Jamilah Lemieux, 34, Writer + Cultural Critic
My mother had a book called Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman by Michele Wallace on her bookshelf. I must have been 11 or 12.
I was curious about it and I had just started exploring feminism. I asked her about it and she said, “Ah, that book is kinda crazy. I didn’t really like some of the things she said.” When I read it, I was so disappointed that she felt that way because I immediately connected to it. I loved it. It’s not infallible or perfect. There’s definitely places where she falls short and she acknowledges that herself.
I think that [Wallace] in ways represents the sort of radical truth telling that today’s Black feminists have gotten a lot more comfortable with.
There were ways that she was willing to be just painfully verbose about how Black women suffer and the intersection of patriarchy and white supremacy. Acknowledging that there are few things more devastating than recognizing the oppressor in the face of someone you love. That’s so much the reason that many Black women have rejected feminism throughout history, because we know that “the man” is our enemy.
We can even recognize and understand what white supremacy looks like via white women despite having the shared challenge or shared experience of womanhood. But when it comes to the cancer of patriarchy in our communities, in our churches, in our schools and in our bedrooms, it’s scary.
Her work for me is important because, even the ways it was flawed, it allowed me, one, a comfort that I wasn’t crazy for feeling that something was different about how racism was experienced by Black women. There were things that were just specific to us.
And with the doula work I’m doing, it’s about saving Black women’s lives. I am a little squeamish. I didn’t even need to see my own daughter when she was covered in blood. It’s not like I was amped to get back to get into a delivery room. But when I read Linda Villarosa’s New York Time’s article about Black maternal health, I was devastated to learn so much of what we’re enduring. A lot of it, is due to us not being heard.
There were Black midwives that were super instrumental in Black maternal health post - Reconstruction until the mid-50s. Midwifery and doula work is part of our experience prior to our arrival in this country. But especially since being brought here, because we couldn’t turn to other channels.
When it comes to conversations about Black issues, Black problems or the Black plight, the experiences of Black women and girls are so often treated as tangential or just existing only in proportion to have impacted men and boys.
It’s viewed as Black women being harmed in order to harm Black men, as opposed to us being targeted ourselves.
Then, also, what patriarchy looks like in our community.
We are not housewives breaking free and looking to get in the workforce. We’ve always been in the workforce. But then with that, we still have these things that we have to work out with the men that we love. It’s not about rejecting them, distancing ourselves or operating in some sort of separate group, but recognizing that the way that gender is performed in our community is damaging to us.
I was probably 8 when I learned about the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas case. There was this charge for racial loyalty toward him, and I couldn’t understand that because the accuser is a Black woman. Then, a couple of years later, I want to say it was 1995, it was a very high-profile case where an 11-year-old boy, Robert ‘Yummy’ Sandifer, had committed a heinous crime. He carried out a shooting as part of his responsibilities as a gang member and he did not kill the intended target. He killed a 14-year-old girl named Shavon Dean. There was a city-wide manhunt for him, and after some time, he was found dead. He had been killed by members of his own gang, because they were concerned that with his youth and the amount of attention around the case that he was likely to roll on them with the police. So Yummy Sandifer is on the cover of TIME magazine and there’s this national outcry and he’s centered in it.
Shavon was erased from the story completely, and it was heartbreaking.
I couldn’t articulate it yet because I was 11, but I knew something wasn’t right. I became hypersensitive to how Black women were spoke to and of.
Back then, this was the ‘90s, feminism was a dirty word or a punchline on Married with Children. It’s not even coming up on Martin. But it’s here and I have a right to it. White women do not stir feminism for by themselves. They have not nurtured, guided or created it in any meaningful way and have failed to include other people within its range adequately. So I’m not going along with this mythology that it is only “white girl stuff”or that it’s about “hating men.” I was lucky to kind of shed that mentality then.
Being a feminist was not cool or trendy or sexy as a teenager in the early ‘90s or early 2000s , like it is now. That’s not to say that it’s always easy for today’s girls but that they have the biggest pop star [Beyonce] in the world calling herself that.
I read Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost in 8th grade. That was just like the perfect formation of theory, history and what it feels like to be a Black woman or a Black girl who loves men, boys and Black music but still stands for what gender equity could and should look like.
That was a big watershed moment for me. It was like, okay, this doesn’t mean that now you need to wear a burlap sack, isolate yourself or have to be on the fringes of society. You can be around people who don’t share these values at times and function normally.
But it definitely got complicated somewhat. There were times where I should have said things and stood up for myself and I didn’t. There were a whole lot of times that I did. I got a reputation for that in middle school, in high school and in college -- for being outspoken. Back then I just thought that I know something that you all need to know. These are things that I believe, that I live and die by.
If it wasn’t for the work of Michele Wallace, Angela Davis and bell hooks, I don’t know that I would be a writer. I have typically written about race for Black audiences, because I’d rather convince Black people of their own humanity than try to convince white folks of our humanity. I feel more optimistic talking to us about gender than I do talking to other people about race.
As somebody who is loud, and relatively unapologetic about what I know I can achieve, I can become a voice for other women who may not be similarly wired. And that’s what I try to do, in every aspect.