A keynote address to the African Students Association Women’s Caucus
My name is Zukiswa Wanner.
I am a writer, an African, black, a woman, a sister, a friend, a mother, a partner, a daughter. I am one person but just from that brief preamble, I, as everyone here, wear many hats. It is the role of the African woman, the role of the black woman that is my focus for this discussion.
From where I am seated the hierarchy of humanity in the world I have been alive in the last 45 years has gone something like:
All Others bar Black.
Race may be a social construct (don’t you love how often privileged white people love saying that?) but in that social construct, the Black Woman is at the bottom of that hierarchy, that totem pole. But even there at the bottom of the hierarchy, there are still subdivisions that make some of us more privileged than others. Our incomes, our education, our citizenship, our histories, our social networks are but some of these.
Aware and acknowledging these differences, I am immensely honoured to be invited to do this keynote by the African Students Association Women’s Caucus which I hope will lead to a dialogue between you, me and other black women.
This is an honour which my and our sisters who grew up in rural areas or low-income areas; who don’t speak or write ‘good English/French/Portuguese’; who were married off while they were 12 to men who are three or four times their age and haven’t been able to escape; who wake up at 4 in the morning to go to the fields or to a cleaning job that pays the barest minimum and go to bed at 10 at night; sisters who have their stories to tell but don’t have the time or privilege to do so – are never afforded. It is an honour I don’t take lightly and for this reason, this will be the most personal keynote I have ever delivered in my 15 years of being a writer and 45 years of being an African black woman.
I need to acknowledge this so that this presentation on sisterhood and blackness can be contextualized in a wholesome way – I won’t say fully as I don’t believe neither you nor I can ever have enough time to explore the condition of blackness and sisterhood.
While Pitzer College may offer you, my fellow sisters, some semblance of equality, sadly the world is not quite like that. When you are done with your college career, you will work in civil society, in corporate, in government or in the arts. The hierarchy that I spoke earlier of will often be pretty much fait accompli.
You will be an actor who finds out that your male colleagues are being paid more for doing less than is expected of you. Where they are allowed to look human, you may be asked to lose some pounds because ‘the camera adds 20pounds’. You may be asked to do this for the gratuitous sex scene or bikini scene that you will be uncomfortable with but will think isn’t any reason to lose a role for when many other black actors are out of work.
You will be a musician who will be considered precious and difficult, who other black people will applaud but may not necessarily support enough to have a reasonable income because you choose to have publishing rights for your music instead of giving it to what in South Africa we call, White Monopoly Capital.
You will be a sportsperson who will be shunned by fellow athletes and sports fans for refusing to give honour to an anthem of a country that makes excuses for killing unarmed people who look like you.
And if you are that musician or that sportsperson who also happens to be a woman, you will face twice as much wrath. There is a reason why a Sister Souljah will be thrown to the peripheries and a Cornell West can be given an ear. Because the world, even if that world has many black people, cannot understand how dare a black woman who is on the lowest rung of the hierarchy can be assertive, can be defiant, can say “No.”
You will be working at the UN and a white man or a white woman without half your skills will become your ‘senior colleague’ (they never call them bosses in those organisations although that is exactly what they are). They will give you hell because they know and you know that you can outperform them and they worry that one day you will get what’s yours…their job. Even they don’t always understand just how much their skin and/or penises protect them.
You will be working for a top bank and if you question why interest rates for black people are higher despite their consistency in paying back loans, you will be called a race warrior, problematic, an ABC…Angry Black Chick.
You will be a civil servant and the more senior civil servants will expect you to work not for the benefit of fellow citizens but for those of a political party and when you object, you will be sent to some ghetto office where you stick it out checking social media and playing Candy Crush or whatever it is civil servants are playing in offices nowadays because you have students loans or school fees to pay and you still need a roof over your head and food in your stomach and gas in your car.
You will be a writer and only in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests after George Floyd’s murder by police will you realize that as well known, as widely read as you are Publishing Pays You much less than a white woman who sets their story in the neighbourhood you are from with zero knowledge of the neighbourhood and certainly pays you less than any white man named Jonathan.
And if you are a black woman writer, you will find that the white women and men who run the world’s literary landscape are perhaps a little more comfortable with your black brother who writes than they are with you because “why, Petronella, are you trying to sound so offensively clever?” Also your speaking English or French or Portuguese ‘properly’ and your stating that no, you didn’t grow up in the projects (because you didn’t) does not endear you to them no matter how much you have written. What shall they do with you and your assertiveness?
But you see, it’s precisely because of this that you have to try for a kinder blackness. A kinder sisterhood. Because you have the privilege to see exactly what they are doing. And what they are doing is the first rule in the slavery/colonialism/neocolonialism playbook – divide and rule.
If you and that other sister are pitted against each other because one of you is aiming to be the better black, then if you win, you still lose because you shall end up being the only black and by virtue of that, holding an exhausting position. Because as you and I know very clearly, there isn’t only one way to black or woman. But once you put yourself in that position, there will only be one way. You know this and I know this because even at your age, and many of you are half my age, you have been called to be a spokesperson for the race already. You have been asked to explain other black women, to justify, to excuse, to apologise, to clarify.
You have found yourself making excuses for another black person, whether it be Beyonce or Mandela or just someone you took a class with. You have refused to give excuses for Candace Owens or R.Kelly though because even your empathy, your love, your black sisterhood kindness has limits.
But you see, it’s because of this burden placed on us, as black women, whether by society or by ourselves, that we have to try for a kinder sisterhood, a kinder blackness.
Because there shouldn’t be any Olympic gold medal of blacker woman than thou. We need to understand that there is intersectionality, even in our blackness. Intersectionality based on many of the markers I mentioned before and then some.
We may know that sister who grew up in a low-income area, who has no option than to ‘dress properly’ because sexual violence against her is always a daily threat and three quarters of the neighbourhood will blame anything that happens to her on her. We may know her.
And we know that she has had a different life from a sister who could take a gap year to travel, whose daddy is an engineer and owns a Fortune 500 company and is courted by politicians, the sister who has been playing the piano since two years old and had parents who could pay for her to go and spend three years in Moscow learning Russian because she’s always wanted to read Tolstoy in the original language. We may know her.
And she had a different life from a sister who always felt like a sister from birth but whose parents forced her to dress a certain way, gave her the look or worse, belt when she acted a certain way because ‘real men don’t…’ We may know her.
And she has a different life from the sister in some rural area who had her labia sewn or had clitoridectomy and was married off at 10 or 12. The sister who has never had an orgasm and lives in fear of the night when her husband who is three times her age decides that he is going to visit her and who is relieved when, at 20, her husband marries another child who was the same age when she got married because it means his visits to her for painful conjugal rights which is correctly just rape, will cease. We may know her.
And she definitely has a different life from the sister who grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood, whose parents were civil servants, worked for an NGO or were in middle management in a corporate. The sister whose father told her she could be anything in life but treated her mother’s ambitions with disdain and the mother, resentful, would take her angst out on her or the domestic worker for the smallest infractions. We may know this sister.
And this sister had a different life from the sister who was raised by a woman who preferred the “shame” of getting divorced rather than stay in an unhappy union. The woman who could speak frankly to her daughter about sex, ambition and who had male relatives and friends who adored her for her independence and talked with her on all and every subject under the sun. Talked to her in ways that they didn’t talk to their wives or girlfriends because they desired her independence and wished it for their daughters but that woman who raised this sister was not marriage material. We may know this sister.
And this sister has a different life from a sister who was raised by her granny because her mother died young. We may know this sister.
And she has a different life from the sister whose mother’s only escape from the drudgeries of black womanhood was through drugs or alcohol, became an addict and our sister had to raise her siblings herself and cover for her mother when social workers came trying to separate her and her siblings. Forced to adult before she needed to.
And so because we are all so different, we know we are all different, and have been raised differently, we have to try for a kinder sisterhood. A kinder blackness. A kinder, black sisterhood.
So if your sister who is a single mother says she can’t work overtime because you and she know that there is no-one to pick her child up from daycare but she will be condemned by the supervisor who doesn’t understand, please side with her and don’t be the better black.
When your brother who has three children he is paying school fees for decides to coon for his pay cheque and it puts you in jeopardy, perhaps don’t be so quick to cancel him even if you really are incensed by his actions.
Perhaps call him aside and see whether you can have a decent conversation with him on how his actions mess it up for you all. But be mindful too that sometimes brothers will throw you under the bus in a Karen or an Aaron’s presence. Because this need not be said and yet it seems we almost always need to hear it again: skinfolk are not always kinfolk.
You will make mistakes. At work. In your friendships. In your love relationships. Heck, mistakes are what help us grow. But let these mistakes guide you to be kinder to other black people, to be kinder to other sisters.
Before you publicly condemn, and I say this as someone who has publicly condemned, ask yourself, would a public condemnation deter others from a similar action?
By now, some of you may have heard that the founder of what was one of the most progressive literary spaces in South Africa, Abantu Arts and Book Festival, was accused of abuse by his ex-partner and co-parent. I and a few others spoke publicly about it in support of the survivor and it was particularly painful for me as this was a man who was like a brother to me and who had figuratively held my hand through my own abuse drama.
Did a public condemnation deter others from similar action?
I can’t say. I doubt it.
What I knew though was that while it may not have seemed kind to him as a black man, it certainly was kinder to the black woman he had abused. In this case, it wasn’t just about taking sides. It was about something more fundamental. The violence that has been and continues to be meted on black women’s bodies whatever their social, political or economic standing. In Kenya where I am delivering this speech from, we are all still unpacking, weeping and numb at the death of Olympian and the world record holder for 10km, Agnes Tirop at the hands of her husband.
And knowing this, I would have failed myself and everything that I stand for if I had not said anything in public.
That said, that is my stand as an individual.
I was saddened but not surprised to see the ire that was given to other black women, sisters who also had a relationship with this man, for not publicly condemning him.
We have grown up in a patriarchal world and patriarchy makes women, black women who are at the bottom of the hierarchy, responsible for the failures of black men in particular and everyone else in general.
I think this is a lazy way to do anything and patriarchy is a lazy way of engaging with the world. It asks that we maintain the status quo because change is too much work. And that includes laying men’s failures at the feet of women.
None of these other women were responsible for perpetrating the abuse, a man was. And yet somehow attention was now shifted from him and to women for not speaking up. To black women for not speaking up because a black man had abused another black woman.
The world we live in does this all the time.
We blame a mother for enabling your boyfriend, her son for his laziness because he chooses not to look for a job. We blame his sister for not telling you that he has another woman on the side. We blame the other woman for ‘snatching’ him. We blame ourselves for his cheating. What we somehow almost always seem NOT to do is lay the blame where it squarely belongs. At the foot of the man. And I think that may be what I chose to do with my public condemnation but the hanging of other black women because they said nothing is also why I chose not to take part in interviews with media on the situation thereafter. I wasn’t going to be the poster girl for virtue signaling at the expense of any black woman.
Because we need to have a kinder sisterhood and in particular, a kinder black sisterhood.
That kindness in the face of the constant violence on black women’s bodies can also take the form you gave it and for which I thank you, the Women’s Caucus. Your agreeing to donate some reading materials to women’s shelters is this keynote in action. I think too often we think of people getting out of abusive relationships as needing only a place to stay and food but we do not think too often of feeding their minds and how healing art is and how that can be of assistance to their mental well-being. So thank you again.
But back to public condemnations.
Before you publicly condemn, ask yourself, do I have access to this person? And if I do, may I perhaps ask them to elaborate what they meant further before responding? Just as often as we have written, said or thought wrong things, we have also sometimes missed the woods for the trees in comprehending 280 Twitter characters on submissions by other people. Asking for elaboration in private then, shows regard for the person and may save you embarrassment if your interpretation of what they are saying is wrong.
Publicly condemning may also end up destroying your relationship with the person unnecessarily and I don’t know about you, but I need all the black sisters I can have in my corner because everything I am and have been is because of material, emotional and social support by black women.
A kinder sisterhood and a kinder blackness can also take the format of disengaging with people who are black and are sisters. Because you see, part of kindness is realizing that you too are a black person, you too, are a sister and you deserve to be kinder to yourself above everyone else.
And part of your kindness to yourself, as a black, as a woman so often on the receiving end of the unnecessary cruelty of the world, should be to do the things that give you joy.
That book, that movie that you enjoyed and want to revisit because you think you may have missed some layers that you still want to peel, or just feel everything you felt when you engaged with it.
Those songs that put you in a good head space and will make the world seem less cruel.
Dance unashamedly even if some members of your family tell you you dance like a white girl. If it makes you happy, do it. Sing in the shower, your neighbours and your family members who think you can’t sing can extend grace to you for the few minutes you are alone in the bathroom.
By virtue of who we are since birth, because we are black women, we are forced into wokeness. Into speaking up against injustices and caring for others. But if doing so at any time, if your empathy starts causing you stress, disengage because you too deserve empathy and deserve to fight yourself against any injustice to yourself.
You too need to exercise a kinder blackness, a kinder sisterhood, to the black sister that you are.