Resisting working ourselves to the bone: for black girls who’ve considered politics when being strong isn’t enough

Resisting working ourselves to the bone: for black girls who’ve considered politics when being strong isn’t enough

By: Siphokazi Magadla*

In the past few weeks I have been raving to several friends on email, whatsapp, BBM, facebook and even at random dinner conversations about Melissa Harris-Perry’s book “Sister Citizen: shame, stereotypes, and black women in America/for colored girls who’ve considered politics when being strong isn’t enough” (2011). In this ambitious project Harris-Perry examines what it means to ‘do’ the work of citizenship within a black female body. She makes the claim that at the core of our work as citizens is a “struggle for recognition” which is a “nexus of human identity and national identity”. She then argues that because black women in America are located in the bottom of the social ladder (the subaltern) – therefore misrecognised, they provide an important site for study because “we gain important insight into how citizens yearn for and work toward recognition”. Fundamental to Harris-Perry’s claim is that the “internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political…to understand black women as political actors we must explore how intersecting disadvantages based on race, gender, class, and sexuality influence how these women feel and think”.

In the American context Harris-Perry argues that the symbol of the all capable ‘strong black woman’ emerged as a strategy by black women to resist the persistent misrecognition by showing that through their sheer personal strengths, these women are able to cultivate successful families in spite of the lack of symbolic and resource support of the state. The ‘strong black woman’ symbolic of the Madea phenomenon common in some of Tyler Perry movies emerges as “motivated, hardworking breadwinners who suppress their emotional needs while anticipating those of others”.

I thought deeply about the personal and political implications of this image lately as I have been attempting to make sense of the weight of the memory of my paternal grandmother who recently passed on. My grandmother raised eight children on her own and she practically raised all of her grandchildren including me. The last time I saw her was end of June after she had been very sick, the towering fast moving woman had been betrayed by her body for the past three years as she could no longer walk. It was not surprising to me that as she grew older her bones failed her because it seemed to me that she had worked herself to the bone.

My image of her was always of a woman on the move: at sunrise she would already be up and down, in the morning working the fields then before you know it she would be already back with one of the grand children on her back busy preparing something to eat. Everyone who spoke of her from her church group, neighbors, relatives and in laws said the same thing: ‘this woman knew hard work!’. Her last born was so overwhelmed with emotion the only thing she could say at the vigil was that, ‘I am proud to have had her as a mother; she taught us how to stand for ourselves’. Despite raising her children in apartheid South Africa she managed to raise a family with children who have been able to stand for themselves in the world.

What Harris-Perry’s project has forced me to do is to appreciate what it meant for my grandmother to carry such a heavy weight of having to be everyone’s salvation in difficult political and economic times. It seems like such a small thing, but I don’t recall ever seeing my grandmother cry. While everyone has been allowed moments of personal collapse, she stood as the symbol of resilience in all the adversity. I never thought about her “internal, psychological, emotional” needs as an individual in the family. I did not realize what it must have meant for her to carry the weight of the state which refused to recognize the important political work she was doing as a citizen raising generations of hard working citizens. Harris-Perry indicates that this responsibility of having to have “super strength” often leaves many black women living with constant emotional anxiety and with greater worse physical health than other race and gender groups.

In post-apartheid South Africa these women are increasingly moving away from the rural areas, and can be found heading homes in our notorious informal shack dweller settlements. According to Mark Hunter’s “Love in the time of AIDS: inequality, gender, and rights in South Africa” (2010), in order to understand inequality and gender relations we need to examine the “changing political economy and geography of intimacy” in South Africa. Unlike my grandmother who maintained her family through agriculture, many of these women are working in the underpaying informal sector employment while often also raising families on their own. Hunter argues that despite these shifting geographies, the site of much public discourse continues to fixate on the economic and emotional challenges faced by the migrant male labourer that is still perceived as the prime symbol of unchanging inequality.

This is despite the evidence that black women make the majority of the unemployed and the under employed as indicated by the 2011 Census. So while by all means it is important to address the inhumane conditions in the mine industry, I caution that we must not lose sight of the female migrant labourer by expecting her to contribute to the nation building project without recognizing the material and psychological demands that come with ‘doing citizenship’ in a country that does not recognize women’s daily activities as connected to the fate of the nation. In “Conversations with my sons and daughters” (2012), Mamphela Ramphele argues that there is a disconnect in South Africa between “doing” and “being”. She argues that the “doing has overtaken the being”. Like Harris-Perry, she suggests that our claims as “sovereigns” need to resist reducing citizenship to the simply process of “doing”. My grandmother taught us that women and men must wake up and ‘do’ what needs to be done to feed the children. For my generation, I wish that we will be able to demand a politics that allows the “doing” and ‘being” instead of obscuring “endurance as natural” as Harris-Perry argues.

*Siphokazi Magadla is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.

 

Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

5 Responses to Resisting working ourselves to the bone: for black girls who’ve considered politics when being strong isn’t enough

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother, and OUR mothers Siphokazi. I might not know your grandmother, but I definitely know the woman and women you describe in this piece!

    This was the first year as an adult that I’ve spent such a long period of time at home with my parents in the rural areas! Admittedly, I never had a deep appreciation for the work that black women do, or rather thought deeply about the toll it must take on them. It was not until about three months ago when I was in morning taxi to town that I had an epiphany and realized I was surrounded ONLY by older women, with babies on their backs that clearly were not theirs (most on the way to the clinic). I wondered to myself where the fathers were? Where the parents of these children (who are I presumed were the daughters and sons of these women).

    I was asking my mother just the other day: “when will you ever rest?”. Despite being retired, she is working harder than ever, at 5am she’s up preparing my brothers son for school and later on helping with homework, cooking and cleaning. The narrative is the same as in most cases: brother makes a baby he can’t look after and the paternal mother has to step in/take responsibility for sons mis-doings/irresponsible behavior. This is a trend I’ve noticed amongst many of the women here (in Lady Frere), who despite tired bones, still carry the load of not only the years of raising their own children, but also often find themselves having to look after their grandchildren for one reason or another.

    Also relate to when you say “I did not realize what it must have meant for her to carry the weight of the state which refused to recognize the important political work she was doing as a citizen raising generations of hard working citizens.”

    Couldn’t help but remember Zuma’s controversial remarks on ‘People of the South’ about women needing to get married because it prepared them for motherhood. It would help in the SA context if we had a president who took seriously the important work of women that as you correctly say “we must not lose sight of the female migrant labourer by expecting her to contribute to the nation building project without recognizing the material and psychological demands that come with ‘doing citizenship’ in a country that does not recognize women’s daily activities as connected to the fate of the nation.”

    Important piece!

  2. Thank you Gcobani for this wonderful comment. I chose not to even engage Jacob Zuma’s very troubling view of women’s work. It’s perplexing to say the least. I have a friend who neither wants to merry nor have children (you might know her ); clearly in Zuma’s eyes she would not qualify as a proper woman with “proper training”. Yet often I’m amazed at how much of her budget involves paying school fees for her nieces and nephews and doing this and that for her brother and sisters. A very narrow understanding of family as described by the Green Paper on Family immediately renders her contribution invisible.

    In a way I am already encouraged because I can foresee that my mother’s old age will be less daunting than her mother in-law and her own mothers. Even though she already has two grandchildren from the “mis-doings/irresponsible behaviour” of her son, with my insistence and that of her friends, I see that she is allowing herself more time to just “be” instead of playing ‘superwoman’. With the new categories from “strong black woman” to the new age “independent woman”, I hope that many of us will challenge these stereotypes which project false power (super strength) on us while they leave us sicker and more depressed!

  3. To echo Gcobani’s words, this is a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. Her legacy is that of hard work, endurance and moving on with each day; all these are important qualities needed for building a life of dignity, where one’s humanity is affirmed without going through a major struggle for recognition.

    As black women, we must indeed resist working ourselves to the bone, but we certainly need to take to heart the legacy left by your grandmother and many other women in her league. I know you are advocating for getting the balance right between doing and being, but I really thought I should stress the importance of this legacy. We really need to press on with the hard work lest we create a problem where some over resist and instead of load balancing we end up shift all of the burden…..

  4. This is a tribute not only to your grandmother but to all Black women in South Africa who come from “HISTORICALLY” disadvantaged communities. Thanks to the Writer.

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