| by Chantal James |
Making global generalities about the experiences of southern Black women, some of the people dearest and closest to me, is something I wouldn't dare without caution, but I'm still very moved to attempt out of that love to talk about what's common to us. I was born in the south and spent most of my life in the American south until this point, spending the majority of my childhood in red clay territory, tobacco country, in North Carolina. Not all would argue that I'm currently geographically situated in the south as a DC resident, though I would and have and some people whose thought has weight including historian Gerald Horne would back me up.
Ellison teased this idea out through fiction in Invisible Man a bit that I want to explore in this guest contribution to a publication that means so much to me, but what comes most to mind in my experience of southern womanhood is that being a Black southern woman so often feels like erasure. It's not just how almost none of us are terribly removed from the heritage of domestic servants, paid and not, who were expected to do their work silently and calling as little attention to their existence as human beings as possible. It's not just all the things we do to keep the big wheels turning in so many ways uncredited and unseen. It's not just how people who are white pretend we're not there when they pass us on the street. It's not just how people who are men require us to be aware of our female bodies in public for our safety, lest they attempt claim over them. And that our attempts to evade their objectification seem often to be never good enough and futile. It's not just how we're raised different from brothers. It's not just how we're told what our place is and punished for transgressing. It's not just how when we surmount every one of the obstacles put in our paths to gain some credentials for ourselves that are supposed to count for something in this system, we're still spoken over by any and everybody with positionally above us in the gendered and racial hierarchy on our own intellectual turf and in our own areas of expertise.
No it’s not merely any of these things but is also what's happening to us on the inside while all that's going on. How we're dreaming and imagining. How we're making art of everything. How our grandmothers took scraps of discarded garments and made artisan quilts, made every kind of sophistication out of so much that was meant to be refuse. Each day southern Black women face a world that tells us we're not worthy of being seen and heard, and in the face of that we burst into so much song.
Being a Black girl child growing up southern standing upright every day before people who did not even consider me so much as worthy of a glance was a part of life I became acculturated to and took for granted, just as I was taken for granted as a non-human aspect of the landscape for many who encountered me in turn. Sad to say that now that I'm a woman, a disabled one at that, this is a part of life that has not much changed. I'm compelled to write about it here because it shapes so much of my experience and I wonder if it's the same for many readers, and I even go so far as to speculate it is in fact something we share that comes along with being embodied Black and female.
This feeling of erasure is worth contemplation. The emotional lives of southern Black women often amount to how we use the tools that are given us by those who do love and honor us, and how we use our own innate conviction of the humanity others would deny us, to build interior worlds and even worlds within our domestic domains that affirm and support us. We have been doing this for a long time.
We can share what if feels like to be erased and unseen daily with each other, in the confidence of our friendships and our relations with our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and other family. We know us. We know it's not personal, this constantly being reminded we're not considered worth much, because it's something most of us go through to the point where we can have a common language about it and find consolation with each other about it. Zora Neale Hurston was the one who famously said “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” That's the way I want to close out here. Because we experience being taken for invisible as southern Black women in so many ways, but in the end those who don't want to see us for who we are are the poorer for it. In the end just as we always have, we got us.
Chantal James lives in Washington, DC, and has been published across genres—as a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and book reviewer—in such venues as Obsidian, Catapult, Paste, Harvard’s Transition magazine, The Bitter Southerner, and more. Her honors include a Fulbright fellowship in creative writing to Morocco and a finalist position for the Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction prize from the North Carolina Literary Review for 2019. Her debut novel, None But the Righteous, was published by Counterpoint Press in 2022.