My Daddy, My Mammy: A Black Man Doing Black Feminism

Hands down: James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation,” his 1927 poetic retelling of the Biblical Genesis story, is one of the best renditions of the Creation story ever written (& performed by Black children in somebody’s Black History program). His entire piece is imaginatively breath-taking. However, what I find to be the most beautiful stanza in Johnson’s narrative poem is his second to last, in which he writes:

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

 I used to teach Johnson’s poem as part of a revision unit I was required to implement in the first year composition courses I taught at The University of South Florida, Tampa. Coupled w/the Biblical Creation story & Aaron Douglas’ 1927 gouache paper painting, The Creation, I taught my writing students how to revise historical content keeping in mind audience, genre, & speaker—in other words, keeping in mind the rhetorical triangle that

aaron d-the-creation-for-blog
Aaron Douglas’ The Creation, 1927

informs a content’s persuasive ability. Because rhetorical analysis requires the critic to consider an author’s word choice, I insisted my predominantly white students pay attention to Johnson’s use of the word, “mammy”—but not as the controlling image Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Trudier Harris, & other Black feminist theorists warn us about. (Alas, during the time I was teaching this particular unit, I was none the wiser re: (or consciously aware of) Black feminist theory—altho I was familiar w/Alice Walker’s “womanist theory.”) Instead, I wanted my white students to see how Johnson used simile & juxtaposition to compare God to a Black woman. & light weight, bump the literary elements—Johnson brazenly integrated the Black woman into a historically white-washed Creation story. In his Creation story, God is a Black woman—a mammy who is not denigrated into an ugly, asexual, nanny-maid, but acknowledged as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent originator of all. Now, I’m clear Black feminists will take up issue w/a man defining a Black woman—yet, again. However, I want to “count it all joy,” for when I read Johnson’s mammy stanza, I think of my father. Surely, if Johnson’s God can be a mammy, so could my daddy.

My daddy was Donald Earl Bryant, born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1948. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in social work from Tennessee State University in 1969, & two years later, Mommy’s hand in marriage—after pining away for it since he was in high

Daddy at TSU
Daddy (in blue jean jacket) w/college classmates at Tennessee State University, circa 1960s

school. Daddy died in 2002. I was 22 years old, & altho I didn’t know him into my adulthood & into the me who is coming into an awareness of my parents as whole human beings—I did realize the “womanly” behaviors my father practiced, which, in my middle-class Cosby like household, seemed normal. I mean, didn’t everybody’s Black daddy cook dinner & breakfast regularly, shy away from manual labor, & cry while watching Titanic?

I saw Daddy cry before that, however. His eldest brother, Uncle Sam, had suddenly died of a heart attack in 1988 (& his father two years thereafter), & the morning my mother told my sisters & me, I remember seeing Daddy seated—at the edge of his bed where my twin sister Kiley & I would sit next to him tying our shoes—w/his head folded into his cupped hands. Daddy was crying, a vulnerability I don’t remember seeing in Mommy, even when Daddy died. I reckon, especially as I juxtapose my parents, Mommy really does exhibit the matriarch image—sans the lie that strong, Black, independent women who want to work to support her family, abandon her children, for we had Daddy; she

Daddy and Us on Bed
Me, Kimberly, Kiley, & Daddy, circa 1980s

had Daddy. & together, they partnered a household that did not conform to societal ideas re: woman’s work. (Hmmm. I think I contribute my gender non-binary conforming household to my “late in life” knowing about Black feminist theory & the intersectional concept that challenges white supremacist patriarchy.) I didn’t grow up having to concern myself w/race, class, & gender—which is probably why Daddy used to tell me—during my Black nationalist phase of “hotepping” thru dashikis, racially charged poems, & academic revolts, I was a revolutionary w/no cause.

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I have a lot of fond memories of Daddy: of his cooking my favorite meal of string beans, smothered turkey wing tips, & rice when I came home from college; of our Saturday morning breakfast dates to Overtown’s The Bahamian Pot for boiled fish & grits &

Daddy & Me at FAMU
Me & Daddy, Florida A&M University, 1997

Johnnie Cake; of his letting me cut back his eyebrows & fingernails, & dress him for a night out w/Robert George, his college friend. (I dressed him in a pink polo & khaki shorts.) & I remember Daddy singing to Al Green’s “Lay Your Head on My Pillow” & the Temptations’ “Silent Night,” & when Kiley & I were baptized (at our own request—we were in middle school), I remember hearing Daddy, from the baptizing pool, begin singing “Jacob’s Ladder” like an old mother of the church leading the congregation. I remember these times, & more. However, my fondest memory of Daddy is not one I actually recall, but one I imagine thru my parents’ own remembering.

Daddy told this story often—of the night Mommy was out bowling in her Monday night Women’s League, & he was responsible for taking care of my sisters & me. Kimberly, the eldest, was six years old, & Kiley & I were circa three months. My mother, a full-time schoolteacher at Miami Lakes Elementary whose favorite pastime included bowling, was away at her Monday Night Women’s League, out in Hialeah—a venture that could last way into the late night—& one particular Monday night, Mommy came home to me, wide-eyed awake, sitting on Daddy’s bumping knee; we were both wearing white tank top shirts. Kim & Kiley had long since been asleep, but I, according to him, refused the bottle & persisted to wait for Mommy, for her breastfeeding. In Mommy’s version, Daddy

Daddy Looking Down at Jaida
Daddy & Jaida, his first granddaughter, 1998

& I are both exasperated as expressed in my crying & his furious knee-bumping. Altho I cried for Mommy’s nurturing, for her milk, my imagination sees Daddy, “This great God / Like a mammy bending over her baby,” desperately wishing he could give me what I needed. But Daddy wasn’t God, & he wasn’t a woman; he was a man, whose Black feminist sensibilities (which I don’t doubt Mommy nurtured, but was instilled thru Grandma Mary & Granddaddy—his married parents who reared three children, two of whom they put thru college) allowed him to be a whole partner, a whole parent, a whole person undefined by white patriarchy’s dehumanization of Black men. Daddy nurtured my sisters & me while Mommy kicked it w/her girls—& continued to take care of us three small girl children years later when Mommy decided to be a full-time Master’s student taking evening classes at Nova University. Daddy’s wholeness gave Mommy room to be her whole self, too, & that’s what a Black man doing Black feminism looks like, right?

In her 2018 Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper writes, “[O]ne can’t truly be a feminist if you don’t really love women.” Altho Cooper is

A Young Mommy & Daddy
Daddy & Mommy, circa 1970s

discussing other women loving women (& fails to make space for Black male Black feminist), I aver no man can call himself a feminist if he doesn’t love Black women beyond how he loves his wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, niece, aunt. He cannot be a feminist if he doesn’t love women “deeply & unapologetically,” & this kind of loving isn’t “queer,” as Cooper says in her text, nor is it sexual or romantic; it’s agape—that profoundly spiritual love that seeks & insists upon the best for others. As I remember him, my daddy was that man; he was that man doing the Black feminism that mid-20th century political activists & creative writers like Amy Jacques Garvey, Lorraine Hansberry, Claudia Jones, & others propagating for male allies knew was possible. He was that man whose humanity allowed Mommy & his girl children to define our womanhood on our own terms. Light weight, he was that man who invited me into my own Black feminist revolution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

big CLIT energy

Last Fall semester, my writing students, all English majors, & I were discussing Barbara Jordan’s 1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address. In classical rhetoricalBarbara Jordan fashion, Jordan begins her speech w/an ethical appeal that explains to & convinces her audience that her presence as keynote speaker signals a radical shift in not only the ideals that the Democratic Party holds, but in the notion that every American citizen has a right to The American Dream. Responding to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” Jordan says, “[H]ere I am. And I feel — I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.” My students dug it; they appreciated Jordan’s whole speech: her articulate voice, her unwavering confidence, & her intellectual content. And according to them, her introduction truly “hooks” the reader & convinces her/him that Jordan is both a credible speaker & human being–a Black woman not to be messed with, for, as she in third person proclaims, “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.”

In this current #metoo, #blackgirlsrock, #blackgirlmagic era we are currently in, my predominantly female classroom seemed to witness in the audacious Barbara Jordan the ancestral spirit that inspires Tarana Burke, Maxine Waters, Michelle Obama, &, if they let her in, will inspirit each of them as well. And so, as one student attempted to express Jordan’s rhetorical genius, she kinda went “goo goo gah gah.” And I get it, cause not only was Barbara Jordan an eloquent orator, but she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives, & the first African American as well as the first woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. However, what I didn’t get was why my student, while reaching for words to explain Jordan’s genius, exasperatingly said, “I mean, Dr. Bryant, she got that BDE.”

Me: She got that what?

Student: that BDE

Me: What the hell is BDE?

Entire Class: (giggles) Dr. Bryant, you don’t know what BDE is? (giggles)

Me: (Str8 faced) Um. Nope. What is it?

Entire Class: (giggles some more and pans the classroom looking for one brave spokesperson) Dr. Bryant, for real. You don’t know what BDE is?

Me: (exhales, rolls eyes, shifts position, lays papers down, and places hands on hips–arms akimbo) Will somebody just tell me what BDE is already?

Female Student: Okay. Okay. BDE means ‘big dick energy.’ 

Me: What tha? Are y’all serious right now?

And then the conversation ensued.

I asked my students–18 of them in total, including only two males–why in this 21st century world would they put a dick on Barbara Jordan. She is a woman, a BLACK WOMAN, I exclaimed. (And if flipping the student desk in front of me wouldn’t’ve appeared violently crazed, I would have.) Nonetheless, in a poorly constructed argument, or whatever, my students collectively claimed to masculinize Jordan because she was strong & assertive; she was powerful, they said, like, she had big balls. (Whispers in my head: “Yuck! They’ve given her testicles too.”) Yes, I said to them, out loud.

big clit energy button
“I got that big clit energy” buttons designed by Kendra N. Bryant for writing students, 2018

Barbara Jordan was strong & assertive & powerful, like a black woman. Expressing my own exasperation, I asked them–in our shared language & all–“How y’all gone minimize, erase, this black woman’s genius, her divine femininity, by givin her a dick? She got a clitoris!” And again, in a poorly constructed argument, my students tried to contend the rhythm of the phrase, “big dick energy,” after which I hyperbolically responded: “Clit, dick, clit, dick, clit, dick, clit, dick. So, why can’t she have “big clit energy,” I asked? Both are four letter, one syllable, rhyming words. Aaaaaaaand, Barbara Jordan IS A WOMAN!”

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Yo! The control & brainwashing of the white patriarchy is trill. Despite attending America’s largest HBCU during a time of the first African American First Lady, whose black woman magic (read: divinity) frightens many media personalities, of hashtag movements that make men more accountable for rape & molestation, while empowering women, & of the Women’s March, where women wore pink pussy hats, my North Carolina A&T undergraduate students, most of whom are majoring in English Education, had not been #woke to the white male supremacy evident in language (altho when I think of big dicks, I can see only black men–who white men castrated. Shoulder shrug. Yet, says bell hooks when discussing black feminism, our castrated black men (subconsciously) push the white male agenda, so in the black man’s move toward racial freedom & empowerment, he participates in maintaining white male patriarchy; the beat goes on, don’t it?)

But it doesn’t have to.

I teach because I aim to remind students of their humanity–cause I want to reacquaint them to their divine selves. The classroom, altho institutionalized, is still a ripe space for cultivating a revolution. And so, that Fall day in 2018, I challenged my writing students to think about how they use language & how language uses them. Altho my teaching

Students wearing big clit energy buttons
Writing students at North Carolina A&T State University pose in their “I got that big clit energy” buttons, Fall 2018 (Photo: Kendra N. Bryant)

position requires me to enhance student reading & writing skills–usually by reinforcing a standard that marginalizes their native tongues, at the very least, I can invite my students into a liberatory literacy practice that incites them to interrogate language & to awaken themselves to the conditioning that prohibits them from exercising a critical consciousness that frees their mind. Barbara Jordan & I did just that; we invited our students into a deprogramming. And I can only hope that my students will pass on that big clit energy I carried into our class discussion to their friends & into their communities, thus keeping the movement moving.

 

TBT: in a daze

I wrote the following post October 12, 2010, while I was a doctoral student teaching Professional Writing at University of South Florida, Tampa.

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I remember working at FAMU’S Writing Center, when one of my most stern, yet caring, English professors shared with me her frustration regarding a student’s desire to argue with her about a grade he DESERVED in her class. As she was reflecting on this event, hergrades are terrible image demeanor was one of defeat, exasperation, disbelief, and hurt. The idea that a student would quarrel with her about a grade was perhaps more baffling than the quarrel itself.  I believe my professor was surprised that this student would have the gall (as well as the lack of compassion and truth) to approach her in a tone that suggested she was an inadequate and unfair teacher.  He–-if I can make up this word–-deteacherized her. And she was in such a daze after this student’s assault, that my professor gave him whatever grade he wanted.

I experienced that daze this morning as a student “fought” me for a grade she believed she deserved. This student called me unfair and inconsiderate. She questioned my teaching method, my homework assignment, and my authority. And she told me that I don’t listen.

I am thankful for Parker Palmer, Alice Walker and bell hooks, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dali Lama, and don Miguel Ruiz–-philosophers and master teachers who have been instructing me on the compassionate classroom. For the ten or so years that I have been teaching students, I have tried my best to be honest and fair; to be compassionate and understanding; to be mindful and patient. But this morning, as I sat through that student’s rant, endured her belligerence, and received her lambasting, I questioned my being:

Why am I a teacher in a system that has encouraged students to compete and fight for grades? Why am I working on a dissertation encouraging contemplative writing practices where students prefer my voice and thought over their own? Why am I trying to create a community in a classroom of individuals who do not feel their responsibility to one another? Why do I build classroom relationships with students who do not acknowledge me on campus? Why am I called “professor” if my professions are going to criticized in a tone that is meant to dehumanize?  

This morning I am questioning my being an instructor. I am reflecting on my methods, my intentions, my desires. I am reflecting on my theories–-on my way of moving and BEing in the world. There is obviously a lesson the Universe is trying to teach me here.  And I am listening.

Unlike my FAMU professor, however, I will not throw in my towel (at least not today). I will neither give up nor give into that student’s “desires” nor her characterizations of me. Instead, I will stand still and strong on my integrity. And with my integrity, I will continue to serve her and her classmates, truthfully. One day she will understand. It won’t be today, and maybe not tomorrow, but one day, she will get all that I have been trying to profess. After all says Soren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”

Moving on.