A couple of years ago, I had the literary pleasure of reading Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. This very well-written novel is set in America before the Civil War and tells the story of three black women who accompany their white masters annually to a luxurious resort in Ohio. One year, a new girl arrives and she is a bit of a wild child. Her fierce red hair is not braided down or otherwise tamed like “normal” black women, and the others find themselves often gossiping about her. One day, someone asks her if she even knows how to braid, and her response was something like this (imagine hand on hip and a pointing finger),
“Of course I know how to braid! What kind of woman you think I is?”
As crazy as it might sound, this really struck home with me. There are a lot of things I know how to do now because I thought I was expected, as a black woman from the South, to know how to do. I taught myself (with much advice and encouragement from my husband) how to cook as an adult because Southern women are supposedly good cooks. In my 20’s, I joined a choir, did vocal warm ups, and practiced singing daily because all black women can sing, right? A few years ago, I ditched the chemicals and became re-acquainted with my natural hair for several reasons, but one of the top five was that I did not want to be that black woman who doesn’t know how to do her own hair.
But does it really matter? In the 21st century? Does it still say what kind of woman you are based on what you can do?
This could go for any woman, regardless of race or ethnicity. Does it matter now if you can sew or not? Does it matter these days if you run an orderly household?
Many standards, and dare I say stereotypes, for woman have fortunately gone by the wayside, but many times I wonder if the desire to be that woman is still in us. All women don’t want to be Bree Van de Kamp, but do all women have something that they deem a necessary skill they must accomplish as a personal sign of womanhood success?
I think it’s funny that Mawu (the wild child in Wench) found it so appalling to be accused of not knowing how to do hair, like that was the absolute simplest task and, duh, everyone knows how to do that. I think the equivalent today would be if someone asked me if I knew how to…no, it’s the same. I think if someone asked me today if I knew how to braid, I would respond the same way (even though I just learned).