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by Tanya Steele

Lupita Nyong’o and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche have me thinking about Black women, beauty, feminism, policing of bodies, etc. We are thinking our way through these ideas as new types of Black womanhood erupt in the culture. Personally, I don’t believe that because a woman claims to be a Feminist, that she is. Feminism, like any other political movement, is a form a resistance. It requires thinking and conscious action.

I favor women who make conscious choices to represent themselves in contrast to stereotypical cultural representations- whether they claim to be Feminist or not. For a long time, at least in America, the idea of “woman” was marketed to us by White men in suits. As the culture evolves and diversifies, we see women making choices that are varied, complicated and rebellious. For a long time, the spectrum of “woman”, in America, was reduced to “wife” and “whore”. A womanhood as seen and marketed to us by White men at advertising agencies.

Certainly, a woman can choose to be anything she desires. But, Feminism requires thinking. Thinking against the notions of “womanhood” that support sexual violence against women, sexual violence against children, domestic violence and true policing of our bodies that happens when legislation is passed that restricts our right to choose. The word “policing” is being tossed at Feminists who are simply attempting to dialogue and think through complicated issues. The term policing should be applied to folks who pass legislation that marginalizes women and promotes violence against us. This notion that “anyone can be a Feminist if they just say it”, concerns me. It does not assert that thinking and conscious action are critical to Feminism. To deny this is to undercut its power.

A part of Feminism is understanding how the culture informs and disrupts our private lives. In 2014, connecting the dots becomes extremely difficult because purveyors of culture claim Feminism with a healthy disregard for the legacy. And, the lines between sexuality, empowerment and Feminism have become blurred. As a Feminist, one understands that the dominant paradigm for sexuality has been male centered. Sex is symbolic of what happens in the larger culture. As one awakens to Feminism, you begin to see how women are not allowed a voice, a say, personhood. In different arenas, we are constantly challenged to speak up or suffer in silence.

Each generation gets a specific challenge to confront. Sexism recycles mythology and sometimes adds a twist. Right now, it feels like the current atrocity being hoisted on women’s bodies is the idea that “good pussy” exists. That there is some earth shattering, textured, vagina that will soar a man’s penis to new heights- if they could just find it! I would say the idea calcified with the rise of video imagery and a particular style of rap. Music historians can and should provide a better argument. It can also be argued that these purveyors of misogyny were simply continuing a tradition. Perhaps, a tradition that started with Playboy magazine. Said videos, however, addressed Black women, specifically. And, began to marginalize and objectify us in ways that astounded Black communities. Many women have bought into this mythology. That, if we dress it up, heel it high, skirt it short, slap on the right lipstick or, toss a hint of wickedness and snap it back, we will cast a spell and render a man helpless to our charm.

I have watched, as women, well-educated, successful, mothers, teens, try and be “good pussy”. It’s a myth. I have listened to women dialogue about one night stands and “hooking up”, converse about a “stripper” informed sexuality that has them running to learn pole dancing. Thinking that if they bend it, twist it, twirl it, lay it down, in just the right way, they are the prize. The chase to find the “good pussy” or to be the “good pussy” is on. Performative sex is the sex du jour. I perform for you but, I don’t connect with you. And, there is a great deal of fun in that. There is a lot of hiding in that, too. As my friends and I try to navigate this landscape, I wonder, how does this serve women?  How do we construct ways of being seen and valued without supporting this ridiculous notion of “good pussy”? And, I wonder, how do we resist this idea?

Enter Lupita Nyong’o and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.

Lupita Nyong’o is a sensation because she is new! We are accustomed to celebrating women when they “sling it” just right. Or, salute us with a nod to their sexual prowess. Marilyn Monroe brought us here and it is where the most intriguing womanhood lives. Doesn’t matter how it undid Marilyn, folks still want it. Lupita was able to present as beautiful, alluring, charming, intelligent, etc. without being titillating. Sexy not bouncy. In a mini-skirt, in a flowing gown, in a Grace Jones flat top (in ‘Non-Stop’), she serves beauty. Black woman goddess! Lupita pierced the “raunchy”, “vixen”, “Black bitch” narrative with a subtlety and elegance that was transformative for all of us. In a similar way that Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is modeling a womanhood that is beautiful, deliberate in our fashion choices and brilliant. These African women are rescuing us from a crippling definition of womanhood. We are able to see ourselves in them. And, see ourselves anew through them. However, they are women of a certain class. Women drenched in poverty and violence have limited opportunities to make considered choices. As a Feminist, I consider these women in our conversations. What choices can I present to ALL women that affirm us and uplift us? Choices that extend beyond our lipstick color.

I do believe we are breaking new barriers with Black female representation. And, I love it. At the same time, the conversation is drifting more toward a middle-class to upper class Feminism. Dress well. Be beautiful. For me, the heart of Feminism has always been about resisting violence against women and children. Yes, there are other layers to it but, this is the heart. And, yes, promoting healthy body image and clothing choice informs a healthier outlook on life. Black women have permission to be beautiful. That is brilliance! I think we have been cloaked in a tortured past and we are emerging out of it. Bring it on!

At the same time, I don’t want us to lose focus. Yesterday, I watched Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in conversation. A woman in the audience said that Zadie and Chimamanda were presenting differently than Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. She said that Zadie and Chimamanda were “stylish”. I think I understand what she was getting at. The “abuse” literature and the “earthly mother” ideas are outdated and aren’t serving her desire to feel beautiful. This is a slippery slope. We must embrace all of it. But not for Alice and Toni there would be no Chimamanda. And, dare I say, I have yet to read anyone that is as fierce and celebratory of Blackness as Toni Morrison.

We uplift all. Yes, we, Black women, stay connected to our past. We admire the survival and dance our joy. Lupita was able to play Patsey who was, horrifically, degraded. In honoring Lupita, we honor Patsey; the legacy and the unfolding that brought us to today. Today, where we can watch a bouquet of Lupita and know we carry our history- our history does not carry us.

I watch as Kara Walker takes us through the most difficult corridors of American history. As she, herself, radiates grace, charm and hints of playfulness while being chic. We have reached a new day. And, we have permission to be consciously beautiful and sexy. I look at the Black women who surround me in Brooklyn. If you are planning to visit New York City, I suggest you do it in late Spring or Summer. You will witness the very heights of Black beauty. All shades, textures, attires, Black bohemian, Black professional chic, a Black woman rainbow that will undo any narrow thoughts you may have about Black women being downtrodden, ugly or depraved. The Black women of Brooklyn will take your breath away.

This is an exciting time for Black women. We are unfolding, blossoming and owning our beauty. Any ugliness a man may feel when he looks at brown skin is coming from his dislike of himself. And, any desire you have to choke us, humiliate us, game us, grade our vaginas, comes from your self-hatred. It’s 2014 and we are on a self-love tip. You can get you some but, in a way that is loving and kind. Or, take it somewhere else.

We live in a time where we are sold a mythology of sex. Used to be about folks driving better cars than us. Now, it’s about folks having better sex than us. Girls and young women, attempting to cultivate a sexuality, are ingesting all of this. Trying to figure out what is the best way to act in order to be admired. Women have the choice to put it all on display or cover it up tight with a cashmere turtleneck. It’s up to us. How, as Feminists, do we choose to resist, deconstruct and remain our beautiful selves? The message I receive from Lupita and Chimamanda is to be yourself! And, let your sexuality and style flow from YOUR interior. Discover what thrills you. What Art you like, what music, what colors, what books. Discover and understand yourself. Do not let others dictate who you should be. The person who has your best interest and well-being at heart- must be you. The unique you- wows the world. Just as Lupita did. Did anyone see her coming? Aren’t you beyond thrilled that she’s here? That a quirky Steve McQueen sang his unique voice and graced us with a Lupita, an Adepero, a Nicole.

At the same time, know that Feminism is not self-centered. It focuses on the totality of womanhood. We work to lift the “least of these” as we primp and pamper ourselves. We do not have to sacrifice one for the other.

There is no such thing as “good pussy”. And, if there is, it’s out of your control. Whatever a man feels when he is inside of you- is what he feels about himself. There is such a thing as Feminism. And, it lets you know, there is no need to uncomfortably dress it up, go broke buying a weave, break your neck in a heel or show as much as you can to entice. Patriarchy is very good at lessening your value with your consent. You can choose connection. Intimacy. Kindness. And, you can also choose to play. Play consciously. Play on your terms and play safe. Bring condoms or run out to the drugstore to get one. And, if he doesn’t want to use one, thank him for letting you know, pick up your mini-skirt and saunter home. Within that, within having control and knowing yourself, you will find pleasure, lust and all kinds of yummy feelings you could never have imagined. Let the fools hunt for “good pussy”. The rest of us are evolving out of the misogynistic “Black video vixen” era. Slowly, courageously and beautifully!


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.