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.