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Women Speak Out! A Report of the Pacific Women's Conference. October 27 – November 2

Address given by Thais Aubry

page 120

Address given by Thais Aubry

Thais Aubry is an American of African descent also invited to the Pacific Women's Conference as a resource person. Thais is an educator who has taught and lectured in the United States, and is particularly concerned with working amongst her people to change their conditions of oppression.

I want to thank the organisers of this Conference for having invited me here and all of you for staying around and listening because I know you're very tired. And also, I want to thank Mrs. Rose Catchings of the United Methodist Church for making it financially possible for me to get here. I'll try to make this as brief as possible and then get onto any questions you might have.

These last three days have been for me – it's hard to find words. One can't say, certainly one wouldn't say, entertaining, because there was nothing entertaining about what's been going on; interesting is far too mild a word; moving, stirring – they're mild compared to what I really feel, based on what I've experienced here in the last three days. I've come from an awful long way and it may sound very, very presumptuous of me to say that in listening to every single one of you, as I'm listening, I'm saying: “I know, Lord knows I know”. I think it may not seem quite so presumptuous for me to say that “I know, Lord knows I know”, if perhaps I can share with you a bit of our process of re-definition because I think the theme I've been hearing throughout these three days has been re-definition and not just re-definition of women.

The African in America, in the United States, and the African, period, has probably been experiencing European colonialism and neo-colonialism longer than any other people in the world. That's nothing to be proud of, but it's a reality. So, I'd like to share a bit of that history with page 121 you because I'm sure you will find that in many instances, it's parallel with yours.

I'm sure that most of you know that European penetration into Africa began in the 15th Century and that the main powers involved in that were Portugal, Spain, France and England. Also, as our brother in Trinidad, Eric Williams has helped us in understanding, that capitalism and slavery came at the same time, or I should say, capitalism was the result of slavery. It was the capital earned from the sale of over 100 million people that produced the industries of Europe. In fact, in America, some of the first families began their fortunes on the slave trade. I'm sure you also know that, with the gun also went the Bible, and that the Christian religion was part and parcel of the enslavement of African people.

I'm going to jump now to the 17th Century, because the first Africans were brought to the U.S. (and I want to stick to the U.S. because I know most about that) in 1619. There's a book called Before the “Mayflower”. The “Mayflower” is the ship that, in the popularised version of American history, is pointed to as the ship with the ancestors of all the Americans. I think that was 1623, but we landed in Virginia in 1619 and from that time till 1865, we underwent the worst slavery known to mankind.

No man loves them shackles, be they made of gold, but then, there's ‘slavery’ and then there's slavery. I'm going to deal with two periods of our existence in the U.S. From 1519 to 1865 I'm labelling Colonialism; from 1865 to the present we have been undergoing neo-colonialism.

With respect to the family and tradition, under chattel slavery in the U.S., there was no family life. There were no traditions, on the surface at lest, allowed to remain. Chattel slavery means you are a piece of property. To find slave records, one does not look in the Census, but under human beings, one looks under Property, next to the pigs and the cattle. A mother did not control her children; a father did not control his children. Marriage was forbidden. I think the slave masters permitted certain kinds of ceremonies, (one of which was jumping over a pool and you're married). But page 122 your children weren't your own and seldom did families stay together on a plantation. In addition to that there were plantations in the U.S. that did nothing but breed slaves, just as one has cattle farms where you breed cattle, there were ‘people plantations’ designed to produce more, not cheap labour, totally free labour.

In addition, with respect to traditional customs, no group of people, no ethnic group, was allowed to congregate together, to remain together, because that was a potential threat. Consequently, the African peoples, were totally mixed up. They couldn't talk to each other, (one way to control them).

We are very, very musical people. In fact, music is a great part of our spirituality and we developed some very interesting instruments, especially talking drums. In Africa, the talking drums cut across semi-linguistic barriers. The drums were forbidden. Customs, religious customs were forbidden. On the surface, all of the customs and the family life were wiped out.

It's very difficult to disassociate religion and music in the history of the African peoples, especially in the U.S., and of course, in Africa. But those same hymns and songs - how many of you know “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”, “Amazing Grace”? Both hymns were written by slaving-ship captains. But we took many, many spirituals and we used them in a lot of ways. They were our original protest songs. They were also used in the underground railroad (when slaves escaped to the free North) as signals. When you sang “Steal away to Jesus” you may not have been stealing away to Jesus, but you may have been stealing away, period. The spiritual was used in that manner, but even when it wasn't used in that manner, it was used as a much more important survival mechanism.

During the neo-colonial period, religion was again one of the most important survival mechanisms of African people undeniably, because by 1919 or by 1898, with the Plessy versus Ferguson decision, there was no more pretence by the U.S. that Africans were ever going to have any equal status. The page 123 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in the “separate but equal” decision. All that it did was to codify an existing reality.

The educational system that we had in the early neo-colonial period, was either non-existent or totally segregated, with a curriculum designed to instill in us our inferiority.

The media, in the early neo-colonial period, was the way the media had always been - we were “coons”, we were “niggers”, we were “happy”.

Politics - in the early neo-colonial period, with respect to African people's involvement in politics, after 1880, there was none. In fact, it was only 10 years ago! - 1965, that Blacks in one-quarter of the U.S., where the majority of Blacks live, and still live, were permitted to vote. They had to pass a law in Congress, the Voting Act of 1965. To say second-class citizen does not adequately depict the situation; to say ‘no citizen at all’ is much closer to the reality of the situation. Yet in spite of that and up until the Second World War, in spite of lynchings that went on, the African continued to re-define the situation.

In 1909 was born the Niagara movement, out of which came the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People which was formed to try and change the law. That association is still functioning. In addition, in the 1920's and early 1930's, we had the largest mass movement of Black people in the U.S. to this day, and that was lead by Marcus Garvey of the West Indies. His movement was called the Universal Negro Improvement Association, sometimes called the Back-to-Africa Movement, but that's a misnomer. There was constant agitation, constant re-definition of one's condition. There was not an accepting of that condition.

There was, however, two streams running there, that have always run there. The one is of separation, and the other of intergration. A lot of black people were propagandised by the propaganda of the Second World War. When a whole people is told that they are fighting for freedom, democracy, etc., etc., the contradictions become more and more glaring to page 124 those people who are not citizens. After the Second World War and especially with the return of the Black troops who'd been fighting, the agitation for liberation became much more overt. Heretofore, what struggle there had been was a relatively quiet one, an attempt to change laws. After the Second World War, however, that began to change.

Now, after the Second World War, in 1954, and that's 21 years ago, the Supreme Court of the U.S. declared that “separate but equal” schools, I mean ‘separate’ schools (one school system for Blacks, the other for Whites), was no longer correct and immediately thereafter, there was much agitation, many, many mob demonstrations as Blacks attempted to integrate the schools. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, there was a move started to integrate the bus systems. I should also say that in much of the U.S. up till very, very recently, all life, much of Black life, was legally segregated. In other words, for example, if I and my family moved out of New Orleans, Louisiana, we'd have to get off the train at Texas and go in the back to the carriages reserved for us. So, I could go on - drinking fountains, sitting at lunch counters, all of that.

So, in the South, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, there began the first of many mass movements, the Montgomery Association's Bus Boycott. The Blacks refused to ride the buses until those local buses were integrated. When I grew up in New Orleans there was a screen that separated us from whites as we came on the bus. And, should we be passing through a heavily-populated white area, the screen would be moved all the way to the back - which meant we stood up. The people of Montgomery, Alabama, began their mass movement to change this, and almost put the bus company out of business. The person who led that movement was Dr. Martin Luther King. Out of this movement grew the Southern Christian Leadership Council which still exists today and this Council led many of the moves to desegregate much of the South.

That movement of desegregation moved to a slightly different level in 1961. The students of N.C.C. (North Carolina College for Blacks) went into Woolworth's Department Store and sat down and refused, at the lunch counter, to get up. page 125 That began another mass movement that was going on at the same time as the other movement that was primarily adult, although many young people were involved in it. The student movement among Blacks began and out of that grew the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee.

Now, I'm sure most of the adults in this room can remember the period of say, 1955 to 1965. That was the period when we were waging a totally non-violent struggle and were brutalised, jailed in mass numbers. You may recall that Dr. Martin Luther King was in jail many times. Many, many people died in those movements, to such an extent that by 1965 a young black named Stokely Carmichael popularised a term during one of the marches, the March on Selma, he yelled: “Black Power!”

Now, that move has undercurrents in a lot that's going on, but in the early 60's and late 50's our move was for integration. We saw integration as the best way for us to achieve liberation for ourselves. As the movement got on, though, and so many died or were brutalised, and so little happened, there began another process of re-definition. By 1965, when Stokely said “Black Power” the struggle went to another level, not because Stokely said it but because we were ready to go to another level, and because by that time, after having submitted to so much brutality for so little, another process of re-definition began.

That process had to do with looking at our condition less as one brought about by big prejudice. Before, the liberal rights and the more educated Blacks would talk about ‘prejudice’ and ‘teaching people in learning to like each other’ and ‘brotherhood’ and ‘integration will come’ and ‘we shall overcome’, but by 1965, many Blacks, and not all of them young because Malcolm X was not young, had begun to look at the problem of our oppressed condition in a slightly different way. We began to look at it and say: “Wait a minute. You know, the philosophy behind the non-violent tactics for those who believed in it as a moral force was that you're superior. Moral stance would change the hearts of men”. I remember in 1960 we were debating violence versus non-violence. For some of us it seemed that some people would put their foot on your page 126 neck as long as you'd let them and you may be exercising greater moral force if you take this foot off your neck. By 1965 many Blacks had come to that.

Then something else happened. We no longer began to look to white, European values as our values. You see, the education that we did have was an education designed for us to accept our inferior position and also designed to assist the white child in accepting his superior position; works both ways.

By the late 60's however, we began to look at this problem somewhat differently. It was no longer a question of individual prejudice, of people not liking each other. It became a question of institutionalised racism. All societies have institutions. And what we began to realise is that from the beginning, racism had been institutionalised throughout the U.S. so that it would be knocking our heads up against a stonewall to be trying one-on-one brotherhood being. It was a luxury we couldn't afford. So we began to re-analyse, redefine our situation, which meant, though, that we were redefining all of the institutions in the U.S.

Now, obviously, all those years of oppression did their psychological damage. Yes, we had to always re-define our condition, re-define the institutions that controlled us in some fashion. But the psychological damage to us, I'm sure you may know something about. In some parts of the U.S. - at one point in our history, they had so many words to define the gradations of mixtures of white that it was absurd - there was octaroon, the mulatto, the quadroon, and I'm sure if you keep adding Latin prefixes you can get as far as you want to. I think Blacks in the U.S. have more terms of the colour of skin than anybody in the world and, as kids, if somebody called you ‘black’ that was immediate cause for fighting.

One good thing that existed and still exists today, (I can't find too much good in the U.S. experience for us) is the Jim Crow laws. (The Jim Crow laws are the segregation laws that came into effect after the liberation of Blacks, the so-called Independence, after 1865.) When the Jim Crow page 127 laws became finally firmly entrenched the one good thing that came about is that a Negro was defined as “anybody with one drop of ‘blood’”. And that may get turn out to be our saving grace because I don't care if you're as white as Thomas Jefferson's wife or as black as the Queen of Sheba, you were, and remain today, a black or a nigger. Probably the most integrated society in the world is the African peoples living in the U.S. of A. One other thing, I know you all know about the hair straighteners and the skin lighteners - I don't have to go through that, right?

But by the late 60's we had begun to appreciate ourselves as African people. I mean, Afros out to here. Black parents almost fainted - they spent all their time straightening that hair and there, their kinds came busting out yelling: “I'm beautiful and my hair is beautiful.”

But there was something else going on. The re-definition of self. Obviously the re-discovery of African history, the re-discovery of our very proud history under slavery. In the late 60's, a lot of the things started to be re-defined. When we started talking about history, and historiography, the writing of history, we began to realise that all the history of the U.S. was written from one point of view, the European point of view. We set out to do something about that. When we looked at the educational system, we realised that that institution was so racist, racism was so entrenched, that we had to somehow, control that institution in our neighbourhood. Here are just some examples - we began to look at I.Q. tests which are racial and class-biassed. They are there to see how well someone comes up to a racist and classist standard. That's all that that is. It's no judge of anyone's ability.

We began to look at the whole question of language. Even in the areas where the schools were integrated, black children were not coming out of those schools able to compete with anybody. So we began to look at the language used in the teaching of our children. Most people when they talk about Pidgin (I don't like the term) they say that it's not good English or it's not the Queen's English. But there is a problem in the U.S. of A. - the problem that our children have to go to school that is taught from kindergarten on in page 128 standard English. That language can be un-intelligible for a young child because Pidgin is used in the U.S. too. So we began to talk about translations for our people within the educational system of the young children and adults. We began to examine all the institutions in the U.S.

Now, I'm sure you've read about all the so-called riots - we prefer to call them rebellions - that occurred? Most people have heard of Watts; from 1964 to 1968, for four years, every summer, some city burned. Much of what I've been describing as the re-definition was occurring at one level among black people, that is, the so-called ‘educated’ level. The masses responded by burning down at least one city per summer - at least certain areas of those cities.

When we began to re-define ourselves, though, and when we said we would begin to defend ourselves rather than continue to be brutalised and killed, there was an immediate response and the response was: oh, violence is terrible; you can't have violence. That “black is Beautiful” is reverse racism; “you mustn't hate. Hate is terrible”. That came primarily from the Whites in the U.S. and it also came from a lot of our parents. In the last part of the 60's and early 70's, black parents and their kids were going at each other. But that was understandable because so many Blacks, black parents, black elders, had survived in another way. But it didn't destroy the relationship of black parents and their children.

A lot of people died in the sixties, a lot of people died. I'm talking of those actively involved in the movement, of those thrown into jail. The leading exponent of non-violence in the U.S., Dr. Martin Luther King, was murdered. It's curious because he was murdered when he moved beyond the Civil Rights, beyond attacking the problems of the so-called Civil Rights non-violently.

Going back to 1955, that was the beginning of the first mass movement of Blacks in the U.S. That same year, 1955, was also the year of the Bandan Conference - Bandan is in Indonesia - the first meeting of what today would be called Third World people. All of the first wave of great nationalist page 129 leaders - Sukarno, Nkrumah, Mao tse Tung, all of them - were at that meeting.

Very quickly, we began to re-define. That re-definition is still going on. But what has been the result of all this in the U.S., in the neo-colonial period? The result has been, according to the 1970 census, the economic gap between the which and the black in the U.S. is widening, not closing. In 1975 - the U.S. is having its little depression right now, and we have a saying: “When they get a cold, we get pneumonia”. They have an unemployment rate of 10%. That doubles by official statistics for us but it's more like 30%. The blacks in prison today are out of proportion relative to our numbers. The jails are primarily for blacks and other Third World, other so-called ‘minority people’.

I haven't talked about the economic institution. The U.S. was built on slave labour for the benefit of the very few, black or white. For the most part today, the U.S. still is being run for the benefit of a very few.

Now, I've heard a current for the last three days, that sometimes seems to be saying that colonialism somehow had its benefit and I can understand that because many black people in the U.S. still say: “Well, we're better off than the black people of Africa”, or whatever. But there's only one reason for that. Statistics say that the gross national product of black people in the U.S. is greater than the gross national product of many countries. But obviously, if you're living in the richest country in the world, then some of that is going to rub off a bit, but at whose expense is this great wealth? And that's when many of us began to look at these statistics. It is interesting because just about the same time the U.S. statistics came out we are now beginning to see statistics that indicate that the economic status of the so-called Third World countries and that of the European countries and when I say ‘European’ I mean America - that gap is widening.

Right now in the U.S., I wish I could be able to tell you there was a mass movement of black people for liberation and that we're out on the streets struggling everyday. That page 130 is not true. With one exception, there is no mass movement of black people in the U.S. for very obvious reasons. The repression during the 60's and 70's was so great that the survival instinct takes over and, in a sense, everybody's cooling it. But that does not mean that there is not a movement on. It is, in a sense, biding its time and I sympathise very greatly with the brothers and sisters of New Zealand, the South Sea Islanders, Australia when they said: “What is the future?” Right now among blacks, many of us are discouraged at this point. But others again, having somehow more accurately assessed our situation, see ours as part of a world-wide struggle against the domination of any one part of the world by another part of the world or the domination of one class over another. Those are some of the re-definitions that's been going on since 1619 until now.

Now, what has that got to do with this Women's Conference? Before I get into that, I want to talk about Women's Lib. in the U.S. Practically every Lib in the States today, whether it's Gay Liberation, Women's Liberation, grew out of the push for black liberation in the States. Women's Lib. in the States, however, is predominantly a white women's movement for many reasons. The Suffragette Movement after the Civil War, 100 yerrs ago, grew out of the Abolitionist Movement during slavery times. After many of those women got the vote they were just another oppressor. The overwhelming majority of black women in the U.S. do not adhere to Women's Lib. as defined by white women because for us it is primarily the liberation of the whole people. One has to establish priorities. Another statement I have to make: Black women have never had the luxury of sitting behind a curtain. A pedestal? Try a pit! We didn't have to agitate for employment. We're always employed. My grandmother began to work when she was eight-years old - she left school to go to work. My mother left school at thirteen to go to work in a garment factory - she's been working all her life. And we come from what would be considered a better economic family. Black women have always been right there. Slavery didn't permit you to sit behind a curtain, you see. You were preg- but you went back out into those fields. You had that baby and you went back to those fields.

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So, much of this (‘Women's Lib’) is irrelevant to us. Much of what they're talking about is irrelevant to us. But one has to ask: “Why do we come together here?” I'm assuming most of us are about the liberation of all of our people as our priority. Then why are we meeting as women? You know, why didn't we invite everybody's husbands? The answer is obvious. Because women are, and I'm talking now about coloured women of the world, women of the world are on the bottom of the ladder, anywhere.

Now, what does this have to do with the whole process of re-definition? We say in the States among black women: “When you're on the bottom of the ladder, you see everybody else's dirty drawers.” And once you have dealt with yourself and re-define yourself, you may be the most important factor in calling to someone else's attention that they got some dirty drawers - especially since you don't want to be washing them. But if we are not about the liberation of all the people we may as well hang it up and go home.

We have to get down to specifics in some of the things, were're talking about, examining how racism and capitalism is institutionalised in all of our societies and doing something about that, concretely. What kind of society do we want for the world, for our children. We have to examine every single institution in our society and devise strategies for eliminating the racism, and I add, capitalism, in those institutions.

One other thing I've got to go back to is the question of violence. I've recounted a history that is. violent is too mild a word to describe that history. We weren't violent. We didn't enslave anybody. There seems to be among some of us still a fear of violence. But it's always a fear that it's our violence. I suspect that's a very sound reason. For the same reason the black parent would get very upset when his children started yelling: “Black Power!” They knew the possibility of reprisal. But let's be clear in our thinking. The most violent society in the world is the U.S.A. You cannot have… I don't know what you call the last ten years in Indo-China. And there's all kinds of violence. I can perpetrate as much violence on you if I take your natural resources, pay page 132 you a pittance for them, leave you there in no control in reality of your natural resources - they go to my land, to my benefit and I sell whatever I'm going to sell back to you and you pay twice what I paid you for and you keep getting lower and lower - that's violence. This is violating people's stomachs, people's health, people's lives. One man's violence is another man's self-defence.

What I'm suggesting here is that we begin completely to examine the institutions in every single country and even for those of you who are now in a colonial situation, and were devising strategies for political liberation, you have to also, at the same time, be devising the kinds of institutions that you want once you get that independence.

It has to do with re-definition. What kind of society you want - is it you and a few others or is it for everybody? If it is for everybody, then we as women who are pre-eminently in the position because of our bottom-of-the-ladder position, we are pre-eminently in the position to force these re-definitions and we cannot afford the luxury of even trying to decide whether we want to stay on a pedestal. When your people are not free, that pedestal has long since been pulled out from under your feet and events in the world today are occurring so rapidly that I don't think we have that much time and there are certain luxuries we just can't afford.

But I hope that we are dealing with institutions - how those institutions are infused with racism, capitalism and oppression and that we devise strategies, concrete strategies, for dealing with them. But after three days here, I feel very confident and as they say in Mozambique, and presently in Angola: “The struggle will begin.”

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Black and white photograph of women at the conference.

“We know that whenever there's a gathering such as this, it's usually men who are invited to attend. So to me, sometimes, it would appear that only men are the ones able to speak and that only men know how to speak, and that it would be men who know what is best for the home. Perhaps at the end of this conference, men will know that women are able to speak too.” Matakai Ariki Wichman (Cook Islands)