There’s a young woman who lives on the first floor of my apartment building. She’s cute, probably in her mid-20s, although life has prematurely etched the signature of age across her face and carriage.
She’s a mama to four sons, none of them more than 5 or 6 years old, all absolutely adorable, stair-jumping, ripping-and-tearing, running-and-climbing, question-asking, vibrant little things. They dip and duck between her calves when she stops to unlock the front door, too animated by their little-boy joy to care that their high-velocity play is making their mom’s long day feel about 24 hours longer.
In the evenings, she escapes to the stoop or the stairwell to smoke cigarettes and stare silently out at nothing in particular, offering up a whispery “Hi” when I or anyone else squeezes by her but rarely saying much more than that.
Most days, she has a hair-trigger temper. Her hollering voice breaks the early-morning quiet when my windows are open in the spring and summer, and in the colder, more closed-in months, I can still make out the muffled sound of her displeasure wafting through the floorboards underfoot.
I wish she didn’t cuss her kids as if they were grown men. I wish she didn’t threaten, snatch and swat them at the slightest provocation. I wish her happiness hadn’t been defeated by helplessness. But at the same time, I empathize with her. Sistergirl is stressed.
From the few conversations we’ve had, I understand that she’s underemployed when she does find work; she relies on the services of local agencies to keep her children healthy and fed; and she receives a voucher through Section 8, whose future is always facing certain uncertainty. She’s an apparition in a social order where your worth is determined by your affiliations, credentials and accomplishments. So like most people who are caged into forced silence and abject insignificance, she vents her frustration in the one place in the world where she has any kind of control: the inside of her home.
Hers is not an isolated representation of women in my neighborhood, an enclave of blackness in a city that is being chewed and swallowed by gentrification. It is the hood by stereotypical definition. I jokingly call it that myself sometimes. But it’s also one of the most authentic-feeling parts of Washington, D.C., where, at the happy hours and social mixers that are part of its dichotomous culture, you’re assessed within seconds of casual conversation by where you went to school, which neighborhood you live in and what you do for a living.
In this community, don’t none of that matter. People share expressions of love because you look like them. Days ago, an SUV coughed to a stop at a red light during rush hour and I watched several gentlemen, all strangers to one another, work in seamless unison to push it and its young driver to curbside safety. The news will tell you about the area’s violence, folks from swankier sections of the DMV will crack their dusty jokes about Southeast’s storied dangers, but love is big and omnipresent here.
Still, the boot heel of pervasive brokenness and cyclical brokenness presses down on folks in the community who struggle to make a life for themselves and stretch what income they have across the fifth-highest cost of living in the country. As always, poverty is the king of impediments. The unemployment rates (pdf) in wards 7 and 8, making up the Southeast quadrant, are 11 and 13 percent respectively, two to three times higher than most of the other parts of D.C. and almost three times the 4.7 percent national rate.
Programs to assuage those rates, when they’re allowed to even exist, are perpetually overextended. Waiting lists are inevitable. Lines form early at the doors of the Department of Human Services offices, way before the sun fully brightens the sky and the government employees who will ultimately manage the needs and demands of the waiting people walk inside the building to start the day.
These are scary, ugly times, and for folks who were already having hardships, the future is tense. In less than 100 days in office and a few scribbly pen strokes, Disaster 45 has purposely dismantled the life’s work of activists, advocates, politicians, presidents, lobbyists and organizations to put millions of people in some kind of peril of some kind of loss, from health care coverage to reproductive rights to safe living spaces.
He is not only smoothing the foundation for tyranny in his administration but is also setting up his brand of wild, unapologetic, calculating leadership to clench control of the country for untold numbers of years to come. It is formulaic dictatorship. To rage against the machine means we are going to have to work strategically in focused clusters to advance our agendas and zealously protect them.
I appreciate the mobilization of black feminists and womanists and women who choose not to get caught up in either of those sometimes-distracting labels and differentiations but do the work nonetheless. I just want all of us to be spoken for, especially those of us who, like my neighbor, have been habitually forgotten, left behind and undervoiced as they struggle against the far-reaching effects of poverty. Even if it doesn’t directly burden our respective households, it impacts the climates of many black communities, and that, in and of itself, should matter to us.
Of the categorically poor, 22 percent of women with insurance and 57 percent of women without it have needed to see a doctor but couldn’t afford to go, a cost prohibition to basic health needs and self-care that creates a chain reaction of emotional, behavioral and financial crises in households overwhelmingly managed by single mothers. Low-income women are more vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, with few feasible alternatives, because the Hyde Amendment doesn’t allow abortions to be covered by federally funded insurance plans like Medicaid in 35 states and Washington, D.C. They’re also more often trapped in abusive situations because of a lack of resources and are less likely to have safe, affordable housing options, particularly in cities where that’s a general challenge for everyone.
A study of a housing project in Fulton County, Ga., found that 42 percent of the black women living there had been forced into unwanted sex because they were either threatened with violence or actually assaulted. Forty-two percent. In one housing project. And, in that same study, women revealed that because they were already just trying to survive in those volatile living situations, they were too scared to ask their partners to use condoms. So they didn’t. In not doing that, they and women in similar situations are more at risk for contracting HIV, potentially deepening their entrapment in a cycle of dependency, fear and oppression.
We can only help other sisters when we listen to and prioritize their unique needs and experiences. I worry that the increasing intellectualization that fortifies feminism and womanism doesn’t then go out and touch the reality of black women who are not formally educated or reaping the financial benefits of it if they are. I worry that education is a paralytic of privilege that actually immobilizes folks and puts some at risk for self-congratulatory, ivory-tower thinking instead of actually doing and moving and engaging with our people most in need.
I worry that we’ve been slowly closing ourselves off into a class-based, upwardly mobile elitism that both insulates the conversation and isolates another experience of black womanhood from sitting at the table and being counted. I worry that we’re so distracted by the “ghetto” behavior that some consider laughable and distasteful that we don’t consider issues rooted in low self-worth that require empathy and healing.
Elitism is so pervasive that there’s no space it doesn’t intrude on and create divides within. Black feminism and womanism is no exception. We’ve already been susceptible to the “I’m a better feminist than you” debate. Remember when folks wouldn’t count the pre-Lemonade Beyoncé as a member of the team because she didn’t dress, act or dance feminist enough for them?
High-level concepts like intersectionality and agency have their place. But they mean nothing if they can’t translate to the hood to help women who have never heard of bell hooks and wouldn’t know Patricia Hill Collins if she greeted them on the stoop they congregate on. If they fail to trickle down from the upper echelons of academia to the basement-level apartment of a struggling single mother with no diploma and four babies to raise in Southeast D.C., have they really done their job? If the work that we’re doing isn’t wholly empowering to make life better for her, is it elitist? It’s a question I ask but am waiting to answer.
There’s a quote from the awesome Gwendolyn Brooks that goes, “What I’m fighting for now in my work [is] an expression relevant to all manner of blacks, poems I could take into a tavern, into the street, into the halls of a housing project. I don’t want to say these poems have to be simple, but I want to clarify my language.” That’s what I want for black feminism and womanism: to be relative, inviting and comprehensible to every woman.
Some of us are at our best in academic study. Some of us are gifted fire starters who willfully make up the offensive and defensive front lines, depending on the situational needs. Some of us can turn intellectual discourse into on-the-ground activism. All of us have an obligation to make sure that the spectrum of black womanhood is represented and that those of us who have access create access for those of us who don’t. When we do that, when we take those elevated concepts and put them to work to make them tangible and real, we forge a movement to help low-income and low-wage-earning women better care for their kids, their spouses, their communities and, most important, themselves. It’s always been critical, but with (T)Rump playing the part of Goliath, it’s literally lifesaving.
I stand for the sisters who’ve been forgotten, the sisters who are the brunt of hood-chick memes and jokes, the sisters selling food stamps for money because cash benefits don’t stretch far enough. I stand for sisters who buy gas with loose change, sisters who keep a new hustle, sisters who dodge bill collectors and get notices of cut-off dates in brightly colored envelopes. I stand for sisters with criminal records and those still incarcerated, sisters who had babies young and didn’t know how to be themselves so they kept becoming Mommy, sisters who’ve never heard of code-switching and have nothing to prove by using it. I stand for sisters who would run away from home but have nowhere else to go, sisters who keep a hair-and-nail appointment even when they’re broke because it’s the one way they can feel good about themselves, sisters who embarrass the progeny of the affluent Talented Tenth.
I stand for sisters who wake up weighted by trauma, baby mamas doing the best they know how to raise one and two and three and more kids by one and two and three and more fathers and feel the judgment of other folks because of it. I stand for sisters who feel trapped by their circumstances, throwaway sisters no one wanted to invest in, sisters who are angry because they’ve spent their lives being heard only when they scream and holler. I stand for sisters who can’t afford to dream, sisters who had a dream that was snatched from them, and sisters who never had a dream but who want desperately to find something worth hanging their hope on. For the brokenhearted, the frustrated, the marginalized, the light-filled, the soulful, the loving, I am here. I hope we all are.