Last year, I wrote a post in which I debated whether I should call myself a “feminist” or come up with a different name for the woman-centered views that I hold and work I aspire to do (to help to internally build up black women and other women of color).
It probably seemed random to the followers that had been reading my blog since it began in January and seen me refer to myself as a feminist dozens of times in my various posts, but the post—or rather the question at the heart of it—didn’t actually come out of nowhere.
It came out of a conversation I got into with Deep Roots Jessica on Facebook about what it “truly” means to be a feminist.
Our conversation started over another post I wrote back in March called “On Black Privilege.” In it, I wrote:
White people have so much. It’s not necessarily the fault of every white person in America that white people as a demographic fare so much better than every other demographic, but it’s undeniable that they do. They are the inarguable “haves” in [American] culture. And black people are largely “have-nots.” We are fewer in number, poorer, less visible, less free, less protected, and less respected. For many of us, the only things that we have that we feel proud of are our color, our lineage, our history, our belonging to a race and ethnicity that is known (if not credited) for its genius, resilience, and tenacity . . . We—Americans—talk about white privilege. But there is such a thing as black privilege, and it’s one of the only conciliations that we have for being so brutally oppressed. Black privilege is being able to talk about other black people in a tone that we don’t allow white people to use, the way that family members do. Black privilege is being able to use the word “nigger” when we want, how we want, because it’s a word that’s been used to designate us after all, and being able to use that word when white’s “can’t” is one of the only exclusive freedoms we have. Black privilege is having hair that white people don’t have. Color that white people don’t have. Lips and asses that white people don’t have. It’s talking in a way that doesn’t come organically to white people, having music that speaks to us in the way we speak, and customs that are a product of our history. These things may seem superficial, but they become extremely important when they are just about all that you have to bolster the way you feel about yourself—when you don’t have a lot of money or material comfort or social status or political power or acceptance or even just tolerance outside of your own community.
Jessica found my post through a link, read it, and then found me on Facebook. She very respectfully took issue with my use of the term “privilege,” we began to converse back and forth about that and then feminism and activism and FLOTUS Michelle Obama, and I could go on, but the point is these conversations got me thinking really intently, really deeply about my political views, what I consider to be my political work, and the most meaningful way for me to move forward as a black feminist.
I don’t know that I would be writing the posts I am writing now, about the BLM Movement and what the black community must really do to fight the proverbial power, if Deep Roots Jessica hadn’t gotten me to start thinking about things like imperialism, capitalism, and the true meaning of liberation.
Jessica really inspired me, and I thought she would be a perfect first profile for “Babe Alert.” Her conviction, commitment, knowledge, and vision make her a very powerful force and fascinating iteration of blackness, womanhood, and feminism.
The main thing I am aiming to do with Out of The Mouths of Babes and “Babe Alert” is inspire black women and other women of color to do the same thing Jessica inspired me to do: To think about who they really are, what they really want, and what they really want to do with their lives and gifts as women, people of color, citizens of this country, and feminists, if that’s what they consider themselves to be, or whatever other type of political person or entity they consider themselves to be.
I find that I come out of conversations with women that I like, love, and respect feeling so much more liked, loved, respected, supported, and—I’ll say it one more time—inspired than I do at just about any other time.
Conversations with other women give me life, and life is what I want to give to other women through my writing and especially the writing on this site.
I hope you enjoy getting to know her through this Q&A as much as I have enjoyed getting to know her through Facebook over the last few months.
Our connection is one of those things that make you grateful for the reach that social media gives you into other people’s lives and vice versa.
BABE ALERT Q&A WITH DEEP ROOTS JESSICA:
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
Deep Roots Jessica.
WHAT ARE YOUR ORIGINS?
I was raised from infancy on up in a city in Iowa. My mother is white with English and German background and grew up in small town Iowa. My mom’s side of the family over the generations were poor farmers.
My father is black Guyanese. He immigrated here to the United States when he was 12-years-old. My parents divorced when I was two-years-old, and I have been raised primarily by my mother. I would visit my father during holidays and summers when I was growing up.
My family was very loving and supportive to me growing up. Things were not perfect (as they never are), but I wanted for nothing. I had support from my family in all the activities I was involved in. From choir, debate, to theater, they were at all of my events and performances.
HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY YOURSELF RACIALLY/ETHNICALLY/NATIONALLY? HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY YOURSELF IN TERMS OF GENDER AND SEXUALITY?
I am mixed, but I am black. Black for me is the word used to describe the racial caste system I was put into, but it is also a political identity. When I walk down the street, people do not see a half-black and never a half-white woman. That is how race in the United Snakkkes works.
I am a woman. If the average person were to ask my sexuality, I would say bisexual, but, in reality, pansexual is probably more of an appropriate description of my sexuality. I am attracted to a spectrum of people of various physical body types and gender expressions.
ARE YOU A FEMINIST? IF NO, THEN WHAT TERM DO YOU USE TO DESCRIBE YOUR COMMITMENT TO WOMEN’S ISSUES?
I have gone back and forth on this issue as I have developed politically, but, for now, I have resolved to call myself a feminist. To be specific about my politics in regards to women’s liberation, I would call myself an anarcha feminist. The simplest definition I can give for that is that I am for the abolition of capitalism and the apparatus of the state. I do not believe we can truly liberate ourselves as black women while these oppressive hierarchies exist.
The ambivalence I have had in the past about the word “feminism” is due to the fact that the word says only a little bit about one’s politics at this point in time. People who identify as feminists have a whole range of political views that also at times conflict with one another. There is now a backlash against what is called “white feminism” from many WOC, which has been a long time coming. Our contributions to the women’s liberation struggle have not only been overlooked, but, also, the issues that impact poor WOC and poor women in general were not centered in the work of white, liberal, middle class feminists. The issues most pertinent to poor WOC [have been historically] overlooked by middle class white women and still are today.
However, I would argue some of the same problems I see with what is called “white feminism” can be pointed out in some of the politics of black feminists as well. Why would we cheer on [President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama] if we had a strong understanding of how capitalism and white supremacy are intertwined? How could we cheer on figureheads for US Empire that bomb black and brown people and shill for the capitalist class? How could the effect of ongoing US colonialism in Caribbean and African countries be absent from our politics?
The answer is we wouldn’t [cheer them on, if we understood that] representation within oppressive institutions is not a victory. [Representation] is only the system adapting to the pressure of our social movements by giving us the veneer of progress [in our fight] against white supremacy and patriarchy. This is done by choosing [members of] the middle and upper class within oppressed groups to represent the interests of the ruling class. So, the fundamental problem with many circles of feminism today, be they white or black, is liberalism and reformism. The fundamental problem is that our movements do not truly [address] the nature of power and how it operates. For black women to be free, it’s imperative that we understand [who is truly oppressing us and how they are oppressing us]. It is imperative that our feminism is rooted in class politics—that it is revolutionary, not reformist.
WHEN DID “BEING A WOMAN” BECOME POLITICAL FOR YOU? HOW WERE YOU POLITICIZED AS A FEMALE CITIZEN OF THE US?
In high school, I was active in work to address homophobia and interpersonal violence against LGBT people and the violence against women predominantly perpetrated by men. The desires to subordinate women and police people’s gender and sexuality through violence are ubiquitous in our culture, and I saw this, from movies and advertisements, the church, and the ever-lingering threat of violence when simply going about [my] day. My place in society was abundantly clear to me, and, from high school onward, I worked to deprogram feelings of subordination within myself through both political education and involvement in work to stop violence against women and LGBT people.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES THAT AFFECT WOMEN THAT ARE CLOSEST TO YOUR HEART?
The more I have grown politically, the more that I see how every social injustice is interconnected and how they are a result of and exacerbated by class society. [For example], I am employed as a victim advocate where I live, for women, most of the time, but really anyone experiencing inter-partner violence, domestic violence, stalking, harassment, and sexual assault. Part of my job is connecting women to safe housing and the resources [my organization] has available to help women transition out of abusive domestic situations. Resources such as women’s shelters were gains made by the women’s movement, along with the change in perception when it comes to domestic violence. With that said, [though], we never have enough resources. Shelters are always full.
There is no place within the United States where a person working [for] minimum wage can afford a one bedroom apartment by herself. Trying to do that while having to care for children without affordable healthcare is nearly impossible for many [women]. A study [conducted] in Massachusetts found that 92% of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives; 63% had been victims of violence by an intimate partner; and 32% had been assaulted by their current or most recent partner (National Alliance to End Homelessness). So, when a woman has [to choose] between living out in the streets and staying with an abusive partner, what kind of “choice’ is that? There are ten empty homes for every homeless person in this country, so [homelessness] is not a question of a lack of physical resources. The problem is capitalism. So, when I am of the clock, work that involves building up the support systems and movements necessary to get to the roots of the problems that oppress women interpersonally and systematically is my utmost priority.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU DO TO MAKE YOUR LIFE AND THE LIVES OF OTHER WOMEN IN THIS COUNTRY BETTER? DO YOU HAVE A “PASSION PROJECT” THAT RELATES TO YOUR BEING A WOMAN? WHAT IS IT?
For my job, I assist women in getting emergency housing, safety planning, [and] group counseling sessions. [I answer] the crisis hotline, [write] restraining orders and orders of protection, and guide them the best I can through the options they have when in an abusive relationship and/or when making steps to leave. I consider this work important crises management work.
Under capitalism, these problems will continue to emerge. A violent system creates violent people. The divide-and-conquer of communities is necessary for [the system’s] functioning. [My work] on community self-defense and land defense [connects] to women’s oppression because safety in terms of clean food, air, and water, as well as community safety, [should] not [be] reliant on police that disproportionately kill black people and that have the function of protecting property relations for the rich. [The police] are not [who] we should be relying on long term to protect ourselves, families, and communities. So, building real solutions for women and the children they raise—solutions that rely on strong communities of resistance to Empire—is one of the issues I am most passionate about.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE WOMEN THAT HAVE BEEN MOST INFLUENTIAL TO YOU? WHAT IS THE MOST VALUABLE LESSON EVER TAUGHT TO YOU BY A WOMAN?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of women who have influenced and inspired me, however, for this blog’s purposes, I will limit it to three women: my mother and the performers Lucille Ball and Josephine Baker.
My mother raised me most of the time, and she always instilled in me that I was worthy, talented, and intelligent. She came to all of my performances and was one of my biggest cheerleaders. I learned from her at a young age the importance of treating people with respect and kindness, and the right ways you should treat people are lessons I take with me and that influence how I interact with people and my political work. I also learned when I was older the importance of people that support and believe in you and provide a safe environment [for you]. People who grow up without [these things] have problems that last lifetimes. We humans are not so different than plants. The degree to which we access the essentials we need determines how much or little we will flourish. A plant deprived of sun and water will wither just like human deprived of love and security are impaired [and thwarted] from reaching their fullest potential. It is this understanding that influences my political work and organizing. We are in a system that makes accessing the safety and love we need at our most vulnerable impossible. And, left with no options, people in one way or another cannibalize each other and the most vulnerable [among us]. The conditions of our lives shape the people we become. And I owe the person I am in large part to my mother.
Lucille Ball: I fell in love with her as a kid. As a performer, she is a great inspiration, and I remember how I adored her so because she was a woman that was funny. I would watch all the reruns of “I Love Lucy” when [I was] at home from daycare or school. I remember bringing one of my favorite episodes to Show & Tell in first grade and laughing boisterously but being surprised to see none of my classmates getting the jokes. For me, I think it was that fact that she wasn’t just arm candy for her husband, and she didn’t just fall into all the stereotypical housewife tropes. She got into trouble and was rebellious (admittedly against the authority of her husband, which, yes, is pretty weird and patriarchal). Seven-year-old Jessica could relate a lot to her.
Josephine Baker also captured my imagination as a teenager after reading a book about major figures during the Harlem Renaissance. I then went to YouTube to check out who she was. She had a charisma and talent that were undeniable. You see this from her first videos to the ones in her older years. She was the world’s first black superstar. She, too, was funny. Josephine also spent much of her life fighting racism, renouncing her US citizenship, and becoming a French citizen. [She returned] to the US [after leaving for France] to fight segregation in nightclubs and concert venues and participated in the March on Washington [as one of the speakers]. As both an excellent black female performer and someone that didn’t take racism silently, she is an inspiration to me.
I don’t know what it is I love about a woman that can make people laugh. There’s a self-confidence and social intelligence that shines through in great performers. And, as someone that has performed, [I know] it’s a powerful feeling to capture with your performance and hold the audience in the palm of your hand. When performing, you learn self-confidence and assuredness—traits that shine through in the great performers like the ones [I] mentioned.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL YOUR 13-YEAR-OLD SELF ABOUT SURVIVING THE PROCESS OF BECOMING A WOMAN, IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND TALK TO HER?
You are worth more than your fuckability.
Boys are not nearly as interesting as you think they are now. That’s O.K. You will learn.
Reading books is awesome. Keep doing that.
You already accepted not being straight within yourself to some extent, but do it all the way. You should not have to hide who you are, and, one day, you will have the courage and support system of friends [so that you don’t have to].
Bulimia will not make you feel better about yourself—neither will losing weight—because you are tying your self esteem to how you look. It has nothing to do with how you look and everything to do with unlearning the messages that you are not enough that society has taught you.
Your inability to “behave right” is not an indication of your moral failing, but you know that already in some ways, deep down. You will learn to adapt to some of the rules to “succeed” because you know you don’t have a choice.
You don’t need to straighten your hair; it looks better natural. You will figure that out in a few years, playing around with and mixing different gels left around the house.
Your parents are not perfect—no parents are—but most things [that] they said and did came from a place of love. To have the parents and [general] family support you have is something countless people would consider themselves blessed or amazingly fortunate to receive.
Those white boys are not more intelligent than you. Not even close.
Once you stop caring, you will be surprised how easy it is to make friends.
Debate, theater, and choir are exactly the things you should be doing. They will help you develop skills and build confidence in ways that you will carry with you the rest of your life.
Don’t be afraid people will hate you. You are amazing and more powerful than you know!
NOTE FROM EDITOR:
Thank you so much, Jessica, for giving me such open, thoughtful and thorough answers to these questions and sharing your experiences and ideas with my readers.
Readers—if you want to contact Deep Roots Jessica and speak with her about her work, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check her out her blog: https://deeprootsjess.wordpress.com/.