In Brain Pickings, one of the most precious gems on the internet, Maria Popova prompts her readers to construct their own “intellectual, creative, and ideological lineage.” Ancestry as a choice is a simple yet powerful idea that allows one to possess values and dreams that are unconfined by circumstance.
Simple as the idea is, its execution is difficult and most likely the project of a lifetime. If we never stop growing, if we don’t tame our curiosities and lock in to our interests unwilling and disinterested in wonder and discovery, we will always have ancestors to add to our lineages.
This summer, my project to seek more ancestors for my lineage had me spending time with the following women.
1. Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye challenges one to look into oneself and to identify the messages we have internalized about ourselves, how we are seen, and our position in the world. More importantly, it assigns culpability to those of us whose relatively healthy sense of self stems from knowing that we in part meet beauty standards and other social acceptance criteria, however racist, unjust and irrational those standards and criteria may be.
It is hard to reject privilege, impossible perhaps. There is a satisfaction Claudia and her sister derived from feeling beautiful “astride [Pecola’s] ugliness”. Morrison challenges the Claudias among us to confront the injustice, racism and colorism that is in our privilege, to reject our acceptance of it.
2. Michelle Obama
Becoming has much to say about those supportive relationships whose warm security allows one to overcome odds. For Michelle, such warmth started with a tight knit family in South Chicago. Later, these same filial relationships will remain a sustaining force. But she will seek and nurture similar qualities in her relationships with her female friends, her mentors, even her employees, and this way claim the strength she needs to take huge leaps of faith, from falling in love, to leaving a corporate law career, to acquiescing to her husband’s political career, to becoming a campaigning powerhouse for her husband’s bids.
When we go out of our way to surround ourselves with the right kind of people, when we fall in love with people that challenge us to question ourselves and to become better versions of ourselves, the immutable process of growing into adulthood is no longer just aging, it is becoming.
3. Minna Salami
I will admit, sexuality doesn’t come to mind when I think of African feminism, even if it so rightly should. Many African women I look up to are defined by their roles as mothers and wives and by their striving as farmers, entrepreneurs, teachers, corporate women.
It is a balance I have been more than comfortable with, one drilled down into me by an African context so sanitized by colonialism, religion and neocolonialism, and one that insisted we call women not by their names but by Mrs. Odiek, Ms. Karanja, Mama Muthoni, gina wa Kendi, auntie Karambu, through a lens that centered their identities as wives, daughters, mothers, and aunties. A journalist, as Salami argues in her TED talk, would probably have centered their identity on their survival, their struggle, their empowerment — never just on their womanhood.
Salami’s Sensuous Knowledge will be out in February 2020, but her essay, Reclaiming Eros in Patriarchy is a great start for the more of us who could use an expanded view of African womanhood.
4. Gillian Flynn
Sharp Objects has little to uplift. There are no bigger truths, no comforting resolutions to get to after Camille Preaker has spent years cutting her body, simmering in self loathing.
The worst could happen, the abyss could deepen, and life would still go on. One can choose to live, to survive, to be kind to oneself and to others.
5. Maya Angelou
There is something breathtaking about a black woman who decides that the world is hers, to be seen, to be interrogated, to be situated, especially in a world in which she often is under the non-discerning gaze of others. Singin’ and Swingin and Gettin Merry Like Christmas is about a woman who gets to see and to situate herself in the world, but with the raw self awareness of one who has known pain.
The next time you travel, break from the confines defined by past paths, refuse the boundaries dictated by color, space and time, break bread with old friends and with strangers.
6. Mindy Kaling
Why Not Me is about earning entitlement to occupy spaces that others like you ordinarily do not occupy. It is about pushing back when the answer is “No” and claiming the success due to you. Of course you’re good enough. Of course you have worked hard enough.
It is about being the hardest working person you know, and knowing that in addition to everything else you are, that should be enough.