When I was a little girl, I loved listening to grown Black women talk to one another. Now granted, I was not supposed to be in earshot but I learned early on that if you played very, very quietly close by, pretended to be asleep, or hid underneath or behind something (porch, sofa, cupboard), you could be blessed with all of the details. It was absolutely fantastic. They would talk about ev’rything AND ev’rybody: white folk, men, recipes, white folk, men, school, white folk, men, jobs, white folk, men, health, white folk, men, government, and the list goes on. At least, that’s what my ears heard. My favorite women were the ones who cussed every sentence. If they were outside, that’s when it was worth it to even hide in the carriage of a nearby truck to hear that stuff. I’m surprised I never got caught but I was determined. Today, I am a grown Black woman and I get to join the talkin. Life is good.
Academics sometimes like to think of these kinds of exchanges as informal. I’m thinking of a Black male scholar who thinks that when he adds statistics and NYTimes references to a conversation that is already in progress that he is elevating the discourse to the level of the intellectual and sociological. In reality, he’s just a nuisance who wasn’t invited into the conversation in the first place and so everyone is just waiting for him to leave so we can get back to the real talkin again. Blackwomentalk is NOT informal, it is NOT gossip, and it is NOT trivial. It is a life-skill and if you are not part of it, your world will be all the more difficult to navigate. Not all Black women are active participants since some are more interested in finding a position for themselves within white supremacy rather than really challenging and speaking against it. But most of us get our BlackWomenTalk in.
Blackwomentalk is especially on my mind right now in the context of the sexual violence that has been legislatively and socially approved within the terms of toxic white/wealthy male culture. Last week, I watched Bill Cosby‘s crusty butt be walked off in handcuffs while white men were not. I also had to listen to Black men express more anger at Cosby’s persecution than his sexual assaults of women, though BlackWomenTalk had spoken for DECADES about the FACT that Cosby was always a flagrant womanizer who was NEVER faithful to Faithful Camille (we just didn’t realize how much he liked his women drugged and non-consenting). Yes, I agree that Black men’s hyper-crimininalization goes hand-in-hand with their hyper-sexualization. You don’t need a Ph.D. in history to know that. But the (implicit) argument that if white men can sexually assault women with legal impunity (which they can), men of color should be able to do so as well ain’t the kind of equality or justice I’m looking for. I am still enraged that a white man in Anchorage who choked an Alaska Native woman and then masturbated over her unconscious body was given no jail time. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find very many white man at any time in the history of the United States forced to serve time for sexually assaulting an Indigenous woman… or a Black woman. Men of color don’t serve time for assaulting Indigenous and Black women either, only when they assault white women. Somehow, these racialized facts around sexual violence and white settlerism have escaped most men’s of color discussions right now. I then watched Christine Blasey Ford have to relive and retell her story of sexual violence with a level of respect for words, truth, carefulness, ethics, evidence, detail, and composure that was never performed by or even expected of her perpetrator, Brett Kavanaugh. I feel like I am back in college watching everyone (including Black folk) denigrate Anita Hill in favor of Clarence Thomas, even though Thomas (emphasis on the TOM and the ASS parts) has never done anything for Black folk. Meanwhile, Kavanaugh’s toxic white masculinity— which has run the gamut of multiple allegations of sexual assault at Yale University and Georgetown Preparatory School to the performance he gave in his unbelievable (and unhinged) testimony— was cultivated by none other than SCHOOLING. In the midst of all of this, I was wading my way through allegations of sexual assault and other criminal activities here in New York City where yet again, schooling has maintained white male culture at all costs. And even with all of these allegations of sexual assault, the response that I hear most often from male-professor-colleagues is a critique of the writing quality of the articles which broke the news, as if that is the most pressing issue right now. I’m amazed at how much violence this fall semester has already witnessed. Now I am left reflecting on the ways BlackWomenTalk helps me to process and survive times like this… because these incidents are not new and this shit ain’t over.
When you can’t count on any institution to protect you, believe you, or even grant you full humanity, you have to work amongst yourselves. The very foundation of Black women’s labor in the United States— as in slave labor— is founded upon sexual violence as ENDEMIC to laboring. It is no coincidence or historical accident that (sexual) assault against Black women is still illegible today to the very institutions that classified them solely as property with no rights to their own bodies. This is why BlackWomenTalk is so important. We warn one another of impending danger because due process will rarely work in our favor. The warnings that we give one another are rooted in an embodied, historical understanding that no one will rescue you. This means, in REAL terms here, that I have never worked at an institution and NOT known which men were sleeping with their female students AND pushing up on the women faculty. Never. I even know who got caught in their offices with their pants down (I mean this literally) and which older white men have a penchant for the young women of color on campus. I know white men who “coincidentally” publish DETAILED erotica about doppelgänger white male professors who sleep with undergraduate students (who look “coincidentally” just like our students). I have known Black women graduate students who were appalled at the way their male peers in graduate school took sexual advantage of the undergraduate first year women of color in their classes; no one— not even other women of color faculty— cared when those undergraduate women fell apart. I can name the schools, the programs, and the admin because all still look and act the same today. That’s BlackWomenTalk. We know who to watch out for. This won’t 100% protect you from predators, nothing can, but your story will always be told and HEARD. I also know who has sexual harassment complaints against them, pending & old, women & men, young & old, white & of color. I know which departments have holiday parties, free alcohol flowing freely, where undergraduates and masters’ students are invited to partake in the festivities and where the most “accommodating” of these young people get adjunct positions later. I can name those schools, those programs, and those admin TOO. I can tell you about male faculty who bring their dates— sex workers— to campus with them for various events (I ain’t knocking the sex workers here and even suggest that they charge TRIPLE for the likes of these male faculty). I know the male faculty who regularly hook up with, stalk, and/or marry their female graduate students, sometimes before their deceased wives are even cold in the grave. I can name the faculty and administrators who co-signed these kinds of violences— which oftentimes includes women looking to rise up in the ranks; in all of these instances, many people knew what was going on, never did a thing, never said a word (in public), and actually propelled these perpetrators into higher positions of power. I could go on with this listing FOREVER. These are just the regular routines of academic culture. Only BlackWomenTalk has taught me that these things are not normal, not acceptable, not ethical… and that I don’t have to co-sign ANY OF IT!
I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have been dismissed, mostly by male scholars, for addressing the issues that I listed in the previous paragraph with that same ol, tired argument about these being private, non-intellectual matters. The argument usually goes something like this: who you sleep with has nothing to do with the politics and quality of your intellectual work. It’s a lie. None of these men offer us anti-misogynist, anti-misogynoirist, anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal theory and scholarship. NONE! But if you are complicit in maintaining and ignoring misogyny, misogynoir, sexism, and western heteropatriarchy, then you won’t see anything wrong with scholarship that does the same.
While none of my stories here are “admissible” in “legal proceedings,” they are the only things that tell me how to protect myself and from whom. As Audre Lorde reminded us years ago:
Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive.
BlackWomenTalk teaches me about the institutions that employ and surround me. And now that I am grown, I am a full participant and I STAY on my job when it comes to talkin this BlackWomenTalk. Due process may never bring us our due… but we have never been silent or complacent about the everyday realities of misogyny and sexual violence in our lives.