We are grateful to Aurielle Marie for helping our organization be more accountable to the values we espouse, and we hope their insight sparks robust conversation in more literary communities around belonging, activating personal responsibility, applying lessons, and change as a practice. As a nonprofit, we offer the caveat that this essay series reflects the author’s opinions and lived experience as an organizer and literary citizen.
This is the sixth letter in a series of 10 dedicated to engaging The Offing’s literary network in social justice and a value shift toward equity within our respective organizations. The letter was originally sent on April 1, 2021.
It’s Women’s History Month, meaning I catch an uptick in the number of “The Future is Female” shirts I pass at my bi-weekly duck into the local Trader Joe’s, trying my best not to lecture each wearer about how damaging gender essentialism is, especially to so-called feminist pursuits. Not that #feminism means much to the genderqueer and queer daughter-writer of the enslaved. But, ya know.
I often compare gender to an occupation, because in many ways, it is such labor. Idyllic womanhood comes with a set of rules, like a jail. I am offered a rubric, expectations, and deliverables, and often, I struggle to fit my Black body and self inside of it. Women’s History Month is an homage to ciswomen in the United States, a so-called “study, observance, and celebration of women’s vital role in American history.” Immediately, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s assessment of womanhood as a Black Lesbian writer; “America’s measurement of me has been laid like a barrier across the realization of my own power.” Who decides what it means to be a woman, and what is uplifted within such a thing as “Women’s History”? More honestly, what is invisibilized by it, who are we missing, and who is left behind? I think you know my answer, or by now you should be able to guess. I think this month stands to celebrate anyone who ain’t a man, for surviving a world meant to hoist men upon our shoulders. I think this month should be a thunderous round of applause for those who, despite our softness, remain indestructible. But that’s not what women’s month does, within the mainstream. Unfortunately, and of course.
To be a genderqueer Black womxn in a (fourth, maybe fifth) wave of a white feminist movement that ignores me, I toggle with whether March is my month. Black femmes are often left behind in the droves of pussy hats and girl-bosses that are uplifted every March. And while, sure, some of my personal experiences may mirror the traditional coming-of-age girlhood stories (yes, I too first got my period at my desk in class… while wearing white pants), this month typically further others non-cis folks and non-white femmes. Because our stories, our lived experiences, are relegated to the back, pushed further to the margins in which we’re already most proximate. When you close your eyes and think of womanhood, do you see me? Don’t lie.
It’s important to consider these exclusions as powerful slights and intentional neglects. Just as celebrating whatever the hell a “female future” is on some t-shirt won’t bring us closer to gender equity, we must reckon with the consequences of solidarity we champion but don’t embody. This Women’s Month, yes, and also, every day. I read an article in which Edna Bonhomme notes the “perennial anti-Blackness of the white feminist movements.” What a genius framing. Perennial, as in, ever-blooming. Existing always, and, potentially, forever. It is this perennial violence that renders Black trans femmes invisible every March. The Black school girls were pushed into the prison pipeline at exorbitant rates — the Asian sex workers, killed by a sexist and a white supremacist because these two systemic violences sit with one another. I can’t help but notice how narrow a month is in comparison to the behemoth of systemic violence, how little time there is to consider the issue of gender from the requisite multifarious lenses.
Perhaps I should be more direct. I’m chewing on disparity and access, particularly in literary spaces, because we are in the business of or are pursuing the project of world-building and storytelling, friends. Our praxis, rife with the inherent struggle white writers and leaders have to include, center and follow the voices and guide of Black and POC writers — even women, even though they know how exclusion weighs on the body. I’m thinking of the celebration of Women’s History Month in the hallowed halls of our cherished institutions; how many non-POC women who’ve climbed the ladder of leadership and bested the thwarts of sexism now stand between me and my own goals. I’m thinking of the lack of my face among those faces, the deficit of bodies like my body being among the editors, creative directors, showrunners, storytellers, professors. Who makes the decisions — to hire or not hire us, to deem us worthy, to grant us such a flimsy thing as access? If it’s you, and you’re reading this, I see you even when you can not, will not see me. I clock the hollows of your understanding.
In my former-graduate program, we are privileged, I guess, to be taught by most women faculty members. However, for decades all of these women have been white, despite presiding over an incredibly ethnically diverse student body. And then, above them, at the director level, nothing but white men. Such layered, nuance denial of access. Such quiet, malevolent barriers. It affected what stories were possible to be birthed in me. Their presence what cannons were built and taught, what worlds we were allowed to build, and who was allowed to be an architect. The affect of this, so devastating that I had to leave in order to really write the stories that were calling me. Womanhood abound, and yet not a drop of solidarity to hold my hand in the ivory tower. Sometimes I try to imagine what scarcity, or fear of it, must inspire non-POC women to neglect the intersections of gender and refuse to align with non-white people. It must feel dangerous. There must be fear of losing precious ground in “The Fight” that keeps a white woman, even this month, from more profound solidarity work. I think here is where Sojourner would retort: “But, ain’t I a woman?”
This Women’s History Month, are you participating in misogynoir? Kill it. Are you promoting girl bosses but policing girl warriors? Stop. Are you one who stands to gain the most on the back of Black femme labor and exploitation? Acknowledge it, and shift the modality of your work. And I wish it was that simple. I wish that it was only individual actions separating us, and not a machine, a monster, a behemoth Not only do Black femmes write well, but we also lead well. Not only do we lead well, we change the material possibility of every institution we bust our way inside of. I think it’s fitting, a month that began with day laborers striking to change their conditions, that we all put on a more critical eye, roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Attempt to end the perennial reign of gender-based inequality with me:
- Journal Editors, Slush-Pile-Readers, and non-Black writers: it’s time to test your stories. Read more about The Kent Test and see if your work measures up. If it doesn’t? Fix your stories.
- Journal Editors/Program Directors: bring on Black non-men for a paid guest feature, guest editor position, and build out a strategy to hire BW and make your workplace safer for them, as well.
- Read more Black femme, nb, womxn and woman writers: Review them, teach them, cherish their works
- If you’re Black, don’t work for free. Love you bby.