Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Black Women Dream of - What?

As a professor, I enjoy the occasional confidences of female students, who share with me their most secret ambitions.  One's deepest desire was to become president.  A second hoped to be Microsoft CEO; another, the first female pope.  But it was a young woman, an African-American like myseIf, whose secret ambition made me laugh knowingly as she whispered it in my ear: housewife.

I once shared her deepest yearning, as have countless generations of black women.  In our lives, this ambition of domesticity hovers like a shimmering but unreachable mirage, unceremoniously shoved into the background by the controlling myth imposed on us: that of the strong, tough-minded, black superwoman and workhorse - one of the most destructive myths of our time.

Each Census shows the percentage of black women in the labour force exceeding that of women in other racial groups.  The painful, exhausting truth is that African-American women have always worked outside the home - starting with our slave ancestors, who were expected to pick 125 pounds of cotton a day, sometimes with infants strapped to their backs.
Given this history, when the contemporary women's movement exploded onto the American scene in the early 1960s, promising to liberate women from their dangerously idle and leisured housewife roles, the reaction of black women was one of puzzlement and ambivalence.  I suspect, in fact, that what still splinters the women's movement are the unspoken tensions generated by the differences in what women of varying ethnic and class backgrounds dreamily yearn for in their moments of deepest honesty.
It is true that the civil rights and women's movements opened new employment doors for some of the descendants of black agricultural workers, maid-servants and laundresses.  Yet I fear that a subtle one-dimensional view continues to define the black female experience in America, whatever her class.  The bottom line remains: work outside the home.
I'm not suggesting that black women trade in one toxic fantasy, the myth of the superwoman, for another, the idle leisure of the suburban housewife.  But as I have grown older, I no longer find appealing those models of female success measured solely by status or wealth.  What I have come to admire most are women who have truly mastered the most delicate art of all: contributing the gift of their labour to the larger society without sacrificing their precious home life and intimate relationships.

This column of mine first appeared in USA Today Friday 17 August 2001