Reclaiming first feminist memories

In this guest post, my dear friend and mentor, Kristal Brent Zook, reflects on her own feminist “click” moment. Kristal is a groundbreaking journalist and author of Black Women’s Lives, among other amazing books. See her full bio after the jump.

I was inspired by Courtney’s book, Click, to think about my own moments of recognition.  When did I know I was a feminist?

I would have thought it was in college – obvious stuff like reading The Bluest Eye and The Color Purple and becoming conscious of parallels in so many women’s lives. Take Back the Night marches, fundraising for National Action Against Rape, even helping to form my own student group, You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down. But of course, as I peeled the layers back, flashes of other memories trickled in, one by one. Life-changing moments, all but forgotten.

I remembered my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Stein, who was dangerously overweight. She was the first woman I’d ever known who spelled her name like that: “Ms.” Her shiny black hair was cropped remarkably short, accentuating a glamorous face that appeared to be the work of a professional makeup artist. I remember her saying that she couldn’t boil an egg to save her life. And I remember her using the word feminist, pointedly, to describe herself.

Among other memories is the one where I am sitting on my bed at the age of 10 or 11, staring thoughtfully for long periods of time at Helen Reddy’s face on the cover of the “I Am Woman” album. Was it my imagination or did she look sad?

I remember growing up in the streets of Hollywood, prior to the remarkable clean up that took place for the 1984 Olympics, when cheap prostitutes stood post on just about every corner. I remember my mother and grandmother sheltering and caring for our neighbor when she managed to stagger down the hallway, bruised and bloodied, fleeing her husband.

In college, I remember trying to reconcile what I could not, via pop culture. There was Claire Huxtable and there was poor Celie from The Color Purple. But who was I? For a while, I wanted to be like Angela Bower: the shoulder-pad wearing owner of a New York advertising agency who got engaged to her housekeeper – romantically solving what we would years later recognize as the “work-life” dilemma.

I’m sure there are other click moments that I will never remember consciously. But what most defined and clarified my feminism was when I began to remember my most unusual dreams, at about the age of 18. For the next decade or so, I did my best to write them down; every vivid detail, every morning, without fail. I studied the depths of my own conflicted desires. In my journals I tracked new symbols and reactions.

Like Courtney, I realized that I too had come to feminism, less as a celebration than, as she so poignantly put it, “on my knees, confused, heartbroken.” It was only through my dreams, which I saw as messages from God, that I began to piece together the shattered parts of myself. And so for years, I dreamt and dreamt and dreamt. My dreams helped me to understand, finally, and to heal.

I dreamt until at last there was nothing more to do in my sleep…but fly.

Kristal Brent Zook is the author of Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Power and Pain and an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University in New York. She is currently working on her fourth book.

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