Image description: A black and white photo of the back of a Black woman’s head in a head wrap. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.
This is a guest post by Mel Vee.
Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.
This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note for rape, sexual assault, descriptions of misogynoir.
I learned from an early age that my body was not my own.
My Black body was created to be of service to anyone who showed up and demanded it. This Black body, the only home I have on this speck of stardust navigating the cosmos, was as foreign and alien to me as those distant galaxies.
Why should it have been any other way? I received the message clearly that my body was a means through which others could actualize their own wants and desires. My body was not a safe nor joyous place; not a place to be treasured and tended to gently. My body was a vessel – to serve others, for men’s desires, and for birthing children, but never for me.
My education in the precarity and disposability of the Black female body began at home with the women in my family. Their necessarily strong, beautiful black bodies were always in service to others. Most of the women in my family were and are never still.
One aunt, whom I love dearly, always comes to mind. As far back as I can remember, she was always in motion, toiling away for others. She toiled in her home, at her work as a nurse’s aide and in her church. She did it all. Raised a family, held down a career, opened her home to countless unwanted and discarded people in the community and never spoke a word about her struggles to anyone. No one ever questioned what toll this constant availability and service would wreak on her body and mind.
Her pace continued unabated for the entirety of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years until one day, the inevitable happened. She snapped, culminating in a one month stay in a psychiatric ward. People whispered about what might be the culprit for her decline without ever approaching the truth, that she was used up until she had nothing more to offer.
Barely a few months of marginal concern went by before things returned to “normal”. The unceasing demands, the perpetual toil and the complete disregard for her well-being until her health completely failed and simply never returned. She now spends much of her time bedridden. I feel blessed when I receive a message from her because it means her pain eased up just enough to manage a text. My aunt, once a pillar of our family, reduced to sending texts during a brief respite from her unending pain.
Her body bears the cost of continual and unceasing labour for people who took and took and left her an empty shell. Her body is racked with osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and she constantly struggles to maintain a healthy weight. I am certain some will attribute this to the inevitable ravages of age, but I know in my bones biology is only one part of the narrative.
Her body fought back in the only way available, it shut down. My aunt toiled for years without rest for others. Everyone around her demanded more and she gave more. When her health declined, all the people who had taken from her vanished, without a trace. I wish I could say my aunt is an isolated case, but this is the fate of many women in my family. Our bodies, time and energy are used up until there is nothing left and few, if any, stick around to pick up the pieces. My aunt cautions me continually about her fate and encourages me to take care of myself. It is a grim reminder that I take to heart.
What is most grotesque about the situation of my aunt and so many women like her is how normalized this is; how people expect the Black female body to be at service and at the ready.
Our bodies are not meant to be lovingly inhabited by ourselves. The roots of these expectations are deep, undoubtedly tracing their history to chattel slavery where our bodies were literally not our own. How do you love a body that was never meant for you to enjoy; a body that was historically regarded as property and in contemporary times is a reminder of your presumed inferiority?
My own body bears the scars of the precarity and disposability of the Black female body. My left arm is scarred from my wrist up to near my shoulder. All of these wounds are self-inflicted. Even after a decade of being free from self-harming behaviour, my scars are still visible. I wear them openly as an act of defiance, to hold a mirror up to a society whose violence I internalized and enacted upon myself.
I had no shape, no words for the anger and hatred I felt for being born in a Black female body; a body people regarded as valuable only so far as it could serve. I lashed out against a world which continually shows its brutal and naked contempt for me and people who look like me. I lashed out against the one person I knew had no recourse. Myself. I lashed out because rage is all I could muster. Someone had to be punished for the wound of being a Black girl in a society drenched in anti-Black racism and misogynoir.
In the process of addressing trauma and healing in my life, it has become evident that my internalized misogynoir had caused me to disassociate and distance myself from my body. I became an unwilling occupant in a body that others had treated with the utmost contempt; culminating in rape, sexual assault and violence. I sought to protect myself emotionally in the way traumatized people do, by distancing myself emotionally from the source of pain, my brown and despised body; a body that was valuable only to the extent it could serve.
I am now undergoing the painful but enriching process of coming home to my body; the process of reclaiming a body others have treated with contempt and disrespect. I am now learning to inhabit my body and treat it with love, respect and dignity. I am learning slowly to prioritize the needs and desires of my body. I am learning that my body is worthy of fighting for and keeping alive.
I am coming home now to this brown body after 28 years. I am coming home to this brown body which has been the site of so much grief and violence. I am coming home to this brown body where I laugh, love, fight, move, dance and sing. I am coming home to this brown body, imperfections and all. I am coming home to the only body that will carry me until I die.
I am reclaiming my body in defiance of a society that regards brown bodies with violence.
I am reclaiming my body in honour of all the Black women who no longer can.
I am reclaiming my body so others know it is possible.
I am coming home to my brown body, in the only home I will ever know in this beautiful and sometimes terrifying cosmos.
I am finally coming home.
This post is the final piece in the third contribution to the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!
Also check out the other posts in the series:
- All The Places You’ll Never Go, by Dulcinea Lapis
- An Open Love Letter to My Friends, by Michelle Dang
- Prioritizing, by Mel Vee
- Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health, by Mel Vee
- Living in the Age of White Male Terror, by Mel Vee