Last night in New York something amazing happened. Award-winning authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith had a wide-ranging conversation about literature, feminism, Blackness, and hair. But the best part? Even if you didn’t score a ticket to the packed event, you could still watch their awesome conversation online.
The event, sponsored by Schomburg Center in Harlem, was organized to discuss Adichie’s novel Americanah, which recently won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction. Like the book, the conversation touched on the complicated issues of race, class, migration, and the politics of sexuality.
While Adichie is one of the most talented writers of our generation, she recently became introduced to a whole new segment of the population when an excerpt of her TED Talk about feminism was featured on Beyoncé’s latest album. Adichie’s inclusion on Beyonce’s song “***Flawless” caused many to argue the singer was a feminist icon, but not everyone was convinced.
For weeks arguments raged on Twitter, blogs, news magazines, and other parts of social media about whether Beyoncé was or was not a feminist. Although many proclaimed she was, others countered that the singer’s overt sexuality and willingness to “pander to the male gaze” proved she was not a feminist.
Apparently, Adichie disagrees.
At one point during the chat, the Nigerian author took a question from the audience about whether or not Black women are “boxed in” by notions of sexuality and femininity, which lead Adichie to discuss Beyoncé.
I think the world views [Black women] differently and how things are read differently. For example, Beyoncé, so she chooses to own her sexuality and there’s somehow something bad, just deeply bad about it. It just seems to me like the White version of Beyoncé wouldn’t have that kind of response.
(Skip to the 59-minute mark to hear the discussion, but be sure to watch their entire conversation.)
Another question about feminism and sexuality arose later in the evening, which prompted Adichie to assert that any woman who calls herself a feminist is indeed a feminist in her opinion.
If a woman is sexually overt is she still feminist? It’s a question that…obviously for me, the answer is yes. But also in a larger sense, I’m not interested in policing feminism either. I have such a problem with the idea of people saying things like, “Oh she’s not feminist because of blah blah blah.”
Whoever says they’re feminist is bloody feminist. And I just feel like we live in a world where more people need to be saying it and we shouldn’t be looking to pull people out of the feminist party. And I think the reason I find myself reacting so strongly to questions of female sexuality is…there’s something very disturbing to me about the idea that a woman’s sexuality somehow is not hers. So when certain feminists who will say, it’s about the male gaze, it’s for the man, there a kind of a self-censoring about that that’s similar to what they’re fighting.
So as long as women have the choice…why shouldn’t women own their sexuality? Why shouldn’t a woman who does whatever with her sexuality identify as feminist? I’ve just always found that very troubling. It’s almost unfeminist to make that argument that if you shake your booty, you’re not feminist.
But I’m thinking, well, do you want to shake your booty? Shouldn’t you have your choice to shake your booty?
I think that anything that gets young people talking about feminism is a very good thing. I also think that I have a problem with the idea of feminism as being some sort of exclusive party that someone gets to decide whether you can come, and also the idea that somehow a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, that there’s something wrong with that. I have a problem with that … Why have we decided that somehow a woman celebrating her sexuality somehow is something bad? Maybe it’s that slightly puritan idea, it’s also the idea that sex is something a woman gives a man, and she loses something when she does that, which again for me is nonsense.
I want us to raise girls differently where boys and girls start to see sexuality as something that they own, rather than something that a boy takes from a girl.
Though I doubt Adichie’s assertion that merely self-identifying as a feminist is enough to stop folks from wondering whether Beyoncé is a real feminist or not, her stance on not allowing anything or anyone, other than a woman herself, to define her feminism needs to be heard.