African feminism: mythical and social power of women of African descent

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Date: Summer 1998
From: Research in African Literatures(Vol. 29, Issue 2)
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,583 words

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An articulation of the power and strength of African descent and an assessment of the evolution of African femininity in enslavement can be offered within the context of African feminism. African feminism recognizes multiple roles of women and men in reproduction, distribution of wealth, power, and responsibility for sustaining human life.

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Sierra Leonean anthropologist Filomena Steady defines African feminism as a humanistic feminism (3-24). Steady's definition as well as my own research corroborate an African feminist ideology founded upon the principles of traditional African values that view gender roles as complementary, parallel, asymmetrical, and autonomously linked in the continuity of human life.(2) As such, African feminism recognizes the inherent, multiple roles of women and men in reproduction, production, and the distribution of wealth, power, and responsibility for sustaining human life. This feminist perspective is underscored by traditional mythical beliefs and religious practices found in African oral literary traditions and festivals that place women at the center of the social order as custodians of the earth, fire, and water and uphold men as the guardians of women's custodial rights (Badejo, Osun Seegesi 67-153).

African feminism embraces femininity, beauty, power, serenity, inner harmony, and a complex matrix of power. It is always poised and centered in womanness. It demonstrates that power and femininity are intertwined rather than antithetical. African femininity complements African masculinity, and defends both with the ferocity of the lioness while simultaneously seeking male defense of both as critical, demonstrable, and mutually obligatory. African feminism is active and essential to the social, political, economic, cultural, and evolutionary aspects of human order.

Within the context of this definition of African feminism, we can offer another articulation of the power and strength of women of African descent globally. Within this context, we can also assess the evolution of African womanness in enslavement and its aftermath. Herein we can realign the discussion of African and African American women's issues as they progress along this continuum. Using examples from the oral literary, cultural historical, and written literary and historical sources, African womanhood globally defines a social order obscured by enslavement and colonialism, yet underpinning the primacy of African world views with respect to issues of gender and ideology.

Mutual female-male independence, complementary, and self-reliant roles contextualize the content and dominate the discussion of our victories and challenges. Through the lens of our definition of African feminism, we confirm that inner strength and femininity are cultural norms derived from ancient African philosophy and cosmology that, in the words of an Akan okyeame, recognizes that through the womb of woman all humanity passes.(3) In this regard, patrilineal, matrilineal, and bilineal systems are understood first as socioeconomic organizing principles, and second as child-rearing and child responsibility systems. Irrespective of the lineal system employed in traditional systems, African women remain at the center of the social order. In his seminal work, Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community, Jacob K. Olupona points out that

Ondo kinship ideology today is highly bilateral with an emphasis on

patrilineality. Unlike other Yoruba kingdoms, however, the Ondo possess a

strong tendency toward matrifocality. This is expressed in the kinship term,

Omiye mi, which simply means `my maternal kin,' but which is a household

word and constitutes a fundamental tenet of the ideology of the ancient

Ondo society. (36)

Olupona also underscores the bilineal nature of Ondo society in which he, similar to Cheikh Anta Diop,(4) subscribes to an African social system with a matrilineal past. In fact, he notes:

The palace coup d'etat in which the woman Oba was replaced by a male line in

the Ondo myth of origin must have had an impact on the way Ondo populace

view their descent system and perhaps also on other aspects of the social

order. Airo, the name of the male king that succeeded Pupupu, the female

king, means "a substitute." The Lobun, who is considered a king in her own

right, emphasized this fact by saying: a fi paro ni ("We make him replace

someone"). (37)

The Lobun institution of the Ondo, Olupona states, continues to be a most important one in Ondo society. A daughter of the reigning Lobun or a woman within the lineage succeeds her. Olupona stresses that this institution remains critical to the political structure since "without the Lobun no king can be enthroned." The author then suggests that this may be a form of "compensation for women's lost (political power)" (37). Despite this political usurpation, African women's historical and contemporary power to influence whether or not a candidate is chosen and installed nonetheless preserves women's power in the decision-making process. Moreover, African women maintain historical power in the economic and spiritual realms of their respective societies. The fact that Ondo men still feel it necessary to "compensate" Ondo women accentuates their central importance to the social system.

The contemporary marginality of women of African descent globally, then, is largely the result of externally generated factors--1) Islamic paternalism and sexism; 2) Western hegemony, paternalism, and sexism; and 3) enslavement and colonialism. Because of these factors, the articulation of African feminism within the context of Africa's mythicoreligious foundations found in the oral literary and historical tradition establishes the primacy of African belief systems and practices in the evolution of African social orders globally. It establishes a construct of an "ideal" social order from which gender relationships and responsibilities evolve. Moreover, this context authenticates the Harriet Tubmans, Osuns, and Yaa Asantewaas of the African world, and clearly demonstrates that African feminism and European feminism evolve from different cultural histories and a different ethos. Given this definition and theoretical perspective of African feminism, we can 1) revisit African women's histories on the continent and in the diaspora; 2) replace women of African descent at the core of African world dialogue; 3) review the impact of enslavement and colonialism on gender relationships; and 4) refocus the discussion of contemporary African male-female relationships within the evolutionary track and vision of healthy African-centered foundations. Of these, my goal in this essay is to (re) place women of African descent at the sociocultural core where we find them in the oral literature, thus moving the contemporary discussion of female-male relationships to its cultural center.

We will begin with examples from Yoruba and Akan oral literature from my research in West Africa. We will examine African women as mythicoreligious icons and social agents, and discuss the evolution of these belief systems and practices in enslavement and colonialism. Finally, we will hear the voices of African and African American women and men in their own words. The two models of African feminism that I will use are the female deity Osun of the patrilineal Yoruba and the queen mother of the matrilineal Akan. In the Yoruba example, Osun is the goddess of wealth, femininity, power, and fecundity (see Badejo, Osun Seegesi). According to the mythology, she is the only woman present at the creation of the world. Osun is a wealthy woman who is known for her business acumen. A woman of alluring beauty and the most powerful historical leader of Osogbo township, Osun is also celebrated for her military defense of Osogbo.

Mythical-religious traditions state that as the wife of Orunmila, deity of wisdom and knowledge, she learned the art of divination, which she passed along to other powerful women and men. As the wife of Sango, deity of thunder and lightning, she matched her rulership of Osogbo (economic and strategic) with his rulership of Oyo (Yoruba political and military capital). Osun is the leader of the powerful forces known as aje who manifest positive and negative energy. Interestingly, as an orisa (deity), Osun cannot participate in any behavior that is destructive to human beings. Osun is the giver of children and a renowned healer of women's and children's ailments. As an African woman, Osun plays many, roles that emanate from her central role as woman and mother (Badejo, Osun Seegesi):

Awomodaa, moo ka lo

Ona babo o!

Oba Ijumu, aarewa wode.

Arugbo Oroki yii gba gboo

Ninuugba ni n gbe jamo logun.

Omukemuke l'Oba n`leeJumu

Tii jee moo gi i da le

Awaye e si, o de loru

O wo n'le-ere.

Osun wolu sogbosogbo

Bi oba gbe gege.

O wo`lu batabutu

Bi oloye lorun.


O lowo o

Eni o lowo o ni Yeye

Mo lowo mo ni Yeye

Mo `l Osun Ojeebunmi, Ajinigbaade mimo

Okodunkododo, abiyamo

Oteni-f' elegan-le o

Eegun moo ka lo o

Ona la

Oore Yeeye o! (3x)

Oore Yeeye more o!

Oroo Yeeye, ooo soro ooo

Ogidi oko

Osogbo pele o, onile o, onile agooo (Badejo, Osogbo, 1982)

The ever-flowing, please come along

The way is clear!

The Oba of Ijumu, the beauty is out in public

The aged of Oroki who occupies the forest

It is from inside the calabash that she fights people.

The very robust Oba is from the very home of Ijumu

who is known widely throughout the land

Awaye e si, o de loru!

You arrive at night

And you check into a good house

Osun entered the city with splendor

Like an oba who is very highly regarded

You entered the city in all royalty

Like one wearing a big chieftaincy title

It is deliberately that you relish splendor

Every day you put on different clothes

You are new in the head like oguro

It is inside the river that you reside

You who has the smoothest skin

The masquerade who changes like we wash with soap

The woman who after her bath

Uses the finest ointment to rub her back

It is to limit that she behaves like a woman

Hence they do not fully appreciate her

You with river marks, Iyalode Osun!

You who despite being a woman is as tough

As the rod (trunk) of a tree.

The deity (goddess) who leaves her vagina inside

To go and fight another deity.

The one who stealthfully surrounds the town!

Do not pass by my house!

One who has brass, the Ostrich, the father of birds,


You have money

The one who has money does not have Yeye

But I have money and I have Yeye!

I have Osun Ojeebunmi, Ajinigbaade mimo

Okodunukododo, the Nursing Mother

The one who spreads mats for the spiteful

The masquerade, come along

The way is clear.


Oore Yeye oo! (3x)

Clore Yeye more oo!

The affairs of Yeeye, they are delicate

Ogidi oko!

Osogbo! I salute you! Owner of the township, make way for me


The owner of a solid house. (Badejo, Osogbo, 1982)

The mythical-religious images here refer to Osun as a pinnacle of womanhood, as a ruler, warrior, and wealthy woman. Her various symbols include brass (gold), birds, and the river that is named in her honor. She is "the owner of a solid house," a very tough woman who enjoys using the finest oils, dressing in the best clothes every day, and mastering her position as oba (ruler). She is a thinking woman who enjoys being knowledgeable or being "new in the head" (Badejo, Osogbo, 1982).

We have two Akan examples: one is the Ohenemaa, or queen mother, and the other is the Akyem chief priestess of the Birem River in Kyebi, Ghana, Birem Okomfoo Adwoa Gyekyewaa. In the sociopolitical structure of the Akan, the position of the queen mother confirms a system known as dual monarchy (Bodejo Field Research 1990-91). The role of the queen mother runs parallel throughout Akan culture, thereby ensuring that women's voices are heard in all public forums. The three senior queen mothers of the Fante, Ashanti, and Akyem reign superior to the queen mothers in the subdivisions, who, in turn, are superior to the local queen mothers.

The major responsibility of queen mothership is the selection of three top male candidates for election to rulership positions. Like the queen mother, the candidates are nominated from families that have the responsibility of training its young members for such possible selection. Her candidates then stand before the council of elders and the citizenry who vote for their choice. If no one candidate surpasses the others, the queen mother is allowed one more opportunity to nominate another candidate. If she fails to nominate an electable candidate successfully by her fourth attempt, then the council of elders makes the nominations, and the procedure continues in its prescribed manner (Badejo, Akyem interviews, 1990-91).

When I asked why the queen mother had this responsibility, I was told that through the womb of woman all humanity passes, and it is woman who best knows the character of men best suited to rule. The queen mother has two other revealing roles--first, she is the only person allowed to correct the ohene, the ruler, in public; and second, she is the voice for women's issues in the political forum. The chief priestess in the Akan structure also provides some examples of mythicoreligious foundations of power and femininity in African social order. I collected the following brief poem from the Akyem chief priestess in Kyebi, Ghana. It was transcribed and translated by Kofi Agyekum, a graduate teaching assistant in linguistics at the University of Ghana.

Abenaa, Birem Abenaa, Birem Abenaa

Me mma yi nti o, yoo Birem Abenaa

Birem Abenaa me sika nti o, Birem Abenaa

Okyeman nti o, Birem Abenaa

Birem Abenaa mede me mma yi mma kwan o, Birem Abenaa

Birem Abenaa mede me mma yi `gy kwan o, Birem Abenaa.

Abenaa, Birem Abenaa River, Birem Abenaa, It is because of my children, Birem

Abenaa Birem Abenaa, it is because of my gold, Birem Abenaa, It is because of

Okyeman, Birem Abenaa. Birem Abenaa, whom do I give my children to, Birem

Abenaa? Birem Abenaa, whom do I give my children with, Birem Abenaa?

(Field Recordings 1990-91)

The Yoruba goddess Osun and the Akan goddess Abenaa Birem share many symbols and images. Both are associated with nature, more specifically with rivers; both are symbolized by gold and/or brass paraphernalia. Both Osun and Abenaa Birem are wealthy women who give and protect children. According to the interviews with the priestesses and priests in their respective areas, both female deities are warriors who defend their people when invoked or provoked to do so. Moreover, among the Yoruba and the Akan, both deities and their religious structures have armies that serve with them. Males are dedicated to each deity as well as females, and in both cases, women and men are employed in the service of the deity herself The priestesses who train in their respective traditions are also herbalists and traditional doctors who treat women's and children's ailments. Osun and Abenaa Birem become ideals in the socioreligious structure whose awesome powers and integrated roles exemplify the full potentiality of ideal African womanhood.

Such is the African legacy of African American women. From the texts cited, we can extrapolate the iconography and agency for women's roles in African political and cultural history, and reconstruct the cultural foundations that lay in the minds, hearts, and souls of women of African descent. Our foremothers who were transported to the Western hemisphere during the era of enslavement carried these ancient, flourishing values and belief systems within them. With these texts among others, we demonstrate the multiple roles of women in traditional mythicoreligious and political systems. As icons, African women symbolize the continuity of life, flowing like the rivers with mutual receptivity and sustenance of humanity through planting and harvesting of the earth. In these mythicoreligious images, African women reside in the outer spaces where they control market activity. Here, women are vestiges of entrepreneurship and women's wealth. Women as icons also symbolize the transformative powers of fire used in food and medicinal preparation, and in our ability to transform our bodies into receptacles for new human life. In African cosmology and philosophy, these awesome regenerative powers give women authority as social agents. The Yoruba state it most clearly: whatever occurs in orun (heaven) also occurs n`ile (on earth). Women's mythicoreligious iconography underscores women's agency in the physical and metaphysical world. Osun and Abenaa Birem manifest in ethereal terms the proposed activities of the mundane.

Naming ceremonies marked the acceptance of the new member into the human community as well as provided that new member with an anchor, that is, a name, an identity, which often carried the weight of collective ancestral knowledge. Children between the ages of six and twelve captured in West Africa, not to mention teenagers and adults, were well versed in such texts and iconography. Proverbial wisdom and practical application of the philosophy in the form of social interaction, and cosmology in the form of festivals and ceremonies were infused in the lives of African men and women from infancy.

Our foremothers and our sister's were taught how to balance their femininity and their strength, how to bathe in fine oils, and yet be ready to draw swords of defense from within themselves when necessary. Our forefathers and brothers were taught how to protect feminine strength so that it could continue on with the task of insuring human survival. Female rulership in such sociocultural systems is a norm supported by the ideological and social practice of its membership. In the oral literature, the extremes of sexism are monitored by an elaborate system. That system, reflected in the religious and political hierarchy and preserved in the oral tradition, maintains cooperation between female and male in the continuity of human life. As the texts illustrate, femininity is strength and power, beauty and serenity, leadership and followship. What else could such women have passed on to their female and male children in Western captivity, but what they themselves knew?

As social agents, our foremothers and sisters lived within the iconography and philosophy that stressed their roles as political and religious rulers, healers, and military personnel, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends. Such iconography and philosophy authorized their ability to activate the full ranges of sanctioned feminine powers for the protection of their people. The Yoruba have a proverb that says, "Bokunrin rejo, bobinrin pa, kejo sa ti ku." "It does not matter whether a snake is sighted by a man and is killed by a woman, all that matters is that the snake has been killed" (Delano).

Despite the trauma of the Middle Passage, and the terror of enslavement, the women and men who arrived in the West did so with our cultural and self-identities shaken but well-established. The twin monsters of enslavement and colonialism marginalized African womanhood by denying the African male the power to protect women's custodial rights. In the West, without African male protection from external threats, the agency of African womanhood was placed in direct conflict with Western male sexism. That Western sexism had denied its own womanhood legitimacy through its mythicoreligious systems first by demoting European womanhood from adult status to legal minors, and then denying them access to the priestesshood, a phenomenon that never occurred in traditional African societies. Indeed, the religious tenets of any society underscore the philosophical legitimacy for its social actions. The place that women occupy within that religion validates or negates their voices and power. Since African religions and men maintain an ancestral bond to women's reproductive ability, the total abnegation of women's power is tantamount to self-destruction. When African religious philosophy was supplanted by Western religious arrogance and racism at the barrel of the gatling gun, African women and men lost more than their continental independence.

In their own world, Western male sexism confused the relationship between women and nature by demanding that women be virginal and motherly at the same time. This attitude confounded women's power by restricting "real" women to weak, juvenile roles where their rights existed within the context of dominating male systems. Consequently, in both enslavement and colonialism, through the lens of Western patriarchy, African women's agency and images, like African manhood, became distorted and ridiculed. Africa's asymmetrical, complementary, parallel gender relationships are disfigured by enslavement and colonialism, and that distortion became institutionalized and codified in such documents as the Moynihan Report in 1968.

As a result, in our struggle to regain our power and authority in the present social order, African women and men find ourselves engaged in someone else's cultural historical battle trying desperately to relocate our own ethos. African feminism cannot carry out its charge without the reestablishment of African manhood to ensure its fulfillment. Conversely, African manhood cannot progress without the reinstatement of the philosophical practices and tenets of queen mothership, female rulership, and a healthy priestesshood. This is our ethos, and restoring balance means just that:

To no modern race does its women mean so much as to the Negro nor come so

near to the fulfillment of its meaning. As one of our women writes, "Only

the black woman can say `when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed

dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special

patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.'" (Du

Bois, Darkwater 173)

This 1920 quote from Du Bois reminds us of the respect that men of African descent held for their women. His voice and words formulate the basis for African American men who wish to reclaim their proprietary obligations as the protectors of African American women's custodial rights. In the concept of balance between African American women and men, surely the wholeness of our people thrives. Du Bois continues:

The half-million women of Negro descent who lived at the beginning of

the 19th century had become the mothers of two and one-fourth million

daughters at the time of the Civil War and five million granddaughters

in 1910. Can all these women be vile and the hunted race continue to

grow in wealth and character? Impossible. Yet to save from the past

the shreds and vestiges of self-respect has been a terrible task. I

most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought its

fineness up through so devilish a fire.

Today the dreams of the mothers are coming true. We have still our

poverty and degradation, our lewdness and our cruel toil; but we have,

too, a vast group of women of Negro blood who for strength of character,

cleanness of soul, and unselfish devotion of purpose, is today easily

the peer of any group of women in the civilized world. And more than

that, in the great rank and file of our five million women we have the

up-working of new revolutionary ideals, which must in time have vast

influence on the thought and action of this land.

For this, their promise, and for their hard past, I honor the women

of my race. Their beauty, --their dark and mysterious beauty of midnight

eyes, crumpled hair, and soft, full featured faces--is perhaps more

to me than to you, because I was born to its warm and subtle spell. (173)

In a voice echoing that of an okyeame, the Akan linguist in Kyebi, the learned and wise Du Bois celebrates the womb of African womanhood through which he passed. Surely his mother recognized his character and genius, and raised up her son William to the fulfillment of all our collective ancestral visions. His words and our realities, too, are the legacy of strength, power, and femininity enshrined and protected in the perpetuity of African feminism.

As our foremothers (iya won wa) and our sisters (egbe obinrin won wa), we celebrate and praise our own being singularly and in concert with our male counterparts such as Du Bois. We are ohenema, oba obinrin (female ruler), iyalode (mother of the outer spaces), iyaloja (mothers of the marketplace), and obinrin egbe (women's society or sisterhood). We pay homage to the culture that became African American; we pay homage to the men and women who were not meant to survive (see Lorde). We sing our own song:

Moses Grundy, suspecting nothing, was standing in the street when the

slave coffle passed with his wife in chains.

"I said to him, `For God's sake, have you brought my wife?' He said he

had, when I asked him what she had done, he said she had

done nothing, but that her master wanted money. He drew out a pistol

and said that if I went near the wagon on which she was, he would shoot

me.... I have never seen or heard from her from that day to this. I

loved her as I love my life." (Lerner 8-9)

The narrative of Moses Grundy's wife is the story of fragmented African womanhood, chatteled, and constrained to survive on her own. Her silence in the document from Gerder Lerner's Black Women in White America is the silence that Audre Lorde denounces:

If we speak we are afraid

that our words will be used

against us

And if we do not speak

we are still afraid

So, it is better to speak

knowing we were never meant

to survive (Lorde 32)

Grundy speaks as much for his wife as he does for himself, but he cannot speak her anguish or her anger. Why was he unable to protect her, why could he not--did he not try? What is the legacy of African womanhood rudely separated from African male stewardship?

Margaret, the mother of the four children, declared that she would kill

herself and her children before she would return to bondage. The slave

men were armed and fought bravely. The window was first battered down

with a stick of wood, and one of the deputy marshals attempted to

enter, but a pistol shot from within made a flesh wound on his arm and

caused him to abandon the attempt. The pursuers then battered down the

door with some timber and rushed in. The husband of Margaret fired

several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon

overpowered and dragged out of the house. At this moment, Margaret Garner,

seeing that their hopes of freedom were vain, seized a butcher knife

that lay on the table and with one stroke cut the throat of her little

daughter.... She then attempted to take the life of the other children

and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could

complete her desperate work. (Lerner 61)

Margaret Garner, the historical subject of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, symbolizes African motherhood confronted by a sense of futility and loss of faith in the future. With African manhood captured and destroyed, the sacred and social agency of African womanhood becomes vulnerable. In this context, Garner symbolizes the attempts to nullify African womanhood as the pinnacle institution of black world culture. The giver, sustainer, and nurturer of life driven to become a desperate murderer of her own children. The sanctity of African motherhood eroded by the terror and terrorism of enslavement and colonialism that usurps African male-centered power:

When I was within a year of graduation, an application came from a

Friends' school in Philadelphia for a colored woman who could teach

Greek, Latin, and higher mathematics. The answer returned was, `we have

the woman, but you must wait a year for her.'

I never rose to recite in my classes at Oberlin but I felt that I

had the honor of the whole African race upon my shoulders. I felt that,

should I fail, it would be ascribed to the fact that I was colored.

(Lerner 89)

"When and where I enter, the whole Negro race enters with me." The power, agency, and responsibility of African American womanhood, the obinrin egbe, speaks through Coppin in counter-distinction to the voice of its violation:

What else took place? They tried to take advantage of me, and did. I

told them I did not do such things, and would not. One of them said he

would make me, and choked me by the neck. My neck was swollen up next

day, and for two weeks I could not talk to anyone. After the first man

had connexion with me, another got hold of me and tried to violate me,

but I was so bad he did not. He gave me a lick with his fist and said

that I was so damned near dead he would not have anything to do with

me. (Lerner 175)

Where is her restitution? Who protected her? African American manhood lynched, mobbed, jailed, restrained--juxtaposed against African manhood and European fascism. What Euro-feminist voice cried out in her defense?

In 1941, Mrs. Henry Weddington wrote the White House for answers:

Dear President Roosevelt:

My husband is young, intelligent and very depressed over this

situation .... My husband is 22 and I am 18 years of age. We want to own

just a comfortable home by the time he reaches his early thirties. Is that

asking too much? (Lerner 300)

The voice of the warrior woman, Mary Church Terrell, speaks:

Lynching is the aftermath of slavery. The white men who shoot negroes

to death and flay them alive, and the white women who apply flaming

torches to their oil-soaked bodies, are the sons and daughters of women

who had but little, if any, compassion on the race when it was

enslaved. (Lerner 209)

"I most sincerely doubt," Du Bois said, "if any other race of women could have brought its-fineness up through so devilish a fire" (Darkwater 173).

The cultural historical definition for African womanhood, and by extension its theoretical basis, is founded collectively in the realities of traditional African mythicoreligious belief systems, enslavement, and racism. This is our cultural history that has demanded that we continually measure up to its "fineness" in spite of these circumstances. Obviously, stepping into someone else's realities negates our unique history and our special relationship with our men and ourselves, and renders our own solutions impotent. While there are some legitimate and common issues in the American feminist movement irrespective of race, for women of African descent whose mythologies disclose interdependence with our men, the European definition of womanhood is culturally deficient. Nevertheless, its application both on the continent and in the diaspora effectively distorted, ignored, and marginalized our social, economic, and political roles. Although African women's political and economic positions eroded under the imposition of racist and sexist colonial rule, the Aba Marketwomen's riot (Van Allen 59-86; see also Perham), the Senegalese women's support of the railway workers strike (see Ousmane), and the Dahomean women warrior military engagement indicate African women's resistance as well as our continuous central and diverse roles.

In the diaspora, European definitions of womanhood and the period of enslavement combined to negate African womanhood altogether as a reality. As a generic term, "the slaves" circumscribed both power and gender identities that were individually supported by social, political, economic, and cultural institutions in Africa. Despite the loss of African institutional support and the imposition of a hostile European one, the interdependence of African men and women continue as an underpinning for an evolving communal identity. Prior to our social breakdown of the last decade, we historically broadened our concept of the extended family. During enslavement, extended family included children orphaned by purchase away from parents or left behind, or the abandoned elderly. It included devising family and group plans of escape like those of William and Ellen Craft or Harriet Tubman, echoing that driving sense of community that directed an emerging African American culture. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary Mcleod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Angela Davis are mirror images of their womanist counterparts on the continent.

The social and spiritual images imported by African mythicoreligious images demonstrates a cultural prism through which African womanist/ feminist meaning passes. Oral literary images of Osun as a powerful deity, an oba, or ruler, and the heroine of Osogbo township during the Fulani Wars empower Yoruba women, and sublimate a legacy of woman-power, irrespective of enslavement, in African American literary traditions. Mary Helen Washington in Midnight Birds (1980) and Waring Cuney in "No Images" (1969) suggest the presence of these subliminal images.

Midnight Birds carries a tradition, for as in Black-Eyed Susans, there are distinct and unique patterns in the fiction of black women. It is unique that black women have consistently given us heroic images of black woman. These are women who struggled to forge an identity larger than the one society would force on them. They are aware and conscious, and that very consciousness is potent. In searching out their own truths, they are rebellious and risk-taking, and they are not, Washington points out, defined by men. Although, as she notes, we are not defined by men, African American male writers have often celebrated the uniqueness of African American womanhood, or as in Cuney's poem bemoaned its displacement:

She does not know

Her beauty,

She thinks her brown body

Has no glory.

If she could dance


Under palm trees

And see her image in the river

She would know.

But there are no palm trees

On the street,

And dish water gives back no images.

Cuney glorifies this "brown" beauty whose haunting image appears in stark contrast to her alien environment. For this poet, her beauty resonates with the beauty of the river goddess Osun. The aridity of the street is juxtaposed against the life-sustaining force of "the river." The racist and sexist oppression of the Western world implied by the "dish water" obscures African American women's beauty.

The nurturing and sustaining image of "mother" found in African mythic and poetic images seeps into the literary definitions of "heroine" in African American writing. In praise poetry such as Mari Evans's "I Am a Black Woman" (1970), Antar Mberi's "Old Black Women" (in A Song out of Harlem, 1980), or Audre Lorde's "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands . . ." (in The Black Unicorn, 1978), women as subject fuse femininity and nurturing similar to Osun's mythic images as a beautiful warrior and mother who gives and protects her children.

In these three poems, womanhood and motherhood merge to suggest black women who are strong in character and whose fortitude therefore underpins African American communal survival. In three brief verses, Mari Evans, for example, chronicles the experiences that have shaped black women's vision:

I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea

and I / with these hands / cupped the lifebreath

from my issue in the canebrake


I lost Nat's swing body in a rain of tears

and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio

for Peace he never knew I


Learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill

in anguish

Now my nostrils know the gas

and these trigger tired fingers

seek the softness in my warrior's beard. (11-12)

Her historical eyes have witnessed the terrorist siege that has destroyed her mate, her heroines, and her children. From slave ships to plantations, revolt to warfare to revolt, the black woman has symbolized our communal resistance:


am a black woman

tall as a cypress


beyond all definition still

defying place

and time

and circumstance





on me and be

renewed. (11-12)

Similarly, in Antar Mberi's "Old Black Women," the poet praises their journey through life and African American historical time. Here the poet explicitly draws "women, mothers" together and extols feminine strength and sustenance:

Old black women, mothers

unlike the dying bird, and receding waters

unlike shattered wood, and crushed granite

you carry your song, your grayhaired song

like a flashlight, as you start your journey

into the night riding the bus into the morning

and your brows are smooth as gypsum

and you keep your song like grain

and your song issues forth

from ancient skins

skins smooth as leather

with leather's fine wrinkles

calligraphing time. (46)

In that verse, the physical features of these "Old Black Women" simulate their inner strength and character, and serve as the parchment for communal history:

You shall live on, black mothers

soul of my song: of our freedom struggle

sunblack diamonds of resistance

lit up and dancing with dew and moonlight. (46)

The resounding praise for warrior-motherhood continues in Andre Lorde's "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands . . . ." Women here, as in the title, are "impervious," self-defining, and life-sustaining:

I did not fall from the sky


nor descend like a plague of locusts


I come as a woman

dark and open


I do not come like a secret warrior

with an unsheathed sword in my mouth

hidden behind my tongue

slicing my throat to ribbons

... I come like a woman

who I am

... warming whatever I touch

that is living



what is already dead. (14)

Images of nature and physical beauty combine to salute the quiescent character, personified by the female deity Iwa in Yoruba cosmology, and which is held as sacred by many people of African descent. Motherhood, as Andrea B. Rushing notes, is "the role of African women" (23), but it is the quality of mothering that determines its worthiness. Mother is guardian, that is, a protectress of her offspring, and while she nurtures and sustains, she also fights and defends both waywardness and hopefulness. She is a beacon in life's turbulent seas, a source of "renewal" and "resistance," as affirmed by Langston Hughes in his poem "Mother to Son":

But all the time

I'se been a-climbin' on,


So boy, don't you turn back.

Don't you set down on the steps

`Cause you finds it's kinder hard.

Don't you fall now--

For I'se stillgoin', honey,

I'se still climbin,

And life for me ain't been no crystal stair. (518)

Such African American poetic images of 'women, mothers" lies far beyond the dominant European and Euro-American image of woman as the "frail." Own, like her African American poetic counterparts, is identified by natural and physical characteristics. She is a "strong water," a "river," and the "one who is everywhere." Since water is nurturing and life-sustaining as well as dynamic and forceful, her image as a "strong water" implies her roles as mother and warrior. Osun, then, like Mberi's "Old Black Women," embodies "struggle, resistance, and moonlight." Moreover, her explicit femininity, "the deity who has a vagina," coexists with her implicit power, "and has separate power to fight." The summoning of such femininity and power echoes in the last verse of Mari Evans's poem cited above. "Strong, impervious, indestructible" women surely counter images of female frailty. For some, that frailty supposedly signals weak, defenseless women who are the historical models of womanhood in the Western psyche. To many that weakness imbibes dependency and the essence of femininity. Yet as Osun, Abenaa Birem, and Queen Mother illustrate, strength, courage, and beauty are lauded as the quintessence of an African femininity. We are reminded:

I (we) did not fall from the sky.

Our central image mirrors an ancient/contemporary wellspring:

I (we) come as a woman

who I am (we are)


warming whatever I (we) touch

that is living



what is already dead.

The myriad voices of women of African descent have arisen continuously, and "arise again" now empowered to heal the collective "warring selves" of whom Du Bois spoke in The Souls of Black Folks. Like the "Women of Dan" and the goddess Osun, African American women refuse to "set down on the stairs" or "come like [a] secret warrior[s]." We "enter the town" and the twenty-first century "like [a] chief[s]," centered and defined, as Washington notes, in our "own truths." These truths are African and African American, molded by a precursory worldview and an historical experience that have made us one of African's external ethnocultures.

Like the mythical images of Seboulisa and Yaa Asantewaa in Audre Lorde's collection The Black Unicorn, the voices and images of Yoruba orisa Osun speak to an aspect of African American womanhood that is often disdained because it stands in contrast to Euro-American womanhood. To reclaim our images is to give vision to Cuney's lost "brown beauty" and ourselves.

How then do we realign ourselves with our own cultural history, and reconstruct viable institutions for economic, sociocultural, and political agency? As women, we can do so by reclaiming our humanity, dignity, spirituality, and strength with an attitude of enthusiasm and conviction. As men, you can do so by reclaiming your pride and respect for our collective humanity, dignity, spirituality, and courage. This means setting goals as women and men of African descent in America, and as individual African Americans.

We also reclaim ourselves and our cultural history by setting an agenda for the next hundred years that includes our present generation, and that includes the principles of traditional African values of complementary, parallel, and co-autonomous gender-based relationships. We can enjoy our roles as women and men in charge of the reproduction, production, and sustenance of human life. Our inner strength is then reconfirmed as our cultural norm. We can learn from Osun and Abenaa Birem, from Harriet Tubman and Margaret Garner, from Du Bois and Antar Mberi, that within the soil of African feminism lies our present and future reinstatement as custodians of earth, fire, and water.

Finally, our femininity is an inclusive expression of power. For the sons and daughters of African deities, queen mothers, and community women, womanhood is power. It confirms that African women's power is feminine, mysterious, and beautiful, and it exists as a complementary expression of the African man's power. Thus, we are centered and secure in our own mythicoreligious foundations of power and femininity that complete Olodumare's vision of a divine and human family--one in which our fullness expresses itself in myriad songs and praise poems of living.


(1.) Aspects of this essay were published in a 1989 article in Sage. A Scholarly journal on Black Women. Since that earlier publication, I have continued to research and explore this theme as reflected in the images and symbolism found in Yoruba and Akan oral literatures. This present essay extends the earlier segment "Osun as a Paradigm for African Feminist Criticism" to include the Akan imagery and symbolism relevant to African womanhood. I have also continued to explore the Yoruba data. I believe that these respective oratures offer critical "African" perspectives to African and diaspora African women's discourse.

(2.) Filomena Steady's work in her edited book Black Women Cross-Culturally and her introductory essay, "African Feminism: An Overview," in Women in Africa and the African Diaspora, provide the critical foundation and insight on the definition of African feminism. Her definition of African feminism as a humanistic feminism corroborates the worldviews found in both Yoruba and Akan oratures.

(3.) During my Fulbright year at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, I worked with Professor Robert Addo-Fenning, Department of History at the University of Ghana, who graciously opened the pathway for many of my interviews in Kyebi in the Akyem region of Ghana. He has conducted much of his own research in that area over several years.

(4.) In Pre-Colonial Black Africa and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, Cheikh Anta Diop discusses the pre-eminent position of the matriarchy in traditional Africa and African worldviews.


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--. Field Recordings. Osogbo, Nigeria, 1981-83.

--. Field Recordings. Akyem, Asante, and Fante regencies in Ghana, 1990-91.

--. "The Goddess Osun as a Paradigm for African Feminist Criticism." Sage, a Scholarly journal on Black Women 6.1 (1989): 27-32.

--. Personal Interviews with Yemi Eleburuibon. Osogbo, Nigeria, 1982.

-- and Robert Addo Fenning. Personal Interview with Okyeame Kwesi Bugyei. Kyebi, Ghana, 1991.

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--. The Cultural Unity of Black Africa. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1963.

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--. The Souls of Black Folks. 1903. Rpt. New York: New American Library, 1982.

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Perham, Margery. "The Aba Marketwomen's Riot in Nigeria 1929." The African Reader: Colonial Africa. Ed. Wilfred Cartey and Martin Kilson. New York: Vintage, 1970. 16369.

Rushing, Andrea Benton. "Images of Black Women in Modern African Poetry: An Overview." Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell et al. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979. 18-24.

Steady, Filomena Chioma. "African Feminism: An Overview." Women in Africa and the African Diaspora. Ed. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn et al. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1987. 3-24.

--, ed. Black Women Cross-Culturally. Cambridge: Schenkman, 1981.

Van Allen, Judith. "`Aba Riots' or Igbo `Women's War'?" Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. Ed. Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1976. 59-85.

Washington, Mary Helen, ed. Midnight Birds. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1980.

--, ed. Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories by and about Black Women. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1975.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A20769282