Words: Akona Ndugane
On Sunday, 31 January 2016, the culmination of months of rallying the event that had over 900 black women gathered to celebrate melanin, magic and the militant love of black women, took place at the Women’s Gaol of Constitution Hill in Braamfontein as a historic congregation, called #ForBlackGirlsOnly.
As the event name explains, only black girls were invited and allowed to attend, which caused some stirring and ire from other communities of people, calling the event divisive and even racist. This was not the intention and certainly was not a space against others, but instead pro black girls in all their glory.
Upon arrival, I was walking from the basement parking leading to a staircase and saw two men walking ahead of me. Behind me were other attendees I had met briefly in the short walk whom, too, dressed in black, were a sudden sisterhood of togetherness. We walked up one flight of stairs, chuckling through conversation laced with excitement and looking forward to what the day had in store. Walking light-heartedly and jubilant we noticed that the lights on the second flight of stairs we were about climb were off, and it was dark ahead. The two men walked up confidently and we, naturally, came to an abrupt and eerie silence from the chatter, stopped walking and let them go ahead. That moment cracked open our awareness of being in potential danger as women; thus, we turned around, stepped back into the basement and instead, found the elevator to take us up. It was in this small lift, with about nine of us black-clad women, that we relaxed again. We didn’t speak of what just happened because it was a natural occurrence – to be afraid. When we exited the elevator into the sunlight and met with waves of black girls in black heaving in beauty and abundance from within, we were together and enveloped in safety.
The #ForBlackGirlsOnly afternoon was a safe space for affirmation, acceptance, celebration and support in an environment where we experienced some lessons in unlearning the default. As I parted ways with the momentary sisters, I realised the importance of the event. The lessons of unlearning the default…
Unlearning the default that we are in constant danger from society, inside and outside our homes. Unlearning that our bodies would and could be sites of war. Unlearning that we are not enough – less intelligent, less beautiful, less powerful, deserving of less as we seem to face on a daily basis though our paths may differ. Unlearning that we, as women, are competition to each other because we were there to affirm. Unlearning the process of seeing ourselves through the white gaze that eroticises, fetishizes and doesn’t understand us; the gaze that tells us of being inferior, angry, wild, barbaric, unintelligent and not only things to be gawked at but also things that are there to service and be servant to. Unlearning that our beings are to be accessories and signs of status for men, bodies that cannot command respect from our black male counterparts whose pain and oppression is our downfall. That being said, the causes of emasculated black men cannot be forgotten. For their pain is expressed onto black women. The inferiority drummed into them by structural violence is filtered into black children. The hatred of self and experiences lived is locked in flames of walking in a nightmare every day, wanting to burn everything. And so, the cycle of nothingness and its violence continues, on our bodies and, as such, we needed to be on our own to deal with our own issues without any of these gazes, having to explain our experiences and how the world can hurt.
We unlearned the war cries focussing only on what we are against and instead focussed our energy on what we are for and expressed some of these things with our actions – compassion and support by buying beautiful crafts and offerings at the many black women run and owned small business stalls. Celebrating our beauty without comparing or competing as there was an unspoken understanding that it is together that we can heal and conquer and celebrate each and every iteration of black women who gathered to look, sound and act; the many selfies posted on social media can attest to this. We were practicing the acts of believing in ourselves and feeling affirmed by being surrounded by people who looked like us and reflected us in their being without erasing us.
Finally, summing up the day’s lessons, unlearning the default that movements need a leader. #ForBlackGirlsOnly had organisers, volunteers and attendees, all leading to the liberation and love of black girls, by showing up. As much as there was a stage where Panashe Chigumadzi, Gladys Nikelo, Koketso Moeti, Kwezilomso Mbandazayo engaged in dialogue about the progress of black girls in safe spaces and the upliftment of black girls the country over, they were supported by women, who entertained as DJs and spoken word artists, even dancers, prompting the crowd to sing along to struggle songs. Thus, none of us were relegated to just an audience but were part of the movement that asks that we unlearn the default. We all, by showing up, were leaders of melanin magic & militant love.
The future of #ForBlackGirlsOnly is up to all of us being pro the movement and unshackling our minds from racist patriarchal heteronormative thinking, allowing this otherwise unseen community of women who battle each day, being strong black women, to be at ease and surrounded by a celebration of our greatness. Until society changes to allow us to be, we will continue to be part of important gatherings like #ForBlackGirlsOnly.