A PanAfricanist Queer Womanist Collective
If there is one thing that I love to do it’s organize things. There is something wonderfully joyous about clothes that are sorted according to their colours, shoes organized by heel height and e-mails that are slotted into descriptive categories and archived. It’s systematic. It’s blissful! It’s neat, and to me neat means manageable. I love neat like I love Tupperware, shelves and label makers. The problem with this ritualistic tidiness is that it doesn’t translate so well in the real world. People are by their very nature inconsistent and chaotic yet for some reason we often refuse to acknowledge that. Nowhere -in my experience- is there more labeling and identity policing than in the Queer Community.
If one takes a glimpse into the “not-so-conforming” Black Woman space one will find a mess of labels and rituals. There is very little freedom to maneuver because, oftentimes, you are exiled to a box that defines your mannerisms, behavior, speech, style and the people you date. What makes even less sense is that the labels used are usually not internally defined. Often people appropriate terms like “butch”, “femme” and “stud” (to name a few) from external Queer cultural movements and then try replicate those roles and ideas within the African context, which just doesn’t work. This is not a criticism of hybridity nor is it trying to detract from the importance of being cosmopolitan. It can’t be that because, in my opinion, the beauty of cultures lies at their intersections and where they have their meanings reconstructed by the individual. The problem is appropriation and the imposition of ways of being (that emerged outside of ones context) onto oneself and others. It’s ok to choose your own label and identity but it’s not ok to label others.
I remember being on a date with a woman when she made a comment like “you femmes have it easy”; it stopped me dead in my tracks. At the time I didn’t quite have the language to tell her my thoughts on the subject other than to say “uh… I don’t like labels, it’s just not something I do but I will call myself African”. In retrospect, after countless accusations about my gender identity and sexual preferences, I realize that statements like that are inherently selfish. It is selfish to tell people who and what they are based on some measure that you have chosen for yourself. It doesn’t matter how “powerful” or “subversive” those identities are in theory because at the end of the day your intellectual appreciation of something does not justify limiting the content of another person for the purposes of some academic exercise. It’s patronizing. Finding freedom in presenting a certain way or living a particular lifestyle does not mean that that freedom will express itself in the same ways for other people. To some people their sexuality and gender is everything to them. While other people cherish their art, spirituality, pets and/or family.
African women are complicated in that way. How we live and love is complicated. Our politics and ideals are woven into the way we live and not because of an adherence to some ideology. There are numerous pieces written about “fat shaming” and body politics, and these are important, but other people actually live body affirmation. They carry their small breasts and muscular arms with pride and are quick to appreciate the beauty in a short round woman with a full belly and child-worn breasts. They acknowledge womanhood in its various forms and do not need words like feminism, queer-theory, discourse and praxis to do so. They do not need to have read pages upon pages about the power of womanhood because they live Black Womanhood. They head households, love their partners, bleed their souls into their creations, appreciate the power of female friendships and do this all while being driven by something internal and unregulated by the outside world.
I sometimes wonder whether it is this fundamental understanding of our womanhood that creates a sense of cohesion amongst us. At almost all Black Women gatherings one will find that sexual orientation and gender identity are not the common denominators. There have been numerous times where I was in mixed company- in the sense that we didn’t call ourselves the same things or live the same lifestyles. There would be women snuggling their girlfriends in one corner, engaged women, man-eaters, virgins, masculine women, the odd “down for whatever” girl and decidedly fluid women all in one room politicking and relating, just because. This is something that I think we need to work hard at nurturing and maintaining. African Women’s spaces should not become exclusive clubs where people only gain access by being “radical” or well versed in anything other than living life in this skin, at this time through the various bodies that we possess.
In light of all of this the only thing that should make African Women’s stories matter to HOLAA! is love. Love of self. Love of others. Love of Women. Love of Africa. That is what it is about after all. African Women giving insight into their lives through their art.
As an entity we have had to go through some growth. HOLAA! was born because we wanted to create a space that would start dialogues between African Women around various issues and also have their experiences of Africanness and Womaness told through their own words. About a year and some change ago the site was started and while the acronym was still HOLAA! we went by a slightly narrower name than the Hub of Loving Action Africa. It was all well and dandy to us because while some members of the team identified as lesbians; the other members thought that labels were stupid anyway so why not misuse a word that had mostly nothing to with who we were as African Women?
Then we really thought about it and realized that although the labels we give aren’t all that important, we must still be careful about giving them in the first place. People know themselves and it’s up to them to tell us who they are. Increasingly African Women are more open about the fluidity in their being(s) so it is important to legitimize that fluidity. Nesting people’s “selfness” under rigidly defined labels isn’t cool and seems so counter intuitive. There are people who are not sexually attracted to other people at all. There are also people who only find masculinity or femininity attractive and only in certain bodies. If one considers how deeply attraction and gender are rooted in the individual then it’s easy to see that it is not easy at all. It is complicated and not something that should confined within hard lines. People are not herbs, books or shoes that can be collected, measured up and sorted. Identity necessarily changes and no matter how contradictory the people you have been are, they make sense in your story.
Culture makes things difficult for us because there is an archetype of who “The African Woman” is. People would describe her as strong, patient, independent, traditional, maternal, conformist, long-suffering, soulful and protective. Her life is not her own it belongs to her family, community, spouse and/or children. Think about it for a second… we all know who she is because she is the woman that lies in the cradle of our conscience and makes us wonder why we like to watch porn, don’t believe in monogamy, make love to other women (or not), feel masculine (or not) and/ or do not want kids. All of us are familiar with her yet we also know that there are problems with who she is. She is the ideal but that doesn’t make her perfect. Nearly all of us know that we are not SHE and many more of us do not want to be her. Still we never fully escape because her voice is what has taught us how to understand ourselves.
However in spite of this many of us have figured out that there are numerous ways of being a woman and many more ways of living up to the ideal. Since the nature of our self exploration(s) is very much determined by our societies, what makes us outliers will be relative. In some cases it may be a person’s gender presentation and in others it could be the fact that they have piercings, tattoos and love Kate Bush. This state of being “not-quite-” or “not-so-” or “non-conforming” is what HOLAA! understands Queer to be. In our understanding African Women do not have to be “LBGTQI-LMNOP-WHOCARES” in order to be Queer, they just have to be living their lives according to an unchartered path and renegotiating what Afrikan Womanhood means through the ways in which they explore themselves. Rigidity is pretty boring and we have no time for it. We have no time for identity policing, exclusion or arbitrarily determining who and what is Queer enough. Labels are limiting. HOLAA! is Post-Gay and Womanist at its very core. It’s about great African Women. So stayz doin’ you and don’t be sorry because you owe your existence to no one.
*These are a few of the people who we would like to thank for helping HOLAA! grow:
Eccentric Yoruba for the support and articles written and for being one of first to show love. And for the making people think with your writing.
Dynamic Africa for the feature that first made us feel like we had actually done something worth noting.
Nana Darkoa for giving us that much needed advice at the OSISA Open Forum Conference about how to grow a baby blog into something people will read. The love that has followed after will always be appreciated.
Spectra Speaks for the meeting and advice that helped us start getting a focus and a vision in terms of what we wanted HOLAA! to be. And for all the Twitter love in the beginning.
Lara Aucamp who helped us get on that SOCIAL MEDIA! The digital wisdom there is astounding and is the only reason that HOLAA! Comes at you all day…everyday with photos love and insanity and awesome. She showed us the sacred way. We may one day share the secrets. For cash. And wine.
Dyke Road for replying that initial email and always having our back digitally (good looking out!)
Jacqui the Poet for an amazing first Pride event. A coup if ever there was one.
Dr. Zethu Matebeni for all the knowledge you have shared and for always having time to guide us when we are trying to find our feet.
All the contributors. We are so blessed because it would take AGES to list by name everyone who has written or wanted to write. But know we are just TOO grateful.