For the past two years I have been a member of a book club that is the safest, most enlightening and refreshing group that I have ever been privileged to be a part of. We are artists (actors, writers, designers, and singers), legal assistants, speech pathologists, and educators. We are home-owners and apartment renters. We are wives, girlfriends, happily single, and actively looking women. We wear our hair natural, weaved, and wigged. We are devoted church-goers or decidedly anti established religion and peacefully spiritual. We also happen to all be young(ish) African American women.
Once when our group first formed, one of our members brought a white woman to the circle. When the woman was in our circle, we all noticed that she continually sought to “prove” herself by referring to the hardships she has faced in her life and talking about her bi-racial child. Witnessing this, the black women of the group instinctively sought to reassure and comfort her. The woman was going through a particularly hard time trying to make it and get established in NYC and the hardships of which she spoke were very real. However, as a new member of the group, we experienced a collective shock over how quickly she felt entitled to our comfort and care…and by the way that we rushed to “care for” her.
After that meeting, it was decided that we would ask her not to return to our group. This was a very hard decision. Were we discriminating against a white person by not allowing her to join our group? Would we have felt differently about her entitlement if she had been black? Shouldn’t we have been more sensitive to her needs and allowed her to enjoy the close sisterhood of our group? While I had all of these questions in mind as I effectively kicked her out of the book club, I knew that we had made the right decision for our group.
As a non-church going black person, my book club is the safest space of solely black people that I have experienced in my life. I know that is shocking to some of you. While I have always nurtured friendships with black women, a structured group that is solely devoted to our shared experience has perpetually eluded me. Each time we gather, a white person in need immediately descends upon us. If we are dancing, she needs a lesson in rhythm. If we are talking about issues of concern to our community, she needs to be comforted over her white guilt. If we are talking about our hair, she needs an education on the ins and outs of our curls. Somehow, once a white person enters our space, he/she often becomes the center of the attention, by our needing to educate, comfort, or care for them in some way. It is because of the rarity of the uninterrupted black space, that it was important for my book club to be able to commune, hear each other’s voices, break bread, laugh and stimulate each other intellectually in a structured environment that was free of white people.
Our sisterhood was immediately fiercely protected by us as a space for us that we desperately needed in our lives. We took it under our wing like loving mothers and the hairs on necks raised when we felt it threatened by an intruder who sought to force us into the caregiver roles that we are so often forced into in other domains of our lives. As one member put it, “We aren’t here to take care of you. We are here to take care of ourselves and each other.”
In light of the recent racist, terrorist shooting at the AME Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC and the other churches in the south that have been burned down in the past week by racists, I have come into a deeper understanding of what safe spaces mean for black people, particularly women, in this country. I am certainly not suggesting that black churches are rare, but spaces that are occupied solely by black people that don’t require the behavior modifications that have become so essential to our daily survival (that we often no longer even notice them), are indeed all too rare.
Where are we to go to just be? To feel safe, loved, and completely accepted? When my book club is together, our education credentials are not questioned; neither is our hair (except the exchange of information) nor is the manner in which we speak. This is in contrast to many domains where we exist in the world. Unfortunately, even when we are not being viewed through the lens of race, we are so used to this mode of being that often it takes a period of adjustment to feel accepted and safe enough to allow ourselves the freedom of being.
While we have certainly never lost our proclivity to gather and garner strength from each other’s presence, these spaces are never completely secure. Because a welcoming spirit seems to have been implanted in our DNA, we tend to open our doors, forgive, and welcome anyone who wants the joy of our company— and then the taking on of the roles that are at times necessitated by white presence ensues. We become the black girlfriend sister friend who is there to simultaneously nurture and care for all ills, while providing education on the “black things” you just “don’t understand.” We become your theatrical foil and scapegoat. We become your goddess and your slave.
While it is true that love and friendship are such that they truly have no color, this does not belie the fact that spaces where we are freed of these roles are under attack. As such, we must protect them and nurture them. For too long, we have been accomplices to behavior that belittles our humanity.
A safe space is a place that we can rely on for the wellbeing of our souls, where we are allowed to be flawed, and are loved unconditionally. It is because these spaces are once again quite literally under attack and are increasingly rare, that they are necessary.
A book club that was visited by a needy white woman is no comparison to the recent hate crimes acted out on churches across the southern US. But I believe that great violence, like great acts of love, present opportunities for personal reflection and action. If historical spaces of refuge for black people are under attack, we must actively guard and cherish our personal safe spaces all the more.
If these places are missing in your life, reflect on the reasons that may be. Do you have a space where you are accepted and loved by people who share your heritage, and where you freely celebrate your shared identity? I am not calling for complete segregation in all aspects of life, but until we are mentally, emotionally, and physically safe as black women, we must keep these spaces sacred. They are our homes and we are the keepers of our souls.
Also published on For Harriet