I am so pleased to welcome my second guest blogger, Asha French! She is a brilliant poet and literary critic.
Because we’re both Black feminists, for her first post, I asked Asha to focus on some aspect of the history of feminism for Black History Month. She decided to write on The Bridge Called My Back.
No, this is not a “Black book,” per se, but rather a multicultural collection of writings by Native American, Latina, Chicana, and African American feminists. But this is my blog, so I get to “Afropalooza” the rules for Black History Month! (Remember, it’s a verb as well as a noun!)
I know you will love Asha’s writing as much as I do!
Amor et Pax,
This Bridge, My Mother
……..by Asha French
This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherrie Morega and Gloria Anzuldua, is one of the most cited feminist texts by women of color, best known for its incorporation of multiple voices: scholars, poets, artists, and home-grown activists are given equal weight in this book that is more concerned with truth than jargon. For many of the writers, mothering is a bridge between women, the planks that connect the world that is to the world that should be.
Although mothering is not the central concern of the collection, authors trace the roots of their feminisms through their motherliness, to the first women to touch American soil, the first to experience the matrixes of classism, racism, and sexism that existed long before their forced or chosen migrations. They write about the tensions of this mothering bridge– the ways their mothers sometimes perpetuated sexism by preparing their daughters for the world as it was– but they also write about the tools their mothers gave them to imagine and shape the world as it should be. Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the original publication of This Bridge. It was also the thirtieth year since I made a bridge of my mother, and a little over a year has passed since my daughter made a bridge of me.
In reading the pages of This Bridge, I saw my mother clearly for the first time. For years, I have been content with my distortions, content to remember her wild-eyed and belt swinging, her full lips pursed in a thin, grim line. I was content to remember her most frequent admonition to my brothers and me, “You will respect me in my house” and the closed door when I did not. I’d traced my self-loathing to her disciplinary approach, the one that generations of mothers adopted to prepare their children to survive a racist America. She was the daughter and granddaughter of women who’d plucked switches from branches that could potentially bear black bodies. Born in the generation of couch therapy and Dr. Spock, I felt compelled to judge them all.
I wasn’t alone in Mama-blaming. Since Patrick Moynihan’s first invitation, mama-bashing has been the response to decontextualized, black “pathology.” It has been the conditioned response of pundits, intellectuals, and trained psychotherapists. (“Moynihan and Freud walk into a bar…”). Mothers are even blamed under the pretense of absent father blaming (see all of the anti-single mother campaigns). It is always easier to blame Mama than to look at the systems of oppression that created her.
This Bridge Called My Back gave me that vantage point- a way to see my mother as a connection—a vertical line connecting her to systems of class, gender, and racial oppression; a horizontal line connecting her to her generations, past and future.
In “La Guera,” Cherrie Moraga writes about the importance of these lines in the development of her own identity. She remembers her mother’s life of labor, that her mother was “pulled out of school at the ages of five, seven, nine, and eleven to work in the fields,” and that she “[walked] home alone at 3 a.m., only to turn all of her salary and tips over to her mother, who was pregnant again” (24).
Max Wolf Valerio writes about the cultural clashes she had with her mother, who spoke and lived Blackfoot while she was westernized in the white school. She remembered dismissing her mother’s story about a visiting spirit, “I say, ‘My, that’s something weird.’ Weird?… A shadow flits across my mother’s eyes… only a non-Indian would say that.” (43).
Aurora Levins Morales remembers the advice that her grandmother, aunt, and great aunts gave her about sex and men. They made sex something profane, something that a woman had to “lie down” and bear, “because there’s no escape.” She writes, “And yet, I tell you, I love those women for facing up to the ugliness there. No romance, no roses and moonlight and pure love. You say pure love to one of these women and they snort and ask you what the man has between his legs and is it pure?” (54).
Merle Woo, in “Letter to Ma,” walks us through the steps to see her mother as a third world woman in America, not totally determined by her social conditions, but also not disaffected by them. She acknowledges her mother’s own sexism, interrogates her mother’s distrust of feminism, and thanks her for giving her the resources she has to live life on her own terms, “Because of your life, because of the physical security you have given me… I saw myself as having worth; now that I begin to love myself more, see our potential, and fight for just that kind of social change that will affirm me, my race, my sex, my heritage. And while I affirm myself, Ma, I affirm you” (157).
In all of these examples and others, I recognize the woman who loved me enough to raise me, give me pieces of her story and trust my discernment to choose which parts are empowering, which parts cautionary.
Like Moraga, I recognize my mother’s life of labor to which she at times felt both beholden and disconnected. She was just two generations removed from forced labor, only the third generation in her family of women who actually had legal rights to their children (although the prison industrial complex also challenges those).
Like Valerio, I remember the moments in which the cultural gaps were painfully clear between my mother and me, though we were just one generation apart. She’d grown up in the generation of racial uplift, in which assimilation was a defense against denied humanity. I’d grown up in the post- Black Aesthetic Movement, Afrocentric era and, emboldened as I was by the Swahili name she’d given me, declared my right to “natural” hair in the fifth grade.
Like Morales, I remember and appreciate much of the gendered advice that was reflective of her upbringing and experiences with men. I replay her cryptic counsel my freshman year, when a boyfriend denied me the option of consent– “You can’t play with fire and not get burned.” I know now that rape culture creates perpetrators and ministers of its gospel. I no longer condemn her for her ordination.
Like Woo, I am still grateful for the opportunities my mother afforded me, for the choices she made to prepare me for the world she knew. I have a better appreciation for her complexity. My mother taught me the power of the written word; although a wrong look could send her to the belt closet, I was never punished for the content of the letters I slipped under her door.
She is the woman who sometimes silenced me, but also told me to speak up when I dared to defy her authority. She was open palm to face and gentle, back hand to a warm forehead. I believe that she has always tried to be her best self. She taught me to dream, to question, to wonder, to read.
My mother doesn’t see herself in my feminism, but I know it is her face I have always been chasing. Her model of grown womanhood is a dress I still can’t fit, but I wear it anyway, squaring my shoulders to carry its weight.
Asha French is a poet and literary critic. She holds degrees from Howard University and Indiana University and currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University.