200 years ago, in 1818, a slave girl by the name of Harriet Jacobs was born. Her father’s widely known and respected skill as a carpenter earned him unusual privileges and he and his wife were able to create a relatively comfortable home life for themselves and their children.
Until he died, and after that his wife. The children were then sold off to the household of one Dr. and Mrs. Flint. By that time Harriet Jacobs was 15, and this is when she would personally experience one of the most terrible realities of Black women under chattel slavery, beyond being owned, beyond the enforced separation from loved ones, beyond the savage beatings and mutilations, beyond the petty cruelty, beyond the chronic deprivation of physical and psychological needs. I’m talking vulgar seduction and rape. Dr. Flint was unceasing in his advances towards Harriet, who was a woman of dignity who lived before her God and knew God saw all, God saw how she was being defiled, and she was ashamed.
She wrote, “My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?” At one point she even allowed herself to fall sway to the affections of another white, unmarried gentleman. She said, “I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion.” Above all, she hoped that it would be, for Dr. Flint, once he heard the news that she was having a baby with another man, the straw that broke the camel’s back, and he would finally sell her.
But he would not. He would not. So Harriet takes an even more hazardous course of action. She escapes. She is at first concealed by a friend, and then the wife of a prominent slaveholder. Several weeks go by, and then the next part of the plan unfolds: she finds her way to her grandmother’s house, who happens to be white, and she hides beneath the sloping crawl space, a space that was nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high.
She stays hidden in that space for seven years.
That’s the price she paid to win freedom from the vile Dr. Flint, and also the freedom of her precious children. “I tried to be thankful for my little cell,” she wrote, and even to love it as part of the price I had paid for the redemption of my children. Sometimes I thought God was a compassionate father, who would forgive my sins for the sake of my sufferings.” But then Harriet says, “At other times, it seemed to me there was no justice or mercy in the divine government. I asked why the curse of slavery was permitted to exist, and why I had been so persecuted and wronged from youth. These things,” she concludes, “took the shape of mystery, which is to this day not so clear to my soul as I trust it will be hereafter.”
Oh, Harriet Jacobs was in the storm so long.
No doubt as a response to slave narratives like this, Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, has Celie say something that is far less charitable and restrained. “God act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful, lowdown…. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.”
It would be different because Black women, 200 years ago and today, would not have to be magic to make a way out of no way, to pull accomplishments out of thin air, to make art out of pain.
And not just any pain. Pain that is egregious, vicious, enormous, maldistributed.
“Being born into an abusive relationship with this country,” as Shawna Floyd puts it. Her mother, “whose dreams deferred exploded through her children’s lives leaving them to pick up the pieces of themselves.” Her father, a victim of the War on Drugs which was, as historians have come to know, explicitly intended to be a war on people who were deemed domestic enemies: the anti-war left and black people.
Shawna says, “I am the black woman who could have been done told you that.”
Not that anyone’s trying to be competitive here, as in some Olympic Games of pain. Pain and suffering rain down on just and unjust alike. But like the suffering of the Jews, or that of American indigenous peoples, the suffering of Black people has been uniquely terrible, and that of Black women even more so.
To the point that Celie (or Harriet Jacobs) could wonder if God were a white male racist.
Black women are amazing. They are magic. You listen to any one of our speakers in our Womanism series and I can’t imagine how anyone could walk away not thinking that. They deserve our utmost admiration. But Shawna is right. Celebrate with her, yes, but don’t stop there.
Go on to build the shelter of the justice that repairs.
Protect these beautiful magical people from the storm.
Protect yourself if you are one of these people.
Part of that is what happens in your mind, when you hear the message of what I want to call “plantation spirituality.” Plantation spirituality is a form of faith that exclusively teaches virtues of patience and forbearance and obedience and of never challenging the status quo in this life because that’s how you earn your reward in the afterlife.
You have to get along to go along. Submit to your masters.
That’s the message that the vile Dr. Flint, 200 years ago, communicated to Harriet Jacobs constantly.
That’s the message that society today sends all the time, with its negative portrayals of Black women in the media, like that Psychology Today article claiming that black women are the least physically attractive people in the world.
That’s also the message that can be inadvertently sent when a person of color communicates the pain of what it’s like to have been in the storm so long, and no one’s listening and no one’s changing.
But what happened in Harriet Jacobs’ mind when she heard the plantation spirituality message? She said NO. She said NO because she believed, unshakably, in her inherent worth and dignity, and she was also suspicious of anything calling itself a true faith when it reinforces injustice.
That’s why she did all that she did, including hiding away for seven years in that crawl space nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high.
Self-worth and suspicion. It was in CaShawn Thompson’s mind, too, when she created the movement “Black Girl Magic” as a way to liberate the minds and hearts of women who have learned self-hatred from all the haters.
Self worth and suspicion need to be in all our minds, as we face the messages of plantation spirituality which still persist even as all the real physical plantations as they used to function 200 years ago are long gone.
Believe me, they persist not just in Christianity, but in religions around the world.
Resist plantation spirituality, and reach towards freedom spirituality instead. As an old slave hymn goes, “Ole Satan’s church is here below / Up to God’s free church I hope to go.” That old slave hymn is drawing from an explicitly Christian context, but in this day and age, we want to look for resources for “God’s free church” anywhere we can find them. It’s just like praying to Jesus and Buddha and Shakti and Kwan Yin and every other god and goddess out there. Can’t hurt to touch bases with every one, and it might just even help.
And so we look to all the religions, we look to science, we look to literature, we look to the arts.
Shawna says, “I am the black girl who, hungry for myself, fattened my black femaleness on the likes of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and others.” And to this I say YES. That’s how you reach towards freedom.
We’re building the shelter of the justice that repairs. Free your mind.
And also this: never forget. Remember, and testify.
With utmost respect, I salute all the women who have participated in this series on Womanism: Carol Welter, Kim Green, Sonya Tinsley-Hook, and Shawna Floyd. Each of them has dared to be deeply vulnerable in their reflections of what it means to be a Black woman in America and what it means to be womanish and what it means to want the wholeness of all and what it means to resist with joy and what it means to be in the storm so long.
They are testifying.
And when they do that—when testifiers testify and listeners listen—everyone helps build the shelter of the justice that repairs because in the testifying and in the listening we learn how hard life can be but we also learn that some people get through. Not all—but some, and from these some, we can draw courage, we can draw strength, to face our own storms.
Shawna tells her story and she says, “I take the greatest of pleasure in looking back (I don’t do it often) to see what I’ve survived, how I’ve survived, that I’ve survived–and, in some ways, how I have thrived.” From our own survival stories, and those of others, we draw resilience.
We also draw proper outrage. That’s another big reason why we want to remember the stories and tell the stories. I just told you the story of Harriet Jacobs, and what she endured at the hands of Dr. Flint, and how the price of her freedom was seven years hiding away in a crawl space nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high, and if that doesn’t fire you up with a righteous fire to build a shelter of justice that repairs, then I don’t know what to say.
Shawna, she just talked about her mother and her father and about her being born into an abusive relationship with this country, and if you hear that and it does not fire you up with a righteous fire, I don’t know what to say.
We need to turn this thing around, right now.
No one should be born into an abusive relationship with this country.
People should be born into care, instead.
People born into love.
We have to work to make it so. And as we do, we have to keep testifying to our lives, making sure that our suffering doesn’t remain invisible—and that’s going to keep us all dissatisfied, it OUGHT to keep us all dissatisfied, and it will keep us moving forward:
Keep on moving forward
Never turning back
Never turning back