The Only Gaze Is OursTracing the Evolution of Black Women’s Stories

Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Life of Church Ladies (Photo credit: Courtesy of Deesha Philyaw)

Legacy issue cover featuring Nailah Howze, a Black woman styled with a sculptural, braided hairdo, wearing a pleated gold top, adorned with a sparkling headpiece and nail decor
This article was published in Legacy Issue #90 | Spring 2021

When Bitch magazine began as a zine in 1996, the cultural landscape looked vastly different than it does now, especially for Black women: Pearl Cleage, Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, and other Black women were writing culture-shifting work; there were TV shows and movies, such as Living Single, that depicted the layered interiority of Black women’s lives; and Black women in music, including Lil’ Kim and Lauryn Hill (still a member of the Fugees at the time), were shaking up the world with their brazen approach to storytelling. But their work was considered niche—tailored only for a Black audience too minuscule to be centered in a sustained cultural renaissance. That same year, People magazine published a cover that read: “Hollywood Blackout: The film industry says all the right things, but its continued exclusion of African Americans is a disgrace.”

Before April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign shook Hollywood’s very foundation, the Academy Awards was being accused of committing “cultural apartheid” because “white America doesn’t understand Black America.” Times have surely changed. Beginning with Scandal, the first prime-time television drama with a Black woman protagonist since 1974, Black women have ushered in a cultural renaissance that includes making inroads in multiple industries such as publishing, TV and film, and music. For the first time, it seems as if inclusion isn’t merely a phase designed to temper outrage; instead, Black women are stakeholders with leverage who are able to call their own shots.

Authors Tamara Winfrey-Harris and Deesha Philyaw have witnessed this evolution in real time and captured it through their work, which includes Winfrey-Harris’s 2016 book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America; Philyaw’s National Book Award–nominated book, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies; and the culture-shifting articles they have published in the pages of this very magazine over the years. In this conversation, these two beloved Bitch contributors talk about the past, present, and future of Black women’s gazes.

Tamara Winfrey-Harris: You said something beautiful [when] describing the point of view of your book The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which is this wonderful intimate collection of short stories about Black women. Can we talk about that?

Deesha Philyaw: In my collection, the only gaze is ours. Black women writers don’t have to write to the white male gaze in the art we create. That doesn’t mean you can’t have any white characters. I’m talking about the centering of our gaze, our experiences, our voices, our perspectives, our narrative. Putting us at the center of our own lives.

The Only Gaze Is Ours Rachelle Baker self-portrait spot image

illustrated self-portrait of artist Rachelle Baker, a Black woman wearing a lavender bra and bottoms, kneeling with one hand covering her eye, the other hand resting on her chest as lines of tears wrap around her body, while a halo glows behind her head.

 Portrait of the Artist Crying (Illustration by Rachelle Baker)

TWH: Everyone is welcome at the table, but it is set for us, right? This has been a guiding value of my writing. White editors often want you to explain Blackness. White women often want us to flatten our womanhood into a universal experience. And when I say “universal,” I mean “white.” Bitch magazine is the first place where my writing was published in print. I wrote about Black women and respectability politics in the Summer 2012 Fame + Fortune issue, and I got a chance to really pick apart how other people view Black women and how we view ourselves. I was given an opportunity to write about us for us.

Before you were a literary juggernaut, you wrote a piece for Bitch in 2008 about Black women and our erasure from narratives about motherhood.

DP: Tami, you are among the writers I have watched [because of your bold] writing and always centering us unapologetically. When somebody starts talking about women, we should always ask, “Where are the Black women in all of this?” For “Ain’t I a Mommy: Why Are So Few Motherhood Memoirs Penned by Women of Color?” I wanted to write about motherhood and who gets to define the experience. At that time, there was a lot of conversation [around] “mommy wars” [mothers with jobs outside of the home vs. stay-at-home mothers], and Black women weren’t even considered on the battlefield. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time and wondering where narratives for mothers who look like me with lives like mine fit. Bitch gave me space to explore that in my first reported piece ever.

TWH: You are really masterful at presenting Black women in all our complicated humanity. That’s part of writing from our own gaze, right? Even when we write about ourselves, there is this pressure to make our stories “respectable,” as defined through a lens of white, Christian, straight, middle classness. That’s what “No Disrespect: Black Women and the Burden of Respectability” was about.

At the time, folks were outraged about the 2011 movie The Help. I was uncomfortable with the argument that centered around Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. It was: How dare they be Oscar nominated for playing maids and caretakers? As shitty as I found that movie and its janky white-savior narrative, I had a problem with the idea that Black women who clean homes and care for children are not the sort of Black women whose stories we want to [see]. Many of our foremothers worked in folks’ homes. Black women still make up a large percentage of this country’s childcare providers. What are we saying about these women if we think their lives are too ignoble to be shown? Of course I know about Hollywood’s history of only portraying Black women in subordinate roles, but writing from our own gaze means letting go of what our lives should be as defined by others and letting go of writing to make white people…men…Black men…think better of us. They will think what they think, regardless.

Anyone who reads The Secret Lives of Church Ladies knows that you get this. I have to point out that the book is a finalist for a National Book Award in fiction. I am so proud and happy for you, my friend! I love that the book feels so personal. I can tell this was written for me as a Black woman. These are my stories. These women feel familiar to me. Is it frightening to write that way? Everybody writes because they want to be read. And the publishing industry is very white.

The Only Gaze Is Ours Kellem Monteiro self-portrait spot image

a self-portrait of artist Kellem Monteiro, an Afro Brazilian woman with a dark afro, collaged together with segmented pieces of a photo mixed with circular color-blocked shapes

To be beautiful is not to worry about looking ugly (Photo credit: Kellem Monteiro)

DP: Sometimes we contort ourselves and there’s still no guarantee that the publishing world will open up for us. So why not just be true to yourself? Why not just write what you want to write?

It has been so satisfying to hear you and other Black women, Black people, white people, men, and women from all backgrounds saying they connect to my book. People tell me, “I read this with my mother, and this story cracked her wide open, and she shared things with me,” or, “My mom and I laughed about this,” or, “I gave this to my 80-year-old grandmother, and she loved it.” I encourage writers to find value in things like this. There are just so many wonders that come when you put your stories into the world. That said, do you ever worry that, even in writing true to us, some Black women won’t connect with your books, even if they are exactly the books you want to write?

TWH: My next book, Dear Black Girl: Letters From Your Sisters on Stepping Into Your Power, is a collection of letters from Black women to Black girls, wrapped in my analysis. It is about us nurturing the next generation, giving it a roadmap to alrightness in a world that doesn’t love us right. So it was important to me that Black girls feel seen in my book in all the ways they show up in the world. I was really purposeful about finding contributors who could [speak] to a variety of Black girl experiences. I looked for women who were adoptees. I looked for trans women. I looked for biracial women. I looked for women who were teen moms. I am a feminist and a progressive. I explicitly asked letter writers for feminist, antiracist, body positive, lgbtq positive, anti–respectability politics, pro-Black letters. Some people—even some Black women—won’t like that. But those values are nonnegotiable for me. That is the only kind of book I am willing to write.

DP: Yes! The pressure to be respectable diminishes [Black writers] in some way. Like there’s only this box that we can be in and nothing else, lest people think ill of us. I used to write a column for Bitch called “The Bitch in Black.” One of my early columns was about whether it was okay to say out loud that Barack Obama was sexy. Somebody made a dildo in his honor, and that was the impetus for that column. We are serious writers, but that notion of respectability could cause us to be limited and hindered from showing our range. We got the range!

TWH: Respectability can be a joy stealer. We can be serious and professional and joke about the Obama dildo.

DP: I write about sex, and I also write humor. That’s Black, too. We have a tradition of writing irreverently, writing about pleasure, writing about joy. Some Black narratives are focused on trauma and pain. But those things coexist with other facets of our lives. We are that full and that dope; we can do it all. Your first book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, is scholarly, and you write about Beyoncé in there. Like CaShawn Thompson says, “Black girls are magic.” [Black women writers] are so magic that we can do that kind of alchemy of taking things that are pop culture and bringing our astute analysis to [them].

It is about us nurturing the next generation, giving it a roadmap to alrightness in a world that doesn’t love us right.

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TWH: Big ups to Carmen Sognonvi and Latoya Peterson, who used to run the blog Racialicious. That is where I first learned to examine popular culture through the Black gaze. People say, “Well, it’s just music or TV or comedy,” but culture is powerful. It mirrors and moves society. If we’re not interrogating it, then we’re missing a space where there’s a lot going on for Black women and girls.

DP: We don’t ever just anything. Everything we do is political, even if it’s not all that deep to us. Somebody wants to imitate it. Somebody wants to pick it apart. 

TWH: Is that kind of dissection of pop culture still necessary today? Black women are way more visible as creators than we were even five years ago. There has been this renaissance of Black women’s creativity. Radha Blank. Misha Green. Lena Waithe. Issa Rae. When I began writing about race, gender, and pop culture in the early aughts, the landscape didn’t look anything like this! Beyoncé was still Sasha Fierce, who was fierce, but not Lemonade, Beychella, and Lion King fierce.

DP: Right. I’m hoping that more equity means we get to be imperfect too. Our work shouldn’t have to be blemish free to still be worthy. Media that isn’t written by and doesn’t feature Black women is allowed to be mediocre or flawed and still have longevity. Not that we’re aiming for mediocrity, but the standard shouldn’t be impossible. I’m thinking specifically about Lovecraft Country, which is phenomenal. There are so many things I love about it. And then there were some legitimate criticisms of it around colorism and other issues. All of that can be true at once. Allegiance does not preclude critique.

TWH: Maybe we owe grace. Grace allows us to critique what needs examining, but also leave room for things like Lovecraft Country’s “I Am” episode, which was an authentic look at our interiority and humanity as Black women. Our gaze was all over that! That line from Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) about being pressed into something small. [“All those years I thought I had everything I ever wanted, only to come here and discover that all I ever was was the exact kind of Negro woman white folks wanted me to be. I feel like they just found a smart way to lynch me without me noticing a noose…. Sometimes I just, I wanna kill white folks. And it’s not just them…. I hate me, for letting them make me feel small.”] Whooo! You don’t get that episode without Black women, who know us, writing, producing, and directing. That episode was for us. I felt it. Has the way you write through our gaze evolved over time?

DP: Yes. My early fiction was my attempt to mask nonfiction. I wrote about dissatisfied women from the beginning because I was dissatisfied. But a lot of times I didn’t want to put my business out there, so I fictionalized it before I started writing personal essays. Now that I write more honestly about my own experiences in other ways; I don’t have to force fiction to do that work. That said, there are still parts of me and my relationships in Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Ultimately, I wanted other Black women to see themselves in those stories. Also, in my early writing, I wasn’t good at nuance. I identified as a Christian and was taught that everything you do has to honor God. So at the end of my stories, everybody had to go to church or go back to church.

Tamara Winfrey-Harris, author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America (Photo credit: Grace Michael Photography/Courtesy of Tamara Winfrey-Harris)

TWH: You used to be Tyler Perry?

DP: Yes. I was. Without the bad wigs, though. My characters’ hair will always be laid.

TWH: Relationships with women beyond my geography, age, socioeconomic situation, or whatever have evolved my writing. We have gazes, not a gaze, right?

Right after The Sisters Are Alright was published, I wrote an article for Cosmopolitan that was an extension of the chapter about how stereotypes about promiscuity affect Black women’s sexuality. For the book, I had interviewed all of these thirty-, forty-, and fiftysomethings who said they grew up hearing that Black women should be chaste and that made it hard for them to enjoy the fullness of sexual expression. I started talking to younger women for Cosmo. They talked about the imperative to be fuckable to heterosexual men, like, even to display eagerness and prowess, but at the same time not to fuck “too much.” That shit is oppressive in a whole different way. I have evolved to know my biases and limitations better, so hopefully I can [better] tell the stories of Black women who have different experiences from [mine]. Our gaze is really rich and varied. We contain multitudes. So we talked about how it feels as a Black woman to read something that was written just for you, but how does it feel to write that way?

DP: Like righting wrongs. Like healing ourselves. Like entertaining ourselves. I love reading about Black people. Toni Morrison and August Wilson were both challenged for writing only about Black people, and Wilson said, “There’s no idea in the world that is not contained by Black life. I could write forever about the Black experience in America.” When I think about writing about Black people, it feels limitless. It feels infinite.

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Deesha Philyaw, a Black woman with long, black locs, stares at herself in the mirror, creating a double image
by Deesha Philyaw
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Deesha Philyaw’s debut short-story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The collection focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the coauthor of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce.

Tamara Winfrey-Harris, a plus-size Black woman with short brown locs, poses in purple lipstick and a purple shirt with gold hoop earrings
by Tamara Winfrey-Harris
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Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes about race and gender. She is the author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and the forthcoming Dear Black Girl: Letters From Your Sisters on Stepping Into Your Power, due March 2021 and available for preorder now.