Kiswana vs. Melanie: Divide and Conquer
As we start chapter three of the year and observe notable women in history. I think it is important to understand the various roles of activists. I heard the argument of the movement going from “the streets to the suites” by rubbing shoulders with politicians and forgetting the those who are enduring the most inequities. By entertaining the suites and the media, the voice for the voiceless is lost and the attention is focused on the activist.
This is not a new argument. The first time I heard this argument was in The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. A young activist brought up in a middle class family, Kiswana (born Melanie Browne) dropped out of college and lived among the working class to fight the injustices of her people. She’s financially struggling but her pride didn’t allow her to go back to her parents house. One day her mother, visits her and they get into an argument over Kiswana’s choices.
For Kiswana (the revolutionist), her mother (Mama) was the bourgeois that forgot where she came from and looks down on the havenots. They both agreed that the Civil Rights Movement was important but they argued over the demonstrators. Some were now in offices and wouldn’t dare travel to the impoverished Brewster Place while those who survived “burned themselves out” from the Movement. The end results were new policies that created more obstacles for black people. This what separated the Movement from being a revolution.
Mama wanted Kiswana to be Melanie (the reformer) and fight the system from within. She argued that Melanie could work for a corporation and break (or at least crack) a glass ceiling. Melanie could work within the political system like Congresswoman Shirley Chishlom, who helped create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program that provides underserved babies with milk and food. Chisholm also hired other women for her office knowing that discrimination did not allow for their advancement. Melanie could also open a school like Principal Nadia Lopez and create a holistic approach of teaching that would help her community from within the educational system.
The climax of the mother-daughter dialogue came when Kiswana was told she was named Melanie after her great-grandmother who raised and educated nine children. When six white men came for one of her sons “for not knowing his place,” grandma Melanie held them off with a shotgun. Mama’s goal was to make sure her “children were prepared to meet the world on its own terms, so that no one could sell them short and make them feel ashamed of what they were or how they looked.”
Although The Women of Brewster Place is a work of fiction, its’ premise is very real. How do we fix this problem? I’m not Sway, but I do know that we need Kiswana and Melanie and all those who fit in between. The attack of the Black body (individually and collectively) is both internal and external so why wouldn’t the preservation and advancement be the same? We need college educated Bree Newsomes who aren’t afraid to climb up poles to take down flags. We need Fannie Lou Hamers to voice the plight of her people because she is “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of the injustices that Blacks endured. We need the conversationalist, who change thinking through dialogue like Michaela Angela Davis and Dr. Yaba Blay. We need carefree Black girls like Solange who aren’t afraid to check anyone when need be. You saw how her sister’s “Formation” unapologetically slayed in February? “Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah I, ohhhhh, oh, yes, I like that.”
A lot of people think if we just destroy the system all will be well with the world. Nah. Everything has to change. The system, the culture, our behaviors and our thoughts. Remember what Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” We have to change the internal and external spaces, both in the streets and in the suites.
Finally, there is the setting. Kiswana and her mother had this argument in Kiswana’s apartment, not on Main Street. Today some pro-black activists think it’s cute to drag someone outside the house. If we are for the same cause (though fighting it differently) and I slip up, holler at me. Let it go down in the DM. If I’m not with it, then you drag me and you have receipts of the efforts.
I don’t agree with everything all the activists say or do, but I still have some respect for them. What I don’t respect is the sideway talking, slandering or “.@” without pulling the person to the side. If an activist has the energy to put another activist on blast, but failed to holler at them one-on-one then what purpose do they serve? How does this help the movement? Who do they work for?
“I’m a protester…I’m not speaking for every Black woman. I am not speaking for every Black person. I am one of the thousands in the movement. Its bigger than me. Its bigger than any individual. Its bigger than any organization. The movement will be here even if I disappear tomorrow.”
Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, Essence, Feb 2016
The new movement is not one ideology, but there has to be a common ground. Moreover, the movement is bigger than all of us and change will not happen overnight. In order to get what we want, we have to be in the streets and in the suites.
*Special shout out to all the shorties who can articulate themselves in any space while their love for their community keeps them committed to fighting inequities in their own way. I salute you.