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The Bare Arms of Angry Black Women

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We are called angry Black women because we are not afraid of bare arms. We pay close attention to our arms, holding our children tight inside of them. We are called angry Black women because we use our arms to wave to each other, because we boldly swing our arms when we walk, because we know arms reach out, give regard, sometimes we even hire haute couture designers who have done their homework, who know we are no armless hipless mannequins.

I have decided that when I hear another fine Black woman fallaciously referred to as an angry Black woman during Black History Month this year, that I will stop whatever I am in the middle of and meditate on my personal list of other Black women who had great regard for their bare arms: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Barbara Jordan, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Lorraine Hansberry, Beulah Butler Davenport (grandmother), Frances Davenport Finney (mother), as well as the fierce line of great aunts: Otelia, Nanny, Mary, Bertha. Here on these sacred black winged things, I will zoom and linger for the duration. Black amber, caramel, elegant, muscular, long, pillow-like, black bare arms akimboed at the hip or side. American history has not acknowledged the black arms of Black women. But Black History knows the arms of Black women very well.

Black arms on Black women are valuable apparatuses: for escaping, pointing to North Star freedom; recruiting Black troops for the Union Army; penciling notions of women's suffrage; documenting, detailing the horrors of lynching (circa 1892), and thereby inventing investigative journalism in America; pecking out, scene by scene, manual typewriter blazing the timeless A Raisin In The Sun. Brave black arms assist in the raising of a historical hand. Remember that day in the House of Representatives, 1972, 'the Inquisitor' she called herself at the impeachment hearings for President Richard Nixon. Bare black arms show up like early travel signage of American history: STOP-- GO - TURN HERE. To make a young country stronger, better, more just.

Black arms on Black women defended themselves from raging policemen and sex-crazed guardians of the old guard. Wiser Black arms taught us to high fly our younger Black arms like proud banners of the Black country we dreamed our lives forward from. The Black arms of the Black women of so many families drove buses and carried weighty purses that doubled as hammerheads. Barriers might need dismantling between breakfast and supper.

I come from Black women who knew America could not be America without the presence of their arms, women who never hid their arms, who carried their arms brazenly, and sometimes because it was the only work we could get, lost an arm while working at the chicken or flashlight factory. Women who liked their arms, needed their arms, and shot out their arms to shield someone they loved. As a girl I saw Black women regularly pushing up their long sleeves or boldly sporting a sleeveless Sunday Easter dress because Black arms had to breathe, stay free, be quick to open and ready to fly. Free arms can swim upstream, climb a hill, break a fall, propel a dance, arm-wrestle southern white folk's daily foolishness. Babies had to be held, hugging had to happen, and signs had to be hoisted: 'A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.'

My mother, the most beautiful woman in the world, strode into Edwards Five and Dime, Sumter, South Carolina, to get a bag of wooden clothes pins, or was it a four-pack of undershirts for Daddy? Mama, dressed in a baby blue and white polka-dot cotton sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist, arms freshly vaselined and her whole Black female body shining like a bronze action figure. She stood there like Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne, off screen, and yet no one in charge looked our way. No one said, "May I help you?" And there she would wait, impatiently tapping her foot, until another customer walked in, one quickly seen and quickly helped. That was the moment when Mama raised her beautiful Black arm -- high -- the bare braids of deltoid, bicep, and anconeus now radiant in the air.

It's Black History Month and this year I'm celebrating the bare arms of Black women. When we don't hide our strong arms, when we use them to visualize our jubilant love for our Blackness, when we teach our children how to dig down into the earth and plant organic spinach in the back garden, when we wear our arms free, display them proudly, use them to wave from our gallery seat, when we cross them privately, comfortably, self-assuredly, there across the rest of our beautiful Black body, while standing at our private windows, while gazing out of our White House or our green or blue or yellow house -- something sadly American still happens, someone calls us what is easy and false and familiar only to them, angry Black woman, a phrase that bears no resemblance to what or who we are.

At the gym this year I have decided to keep the Black History celebration going by working more on my arms. I will also remember to give a good stretch to my arms before scribbling out any new poems and I promise you I will be my mother's daughter -- until the end of time, passionately partial to tank tops, spaghetti straps, the very shortest of sleeves.


Tomorrow we print more reflections on Black History Month by Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award Winning author.