25 years as a black woman: my view on black liberation

This is a recollection of my life so far as a black woman. I talk about my life as a black girl and then as a black woman. I also share what my life experiences have led me to conclude about black liberation and what I believe must be demanded from within the black community before true black liberation can be achieved. I am 25 years old in six months.

Why I wrote this post

I wrote this because at this moment, all over the world people who look like me are committing themselves to being unapologetic towards black liberation. The Black Lives Matter movement is designed to disrupt racial discrimination towards black people in every context, be that in relation to our police and criminal justice systems, employment and discrimination in the workplace, education and the teaching of black contributions to history and acknowledgment of the history of slavery, one of the greatest historical atrocities and something that was possible only because of the sophisticated construction of race: something that at its core determined that black people were inferior and lesser than white people. 

I am writing this many centuries after slavery has ended, examining my life and position as a black woman still facing a complicated existence as a result of these historical events. I live in England in the United Kingdom and live between Bristol in the South West and London in the South East. I have lived here since I was four and have never spent more than two months outside of this country since I arrived. 

From Botswana to Bristol

As a child first born in Botswana, I learned two things after I arrived in England. Firstly, that people would treat me differently because of what I look like and secondly, becoming ‘English’ was something I was going to have to learn in order to survive. I was four years old when I came to this realisation. It didn’t take me long after arriving in England to change my accent, completely transforming myself from speaking my mother tongue to exclusively speaking English. I excelled at school and advanced well beyond my peers with my reading and comprehension skills. I loved reading and would read about all sorts of people who had lives nothing like mine: books about Molly Moon, Judy Moody, the Famous Five and Harry Potter. These books taught me all about my new culture. 

Black by label

Being black was something I was first introduced to by my classmates in reception. One of my earliest memories in England sees me curled up in a ball on the playground whilst children stood around me making fun of me for how I looked and calling me names. Again, I was four years old. I learned very early on in my new life that my skin, hair and features made me different and as a result, I had to learn to accept that as a major part of how a lot of people were going to treat me. It meant that my friendships with the people closest to me were very genuine and sincere and I could trust they were my friend because it was generally considered ‘uncool’ to be friends with me. People would be pressured for being my friend or being kind to me. It was a popular game for boys to pretend they liked me and dare each other to say they did before running away from me laughing. 

The unwitting black spectacle 

The reality was that being myself caused very strong reactions in people. I never understood why but I understood it was my reality. I learned very much to learn to be myself in spite of my environment. I took the label of being ‘weird’ and contented myself with playing alone when needed and reading books to pass the time. As I said, I was four when I arrived in England and from the moment I touched the soil, England informed me that I was black. I realised that my white father and black mother made for a very hypervisible pairing. Imagine me, a little black girl holding hands with a white man and calling him ‘Dad’. It was such a spectacle in the tiny Cornish fishing village we lived in that years later when I returned as an 18 year old, it felt as if the entire village remembered me by name. 

Okay so I’m black, now what?

Learning I was black created unique challenges at school, but it was fairly uneventful information in respect of how I saw myself. I used to enjoy playing with the information and told my entire class that Nelson Mandela was my grandfather and Naomi Campbell my auntie. It was a little game I’d play – really I didn’t understand what being black meant yet but I knew that they wouldn’t tell the difference between me any other black person. I found it fascinating how they would believe that any random black celebrity I thought of was my relative or friend. It was ludicrous to the point of being hilarious – a little joke between me and myself to get myself through the lonelier times. 

Eventually the personal jokes weren’t enough to stop the pressure of being seen through the ‘black girl’ lens in my predominantly white community from having a very negative impact on my mental health. As much as I was my naturally confident and exuberant personality in public, I was struggling in a world where girls that looked like me were viewed through a very specific lens – something that meant I would deal with a fairly consistent pattern of being left out by friends, teased by my peers and bullied so savagely I would have thoughts of permanently harming myself.

It wasn’t until I was 18 that I would go on my first real date and even then, my predominately white Sixth Form bullied the one guy that had shown me interest before that. That was a theme that had taken place throughout secondary school and that would follow me to university. It was so bad that one guy at university was ‘banned’ from a group chat with his friends because a false rumour was spread that him and I had hooked up. 

Born blessed, but stressed by society

Hiding myself and being shy didn’t come naturally to me. What did come naturally to me was performing and singing and so music became my entire universe. From the moment that I could stand and talk I was performing. It just came to me without trying. I would put on one woman shows for my family when I was two years old. 

There was always an internal tension between how the external world viewed me (just another ‘black’ girl) but how I viewed myself whilst alone in my bedroom. I may as well have been Beyonce, Kelly, Michelle, Rihanna, Mya, Mariah, Mary J, Cassie, Ashanti, Amerie, Tweet or any of the other black women I would watch religiously and whose dance routines I would flawlessly emulate every Saturday morning on MTV Bass. 

In my world, I am Queen

I never really understood the energy my little world (which consisted of school and my local area) had for me. I faced racism everywhere I went: from the girls at ballet bullying me for how my hair looked, to the point that I quit. To the ‘Brown Owl’ at Brownies – a fully grown woman who bullied me so badly I quit that too. All of this was juxtaposed against my feeling that if I could just be in an environment where looking the way I did wasn’t seen as a negative or ugly thing then I would be a fucking star. 

I didn’t want to live in my own universe – but the way it worked out is that I was more accepted in the music I would play over and over again than by most of the people who met me in real life. It’s why music by black women means so much to me that I would genuinely fight you over it. You are going to have to pry my Nicki Minaj stan card from my cold dead hands before you hear me say a bad word about her music. It has been too fundamental, too vital to who I am and my story. When it felt like the entire world saw me as the ugly, forgotten person, these women saw me as I saw myself: a superstar, with the world as her oyster and men who worshipped the ground she walked on. 

Me being a die hard Nicki Minaj Stan

Dating black men – lessons I had to learn through trauma

It is that latter point that has brought me new challenges in the years since I transitioned from being a black girl to becoming a black woman. If I am going to be truly candid (why not, this is my blog after all) one of the greatest disappointments in the transition to becoming a black woman has been my inability to have non-traumatic romantic relationships with black men. 

With the knowledge of hindsight – I didn’t need to wait for anyone else until I felt beautiful and I genuinely believe I am the baddest bitch alive. This is how I felt then, and an explanation of the complicated relationship I have with the men who (I was sometimes ashamed to admit) I felt should have claimed and protected me first but in reality have devalued and exposed me to deeply disturbing emotional trauma. After seeing how many black women had experiences that were eerily similar to all of mine, I came to some conclusions on what barrier this forms for black liberation.

A Black girl on campus

When I went to university it was a huge turning point in my life – it was the first place I wasn’t going to be the only black girl in the room. This new environment brought me into contact with a new type of person I had never met before then: black boys. Suddenly I didn’t have to look at the music videos, I actually saw men who looked like me in real life. I was so excited to finally exist in a space where my black was beautiful. I relished in seeing so many beautiful black women on campus and thought that I could finally just be great.

However, there was a snag. It seemed that my days of feeling last picked were set to continue. I had already experienced general romantic rejection and ridicule from non-black boys so experiencing the same at university wasn’t that huge to me. However, a new and much more painful realisation was that due to a range of socialised dating preferences amongst men who looked like me, I was not treated the way I imagined that I would be by any of them. I quickly learned that it would not be on campus that I would feel that kind of beautiful that I had imagined I would feel with someone who shared my dark skin, my features and my experience of the world. 

Later, I would raise this issue with a former boyfriend who attended university with me but I dated after graduation. He told me that he thought that I ‘hated’ him at university and was too prestige for him. There’s a lot to unpack from those remarks but for now I’ll settle on how this shows that through no fault of our own, black women are viewed through a very complicated lens by the men that look like us for reasons I expand more upon below.

Graduation from Warwick University, 2017

Black men and black women are both going through some things

As my best friend pointed out to me in a later conversation, many of these black men were coming from a similar position as I: communities where they were one of the few or the only person that looked like they did. I understand and empathise with that, but nonetheless, seeing boys who looked like me be more prepared to date anyone who didn’t look like me (whether it was intentional or not) was traumatic and did very little for my self esteem.

From the point that I arrived at university, any dream I had of meeting my equal, the person who was me but in male form was going to have to be put firmly on hold. Black men are not monoliths and many of them are seriously dealing with a lot of shit that will become a black woman’s problem if she doesn’t maintain high standards and zero tolerance for childish behaviour. I learned that one the hard way. It wasn’t until many years after graduation that I would learn that many black men (and we can disagree over the extent to which they can be blamed for this) are unable to see black women as anything other than vessels to exercise their own confusion and insecurity over themselves and their position in the world as a black man. They aren’t always in the right place to care for and nurture a relationship with a black woman.

A very specific Black guilt

Given my story, having to swallow the reality that a relationship with a black man was not likely to come easily to me was a heartbreaking conclusion to come to. I did my best to avoid this conclusion and forced myself through shitty relationships, exposing myself to a great deal of trauma, suffering and heartbreak before I eventually came to terms with it.

I understand now that this came from a place of guilt: as a black woman I felt a sense of duty and obligation to love and protect black men, especially the ones I was romantically involved with. Like many black women throughout history, I felt a compulsion to throw myself on the sword for black men. I cared for my black boyfriends with total emotional, mental and physical devotion. All of this came at the expense of myself and very little, if any, of this devotion was returned.

Pause: is it just because I’m ugly?

I want to take a moment here to acknowledge that it has taken a very long time for me to speak about this because of the fear that maybe black men didn’t check for me because I just wasn’t attractive. It didn’t help that so much of what we consider to be popular black culture actively promotes an image of women who look like me being less desirable and less valuable to a black man’s perceived social status. Black male culture fawns over women who are lighter skinned and racially ambiguous. It means that black men prize and praise white or lighter skinned women who synthetically appropriate the same black features that have led me to be looked down upon. Those men (who share those same features with me) wouldn’t look at me twice.

However, being that I have the gift of eyesight (and Nicki Minaj) I am able to see how much of a beautiful person I am and my community around me have helped me to remember that this isn’t just an external beauty. Through my community online and offline I have been reminded of my immense worth and value. I want to thank and show gratitude for my community of women of all races and cultures for holding me up and refusing to allow the complicated feeling of rejection from black men in England to make me turn on myself. Constantly they have been there to remind me that I am in fact the prize and The Slumflower may as well have been my best friend in the times that she took care of my spirit and self worth as a black woman with her threads on Twitter and her books What a time to be alone and How to get over a boy. A separate conversation for another day is the massive debt that black men and black women owe her.

Embracing my life as a black woman and fighting for the value of black lives 

As I approach my 25th year as a black woman, I find myself thinking about how I want to spend the last five years of my twenties and considering what kind of long-term plans I want to make. I also find myself braced to fight harder than I ever have before for the right for myself and other people who look exactly like me to live lives free from discrimination and harassment. I am now fighting for and alongside people who I feel a strong sense of community with because we are all black and although we may not have the exact same lives, we still face a common oppression. It’s enough commonality for me to see myself in Belly Mujinga, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and every other black person who has their life stolen from them because of racism. It could be me, it might as well be me for that is how hard I fight for them. 

One difficult realisation I have come to is that no matter how men that look like me have treated me, I will not stop fighting for a black liberation that sees them at their fullest and maximum potential. What frightens me is that they don’t wish the same for black women or at least haven’t considered how they actively threaten the social and emotional safety and wellbeing of black women.

Whilst I fully support black women dating men from any background and will defend their right to do so against any black people who contend that they are ‘betraying’ black men or the black race, I nonetheless believe that until black men have a universal respect and value for black women (not least the ones that they are romantically involved with) black liberation will always be out of reach. I simply do not believe that it is possible for black men to disrespect and mistreat women who look like them if they truly love themselves. Black men must be committed to creating a world where black women live free from the violence of patriarchy and that demands a full and critical examination of themselves and their attitudes and behaviours towards black women. 

My short life as a Black woman has shown me that Black women deserve agape love 

Black women deserve (and ought to demand) a love rooted in deep respect and value for their position at the bottom of the totem pole in a racist and patriarchal society. That’s not to say that’s where black women belong. To the contrary, I believe black women are invariably the pillars of their families and communities and are often going far beyond what they need to in order to serve and meet the needs of others. Many of us owe absolutely everything to black women and I do not want it to appear as if I believe that black women deserve to be in the position that so many people in society place them in.

An extract from ‘How to get over a boy’ a vital book for black women who date black men

I sincerely believe that a major element of true black liberation is healing the trauma bonds that black men and women share and perpetuate in their romantic and platonic relationships with each other. Black love is a term often used on Twitter and Instagram, but more time needs to be spent understanding the serious amount of emotional work that goes into sustaining positive and healthy relationships between black men and women. In short, we are both dealing with a lot of shit and are going to have to work hard to make it work with each other. Not just for the sake of ourselves as individuals, but for the wider goal of bringing healing and prosperity to the black community in all its emanations across the world.

I want to make clear that although I am speaking from the position of a heterosexual cisgender woman, I don’t believe that I am the only black woman that black men need to respect. Black trans women and queer black women deserve the same respect from black men and it is equally as vital to a full and complete black liberation.

The critical piece of black liberation? 

I want to conclude this point on black liberation by sharing two videos: first, a video of John Boyega at the Black Lives Matter protests in London, June 2020. Second, a video of a conversation between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin recorded in London in 1971. 50 years lie between these two video clips and yet the message is the same: black men need to show up for black women in order for true black liberation to be achieved. 

John Boyega, London (2020)
Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin in conversation, London (1971)

Feeling passionate, but wary

To summarise how I am feeling, as I approach 25 I am passionate but wary about my position in the world as a black woman. I want to know that black men are on our side, that they value women like me and they understand their role in shielding us from being treated as last in a racist patriarchy. This blog post can’t possibly capture the nuances of this argument in full, but I hope for whoever reads this it reaches you and that my story can bring you clarity over your own.

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