At 15 I lived in my imagination with my body as an uncooperative hostage. Still, I internalised the guidelines of female conduct as I stumbled and fell awkwardly in my first pair of high heels headed to my first co-ed party.
On my way out as I was falling all over myself, my dad said:
“Are you planning on enjoying yourself?”
“Duh,” I thought.
Understanding that the outfit was intended for me to look and feel as far away from me as possible he said:
“Don’t let boys dictate to you what you should look like.”
What he was saying was,
Don’t let anyone tell you how you should feel about yourself.
It’s in our own private moments and internal dialogues that the microphysics of patriarchy emerge most sharply. It’s also in those spaces that the models for our liberation can emerge: our relationships and those we know. For me, my dad was the first feminist I knew. Throughout my life he pointed out benevolent sexism, allowed me to make mistakes without the burden of relentless excellence and, like all parents, while encouraging greatness he also allowed me to be mediocre and still feel supported.
The brief for this article was to write about what feminism means to me- part of an African Feminism series. I wanted to write about the unlikely sources of my Pan African black feminism: the men in my life. Through words and actions they lived versions of a liberatory masculinity that showed we’re allies against White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Going further, these macro Hercullian matters helped me to edit and re-write my internal dialogue, in short, what feminism means to me: the personal is political.
Isolation can be a small raging hell. audre lorde doesn’t underestimate the importance of allies,
I am defined as “other” in every group I’m part of. The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.
When I was younger, I thought my uncle A was weird. Besides the eccentricities visual artists add to one’s life, he wore skirts, took joy in being his wife’s manicurist, and encouraged his sons to play with anything they wanted including dolls and “girl” toys. He was both effortlessly carefree and intentional in his aversion to gender conformity and performance. He was fascinating but to keep up with him I had to pick up Biko, Cesaire and Fanon. Through our conversations I was learning black feminism- the intersections of race, capitalist exploitation and neo-colonisation as mutually reinforcing forces. As I began to think more critically about the context of my existence (woman, black, African, middle-class) I began to delve further within.
In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir defines three attitudes that women adopt to avoid their own freedom: the Narcissist, the Woman in Love and the Mystic. All three of these figures submerge themselves in subjects that take the place of true liberation: the Narcissist in herself, the Woman in Love in her lover and the Mystic in religion. Women, she says, live in immanence. Instead of looking and acting on the world, asking how she can be changed and change the world, she looks at her reflection (the uncooperative hostage, personality etc) and thinks these qualities define who she really “is.” The opposite of immanence is transcendence: having no limitations, physically and mentally.
Dad, uncle A, uncle L (maybe I’ll write about him next) and a bunch of other nurturing encounters with the male sex (haha), knowingly or not lived different versions of liberatory masculinity and transcendence. They were allies and they practiced a freedom that allowed me to deal and view critically my world while also egging me on to participate in it. Yes, patriarchy disproportionately privileges men over women, but this is no us vs them battle. Patriarchy affects the way we are taught to act and exist in the world. It shapes our social experiences, it seeps into our public spaces, relationships and popular culture. But within this chaos there those who upset the setup, inspiring you to tap into your transcendence. For me, feminism is personal and it walks, side-by-side, with liberatory masculinity.