Guest Column

When Black women talk back

2017-03-26 06:34
Simamkele Dlakavu

Simamkele Dlakavu

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Simamkele Dlakavu

On Human Rights Day, ironically, our dialogue was consumed by a video depicting an aggressive confrontation between a white man and a Black woman with her family.

The altercation took place at a Spur restaurant in Johannesburg.

We see the white man approaching Lebohang Mabuya’s table, claiming her child bullied his. The brawny man verbally assaults and physically intimidates Mabuya and those at her table.

Initially, I avoided the video because gazing at the normalised dehumanisation of Black women is often too emotionally debilitating.

When I finally built up enough fortitude to watch it, I was overcome with hope and pride at seeing Mabuya’s brave, unapologetic resistance and rage.

However, Mabuya’s resistance was not fully embraced as valid. Spur initially released a statement labelling the moment as “an unfortunate incident between two individuals” and expressed “shock”, “especially with so many children around”.

Some on social media argued that Mabuya, or “that woman”, demonstrated “appalling behaviour” because “she kept shouting even when the man has left [and] we should be saluting that guy”.

Some enforced their respectability politics by dictating that “ladies don’t swear”.

I strongly reject these views. That video reveals a Black woman and mother powerfully rejecting white masculine violence.

“Look here,” she said, “you won’t come here and be a bully. Just leave us alone.” Taken aback, he arrogantly asks: “Is that so?” Then he threatens her with physical violence.

“Try to hit me and see. Such a bully of a man!” was one of her statements of defiance. “Such a coward! Who the hell do you think you are? Nxa! F**k you, mani!”

When Mabuya clearly articulated that she would not tolerate his aggression, her defiance exemplified what bell hooks terms “talking back”.

When Black women such as Mabuya talk back, their speech becomes “the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice”.

This violent encounter is an African and Black Feminist teaching moment.

Mabuya’s defiance puts into practice the feminist theories on the importance of a Black woman’s resistance and voice against historically grounded white violent masculinity.

The viral video must not continue the “objectification” and “spectacle” that have been dominant forms of representation of Black women by white academics, media and researchers.

Mabuya’s assault and resistance is a form of education that Paulo Freire and bell hooks describe as “a practice of freedom”, and a counter-hegemonic act of “teaching to transgress”.

It is important to emphasise that Mabuya posted the video herself. She told Huffington Post SA: “I had no intention of posting the footage, but when Spur didn’t make a follow-up, I posted it.”

Here, she further demonstrates her agency and determination to challenge corporate unaccountability.

That three-minute video captured so much of our history.

Those who argue that the clash was not racist or misogynistic are failing to look at the moment through a historical conundrum.

Mabuya evoked the legacy of Black people’s movements and spending being violently policed. Black people could not just shop or eat where they pleased.

“This is a democratic country, if you haven’t noticed. I came here to use my money,” Mabuya said.

Her defiance highlights the connecting forms of domination faced by Black women.

When Mabuya said, “Tshi! Racist! Such a big man on a tiny woman, sies!” she spoke to the layered forms of violence directed at her that were neither white supremacist nor violent masculinity, but an intersection of both.

One woman then said: “Sisi, hlala phantsi [Sit down].”

“No! No! No!” refused Mabuya. “He came here and said f**k me, the next thing, when I say ‘f**k you’, you have a problem?”

When Mabuya’s critics claim she taught her children “violent behaviour”, they dishonour the historical experiences of Black children who witnessed their parents’ humiliation and dehumanisation by white people in colonial and apartheid South Africa.

How many times have Black children watched their parents forced into silence or compliance when subjected to white masculine violence?

They did so for job security, as well as to avoid imprisonment and even death.

There are multiple such narratives stored in our historical archives. In his autobiography Tell Freedom, the late Peter Abrahams recounts a moment of brutality inflicted on him as a young boy by a group of white boys.

After they insulted and physically assaulted him, he retaliated.

One of the white boys was connected to Abrahams’ uncle Sam’s “baas”, who came to their house to order Sam to teach Abrahams a lesson.

Sam proceed to hit him with a “thick leather thong”, while the baas, his aunt Liza and the white boys watched. Beating him, Sam said: “You must never lift your hand to a white person. No matter what happens.”

The lesson Sam was teaching Abrahams was to silence Black self-defence and revolt against white supremacist violence.

At Spur, Mabuya taught the children the opposite – she taught them about claiming their power.

She not only affirmed us, she also honoured our ancestors who experienced white masculine violence but could not talk back.

Thank you, sisi!

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