Welcome to Autostraddle’s 2021 Black History Month essay series. In their recent stirring multi-media anthology Black Futures, Black queer creators Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew ask, “What does it mean to be Black and alive?” And so, this Black History Month, Autostraddle is reaching past, and pushing forward, to explore realities beyond (the pain of) what we have inherited.
Akron, 1851. In a meeting hall full of both Black and white faces, a six-foot-tall woman with oiled leathered skin rises to speak. She is rumored to be man. She be too tall, too masculine, too Black to truly be woman. Her feminine birth name betrays the whispers – Isabella; her declared name signals that she is more concerned with a higher purpose. Sojourner Truth (meaning one who is seeking truth) addresses the room, giving a concise speech that would later be recorded and recited by Black scholars and activists alike for centuries to come.
“Ain’t I a woman?” she asks the crowd. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” Ain’t I worthy of being helped? Of receiving the best? Of being loved like white women? Of being cared for in this world? Ain’t I worthy of being seen in the most delicate ways possible?
150 years later, Black women are still asking the world the same question. We ask when Serena is ridiculed for arguing during tennis matches, when Michelle is compared to monkeys, when we are shackled during childbirth, when we are raped, when there are no marches when we die, every time there is another report of a Black trans woman killed, when Breonna is murdered while sleeping, when we breathe without asking permission:
Ain’t we women? Ain’t we worthy of being seen in the most delicate ways possible?
History tells us “no” and so we hunker down. We cling to ourselves, uplift each other, scrounge up ounces of #blackgirlmagic to make the world better and more bearable for the next generation who will ask the same questions of their world.
To be Black and woman is my birthright; to be loud in my defiance, fierce in my brilliance, magical in my resilience, beautiful in my melanin; to be sister, daughter, sis, queen, star, baby girl. It is all I have ever known — until now.
Vermont, 2020. My body, a Judas in all her forms, bled the day we won. Blood drenched my boxer briefs as my body celebrated a victory for womanhood, for Blackness, for a return to a democracy that pretends to care about folks like us. I sat on the toilet in our tiny mountainside bathroom and cried. When the blood comes, the tears most always accompany it. When my female organs remind me of my birthright, my stomach knots and my body contorts into an unfamiliar “she” that I used to be. She goes to buy tampons because she is always out. She washes her underwear, curses her maker, and informs her wife that the devil is visiting despite all of the cease and desist orders she has written to the universe.
I know that womanhood and periods are not synonymous. I have read the essays. I have reminded people on the internet — reminded myself — that not just women bleed, that gender and sex are not the same thing. When I was younger, I bled only once each year and considered it a gift of apology from a creator who made a mistake in assigning my organs. Unfortunately, my irregular periods were as short-lived as my femme stage of queerness. These days, my period reminds me that I cannot read and discourse my way to self-acceptance. Bleeding is one of the last things that connects me to a female-ness that makes Black womanhood almost unbearable.
In a meme-worthy video, Kamala Harris’ voice comes in a half-whine. “We did it, Joe.” She is smiling, dressed down in athleisure, outside in the sunshine. I watch the video again. I do not smile. There is no sunshine in my windowless bathroom.
Kamala Devi Harris — Black and South Asian, an AKA from the Bay would be our next Vice President. As usual, Black women did The Most. The best part about Black women is when we do The Most. On graduation day, we show up with noisemakers and signs and cheers even when they ask us to hold our applause. Can’t nobody tell Black women to hold our applause for our success. Mama gon’ scream for her baby no matter what. Kamala is ours and Black women make it known. So my body, clinging to Black womanhood, traded in air horns and applause for blood clots and cramps.
When I stand up and look in the mirror, I see my mother in my reflection: short hair, glasses, smirk, big eyes. I see my grandmother in my mother. See her mother in her.
“We did it,” my ancestors echo.
“Who is we?” my soul responds.
Over the next few days, Black women show out.
“You know she went to Howard, right?”
“Let me get my pearls out, chile!”
“They ain’t gonna know what to do with themselves now.”
In art, Kamala walks with Ruby Bridges’ shadow. She stands on the shoulders of giants, painted with John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and John McCain. In essays, she becomes our heroine – the first, the holiest, the Blackest despite her South Asian heritage that is not honored as much as it deserves to be. She is not only our next vice president. She is woman. She is Black. She is worthy.
Ain’t we women?
“Hell Yes,” we chant and promise to don pearls and Chucks in her honor.
For the victory of Madame Vice President Kamala Devi Harris suggests that Black women are now “worthy,” a cause for celebration. We — Black, women, and tired — have been chasing worthiness since before Sojourner asked that room in 1851; since they ushered us off of ships in shackles and priced us for auction; since they stripped us of our names, homes, and womanhood and called us Black.
In the “we” that won, I search for my own joy and came up empty. This is not my first rodeo. I know girls like Kamala. Those who are the epitome of Black girlhood in the best ways possible with light skin, thin frames, straight hair, pearls, and parents who got money so they could get all the degrees. The ones that get the world and say “you can, too,” reaching down to pull me up. I am too heavy though, too rough, too unpolished, not enough money, gold chain dangling instead of pearls.
The progress of Black girls and women like Kamala Devi Harris has never guaranteed progress for folks like me. I have spent my life mourning my inability to twist my spine, slim my thighs, soften my soul to be woman enough.
Virginia, 2007. In the picture, I am wearing a pink linen skirt suit. Draped in part-tablecloth, part potato sack, I smile flanked by my two best friends in high school. They are twin stallions, beautiful in both body and soul. We each hold a glass of water while posing for the photo. I really wanted a glass of punch, but when I saw the punch bowl, I also saw the future — red punch on my linen skirt suit that was my mama’s favorite outfit for me.
“You look so neat,” she had said when I came out of the dressing room months earlier. Neat was mama’s best compliment for fatness. According to my mother, there were three rules for fat Black girls:
1. Never smell.
2. Always watch your mouth — use correct grammar and act like you got sense.
3. Wear clothes that fit; be neat.
She never said this but from personal experience, I knew that fat Black girls were not as beautiful, as delicate, as woman as skinny Black girls. I knew that skinny Black girls were not as treasured as skinny non-Black girls. I knew that skinny white girls were the best. I knew that this worked for everything. I knew that my straight shoulder-length hair was my best womanly feature which is why my mother spent $40 every other week to get it done. Five years later, when I decided to cut my hair off, my mother sent me a two-page email begging me to reconsider. The fear between her sentences echoed the quiver in her voice I’d heard a few years prior when I told her I was queer. She was not afraid of who I was becoming, but how the world would treat me when I became it.
I don’t know why my mother thought linen would be a good idea for her tomboy daughter. I actually don’t know why anyone thinks linen is a good idea. It wrinkles within minutes and never looks as crisp in real life as it does on the plastic mannequins in department stores. The linen skirt suit came from Dress Barn. I’d outgrown the junior sizes back in elementary school and was forced into womanhood before I was ready. To be fair — I’m not sure I would’ve ever been ready for Dress Barn. The truth is I was born as queer as they come. I am queer boy, queer girl, queer being, queer beast, queer heaven wrapped in messy, rugged, caramel-coated melanin.
Looking back at the photo, I can feel my mother’s pride — of me, her daughter who won a scholarship she would later waste in a year of recklessness; her daughter who managed to keep Pepto-Bismol linen skirt suit wrinkle-free despite being crunched into an auditorium seat for an hour; her daughter who smelled good, used correct grammar, and was neat; who was beautiful, Black, and woman on that day.
Months later, I would wear the same linen skirt suit to a different function. The blood would come and spot the back of it. Instead of washing it out, I would throw it in the trash without telling my mother. When my mother died eight years later, my body bled for a month in clotted mourning that spoiled every pair of pants I loved (none of them linen nor pink).
Inauguration Day, 2021. Kamala Harris is dressed head-to-toe in a purple outfit designed by Christopher John Rogers. She pulls it off. I imagine myself in the same suit and see only “Violet. You’re turning violet!” vibes. I do not watch the inauguration. I am worried that there will be another attack — on the proceedings or on my own soul. I cannot take another day of tears, isolation, and heightened gender dysphoria.
Later, I watch a recording and watch her raise her hand and solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; to take the obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which she is about to enter.
Pause. Rewind. Play. Celebrate.
Pause. Rewind. Play. Grieve.
Pause. Rewind. Play. Rage.
We did not ask for this. We asked for revolution, for abolition, for a radical shift in our being and dreaming. We got Kamala and once again thanked a country for giving us less than we deserve. In America, being grateful for receiving less than we deserve is our birthright as Black women.
On plantations, Black women toiled day and night under white masters, spent their days in their master’s fields and kitchens preparing gourmet meals for others, and hoped to get scraps to nourish themselves and their own. Black women spend their lives twisting their forms and tongues in hopes of being worthy of the humanity we deserve. Centuries of years later, we remain malnourished in almost every way possible, still settling for table scraps. When you are hungry, the crumbs taste like heaven.
“Celebrate the progress, shea. Be grateful for representation. Be happy to be Black and woman and American today.”
I stopped believing in the lie of progress a long time ago. America sold us a promise of progress and said “just a little bit longer.” Ain’t nothing revolutionary about assimilation; about being just palatable enough for them to say “I guess so” and mark your name on the ballot as the lesser of two evils.
I will not downplay the success of Kamala Devi Harris, our first Black, South Asian female vice president. She is brilliant, strong, beautiful. An alum of the most prestigious HBCU, a former attorney general, and the daughter of scientists, she has a panoply of accomplishments. Her greatest accomplishment may perhaps be her appeasement to whiteness so much so that enough white folks found her palatable to vote her into office. 150 years later — they say Kamala’s win is their answer to Sojourner’s question, but what Kamala’s victory signifies is not a victory for Blackness or Black womanhood; it is a reminder that this white supremacist nation rewards those of us who are able to get as close as possible to whiteness, to womanness.
I don’t know Kamala personally, but I know her in the way that we all know someone who reminds us of someone. I’ve been chasing Kamalas (and their victories) my entire life. What I know for certain is that the progress of wealthy, well-educated, cishet Black women has never ensured the progress of folks who look and sound like me — fat, queer, fluid, loud, and not quite woman enough.
For months, my body has been mourning the faux revolution they sold us — crumbs disguised as a feast worthy of celebration. I am tired of settling for table scraps in both politics and life. I want the entire loaf I deserve — personhood that is elastic and brilliantly queer, a Blackness that is not judged by its palatability to whiteness, to be considered worthy and affirmed regardless of how I measure up to standards of womanhood.
Today, 2021. When I wear a suit, my little sister smiles and tells me I look neat, a nod to my mother’s legacy of wanting us to feel worthy and safe in this world as Black women. I smile back and tell her I always look neat, that I am my mother’s child.
She asks me if I am still her sister. I tell her yes because it is all I know and brother feels too harsh for my kind of delicate. A friend stops mid-sentence to apologize for saying “girrrlllll” as she reads someone for filth. I tell her not to apologize. That I am okay with it. That “girl” feels like home uttered from her tongue. I do not say that I am scared. That sisterhood, girlhood, and womanhood feel like the only pieces of my mother and grandmother that I have left. That leaving it behind means going beyond what I know to be true. That I am afraid of answering my own “Ain’t I A Woman?” question with a resounding, “no” or “not quite.”
Two years ago, I sat in the backseat of a packed UberPool in Boston and composed a thread where I tried to make sense of being both a Black woman and non-binary. The thread was welcomed by a community and friends who would love me no matter what.
The truth is I haven’t felt like a Black woman for years. But it is all I know and I believe in the magic of Blackness so I committed to bending and breaking it, taking pieces that would make me feel included, affirmed, and part of what I know to be true. These days, though, the louder Black womanhood becomes, the less it resonates with my own being.
When we were little, they told us we were pretty. They said we could grow up to be whatever we wanted. They dressed us in the most beautiful dresses, spun us around, and called it magic. They said that Blackness was holy, womanness was the most wonderful thing in the world, said the combination of the two was the greatest gift God gave to this earth.
In their truths, we molded ourselves to fit the image of what is beautiful, magical, Black, and woman. My mama raised me to be a strong Black woman and perhaps the strongest thing I can do is release womanhood for something truer, an existence where the can never be enough “too much.” Where my too muchness, queerness, and ruggedness stretches into infinity and we call it beautiful, dope, and magnificent
With Kamala Harris’ inauguration and “success” as a Black woman, I am forced to make my own commitment – to asking my own questions and finding my own way; to reckoning with and dreaming of what comes beyond a womanhood that only ever felt as comfortable as a pink linen skirt suit.
Ain’t I a Woman? I don’t know.
What is beyond Black womanhood? Beyond the magic of Black girlhood? Beyond the connections of Black sisterhood? I don’t know.
What I do know is that I am ready to be fearless. To dream beyond Black womanhood and know that wherever I land, I — Black, queer, and not-quite-sure — am worthy, so worthy of all of the love, affirmation, and power the universe can muster.
I wish Kamala the best in this world. I wish us the courage to go beyond what has been defined for us. I wish us a world where Blackness and gender are as infinite and undefined as the night sky in the mountains. I hope that Converse comes back into style because they are timeless. I hope more people wear pearls because we all deserve to feel like royalty. And I hope that more of us feel comfortable with mourning and inaugurating ourselves into living authentically.
I, shea wesley martin, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend my right to explore and exist within, outside of, and beyond Black womanhood; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely but scared as hell, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the charge of being authentically and unabashedly queer, Black, and worthy of love; So help me God. Ashe.
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wow, i’m so in awe of how much this piece is able to bring together and unpack, and the way it becomes something so much larger than the sum of its parts – you’re so talented, shea, i’m so grateful every time you share your work with us <3
Thank you, Shea.
I could talk until I’m blue in the face about how much I love this piece (and I have!). Thank you shea, thank you.
Wow. I did not expect to be in tears by the end of this piece. Thank you.
Too many good parts to quote them all, but this one really stood out to me.
“My mama raised me to be a strong Black woman and perhaps the strongest thing I can do is release womanhood for something truer, an existence where the can never be enough “too much.” Where my too muchness, queerness, and ruggedness stretches into infinity and we call it beautiful, dope, and magnificent”
this is so full and beautiful
Everything you write is breathtaking. I hope you keep publishing your phenomenal work here.
I’ve been following Alok Vaid-Menon on IG, particularly for their book report summaries like this one, on the history of gender as a colonial construct: https://www.instagram.com/p/CLAW4W4BmWy/ – I share this because their posts and your writing here have both helped to strikingly illustrate how people of colour can be simultaneously excluded from yet confined by these kinds of paradigms. These ideas are reshaping my whole concept of gender, and how it must be navigated in completely different ways by people who look like me and people who don’t. I so appreciate the opportunity to read your perspectives and deepen my understanding.
Absolutely amazing piece. Wow!
So good I was already thinking I’d have to read it again before I’d even finished reading it the first time!
The way you examined each sharp edge and gentle curve of the words you’ve heard. That you shook out the layers of meaning from folds of fabric. That you released the beating essence of you, not content to be constrained, to abstain in the face of all that would drain you.
Holy wow. This was glorious. Thank you for sharing <3
May all the spaces you inhabit recognize your inherit gorgeous. Thank you for existing.
!$#% for the love of editing
This is amazing for a lot of reasons but that Inauguration oath? Absolutely the perfect end.
This was incredible and moving and the closing moment especially was perfect