Kat Odina Ali is an artist and writer. She spends a lot of time singing old jazz songs and wandering around London.
Womanist (Alice Walker):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. 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.”Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and foodand roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
It was whilst sleeping over at my friend’s house, around a couple years ago, that I discovered In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. Amid conversations surrounding our growing frustrations with the current wave of feminism, Alice Walker’s collection of womanist (a word coined by Walker) prose, was taken down from a shelf and placed in my lap.
Being half African American, I’m eager to read more from black feminists, especially after mostly negative, reductive personal experiences with mainstream feminism. On the school playground, I was pressured to play the stereotypical, sassy sexy black girl role when our Girl Power™ gangs boiled down in their pink glitter and svelte silhouettes, to Bratz/MTV inspired cliques. In my early teens, when the internet and my general existence entwined, I had a more formal introduction to feminism. But early 2010 Tumblr’s, white, indie, Virgin Suicides, Sylvia Plath, ‘fuck the patriarchy!’ subculture (plus endless JLaw edits) and Rookie’s revival of third wave punk aesthetics, quickly became draining. What’s more, years of being fed one type of beauty, had led me to subconsciously feel this need to edit my blackness when I looked in the mirror.
Thankfully Tumblr, and other social media platforms, have gradually become much more visually diverse and conversations around feminism are usually fiercely intersectional. There is also a growing awareness of how feminism has and can be commodified. Nevertheless, the overall perspective and approach to analysing and tackling issues, feels very narrow. Various voices and opinions start to contradict one another, and as a result I’m left feeling confused and uninspired.
In reading Walker’s full definition I found this substance and connection I felt had been missing from feminism. A womanist is described in greater detail, by how she loves, appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s strength and how she cares for humanity and is ‘committed’ to the cause for its wholeness and safety. Every sentence, every word I read resonated deeply; ‘Traditionally capable’, ‘universalist’, ‘not a seperatist’, ‘Loves’.
Growing up, I was lucky to be surrounded by a small community in which these values were exemplified by the female majority. Perhaps because of the community’s shared spirituality and cultural diversity, there was a greater understanding of oneness. With their own balances of masculine and feminine strengths, the ‘aunties’ enshrouded us in woven threads of virtue and led us by the example of their friendships. Their bonds with each other were always sisterly and loving, and they stood in mutual respect and unity with the men. They shared in the children’s laughter and made up and retold stories, they passed down a deep appreciation for nature and the earth, they discussed current affairs, issues and events with us, took our words seriously, and sought our perspectives, and now our advice. Despite personal struggles and hardships they endured, or any relationship rifts and bumps, I always felt held by their circle.
Those experiences posed a stark contrast with the west’s secular approach to women’s liberation. Forgetting wider systemic implications and even wider synthetic connections, feminism easily falls to a more shallow individualistic form. Reading that definition of womanism and reflecting on my upbringing made me realise that I was craving a more holistic approach.
I’ve come to see misogyny as the human manifestation, or embodiment, of a wider oppression. A clear example, addressed by the eco feminist movement, is that of environmental domination. Throughout all areas of society we encounter imbalances and divides. Western medicine’s drug based, intrusive methods, whilst being effective, direct and oftentimes needed, are utterly preoccupied with the physical, unable to find any balance or reconciliation with more esoteric eastern philosophies on healing. Within schools, children tend to be segregated into right brain thinkers and left brain thinkers, subjective and interpretive. The arts and humanities and the sciences aren’t often seen and are rarely taught as being interconnected, compatible, and equal in importance. Religions, be that Abrahamic, or various devotion garnering belief systems, have long suffered under the tyranny of dogma, at the expense of story and dream.
Despite feminism’s tunnel vision, I’m always impressed and inspired by the quantity and variety of zines and art collectives being launched and run with such dedication and passion. It encompasses the qualities of softness, empathy, emotional intelligence and creative imagination that we as individuals may otherwise be left deficient of, as those macro examples of feminine subjugation mirror on an internal, micro level. It’s no wonder we’re so invested in cultivating communities and seeking connections in this highly separatist world.
The word ‘Womanist’ comes from the southern black expression ‘woman-ish’, a word used to describe a self-assured young girl. Walker’s distinctly African American voice has definitely sparked a personal connection, and her warm, exuberant definition brought me back to that sense of deep strength and power I felt instinctively as a young girl. I now see my femininity through the lens of my own culture, rather than a too narrow lens clouded by western feminism’s by-products.
But what has really been enlightening, reading the full definition of Womanism, is its wonderful expansiveness, placing misogyny in the context of a much bigger socioeconomic picture. Rather than demanding the fall of patriarchy we’re in need of a rise of matriarchy and a greater understanding of the vitality of feminine strength, both as a healing, a re-balancing for wider society and our individual selves. We may find it easier to take effective action on a variety of issues and not only broaden but clarify our perspectives, if the feminist movement were to explore issues with that awareness of our holistic, interconnected reality.
“Womanist is to feminist as Purple is to Lavender”
Pictures by Kat.