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FemiUnity & Femiquality

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

Note: I look forward to developing this thought more in the future, but for now, please enjoy my takes on Audre Lorde and Mariama Ba.

In the technological age, where the world is viewed as more interconnected, and where access to different regions of the globe is more attainable, the phrase “it’s a small world” is becoming less of an aspirational hyperbole and more of a standard truism. Globalization follows the idea that with greater interaction and integration our social systems will be improved. The logic is that with increased contact with other people and cultures one would find more things that unite than divide. Unity is a concept that is often framed as a positive right—especially in feminist discourse. The feminist project is often described as gaining social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, yet the notion of equality is too often conflated with unity. Unity implies a singularity in body and mission. It is a oneness. In some instances, one regards unity as a prerequisite for working together. Yet oneness often creates the risk of suppressing diversity and rejecting human particularities. Equality can sometimes be viewed as synonymous with unity, although in this paper I will take the position that equality is more of a social-political tool whereas unity is more of a communal ideal. One instance where the problem of unity versus equality can be tracked is through the discourse on black women and their feminist prerogatives. Black women are very diverse. They come from many different regions of the world and face multifaceted experiences.  The problem here is that through convoluted conceptions of race and ethnicity many Black female groups are seen as one. This manifests sometimes in an erasure of the perspectives (i.e. African, Caribbean, Afro-Latina, etc.) in the conversation of feminism for black women and often results in the framing of “feminism” being seen under one huge, objective umbrella propelling towards the same ends. In this essay, I will like to shed light on the different prerogatives and definitions of feminism presented by Mariama Ba and Audre Lorde who are two black feminists[1] from distinct regions of the world and compare and contrast their evaluations. I will then specifically argue how the black American feminism of Audre Lorde fails to incorporate the specific experiences of black Senegalese feminists of Mariama Ba and vice versa. Specifically drawing from Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter and Angela Davis’s “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role” Audre Lorde’s “I Am Your Sister”, in no way am I arguing that they should be viewed as mutually exclusive, but rather, that their differences and specific feminist demands should be acknowledged individually. In this way, I will emphasize the point that striving for equality calls for different appeals than striving for unity. 

Audre Lorde’s feminism is marked by hate and non-acceptance. Audre Lorde comes from the context of being black and lesbian in America. In her essay, “Black Woman Organizing Across Sexualities” from her book I Am Your Sister (1985), Lorde speaks out against homophobia in the black American community and calls for a recognition of her identity as an activist/reformer while also being a black lesbian and concurrently posits her essay as a feminist text. Nevertheless, she does not use the term “equality” even once in her essay. In this way, Lorde’s feminism is already distinct from the conventional sense. From here, while characterizing unity at the beginning of the article, she writes “as with all families, we sometimes find it difficult to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us” (Lorde 57). Here Lorde speaks to the difficulty of having differences. This is a tremendous barrier for her. She further writes in the same breath, “Black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk. We have many different faces, and we do not have to become each other to work together” (Lorde 57). This is Lorde’s moral of her article, which ideologically is similar to my thesis. However, Lorde’s thesis follows that the reason why it is possible for black American women, homophobic and gay, to work together is because they have been working together all along (Lorde 60). Nonetheless, the history that Lorde speaks to here shows that her participation was contingent on the fact that she suppressed her sexual identity. Additionally, she states that her acceptance in the community that matters the most to her is predicated on “mutual stretching” (Lorde 57). In this way, we find Lorde advocated for a need that simply surpasses gaining equal rights in a social/political atmosphere. Her efforts in this essay were toward a more communal ideal, where her community that she cares about can accept her identity fully.

We see this lack of recognition of identity being a consistent oppressor within American contexts. This makes unity a more palatable aim for Audre Lorde, but it is an aim that is foundationally different from the feminist demands of a Black woman from a different walk of like, for example, a West African Muslim woman whose identity is defined by her religion. Specifically, for Lorde, her feminist call is community-specific and especially concerned in the essay about working together. Frankly, gaining social and political rights is a separate task. There are many theories one can look to explain why this community separation exists. For the purposes of this essay, we can look at Angela Davis’s theory as a starting point. For Davis, before she was a black woman in America, she was an African slave. Angela Davis provides us with a good image of the experience of black women in America rooted in historical accounts. Her understanding cannot be separated from slavery (Davis 84). When Audre Lorde speaks about black women, she is directly talking to Black women in America. Although the social and political gains for black people globally were very important to her, such that she would dedicate her activism to it, her demand is different. In this way, she would agree that neither black women nor their feminism, are the same-even in America. Her needs are varied based on the vastness of our identity and thus require different focuses. 

From here, I look towards black Muslim women from the country of Senegal. Specifically, Mariama Ba who is considered one of the most highly regarded Senegalese female novelists. Her novel So Long A Letter is considered a classic as well as a window into African women and modernism. In her story, Mariama Ba gives the reader a glimpse into what post-colonial Senegalese culture is like. Although So Long A Letter is a fiction novel, it is readily accepted as somewhat autobiographical to the experiences of Ba herself. Further, throughout the book, we find a keen mission of the author to be authentic to her culture. Ba’s story is not about unity. She is specifically concerned with African traditions and how they may negatively cement women’s role in their society. This is why Aissatou, the sister of the narrator, is painted as the hero in this story. Aissatou is described as someone who went against tradition to seek her own liberation and security after her husband married a second wife. Aissatou left her husband, and through education, she was able to leave Senegal and begin an independent career. The main female characters in the story praise her for her strength. Ramatoulaye, the narrator recalls how “[Aissatou] had the surprising courage to take [her] life into [her] own hands” (Ba 33). Ramatoulaye consistently praises her sister throughout the course of the novel. And the heroism of Aissatou is also alluded to positively in the dialogue of Daba, her daughter. This suggests that Mariama Ba wanted to use this character to explain her feminist ideology. Not only does her actions serve as a foil for Ramatoulaye, but it also provides an image of the Ba’s feminist goals. The reader will find that Ba holds access to education, political organizing, and financial independence to high esteem. Yet Ba’s world exists within the context of cultural tradition and religion. Unlike Lorde, there is no mention from Ba of a need to reshift the ideology of the community, but rather focuses more on improving the quality of resources. Another foil to Ramatoulaye, but on the negative end of the spectrum, is Binetou, her husband's younger second wife. Binetou represents a woman who drops out of school and is financially dependent on others to survive (Ba 50). Ba makes clear value judgments on which character is to be more the more respected. Ba’s feminism focuses more on equality on a social/pollical scale. Ba does not require a “mutual stretching” but seemingly hopes to have systems like education be afforded to more women so that they can be independent like Aissatou.

It’s a small world, and maybe increased globalization will change how we view our human particularities in the future. Yet as it stands, feminism itself is not a stationary term. It is inclusive of a host of many different experiences, identities, and practices. Particularly, much of the tension lies in nomenclature, where understandings of race and ethnicity are already muddied and loosely defined. Unity is often conflated with equality, but they are two ideals that are necessary for ridding the world of violence and subjugation. Equality does not imply unity and neither does it work in the reverse. The two ideas can, or rather should, work in tandem, through in order to address humans’ individual concerns more directly they must also be viewed separately.

[1] I would like to note that in this essay when referring to “black feminist” I am not alluding to Black Feminism as a feminist discipline, but rather as someone who identifies as both black (ethnically and racially construed) and as a feminist.

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