Mama’s Feminism


I don’t have a lot of feminist friends, at least not the kind that self-identify as such.  My non-academic friends don’t see themselves as feminists, don’t call themselves feminist, don’t all the way understand my relationship with the term.  They spend a lot of time trying to resist myths around being black and a woman and don’t have the energy or motivation to also resist myths of feminism, of bra burning white women who hate men and stand in picket lines. Of black women who understand the theoretical nexus of their lives and initiatives that connect them to “the cause” but become disconnected from movements close to home.

Feminism as a term was born in academe, in an environment that polices people’s behaviors to dictate who can and cannot be feminist and what is and is not feminist.  Feminism as a way of life was born at my mama’s house, in a space that made woman power and intentional equality a survival strategy and mechanism to make up for oppression, the absence of men, and lifestyles that were without the luxury of adhering to strict gender scripts.

I learned feminism from my mama and them, rural women who did not have the benefit of formal college education or fancy words for how they lived.  They would have no doubt, by strict standards, in the vulnerable moments of their lives that were necessary for sanity and survival, been called unfeminist while the world called them unfeminine.  They  would have had little investment in either label, learning from experience how dangerous it is to let outside people dictate your inside thoughts.  They would have been resented for the way they were conditioned to desire men and canonical lifestyles while being mama and daddy, bringing home all the bacon, with multiple mouths to feed.  Their lifestyles were feminist but their dreams and desires, of being kept women with white women’s problems, would have been read as problematic.  They would have rebelled because they wouldn’t let a label like feminist tell them what to do.  They wouldn’t give a damn what people thought.

I learned/realized I was a feminist from a teacher who described my mama without saying her name, gave her secrets away without giving her credit, and put struggling on a pedestal. We didn’t have pedestals at my mama’s house but we had stools to stand on and sit on, for work and rest.  Feminism was like a metaphorical stepping stool.

I got my feminism from my mama, even though she doesn’t know it.  And my grandmother.  And my aunts.  They had a feminism that would fight back and hide behind the mask of smiles or scorn.  My mama’s feminism was wrapped up in God and respectability politics she could never live up to.  My grandmama’s feminism was housed in her meanness and caution.  She carried it with her for emergencies and for protection, like the cigarettes in her pocket and the gun in her bra.  My aunts held their feminism in their laughter and occasional anger.  They used it to cover up pain.  They didn’t know they were feminists.  They didn’t mean to pass it on to me but they couldn’t help it.

My mama’s feminism is inherited but unnamed. She taught me how to own my feminism like I own myself.  She taught me how to be a feminist by being herself.

My feminism needs space to breathe and room to stretch out.  My feminism never gets old.  It is quiet sometimes.  It listens to hip hop and gospel music, watches soap operas, and likes to be heard.  My feminism shows up in the bedroom and the classroom.  It asks for what it wants, doesn’t apologize for what it needs, and isn’t afraid of being alone.  My feminism is androgynous.  It loves football.  My feminism is soulful and historic, sexual and conscientious.  It is standoffish and suspicious.  My feminism needs to drink more water.

My feminism has daddy issues.  It talks back, snaps back, hits back, and doesn’t take any shit.  My feminism kicks ass and takes names.  My feminism says no.  My feminism cries sometimes and doesn’t cover its eyes in shame.  It gets mad sometimes and doesn’t try to explain it away.  My feminism is peaceful in practice but ready for combat.  My feminism is in conversation with other feminisms and makes room for difference.  My feminism takes mental health days and moves on when people walk away.  My feminism loves Jesus and critiques the church, wears black fingernail polish and red lipstick, and loves reality TV.  My feminism is homegrown.  Evolving.  Unapologetic.  And beautiful.  My feminism is opinionated.  It questions everything. My feminism is not always right, but it’s never wrong.  My feminism gets tired.  My feminism is antiracist, antisexist, and conscious of class issues.  My feminism knows what misogyny means.  It takes days off.  It tells people off.

My feminism, like my mama, is braver than me, stronger than me, and keeps me grounded.  My feminism, like me, is complicated and full of contradictions.

My feminism is crunk.

My feminism has dreams.

26 thoughts on “Mama’s Feminism

  1. This is absolutely exquisite, and perfectly sums up my experience as a woman of color. It can be difficult to put words to how we feel and how we live, but you’ve done so quite elegantly. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. From “My feminism has daddy issues” to the very end should adorn the back of a t-shirt and be used as advertising for Crunk Feminist Collective! It’s a manifesto!

  3. I lost my mom last year and my sister within 5 months of that piercing loss. I see reflected in your words the beauty and grace of their lives. Neither would have called herself a feminist but it was made manifest in the lives they both lived and the love that they shared. I will print this out and have it posted in my office for inspiration and lived memories.

    Thank you!!!


  4. So utterly exquisite! Love this essay. My late mom, my friends, Black women writers/artists help shape my feminism from an early age. And I am glad too. I’ve had many Black women say that if their pathway to feminism wasn’t through home, Black sisterhood, Black women writing about it and solely through the White supremacy and hegemony of the academe, they would’ve rejected the label and run screaming away too. I am so glad that I got introduced to this way of thinking through lived experience as a Black woman and the wisdom from Black women.

  5. Gurrrrrl . . . you went and said dat dere. OMG . . . exquisite, emotional, emblematic of many of our experiences as mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and friends. This enabled me to envision my maternal grandmother who I never met but who I knew loved me because she hid her tears so that my mother did not have to hide hers and so that I could scream and sometimes get down right indignant when necessary. Thank you.

  6. Beautiful, I love that you showed how dynamic feminism can be and that we, as feminists, should not succumb to any stereotype about how we should think, act, or speak.

  7. Thank you for sharing this with the Collective. I loved this line, “My feminism is quiet…”. I can identify with this.

  8. i had a similar exchange some years ago at a conference.How is it that you do not see or acknowledge that your ability to articulate yourself so well is built on “feminism” learned by experience, but named in all those articles it’s clear you’ve read? Whose shoulders do you stand on? Show some appreciation/gratitude for those literary ancestors who set the groundwork for you…. WhenTony Cade Bambera passed someone said disrespectful remarks about her. Tony Morrison replied, (paraphrasing). it’s bad to speak ill of the dead.” You leaned as we all did from our Momas,but for those like yourself who got to college learned to NAME, DIGEST AND ARTICULATE THROUGH THEIR PENS( COMPUTERS) ISSUES FROM FEMINISM

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