I am sitting here at the café, more frustrated than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Frustrated with myself, frustrated with language, frustrated with not owning a big dictionary, and frustrated because even if I did, I don’t think it would matter. I’d still be stuck swirling around in a history that no one understands. I’d still be stuck with a bunch of words that mean almost nothing when placed in the context of women I am studying. They defy every one. Sex. Race. Gender. Black. White. African. Afro-European. Eurafrican. Whatever these things even mean, whatever they were meant to mean, these are not women who fit very well into the categories. Wife. Slave. Free. Consort. Libertine. Mulatress. Signare. Mistress. Rivale. Harlot. Slut. And I’m having the damndest time wrapping my mind around how to even speak of this period much less speak of them and their world in a way that centers their ingenuity, their creativity, their industry, their love of self and family, their petty antagonisms, their jealousies, their bitterness, their violence and their pain.
I’m finding myself turning in circles. I turn to the dictionary, browse through the Ds, find decollage, wonder about the meaning of a word that suggests decoration of the neck, consider images of slave women wearing the iron collar —
— and then fight not to cry.
I turn to my library, look for articles I can use for reference, for support, for a way of speaking about defiant women & nasty wenches. I find a bibliography worth everything and nothing. Because I’m looking for more than just continental early black women’s history and less than literary ruminations on trips to slave castles. I’m looking for the truth–or a truth that I can use to apply to my work and begin to understand what I’m seeing.
Maybe it doesn’t exist.
I remember what Stephanie Camp wrote about trying to find the words to write about truancy and black women and sometimes feeling so frustrated she’d want to throw a book against the wall. And how she’d come back, again and again, to Deborah Gray White’s book, Arn’t I a Woman?.
And I think of Joan Dayan’s piece on Erzulie, and imagine the difficulty she must have had trying to piece together threads of reminisces on a woman, a lwa, an archetype, and how much garbage she had to fight through to make that body known.
I ended there. Because after invoking the words of my personal heroes, I picked up my pen and started again….