On Black Women, Power and “Owning Your Masters”

Last week, I wrote about Melissa Harris-Perry’s departure from MSNBC, as the host of her hit talk show, The MHP Show. I spent a considerable portion of the article talking about the significance of Dr. Harris-Perry leaving the show, even amid my own concerns about the future of marginalized voices in visible media spaces. Over the weekend, Ben Carter, YouTube host and author, published an essay in Blavity, calling Dr. Harris-Perry’s rationale and decision into question. Upon reading his assessment, I realized that one conversation I didn’t spend time unpacking that I perhaps should have, is a discussion about power, ownership and Black women.

On Owning Your Body

I’m currently re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the umpteenth time. I have an absurd amount of feelings about the book, but one thing I’m always struck by, is the way Morrison handles Black womanhood, and Black woman bodies, specifically. There are passages throughout the novel that make reference to Margaret Garner—the actual enslaved Black woman who killed her daughter, rather than allowing her to be returned to slavery—for whom the character of Sethe was loosely based off. With each chapter, the audience is reminded that during the time of U.S. chattel slavery, Black women had no claim over the flesh and blood birthed from their own bodies; their children were often sold without a second thought, and subsequently, the concept of love, kinship and motherhood were forcibly warped. Neither did Black women have claim, obviously, over their own physical selves. Slavery rendered Black women mere property and tools of labor, while simultaneously subjecting them to unchecked sexual violence—so the concept of agency and power were forcibly warped, too.

Post-chattel slavery, the only employment the majority of Black women could find was that of a domestic worker. There were several notable Black women able to secure impressive amounts of wealth, but most working Black women worked in houses owned by white families, taking care of white children. In this labor context, Black women had more claim to their physical bodies, but the chance of sexual assault for Black women workers with little access to labor rights, often at the hands of their employers, wasn’t exactly low. Yet still, the relative power that Black women held, as economic providers in their community, is noteworthy. Although, of course, they didn’t own their businesses, the fact that many of them were able to secure an income does matter.

Considerable gains have certainly been made since then. But I’d argue that even in this contemporary moment with a prominent media personality like Melissa Harris-Perry, seemingly far removed from this historical period, our conversations about power, ownership, and Black women deserves to be placed within the context of a history of Black women’s struggle. Every achievement and supposed failure, every successful navigation and re-maneuvering in and outside of professional spaces functions in relation to a long history of Black women having to define and re-define power and ownership for themselves. Any conversation about these things that dismisses that history of labor and power, is short-sighted in its approach and limited in its conclusions.

Feeling Some Type of Way

Power and ownership have always been complicated for Black women. As marginalized persons within an already marginalized community, navigating the bullshit becomes an everyday thing. When it comes to the professional or corporate world, it becomes even more convoluted. Sometimes Black women are the only people able to identify the power they have, because they had to arrange it from the margins of the workforce. Sometimes Black women are the only people able to understand how we negotiate ownership, on our own terms and in less visible ways, because the lived context that we operate in isn’t something other people are privy to.

For a woman of Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry’s significant stature, accomplishment, scholarship, and continued commitment to her audience, I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the countless, complicated negotiations she’s had to make in order to secure four years of The MHP Show. What we learned from Dr. Harris-Perry’s published letter, her subsequent tweets, and others’ analysis of MSNBC’s lack of diversity, is that negotiations regarding power and ownership were painstakingly made whether we were aware of them or not. And those negotiations are not to be belittled. They’re part of the reason notable Black women like Oprah, Ava DuVernay and others were able to achieve the success they’re now known for.

The Greatest Shame

To me, the greatest shame is that power and ownership have never been, and likely never will be, simple things for Black women, though people who observe our lives may over-simplify our decisions as though—because of some admirable exceptions—they suddenly are. To me, the greatest shame is that, for some, the blame falls on a Black woman’s demand that her work and her resume be acknowledged, and that her professional and political prowess be respected. The shame is that a Black woman knowing her own professional value could be reduced to an uncomplicated expression of pride, as though a Black woman with either should be anything other than celebrated.

So, I’d like to take a moment to openly and unabashedly honor Dr. Harris-Perry’s choice and her right to make that choice despite the fact that she didn’t own MSNBC or The MHP Show. And seeing as her relative economic stability and second job put her in a position to make a choice that plenty of other Black women could never make—I’d like to also openly and unabashedly honor the thousands of Black women who don’t “own their masters” either. Our history tells us we don’t have the right to lay claim over much at all. But it’s time we resist that.

Black women, your sense of self is more important than any observer’s projected understanding of your lived experience. You have a right to your own dignity. You have a right to respect. And if you have the resources and you deem it necessary, you have the right to say no in order to protect either or both of those things.

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Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work is focused on historical and contemporary iterations of black, brown and indigenous resistance. She is also a Callaloo Fellow, and author of "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," published through Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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