By Shakira Lewis
As a child, one of the first books I remember reading was Mary Hoffman’s ‘Nancy No Size’. The story was about a little girl who existed almost completely in between two worlds. A young black child in a world of opposites, Nancy spends a great deal of time trying to salvage a sense of identity from two worlds that she doesn’t fit in to. At the end of the story (sorry for the spoiler), Nancy finds solace in her distinctiveness. She learns to craft an identity, a sense of self, out of her unique position as an outsider. Out of her sense of discontent, she finds happiness and contentment.
For much of my life I have felt very much like Nancy. It’s a feeling that the black women I have met throughout my life, black women of the Diaspora, often share. It’s a feeling of discontentment and disconnect – not feeling quite part of one world or another. W.E.B Dubois and later Paul Gilroy called it ‘Double Consciousness’, a sense of not fitting into either the ‘white’ world or the ‘black’ world. For black feminists like myself, this sense of disconnect can come from not fitting into either the ‘mainstream’ feminist movement or Afrocentric/black activist movements. Trying to reconcile the commitment to black liberation and feminist liberation can be isolating.
Before I discovered black feminism, my first encounter with anyone who thought like me was in my Year Seven English class. Our English teacher, hell bent on widening our horizons, presented us, in our first week at the school, with a long list of ‘recommended reads’. As my eyes passed over the ‘classics’ – Bronte, Austen, Wilde – they came to rest on Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’. An avid reader, I collected the book from the library on my way home. I soon found myself lost in Maya’s world, reading the book in a day and ordering her back catalogue after finishing the last page.
In Angelou’s books I found myself – a young black woman, unsure, ungainly, removed from her surroundings but intrinsically part of them. Angelou’s reflections on her self-image as a teenager forced me to confront my own unhappiness about my place in my surroundings. More than anyone else in my life, she made me realise that the narratives that surrounded me – the ones that told me that my hair was too ‘nappy’, that my skin was too dark, that I was too fat, too intellectual, not fashionable enough – did not have to define me. I was free to throw them off and carve my own existence. I could be Nancy – I could find solace in being the me that only I knew how to be.
The feelings Angelou’s books invoked in me would not be awakened again until my years as a university student, when I discovered the works of Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. Angelou’s books remain on my shelf as a reminder of my ongoing transformation and every so often I pick them up again and lose myself in the richness of Angelou’s writing. One day I hope to hand one to my own daughter, so that she may too learn Angelou’s secrets. I am hoping however that she will not need the book to initiate the process of self love in the same way that I did.