Bad Feminist is an anthology of witty and confessional essays mixing personal experience; opinions on race, politics, media, gender and sexuality; andBad Feminist is an anthology of witty and confessional essays mixing personal experience; opinions on race, politics, media, gender and sexuality; and reviews of books, TV and film - sometimes all in the same essay. Roxane Gay lays out what it is to be a feminist. That there's no such thing as a 'perfect' one. Being human precludes us from perfection. We're complex creatures. We can enjoy something even if we don't agree with the ideas behind them. That's the very definition of cognitive dissonance.
...feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.
I know I'm a bad feminist. My guilty pleasures include the Charlie editions of the misogynist Two and a Half Men. I adore Seven Brides for Seven Brothers despite the sexist view of the role of women, the multiple kidnappings of women, the Stockholm Syndrome, and the shotgun weddings. BUT there's pretty dresses, lovely songs, and acrobatic, synchronized dancing.
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain . . . interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism , but I am still a feminist . I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
Like Gay, I enjoy fairy tales. I like happy endings. Despite the suffocatingly strict gender roles they like to fit girls into. Paranormal and historical romances are modern adult fairy tales filled with overbearing alpha males. They stalk and harass their potential mates who always accept and marry these, what in real life we'd call, sexist jerks. And most of the time, I love them anyway - just like their brides.
I know, I should hang my head in shame.
Over the Christmas break I came across a Q&A with Gay. I read each of the linked articles. All of them were good, but it was the heartwrenching Things I Know About Fairy Tales that spurred me to move Bad Feminist to the top of my 2015 TBR pile. Strangely this essay is missing from the book. Knowing its contents increased the value of her opinion on certain subjects and gave me valuable insight into what drives Gay. I admire her for sharing the most intimate details of the worst experiences of her life and admitting what most would never say.
We're all at least a little racist, she says. It's true. For whatever reason. Even if we're not aware of it.
Gay's mentoring of black university students was a sad reminder of the effect of internalized racism on motivation, on ambition. They lacked the drive to achieve more than what they perceive is expected of them, until Gay badgered them to do better. An exhausting undertaking to nag multiple people to greatness.
Quite a bit of my enjoyment in reading Bad Feminist was derived from sharing similar opinions and experiences, of surviving what life has thrown at us while not letting it diminish us. Although I didn't always agree or understand everything she discusses.
Towards the end, cultural differences proved a barrier to grasping certain subjects. As a Brit, Tyler Perry means nothing to me. It turns out I've only seen him in Alex Cross although some of Gay's criticisms concerning the themes he regular uses bore out in that film. The repealing of reproductive rights is another issue about which I'm appalled by, but once again I found myself asking:
America's problem with white men regularly shooting young black men is yet another a subject I'm not particularly familiar with. Sure, the UK's had some serious issues with institutional racism, like the police's handling of the 1993 racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence. Last year it was revealed the police had been by spying on Lawrence's family looking for dirt instead of hunting for the killers.
Bad Feminist is an emotional rollercoaster of emotion. From laughing, to indignation, poignancy, anger and even WTH. That foray into the world of Scrabble tournaments and its idiosyncratic competitors was a tangent I wasn't expecting, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Gay doesn't pull punches. She's a tattooed professor who likes to swear, loves to play Scrabble and doesn't suffer fools while still managing to seem open, honest and approachable. You don't come across someone like that everyday.
Bad Feminist is my first foray into black feminism, and it won't be my last.
Mindful of the fact Gay dislikes trigger warnings, I won't add any. And by mentioning them, I realize I've implied there are some. Oops....more
Oh the horrors of slavery!—How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my d
Oh the horrors of slavery!—How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave—I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.
In 1831 Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, took down Mary Prince's story in her own words and published it along with his commentary and corroborating statements, and Asa-Asa's story of how he was taken from his home in Africa and sold to white men as a slave. Two years after publication, in 1833, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.
Although Mary had a blissfully ignorant and happy childhood as a companion slave to a white child, at age 12 everything changed. From then on she spent the bulk of her slave years with a succession of cruel masters. Travelling from her home in Bermuda to working the horrific salt ponds of Turks Island for four years, the onto Antigua, and finally to England where she was legally free.
Some of the horrors:
I was licked, and flogged, and pinched by her pitiless fingers in the neck and arms, exactly as they were. To strip me naked—to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence.
My master flew into a terrible passion, and ordered the poor creature to be stripped quite naked, notwithstanding her pregnancy, and to be tied up to a tree in the yard. He then flogged her as hard as he could lick, both with the whip and cow-skin, till she was all over streaming with blood. He rested, and then beat her again and again. Her shrieks were terrible. The consequence was that poor Hetty was brought to bed before her time, and was delivered after severe labour of a dead child.
Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone, afflicting the sufferers with great torment.
This poor man's wounds were never healed, and I have often seen them full of maggots, which increased his torments to an intolerable degree.
...flung her among the prickly-pear bushes, which are all covered over with sharp venomous prickles. By this her naked flesh was so grievously wounded, that her body swelled and festered all over, and she died a few days after.
He had an ugly fashion of stripping himself quite naked, and ordering me then to wash him in a tub of water. This was worse to me than all the licks. Sometimes when he called me to wash him I would not come, my eyes were so full of shame.
...if the Lord had not put it into the hearts of the neighbours to be kind to me, I must, I really think, have lain and died.
...he prayed that God would forgive him. He said it was a horrid thing for a ranger to have sometimes to beat his own wife or sister; but he must do so if ordered by his master.
I was really quite appalled that a mixed race woman like myself would be so cruel to those less fortunate:
...hired a mulatto woman to nurse the child; but she was such a fine lady she wanted to be mistress over me. I thought it very hard for a coloured woman to have rule over me because I was a slave and she was free... The mulatto woman was rejoiced to have power to keep me down. She was constantly making mischief; there was no living for the slaves—no peace after she came.
Mary's spirit was never truly broken as she made money where she could to purchase her freedom. Several times she asked to buy her freedom and each time was turned down despite having the means to pay for it.
I never knew rightly that I had much sin till I went there. When I found out that I was a great sinner, I was very sorely grieved, and very much frightened.
While religion empowered Mary by educating her, it also added to her woes. Who wants to bet the majority of her 'sins' surround her lack of freedom? She shouldn't be made to feel bad for those feelings, her masters should.
He was very industrious after he bought his freedom; and he had hired a comfortable house, and had convenient things about him. We were joined in marriage, about Christmas 1826... We could not be married in the English Church. English marriage is not allowed to slaves; and no free man can marry a slave woman... I had not much happiness in my marriage, owing to my being a slave. It made my husband sad to see me so ill-treated.
When Mary came to England she was legally free and no longer a slave. Having no friends and no means of procuring a living, she was forced to remain with her master, still working as a slave, though he repeatedly tried to kick her out on the street. Until she found a branch of the Moravian church which educated and married her in Antigua where she found kind people who took her in and cared for her when she was bed bound from rheumatism. They then introduced her to the Anti-Slavery Society who not only championed her cause for freedom from her master so she could return to her husband in Antigua, but also sometimes supported her financially when she couldn't find work.
I would rather work for my living than get it for nothing. They were very good to give me a supply, but I felt shame at being obliged to apply for relief whilst I had strength to work. At last I went into the service of Mr. and Mrs. Pringle, where I have been ever since, and am as comfortable as I can be while separated from my dear husband, and away from my own country and all old friends and connections.
At this time Mary was approximately 40 years old and despite the Pringle's support, Mary's master wouldn't grant her freedom even with many offerings of money.
As she had no one to refer to for a character in this country except himself, he doubtless calculated securely on her being speedily driven back, as soon as the slender fund she had in her possession was expended, to throw herself unconditionally upon his tender mercies; and his disappointment in this expectation appears to have exasperated his feelings of resentment towards the poor woman...
...prefers losing entirely the full price of the slave, for the mere satisfaction of preventing a poor black woman from returning home to her husband!
...there existed no legal means of compelling Mary's master to grant her manumission;
...intention to bring in a Bill to provide for the entire emancipation of all slaves brought to England with the owner's consent.
Mr. Wood became at length alarmed,—not relishing, it appears, the idea of having the case publicly discussed in the House of Commons; and to avert this result he submitted to temporize—assumed a demeanour of unwonted civility, and even hinted to Mr. Manning (as I was given to understand) that if he was not driven to utter hostility by the threatened exposure, he would probably meet our wishes "in his own time and way."
In trying to help Mary, her new boss, Mr. Pringle, conversed with Mary's owner by letter:
He alleges that she was, before marriage, licentious, and even depraved in her conduct, and unfaithful to her husband afterwards.
Her husband, he says, has taken another wife; "so that on that score," he adds, "he does her no injury." Supposing this fact be true, (which I doubt...
Pringle was deeply offended at the cruelty of such words. He had no reason to believe the lies since he saw Mary as ...a well-disposed and respectable woman.
Pringle later finds from a source in Bermuda that:
...she was viewed by her owners as their most respectable and trustworthy female slave. It is within my personal knowledge that she had usually the charge of the house in their absence, was entrusted with the keys, &c.; and was always considered by the neighbours and visitors as their confidential household servant, and as a person in whose integrity they placed unlimited confidence...
How ironic. For Mary to be treated so dreadfully for 13 years by her owners to find they valued her so highly. To throw her away, tossing her out into the street, you'd think they hated her. That's no way to treat someone you want to keep around.
In fact, how slaves were treated in general made no economic sense. If you beat and maim your slaves, they lose value. Their productivity drops, perhaps permanently. You'll not make back the money you paid trying to sell them on. And killing them, well, you might as well have burned your money. What was paid for slaves back then translates into hundreds and thousands of Great British Pounds today. It was in their best interests to treat them well, and yet they didn't.
"I would rather go into my grave than go back a slave to Antigua, though I wish to go back to my husband very much—very much—very much! I am much afraid my owners would separate me from my husband, and use me very hard, or perhaps sell me for a field negro;—and slavery is too too bad. I would rather go into my grave!" - heard by Thomas Pringle
Countless efforts involving men of influence to beseech Mary's owner on her behalf, he never set her free. However, two years after publication slavery was abolished. It's not known whether Mary returned to Antigua to be with her husband after finally gaining her freedom, but I'd like to hope they were reunited and that their ending was a happy one. Although I suspect if she did return, Mr. Woods, her vindictive former owner, would never allow Mary to be happy for one moment while he still breathed.
I admire Mary for her strength, bravery and determination to never let the bastards win, as well as her willingness to openly share her story with others, to tell England and its countless families profiting from slavery what she really thinks of them:
I am often much vexed, and I feel great sorrow when I hear some people in this country say, that the slaves do not need better usage, and do not want to be free. They believe the foreign people, who deceive them, and say slaves are happy. I say, Not so. How can slaves be happy when they have the halter round their neck and the whip upon their back? and are disgraced and thought no more of than beasts?—and are separated from their mothers, and husbands, and children, and sisters, just as cattle are sold and separated?
I have often wondered how English people can go out into the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies, they forget God and all feeling of shame, I think, since they can see and do such things. They tie up slaves like hogs—moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged;—and yet they come home and say, and make some good people believe, that slaves don't want to get out of slavery. But they put a cloak about the truth. It is not so. All slaves want to be free—to be free is very sweet.
We don't mind hard work, if we had proper treatment, and proper wages like English servants, and proper time given in the week to keep us from breaking the Sabbath. But they won't give it: they will have work—work—work, night and day, sick or well, till we are quite done up; and we must not speak up nor look amiss, however much we be abused. And then when we are quite done up, who cares for us, more than for a lame horse? This is slavery. I tell it, to let English people know the truth; and I hope they will never leave off to pray God, and call loud to the great King of England, till all the poor blacks be given free, and slavery done up for evermore.
'Wherever slavery prevails, there will inevitably be found cruelty and oppression.' - Mr. Thomas Pringle
The story of Louis Asa-Asa
A great many people, whom we called Adinyés, set fire to Egie in the morning before daybreak; there were some thousands of them. They killed a great many, and burnt all their houses. They staid two days, and then carried away all the people whom they did not kill.
They sold all they carried away, to be slaves. I know this because I afterwards saw them as slaves on the other side of the sea.
...the children were too small for slaves, so they killed them.
I do not know if they found my father and mother, and brothers and sisters: they had run faster than me, and were half a mile farther when I got up into the tree: I have never seen them since.
[I] was about thirteen years old. It was about half a year from the time I was taken, before I saw the white people.
...offered the choice of going back to Africa, replied, "Me no father, no mother now; me stay with you."
...for if I go back to my own country, I might be taken as a slave again. I would rather stay here, where I am free, than go back to my country to be sold.
I am well off myself, for I am well taken care of, and have good bed and good clothes; but I wish my own people to be as comfortable."
What drew me to this book is the first hand account from a slave who was not only from the Caribbean but had also lived in England. From what I can tell, that's rare. Most slave narratives, at least the most popular ones, are American. Finding out there was also an account from a slave who was taken from Africa was an unexpected bonus. Both made for fascinating reading despite the harrowing yet insightful content. There was never a dull moment.
It was heartening to know Mary finally made it beyond a life of physical suffering, if not a mental one, to know that she never once blamed all white people for the crimes committed against her, and to know there were kind and powerful allies who championed her cause.
Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus for a white person. I know, I didn't know this either. It's not our fault.Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus for a white person. I know, I didn't know this either. It's not our fault. Claudette Colvin had done the same nine months before. She was not considered by African American civil rights leaders to be a suitable symbol for the campaign against segregationist legislation. She was too young (she was fifteen), perceived to be too fiesty and too emotional, and too working class to be an appropriate figurehead to inspire revolution among her fellow African American residents of Montgomery, Alabama. She suffered more at the hands of the police than Ms. Parks (Colvin was jailed, among other things), more scorn from her neighbours and supposed friends than Ms. Parks, and yet she's been conveniently forgotten by the press, the historians and the public.
But she isn't bitter about it. In fact she understands why Rosa was the better choice, she was everything Claudette wasn't - a well respected introvert, a middle class and middle aged woman. Colvin was understandably hurt when she wasn't informed about victories or included in celebrations, and was completely shunned by everyone when she fell pregnant just a few months after she took a stand, by a married - and supposedly white - man. She was a teenager, an unwed mother - a shameful thing. Her parents forced her to keep the name of the father secret so apart from her immediate family she was without support from the community that once revered her for her bravery. The movement took what they wanted from her and then ignored her when she became the object of shame. The irony is astonishing - the movement rallying against unjust persecution while also persecuting a vulnerable member of their community.
Anyway, Colvin never sought fame or criticized the movement's leaders, she quietly tried to rebuild her life. Her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer shattered once she became pregnant. Her school kicked her out as it did any pregnant teenager and she was forced to bear and raise her son in isolation, constantly looking for work since she was fired every time her employers discovered who she was.
This is an exceptionally well-rounded account of events surrounding the bus boycotts and the reversal of the segregation of schools in Montgomery, Alabama in the mid-1950s. Colvin's point of view and personal history is interspersed with accounts from other sources and there are plenty of detailed explanations of how things worked and were organised and funded. It's quite amazing what the co-operation of a community accomplished, and what they had to sacrifice. There are many examples of unjust events that precipitated Colvin's impromptu decision to make a stand.
The narration is perfect. Not once did I become bored or frustrated. I highly recommend this anyone that wants to know more about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement in Alabama.
ETA: I forgot to add that I was surprised to hear that Colvin stopped straightening her hair while she was in high school because she was proud of her African heritage. Unfortunately her classmates and her boyfriend didn't understand and began to pressurize her on the subject. But she was adamant. Her natural hair was beautiful. She didn't want to spend hours every morning trying to make her hair look like a white woman's. She was African and that was that.