Womanist: 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. – Alice Walker
When I first heard of child star Raven Symone’s Oprah interview on OWN Networks’ “Where Are They Now?,” I was kinda giddy. The 47-second clip was affirming, powerful and wonderfully familiar. It was NOT the clip where the former “Cosby Show” star caused the Queen of Talk to squirm and shift and fret out loud that the younger Raven must clarify lest she “set the Twitter on fire.” No. My first glimpse of the now-infamous interview was of this clip, when Oprah asks Raven how she managed to stay out of the tabloids all these years she starred not only on Cosby, but also on her own Disney show, “That’s So Raven.”
Yessss! I thought as I watched it. Little Olivia is poised, strong, practical, grown. When she called out other child stars (insert her former roommate Lindsay Lohan here) and praised her parents for keeping her from going “off the edge,” I knew she had been raised right, as we say. “It’s unnecessary to go to the most popular restaurant in the world when you have a scandal on your head and then get mad that someone’s going to take a picture of you,” Raven said, with the kitchen table tone of a sistah who knew when to get serious even when talking about frivolous things. I nodded along, and when she delivered this quintessential Black girl stay-right-there-in-your-place denominate, a take-down full of all the wit and wisdom Walker championed in the everyday Womanist, I nearly cheered: “That’s your fault boo boo,” Raven said with a look only her mamma could have taught her. “Stay in the house.”
Uh huh, I could just hear Phylicia Rashad on episode after episode, giving all of America a vision of Black womanhood that was empowering and affirming in its authenticity.
This is how we speak our truths. With poise and power, in equal doses. This is how we do feminism.
Then my Facebook feed started to fill with references to Raven. Dang, I thought. She was great, but it wasn’t all that . . . And then I realized folk weren’t referring to the tabloid clip. Instead, something else entirely had emerged from the Oprah interview, something that had indeed set both Facebook and Twitter on fire.
1. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter) and women’s strength.
Oprah asked Raven about her very personal tweet in support of gay marriage: “I can finally get married! Yay government! So proud of you.” Raven explained to Oprah that she was “proud of the country,” but did not explicitly self-identify as an out member of the LGBTQ community. She “held the fence,” as she put it, between her private and public lives, but very clearly stated she was proud to be, “Who I am. And what I am.”
But then, girlfriend kinda tripped over that fence, causing Oprah to shift and shimmy in her own seat to try to catch her, or at least break the fall.
“I’m an American, not an African American,” my young sistah said.
Ohhh, Boo Boo. No.
Nothing about this statement or the brief exchange that follows it is rooted in reality. Or even in a lil’ bit of logical common sense. The great irony of this Black woman, who rose to fame portraying a Black girl on one of the most important Black family shows in the history of television, self-identifying as anything other than Black certainly got folk talking about her in social media. But, really, who has the time or inclination or interest to try to convince this sister that she is indeed a sistah. The discourse is oh so tired.
But, engage this level of discourse we must. After all, Raven clearly imagines herself liberated in this colorless identity she has claimed for herself, but the construction of a colorless self in 2014 America is as false as a plywood set on a television soundstage. We are colorful – not clear, and all us colored folk have got to have clarity on that.
2. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the 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.”
Raven’s comments tow the post-racial line. But we are not post-racial. What we are, is post-Trayvon, post-Ferguson, post-#BringBackOurGirls. We are Third Wave. We are International Feminisms. We are facing 60 years in prison for firing warning shots at our abusive husband. We are Black Feminism(s). We are Womanists. We are not in the colorless future Raven imagines she occupies now. And if we are not there with her, she is not there either.
We have so much work to do. And so, we are intolerant. We are unwilling to allow our children, even the ones who think they are grown, to engage in frivolity, in flirtations with the possibly feasible future, when we have to get down with the funk and focus of now.
Now, our families are threatened as our men are dragged away from their children by the police.
Now, our professional reputations are threatened as we are attacked and cuffed by the police for jaywalking.
Now, we are under siege.
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.
I wish Raven had used the enormous opportunity she was given in that Oprah interview to hold Hollywood accountable for the overwhelming whiteness of television and film. I wish she had expressed a desire to play a greater range of roles, to help advance a vision of multi-hued, multicolored beauty that could be uniquely American, and liberating and true. I wish she had been the opposite of irresponsible. I wish she had broadened the conversation around color and consciousness in this country. I wish she had deepened the tone of the discourse. I wish she had given us something that could be called, if not Black, at least blackish. I wish she had given us, if not more Woman, at least something . . . womanish.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.
Young sister, you are in the most popular restaurant. Cameras are flashing. And you’ve gone on off the ledge. But we are here to catch you. Let us pull you back up and over and onto this solid black earth. We can walk back to the house together. It is made of brick, and there is a warm fire glowing inside. There is another light to guide us, together, along the way. It was lit by our ancestors, who are African, who are Black, Black like you, and Black like we.