Where Does Identity, Beauty and Spirituality Fit into Black Feminist Thought?: The Politics of the Black Women Inside and Outside Education

In Beauty, book reviews, Business, Contact Information, Creative Writing, Culture, Education, Entertainment, Environment, Health, Living, Media Writing, Movie Reviews, Music, Opinion, Religion, Technology, travel, Writing (all kinds) on April 16, 2011 at 3:00 AM

Cover of Garfield Ellis's Till I'm Laid to Rest - Photo Courtesy of Google Images

It is our roots that give us structure. It is our roots that make us black feminists. It is our roots that give us identity. It is our roots that give us beauty. It is our roots that give us spirituality. It is our roots that make us black women inside and outside of education.
My father is from Uganda. My mother is from St. Vincent & the Grenadines. I am from Canada. I have always seen these identifying geographical landscapes as placing me where I can find my family roots. These geographical places also help me to form a triad identity of African-Caribbean-Canadian.

My grandfather and grandmother on my father’s side were educators. My father worked as a biology professor at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a principal of a school in St. Vincent. My mother has worked as an English teacher in Canada to children in Korea by telephone. I, too, teach with Centennial College and tutor various subjects for Community Outreach Canada, as well as being a PhD Student at OISE/University of Toronto.
With my identity being that of African-Caribbean-Canadian, my beauty stemming from my African super curly hair, Ugandan-woman inspired rounded body, and my spirituality embracing God – where does black feminist thought fit in? What is black feminist thought? How do these markers I have used to guide the way of the path to understanding black feminist thought demarcate with varying shades of brown and black colours to indicate identity, beauty and spirituality within black feminist thought – to me? How can these markers affect a deeper understanding for those black women inside education? And a question for those black women who are outside education; how do these markers of identity, beauty and spirituality colour their lives and add the much-needed water to keeping their roots nourished?
To answer these questions, I will be focusing on issues of identity, beauty and spirituality as discussed in the winter 2011 Black Feminist Thought class with Professor Erica Neeganagwedgin at OISE/University of Toronto. This is the beginning of embarking on an exploration of relating Black Feminist Thought to black hair politics. First I will discuss identity, followed with a discussion of beauty stemming from one of the course’s presentation texts, and finally I will discuss spirituality.

Issues Around Identity

“As Black women we need not spend time abstractly theorizing because our practice informs our theory” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 5). As supported by Theorizing Empowerment: Canadian Perspectives on Black Feminist Thought (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007), I picked up my pen and wrote about how this triad of my African-Caribbean-Canadian identity shapes my life through a connection of identity and beauty, which the latter will be discussed later. Here is an example from my book Spiderwoman (Kakonge, 2007) that also aired on the CBC throughout Canada:

Black Hair
Get a group of Black women together and the conversation usually turns to hair.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a Black woman’s hair story – talked about my own hair – seen people talking about hair in a movie – or read about hair in a book – well, I could buy a lot of hair.
I used to think I was the only one who changed my hair just about every week. But now I know that many other women have permed, straightened, coloured, cut, lengthened and shortened their hair as often as I have.
When I was a child, my first hobby was playing hairdresser to my Barbie dolls. I grew up in the seventies and eighties but I was not much different from Black children in the forties.
Back then, Black children chose White dolls over Black dolls in a landmark study that led to the desegregation of American schools.
It was not that I preferred creamy white skin over chocolate. It just came down to hair. I wanted straight, long, blonde, brunette or red hair – hair that blew in the wind – hair that I could toss over my shoulder.
And when wishing it didn’t make it appear on my head, I used a towel instead.
As I grew older, I spent many years in hair salons turning my head of curly hair dead straight – walking out of the salons with the wind blowing through my hair – and tossing it over my shoulder.
Who says wishes don’t come true – for a price.
Although straightening Black hair is known as perming, there was never anything permanent about it for me. There was a war happening on my head. If my hair represented a people, the curly strands were being ethnically cleansed by straight strands with the use of chemical warfare.
Yet despite the chemicals, I’ve always loved the atmosphere of a salon. In this predominantly white country, Black hair salons create a Black world. During the civil rights movement, North American barber shops and hair salons became town halls for discussions on race relations.
Even now, a hair salon in South Carolina is being used to educate people about AIDS. Places for hair are no strangers to political activity.
And it is in a salon that I found peace with the politics happening on my own head. Hairdressers looking at my natural hair – and not opening up a jar of Bone Strait – made me rejoice in the hair God gave me.
Professor and author Gloria Wade-Gayles once said “my hair would be a badge, a symbol of my pride, a statement of self-affirmation.”
Well, it has taken me a long time, but I finally agree.
Currently researching the politics of black hair at OISE/University of Toronto in a PhD program of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Development, the above shows how much my hair is part of my identity, as well how it inspires me to write and to think. The above also exemplifies the words of Rai Reece’s “Canadian Black Feminist Thought and Scholar-Activist Praxis,” in Theorizing Empowerment (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007). Reece notes that there is a critical need for more black female academics, as well as black female activists in the academy. Reece goes onto her second point that there is no single “axis” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 267) where black feminism needs to be explored. As I discuss in the excerpt from Spiderwoman (Kakonge, 2007), my natural hair was something that made me feel a want to flee from my identity as a black person. My natural hair was something that made me feel a want to perceive myself as ugly. My natural hair was something that made me feel a want to look like the other pretty black women on TV, like Janet Jackson in “Good Times” and Roxy Roper on “The Jeffersons.” My hair became a personal indicator for me of not accepting my roots – not accepting how God made me – not accepting my identity.
Notisha Massaquoi in “An Unsettled Feminist Discourse,” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007), writes about her identity connecting that with her family roots of a Sierra Leonean father and a Trinidadian mother. Massaquoi was once called a “Diasporic Baby” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 75). Massaquoi goes onto to quote Njoki Nathani Wane (2002): “A black feminist theory from a Canadian perspective is truly a construction of embodied knowledge that is grounded in the bodily experience of specific materiality” (Wane 2002) (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 76). The challenges with the natural hair of black women is an embodied knowledge that is played out in images of black women with smooth, straight, controlled hair – hair that resembles whites. I have not ever seen a black woman working in a bank with an afro, whereas I have seen afros among black female professors. I have not ever seen a black woman who was a doctor wearing natural hair, whereas I have seen natural hair on black Canadian singing stars. I have not ever seen a black woman with skin as dark as the reflection of my eyes closed, anchoring the six o’clock news on any television station. Black women have developed an embodied knowledge of their place in society. Black women are viewed, mainly by whites, through visions of their bodily physical appearances and all of the stereotypes and the archetypes embodied in what black women can or cannot do. Our roots to Canada are threatened every time an “other” asks, “Where do you come from?”
With the uprooting of African peoples from the continent, colonization and the diaspora where many of us are born, it can be difficult to answer that question at times: “Where do you come from?” as a black woman in Canada. Although a work of fiction, Till I’m Laid to Rest by Garfield Ellis (2010) also tells a story that is true for many of home displacement for women who mainly conduct themselves outside of education. For the protagonist of Ellis’s story, Shirley Temple Brown, it is Shirley’s beauty, Shirley’s hair, Shirley’s identity, which ultimately embodies her relationship to the men that change her life and create an understanding to black feminist thought that uproots her. Shirley, who settles well in her homeland in Jamaica, makes the choices to aspire to European ideals of success that wind up entrapping her in a web of misery that has her returning to Jamaica in shackles and shame. This results in her disconnection from the strong roots of her Jamaican heritage, which will be explored further through issues of beauty and later in issues of spirituality.

Issues Around Beauty

Shirley Temple Brown in Till I’m Laid to Rest (Ellis, 2010) is viewed as more beautiful than her friend Dawn who is of darker skin and has a coarser hair texture when compared to Shirley’s hair. Shirley is half-Indian on her father’s side and based on her looks, does not identify with being black. An example of Shirley defining her identity with other than black, takes place when she is on a date with a younger white man she meets on a Miami beach who claims to be a model agent:
“You know I’ve never dated a black woman before,” he said, as they continued walking.
“I’m not black,” Shirley said.
“I thought you said you were Jamaican.”
“I am.”
“Then you are black.”
“I am half-Indian,” Shirley said.
“Is that like Hispanic or something? You’re parents are not Jamaican, uh?
“They are.” She sipped the wine.
“So how do you mean you are not black?”
“Do I look black to you?” Shirley wanted to change the subject. He obviously did not understand.
He paused, unsure. “I guess.”
“It does not matter.” Shirley dropped the subject (Ellis, 2010, pg. 168-169).
However, it does matter. Shirley is denying her blackness, or does not realize that she considered black in a country such as America, unlike her more Indian identity in a country such as Jamaica, as Professor Erica Neeganagwedgin has explained in class about identity formation in Jamaica. There is another point in the Ellis (2010) book where Shirley is speaking with her husband Moet and states that she did not know she was black until she came to America. The fact this so-called white model agent was certain she was black at first, then unsure at Shirley’s denial of being black, is a situation that is not resolved since Shirley drops the subject, claiming “it does not matter” (Ellis, 2010, pg. 169). Yet, is there something wrong with being black? Shirley had no problem with the Indian in her family; by stating she is “half-Indian” (Ellis, 2010, pg. 168). When you look at the historical legacy of black people in the Americas, wrenched out in chest-pounding words that spring from the page by poet d’bi young at the beginning of Theorizing Empowerment: Canadian Perspectives on Black Feminist Thought (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007) a thoughtful answer to the question, what is wrong with being black surfaces:
here we have a negro wench
gentlemen and gentlemen
starting at four hundred dollars
strong hands/strong legs/strong spirit
but not stronger than yours (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 2).
Shirley, despite her long, black and silky half-Indian tresses had previously lived the experience using her strong hands, strong legs and strong spirit working for a white family and their children who turned her into a modern-day “negro wench” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 2). Later on in this scene of Till I’m Laid to Rest with Shirley Temple Brown as its star, Shirley’s conversation with the so-called model agent turns to violence as he seems to stick to his original thoughts that she is black and he attempts to rape her…remembering that Shirley’s power is not stronger than his (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 2). Shirley acts fast and runs for safety back to her job of looking after a retired model with Alzheimer’s disease. The brutal violence forced on Shirley by the younger white man goes unmentioned in Till I’m Laid to Rest (Ellis, 2010) after, as though Shirley should have expected nothing less. This disregard and lack of the care of Shirley’s body, mind and spirit was all a part of her life in Miami that began when she met Mark, the older rich businessman who worked in the tourism industry and put the idea of coming to Miami into Shirley’s head. The character Mark in the novel seems to remind Shirley of her late father who died in a car accident. The first man to put the idea of “greatness” into Shirley’s head was her father who even named after the movie star Shirley Temple, hence her name being Shirley Temple Brown. With Shirley’s identity and beauty politics tied into colonization, as many of us of colour do have our identity and beauty politics tied into colonization, thoughts of where “greatness” lies are often seen in the west. Thoughts of where “greatness” lie are not in the west of the Caribbean necessarily, however in America, in Europe at times for some…these are the places where dreams await people of colour – the American Dream is a classic one. Shirley went to America to find her dream and instead because she was acutely made aware of her black identity, she realized a shattered dream.
Shirley first met Mark at the Mutual Security Bank where she worked in Kingstown, Jamaica. Mark was bringing in a lot of money and discussed his banking with Shirley many times since she was the junior manager. Shirley could see that Mark was rich and when he asked her out for a date, she agreed. He took her to decadent places, showing her how the wealthy in Jamaica live. This was different for Shirley, having grown up poor. This was different for Shirley, also having grown up without her father who died in a car crash. Shirley and Mark’s first sexual liaison was on a bed of roses with some thorns:
“What are you doing?” She made to turn and stumbled onto the bed. He pushed her onto it and she fought him back. But he was heavy and big, and although he held her lightly his grasp was firm.
“Mind you scrape yourself on the basket,” he said huskily.
“Stop,” she whispered. “Mark, stop a little. We have to discuss this.”
“Mind you head,” he said, as he tried to shove the basket away. “Mind you head.”
She struggled with him for a while but he held her down and managed to slip both her hands through the strings of her dress (Ellis, 2010, pg. 13).
Mark forced himself on Shirley and took away her virginity. Later in this scene of Till I’m Laid to Rest (Ellis, 2010), Shirley clearly gives in…simply surrendering to a man that had been lavishing her with pricey restaurants and Victoria Secret underwear gifts once he was tired of playing the game of cat and mouse. Shirley clearly gives in…simply surrendering to her status as a working class woman, from a poor Jamaican background. Mark trapped Shirley. A beautiful young woman such as Shirley who would not have ever given a second glance at Mark on the street if he did not have the economic capital that he possesses – she was bought out. Shirley was tempted to do so because of her poor economic status growing up and her emotional aspirations to realize the dreams that her deceased father had set out for her. Llana James writes about the “Censure and Silence: Sexual Violence and Women of the African Diaspora” in Theorizing Empowerment. James (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007) writes that points of entry of women of the African diaspora into a country are important considerations when you look at sexual violence. When looking at Shirley Temple Brown’s situation in Till I’m Laid to Rest, the sexual violence of Mark is what links her to this man in a way that leads her to Miami. Another turning point is what was mentioned earlier with the sexual violence of the so-called model agent who forces himself on Shirley without success, however successfully leading Shirley to a party that connects her to Moet – the man she later marries and is also the cause of her serving jail time and being deported back to Jamaica.
Enter Shirley Temple Brown’s mother…a woman who is so devoted to God that she prays and reads The Bible day and night, night and day. She lives in a one-room shanty house with a wall that threatens to fail her in Sufferer’s Heights, Jamaica. She works cleaning for others at a hospital. She has no criminal record. She has a son who is a police officer in Jamaica. She is always there for her daughter Shirley – this…Shirley can ALWAYS count on until the day Miss Ivey passes. Her roots are in Jamaica and Miss Ivey rests and stays there, despite the poverty in her life. Is Shirley Temple Brown’s mother an example that faith in God, or having a spiritual life is exactly what can keep black women become rooted? Is Shirley Temple Brown’s mother an example that faith in God can keep mind, body and spirit, or identity, beauty and spirit together?

Issues of Spirituality

For Miss Ivey, the life of glamour with a potentially married white man, the life of an illegal immigrant, the life of a maid to white people, the life of marrying a drug dealer is evidently beyond the life she had imagined for her daughter Shirley Temple Brown. Miss Ivey criticizes her daughter’s lifestyle with each meeting with her. The following is also evidently more in Miss Ivey’s mind of the way she would want her daughter to live: “At some deeper level all living things are interconnected and there is a desire or a determination to live a life characterized by humility, empathy, mindfulness and purpose” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 27). This statement written by Professor Erica Neeganagwedgin and Professor Njoki Wane at OISE/University of Toronto clearly sets a marker for the way many black women would love to live. Despite Shirley Temple Brown’s problems in Till I’m Laid to Rest (Ellis, 2010), she also indicates that she is searching for the same things that Neegangwedgin and Wane point out in Theorizing Empowerment (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007). Shirley is always in search of living a life of “humility, empathy, mindfulness and purpose” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 27). She leaves her mother for Mark in search. She leaves Jamaica in search. She leaves the white family in search. She leaves Miami to return to Jamaica in search. Then, despite her searching and because her roots are so damaged, as her relationship with Miss Ivey (her mother) continue to erode and she sees her friends move on with their lives – her search for identity, beauty (and the beautiful life), and spirituality land her in jail. She humbly returns to Jamaica in handcuffs as she is deported after four years of being in jail. She serves jail time because she was helping her drug-dealing husband Moet who she at first married to live in luxury (which coming from poverty was something she did not know), and she later fell in love with him because he was a sincere, but dangerous man.
Wane’s (2007) “Practicing African Spirituality: Insights from Zulu-Latifa, an African Woman Healer” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007), gives tools for the way women such as Shirley Temple Brown can identify and recapture their soul. Many times the spiritual tools that we receive are handed down to us through our mothers. I rebelled against my mother when I was younger – not heeding her wise words. Although I did not end up in the same kind of trouble that Shirley Temple Brown ended up in, this disconnection from her originally connecting me with the Methodist church and the teachings of God was something that I came to understand only through an on-going path to maturity. It is also an on-going path that informs my work as a black female educator.

By exploring issues around identity with my own personal call to pick up the pen and write about the politics of black hair with the support of Theorizing Empowerment (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007), as well as entwining branches with others inside education with a shared “Diasporic Baby” (Massaquoi and Wane, 2007, pg. 75) identity and understanding of how my identity has formed with a lack of representation in Canadian culture and media, I call for more black female academics to pick up their pen and tell their stories, to entwine their branches through words, collectives and organizing and to push for more representation in Canadian culture and media.
By exploring issues around beauty, I encourage those women outside education who are treated as black to demand just treatment from men and other women – from everyone and every thing. Women must understand that their lives also serve to educate others, even if it is through written fiction and through telling of truth of their value and beauty – only this way, will their roots be preserved.
By exploring issues around spirituality we must look to our mothers and to the elders of society to guide us on our spiritual paths. As there are many branches on a tree, there are many routes to the creator and we must find one that works best for us to preserve the sanctity of our lives as black women.
It is our roots that give us structure. It is our roots that make us black feminists. It is our roots that give us identity. It is our roots that give us beauty. It is our roots that give us spirituality. It is our roots that make us black women inside and outside of education.

Ellis, G. (2010). Till I’m Laid to Rest. Nsemia Press, Oakville, Canada.
Kakonge, D. (2007). Spiderwoman. Self-Published.
Massaquoi, N. and Wane, N. (2007). Theorizing Empowerment: Canadian Perspectives on Black Feminist Thought. Inanna Publications: Toronto.

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