Brown Girl Navigation: Between the Public and Private Selves
By Guest Contributor, Tafisha Edwards
My entire concept of my womanhood was rooted in the ability to conceal the true self, my true self, in something glamorous and composed and measured. And it was always up for public consumption. As a young girl, as many young girls are, I was taught appearances were to be kept (I am of Caribbean descent, so it was actually more like: “No. Slackness. Ever.”) It was never acceptable for me to be unkempt, loud, sexually forward, sexually aware, tired, upset, hungry or cranky in public as a young girl. Once my mother caught me masturbating and she simply told me “It’s not nice.” And I so dearly wanted to be a nice girl, it was all I was ever taught to be. There were obviously more appropriate things to say, such as “This is for when you are alone.” Fortunately for me I knew it felt good and didn’t take her words to heart, but the underlying shame of being caught with my hands on my own body lingered, and lingers to this day. How strange that another person is allowed to touch me, but I ought to feel ashamed of exploring what rightfully belongs to me. I don’t mean to suggest my mother consciously meant to harm me, she was only teaching me as she herself had been taught—as many women are taught. But she and all of the various women in my life—grandmothers, aunts, friends of the family, teachers, strangers have all shaped my perception of what is acceptable in terms of my own body and the manner in which I carry myself. And some of those lessons are damaging and take a considerable effort to unravel.
I recognize as a black child, nevertheless a black woman, being anything other than ladylike is dangerous in a world where my body is sexualized without my consent. In a world where the male gaze often pins me to the “Whore” end of that wonderful “Madonna/Whore” archetype, where I must fight for my agency, for my personal space, for my right to simply BE without having to contextualize, strategize, or care what anyone besides myself wants. The appearance of what I want to be for the moment versus what I am is yawning given all of the spaces I must navigate safely.
This is not novel, this chasm between what it is and what it looks like, and its manifestations are all around us: alter-egos, public and private selves, double consciousness, personas, etc. Ever since I became aware that the world extended beyond my family and its shades of black and brown, I understood that we as a race were often obliged to adopt mannerisms to conform to the standard of whiteness that governs the world in which we live. I had seen my parents shift the rhythm of their steps in the workplace, their accents melted away if they went to the bank or made a business call. But it was only after I read Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” I could properly identify and articulate the ways in which language, bodies, and even psychoanalysis all involve and revolve around that standard of whiteness. And as a Caribbean woman I felt an affinity with Fanon’s words I had not experienced before. However, after reading the text I was disappointed that Fanon did not address the reality of black woman. Of the entire book, which delves into the despair, the confusion, and the anger that Fanon experienced as a man in the face of the unforgiving hand of colonialism and its disregard of his worth as a black man, black women did not receive the same amount of focus and it weighed heavily upon me, the lack of women’s voices to guide me through the many faces I must wear.
Eartha Kitt, whom I adore and identify so much with now as a woman in my early twenties, was the first black woman I had seen speak of navigating spaces with different personas. On the 1989 chat show “Wogan” Eartha Kitt, Terry Wogan asks Eartha: “…Is that why you think, perhaps, you’re an extravert? That you’re looking for attention and you’re looking for affection?” and she tells him of the disparity between the sensual and poised Eartha Kitt and the ‘urchin’ Eartha Mae. It ached to see her acknowledge one identity while she inhabited another. But I was strengthened by her awareness, by her honesty, by her acknowledgment of the self that needs to be hidden from the world, that private self where the truth lays heavy in what we were not given. A poet whom I greatly admire said I reminded her of Eartha after I performed a poem. Naturally, I assumed she meant the similarities in our accents. When I pried my way into interviews, quotes, biographies, I understood that she probably meant more than our rolling Rs. You understand what someone attempts to conceal by the manner in which they conceal it. I hide that tender self: horribly shy, needing affirmation and affection, beneath extraversion.
I will always remember recognizing my own private battle in another black woman and the relief I felt that there was someone else who understood what I did. Seeing Eartha Kitt’s eyes dampen on that couch reminded me I didn’t have to buy into the myth that black woman possess a preternatural strength that cleaves us from our emotional selves. I’ve been told so often that my emotional battles aren’t as bad as [insert ethnicity race/here] man’s or [insert ethnicity/race here] woman’s. It is a constant fight to honor that tender side, and not to smother it with an approximation of the woman I was told I should be. It is heartening to know that this was a struggle older than I am, that perhaps my mother struggles as I do even though I wouldn’t know how to begin to ask her. That I am allowed to be on record saying ‘I am so so broken and so actualized because of it, knowing myself and how I work.’ Awareness is a form of power. Awareness is the beginning of power.