They call me a mad black woman. And they’re right.Najya Williams
Black women are constantly told that they need to tone down their “angry Black woman” agenda and sit quietly in the face of their own abuse and subjugation. With the society we are living in today, I decided that it was time to talk about why I have every reason to be mad, and why I will never stop stepping outside the box I’m supposed to be in.
I present to you: mad black woman. An album and discussion series.
In addressing the issue of Black womxn’s history with emotional labor, one might ask: why poetry? Why spoken word? Within academia, we can sometimes become attached to peer-reviewed articles and books that have been vigorously researched, but are often inaccessible to someone without the same assumed knowledge and historical thought. But what if we spoke to the depth of someone’s soul? What if the heart of what we need to communicate transcends the need for academic jargon or anything of the such? Eric Shouse’s 2005 article, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect” speaks to the core of why poetry, spoken word, and storytelling tradition resonated so deeply with me in considering this project. Shouse introduces readers to the concept of affect, “a non-conscious experience of intensity […] a moment of unformed and unstructured potential (5).” mad black woman is intended to cultivate this type of energy and action potential in anyone who interacts with the body of work. Regardless of the words I use, the prettiness of the imagery, or the intricacy of the metaphors, this project is meant to be felt and seen, touched and consumed, loved and hated. When the record stops and there’s only silence left in the air, mad black woman will be the spiritual nudge to remember the work, regardless of where you began or where you remain.
The Big Five
There are five key themes explored in this project: Black marxism, righteous anger, backstage performance, hypersexualized consumption of Black womxn, and emotional labor. Before I delve into each of these themes, I want to call attention to the fact that, given the nature of this discussion, the boundaries that distinguish each section from the others are fluid and deeply interwoven. This interconnection can be better defined as an intimacy that exists between them, as defined by Lisa Lowe’s 2015 The Intimacies of Four Continents. Lowe acknowledges that intimacy is better known within the context of personal relationships, but offers another lesser known understanding of the word: “‘intimate or close connexion or union (18).'” I imagine that the themes I present in this project are participating in an intimate dance reminiscent of times past: you don’t know where one partner starts or ends, but you know they are working together as one.
“in the window,” “the soul of ferguson,” and “fetish” open mad black woman with rich images that don’t hold back in their criticism of the way society tackles Marxism and revolutionary politics. Since the world was introduced to Marxism, it has been widely accepted as the text that most blatantly calls out the rich ruling class (the Bourgeoisie) in its exploitation of the poor working class (the proletariat). However, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism identifies the key nuance that is missing from Marxist theory: race. How can one call out the capitalist and colonialist system this world was built upon if we don’t discuss how Black people and their existence have consistently been used as the currency system of choice? These poems lend voice to a conversation that has yet to happen but is desperately needed.
Black womxn have been used, abused and told to remain quiet about their tribulations as to not be labeled the “mad black woman.” Audre Lorde discusses how in addition to not having the freedom to sit in their anger, womxn of color, particularly those who are Black, are required to make their anger productive and palatable for the same people who inflict perpetual pain and suffering: “Women of Color in america have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart (Lorde 1981).” However, “mad black woman” and “public service announcement” are my push back and my rage in conversation with each other. I am a Black woman in America and I have every reason to feel fury coursing through my veins. These poems provide a few of my reasons why.
Mary Ellen Guy and Meredith Newman’s 2004 article, “Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor,” discusses the ways in which the workforce is gendered and interrogates the pay disparity in the context of the hidden emotional labor that many womxn navigate in silence. Guy and Newman introduce the audience to an interesting parallel that acknowledges how emotional labor and the recognition of it was never intended to be loud, bold, and unapologetic: “When performed at its best, fine background music, emotional labor goes unnoticed (p. 290).” When I first encountered this assertion, I immediately felt compelled to ask: what does it look like when we can see the emotional labor hiding behind Black womxn’s eyes? Will that day ever come? In examining my own life, I realized that no one really knows the depth of what I carry on my shoulders and “tongue,” “dream us free,” and “curtain call,” are my personal unveiling.
Hypersexualized Consumption of Black Womxn
Ntozake Shange, one of my favorite writers and artists, is critically acclaimed for her choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, a raw examination of the Black womxn and femme experience in the 80s and 90s. Shange offered visibility for a community that has been brutalized and consumed for centuries on end, adding salve to deeply ingrained wounds. However, these words shared by Lady in Green seemed to penetrate my spirit in a different way:
“somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin this is mine/ this aint yr stuff/ now why dont you put me back & let me hang out in my own self somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff & didnt care enuf to send a note home sayin i waz late for my solo conversation or two sizes too small for my own tacky skirts what can anybody do wit somethin of no value on a open market/ did you getta dime for my things/ hey man/ where are you goin wid alla my stuff/ this is a woman’s trip & i need my stuff/ to ohh & ahh abt/ daddy/ i gotta mainline number from my own shit/ now wontchu put me back/ & let me play this duet/ wit this silver ring in my nose/ honest to god/ somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/ & i didnt bring anythin but the kick & sway of it the perfect ass for my man & none of it is theirs this is mine/ ntozake ‘her own things’/ that’s my name/ now give me my stuff/ i see ya hidin my laugh/ & how i sit wif my legs open sometimes/ to give my crotch some sunlight/ & there goes my love my toes my chewed up finger nails/ niggah/ wif the curls in yr hair/ Mr˙ louisiana hot link/ i want my stuff back/ my rhythms & my voice/ open my mouth/ & let me talk ya outta/ throwin my shit in the sewar/ this is some delicate leg & whimsical kiss/ i gotta have to give to my choice/ without you runnin off wit alla my shit/ now you cant have me less i give me away/ & i waz doin all that/ til ya run off on a good thing/ who is this you left me wit/ some simple bitch widda bad attitude.”
“empathy” and “sodom and gomorrah” are my battle cries. They are a call for the world around me to see my Black womxnhood as more than a collection of body parts to contort for personal pleasure, but as simply divine and human.
“tell me why,” “hoodie,” and “rapture” close out mad black woman with not too many frills or fancy maneuvers. If nothing else permeates or remains long after this work has physically left, these three poems are an appeal to the inherent affect within us all. It’s the small voice begging every person who’s listening to dig deeper and recognize that emotional labor and its pains aren’t far away, abstract entities. They show up in our faces every day, even when we are unaware, and we move on as if a tidal wave hasn’t washed over us. I offer these three final poems, and this entire album, as a window into my mind and heart. The work of undoing and redoing doesn’t find its ending here, but it can always serve as our new beginning.
BlackPast. (2019, September 24). (1981) Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” BlackPast. Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1981-audre-lorde-uses-anger-women-responding-racism/.
Guy, M. E., & Newman, M. A. (2004, May 6). Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1540-6210.2004.00373.x.
Lowe, L. (2015). The intimacies of four continents. Durham: Duke University Press.
Robinson, C. J. (2005). Black marxism: the making of the Black radical tradition. United States: The University of North Carolina Press.
Shange, N. (1982). For colored girls. Place of publication not identified: Bantam.
Shouse, E. (Dec. 2005) “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal, 8(6). Retrieved from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/03-shouse.php.