We, as women of color, cannot allow racists and racism to define us. We are what we choose to be, constructing our identities from myriad cultures and groups to emerge as well informed, involved, strong, vibrant, able, adaptive personalities. We must become even more informed about and identify with our sisters and brothers of African descent not only in North America but also in other lands. And with the information obtained, we must involve ourselves, our resources, families, churches and other institutions in our communities, as well as in our governments through elected officials. We must forge relationships to build and bond our disparate cultural identities by becoming concerned and acting collectively about the plight of people of color everywhere: Darfur, Sudan, Congo Kinshasa, Uganda, Liberia, Costa Rica and Honduras.
Since we are battling a world problem, we must bring our collective identities to bear on it by focusing on the commonalities between ourselves and women of color across national, cultural, educational and class boundaries. Ultimately, we face similar problems and issues and thus we are more alike than we are different.
In our communities, traditionally, there have existed certain beliefs which we have been encouraged to accept and act upon that have helped to shape our collective identities: support of the family, including the extended family system; shared suffering; reaching out to each other; the “strong” Black woman. These beliefs reinforce the concept of “affirmation,” which further supports the building of our collective identities.
A wise person once said, “Each day affirm positive intentions through prayer, meditation and envisioning one’s goals. Keep focused and have a clear vision of goals for the future.” Somewhere I have read, “Transform difficulties into opportunities for growth—how you use your life situation determines the effect you produce; embrace change.” Instead of complaining about the difficulties that life throws up, we must resolve to effect changes and make our own opportunities. Madam C. J. Walker, famed Black entrepreneur (1867-1919), is quoted as having said, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” Between us, we can make use of shared knowledge and skills wherein we learn from each other and thus enhance our shared collective identities. In our groups, we can strive to develop our collective abilities and use them for the greatest good.
We live in an imperfect world within imperfect cultures, therefore we are sure to become angry with ourselves, each other and the situations in which we find ourselves.
Finally, perhaps the most important question remains. Why is it important, in fact essential, that we Black women define who we are and what we stand for, i.e., build our collective identities? Perhaps one might answer: To challenge ourselves and the stereotypes that others hold of us; to choose our own true identities and allow none other to do so; to question the status quo and to pose the relevant questions for our development; to answer to a higher authority for our actions; to motivate ourselves and others to work for the common good in our communities; to inspire our contemporaries and future generations by our achievements; to live our lives to our fullest potential whatever our circumstances; to work toward our goals with focus and purpose; to dream impossible dreams and dare to make them come true; to serve others with love, kindness, generosity and humility; to succeed by learning from our failures and mistakes.
In so doing, we may successfully build our own impressive collection of identities by embracing our past, enhancing our present and striving to develop our future.
Maya Angelou, in her book Even the Stars Look Lonesome, says, “... one has to have a calling to become a true teacher. And above all things, one needs a bounty of courage. The calling informs the teacher that her knowledge is needed in new, uncharted areas, and the courage makes the teacher dare the journey.” And again, “… I come from a people who had the courage to exist, to be when being was dangerous, who had the courage to dare, when daring was dangerous and, most important, had the courage to hope.” My favorite quote from an unknown source puts it quite succinctly: “Life shrinks or expands in accordance with one’s courage.”
To all of us who accept to develop the collective identities that make us true teachers to the next generation, to become stronger and to hope, I say “Bon courage.”
Linnie Kesselly is a retired U.N. senior community services officer who has lived in Liberia for more than 30 years. The above is an excerpt of her speech in Toronto in September at the 22nd annual conference of the International Business Women’s Congress, where she received the group’s prestigious ONI award.
By Linnie Kesselly