Beah Richards: A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood

This powerful piece by Beulah (Beah) Elizabeth Richardson, presented to a Chicago conference audience of predominantly white, married women in 1951, is scarcely available for reflection today. We delve deep into Richards' words and the sexed, raced, lives of women at this time in history through graduate courses in Women and Gender Studies, and have eyes opened wide to the brutal, complex realities of a time not long ago... When the intersections of sex, race, culture and mothering were as intertwined as they are today, and in some ways, more so, and still have profound influence and impact on how we view so many aspects of women's lives, mothers' lives, our lives.


A Black Woman Speaks... of White Womanhood

A Black Woman Speaks…
Of White Womanhood
Of White Supremacy
Of Peace
It is right that I a woman
black,
should speak of white womanhood.
My fathers
my brothers
my husbands
my sons
die for it; because of it.
And their blood chilled in electric chairs,
stopped by hangman’s noose,
cooked by lynch mobs’ fire,
spilled by white supremacist mad desire to kill for profit,
gives me that right.

I would that I could speak of white womanhood
as it will and should be
when it stands tall in full equality.
But then, womanhood will be womanhood
void of color and of class,
and all necessity for my speaking thus will be past.
Gladly past.

But now, since ‘tis deemed a thing apart
supreme,
I must in searching honesty report
how it seems to me.
White womanhood stands in bloodied skirt
and willing slavery
reaching out adulterous hand
killing mine and crushing me.
What then is this superior thing
that in order to be sustained must needs feed upon my flesh?
How came this horror to be?
Let’s look to history.

They said, the white supremacist said
that you were better than me,
that your fair brow should never know the sweat of slavery.
They lied.
White womanhood too is enslaved,
the difference is degree.

They brought me here in chains.
They brought you here willing slaves to man.
You, shiploads of women each filled with hope
that she might win with ruby lip and saucy curl
and bright and flashing eye
him to wife who had the largest tender.
Remember?
And they sold you here even as they sold me.
My sisters, there is no room for mockery.
If they counted my teeth
they did appraise your thigh
and sold you to the highest bidder
the same as I.

And you did not fight for your right to choose
whom you would wed
but for whatever bartered price
that was the legal tender
you were sold to a stranger’s bed
in a stranger land
remember?
And you did not fight.
Mind you, I speak not mockingly
but I fought for freedom,
I’m fighting now for our unity.
We are women all,
and what wrongs you murders me
and eventually marks your grave
so we share a mutual death at the hand of tyranny.

They trapped me with the chain and gun.
They trapped you with lying tongue.
For, 'less you see that fault-
that male villainy
that robbed you of name, voice and authority,
that murderous greed that wasted you and me,
he, the white supremacist, fixed your minds with poisonous thought:
“white skin is supreme.”
and therewith bought that monstrous change
exiling you to things.
Changed all that nature had ill you wrought of gentle usefulness,
abolishing your spring.
Tore out your heart,
set your good apart from all that you could say,
think,
feel,
know to be right.
And you did not fight,
but set your minds fast on my slavery
the better to endure your own.

'Tis true
my pearls were beads of sweat
wrung from weary bodies’ pain,
instead of rings upon my hands
I wore swollen, bursting veins.
My ornaments were the wip-lash’s scar
my diamond, perhaps, a tear.
Instead of paint and powder on my face
I wore a solid mask of fear to see my blood so spilled.
And you, women seeing
spoke no protest
but cuddled down in your pink slavery
and thought somehow my wasted blood
confirmed your superiority.

Because your necklace was of gold
you did not notice that it throttled speech.
Because diamond rings bedecked your hands
you did not regret their dictated idleness.
Nor could you see that the platinum bracelets
which graced your wrists were chains
binding you fast to economic slavery.
And though you claimed your husband’s name
still could not command his fidelity.

You bore him sons.
I bore him sons.
No, not willingly.
He purchased you.
He raped me,
I fought!
But you fought neither for yourselves nor me.
Sat trapped in your superiority
and spoke no reproach.
Consoled your outrage with an added diamond brooch.
Oh, God, how great is a woman’s fear
who for a stone, a cold, cold stone
would not defend honor, love or dignity!

You bore the damning mockery of your marriage
and heaped your hate on me,
a woman too,
a slave more so.
And when your husband disowned his seed
that was my son
and sold him apart from me
you felt avenged.
Understand:
I was not your enemy in this,
I was not the source of your distress.
I was your friend, I fought.
But you would not help me fight
thinking you helped only me.
Your deceived eyes seeing only my slavery
aided your own decay.
Yes, they condemned me to death
and they condemned you to decay.
Your heart whisked away,
consumed in hate,
used up in idleness
playing yet the lady’s part
estranged to vanity.
It is justice to you to say your fear equalled your tyranny.


You were afraid to nurse your young
lest fallen breast offend your master’s sight
and he should flee to firmer loveliness.
And so you passed them, your children, on to me.
Flesh that was your flesh and blood
that was your blood drank the sustenance of life from me.
And as I gave suckle I knew I nursed my own child’s enemy.
I could have lied,
told you your child was fed till it was dead of hunger.
But I could not find the heart to kill orphaned innocence.
For as it fed, it smiled and burped and gurgled with content
and as for color knew no difference.
Yes, in that first while
I kept your sons and daughters alive.

But when they grew strong in blood
and bone that was of my milk
you
taught them to hate me.
Put your decay in their hearts and upon their lips
so that strength that was of myself
turned and spat upon me,
despoiled my daughters, and killed my sons.
You know I speak true.
Though this is not true for all of you.

When I bestirred myself for freedom
and brave Harriet led the way
some of you found heart and played a part
in aiding my escape.
And when I made my big push for freedom
your sons fought at my sons’ side,
Your husbands and brothers too fell in that battle
when Crispus Attucks died.
It’s unfortunate that you acted not in the way of justice
but to preserve the Union
and for dear sweet pity’s sake;
Else how came it to be with me as it is today?
You abhorred slavery
yet loathed equality.

I would that the poor among you could have seen
through the scheme
and joined hands with me.
Then, we being the majority, could long ago have rescued
our wasted lives.
But no.
The rich, becoming richer, could be content
while yet the poor had only the pretense of superiority
and sought through murderous brutality
to convince themselves that what was false was true.

So with KKK and fiery cross
and bloodied appetites
set about to prove that “white is right”
forgetting their poverty.
Thus the white supremacist used your skins
to perpetuate slavery.
And woe to me.
Woe to Willie McGee.
Woe to the seven men of Martinsville.
And woe to you.
It was no mistake that your naked body on an Esquire calendar
announced the date, May Eighth.
This is your fate if you do not wake to fight.
They will use your naked bodies to sell their wares
though it be hate, Coca-Cola or rape.

When a white mother disdained to teach her children
this doctrine of hate,
but taught them instead of peace
and respect for all men’s dignity
the courts of law did legislate
that they be taken from her
and sent to another state.
To make a Troy Hawkins of the little girl
and a killer of the little boy!

No, it was not for the womanhood of this mother
that Willie McGee died
but for a depraved, enslaved, adulterous woman
whose lustful demands denied,
lied and killed what she could not possess.
Only three months before another such woman lied
and seven black men shuddered and gave up their lives.
These women were upheld in these bloody deeds
by the president of this nation,
thus putting the official seal on the fate
of white womanhood within these United States.
This is what they plan for you.
This is the depravity they would reduce you to.
Death for me
and worse than death for you.

What will you do?
Will you fight with me?
White supremacy is your enemy and mine.
So be careful when you talk with me.
Remind me not of my slavery, I know it well
but rather tell me of your own.
Remember, you have never known me.
You’ve been busy seeing me
as white supremacist would have me be,
and I will be myself.
Free!
My aim is full equality.
I would usurp their plan!
Justice
peace
and plenty for every man, woman and child
who walks the earth.
This is my fight!

If you will fight with me then take my hand
and the hand of Rosa Ingram, and Rosalee McGee,
and as we set about our plan
let our wholehearted fight be:
PEACE IN A WORLD WHERE THERE IS EQUALITY.




Beah: A Black Woman Speaks available on DVD at Women Make Movies

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13 comments:

  1. This is one of the most moving and powerful things I have ever read and seen.

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  2. disturbing, beautiful, and powerful.

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  3. Like... NINETEEN FIFTY ONE was NOT that long ago. :/

    People want so badly to act like we are WAY past all this. No, man.

    No. 1951 was NOT that long ago.

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  4. For a historical, accurate viewpoint, please read Yellow Crocus. I sobbed through the entire book. Can download it from Amazon for next to nothing. This is not beautiful. This is heartbreaking.

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    Replies
    1. It is indeed heartbreaking, but her words are what's beautiful.

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  5. This is a *powerful* commentary not only on race and mothering during a time of slavery and brutal stealing of women's lives from them, but also on sexism that is still alive and well --- and still divides women (whether they realize it or not!) today. I am in love with Richards' urging through this all for women of all colors to come together! Imagine what would happen if we did...

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  6. This is so moving. We must never lose sight of this history.

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  7. Thanks for sharing... I didn't even know all this happened. Was this common? First I've ever learned of such things. It just makes me cry.

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  8. A very powerful picture and message. Glad this was shared, as it's important to remember the suffering these women endured - be it physical, emotional or both.

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    1. This is also a perfect example of how hatred is a LEARNED thing, not inherent to one's nature.

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  9. Heartbreaking...I used to collect Pearl S. Buck books that spoke of a wealthy family that had a live in wet nurse...she'd go home and visit her sickly child sometimes and come back in time to feed the fat baby who wasn't hers. (If I recall right, the books were set in China.) I cried when I read it.

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  10. Any information on the image of the woman breastfeeding?

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  11. What a powerful, yet disturbing truth this woman brings to light. She's absolutely right, both white and black women were slaves to the white man... I almost think I would have rather been born a black woman; at least I could have maintained my dignity and a pure heart. White women, with as much rights and liberties as a slave, were almost forced into that evilness just to provide a life for themselves and their children. We look back at the 40's and 50's and imagine better times of peace and innocence. Personally, I would have HATED to have taken any part in that period of American History.

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