questions of gender identity as it gets taken up in feminist theory.

 

Y’all know I don’t usually do all this prefacing. But I’m doing it today because we have arrived at a moment in our activist work, where the level of policing, calling out, and declaring of things to be violent, sometimes prevents us from doing some of the conceptual work we need to do. I’m a firm believer that good ideas drive good politics. I also know that in movement spaces where we have different levels of privilege and power, other people’s “questions” can become violent and oppressive. They can act as a form of “epistemic exploitation,” (listen to great podcast on this here) in which endless questions are used as a way to disaffirm other people’s account of their own experience, by asking them to prove that the world is what they say it is. So I’m heading into murky waters today, and I hope that this space is one where you all will build with me, question me (but dont step sideways cuz we still CRUNK. Be clear.), hold me accountable, but also work through these issues with me.

 

That said.

 

Y’all I’m really struggling with this attempt to displace vaginas from feminist conversations. Honestly, I don’t think this is the move.

 

Here’s the thing: feminism taught me to love my vagina. (Hip Hop) Feminism gave me the courage to use the word “pussy,” when I need to make requests in the bedroom. (Cues Missy E.) But feminism a la bell hooks also taught me about the historical politics of “selling hot pussy.” Feminism taught me years ago not to feel embarrassed about telling y’all a period story and gave me the structural analysis to think about why we ask women and girls and all people who have periods to hide them or feel shame about them. Even in 2017, I still have to walk into women’s and gender studies classrooms and tell my intro students about the historical reasons for period shame. Their faces still turn beet red – all of them.

 

But also: we live in a world that doesn’t love vaginas. Vaginas are structurally maligned, and considered the property of men. Just ask your new president. Let us not forget the transvaginal ultrasound fiasco of a 5 years ago, when several states tried to make it legal to put a phallic like ultrasound probe into a woman’s vagina against her will. In a hierarchy of genitalia, penises are chief. Vaginas are near the bottom. And then the genitalia that intersex people have labor and languish in epistemic obscurity, by which I mean, that up until only the last few decades or so, science chose not even to acknowledge that penises and vaginas aren’t the only configurations of genitals that exist.

 

When I think about what it would mean to build a Black feminist framework which decenters the pussy, it gives me pause. The call is of course to decenter cisgender Black women from Black feminist frameworks. Again, this move, and the ways in which, in far left social justice spaces, such moves are assumed to be a clear mandate, a clearly desirable end of our politics, gives me pause.

 

Here’s what we know: transgender Black women have a life expectancy of 35 years. That number is staggering. It is urgent, and it is a clarion call that some shit needs to change. And quickly. I believe that working alongside trans Black women to make the world safe, a world where they can flourish, should be among the most central priorities of our organizing.

 

I also believe that as cisgender Black women one of the reasons that we cannot continue these inane beefs about what a “real woman” is with our trans sistren, is because cis Black women know frfr that we have never inhabited categories of womanhood uncritically. Though it is an apocryphal story at this point, Sojourner Truth’s question “Ain’t I a Woman?” in the vaunted speech (that she prolly never actually gave) has been central to U.S. Black women’s experience of womanhood. It has always been a question. Never a foregone conclusion. In the 19th century, white women shaded us by refusing to call us ladies. Thus, cisgender Black women don’t inhabit these categories uncritically. We don’t inhabit them without having to fight for access to them.

 

This should be grounds for solidarity with transwomen. What we look like fighting other people for access to some shit we have barely procured for ourselves? That’s called punching down, and if we fighting, surely we know that we need to punch up.

 

This is a long way of saying, too, though, that gender categories have histories. Fraught histories. But those histories cannot be upended merely through discursive reinvention. Even though I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from my trans and GNC sibs who are divesting in traditional gender categories and decolonizing those categories in the process, I also know there are a set of structural realities that attend to the lives of those of us who still inhabit the existing categories and those who are trying to find other modes of habitability.

 

What am I saying?

 

I know cis privilege is real. I don’t fear being attacked just for walking down the street on most days (although that might change in Trump’s America.)

 

But.

 

For cisgender Black women and girls, our vaginas constitute the material locus of our cisness. We are cis because we have vaginas and identify as femmes. Historically, our vaginas were the property of plantation owners upon our arrival. They were used as a vehicle through which to reproduce plantation slavery. Having autonomy of our vaginas and wombs has been central to how Black women articulate freedom.

 

If in slavery, our vaginas were a primary site of violation for cisgender Black women and girls, today, our vaginas still remain a primary cite of violation. Black Women’s Blueprint estimates that as many as 60% of Black women and girls are victims of sexual assault. Other studies have more conservative estimates, but still say 1 in 5 Black women will be raped in her lifetime. Whatever way you slice it, those numbers are absolutely staggering. If transwomen’s experiences with sexual assault were part of the official record, I think we would be picking our faces up off the floor at the numbers.

 

Having a vagina has always made us more rather than less susceptible to violence. Feminism taught me this. As long as that remains true, vaginas have to remain central to our organizing and our thinking.

 

Once every 21 hours, a cisgender Black woman is killed by a Black male perpetrator, usually with a gun. Again, if we added transwomen’s experiences to those numbers, the statistics would leap astronomically. Earlier this month, Mesha Caldwell, a trans Black woman from Mississippi was found shot to death.

 

But given these high rates of violence that even cisgender Black women experience, is it fair to call this privilege? Just because cisgender Black women are not brutalized at the extreme levels that our trans sisters are, does not mean we are safe, protected, and flourishing. Diminished brutality can be called neither safety nor privilege.

 

We need new terms.

 

Of late I’ve been thinking about whether cis identity for Black women constitutes mitigated risk, such that if both a cis and a trans Black woman were walking down the street together, the cis woman has a mitigated risk that she will be attacked, though she may very likely be harassed and even assaulted through unwanted touch. Sometimes, even cisgender Black women like Tiarah Poyau are killed for refusing the touch of a stranger in public. Still, a trans Black woman has a far greater risk that this inevitable harassment and assault would become deadly. Neither woman is safe in this scenario, but one woman is at far greater danger. When Black women, be they cis or trans, are perpetually structurally unsafe, we can’t call it privilege.

 

I’ve also been revisiting some older Black feminist language, returning to Deborah King’s 30 year old concept of jeopardy in her now classic Multiple Jeopardies essay. My good friend, Dr. Kristie Dotson, encouraged me to re-read it a while back, and asked me whether intersectionality and jeopardy really are the same things, even though we tend to conflate the two in our teaching. She told me (and I’m paraphrasing) that intersectionality has to do with structural visibility or invisibility within systems. Jeopardy speaks to the material terms and conditions that shape people’s lives. To wit, I’m a college professor. I still labor under intersectional invisibility in institutions and broader systems. But I don’t have the same level of jeopardy as a sister who’s still living in the hood, making minimum wage, and taking public transit out of necessity.

 

So maybe we need to begin thinking again in terms of jeopardy. Maybe an analysis of comparative jeopardy/ies or something like this would be more helpful.

 

Jeopardy is going to matter greatly when we think about the status of reproductive justice and access in the age of Trump. It is true that we could strip down the language of reproductive justice, and simply speak in the gender non-specific language of people who need pap smears or people who need abortions. I think this language should be part of any reproductive justice campaigns. But the disdain for those procedures cannot be understood outside of a structural disdain for and hatred of womanhood. The world hate vaginas, and thinks that uteruses are property of men and the state, because it hates women. Hatred of body parts traditionally associated with feminine bodies cannot be understood outside of hatred for the historical category that has been called woman.

 

Making the discursive shift (as white feminist scholars have been doing since de Beauvoir for the last 50 years or more) around what it means to be a woman, does not upened the structural realities – global structural realities – that place women on the bottom of most measures of social and economic stability around the world.

 

Speaking of reproductive politics:

 

I can throw a rock and hit a sister with a fibroid. Yet there are paltry levels of research about something that is a legit health crisis among Black women. Why is this so? We get fibroids earlier, more often, and far more severely than white women do. And for those of us who may want to carry children, even though we have more options than ever before in terms of treatments, that moment you find yourself post-35 learning that your uterus is growing shit that it shouldn’t be growing, sometimes a little more hope floats out the window. And again, the failure of fibroids to be a mainstream medical priority has everything to do with general structural disdain for cisgender Black women, whose bodies have historically (post-slavery, after we were no longer reproducing property for white people) been seen as too reproductive, and as a drain on the state.

 

And given the lack of information about so many issues of concern to cisgender Black women, we still labor under the same shit that women like Fannier Barrier Williams said in 1905 and Toni Cade Bambara said in 1970, and scholars like Dotson and I are saying for the 99 and the 2000s: Black women still labor under the problem of unknowability. Read Dotson here for more on this. There is still so much that is not known about our experience, be we cis or trans.

 

So I’m not actually interested in departing the center of the very systems of thought that told me that my experience – our experiences of Black womanhood – were worthy of being known in the first place. The center is going to have to be expansive enough for all of us to spend some time there.

 

Y’all, I’m almost done. Thanks for bearing with me this long.

 

Let me end with a couple caveats. I know there are people who will read this, and who will have many feelings about my challenges to the use of the word privilege when talking about cis Black women’s identities and structural realities.

 

Let me be clear that I think cis privilege is real. Cis Black women experience cis privilege daily, and we often engage in transphobic, queerphobic, and homophobic acts against trans, queer, and gender non-conforming Black folks. Kim Burrell here’s looking at you. That is unacceptable.

 

To be clear, I’m not fucking with TERF’s (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) here. These white girls need a different analysis about womanhood than the one they have. The shit I’m talking about here has little to nothing to do with cis white women and the ways the femmes among them experience white femininity as a vaunted and protected social category. So don’t even come over here and try it.

 

I also know that in current organizing, the person that has privilege should not dare ever be the person who questions how much privilege they actually have. But I haz questions. And we can’t keep using the politics of discursive violence as an excuse to bury questions that matter in the refining of both our theory and our praxis. Let’s stop the bullshit.

 

If the Rachel Dolezal moment, laughable and ridiculous as it was, should have taught us anything – it’s that we actually do need to refine our categories and thinking about the ways race and gender identity function. Why is it that our gender identity is what we say it is, is what we feel it to be, while our race is structurally determined, and not simply a matter of our own choices? We don’t have to fuck with raggedy Rachel to recognize that this question needs answering.

 

And because we won’t dig in and do this work and think through categories, and histories, and identities out loud in public, for fear of being called transphobic, then when we see white girls reveling in their pink pussy hats, we don’t know how to say that actually – centering white girl’s pussies might not be the move, but Black pussies matter, and the many women and GNC folks who have them still matters structurally and politically to a great degree.

 

I’ll end with this quote from Michele Wallace, who responded to the claim that me and my girls write from our pussies.

 

“What’s wrong with writing [or organizing]from your pussy? It’s a real place.”

 

Oh yeah, y’all: if this wasn’t enough CRUNKness for you, we just published a book. The Crunk Feminist Collection! You can get it here and here or at your local independent bookstore. Thanks for your support! Keep it CRUNK!