Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Politics and Intersectional Feminism: Alyssa Cole's LET US DREAM

On the eve of the American election this past November, I was planning to celebrate the country voting in its first women president by reading the recently published anthology Daughters of a Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology. Four stories, each featuring African American women fighting for the vote on behalf of both their sex and their race at four different points in U. S. history, these stories promised to point out both how far our country has come in widening the franchise and how far it still has yet to go.

But after the shocking outcome of November's election, celebration was no longer on my mind. I set the anthology aside, and split my reading time between political reporting/calls for activism and old romance favorites, books that I could depend on to give me welcome comfort in these painful political times.

But as the Women's March on Washington approached, and I began to read media stories about tensions between white women and women of color involved in planning and participating (or not participating) in it, I found myself turning back to Daughters. And in many ways, I'm glad I waited, for reading its stories, in particular Alyssa Cole's Let Us Dream, helped me as a white feminist to understand those tensions in a way that more analytical, theoretical writing hadn't.

The 15th Amendment: the "right of citizens of the United States
to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States
or by any state on account of race, color,
or previous condition of servitude." 
The first three stories in the anthology (Lena Hart's In the Morning Sun, set in 1868; Piper Huguley's The Washerwomen's War and Kianna Alexander's A Radiant Sun, both set in 1881) give readers slices of history likely unfamiliar to many contemporary readers: efforts to educate free blacks in Nebraska in the wake of the Civil War; the tensions in the African American community over whether to campaign for female suffrage for all races, or to focus on ensuring black men's right to vote was not curtailed; the efforts of African American washerwomen to strike for a better wage; black women's suffrage in Wyoming, the first state in the union to give women the vote. All include sweet romances, too, some interracial, others between black men and women who do not always agree when it comes to women's rights.

But Let Us Dream was the story that really made me sit up and take notice. Not only because Cole interweaves the political themes of her story so tightly with the arc of her romance, but also because those political themes strike just as resonantly in 2017 as they do in 1917, the year in which Cole's story is set.

Bertha Hines has spent years dancing to the tunes of men: first her father, who pretended to be East Indian rather than African American after witnessing how differently men from India were treated, and who taught his daughter how to dance in a sari, as if she had been born in India, too. And then for her pimp, later her husband, Arthur, owner of Harlem's Cashmere club/whorehouse. But now that Arthur is gone, leaving the Cashmere to Bertha, Bertha has no desire to hitch her star to another man's wagon, thank you very much. She'd rather spend her time teaching the women who work for her all about government, so they'll be ready to vote when New York finally grants women suffrage.

From the Puget Sound American, 1909
But when a friend sends Amir Khan to work as a dishwasher in Bertha's club, he and Bertha immediately begin to set sparks off of each other. Amir, a Marx and Engels-reading socialist who left Bengal to see the world, is just as stubborn, and just as devoted to social justice, as is Bertha. But in the wake of the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred immigration from Asian Pacific countries, Amir is an "undocumented alien," with as few political rights as Bertha. A situation that has striking parallels to this past week's presidential executive order barring immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries—particularly as Amir is not Hindu, but Muslim.

That is not the only echo, past to present. In the story's opening, Bertha attends a meeting of the Colored Women's Voting League, where the "good women. Upstanding, pillars of the community" assert that there is no friction between white and black women of the suffrage movement ("Bertha was tempted to ask why they needed a separate organization—and a separate building—for Negro women if there was so much unity, but that would have been low. Besides, she knew why. They all knew why") (Kindle Loc 4124). They also express their discomfort with the presence of Bertha, former sex worker and current owner of a house of ill repute, especially after she challenges them to include "the poor laundress, the illiterate maid, the downtrodden prostitute" in their outreach efforts (4125). The Voting League's leader tells Bertha "we have limited time and resources an where we direct them is of the essence" and that "Once we win the right to vote for all women, we'll be able to better use of power to uplift" (4138). Bertha leaves, but not without imparting one last shot of her own: "Uplift? You mean the same patronizing lies women have been fed by men for generations? That we've been fed by Whites since the end of the war?" The rifts that the media honed in on in regards to the Women's March on Washington—tensions between whites who want to focus on women, and POC who wanted to send a more intersectional message, and "good" women who are reluctant to inclue "bad" women (sex workers) in their ranks out of fear of weakening their position—are not new ones, Cole's story reminds us; they have existed for years, for more than a century.

Both Bertha and Amir are angry about their political mistreatment, and the lack of social justice they and others like them experience daily. And both use words as weapons, defending themselves from any perceived attack on their pride and self-determination the other appears to threaten—even if said attacks are not intentional. It takes an equal exchange of knowledge—Amir will teach Bertha how to really do an Indian dance, and Bertha will teach Amir about American and New York government—before either can move beyond the strong fronts they've erected to protect themselves from prejudice and abuse to glimpse the truer, more vulnerable person standing behind them. And even once they have caught that glimpse, it's still all too easy to make assumptions, to respond with anger instead of patience when misunderstandings inevitably arise and feelings are hurt. Trust takes a long time to build, even between people who have the shared experience of being oppressed.

There are so many telling scenes, so many quotable lines in Cole's story, I can't begin to do justice to them here. So I'll just end with the one I really needed to hear after the end of the first two weeks of American's current appalling, disheartening presidential term. One of Bertha's girls asks:

"Why does voting matter? I'm just thinking about how Du Bois and everyone got all hopped up over getting Wilson into the White House. Wilson talked a lot of stuff about making things better for us, about justice and kindness, and look! Things are worse than ever with him in office. More segregation. More injustice. Hell, forget Wilson; the suffragettes didn't even want us at that parade of theirs." (5022)

In response, Bertha spins a story, one with a telling, and prescient, moral:

"One time, a long time ago, I met a john who talked so sweet. Looked rich. Smelled good. Came in here telling me I was the prettiest thing he'd ever seen, begging me to put it on him, all that nonsense. I thought he was swell. Classy. Let him convince me to go back to a room with him. . . . That man threw me on the bed and started trying to get crazy. Thought because he was paying for it, he could do whatever he wanted. but I screamed and the man running the hotel bust through the door and pulled him off me. . . .  What I'm saying is, I bet on that man. I thought he was the best choice of the pickings that night. I thought he was gonna do right by me. And I was wrong. That didn't mean I didn't go back to work the next night. That didn't mean I never got fooled again. When you're trying to survive, sometimes you're gonna encounter liars. Politicians are the worst of them. But there are good ones too. You take your chances there like anywhere else in life because the only other options is giving up." (5036)

One of the many great signs at
the Boston Women's March

Scream and holler, go out and protest, take your chances, and go back to work the next night (or day), no matter the result. And above all, don't give up. Messages that I took to heart as I went out and joined thousands in Boston's Women's March, and that I continue to hold close as ever more disturbing news oozes out from our nation's capital.

Illustration credits:
15th Amendment: New York Times
Puget Sound American: South Asian American Digital Archive
Rise Up: Photo taken at the Boston Women's March, January 21, 2017

Daughters of a Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology
Maroon Ash Publishing, 2016

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