WOMANISM as a variant of feminism took root during the 1980s, when Alice Walker offered it as a set of ideas related to the politics of Black womanhood in the United States.
Walker first used the term “womanist” in her 1979 short story, Coming Apart.
Later, in the epigraph to her well-known collection of feminist essays of 1984, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she defined womanism specifically as Black feminism.
For Walker, at the term’s inception, a womanist is “a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility … and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or non-sexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”
Since then, womanism has evolved as a substantive body of feminist theory and political praxis, used by Black women around the world to signal the singular ways in which they experience and resist racial and gender discrimination.
Womanism also signals a departure from Eurocentric forms of feminism, which have historically regarded the experiences of white, heterosexual women as universal.
African feminist Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi in 1985 further developed womanism as a theory for analysing both African and African-American women’s literature, noting that “many Black female novelists writing in English have understandably not allied themselves with radical white feminists; rather, they have explored the gamut of other positions and produced an exciting, fluid corpus that defies rigid categorisation. More often than not, where a white woman writer may be a feminist, a Black woman writer is likely to be a ‘womanist’. That is, she will recognise that, along with her consciousness of sexual issues, she must incorporate racial, cultural, national, economic and political considerations into her philosophy.”
Forty Black women and non-binary poets from across the globe continue this tradition with joyful, mournful and sometimes rage-filled poetry in Wild Imperfections: An Anthology of Womanist Poems (Penguin, 2021).
Edited and compiled by South African poet Natalia Molebatsi, the anthology bears powerful testament to Black women’s and femme’s lived experience and resistance to structures of dominance.
The poems speak of the survival, pleasure and Black feminist kinship wrought by the poets’ lives.
Beginning with Baartman
The anthology starts with an iconic poem by South African Diana Ferrus, I’ve Come to Take You Home, a tribute to Sarah Baartman.
This poem was instrumental in securing the return of Baartman’s remains to South Africa, after her body had been displayed in Europe in life and after her death.
Faithful to the womanist tradition, the anthology privileges no geographical space.
Deft editing by Molebatsi includes women from throughout Africa and its diaspora, who take up space equitably in Wild Imperfections, embodying a womanist principle of flattening hierarchy.
The reader encounters poems by luminaries such as Nikki Giovanni, Cheryl Clarke, M NourbeSe Philip, Gcina Mhlophe, Staceyann Chin, Tjawangwa Dema and Warsan Shire.
These poets and their poetry form a network of artful solidarity. Their work is a collective ode to Black womanhood and marginalised genders — akin, for the reader, to walking into a space of love and welcome.
Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, in the foreword to Wild Imperfections, likens the Black woman writers’ experience of finding kindred-spirit creatives on the pages of anthologies such as this one to walking into a “warm and welcoming, wood-panelled hall” filled with Black women’s art, laughter and debate.
Evaristo thus welcomes this publication: “Wild Imperfections puts Black women where we know we belong, not at the margins of other people’s art, hovering on the periphery and wondering when we will be invited to join in.”
Evaristo’s words echo a poem by Haitian-American poet Nadia Alexis, styled as a prayer to voodoo deity Èzili Dantò, who was honoured by enslaved Haitians prior to the 1791 revolution.
Addressing this spirit, Alexis dreams up a womanist utopia, where “assemblies/ of mothers & daughters sing & laugh / big & we all fly hand in hand … Our hair shimmies at the clouds / & makes songs with the wind. No rape, / no black eyes, no pockets or souls sucked / dry, no one to lead us away from this home.”
Invoking Black women’s histories of enslavement, Alexis fills this poem with imagery of flight, with the women depicted therein soaring across oceans, tangling with clouds and stretching to new horizons.
This vision of liberation remains a dream, however, a wistful longing encapsulated in the register of prayer to a deity who also protected the enslaved as they staged the Haitian revolution.
The poem ends with the powerful invocation: “Everything we can dream is blooming and true.”
Prayer to Èzili Dantò exemplifies many of Wild Imperfections’ offerings.
These poems do not shy away from the brutal, dehumanising histories Black women and gender-expansive people have had to overcome to survive.
Nor are they silent on gender-based violence, rape, police brutality or the forced migrations many women have endured.
Molebatsi notes: “In these words, we also revel in our joy, desire and sexuality even as we know that our bodies are always turning up dead for being queer, for being read and positioned as being woman, for demanding more, for asking awkward questions, for wanting to love and be loved differently and on our terms.”
A better world to come
Yet the experience of reading this womanist poetry collectively leaves the reader hopeful of a better world to come, one Black women are dreaming into being. This world includes new and liberatory definitions of the self.
In editing this anthology, Molebatsi has chosen to make an important political intervention of including gender non-binary poets, expanding the definition of womanism while queering it.
The poems “question and … disrupt the rules of patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, gender hierarchy and how they continue to translate and work themselves into and through the lives of women, womyn, womxn and non-binary people,” writes Molebatsi in her introduction.
A poem by Jamaica-born dub poet, theatre practitioner and scholar d’bi.young anitafrika is instructive.
The narrative poem no more pussy gate-keeping speaks of desire between gender non-binary subjects: “in darker spaces / mxn hold each other / womxn hold their womxn-lov’rs / existing in the in-between of everything including gender”.
Here, anitafrika depicts the expression of physical desire between people that exist on a gender spectrum, defying rigid definitions of womanhood and manhood, masculinity and femininity.
Where the idea of womanism at its inception conceived of solidarity and love between two genders, with Black women and men in mutually supportive relationships, the expanded definition crafted by this collection transcends such ideas.
It configures womanist theory that revels in non-binary, fluid iterations of subjectivity, relationships and love.
This womanism holds space for multiplicities of self-definition, including woman, womxn, womxyn, lesbian, genderqueer, non-binary and queer femme.
In queering and opening up the meanings of womanism, Wild Imperfections creates a validating, celebratory space for those on the margins not only produced by race but also other discriminatory systems that seek to rob Black people of their humanity. It is a welcome, aesthetically gratifying addition to the global body of womanist literature and theory.
This article was first published by New Frame.