So – I’m back – I’ve been in and out of work, of self, of England and I return to you all, my ephemeral blog readers. Tail somewhat humbly between my legs for such a long absence, but with hopes that the juicy bone I bring; salivating solemnity, will soften the blow.
Let’s start with – I’m Possible – a “social enterprise whose primary aim is to educate and empower young women of colour in Britain by celebrating, highlighting and promoting the achievements of British women from all ethnic backgrounds by showcasing the success and life stories of women of colour.” Here I found myself, exhausted, hot and self-conscious about my arms in a sleeveless white top, but trying to style it out, after a very long Tuesday. It was kind of a work thing, my boss and mentor Hannah Pool was chairing it, and as usual I just turned up knowing roughly what it was and nothing about what to expect – but that’s how I like to experience life: sit down in the theatre with no idea whether its gonna be Hamlet or Ron Athey (actually, Ron Athey can require quite a lot of mental preparation but you get the point). What I wasn’t expecting was to be inspired, to feel connected, to feel held and pushed, challenged and wanted, and accepted and above all so very very privileged. Privileged to be privy to the thoughts and lives of all of these incredible black working, loving, giving women. And privileged to stand amongst them.
Remarkable as they can be, this was not just your average conference/talk about black women and business. What was so unique and just exceptional about this particular evening was that these women talked about being women, about being mothers, and wives and girlfriends and women in therapy: they were vulnerable. As a woman of colour growing up with a white mother, and no black aunties who I was close to, I never to Growing up in a predominantly white family, void of any close females of colour – aunties or grandmothers – I never saw them behind closed doors. I realised that I could not remember ever seeing a black women break down, or cry. I never realised that they were strongest when they were human, and most of all when they were women. Not women trying to be emotionless versions of the archetypal ‘man’. Not women being viscously competitive, catty, or intimidating in the face of other black women. Women being close, showing their cracks, their edges, and showing how the superglue that holds their crazy, hard, precarious, reaching-for-the-moon lives, is what makes them so strong. I looked and I thought – I want to be like that when I grow up.
I often say that one of the reasons that I began to consciously connect with my racial identity so late in life is because there was such a lack of diverse people of colour around me when I was growing up. There were all the black musicians (mainly the drinking, laughing, unpredictable men are etched most deeply into my three-year-old mind) who faded further and further away along with my father. Then there were the kids in my primary school, for whom I was never cool enough, never hard enough, never colloquial enough, and to me, never ‘black’ enough. They also seemed to be almost exclusively interested in rap, big gold earrings, getting their hair braided, swearing, and being ‘gansta’ (all terribly stereotypical I know – but you can’t argue with childhood memory). None of which I was naturally either talented at or, perhaps because of this, had any inclination towards. They also came from very christian and largely homophobic households. Only later did this demographic widen to encompass well firstly different kinds of christians and spiritualists, (Alice Walkers sumptuous writings on ‘God’ still give me chills) but also creatives, queers, mixed-races, and all amalgamations of the above.
I recently got an internship through the wonderful organisationCreative Access, a charity that sets up paid internships for people of colour within the media. On our induction day they talked about mentorship. About the importance of having role models of colour in our families and on our television screens. Of movie stars with Afro’s and curves and attitude that weren’t aggressive or funny, or any of the other crippling caricatures that confine and devalue black women. Creative Access really build into their internships an ideology of mentorship, of example setting, of space making, and the politics of diversifying the images of black women that we see.
I look at many of the black women that we do see in corporations, on television, on news programs and stages and political stands, and I wonder how many of them had to work, perhaps harder even than on the work itself, on transcending everyone else’s projections of what ‘black-ness’ meant for them. Whether that was exotic beauty, muslim, aggressor, whatever. To not be ‘the black lawyer’ but to be the best lawyers. Not ‘the black mp’ but the strongest labour voice on education. But I think that now, the only way to really claim even little bits of space for ourselves is to stand up as black women. To say loud and proud: yes I’m black, well done for figuring it out! I am also a feminist, and a bisexual. I am care about politics and globalisation and development. I also care about language and poetry and literacy. The sexual safety and empowerment of young people and the access of women to independent, professionally advanced positions across the job and politics market. But yes I’m black. Oh and I don’t have a weave, and I’m not skinny. But I’m also successful and I’m also black. So is my friend over there who is not political at all, who is skinny but who has hair that falls to her knees and is obsessed with blue whales, and perhaps this guy over here who is a chess-genius and had three major operations on his heart as a child meaning that he wants to dedicate his strategically powerful brain to medical research. But we are all black. And perhaps only by owning this ‘label’ as the header to each of our own definitions, our own life stories, will we ever be free of it – free of separatism all together.
Most importantly though, we must be vulnerable. And we must be kind. And we must know that as women, and perhaps particularly black women we can be the strongest when we stop and ask for help, or take a night off, or allow our daughters to see us cry. So thank you I’m Possible, thank you for sharing your tears with me. Thank you for sharing our greatest strength.
Ama Budge: A performance artist turned freelance writer commenting on gender inequalities, reflecting on my own challenges and experiences as a mixed-race Londoner and most importantly taking note, in awe, of the extraordinary resilience of human kinds striving for be better, and to love.