I’m Bringing “Womanist” Back

The post you’re reading is part of Book Riot’s observance of #BlackOutDay. We are turning our attention fully to issues facing black authors and readers with help from the folks at #BlackoutDay and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Book Riot is grateful to have a platform to celebrate diversity and critically examine the book world every day, but today we have turned the reins over to our black contributors and guest contributors all working towards social justice and good books. Enjoy!

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Alice Walker, WomanistI fell in love with Alice Walker, hard. The way you fall for writers who speak to you, get inside you, make you feel things. When Alice (and yes, I’m keeping myself on a first name basis) introduced me to Womanist I felt home. I felt beautiful. I felt loved as a black woman, as a black woman, writing. I felt the weight of history, our collective and personal. I felt the earth she walked, the path she followed, I felt like this woman is talking to me.

But not through The Color Purple, that glorious story of women, love, and struggle. It is a must read, beyond classic, but that wasn’t it, for me.

Alice introduced me to nonfiction. To poetry. To going beyond normal societal definitions, throwing them aside and being my own self, defined as whatever the fuck I want. Or nothing at all. Take me as I am, or just don’t. Either way, I’m still here, doing me.

I’ve written about this before: as a college student abroad in England the library was my retreat, my comfort when I was homesick. In the African American writers section of the domed haven, Alice spoke to me, sister to sister, she took me home, reminded me who I am & where I came from.

In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens became my bible.

Through this book, Alice taught me the words I needed to be myself. Described feelings I’d never even dreamt of, but somehow understood, and knew they applied to me. Sang me to sleep on stories of Zora Neale Hurston, Rebecca Jackson, Coretta Scott King. I turned to this book—a collection of history, interviews, essays, musings, short biographies on African American writers, the Black Experience—I turned to it again and again, searching for answers the way you open the Good Book to a random page, knowing that it will give you just what you need at that moment. And it has never failed. It gave me lessons, inspiration, strength.

Alice had me at Womanist. And my antennae vibrated: this is it.

I’ve never been comfortable with, embraced the word or description of feminist. Just never seemed to fully apply to me, to my experience, although I support women/my/rights (I mean, as you do). Feminist seemed to limit me, to leave out a crucial side of my genetic makeup, equally as important as being a woman: I am black. I can’t and won’t separate the two, deny one in favor of the other. And more importantly, I’m about people, inclusive, full stop.

Womanist: “from womanish…a black feminist or feminist of color…committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female…traditionally universalist.”

For most of my young life I loved a boy. Not just any boy: a beautiful, dancing singing actor boy with a huge heart, sweet sweet laugh and warm brown eyes. We escaped middle school together. Survived high school. Left home at the same time and went to UC Berkeley to find ourselves & get higher education. We discovered other truths about ourselves: he likes boys, I like girls. Today I’m married to the woman I love, and I still love him, always.

Womanist: “a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonexually….loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually.”

Alice Walker rediscovered Zora Neale Hurston. Brought back into our collective mind this writer/anthropologist/folklorist/incredible spirit who had been forgotten, left out of anthologies, silenced in a tidal wave of reconstructed English literature. One early biographer, Robert Hemenway, put it best: “…the bright promise of the Harlem Renaissance deteriorated for many of the writers who shared in its exuberance.”

Alice brought back the light, wrote about her journey, and responded: “We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and, if necessary, bone by bone.” 

My experience with our culture, American, is that we don’t value our elders, those who’ve come before us, the ones who gave their lives and brought us to where we are today. We tend to live by that anthem of the ’80s, Ms. Jackson’s legacy, “What have you done for me, lately?” If it’s not current, trending, hashtagged, chances are, we’ve already moved on.

The women of the Haitian revolution, of the Harlem Renaissance—of any war, any uprising, any conflict—are mostly not talked about. But they are there. We know of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére, a freedom fighter, the companion of (the man) Lamartinière” has a wiki entry of less than 10 sentences. Langston Hughes will always be celebrated. Zora Neale Hurston, just as prolific, equally impactful, his contemporary and colleague, had to be resurrected.

Womanist: “Traditionally capable, as in: ‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’”

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens was published in 1983. We weren’t talking transgender, lgbtq, or #blacklivesmatter, but Womanist is all of the above. We need to remember where we came from, give thanks for our mothers and fathers, and celebrate the culture we continue to create.

Womanist: “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.”

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