A few months ago I found myself on the social media platform Twitter having what I thought was a conversation among peers and contemporaries with a male writer whose name I shall withhold. The issue started when he raised a query that he saw as lazy publishers in the way they were approaching book marketing as well as sales. As a publisher I came to the defense of publishers in an effort to make him aware of the turnaround in approach where publishers are now encouraging and in fact asking more from the authors in terms of the driving of marketing and sales. It comes as a no- that when a product is yours you are the person who is best suited as the driving force behind its marketing campaign.
In our back and forth tweets to each other, I started detecting undertones of anger and resentment. I ignored these and concentrated on talking facts, trying desperately to make him see we were on the same side. At one point I suggested that even though I wasn’t his publisher I would like to meet for coffee so I could show him stats and numbers to back up the theory that authors needed to drive their own books.
His response: “I don’t want to have coffee with you, there is nothing you can tell me. “
I had not expected that at all. I had gone into that conversation hoping that as a black publisher he might be more inclined to trust more than the publishers he had accused of coining it and leaving nothing for authors. It then dawned on me at that point that the issue wasn’t that I was a publisher and enemy to the writer as per his accusations. Because why would I as a publisher with her own imprint have nothing to tell him on the subject of publishing? Were all those other people who were inviting me to sit on their panels crazy? The issue was that I was black and a woman and in his opinion could not tell him anything. How dare I try, on such a public platform as well? I was both shocked and hurt at his need to cut me down to size.
What then of the rhetoric of the preceding weeks of decolonizing the literary landscape? Like many industries in South Africa, publishing is still a white dominated field. In the past few months, dating back to May, we have seen the industry, many talks and or debates around the whiteness of the literary system and that it needed to be decolonised to allow more black participants, publishers and writers alike. Perhaps it was this development that made me struggle with letting go of the incident between me and Mr ‘There is nothing you can tell me’. Was the racial fight insincere or was it that some of the men spearheading it were simply thinking black men? Is it fair to assume that black men do want freedom for black people but just not too much for the black woman?
In her essay ,Women Free At last, Maya Pete looks at how even the most celebrated of liberation heroes like Martin Luther King failed to include women in their liberation speak. In his most important and memorable speech ‘I Have a dream’, Pete questions why he would use the phrase “black men and white men” in his dream for equality and freedom and fail to include both black and white women. Where women ever part of the plan? More locally though, the oppression of the black woman has come and been perpetrated under the guise of tradition. Feminist and author Letty Cottin Progrebin, wrote that :“When men are oppressed it’s a tragedy, when women are oppressed its tradition”. No one hides behind tradition as much as black men do. The truth is black women have suffered worst oppression at the hands of black men than that of racism.
While I am aware that I am throwing blanket statements around, I do not mean in any way to start a debate and or a mud-slinging contest. My aim with this piece is simple. To get everyone of you, both men and women, reflecting. As a man, when you look around your own life have you been more of an oppressor or liberator to the women in your life? Have you stopped to question some of the practices that we call tradition? Does keeping the women in your life; daughters, wife and employees or colleagues make you feel powerful?
In 1969 Nina Simone in her song Blackbird, sang about the pain of knowing that as a black woman the world would never allow you to fly and spread your wings. Her lyrics speak of not having anyone care, hold or try to understand you as a woman. So my question is as a black man, how many black birds have you allowed to fly? How many have you encouraged to fly? When was the last time you thought about what the word feminism meant and whether or not you could be a feminist. Just very briefly allow me to go into the definition of feminism.
It is the belief that women are and should be treated as potential intellectual equals and social equals to men. These people (feminists) can be either male or female, although the ideology is commonly (and of course falsely) associated mainly with women. The basic idea of Feminism revolves around the principle that yes human bodies are designed to perform certain procreative functions, but that biological elements need not dictate intellectual and social functions, capabilities, and rights. Are you a feminist? Could you be a feminist?
I have since gone over the conversation I had with that gentleman on twitter to see how I might have perhaps antagonised him into his reply. I have found none. I may very well be wrong in assuming what his little outbreak was about. But looking at the history of oppression of black women by black men, could you blame me? But I have been told that my opinion did not matter too many a times for me to not see it and call it. I respect culture and celebrate a lot of the things that make us unique as black and as Africans I just struggle with accepting ‘tradition’, when I feel like my freedom is being snuffled.