As we begin the 21st century, the question of Black women crafting their own identities is crucial. How we define ourselves may be the most important thing we do in the immediate future. No one can do it for us. Who we are and how we should live our lives should be defined by us. Our sense of womanhood, then, must grow out of the values and lived experiences of Black women. It must reflect the process by which Black women come to know the laws and causes of reality. If any group of women can make sense of the world and tell real truths, it would be Black women, who were the first to right the scales of justice, the first to speak truth and the first to walk in the way of righteousness.
Our concern is: How can we reconstruct our own history in our own image? It is not an easy task, since every effort has been made to keep us away from our true selves. The closer we get to our history, to ourselves, the greater the effort has been to make sure that we become confused and move away from our center.
Our history did not start 400 years ago on slave ships that landed in North and South America. It stretches back thousands of years before the Greek and Roman empires. Much has been done to keep us away from the ancient Egyptians. It is only because of the persistent work of Black scholars that white Egyptologists now admit that the first nine dynasties of Egypt were Black. Our ancestors built the Great Pyramid of Giza more than six thousands years ago—a structure 481 feet high at the center of the Earth’s land masses, the most perfectly aligned building to true north, made of two and a half million stones weighing two tons each. Without our reclamation of Egypt, we will continue to turn to Europeans to validate who we are and what we are to become.
We have turned from ourselves, busy trying to be somebody else, trying not to look like ourselves. We are confused and do not know which way to turn. We are losing our life force. When we no longer respond to who we are—queens, seers, leaders, doers—we die a spiritual death.
We have changed our hair—bleached it, bone-straightened it and we are still confused. We have changed our eye color, our nose and our skin color. We still don’t know we are the original and cannot copy from a copy. No wonder we are confused. How can a Black woman, who was the first woman to be created, the first to walk, the first to talk, the first to give birth, the first to be a wife, the first to establish a family, copy from someone who came much later? How can we copy from the imitators, from our offspring?
We are truly confused. We are reluctant or embarrassed to talk about our enslavement in America. We were the enslaved, not the enslavers. We must never let anyone trivialize our enslavement and the sacrifices of our ancestors, who made cotton “king”; who built the mansions but could not sleep in them; who were forced to respond to names other than their own and to appear dumb even when they had full control of the master’s house and his children.
How did we get so far away from ourselves? So far away from our intended purposes? I suggest the first step toward alienation was the taking away of the red dress. The symbolism is not only the red dress, but also the yellow, the orange, or any of the colors that speak to our beginnings in Africa— the in-the-sun continent—where we wore bright colors. We had a way of behaving, a way of carrying ourselves, a way of walking. The red dress is the symbol of our feisty nature, the symbol of our queenship, the symbol of our spirit. We were not allowed to wear any of the colors that might remind us of who we really were—queens, seers and leaders.
We need to get back to our colors, back to our red dress, back to ourselves. We must reclaim our history.
Our history, as is the case with all history, is a continuing process of reading, re-reading, revising and reconstructing. The past does not change, but the questions we ask to connect the past to the present do change. We must harness our history in the service of humankind. It is, after all, individuals—ordinary people—who make and change history.
We must redefine our womanhood. How do you see yourself as we enter into this new millennium? Would our ancestors be proud of us? Have we brought our people any closer to our defined true selves? Have we brought our people any closer to freedom, any closer to justice?
Sisters, put on your colors. Wear your red dress.
By Dr. La Francis Rodgers-Rose