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By Nature’s Design
Marie A. Michael – University of New Mexico – 1991
During the spring of 1988, I began to recognize that there was a void in my life, an essential core of knowledge and understanding which was missing in my life’s experience. I then realized that I knew very little about my history and culture, and therefore, very little about myself. I also needed to develop a stronger sense of identity, and 1 knew this involved knowing the herstory and culture of my family, my ancestors, and black people as a race in America.
Because of this desire for knowledge, l began to question the representation of blacks and other people of color in the educational system at UNM. I became depressingly aware of either a negative portrayal or a complete exclusion of people of color in the academic world. After reading a disturbing poem by Countee Cullen in an English class, I began to wonder how blacks felt about and dealt with such exclusion. In his poem, “Yet Do I Marvel,” Cullen questions why God places him in a society that excludes blacks from certain activities. Cullen asks why God gave him a poetic voice and then placed him in a society where, because of his skin color, his voice would never be acknowledged. He compares himself to Sisyphus, who spends an eternity rolling a stone up a mountain only for it to fall back down, so he could roll it back up again. Cullen feels that Sisyphus’ predicament is like his plight as a black writer in America-• pointless. When l read this poem, I knew there also had to be works written by blacks that presented hope for change and acknowledgment of the power of the black writer’s voice in America. Al though I could relate to Cullen’s desperation, I also wanted to read the perspectives of blacks who would not accept exclusion and would demand that their voices be heard. Soon, l would discover that the fire of hope and determination which I found lacking in Cullen’s poem was an integral part of the writings of contemporary black women. And, for me, these works would be the beginning of a personal quest for self-knowledge and understanding.
After being urged by a professor to try reading a few black women writers, I spent the summer of 1988 immersed in the works of Al ice Walker, Toni Morrison and Ntosakc Shange, three modern American writers. This was the summer of my awakening: I understood the experiences they described and the search for self illustrated in their characters; l knew them as kindred spirits and fell in love. These black women and their words felt like home. Alice Walker describes the herstory of black American women in her book of essays entitled In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. Her words made me realize that I must claim these women and their past as my own. Many of those hardworking, child-bearing, child-loving, plantation-escaping, and time changing women were my ancestors. So, during the warm months of 1988, l realized that not only can black women be incredible writers, but they can be come anything they desire.
For the first time in my life, I considered what it meant for me to be black and female in America. l began to notice the messages American society pro motes about blackness, and T became painfully aware that the white American ideals of beauty, material wealth, love and success do not favor color or difference. These messages instill in black women the belief that we are not born attractive. Therefore, we must attempt to hide nature’s flaws and imperfections by straightening our hair, losing weight in the hope that our hips will appear smaller, lightening our skin, and applying the necessary make-up-all this to transform ourselves into the ideal woman (or at least as close to ideal as we can come-which is usually not close enough). Needless to say, I am not Skinny, nor white completed, nor blond with blue eyes, and I have learned to avoid useless attempts at correcting nature’s mistakes. My views of success, wealth, and love do not involve changing myself to fit into the accepted image of success in this country. Consequently, I spent many months in chaos and confusion because I didn’t want to be white or male, but 1 wanted to feel free to be myself, love myself. and learn about myself and my people. It is hard trying to bridge the gap between my needs and what society says I should want. It is hard to love myself when society says it is not acceptable to be a black woman and be happy.
As a black woman, I was constantly confronted with racism and exclusion. The American media, the educational system, bureaucracies and businesses all cater to white America. When blacks are not virtually excluded in the media and education, we are presented as stereotypes and surrounded by misinformation. Bureaucracies and businesses arc set up for the people who created them and who have participated in them for a long time. Blacks have been excluded from education, government, and business. Therefore, we are less familiar with bureaucratic systems and many times are swept under by paperwork, elitism, and the lack of crucial information that will allow us to succeed.
As I became more familiar with the contributions of blacks to America and the lack of representation of our ideas in mainstream society, I noticed exclusion everywhere. Even our holidays arc representative of white America. Christmas is a great example. Santa Claus is a white male, and everything about Christmas focuses on the dominant society’s ideals. We buy gifts for family, friends, and business associates, despite our own lack of funds. We send Christ mas cards that depict happy, loving white families, and we hang white angels on our Christmas trees. What about black culture and ideals?
Christmas has no meaning when I can’t relate to
the white Santa that stares at me
from the department store window.
Jesus Joseph Mary the three kings and all the angels
have pale complexions.
The ornaments on the tree Christmas cards
and the Nativity scene are all representatives of a dominant culture.
One in which I don’t belong.
And therefore I refuse to celebrate.
Because I am not
dreaming of a white Christmas.
Instead I’m celebrating a black Kwanzaa. * (Marie Michael, 1190)
In addition to overcoming feelings of exclusion, this period was chaotic be cause the ideals of America had been engrained in me for over twenty years, and many of them J had accepted as my own. In school I had learned white his tory, had been taught by white professors and had learned very little about any black people. And what I learned about blacks was generally inaccurate. I was taught that Africans were savage and uncivilized, when in reality, they were extremely well educated. 1n fact, the African University of Timbuktu was one of the first universities in the world. I was taught that blacks actually enjoyed slavery and preferred life as slaves over taking care of themselves. Yet, none of my teachers ever mentioned that blacks were forced to survive in a sys tem that was designed to strip them of all human dignity, that many slaves risked their lives to escape, or that the life of the enslaver was often much more uncivilized than the life of the slave. How could a society that prospered on capturing, selling, and enslaving another group of people consider itself “civilized”? And how could this same society then have the presumptuousness to attempt to “civilize” other groups of people by imposing its ideas, religion and way of life upon them by force? These are things I had to learn and questions I had to ask on my own.
As I studied more about African and
African-American history and culture, much of my previous knowledge was uprooted. During this time, I thought a lot about the process of gaining new in formation:
*Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural celebration from December 26-January I to reaffirm our commitment to spiritual, cultural, psychological and physical liberation.
like a snake i am shedding skin layer by layer
until the very last piece is laid aside
i am shedding mom’s views on religion sex education men and my future
i am shedding society’s views about my ancestors
difference blackness women and my identity
by shedding old skin
i am gaining newly created unique and challenging colors that can only shine brightly (Marie Michael, 3190)
I began to question the truth and validity of things I had been taught all of my life, as well as the new information I was gaining. Eventually, as I accepted the new knowledge and claimed it as my own, the confusion ebbed. I replaced in accuracies and half-truths with the ac tual history, culture, and capabilities of my ancestors. Then, I began to apply this consciousness to my life in the world.
I knew that the history and culture of blacks should not be excluded from any aspect of the American educational system. If it was not included in my classes,
I would add it to my own personal agenda and learn about it anyway:
I don’t know how much time I have on this
earth, but while I’m here I’m intent on
being true to myself, to my spirit, to what
beats deep inside of me. And part of
true to her is acknowledging that this is my
world, my space, my territory, and I
be who I am. Therefore. I need to he free to research my people, listen and
them, and thereby find myself. (Marie Michael, 10189)
Additionally, I knew that white Ameri can beliefs had greatly shaped my life, and this was something I had to ac knowledge. The dominant society’s be liefs had a significant affect on my ideas of beauty and my self-concept In the past, I had straightened my hair (be cause it was “nappy”), refused to be seen
without make-up, constantly tried to lose weight, and generally felt insecure about being black in a world thriving on white ideology. J could not love myself or con
sider myself naturally beautiful. I changed many aspects of my physical appearance and attempted to become as close to the American model of beauty as possible. By internalizing other peo ple’s ideals of beauty-ideals impossi ble for me to attain-I was acting out my own version of self-hate. This I had to change.
Being a product of the dynamic his tory of African and African-American men and women, I should be able to love my· self. Those incredibly intelligent, crea tive, and spiritually wealthy African people whose blood, sweat and tears
helped develop this country are my kindred. I am the result of my ancestors’ ability to survive and overcome slavery in America. Therefore, after considering from whom I came, l began accepting myself the way nature made me—-curly haired, make-up-free, full hipped, light brown, and beautiful by design.
Yet, my quest for self-awareness and self-love continues. I am constantly re minded that although my ideas about myself and my culture have changed, many people in this society still main tain stereotypical attitudes. Sitting in a classroom in Los Angeles this past sum mer (June 1990), I was once again made aware of how ignorant many people are about cultures other than their own. I was attending a class entitled “Ameri can Women Writers,” and while dis cussing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, a woman asked, “Is it true that black women are more promiscuous than Anglo women?” I wanted to strangle her. I could hardly believe she could ask such a stupid and insensitive question. Flabbergasted, I could not respond. So, after asking the
student to clarify her question, the pro fessor intelligently remarked that you can’t generalize about the sexuality of an entire race and moved on to discuss more pertinent issues.
Then, a few minutes later, another women commented that Harriet Jacobs roust have had European-like features since Dr. Flint (her white master) was so obsessed with her and spent so much time trying to convince her to sleep with him. The woman was implying that black women are not beautiful. and of course white women are-as if by some defect of nature, black women could never be found attractive on their own merits. I was amazed. I had spent years strug gling lo overcome my internalization of society’s stereotypes about black women-stereotypes that these women accepted as truth-and in a matter of minutes, I was confronted again with doubts about my identity and worth as a black woman. I can’t remember the teacher’s response to this comment-I was too busy recovering the vestiges of my self-esteem. I would not let these women destroy what had taken me this long to achieve! Yet, I never expected such stereotypical ideas to come out of the mouths of supposedly educated people. The first woman had asked very intelligent and probing questions in many of the previous classes, and the second, who found it impossible to conceive of a beautiful black woman, was, ironically, dating a black man. Furthermore, the instructor of the class was a black woman, and these two students seemed to have no idea that in questioning and commenting on these ridiculous issues they might be insulting her or other peo ple of color in the class. Needless to say, Dr. Smith and I had a long discussion during her office hours that day, and l learned that although she was pretty shocked by the women’s attitudes, this was not a rare incident in her life as a college professor.
Looking back on this experience, I re alize that America has a long way to go to provide an educational system and living environment where stereotypes and misinformation do not abound. Moreover, it has helped me understand why it is so important for women of color in this society to have strong self-con cepts. We must recognize our beauty, and love ourselves because America can be, and many times is, a very hostile and destructive environment for us.
Now that Jam becoming more secure about my identity as a black woman, I can recognize the naiveté of these women. I also know that stereotypes and mis information must be dealt with in order to create an acceptable and accepting society for people of color and women to live out their lives. Additionally, I can identify racism and misinformation
when I see it and work to change these influences on my life. Yet, I have not al ways felt secure about my race and cul ture. I have not always had a strong sclf
concept. But, by learning about black culture and herstory and especially by reading the works of black women writ ers, I have grown into a strong sense of black womanhood.
The search for my identity has been a difficult one, and by all means the jour ney is not over. But as I grow into myself and struggle to find my voice, J begin to claim this world-this life-as my own. I will continue to learn more about my self and others, so that my world will be a place that includes all people and considers difference a challenging op portunity to share and to grow. And I will work to consider all people-in cluding myself-beautiful by nature’s design.