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Bonnie Greer: Washing a white woman’s pants

Meghan Markle during a visit to youth-orientated radio station, Reprezent FM, in Brixton, south London to learn about its work supporting young people. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Bonnie Greer discusses a moment working in New York which epitomizes the battle of black women in politics, and society as a whole.

I knew that I was lucky to land the job I had that spring of 1980 in New York. My other jobs had been packing candy in a cold warehouse and waiting tables.

I had come to the big, bad Big Apple in the week before Christmas of 1978, determined to write; convinced that if I could just live in this sprawling broken cathedral of a city, that I could be better at what I did. Truer.

The Lower East Side then was every Francis Ford Coppola movie; every man was an Al Pacino, and sometimes you would even see the real Al Pacino and act like a real New Yorker and not acknowledge him. Let him go on his way being that wounded angel, looking for what he could not find.

Women then were caught in the middle of a new thing – feminism, and we were making it up as we went along, determined not to be our corseted mothers. Determined. Determined.

My new job was being the house cleaner of a renowned woman artist. I will not name her because she is still alive; still working; and, besides, would not remember me.

She would not remember me nor the time we had together when I cleaned her studio, and washed her work shirts by hand. I was young and Washington Square was everything that could be imagined. There were no trees in the building I lived in, known as ‘the Shooting Gallery’ because the neighbourhood junkies went up on the roof to get high.

There was nothing but garbage in the streets and the burned-out, broken remnants of another time in Manhattan, long before I was born. Long before the likes of me could live there.

Washington Square was Henry James and The Heiress and dreams of writing books half that good. Half that true. But when you are young you have no real knowledge of a past that can do you any good, except the one that you invent day-to-day.

I was happy to wash clothes; happy to clean house. I was the eldest child in our family and this kind of thing was normal. I was very maternal, too, then, and I had a kind of motherly feeling toward the artist, who seemed to me to be leading an unfulfilled life. Things were strewn about; ashtrays were overflowing; bulbs were broken.

I could understand how she rejoiced in the place because there was light, loads of glorious light from the big windows overlooking the square. She was living in an artist’s paradise and I was, too, those few hours a few times in the week I was there. I could pretend that it was my atelier, my writing place.

She was starting to be exhibited and published in art journals and she wanted to move on, she told me, from the Judy Chicago school of memorialisation. She felt, she told me, that she did not want to ‘explain’ her art; make it accessible in any way, especially to men.

One day I came to work and found a small pile of her underwear in the sink. There was no note, nothing to explain to me why I was washing her underclothes. I looked at them for a long time, floating underneath a thin cover of soap. I walked around her studio, looking at her paintings, the ones completed and the ones not yet finished. I read one of her radical pamphlets, beautifully illustrated about the necessity of the victory of women.

I ate some of her food, left-overs from a party she had held the night before. The food was good and a change for me. Then I left. I walked for a long time across 7th Avenue and into the West Village off Charles Street and bought myself lunch with the money I had taken from her spare change jar.

I ate my fill in a soul food restaurant, where the black ladies wore pale pink work uniforms and flat white shoes and played church music all day. I watched them prepare the food; and make jokes amongst themselves; and then I understood something I had never understood before.

A few weeks earlier I had read a kind of testament that the author and poet Alice Walker had written on how she did not consider herself a feminist but a womanist. The difference, I knew now in that restaurant, was that black women had never really been women. Not in the sense of woman as being a protected and sheltered being.

For the most part we never were, and so womanhood came early and came hard. Our womanhood often did not have protection and there was often, too, no chance of escape. I remembered why the comedian-activist Dick Gregory said that he had called his first daughter ‘Miss’. So that all of her life, she would be known as ‘Miss Gregory’.

There has always been a divide between white and black women feminists / womanists and that divide is because of the colour of our skins. That difference creates a knowledge that white women do not experience. And makes a kind of reality that they cannot achieve.

The feminist artist who left her underwear for me to wash did not do so in order to humiliate me. What she did to me was simple, normal practice for her. And both she and I understand that. My life made something different for me and for all black women and women of colour.

For example, I supported Hillary Clinton not only because of her qualifications, but because 50 years ago she refused to allow the black girl assigned to be her roommate at university to be reassigned.

I supported her because the mothers of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin, and black mothers who have lost children to police violence, did. These ‘Mothers of The Movement’, as they are known, campaigned with and for her. They were my guarantee.

I supported Barack Obama because he was married to Michelle. There is so much of that code; that inner knowledge, that white feminists cannot receive and cannot understand. I want to say to all of them, in these dire times: ‘Go home’.

Not ‘go home’ in the sense of disappearing or stopping their work, the struggle. But ‘go home’ metaphorically and also literally. Find out what is happening there. Listen. Engage.

White women elected Trump. White women put him over the top. Not white men. White women. We all have to understand why this happened and only white women can tell us. Why are their husbands and children chasing immigrants; perpetrating hate crimes; backing Brexit that could strip them of their future?

Only white women can tell us. That’s what I mean by ‘going home’. Freedom of movement, of nationality, is necessary for me. Because my ancestors were literally chained to the land; merchandise named after our ‘owners’.

This is not simply a political matter for women of colour, nor one to ponder nor argue as an intellectual exercise. Freedom of movement is necessary for us because it means freedom itself.

It is this fact and more that white feminists ought to acknowledge because until they do they are half-revolutionaries. Half agents of change. I look at the new Duchess of Sussex and her mother and know something that no white woman could know. It is about the double battle. And the dirty underwear in the sink.

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