ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Traditional African women are implicated in W.E.B. Du Bois’s  answer to the question “What is Civilization?”: “in the African village were bred religion, industry, government, education, and art . . . . bred as integral interrelated things.”



Books by Rose Ure Mezu

Women in Chains: Abandonment in Love Relationships in the Fiction of Selected West African Writers (1994) / Songs of the Hearth (1993) /

Homage to My People (2004) / A History of Africana Women’s Literature (2004)

 Black Nationalists: Reconsidering Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. & Nkrumah (1999) Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works (2006)

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Africana Women

Their Historic Past and Future Activism

By Dr. Rose Ure Mezu


Womanhood: the European Concept v. the African

All so-called minority women—Black, Latina, Asian—should not be conceptualized as oppressed victims. Taken as a block, this group of women constitutes, in fact, the majority of women in the world. To view them as totally oppressed is to ironically replicate the repressive Victorian-age gender ideology of domesticity, of woman as an “Angel in the house”—a term coined by Virginia Woolf, equivalent to Kate Chopin’s “Mother Women,” or as Nigerians would idealize—“Sweet Mother.”  

When the West colonized Africa, the colonizers brought with them this perspective that depicted women as the weaker sex — a fragile, helpless, passive, idealized, exotic accessory to the educated African male.  But this was the way the Europeans of that period conceived of their women.  In an African cultural setting already known for its patriarchal sexism, this additional negative stereotype of woman idealized only as “homemaker” worsened matters for African women.  It destroyed women’s traditional autonomy, economic power base, and the freedom to move around from home to farm, back to the home, and to the market. 

As already stated, European colonial-style education gave to African women a grudging dignity and token freedom from the “mule uh de world” status of farm work and tried to make them helpless “Angel in the House.” Yet, when we examine the American slave system, enslaved Africana women did not enjoy this consideration as helpless beings. Indeed, Sojourner Truth exposes this fragile, helpless woman as mere cultural construction when she answers back in her 1851 speech at the women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio:

 And ain’t I  woman. Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and   gathered into barns. . . . I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well. And ain’t I a woman?

Hard physical labor made Sister Sojourner a third class citizen.  And to those who question her claim to being woman, she points to her thirteen children—all sold into slavery — thus highlighting the contradiction in the White people’s blanket use of the term woman since the enslaved Africana woman was certainly neither considered fragile, helpless, nor an “Angel in the House.”

But one could ask, were African societies, so often accused of excessive machismo, really so intolerant of women’s strength and success?  To answer this question, one must of necessity examine Africana women’s activities and place their experiences at the center of analysis so that thought and action can work together to engender theory.  This way, the personal and private can become political and public. 

The notion that a “woman” is first and foremost an individual is at once traditional and liberal, for even traditional religions like Christianity recognized individual male and female salvation.  No husband stands before God to answer for his wife. And the specificity of woman as a subject being is and should be part of any liberal theory since all women cannot, and must not think alike.  

And after all, what makes a feminist theory necessary, the reason we are here having this conversation, is the fact that women are individuals first and foremost. And thus, my own personal story becomes liberal, public, and political too.

The Personal Becomes Public and Political: Growing Up Girl and Black in Africa

I grew up in Port-Harcourt (Nigeria), the historic coastal “Garden City” by the Atlantic. It is also an exciting metropolis, rich in oil and cosmopolitan, with a hybrid population from every corner of the globe.  Safe in my world, secure in the protecting love of my parents, the woman question was never in my consciousness.  As a young girl, I thought the world was the way it was and should be.  I was young, safe and happy; life was an adventure; I did not know what color I was because such issues did not impinge on my consciousness. 

My mum was always there for us, her children — loving, organized, disciplined, busy at home, in the farm, and with her other business ventures. She had farms that produced sheaves of vegetables for early morning sale.   Our house in the early morning was a beehive of activities, full of fragrances and the aroma of cooking, for my mum also taught other women to bake for a fee. 

Additionally, my mum was involved in native soap making and produced laundry detergent. Again, fellow women far and wide came to learn the skill. Later, my mum left this trade and went into the cloth selling business. I would later come to recognize this industrious woman as a community othermother functioning in the wider Black community; and her empowering cultural and economic activities as a pace-setting, pioneering entrepreneurship, an effort to establish a truly thriving cottage industry. 

So cloistered, so protected, so young, I grew into a young adult knowing nothing about the woman question, but believing that every marriage should be as companionate as was my parents’ and that every woman was, and should be as loving, strong, reliable, and resourceful as my mother. Hers was a pattern of  traditionalist African female activism that was in conflict with Western designs for African  womanhood.

The Europeanization of the African — An Alienation Process

Certainly, Feminism / Womanism was not in vogue in Nigeria when I grew up in the late 1960s. Women like my mother lived their normal life in existing social and cultural conditions without labels or categorization.  When I went to High School, we were taught by Irish Catholic Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary Congregation.  It was a semi-cloistered convent experience.  I had no way of questioning the texts we did in literature. 

I fell in love with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I devoured all the novels of Charles Dickens, especially A Tale of Two Cities.  I was fascinated with the dramatic frenzy and turmoil of the French Revolution; in fact,  Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel became my hero; George Eliot was a romantic favorite, and it did not occur to me to question why Mary Ann Evans — a woman with such a formidable talent — would be writing under a male pseudonym, a fact that much later, Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Ellen Moers in  Literary Women, critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in Mad Women in the Attic, and especially, Ellen Showalter in A Literature of Their Own. . . would explain as the feminist imitation phase of women’s writing when they sought to be like men.  

I especially loved Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, and wept when she drowned with her brother Tom.  Along with Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, I first scorned the arrogant Mr. Darcy, then melted and fell in love with him for his sense of honor and helpless fascination with the opinionated Lizzy.  The English society of the nineteenth century fascinated me and I breathlessly followed the travails of Charles Dickens characters: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, etc. 

Then I descended on the romantic poets and  was haunted by John Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes;”  I loved the flamboyance and marveled at the decadent panache and hubris  of the boundary-pushing, adventurous Lord Gordon Byron even as I memorized  cantos of  “Don Juan” and “Childe Harold;” I recited lines of “She Walks in Beauty like the Night.”  Next, I became a sleuth with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and solved crime  mysteries with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes;  next, Rider Haggard became my passion with Alain Quartermain, Ayesha or She Who Must Be Obeyed, King Solomon’s Mines; I even felt sympathy for the foolish, delusionary, eponymous Madame Bovary, et cetera, et cetera.  

Thus, as a teenager, I devoured the books of European civilization and literatures that filled the shelves of my school and city libraries. And it never once occurred to me to question my complete socialization into a Euro-cultural universe not my own, nor to wonder why my missionary teachers never introduced me to such great African novels as Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, by Chinua Achebe, or Cry the Beloved Country by the white Alan Paton, nor Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams, nor the prison Letters to Martha of Dennis Brutus and the writings of Esk’ia Mphalele — all of which would have exposed to me South Africa’s Apartheid policies. 

Because I did not know, I never asked why no representative works by Africana men and women were ever considered worthy texts for Nigerian schools; nor why the thoughts of  black poets, novelists, and philosophers like the great W.E.B.Du Bois, the Negritude trinity — Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas — C.L.R.James, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, Kwame Nkrumah, Christopher Okigbo — who had all been writing lyrical and political works for decades — were not considered proper tools with which to educate Black African youth.

Nor did I wonder why no African / Nigerian woman was ever mentioned as a writer.  Kenyan writer Grace Ogot, Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, or  South African female novelists, Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head,  and Doris Lessing — all of them were writing at this time.  So thorough and complete was the job of European socialization, and cultural alienation done to Africans that even Leopold Sedar Senghor once spoke about “nos ancetres, les Gaulois” — our ancestors of the Gaulois period. 

When at last I became aware of any black woman writer, I can only recall very negative words hurled at the Oguta Igbo woman called Flora Nwapa, Africa’s first female novelist who was considered so intrepid, so unfeminine as actually to write a novel, Efuru (1966) — not a fairy tale, mind you — but a whole novel with an eponymous female hero Efuru, placed at the center of the dramatic plot, charged with determining her own existence as an autonomous being. And in a cultural setting where motherhood and wifehood defined a woman Nwapa’s Efuru was so unfeminine as to declare, and thus symbolically encourage others, that a woman is not useless to the world because she is childless, and had failed marriages. 

African men and women sniggered at Flora Nwapa.

The Refashioning of the Africana Female

In time, I would come to Europe and America to rediscover my Africanness.  I would have a total of ten children, become a state Government Commissioner in charge of Social Welfare to really confront the daily oppressions and marginalization of Nigerian /African women. As a Commissioner, these experiences prompted me to organize cultural campaigns for the proper social treatment of children, women, and the handicapped, and to realize that all these groups of people are often lumped together for a reason — they are kin to one another.  One of the ill-effects of Western-style civilization is that life becomes individualistic whereas the traditional African community had ways and means of integrating the orphaned, the sick, the widowed, and the elderly. 

All these were defining experiences in my life. I went back to the university and tried to put all this new first-hand knowledge of the different cultural categories into a theoretical framework.  My quest for my Ph.D. brought me into contact with feminist theorists and multiple critical perspectives, leading to a serious critical analysis of my own life experiences. This quest would reshape my life as I reconsidered the gender-structured life that men and women I knew and worked with were leading.  

I discovered that I do indeed qualify as one of those strong women like my mother, who afflicted with the scourge of childlessness for a combined total of fourteen years yet worked extremely hard to manage their numerous responsibilities, women who every day strive to bring proper balance to the obligations of home and husband and yet manage to wrestle from life a fulfilling role. I realized that reclaiming African women’s intellectual tradition involves examining the every day ideas and activities of Black women usually not considered intellectual whose lives were deemed insignificant, or largely distorted or completely ignored.  

I was then able to articulate  into proper theoretic discourse the lives of women who lived restricted, exploited, and battered lives, who suffered betrayal from husbands and sometimes from children; the bruised lives of children who were sold into marriages to men old enough to be their grandfathers and whose lives were consequently blighted for ever.  Then, my husband and I, we vowed to set all of our ten surviving children on the path of acquiring the highest level of education, a true knowledge that empowers and that would also serve to connect the empowered self to the greater community in order to stimulate social change.  

Women in Chains. . . &  the Fight against Anti-women Practices

These cultural issues made the universalism of Western feminism irrelevant because this white, middle-class women’s ideology failed to address the culturally specific conditions and interests of Black and non-white women.  It therefore became necessary for Africana women’s postcolonial theory to disengage itself and be transformed into Womanism — a concept set up to correct misconceptions, redefine Africans womanhood, and place it in its own specific cultural space.  

My second book, Women in Chains: Abandonment in Love Relationships in the Fiction of Selected West African Writers — the literary offspring of my foray into advanced academia — became my medium to document these incredible insights into society which I had gained as a Government Commissioner in charge of Social Welfare; and critically to revisit Africa’s social institutions and some of its culture-based, mostly mysogynist issues, such as barrenness or infertility, the excesses and double standard inherent in polygamy which by its very nature means that it is not the woman but the man who has the choice. 

It is the man who is catered to by several women;  the veil as a metaphor for female silencing and invisibility in Muslim areas and the challenge to it, cruelty from husbands suffering from insecurities arising out of a rabid male ego, the practice of demanding excessive dowry, and other tradition-based myths and superstitions that impede growth and happiness of the woman.  

Was this a literary foray into a zone fraught with danger, and does the researcher run the risk of incurring a negative cultural backlash, as Alice Walker did with the 1981 The Color Purple?  For me and for other late 20th Century African women researchers/writers, it was imperative to generate appropriate enlightenment among the literati so as to foster social change.

Mariama B ’s Une Si  Longue Lettre, for instance, advocates the woman’s right to choose and the rightness of the couple as a unit cell of the larger family. In a Muslim society that has the system of four wives as a religious tenet, it is significant for Ba’s afflicted protagonist Ramatoulaye to declare: “C’est de l’harmonie du couple que nait la reussite familiale. . .”  [The success of the family is born of a couple’s harmony. . . I am one of those who can realize themselves fully and bloom only when they form part of a couple;” or for Sembene’s evoluee character, Rama, to postulate that the solution for social problems like polygamy rests with the women, that in fact “the day when women will summon up courage and tell their husbands: ‘if you take another wife, I will leave you;’ then and only then will polygamy be eradicated, so that African can join the global community for scientific progress.  

Mariama Ba and Ousmane Sembene in their Muslim societies have done so much more than any other writers to empower Muslim women, and advocate a renascent Africa shorn of limiting obsolete cultural values.

In other cultural and linguistic environments, other writers are doing the same job. When Buchi Emecheta’s  Nnu Ego, in The Joys of Motherhood, made insane under a plethora of  restrictive, patriarchal mores, fails to realize that she is not home, but lies by the roadside and dies, abandoned by husband and neglected by children, the London-based Nigerian writer Emecheta is at once fighting against polygamy and its objectification of women as sex objects or personal property, the rancor and female discord it generates, as well as the undue emphasis placed on children, especially males, needed to ensure the bloodline. 

Emecheta  ironically questions the supposed “joys of motherhood” when in Nnu Ego’s words, a woman who had a total of nine children can die on a roadside like a woman who was barren. Thus, the co-wife Adaku who has daughters but no sons decides that she has had enough of the oppressions of polygamy, and moves out of the marital home, determined to empower herself by starting a clothing business, and give her girls the best education possible. 

Thus, like Flora Nwapa, Emecheta, using The Joys of Motherhood and One is Enough is making a practical statement that there is fulfilling life even for the childless woman, or one who has only daughters; that education and economic empowerment are needed to realize this life of worth, that women if they are to survive their husband’s brutality, need to be emotionally stronger and less dependent on their spouses for happiness, which actually is within the reach of anyone who takes time to be actively kind and productive.  

Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah condemns the excessive premium placed on the male sex by which “one fool male” is worth more than ten girls. In Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Adah painfully accepts the fact that she was a disappointment to her parents because she was a girl who arrived when everyone was expecting a boy.  And yet, today, today, African women have achieved success as heads of corporations, presidents of Universities, senators, doctors, scientists and what have you.  

Other writers make it plain that, sometimes, it is the man who is infertile.  In Nwapa’s Idu, the husband Amarajeme commits suicide, because it is known publicly that he is impotent, repeating to himself: “I am not a man.” Such revisionist research is healthy for women who had borne the brunt of the ill-effects of infertility from husbands who resort to polygamy. But Womanist ideology striving for wholeness in the society says to such: “no need for suicide; bury the ego. Bring into family life, the qualities of companionate love, mutual respect and humility and go for medical treatment for infertility like Ije’s husband, Dozie in Ifeoma Okoye’s Behind the Clouds. 

And in all these situations, Women in Chains. . .  says afflicted women can survive only if they are positive, if they can transcend their emotional battering and psychological prison, if they are enlightened, if they have life-affirming jobs, if they are economically independent — Virginia Woolf’s famed — “a room of one’s own and five hundred guineas.” 

Africana women’s situation finds a feminist universalist analogy even in European women’s situation in earlier centuries. In France, Christine de Pisan theorized even back in the 14th – and early 15th century with La Cite des Dames that women’s political, economic, and sexual marginalization is indeed a social construct, a struggle continued by foremothers of the novel such as the scandalous Aphra Behn, Mary Wroath (Urania), Mary de la RiviPre Manley (The New Atalantis), the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish (CCXXXIV Letters?), that strong-minded woman – called mad Madge – because she was fearless, and in fiery rhetoric questioned existing lopsided, gender  relations, as did other writers from Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, to our present-day writers and theorists

A History of Africana Women’s Literature – Traditional Women of Power

The final chapter of Women in Chains . . . suggests further research into feminist / womanist to excavate the histories of strong Africana women like my mother who have flourished even in sexist, patriarchal cultures — women from the East, West, South and North of Africa, and from there to reconnect women with their sisters of the African diaspora so as to re-establish continuity in female activism.  This in time became my pre-occupation, out of which was born:  A History of Africana Women’s Literature.  

Its premise is that from Africa’s oral beginnings, there is continuity—uninterrupted—in Black women’s activism in all the spheres of existence up to modern written discourse. The ground-breaking essays with their cross-disciplinary approach bring back to life and give voice to the silenced woman – her-story –  whose activism of the past was usually ignored in male-authored literary his-story.  Conceived in 1999, it took five years to bring this book project to fruition. 

A History of Africana Women’s Literature satisfies the reconstructive phase of female writing — a more positive stage — which in my poetics on Africana Women’s literary study, I call Womanist Creativism because women as writers will use the tropes and resources of literature to create strong, capable female characters not suffering as passive victims on social inequities, but women who made their communities take note of their creative force. 

Womanist Creativism as posited in A History of Africana Women’s Literature lets readers hear the reclaimed voices of women which male literary history has so far suppressed, ignored, or denigrated.  In addition to making the connection between Muslim women from North African (Mahgreb) and women from other regions of Africa, it connects as well with women of the African diaspora.

Europeans failed to realize that some traditional women even had political roles in communal institutions, and so, A History of Africana Women’s Literature presents women playing the kinds of role that my mother had played in the family and community. From Africa’s oral beginnings, women have been productive and have contributed to history. 

Traditional African women are implicated in W.E.B. Du Bois’s  answer to the question “What is Civilization?”: “in the African village were bred religion, industry, government, education, and art . . . . bred as integral interrelated things.” Women were part of this workforce because they artistically wove into cloths, motifs and symbols that documented social happenings, cultural and religious beliefs, various animals and medicinal plant, and historical events.  

Pre-colonial rural women controlled their farm produce and other cash crops, but with the colonial monetization of land, labor, and cash crops, women lost this advantage.  Hand-woven cloth like the Akwete or the Ghanaian Kente was and still is a metaphor for wealth, status, and power.  Women kept alive collective cultural heritage, functioning as keepers of the word.  At night, they gathered their children — boys and girls — around the lit log fire instructing and entertaining them with folktales, riddles, legends and songs, which the youth in turn will pass on to succeeding generations. 

As mothers, sisters, wives and oftentimes as widows of powerful men, they were customarily called upon to determine land boundaries, and ownership of economic trees.  As daughters-of-the-soil  (umuada or umumgb t ), women  were very active in group politics, arbitrated disputes occurring in their paternal homes and exercised tremendous influence in the community  As midwives before and after the advent of missionary hospitals, traditional women delivered and nurtured generations of young babies. 

In some cultures such as my pre-West Igbo society when cultural beliefs sanctioned the throwing away of twins, my mother tells me that women as midwives delivered the twins and triplets babies and secretly spirited away the surplus babies to neighboring families and a childless woman would wake up in the morning, open her door and be visited with the gift of new babies.  Thus, through female bonding and connivance, women preserved population balance. 

Women, as farmers and powerful traders, were equally the backbone of the economic and agricultural life of their communities and even in modern times, as market women, they organize formidable unions that can exert pressure on Government.  An example is the women’s revolt caused by the 1928 colonial government imposed-poll tax.   

Igbo women organized communities of women throughout the region to protest this excessive taxation imposed on them as well as on their men-folk.  The protest lasted from 1929 to 1930, ultimately, bringing down several colonial-appointed warrant chiefs and rulers.  The tax on women was canceled and women were given a voice in the selection of local rulers.  As wealthy traders, women contributed to, and sometimes, maintained their husband’s homesteads. They developed the art of pottery, looked after shrines and acted as the community’s othermothers. 

A complex symbolism of sacred mythopeia developed around the use of the female art form made with indigo dark blue colored extract from  pods called Uri / Uli.  Because Uri is used to draw sacred symbols like python, moon, or sun, experts therefore conclude that the symbolism of Uri may have inspired Igbo traditional religion. Thus, as diviners and priestesses, women ministered as healers and repository of African spiritual and cultural history.  

Achebe’s priestess Chielo, Nwapa’s Efuru and Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah’s Anoua in Two Thousand Seasons become the literary forerunners of mystical preachers like Baby Suggs in Morrison’s Beloved.  Like Baby Suggs, Armah’s Anoua adopts a spirituality of “The Way” that ensures an egalitarian, national ideal in which everyone is every other person’s keeper – “the way of reciprocity.” 

Mvuyekure’s essay traces the transformation of an East African woman Nyabingi into a supernatural motif inspiring colonial and anti-colonial political resistance, eventually being transplanted into the West Indies as a politico-religious movement — Rastafarianism — with Bob Marley as founder.

In East Africa, Mwanakupona, a literary woman in non-literate times, adopts the gender-specific form of “utendi” as a creative medium and, in her poem addressed to her daughter, teaches the young female generation how to manipulate even their patriarchal society in order to survive and achieve self-awareness and empowerment.  Thus, an early traditional woman poet writing in a heavily sexist setting is rehabilitated as a model of African creative process that later generations imitate.  

In the field of politics, women participated and even led the way in nation-building.  In male-dominated cultures, Queen Amina of Kano in Nigeria ruled and expanded the boundaries of her territory.  Queen Kambassa of Bonny defied her gender-structured society to become Queen and to rule, believing that there should be no gender dichotomy of activities.  

Creative pioneer and independent-minded Omu Okwei of Osomari during colonial times built up an extensive commercial empire trading with Europeans in tobacco, ivory, textiles and alcoholic drinks. Today, a marble statue is built in her honor and a street named after her in Onitsha, the big commercial city on the Niger River.   

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, mother of Fela Ransome Kuti — Africa’s great Afro-Juju musician, rebel and political activist — did not have to be a radical feminist to register great achievements — she formed market women unions, cultural organization to redress social injustice, especially to women, and the Commoners’ People’s Party. She suffered arrests, harassment, finally dying, thrown by agents of the then Nigerian military government from a upstairs window of her son’s house – the Kalakutta Republic; and thus, she died a martyr to women’s cause. 

These are women who in less-gender-friendly times bravely exploited the resources available to them to show leadership.  Their areas of achievements include war, rulership, politics, art, commerce, education and social welfare. They were not tokens but true examples of many women of energy, vision, resilience, and resourcefulness functioning in traditional societies. Certainly, this female dynamism of a historic past can serve as a paradigm for 3rd  Millennium women’s activism.

Maghreb Women of the Verb

If anyone was in any doubt as to the universalism of women’s oppression, A History of Africana Women’s Literature presents North African “women of the verb” from Algeria and Morocco who through their writings keep live the collective spirit of struggle which women of yesterday passed on to them.  For these writers, women’s oral  heritage of activism is alive in the present, reclaimed through writing, through “the verb.”  

Revisiting the dynamic female oral past through their writings, contemporary Muslim women can reject their disempowering victim status, reclaim their share in the divine order “to read,” which the angel gave to the unlettered prophet Mohammed, and thus be able to create new sites of resistance, and ultimately get back their voice.   Writing thus becomes a sacred medium because, being forbidden for women, it had become part of female cultural “disinheritance.”  

In fact, Assia Djebar in her novel Loin de Medine – Far from Medina challenges the relegation of poetic discourse to a sacred plane far from politics, insisting that the “cultural always enfolds the political.”  Djebar records the post-independence disillusionment of North African Muslim women who have engaged in joint-gender nationalist struggles, only to end up with decreased personal freedoms. 

Writers such as Nawal el Sadaawi, Leila Said (Egypt), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), Malika Mokkedem, Assia Djebar (Algeria) recreate historic women of strength who re-invest their own sufferings into healing ways to survive. As usual, education and moral courage illuminate the pathway to self-empowerment.  

The writers of this region reveal that the Prophet Mohammed was in fact pro-woman; his wealthy first wife Khadija, his only child and daughter Fatima, and a later wife Aisha played differing public roles. His wives were continually consulted on political issues even after his death. It was the prophet’s mandate for women to seek knowledge just like men.  Only after the prophet’s death that a masculinist, political (not religious) arm of Islam excluded women from participation in governance by narrowly interpreting Shari’a laws which determine kinship and family structures. 

Especially because of Muslim nationalist struggles with the Christian West, Islamic women pay a heavy price because the virility and authenticity of the menfolk are all tied to the moral and social behavior of their women.  Further restriction and emphasis on fundamentalism — the veil as metaphor for invisibility, the purdah for silencing — burden the Muslim women.  

“Cultural and literary nomadism” — “women in movement” — is a trope that enables  Muslim women writers —  “women of the verb” — to use the medium of writing to revive and recover histories of “dead female bodies” from the obscurity of antiquity to be used as paradigms of “living female voices.” For these activist Muslim women, writing carries a promise of healing.

Southern African Women

Unlike North African Muslim women, Southern African women become literate quite early and like the North African sisters, Southern African women who participate in nationalist struggles with the men, afterwards become disillusioned at their own apartheid condition whereby they suffer violence, rape, and other abuses.  The conditions of Apartheid and Segregation and exile central to the writings of Bessie Head, J. Nozipo Maraire (Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter, 1966) have now been dismantled.  

Contemporary Southern African women writers like Tsitsi Dangaremgba (Nervous Conditions, 1988), Yvonne Vera, through their writings, show identification with other women suffering oppression and gender injustices.  These are women writers who expose and oppose prejudice, and who truly advocate a more equitable, humane conception of humanity.  These writers help to establish the ties that bind women in Africa to its Diaspora by employing oral traditions and other features of cultural heritage.

Equally, applying the feminist concept of universalism, contemporary African women writers are conscious of their connectedness to women from the African diaspora, and to other women despite history, language, or distance.  Enhanced by modern cyber communication, literary bridges span time and continental voids, and discover webs and threads of isolated female experiences that create a commonality.  

Both Women in Chains: Abandonment In Love Relationships. . .  and,  A History of Africana Women’s Literature codify these experiences by presenting imaginative women of courage who know how to exploit their existential conditions, how to pool their resources together, and in union with men — black or white or yellow — struggle to rebuild families, restructure societies, heal wounds, and aim at breaking the vicious cycle of racial, economic, and gender oppression.  

Many women discussed in the two books are models of inspiration because in their lives — fictive or real —  they represent the kind of positive multifaceted activism needed to go into the public sphere, even politics; they are women who have with energy and passion functioned holistically within their societies, who have transcended suffering and handicaps, who have shown leadership, and even in traditional settings, who have  shown resilience and resourcefulness by embracing life-affirming work and by refusing to go mad, give up, or die.  

Like strong black women, they were too busy, too disciplined to suffer emotional / mental break / melt down.  In a child-defined society where motherhood still defines womanhood, these women were functional, strongly individualistic, and autonomous; and because they were successful, they wrestled respect and recognition from their societies, and also managed to achieve a complementary, companionate union with their husbands.  

The truth emerges that within the African cultural ethos, there was room for such strong women as my mother to operate with respect. These women even got cultural titles and were great entrepreneurs. A woman was what she made herself to be. These are women who are truly survivors.  Thus, feminist theory goes from academia where it should originate into the public arena for practical, concrete application.

The personal becomes both public and political. Thus, with the advent of Western-style education, dynamic, strong women like my mother, instead of falling into the general category of voiceless, inferior women, would be transformed to become Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, or Rose Ure Mezu.  For, ultimately, neither self-definition, — reclamation nor — fulfillment is handed to anyone — man or woman — on a gold platter.  

The power to self-actualize remains the preserve of any woman who is talented, industrious, brave, resourceful, disciplined and above all, imaginative.  With self-actualization, women can dictate their own terms of engagement within the family and society. Women in various parts of the world have become heads of states, astronauts, inventors, yes, but the universalism of feminism makes it obvious that even in advanced Western countries, women are still likely to become victims of oppression and other forms of physical violence. 

Social Ills Still to be Tackled — Politics and the Media

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, and yesterday, we celebrated International Women’s Day, many challenges and obstacles remain even in the technologically advanced United States of America.  We are also conscious of the fact that despite its many pro-woman benefits, American socio-political life is still structured along gender and racial lines.  To date, no woman — black or white — has successfully run for the American presidency; to date, there are only a handful of women senators, a one-term only Black woman senator, one black male senator, no Asian–born senator, and so on, to correctly reflect the culturally hybrid nature of American society.  

There is even a palpable anti-woman sentiment against those activist women especially in politics who are perceived as strong, who are striving to redefine traditional roles of womanhood in the family, the economy, in religion and politics.  How do we, and should women make the role of the American First Lady less ornamental and ceremonial and more functional?  And what should be the role of a First Man under a Woman President? These questions concern the woman question. 

Visual Media a Tool for  Negative Social Stereotyping of Woman

In the entertainment arena, soap operas and T.V. dramas remain mediums of sexism, gender manipulation, and escapism: women are made to play decorative, degrading roles as vixens, love victims, killing one another vying for the love of a man as if he is a disappearing species, busy getting pregnant in order to trap the man, switching pregnancy and DNA results with impunity.  Indeed, it is a universe fraught with dangerous and harmful possibilities. 

Consequently, we are mindful of feminists who theorize that women no matter in what culture, who accept degrading roles, degrade both themselves and other women.  These must trivialize hard-won feminist victories by hedonistically wallowing in T.V. melodramas as playthings, frivolously suing for millions in damages for sexual come-ons when a simple “no” said with firmness and dignity could have done the trick.  After all, every woman has the right to choose to say “No!” unless there is force involved.   As a result, when serious acts of sexual assaults occur, these get treated with cynical disbelief by a disenchanted public unable to distinguish between what is true assault or not.

The Quagmire of Colorism

Indeed, concerned women are still valiantly trying to continue the fight waged by W.E.B. Du Bois, Harlem Renaissance writers, and Civil rights martrys like Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, the living Rosa Parks to convert American society from one of colorism and pigmentocracy to a genuine non-racist democracy; and as black women, we realize that continued in-fighting regarding shades of color will lead to intra-racial genocide. 

The racist and economic elements of slavery destroyed Black families by reversing the roles men and women traditionally played in a family. And Black women during slavery struggled to hold the black family together despite inhuman obstacles, using African-derived conceptions of self and community to resist negative evaluations of African womanhood.  And today, Africana women head more than sixty percent of the homes as single, working parents.  Women deserve love and not disrespect as our sons and daughters rap their way to fame and fortune.   

As black women, we must try more vigorously to discourage young black rappers from producing videos that feature and commodify — to paraphrase Marita Golden’s Don’t Play in the Sun — row after row of adolescent girls draped on the arms of gold-swathed Black male rappers.  And Alice Walker is right when she describes a Womanist as a woman committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people — male and female, and as one who loves herself, regardless.

Africana Women of the Diaspora

Consequently, people in literature should privilege writing as a medium for the search for truth.  It thus becomes the task of the writer to keep probing for the truth for art indeed does play a salvatory role.  Generally, in the culture of Africa, the survival of the individual is traditionally tied up with that of the whole community.  

For their commitment to education as a powerful symbol of social change,  we remember, not just contemporary writers, and theorists, but also these other Africana women: Anna Julia Cooper who using her 1892 A Voice from the South championed the case for the education of black women, Mary McLeod Bethune who founded a college, Nannie Burroughs who campaigned for black women’s education, Johnetta Cole who became the first Black woman president of Spellman College from which the likes of Alice Walker graduated. 

We celebrate them for realizing, in the words of Patricia Hill Collins that “ignorance doomed Black people to powerlessness” (147) and for making education the cornerstone of community development because under slavery, it was illegal for Black people to learn to read or write.

Consequently, people in literature privilege writing as a medium for the search for truth. Literature takes the reader into the core of human experience. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran insists that the novel, for instance, is a very democratic medium because it is not blind to other people’s problems and pains. Not seeing them means denying their existence” (132). 

For me, writing as art is a joy-filled intellectual endeavor; through concretely lived experiences, I can sift through and celebrate those aspects of life and culture that are indeed worth preserving and there are many. The traditional Africana family, for instance, is a love-bearing, nurturing matrix in which the survival of the individual is traditionally tied up with that of the whole community — and this should be cherished, and nourished back to life, in Africa, in the Americas, in the Caribbean and everywhere else, especially in an age with institutions fast becoming more technical, impersonal, and complex. 

It thus becomes the task of the writer to keep probing for truth, to keep prompting society to re-examine its priorities and readjust the way it privileges its human values. Art indeed does play a salvatory role.  

Imagination as a Powerful Tool for Social Change

Finally, to shed light on asymmetric social conditions for women and all peoples, imagination remains the one most potent element in writing without which authentic freedom can hardly exist. Imagination ensures for us the right to dream, be visionary and re-conceptualize life with all its joys, successes, fear, despair and other challenges which, if overcome, enable us to say, “yes! we have lived on God’s good earth.”  How wonderful to be able to record our exultation in being women living in the thirdMillennium, women who unlike our exceptional mothers of the past can now read and write unfettered and unmocked, women who prompted by a commitment beyond race to right inequities are able to probe social consciences, promote the oneness and wholeness of our common, good earth, using the art of writing in novels, poetry, drama, essays.  

As the French would say: “Que merveilleux!” or as the Nigerian Igbos would say, “Omaka!” Indeed, how wonderful for me in particular in this age, at this moment in time,  to be a woman and a writer, an African woman, a black woman, a Black African woman writer whose art of scribbling down thoughts, wielding ideas, says for always that she has lived!  How wonderful to celebrate with pride the truth that we are all  women; that we are Black or Asian or White  women, that as Africana women we can re-enter the public sphere of civic activism inspired by the strength and resilience of our mothers, Africana women of our historic past; and we can dream of a future in which an Africana woman can occupy the highest office in the land, infuse new life into the historic African continent, and make our world right once more; and our celebration should not just be one month a year, but every minute, every day, every month.  And as part of the Homage to My People, I dedicate this poem to all women:

You are Woman

Although you could scatter

You often prefer to gather

You could strike out in conquest

Yet balance in the home is your quest

For You, my dear, are eternal Woman.


You shoulder the burdens of the ages

With the patient wisdom of the sages

The tripod task of man, child and Self

Is a juggling act worthy of an elf itself

But all know You are capable Woman.


Although most often there=s no appreciation

Yet you people the earth as if by proclamation

Reaping in return naught but fearful domination

But eternal woman, march on to life’s termination

Because ordained from on High, You are the Woman.


Tis only the strong who know how to stoop

Tis only the brave who pretend to lose

Tis only the kind who suffer and smile

Tis only the wise who can quell the strife

Tis only You Creator/Nurturer/Worker Woman

Tis only You, my dear, who are Wonder Woman.


Since the dawn of life you are made scapegoat

Yet across the ages, You carry a great workload

But Say! If one day you decide to proclaim a strike

Then it will dawn on all that you=re the pillar of life:

Indestructible, Irreplaceable, Irrepressible!

Capable, eternal, wonder Woman!      

You are Woman.               (April 10, 2000)

A Lecture Given on the Occasion of Women’s History Month Holden at Enoch Pratt Free Library, Northwood Branch, Baltimore, Maryland, On Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Copyright by Dr. Rose Ure Mezu, Associate Professor, Dept. of English and Language Arts, Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD 21251, March 9, 2005.

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Other essays by Dr. Rose Ure Mezu:

An Africana Blueprint for Living in the 3rd Millennium Global Community1: An Essay

Pope John Paul II: A Life with a Mission: A Mission of Grace and Moral Strength

A History of Africana Women’s Literature   (Introduction)

Africana Women: Their Historic Past and Future Activism

Black Nationalists: Reconsidering: Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T., & Nkrumah (Introduction)

Chinua Achebe The Man and His Works (Introduction)

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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities. Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . . Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 3 October 2007 




Home Rose Ure Mezu Index 

Related files: Africana Women Intro  A History of Africana Women’s Literature