Black Women and Labor

A year ago,  I was looking for a way and a means to go deeper into how and why I “do” food. I remember feeling frustrated that there wasn’t an obvious outlet to discuss food X race X gender X more, on a larger scale. Conferences seemed overly interested in focusing on “sustainability” or “business”, words often used within white communities keeping busy withholding their wealth and assets. I finally just googled “Radical Food Conference” and,  to my surprise (or perhaps my pessimistic naiveté), I found Resistance Served; a conference focused on the food industry centering people of color, by people of color, specifically black women. 

Resistance Served, a conference put on by Radical XChange, opened its symposium day with a panel discussion on Black Women and Labor. Gia Hamilton took the stage alongside Devita Davidson, Krystal Mack and Dr. Alisha Hines. The words of each of these women hit with such power, swirling around the room and lifting the other words up before landing as chicken scratch on my page as I rushed to hold onto everything that was being shared. 

Resistance Served did a remarkable job of creating an environment for conversations of transformative justice. I will attempt to share some of what was said although nothing will compare to the experience of being present for this conversation.  My attempt here is to summarize the experience I had through my lens, not to narrate what happened. So let’s begin; struggle culture is a side effect of oppression, these incredibly accomplished women were rewriting the narrative, creating new tribes, building new tables and forging their own seats.

Dr. Alisha Hines, a historian focused on black women’s mobility, points to mobility as a strategy of survival as equally worth exploring and celebrating as the act of reclaiming groundedness. It’s asked, what are the boundaries of black women’s work? Is it containable? With a response, in short, that it is so much vaster than what is monetized. There are so few direct accounts in history by black women, points out Dr. Hines. It is important for black women to tell stories as there’s healing in the act of telling. Others quickly point out that one can easily get stuck in the monetizing of these stories, which inevitably changes the stories themselves. So, to heal is to decolonize, to decolonize is to imagine new futures, to tell new stories, to grow capacity. Black women’s labor has inevitably been used by others, so with this healing, with these stories and  with this built capacity, black women go back into the community and supply resources. 

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Devita Davidson spills the tea, Rosa Parks didn’t just sit. Hear this: Rosa Parks didn’t just sit. She was a NAACP investigator documenting and recording violence. Black women were laboring for decades before the movement. Civil Rights bake sales created independence, un-bought and un-bossed. Leaving the question “what if black women’s labor was the central narrative of the civil rights movement?”

No one is self made, you are community made. This felt so true to me as someone who has felt uncomfortable declaring that I’m “self taught”, when in truth, every experience, community, mentor, friend has passed so much along to me on my journey to get to where I am now. I felt such a relief to hear it said, community made. Finally, yes, that’s it, that’s what I am. There was so much relief throughout this conversation, listening to things said I’d been aching to hear. 

We’re moving on, are you still with me? This conversation was fast and dense, these women somehow touching down with depth into so many important areas without hesitation or fear, speaking out in power. “Blackness is in”. It always has been and it always will be, it just gets framed and marketed in different ways. Today it’s black girl magic, what once was the mammy. White people take blackness and make money on it, then turn around and give back crumbs. “How can you come out of extraction whole?” We bounced back by building our own table, forging our own seat, “stop living in the imagination of the white male chef”, build outside of their imagination. 

I’m going to ask white people this question:  Do you see yourself extracting and exploiting or gaining from black girl magic? Are you collaborating with someone because blackness is in? What benefits are the people/communities of color you’re working with getting? If you are white in the United States you have assets, or you have access to assets in a different way.  Are you sharing those assets? I am going to circle back around to these questions in more depth, and with more focus on the white businesses and nonprofits in Baltimore, in another blog later this month. 

What do you need?” was the last question Gia asked. “Graciousness”. “Food for us, by us”. “To heal intergenerational trauma”. “The mammy was created by a white narrative to desexualize and box in black women, what we need is for black women to take their narrative back”. And so they spoke into existence their narrative, declaring a new table, leaving seats open for black girls, and their historical magic. 

Later in the conference we were given journals and time to write, with the two queries posed to us were: 

What are stories we tell about black women? What are stories we tell about ourselves?” 

“What are our relationships to labor? What are our relationships to labor as it relates to capitalism?” 

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