If I was pressed to provide a hierarchy for my identity, it might look something like this: I am black. I am a woman. I am a writer/artist.
In terms of place, I identify first as a Kentuckian, and more broadly, as being from the South. My identity comes with a lot of explanations, a lot of gaps between words. A lot of negative space. White space. Slashes. Hyphens. Sometimes I am the hyphen or slash itself. Ergo, fractured. A cyborg. A hybrid. A shape-shifter. An outlier.
On May 3, at 7 p.m., in the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, I will participate with other writers from a cross-section of genres in a discussion about what it means to be a black woman in the South. Being a black woman in the South means I am built to survive in this region thanks to a culture of silence. I am well acquainted with silence. I know when to hold my tongue. I know when to keep my peace. With all that I do not say, I know how to keep my cool.
It means I’m just black enough to be cool and cosign on someone else’s coolness who is not black. I’m black enough to check the diversity box. Black enough to secure the funding. Black enough to be asked to represent other black people in public forums because I also know how and when to code-switch. I know how to curate my tongue. When to use my filter. I know all the social cues — when to smile, to laugh. To sound like I have no residual PTSD. Like I belong at the table of plenty. To say “Thank you” like I mean it.
I come off as Anglo enough to make Anglos feel comfortable. Like I am accessible. Not a threat. And to a demographic of primarily Anglo audiences, be it due to the fairness of my skin (which comes with its own privilege) and/or the caliber of my speech, this means I’m just Anglo enough to play the bureaucracy game, fill out the appropriate paperwork to keep my lights on.
But it’s only a matter of time before someone reminds me I’m still an interloper.
Recently, I was speaking to a black man, also in the South, about a sister-friend of mine who was quietly, but vehemently, talked down to by a self-proclaimed liberal Anglo man. I watched their exchange thinking that sometimes the biggest threats to progress are the folks who think they have no more work to do. My acquaintance asked, “Has she ever had racial slurs spray-painted across her house? Has she ever been beaten up for being black?”
No. She hasn’t.
But being a black woman means racism is not always conveyed by overt means. It means a different process of daily dying than it does to a black man. It’s the difference between one massive shark bite and a hundred piranha bites. Either way, you’re going to bleed out.
To be a black woman in America, but particularly in the South, is to move through the world with anger — rage, even — as a constant companion but to remain mostly quiet about it. You’d never know to talk to us how angry many of us are. And fearful. Constantly fearful that our names or the name of a loved one will end up as a hashtag, the impetus for a movement. How we whisper cautionary tales to other sisters, question the intentions of everyone we encounter, even our friends. It’s an inability to take our armor completely off, even in our homes. It means feeling as though we are navigating a dark back road with only three feet of headlights illuminating the way.
So, why do we stay? If we feel so very much like we’re in an abusive relationship with the South, why do we stay?
Is it a version of Stockholm Syndrome?
Do we stay because we have people here?
Because this is where we find the most opportunity?
Because this place is what we’ve always known, and like the charismatic family member who can’t seem to get it together, they’re still family? Because we still claim the South for all of its challenges, as our own?
During the free “Black Women in the South” panel discussion moderated by KET’s Renee Shaw, some black women writers — Nikky Finney, Crystal Wilkinson and myself — who are used to thinking and writing from our hearts but also critically, politically, and systemically, will speak not from the center but from the margins and with the voices of the disenfranchised, the colonized, the oppressed.
But somehow, inexplicably, by choice or by obligation, we will also speak from the place of, “We are here. We are still here.”
Bianca Spriggs is a member of the Affrilachian Poets.