Who taught you to love yourself?: Acknowledging, Citing, and Respecting Black Women’s Work

The following essay was to be published in a collection of feminist essays compiled by a white woman. In the first edition of the book, which had been printed but not yet released, an essay by a Black woman and organizer (withholding name to protect identity) was included without her final consent. The reason for violating her consent was that other people of color were not able to contribute in time, and that the editor “didn’t want the book to be mostly white voices like hers.” Only after the Black woman & organizer made this violation of consent public via social media did the editor reprint the book without her essay. I have revised my essay to reflect on that incident, and to offer a reminder to both non-Black people of color and white people that Black women’s work is never ours under any circumstances.

For 4 months in January of 2015, I quit my job and moved across the country with my partner. I went with the intent of making time for my art practice. I landed every artist’s dream of having the space, supplies, and all the time in the world to create art. However, I quickly found myself struggling. Extra free time meant confronting inner demons that I had not made room for while I was busy organizing back home. I started experiencing deep depression, paired with feeling isolated and lost.

In particular, I began reflecting on my role in the Black Lives Matter movement. Where did I fit as a queer, non-Black person of color? Where should I do work that was responsible, accountable, and actually helpful? What work should I be doing? Who should I ask? I had all of these questions, but none of the answers. I understood the importance of centering people that are most directly impacted by police and state violence in our work, but I didn’t quite know how that looked in practice.

2015. Give Light, Village Leadership Academy: #TheyDontCare Musical March. By Monica Trinidad. "Give light and the people will find a way" is a quote from Black civil and human rights activist, Ella Baker.2015. Give Light, Village Leadership Academy: #TheyDontCare Musical March. By Monica Trinidad. “Give light and the people will find a way” is a quote from Black civil and human rights activist, Ella Baker.

It might go without saying, but there aren’t any definite answers to those questions, and if there were, well, we’d all be making far fewer harmful mistakes in our work. I did realize that some of the answers were actually dependent upon the work I needed to first do within myself. I also realized that sometimes asking questions on how to do the work could also be harmful (pro-tip: do your own research and just show up more). Furthermore, the confusion I was experiencing was deeper, stemming from years of being silenced, a lack of confidence, and a lack of love for myself. I couldn’t recall any instance in my life where someone talked to me about how important it was to love myself. What did that even look like?

In keeping a promise to a good friend back home who was aware of my struggle, I brought bell hooks’ All About Love with me to Oakland. As soon as I dug in, I was immediately immersed. My deeply rooted impressions about love were instantly extracted from their foundation. Love was discussed with such vulnerability and honesty, in ways I had never experienced before. This idea that we are capable of loving ourselves, and that self-love can open up greater space for restorative and transformative justice in our lives and communities made so much sense. In the book, bell hooks suggests:

“Many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape. ”

bell hooks’ words held me as I worked through some treacherous waters within myself, embracing practice as the only way towards a deeper analysis of truly liberatory work.

Towards the end of my time in Oakland, there was a national call to action put out by Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson Action. The call was for a National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls, on May 21st. These protests sought to highlight the lack of visibility that Black women and girls who are killed by law enforcement receive both in mainstream media and in our own activist communities. I attended the action in Oakland put together by Black Lives Matter, BlackOUT Collective, and the Onyx Collective. After marching a bit from Oscar Grant Plaza, Black women, femmes, and non-binary organizers stopped us right in front of the Oakland Police Department. During the middle of their program, one organizer took the microphone and began a call and response chant:

“Who taught you to love yourself?
Black women!
Who taught you to love yourself?
Black women!
Who taught you to love your body just like it is?
Black women!
Who taught you to love yourself?
From the top of your head to the soles of your feet?
Black women!
Who taught you to love the shape of your nose?
Black women!
Black women!
Black women!”

Every person in the crowd chanted the response “Black women!” at the top of their lungs, fists high in the air. The organizers leading the call had tears in their eyes as they loudly proclaimed the questions that were more like defiant proclamations. The energy and power radiated through my body and my eyes also began to well up with tears. It was one of the most overwhelming moments I had ever witnessed. I can’t remember if I was chanting along or just listening and watching.

As non-Black people of color, these kinds of moments are actually far from ours. The books written by Black feminist writers are not intended for our consumption. The intellectual labor of Black women is not ours to use to validate our own work. The healing rituals with African American roots are not ours to blend or profit from. The chants about Black women and Black power are not ours to say, but to understand and respect. As Candace Simpson states in her article 4 Lessons All Activists Can Take Away from the Womanist Organizing of #SayHerName: “For us, this isn’t a hobby. Our lives depend on it.” We are all simply present as co-strugglers when we get to experience this magic.

In addition to being present as co-strugglers, we must also hold the urgency of being co-strugglers. To co-struggle means to recognize that your liberation is bound up in others’, and in particular, Black liberation. There is a legacy of erasing Black women’s labor in organizing. There is an even bigger legacy of erasing Black queer and trans people’s labor in organizing. And while we can’t erase the harm that has already been done, we can do as much as we can to make sure that harm doesn’t happen again.

When our feminist organizations are holding annual marches to end rape culture, think about how baring our chests as a statement of bodily autonomy and defiance is actually a cultural practice, drawn on traditions from Nigeria, Gabon, Uganda, and South Africa, from women who bare their chests as a form of protest. Verbally acknowledge that history at rallies. Simultaneously, think about the ways in which non-Black people can bare parts of their bodies without having to bare the institutional legacy of Black bodies as spectacles and property.

When our feminist collectives create zines or host zine-making workshops, acknowledge that zines didn’t magically appear in the 1990s with the riot grrrl movement in Seattle. Acknowledge that Black women like Ida B. Wells were writing, printing and distributing their own pamphlets challenging lynching laws as early as the 1890s. In the 1920s, queer Black women like Zora Neale Hurston co-published the Black lit zine Fire! in response to Harlem’s heteronormative, bourgeois Black culture.

When white and non-Black feminist artists of color decide to use Black women’s artistic and intellectual work without or against their consent, that is an act of harm. When they say they’re using it without or against their consent in order to make sure their artistic production is not following the historical precedent of white feminism, then they’re actually failing at what they set out to do. Challenge that behavior immediately.

When our feminist friends are talking about reproductive justice, remind them that Black women coined the term “reproductive justice” in 1994 after the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. When we talk about the Black Lives Matter Movement, acknowledge that Black women – two of them queer – ignited the movement.

When you think about who taught you to love yourself, know that Black women have laid the groundwork to make radical self-love possible.

Monica Trinidad is a queer, Latinx artist & organizer, born & raised on the southeast side of Chicago. She is a co-founder of Brown & Proud Press, For the People Artists Collective and the People’s Response Team. Monica actively pushes for spaces where both artists & organizers recognize the necessity of cultural organizing, and creates work to uplift and document struggles in Black & Brown communities in Chicago. She has created movement art for over 20 grassroots organizations and efforts in Chicago, and has had work shown at DuSable Museum, National Museum of Mexican Art, East Meets World Gallery, and more. Visit her w​ork ​at monicatrinidad.com.

Edited by Kidest Assefa-McNeil and Kristine Mar.

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