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Sister, Insider: A Nod to the Black Femme Experience

Journeying through our light and shadows with wisdom from Audre Lorde’s “Eye-to-Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”

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Sister, Insider:
A Nod to the
Black Femme Experience

Journeying through our light and shadows with wisdom from Audre Lorde’s “Eye-to-Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”

Photo credit: Jéssica Felicio on Unsplash

by Mariah Emerson

19 NOVEMBER 2020 │ 10 min. read

I read “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger” by Audre Lorde with tears streaming down my face. In a climate where it feels many would rather talk about the myth of “Black-on-Black” crime over the horrid and inhuman treatment of Black bodies in Amerikkka, there hasn’t been much space for me to discuss the intersection of Black femmehood, trauma, and our relationships with one another.

I begin this very ongoing conversation with a note: This piece is NOT for those who are willing to argue that Black-on-Black crime is a valid and legitimate thing. It is not. It is not for people who don’t share the experience of Black woman or femmehood. It is not for the white ally looking to “understand the Black experience in order to increase their own ‘empathy.’”

This is for us: the Black bodies who’ve been met with the complex, beautiful, heavy, and multifaceted experience of being a Black woman or femme in the United States. It’s for Black trans women, Black cis women, Black queer folks, femme-adjacent non-binary folks, and the likes. I make this very clear because no amount of reading or webinars could demonstrate what it’s like to be us. So this piece is not to educate. It is to affirm, to question, to exist.

As a queer, Black woman, intersectionality is an unavoidable reality. I’ve seen how homophobia, racism, misogynoir, sexism, and other manifestations of hatred and oppression affect the way that I move about and against the systems invented to diminish my sense of power and light. In a world where people murder Black women while we sleep in the comfort of our own homes (#justiceforBreonnaTaylor), it is easy to question the legitimacy of phrases such as “safe space.” While my Black trans siblings continue to show up in a world that is too buried in its own shadows to give basic human decency and respect to a community that fights for the rights of all, I ask, “What is a ‘safe space’ for a Black woman or femme person in this country?”

That is human behavior. But when everyone else is either too fragile or too dangerous to hold us in our trauma, who else can we turn to except for ourselves?

Of course, this offers a beautiful opportunity for us to create healing resources for Black women and femmes across the board — and we’re doing that work. We’ve been doing that work. But what about the shadow side? What about the parts of us who were raised to hate ourselves, and thus, each other. The contempt which Lorde notes when she looks into the eyes of a fellow Black woman at the library is one that I’ve seen before. I’ve felt it. I’ve received it. I’m sure I’ve been the woman with the look myself.

Do we reenact these crucifixions upon each other, the avoidance, the cruelty, the judgements, because we have not been allowed Black goddesses or Black heroines; because we have not been allowed to see our mothers and ourselves in their/our magnificence until that magnificence became a part of our own blood and bone?

I’m reminded of the many disagreements between another Black woman and myself in my previous workplace, where the conversation of racial equity became a hot topic and constant battle. The organization had just hired its second senior director of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). My dear friend, the first Black woman to hold this position, knew this space was unwilling to listen and learn from her without belittling and diminishing her experience in working towards equity and liberation. I applaud her for choosing her emotional and mental security over the struggle against internalized white supremacy in a space that was simply not yet ready. The second director of DEI was a woman I quickly admired for her strength in holding senior leadership accountable to pay her what she is worth, give her an office of her own, and include her in conversations that so clearly benefited from her expertise in the field. However, it’s as if I was attending the funeral of our relationship each time we peeled away the racist, sexist layers of an institution that screams Black Lives Matter while devaluing the Black employees right in front of them. In each meeting on racial equity and inclusion, I found myself eye-to-eye with our newest DEI director, having standoffs on how to change the system, alter processes, and dismantle white male superiority in the workplace.


Are we not fighting the same fight? Maybe the problem was exactly that. Sometimes, we get so lost in the fight that we forget to surrender to what is: Connection. Shared experience. Presence. I wonder how our interactions would have been different had we read “Eye to Eye” before our confrontations. Would I have been able to identify the fatigue in my colleagues’ experience after having to fight to be paid fairly and included in necessary conversations? Would she have extended additional empathy in my frustration of being exploited and appropriated as a “diverse voice” externally for the organization?


I’m reminded of my first job with a Black woman boss. The instant comfort of seeing myself mirrored in her felt warm, familiar, safe. Is this what white men feel everywhere? My experience with this woman felt liberating at first. We worked differently — I navigated without the guise of white professional politics in our workspace that existed in each job I held prior. As we confronted anxiety, depression, family issues, and the rest of what it means to be Black woman existing in America, I found us hardening towards one another. Black women aren’t allowed to have bad days in corporate America. There’s no space for our anxiety when a deadline is met and the bottom line is prioritized. We aren’t allowed to be angry or have an “attitude” in business. A space that once felt freeing now felt like all of the walls were closing in on me. Contempt and dislike entered each meeting — a tension we allowed with each other that was different from what I’ve ever seen in any board room. Where else can we expose the shadows of our despair except for with each other?


And yet, time and time again, we crucify this despair with a lack of empathy, an emphasis on guilt, a gaslighting marathon.

Am I not reaching out for you in the only language I know? Are you reaching for me in your only salvaged tongue? If I try to hear yours across our differences does/will that mean you can hear mine?

It is not lost on me that these same ideals infuse themselves into my love life, as I build relationships with other Black queer woman — one who I’ve shared life and partnership with over the last seven years. After reading “Eye to Eye,” it’s as if I received a history reel of our harshest and deepest arguments and interpersonal battles. To romantically love and hold a Black woman is a precious privilege. Any relationship, queer or not, which includes a Black woman carries a sacredness that I can’t describe elsewise. On the other side of our trauma and harsh realities lies unconditional and pure love. It is very much so the Black femme experience to learn to carry both. How else could we raise and uplift communities and revolutions as sustainably as we have? I’m grateful for Audre Lorde’s writing, as I wholly and fully accept myself in the lineage of Black queer women who write their truth. Lorde mirrors an honesty and radicalism that wasn’t introduced to me as a young, queer Black girl. Stepping into her work now is a nurturing to the child who deserves this perspective now more than ever.


I don’t want to have relationships with Black women that don’t invite shadow work. I’m not ashamed of the conflict and tension we’ve experienced together. I am honored to see and be seen so purely, and I infuse the perspective of “Eye to Eye” as I continue to have and to hold relationships with other Black women and femmes.

Little Black girls, tutored by hate into wanting to become anything else. We cut our eyes at sister because she can only reflect what everybody else except momma seemed to know — that we were hateful, or ugly, or worthless, but certainly unblessed. We were not boys and were not white, so we counted for less than nothing, except to our mommas.

If we can learn to give ourselves the recognition and acceptance that we have come to expect only from our mommas, Black women will be able to see each other much more clearly and deal with each other much more directly.

We’re born into a system that tells us we are hateful, ugly, and worthless while copying every aspect of our Being. Despite this, we’re embracing our hair, our bodies, our sexualities, our creations, our ideals. We’re expanding. We’re becoming. I’m committed to loving us, to holding us in our wholeness, and to learning how being both soft and firm is a power that many simply cannot understand. I’m inspired by what Black femmehood continues to teach me. Black ancestors like Audre Lorde have provided us with life-giving wisdom — ushering a gentle yet honest care about what our experience is like and what it can be.


I’m envisioning a world where Black women and femmes are neither shunned for our shadows nor persecuted for our magic. Where we create “safe space” for each other in each other. Spaces of care and concern. Spaces of honesty and transparency. Spaces of healing and accountability. As we continue to fight for liberation and joy, “we can learn to mother ourselves,” as Audre says.

What does that mean for Black women? It means we must establish authority over our own definition, provide an attentive concern and expectation of growth which is the beginning of that acceptance we came to expect only from our mothers. It means that I affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival, in my own self and in the self of other Black women . . .
 
It means being able to recognize my successes, and to be tender with myself, even when I fail.

We will begin to see each other as we dare to begin to see ourselves; we will begin to see ourselves as we begin to see each other, without aggrandizement or dismissal or recriminations, but with patience and understanding for when we do not quite make it, and recognition and appreciation for when we do.

As we expand in loving ourselves, I’m moved by the way that we show up for each other: for our Black trans siblings, for survivors of violence, for Black women killed by police brutality, for Black healers, for Black parents, for Black sex workers, for Black frontliners, for Black warriors, for Blackness. For us.


I see you because I am you. I love you because I love me. Here’s to continuing to evolve what it means to look eye to eye with one another. Here’s to continuing to see each other in our wholeness. Here’s to us.

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Photo credit: Disney +

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Thank you to the Black women who supported me in reading, reviewing and enhancing this piece: Barbara Darko, Ambernechole Hart, and Brinkley Moore. I am grateful for our collective power.


Special mention of gratitude to Jéssica Felicio — the photographer on the cover photo of this piece. I was immediately drawn to this shot, and then I read its description:


“I lost my twin and sometimes I wonder what life would be like with her, so I Photoshop myself and create photos that I wish I could take with her.”


I knew immediately that I’d chosen the right photo to illustrate these points. Thank you, Jessica.

ABOUT MARIAH

Mariah Emerson (she/her) is a Black, queer herbalist with a mission to bring wellness back home by embracing the intersections of identity through radical healing practices.

Check out Mariah on Instagram and Twitter to follow her holistic journey.