As cliché as it sounds, I didn’t notice the power of being in community with other Black women until I found myself isolated from my culture.
For the first 22 years of my life, I was surrounded by folks who looked and shared a similar origin story to my own. We enjoyed similar TV shows, danced to the same types of music, and had parents with similar discipline styles. Back then, I could find 50 people in a 30-mile radius who could do my hair at a moment’s notice. There were moments I felt almost invisible. At that time in my life, I’d accepted the lie that there’s a limited amount of “excellence” for us to access. Judging myself by white standards of beauty and respectability politics convinced me that to be special, I had to shed the “liabilities” attached to Black womanhood.
When you’re a Black woman, there’s no shortage of criticism for the world to throw at you. Everyone has a suggestion for why systemic oppression is your fault. If you were this size, talked this way, had fewer than this many sexual partners, you’d be the “right” kind of Black woman. I wanted to be faultless in my oppression and I thought changing the way I presented myself would make that happen.
But I didn’t know that no matter how much I conformed, I would always be blamed for my shortcomings as a Black woman. Stupidly, I allowed those to pull me away from the community who knew and loved me.
There was a wealth of resources and diversity among that community. It would take moving away for me to appreciate what other Black women had to offer. And by the time I learned to appreciate the company of other Black women, there weren’t any around.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be surrounded by thousands of people but feel like there’s no room for you. It’s something I felt often after my move to the rural Midwest. The hairstylists didn’t understand my hair, so I felt and looked raggedy. It sounds silly, but even the songs I’d hear weren’t on beat to the music playing in my head. On the rare occasion I found a friend I enjoyed, they didn’t get my obscure cultural references.
It took a while to realize that what I was missing was the company of other Black women. No one else could fill that void.
White women share my gender but don’t understand what it’s like to have limited access to the promise of femininity because your race makes people perceive you as hard, overly strong, and without the space for authentic expression. They understand what it’s like to stand up against and occasionally sit comfortably with (cough, cough, 53 percent) the oppression of the patriarchy. But it’s different when you have to balance fighting for the liberation of your partners, fathers, and sons while you do what you can to free yourself.
Black men have grown up around Black women, and believe they understand our quirks. But that doesn’t always translate to love. The history between Black men and women is multi-dynamic. It’s the kind that’s only created when Black love was once a punishable offense. We’re still healing and misperceive each other often. Still, we regularly scapegoat each other for the downfalls of our community.
Having relationships with each of the above requires explanation. That’s hard to do when the world is on your shoulders and you don’t have the energy to explain. Black women speak my language without any accommodations. I live for that level of understanding.
Black women show up for me in ways that no one else has. We have ways of offering a cocktail of criticism and advice that’ll get you right when you feel trapped with despair. Elderly Black ladies have offered to feed me after meeting just once. Because they know they you can’t function in any capacity if you’re not fed. Black women pray over me when the world sees me as prey. They fix my hair and clothes when something’s out of place. They’ve held my kids and called to check on me when something about my expression “just didn’t look right.”
Black women are fountains of information, joy, and love. And they’ve loved on me in a way no other group ever has.
I remember the first time I saw another Black woman in the store. My heart swelled and my eyes watered. She gave me the easily missed smile and nod that Black women often do to acknowledge each other. It was the first time I felt seen in months.
I was determined to feel seen and understood, so I kept searching for other Black women. The more of us I saw, the more I felt like I belonged in this space.
Since then, I’ve developed relationships with a number of badass Black women — both locally and in my hometown. They get my constant struggle to be seen but not overbearing in my pursuit of success. They remind me that there’s always room for growth, but there will be many occasions that I’m not the problem. And they offer a safe space to present myself authentically.
Honestly, I really think it’s saved my life.
After realizing how helpful it is to be surrounded by the words of Black women, I made another change in my life. I’m reducing the amount of time I judge myself by exclusionary standards of white beauty, education, and money. I prioritize literature written by Black women, those with lives similar to mine, as well as those who have nothing in common with my life experiences. It’s allowed me to see myself in the context of others but also as an individual. Being in the company of other Black women doesn’t invalidate my uniqueness. It gives me a more accurate standard of comparison and it also gives me hope.
History is filled with Black women who were determined to make an impact in the world. We’ve kicked ass in politics, education, sports, and everything in between despite others attempts to limit us. We’re not perfect, and there are moments when we hurt each other. But we connect and support each other more than we let each other down.
I understand that I’m special because of the gifts my community has given me — and what I give back to my community. In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “I know why the caged bird sings,” and I’d be willing to bet it’s because she was filled with joy from being in the company of Black women.