We sat in the Columbus airport at 4:30 am talking about which panels we were going to, and what we hoped to see while we were in Baltimore. The sessions ranged from poetry readings to networking sessions to analyses of Queen Sugar to papers on Beyonce’s Lemonade. There were about 15-20 sessions per hour, and I felt myself drawn to each and every one. I landed in the middle of yet another dilemma in which I felt forced to answer the question: “Which one should I choose?”
I got onto Google to look up something for the conference, and when the search engine popped up, I was surprised to see a cartoon Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) staring back at me- smart, chunky black frames, a bright, orange shirt buttoned to the nape of his neck, kind wrinkles implying time. Red, black and green symbols danced around his face- the pan African flag, the colors of black resistance and liberation connecting the struggles of black people across the Americas and across the world.
Achebe is a late Nigerian author who is most famous for his book Things Fall Apart, which focuses on Igbo life before and during colonization. According to Achebe, his work is about creating a “balance of stories where people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where [they] are not victims to other people’s accounts.”
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the omen of Achebe would haunt me through the rest of my experience as I found myself meditating on strategies for collective decolonization, healing, and returning.
We Are Family
The 2017 National Women’s Studies Association conference was a celebration and re-visitation of the Combahee River Collective statement- a statement which has become a sacred text for many feminist activists, speakers, scholars and dreamers of color since its creation in 1977. The conference focused on the Movement 4 Black Lives in all its intersectional glory, offering programs and workshops that were steeped in black feminism, QTPOC rights (Queer, Trans People of Color) and decolonization on a global scale.
The first night set up these themes perfectly by creating a space where legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, discussed the history and development of black liberation and resistance in the United States. I watched, diligently taking notes in my new notebook (my unapologetic weekend inspiring me to write in a bright pastel notebook that read “TODAY I CHOOSE TO BE A UNICORN”), and I was given a glimpse at how transformative the weekend was going to be for me.
Two things stuck with me from that session.
- Davis took a brief pause before stating this gem: “Individualism is a direct result of patriarchy and capitalism.” I wrote that quote down as quickly as I could and circled it. Then, I put a star next to it. That quote worked on my thinking throughout the whole weekend as I sat in sessions where facilitators had us introduce ourselves by inviting an ancestor into the room or where panelists used the collective term “we” to describe us as women, as people of color, as scholars, as activists. When Davis said this, I recognized that in all my identities, social and otherwise, I stem from collectives- from groups of people whose default is to gather and organize. As black women, we resist. As queer people, we resist. As educators, we resist. I ended numerous sessions with business cards and hugs and reminders to keep in touch; my culture embraces difference, but I truly realized that I am never alone. *A day later, a friend from my undergrad sent and asked a me if I wanted to connect with a fellow woman of color that she knows at my current institution. My response: HECK YEAH! I’m slowly realizing that I’m never alone; I’m always with family.
- Everyone has struggled with this at some point or another, and I will hold myself accountable, and admit that I have struggled with this as well. Garza calls it the “politics of disposability.” To my understanding, this politic describes the various ways in which POC will “dispose” of the ideas, thoughts and behaviors of other POC who are “problematic.” Garza makes it clear that we need to hold each other accountable, but she also made a great point about how quickly we can characterize others as “trash” if they don’t have a similar understanding of feminism and social justice. I would like to juxtapose Angela Davis’s point about individualism with the politics of disposability. I realized that if we are trying to build a community where everyone can be themselves, and where everyone can grow, learn and understand social justice at their own pace- then we must do a better job of “holding each other” as Garza says. How are we going to challenge ourselves and our communities to engage in dialogue that educates rather than dialogue that is created to subvert or dispose of the other person? Note: the latter point does not mean that I will tolerate anti-black racism, patriarchal dismissiveness or misogynoir. It does mean, however, that I will do a better job of “calling in” others rather than calling out (you can read more on that concept here).
I could tell you every session that I went to, and describe the intimate hugs, the beautiful natural hairstyles, the knowledge I gained, the books I bought (I only got two and they were on sale, so be proud of me) …but instead I can really sum the conference up in one major theme:
WE ARE FAMILY, and it’s time that we start acting like it by shunning oppressive ideologies, by working for the healing of each other and ourselves, by being truly vulnerable about our stories and our needs.
A Supplementary Education
The intense nature of the conference (its buzz words and information-packed sessions) prompted me to leave sometimes and practice self-care.
Some of the best moments I had happened outside in the city of Baltimore where I meditated on how the concepts I was learning influenced my daily life as a black woman. In my personal reading, I revisited Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd and started Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, finding beautiful examples of how women make meaning of their lives. In the hotel room, I wrote in my notebooks and cried as I watched MOANA (talk about the power of women of color!!). All the conference talk about presence and consciousness and empowerment even filtered into the way that I bought gifts and cards for my dad and brother’s birthdays. I stood in the store, asking questions like: How can I show love? How can I show them that I appreciate who they are? I went to the Harbor late at night on New Moon, and I spoke my dreams to the wind feeling the bridge rock beneath me, watching the black ripples of the Patapsco River overturn each other again and again.
One night, my travel partner and I even met up with an old, high school friend for some authentic, Baltimore blue crabs at Angie’s Seafood. We cracked crabs doused in Old Bay spice, and in between gulps of water, we talked about our lives. Confusion about relationships, anxiety about work, everything that NWSA had taught us about resistance and healing. We spoke our dreams to each other, the things that we wanted to accomplish, and the people we hoped to become one day. I left that dinner full in more ways than one.
As a reader, I find that the books I’m engaging with often filter into my life. I start to realize how the world surrounds me like Pechola in The Bluest Eye telling me the only way I can be beautiful is with blue eyes, or I feel like Celie in The Color Purple after slavery- entrepreneurial, growing in self-love, determining my own destiny.
This week, the world outside the conference became one grounded in love, growth and fellowship. NWSA seeped into my life that weekend and I feel it even now, beckoning me to listen, to remember the things I’ve learned, to carry those things into my work, life and love.
Tradition That Has No Name
Throughout the weekend, I heard lots of discussion around the “tradition that has no name.” This concept means many things that are important and mystical for communities of color, but I think this tradition especially sums up my experience at NWSA this year, and my experience as a black woman.
I’ve learned that decolonization is about being able to transform pain and struggle into beauty and rebellion. Though my experience at NWSA is not complete without mentioning the years and years of oppression that black women, and other women of color, have endured throughout their history on this Earth (from slavery to sexual violence to human trafficking to colonization), we have continued to rise and heal despite the numerous -isms we face. We have continued to tell our stories in the face of oppression and fear. We have reclaimed our ancestry, and recognized our connected lineage; we have decided to fight as a collective and we are dedicated to pursuing a world in which all people are free.
So- what is the tradition that has no name, and how does it manifest in the lives of women of color?
Well, that depends on who you are, where you come from, where you’ve been and where you’re going. The tradition that has no name is continuously named within our bodies, our spirits and our dreams. It haunts us, every moment guiding us to freedom, and reminding us that we are family, we are beautiful, we can be broken and imperfect, but we are here.