Roxane Gay spoke yesterday at TEDWomen2015 to talk about her book Bad Feminist, and I’m sooooo tight that I wasn’t there to see her speak in person.
I first learned of the genius that is Roxane Gay when I stumbled upon her essay musing on #Selfiegate, otherwise known as the world’s reaction to some infamous photos suggesting First Lady Michelle Obama’s sour, jealous disposition at her husband for taking selfies with an attractive, blond-haired woman during Nelson Mandela’s funeral. In all honestly, I’d laughed like many others did when I saw the memes making fun of FLOTUS as it made its rounds on Twitter and Instagram. The memes struck me as endearing and relatable, but Gay’s read of our quickness to project FLOTUS as some rigid, envious monster had a huge impact on how I see our First Lady is projected in the lens of popular, mainstream media. In the article, Gay writes:
More than anything, the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry. The black woman is ever at the ready to aggressively defend her territory. She is making her disapproval known. She never gets to simply be.
I found myself loosely following Gay’s work ever since, and when I first heard of her book I rushed to get a copy. It was a refreshing, humorous and visceral read. I connected to her ideas because I connected to her story as a privileged child of immigrants that had a love and passion for academia and the study of black life. She taught me our experiences of trauma may in part define us, yet they don’t limit us as women and as full, complex beings. I became a better writer just from hearing her speak her truth as a survivor, as a thinker and as an imperfect, yet beautiful person.
Of course, these themes arose during Gay’s speech. While on stage at the Monterey Conference Center in California, Gay mused on the need for us to abandon perfection in order to grow the feminist community. She also spoke on the power women can gain from embracing their contradictions and the importance in allowing women to make lifestyle choices that are radically different than our own. In her most chilling part of her speech, Gay explains how she found her identity as a writer:
Once upon a time, my voice was stolen from me, and feminism helped me get my voice back. There was an incident. Some boys broke me when I was so young I did not know what boys could do to break a girl. They treated me like nothing, and I began to believe I was nothing…I wrote myself back together…I read the words of women who showed me I was not nothing. I learned to write like them, and then I learned to write like myself…I am just a woman. I am a bad feminist and a good woman. I am trying to become better in how I think and say and do — without abandoning what makes me human.”
Gay’s work is infectious because she breaks feminism down to being something that is utterly simple and essential to the human experience. She speaks about her ideas without pretense or loaded jargon. In the tradition of Patricia Hill Collins, her feminism is for the academics of the white ivory tower and the laymen trudging along on Main Street because it’s honest and accessible. This is a writer whose name will be celebrated for years to come. Her work is a testament to that.
I look forward to seeing the full speech once it’s officially published by TED. In the meantime, check out excerpts from her talk here on TEDBlog.