Michaela angela Davis is known for speaking truth to power when it comes to defending the image of black women in media. The speaker, writer and outspoken Afircan-American feminist has used her passion for activism and communication to peer into a little-discussed taboo of the progressive political sector: the lack of trust, empathy and synergy between black women and white feminists.
Using the characters of celebrated movie 12 Years a Slave as her inspiration, Davis penned a groundbreaking essay for mainstream women’s site Jezebel.com that tackles the tensions between black and white women, which she says were spawned during a time when white masters raping their black slaves was the norm. So was a white wife’s impotence to do anything about such a criminal betrayal.
As Davis prepares to host the latest segment of her MAD FREE discussion series, Dropping F-Bombs: Forties. Feminists. Fierce, tonight at the Ailey Studio in New York City, she spoke to theGrio about the need for black and white women to discuss — then heal — the distrust fomented by slavery
theGrio: What inspired you to write this piece for Jezebel.com, a mainstream feminist web site, with what we can safely assume has a largely white, female audience?
Michaela angela Davis: Well, for the first part of the question, I was inspired by the women of 12 Years A Slave. I literally felt haunted by their dangerous, desperate lives. Though the film centers around Solomon Northrop’s narrative, it was through the women, with whom I inevitably identified, that I most clearly saw the complexities of the American institution of slavery. This brave, brutal, brilliant film invoked a pretty painful idea about white and black American women.
Now — why Jezebel.com. I know black women, feminists, and womanists have been writing and speaking with each other for decades about the very unequal distribution of power in our movements. I wanted to mostly engage white women. As a black feminist, I wanted to say to white liberal women, “I see you and this is what I saw in this film about our history.” I also hoped if they hadn’t seen the film, they would after reading my essay. Then maybe we could talk.
It was curious how black readers immediately resonated with the actual writing style of my essay, and some white readers were confused by it. I guess black folk know the blues when they read it.
In your piece, you describe the white and black women in the film as being locked in a sordid narrative involving rape and mental torture creating mutual resentment between black and white women in the generations that followed slavery. Can you speak to how that might manifest today?
Today I see black and white women still suffering under sexisim and patrichary, yet I don’t see many white privileged feminists rolling up their sleeves to help women of color and poor white women. I rarely see white feminists rush to support a sister, say Zerlina Maxwell when she was attacked for speaking out about men and rape, but when Sandra Fluke was slut shamed by Rush Limbaugh, the outrage, the defense of her, the solidarity was on!
Do you think many Americans who are not of African descent are aware of the fact that many male masters raped their female slaves, likely leaving their wives feeling jealous and dehumanized in the process, as 12 Years a Slave depicts? How do you think people will react to this part of the narrative?
While I think most “People of Whiteness” wish we would just get over slavery and stop talking about it, I do I believe there is some awareness about the horrific rape culture in America’s slave history, largely because of African-American historians and the obviously varied shades of black Americans. However, 12 Years A Slave was the first time in my memory that any overt illustration was made of how the effects of rape culture in slavery affected white women. It is a stunning revelation for all of us to face, but I believe critical for deep-rooted healing.
On Jezebel there were a number of discussions in the comments suggesting that the white women readers were defensive about the message of your piece while avoiding the real issue of white women’s privilege. Women of color accused them of saying they are “not like those oppressive white women.” What do you make of this conversation?
Let me say that any discourse about this is progress, so I am grateful that white and black women got at it. Of course, I expected most white women to be in denial and defensive, and black women to be angry. That is our dynamic right? This is why I put it out there. It no longer serves us as women to be in this tired grid lock.
White women have to have the courage to listen to black women. Our brand of anger is really foreign to them and totally freaks them out. They need to sit, sweat it out, and listen for the truth in the anger. Black women have a lot to be angry about. It is a healthy response to generations of oppression and exclusion. And I believe black women, after they have been heard, acknowledged and respected, have to be willing to give up the anger. Black women have an intimate relationship with anger and violence, but it brings us no comfort. Our bitterness is imprisoning us. We deserve to be completley free.
What’s next for you and your organization on the front of trying to unify white and black feminists towards progressive, unified action? What is next for you in general?
Well actually, after the reponse to this piece (my Facebook was popping), I plan to reach out to some feminist entities to see if we can organize an actual face-to-face, truthful conversation. I’m being honored by The Feminist Press next month. I hope this profile can help this effort.
It really is time for women to heal and work together.
My immediate next steps is today my conversation project, MAD FREE, is having a conversation in New York City with Joan Morgan (When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost), one of the illest feminist thinkers period. We’re going to talk about being black feminists in our forties and being fierce.
I’m also writing more, leading into a book. This is the hardest work, yet I’m totally excited about that.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.