The Womanist Way of Loving the Self

Womanist as defined by Alice Walker:

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, 1983: Harcourt, Brace & Howe.

Womanist

1. From womanish. (Opp. Of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color.  From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman.  Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.  Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one.  Interested in grown-up doings.  Acting grown up.  Being grown up.  Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.”  Responsible.  In charge.  Serious.

2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or non sexually.  Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.  Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.  Traditionally, universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige, and black?”  :”Well, you know colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.”  Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.”  Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.

3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon.  Loves the Spirit.  Loves love and food and roundness.  Loves struggle.  Loves the Folk.  Loves herself.  Regardless.

4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

Several years ago, I resigned from a tenure-track job at my alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. It was a very difficult but important decision and I wasn’t sure how I would make it, especially financially. Needless to say, I survived, and in hindsight I truly believe that I made the right decision, for me.

Being true to yourself is never an easy task. Today, I am very grateful for the ones who were there for me and who cheered me on when I made the hard decisions. Their open mindedness, positivity, and sometimes their overwhelming support brightened my days and gave me hope. On the other hand, it was my critics and even my “haters” who lit a fire under me; and thus, they were the ones who have enabled me to know what it is to live my life, my way.

The truth is: I could not have made it to where I am today, be the woman I am today, without both groups of people in my life. Those who loved me and supported me taught me how to have compassion and patience with myself; and, those who questioned, criticized, and some who eventually left or abandoned me (including one wanna-be pimp) taught me how to love myself regardless of what others might think, say or do. Because of them, all of them, I am learning what it means to love myself the womanist way: regardless.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

On the Spelling of My Name and the Seeds of Change

I have been spelling my name in lowercase letters for at least a decade; come to think about it, it has probably been closer to two decades than it is to one. All these years, embracing the spelling of my name has been my signature, my trademark. Looking back, I was first inspired to modify the spelling and thus the visualization of my name on papers and publications to lowercase letters because of bell hooks. Her critical thoughts and writings on feminism, love, men, power and many other issues had such a profound impact upon me that I decided to put my newly recognized consciousness out in public – and as a passive but powerful way of identifying with feminism as a way of thinking and being. At the time, I must admit, I really did not realize the power of what I was doing.

Recently, I was “advised” by someone associated with an academic organization that I needed to use the uppercase A and the uppercase F if I anticipated my name being publicized or in print. This directive, made by a white woman (who I knew formerly and casually) did not sit well with me. And that it came via email didn’t help matters either. Initially, I thought, was this advice or a threat? I wondered why she felt the need to tell me what to do with my own name. And, I wondered what was coming next. Maybe, I imagined, she would feel familiar or superior enough to me to tell me what to wear or where to sit. Since she knew of me from academic circles, it baffled me that she needed or wanted to tell me what to do with my own name; as if somehow she thought that I did not know. Of course, I responded to her just as boldly and confidently as she came to me, but I also thought that perhaps it is time for a blog on the spelling of my name, just in case others were having similar thoughts or urges.

First, the spelling of my name is mine, all mine. I don’t expect others to use lowercase letters to spell my name. But, every chance that I get to control the look (and feel) of my name, I use lowercase letters. One of the first public experiences that I had with this was in Springfield, Massachusetts. I had just given a lecture at what is now the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and a local newspaper reporter asked me how to spell my name. In addition to getting the spelling correct, I also asked if the “A” and the “F” could be written in lowercase. Much to my surprise, and at least for that particular local journalist, using lowercase letters was not a problem, and so he published it as I requested. Seeing my name published in the local newspaper the next day in lowercase letters was very important and very powerful. It was an affirmation of my own identity, and it was a declaration, one that let other people know – in a very public or political way – that the spelling of my name was and is ultimately up to me.

Aside from the”bell hooksian” influence on the spelling of my name, there are a few reasons that I have continued to spell my name in lowercase letters. The first is that spelling my name in lowercase letter is a visual reminder to me of all the seemingly insignificant things that I did in life to get to where I am today. By no means do I think that I have done all that I can do, but I have accomplished a lot. I have also had the awesome privilege of traveling alone in and out of this country and taking charge of my own future or destiny. Sometimes, when I look back at those little things, including the places where I lived or worked, I am blown away. I have been through many ups, downs, stops and starts, and, of course, I did not get there all alone, but seeing my name in smallcase letters always brings me to a deeper appreciation  of my life’s journey and of the power that I have because of that journey.

Another reason that I spell my name in lowercase letters is related to the connection between the personal and the political. The more that I spelled my name in lowercase letters in print, the more that I was asked about the spelling of my name. Who knew that such a small thing could have such an impact! Consequently, the (re)spelling of my name brought me to the realization that even the smallest change to the social order of things or the status quo is always noticed. Indeed, I know how to construct a grammatically correct sentence. I know that breaking the rules with the spelling my name in all lowercase letters will be seen by many as incorrect, improper, and perhaps, need I say, DISOBEDIENT! And that is it precisely. Spelling my name in lowercase letters is a type of stand or attitude; it is a personal manifesto that speaks to popular thinking about women and identity. Spelling my name the way that I want to spell it is simply a way of accepting and loving myself. But, it is also my way of letting people know that I am not a follower, although I am totally capable of collaborating with others on various projects and programs. I don’t always need to be out front and in charge, but I have always been a leader. I have always been womanish in attitude and expression, or, as Alice Walker says about womanism; a womanist is “serious and in charge!” Others may disagree with me or reject the spelling that I give my name, and they may make it “proper” for personal or institutional purposes, but at the end of the day, I am in charge of my life, my actions, my body, and, of course, I am in charge of saying or determining who I am. How I spell my name is up to me, alone. Yes, it may seem like such a small or unnecessary thing to say, but control over my name, the power to name myself and thus to know myself is a powerful freedom, and I take that freedom very seriously, just as other black women, like Audre Lorde, have done without shame and without apology.

Most people don’t break the rules. We live in a society where conformity is the name of the game. People keep the peace; on the job and beyond, they often engage in groupthink and peacemaking. Even with all that women and men have been through, especially black women, by and large, people don’t “rock the boat.” Spelling my name in lowercase letters is a passive yet strong way of saying that I am not afraid to break the rules. I am not afraid to walk down a new path if necessary. When I look at people who cling to the rules without a willingness to question them or perhaps change them, I see followers. This is both sad and disappointing situation because a great many of the rules, laws and practices that govern us actually need to be changed or broken. Many of the rules that dictate our living and our being, at the least, need to be challenged, or at least questioned. When people express a desire to control how I spell my name, it lets me know that they are probably not willing to make a change, not even in the small matters of their own lives. And, if they are not willing to start with changing self, I doubt very seriously if they will be willing to challenge the order of things when it comes to bigger matters, such as sexism, such as racism, such as heterosexism. When people do not model change or plant the seeds of change when it comes to their own affairs, it is doubtful that they will do it for others.

I should not have to say this, but one of the things that the world  desperately needs is people who really are willing to be the agents of change. The world needs bold, brave change agents, not the so-called change agents or change makers who merely appropriate the rhetoric or talk of change during election season in order to get votes. Today, many are appropriating the word “change-agent” or “change-maker,” but there is little doubt in my mind that many of those very same people would also be the first ones to tell me or others to “go along to get along” if they could. If they could get away with it, I believe they would tell me and others – the ones they may attempt to control –  to know and stay “in our “place.” Yet, the place they want others to stay in is often the place that makes them comfortable or secure in life. And, what they tell others to do is often a reflection of their own self-esteem or self-image: stuck.

By contrast, I don’t require others to spell my name in lowercase letters, but I don’t let others tell me what to do or how to spell my name so that they will feel better about themselves or what it says about their day to day choices. Fortunately, we live in a country that allegedly values “the freedom of speech.” And, that freedom applies to the spelling of one’s name. I feel free to model that freedom to name myself in my personal and in my public life, which are very interconnected. In the (re)spelling of my name I also model what it means to be in control and accountable for who I am.

Last month I watched the politicians and pundits claim to be the agents or makers of change. Yet, I don’t see how they are much different from who or what has gone before them. To be an agent of change you’ve got to be willing to change yourself. If you are not willing to change, if you don’t know the power of changing things on your own, how in the world can you expect or require change from anybody else? And, if you are quick to tell others where to go, what to do and what to do when they get there, then I doubt that you will allow yourself to get out of place for a worthy cause (and perhaps not even for an unworthy cause). These days, there’s a whole lot of talk about change, but that talk is often just what it is: talk.

Oh how I wish that more people would be willing to break the rules and get out of the places that people and society have constructed for them to be. I long to see people who lead and from a place inside of them that is authentic and thus political (or socially responsible). Donald Trump, for example, is the antithesis of authenticity and accountability. He uses the rhetoric of change yet promotes the ideas and nostalgia of a troubled American past. What former greatness does he want to revive or replicate? Yes, there were times in my past that I was pretty good, but the person that I have become today is much better, stronger and confident. There is actually no part of my past to which I would like to return. Indeed, I look back and I learn, but life is moving forward, not backward. My being who I am today is based on my ability to grow and  learn from my past mistakes and successes; yearning for something that I once did, for the person I once was, or for the life I once experienced would indicate to me that there is some preoccupation or unfinished business that I have with regard to my past. Perhaps, in some weird, twisted kind-of-way those who want to go back and revive the past, like Trump and his followers, really are preoccupied by something that is back there. Clearly, for better or for worse, they have some preoccupation or attachment to the persons, places or things of the past that they remember. Maybe they want to fix something that was broken in the past; or, perhaps they want to repair some damage that was done in the past, or maybe they have regrets. As far as I am concerned, I cannot fix the past; no one can. But, what I do with the present and what happens in the future depends on my ability to interpret the past accurately and then to plant the seeds of change that will bring forth powerful and better futures.

To the would-be and rising change agents out there, I must say that you cannot bring forth better futures if you keep looking back, longing for what was once there. To feel the power of change, to be a powerful agent of change, you have to be willing to break  the rules, to cross lines and usually that means you will be in the minority and perhaps alone. Don’t be fooled by those who merely talk about change, because to be a  true change-agent or a change-maker you’ve got to be willing to be in a new place, not the old. Indeed, it is not easy being in a new place, or being in the minority. But please know that today, more than ever, if we are going to create powerful and better futures, we desperately need those who are bold enough and brave enough to spell their own names.

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.