Conversation with Charreah Jackson
INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL (9/12/09)
Charreah Jackson is a blogger and associate editor at Essence magazine.
The following interview was conducted at Omega Institute at the conference Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations.
Marianne Schnall: What do you think of the conference so far?
Charreah Jackson: It’s been amazing. I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed – not even overwhelmed, just been sort of reflective. It’s sort of almost silenced me just to be surrounded by so many amazing women with so many different stories. I appreciate the intergenerational part so much – just on a personal level and just as a community. I think that’s something that’s so important that we don’t necessarily in the greater world respect that so much – or respect the wisdom. It’s like we don’t respect age as much as we need to, so to come together, especially as women... There’s so much out there, a market just to slow down aging, that when you get something that celebrates that wisdom, that celebrates that aging, that celebrates those women in their sixties – it’s phenomenal. And just informative and it’s just fed my soul in a lot of ways, and just so many different stories, and so many things that have just opened my eyes to – "well, I didn’t think about that."
And also a big part of this is – you know, of course we’re different, but how much we are the same. So even though Alberta’s nineteen and fighting for mountains for her tribe – it’s like I could relate to that story or I could feel so connected, or my heart is warmed by that. So it sort of brings us closer because I think like Gloria Steinem said, there’s a lot more differences in the individuals than the groups, so when you put these groups – you know, it’s not that big a difference, but we as people are what makes us different…But yeah, so it’s been phenomenal, to be long winded [laughs].
MS: One of the criticisms of the "women’s movement" or "feminist movement" has been that it hasn’t been diverse enough and that it only speaks to white, privileged women. Yesterday Gloria Steinem made the point that “racism and sexism are intertwined and cannot be uprooted separately.”
MS: Do you agree with that?
CJ: I totally agree with it. On a personal level I think I was almost starting to believe that hype myself [laughs] – I was guilty of sort of not digging deeper and sort of passing that part of it off. Because for so long I grew up so conscious of my racial side that I didn’t always embrace all of my differences as a gender, as a woman. One of my heroes growing up was Sojourner Truth and just sort of her amazing foresight, when slavery’s still going on, to be fighting for women’s rights. She was way ahead of her time and realized then the importance that we can’t separate these two. You know, you can’t be a racist feminist, you can’t be a sexist civil rights activist – you have to sort of merge the two because at the end of it’s all injustice – we’re all impacted by it. So the same way we’re all hurt by women being put down, we’re all hurt if all races aren’t able to be at the table, because diversity isn’t just race – it’s so many other things and you miss so much when you only surround yourself with people like you.
So I think for me some of the best conversations I’ve had in life were with people who don’t share my background, who don’t share my views, or my values – well, some of my values – but who don’t share my experiences. And I’ve just been opened up to much more, and it makes me appreciate things I’ve been through and the people in my life more and to realize that it isn’t necessarily always this way – this isn’t just, “oh, this is how things are” – no, this is how things are for me, but everyone’s parents, or everyone’s grandparents, that’s not their experience. So I do think definitely that those two are intertwined, and just coming here sort of reinforced that, and just forced me to step outside. Even though I’m quote/unquote “part of the media” – to not always drink that, to not always take that in without digging deeper to see what’s really there, so it’s an important point to remember.
MS: When you were growing up did you identify yourself as a feminist? What causes were most compelling – was it ethnicity, was it gender…?
CJ: Growing up - it’s weird – it’s not that I wasn’t a feminist, I guess I was around so many powerful women, the thought that it wasn’t always this way was not so clear. So I always had – my first doctor was – my first pediatrician Dr. Gray was a phenomenal woman. And I unfortunately began to make the exceptions to the rule. So you have a Mae Jemison – oh, yeah, black women are in space, oh women are here – so I was surrounded by so much power, I saw that in my history book, but we’d be on to the next chapter. And it was like – phew, OK, we can vote – now everything’s OK – like no!
And it wasn’t until college or shortly after college that I attended a conference and I was surrounded by feminists and surrounded by women who had broken so much ground in the field of journalism that it opened my eyes to how recent so much ground had been broken, and how much it took to get that. And it just forced me to soul search, and to look through…I always was pro-woman – I was a feminist without knowing it. I always was like, “Well, what about the girl” – I was always that girl – I just didn’t know that it was still that strong of a movement, so it was later that I realized that I always was, and I look back – you know those moments – where you just quiet down and be – like why not? I want to play with the boys. And I laugh because I was a tomboy crybaby - like I would fight tooth and nail to play with the boys – OK, I would cry if I got hit - but I wanted to go play. So yeah, that’s sort of my journey.
MS: What about with your friends and colleagues – is feminism as a movement relevant for women of color today?
CJ: I think it is even more so because we are in a position where you are often the breadwinner or the decider. We have so many single families that you don’t have the luxury of someone to fall back on so the bills are yours. So the idea that you’re getting paid 20% less, or those types of things, are your battles. But I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re arguing about, or what we’re fighting for, is feminism. We just feel like since you don’t know what it is you just think you’re not a part of it. There’s a lot of women of color in the movement. There are a lot of people who are feminists without even knowing they are.
And it’s just interesting, because I think as a black woman, in the African American community, there’s just a disconnect between us as men and women in our communication. That’s something I’m very passionate about, on just building stronger relationships, and I think a part of that is embracing your femininity, because sometimes you feel like you have to be so tough or so hard – or you’re socialized to believe a stereotype of yourself, which is something entirely different – you know, you don’t even self identify anymore, you just are told this is what you are, right? And you accept that, you embrace it. So I was so excited to hear Elizabeth [Lesser] talking about bringing the love back to power, because that’s it. You can still be strong and still move ahead without leaving behind those parts - those things that make you feel vulnerable are really what just makes you human.
MS: I loved what Alberta Nells was saying about the balance of the masculine and the feminine in all of us.
MS: This being an intergenerational conference - what came to you from your matriarchal lineage, from your mother, your grandmothers?
CJ: You know, I am already a crier and as it’s talked about, I’ve been tearing up - even just the kick-off dinner yesterday – it’s just been great for me to invite those women in my life in. And there’s been a lot of talk of grandmothers at this conference and I personally lost my grandmother in June, and we were pretty close and it’s been great to sort of feel her here. And God just works in a mysterious way, because I got the call about this conference, this was over Thanksgiving or near it, and I was at – my grandmother was staying in assisted living for a little while because she had a fall and she was adjusting so it was funny that I go see her, I leave the room and I get a call from Carla about this conference. And since then she’s passed, but to be here now is almost like full circle, to feel that connection from her. Just that strength – it is sometimes you feel like you’re living out the things that they never got to, because whereas my grandmother – even though in the public sense, she was very proper, not a rowdy person at all, not somebody who’s going to stir things up, she’s always like, “Hush! Quiet down.” She was very much like "let’s be nice."
But her mother was not that, her mother was stubborn and just a strong willed women and I actually have her middle name, Katie, was her name and my grandmother was her daughter. And I just sort of feel all of them – my dad’s mom’s still alive and I talk to her and I see her. And even my own mom – I think coming here, and just being a part of this, sometimes it’s not even until later, until late adulthood that you embrace all of them. So it wasn’t like that’s just my mother – she was a whole being before me.
Part of a testament to how great a mother she was, is I forgot she just wasn’t my mother. I forgot her humanness until maybe college it just sort of clicked – wow, you’re not just here for me. It sounds totally like a brat, but I really was able to see her as a being. And all those choices she made as human, to think she would second guess anything was beyond me, because she was always so strong and always my rock, and always so strong for me, that I didn’t ever think it could be any other way – like OK, what if she didn’t do this? Because one big thing part of my life, is that my parents are divorced and sort of my Dad messed up and she decided no, I don’t want to be in this marriage. So it’s even now, things like that to say how much strength that would have taken.
And me as a young woman, to think about it woman to woman, not just as a mother – and I do that to my grandma – just seeing them as they’re human and embracing their humanity, because as close as me and my grandmother were, it wasn’t until her funeral that - at her wake – a guy, she worked at a hospital and retired when I was about six so for most of the time I knew her, she was retired. I knew her as – she was a nurse at the hospital, she worked in the emergency room and we’re talking about her career and leaving from her job to come by the house – and someone at the wake was saying how she integrated the staff as the first black woman to be an emergency room technician. I was like – wow – I didn’t know that! [laughs] All the time I just saw her as doing this much, but no, she was handling a lot more, so it gave me more pride, I sort of stuck my chest out further and dug deeper to want to know more things like that. I just knew what a great grandmother she was but just not her as a woman, and all the things they have gone through as women, and to embrace them as whole beings and not just what my relationship is or what you’ve done or could do for me.
So it’s been good to sort of be pushed even further out to dig deeper and just have those conversations, because we won’t always be there so tell her. You know, that’s one thing – I’m planning to call my mom and just say, as a woman, I don’t know, I’ve never been married, but I just want to let you know how courageous I think you are to fight for what you believe in. Or to say – you know what, I don’t want to be in this relationship. Because she didn’t date after that. And I think she said it to me like, “Oh, you know I wonder – I hope you’ll be OK in relationships not seeing a relationship up close.” And I’m like, “Mom, you know, A: you know you can’t try and go back, it’s done. And we’re fine. I’m fine, my brother’s fine – so don’t second guess any of those decisions, and I thank you for it." It’s fine. It’s just interesting to sort of see that human part – because I didn’t always have that – it was very much a well-oiled machine – my mom was there, she was there right on time when she was supposed to come home. She was a teacher, so we had the summer’s together – she dedicated her life to us so much I forgot what that must have been like.
MS: Sometimes it’s not until retrospect that you realize what they’ve given to you.
CJ: Exactly. And it’s been humbling to say the least.
MS: Do you think she would have identify herself as a feminist?
CJ: I don’t think she would. Or – hmm. That’s interesting. She’s pretty vocal in the things she believes in and she definitely is strong willed and I think for her, she has always been thankful that her father saw the importance of education and sent her and her sisters to college and made sure they went. He didn’t graduate high school himself and had three daughters and sent them. This was in a time – they grew up in South Carolina where a lot of men on my dad’s side – my dad went to school but his sisters weren’t sent. His Dad said, "I don’t see the point of sending the women to school," so had my parents been in reversed houses, maybe my mother wouldn’t have been sent. So she has always been appreciative of that and she started off before... She went into teaching after her children – she didn’t think she would ever be a teacher - before that she was working in the business world and enjoying that.
So I think she has always been a progressive person and a progressive woman but in the same token I think she’s very gender specific as well – I’ve always been, but my brother – he’s four years older than me, so if he did something at fourteen, then when I hit fourteen, well, it’s my time – he set the precedent. He’s like, “No it’s different, you’re a girl.” No it’s not! And even now, with discussions of sex I’m like – it’s funny I just wonder if those same conversations that she did not have, now it comes it up. So it’s sort interesting, I don’t know if she would be as much of a pusher for those same things but as far as opportunities and business wise, definitely.
MS: How old are you?
CJ: I’m 24.
MS: What do you think younger generations can teach to the older generations? What do older generations of women need to hear to bridge the disconnect?
CJ: I think they need to just hear our stories. To know that people appreciate them. Because I was sitting with this lady at the lunch today and she was 65 and she was saying how she had gotten discouraged – she felt like there weren’t feminists anymore, and coming here sort of awakened that for her. And how she thought she was sort of the first round and how Gloria Steinem changed her life and inspired her to leave an abusive relationship and go to college. And how she had a father who told her you’re not college material. So I think it is sometimes somewhat like how racism is today – like the same way of going in the streets to march that worked for the civil rights movement, won’t work today. So it’s like to open the conversation and say, the fight is still on, but maybe we’re using some new tactics. So instead of standing outside, we’re kind of infiltrating, we’re involving people in a different way, or using technology, so to sort of show them how some of the same things are related – like, you taught us this, but now it looks a little different but it is the same thing. Just sort of break things down a little bit more to where it is sort of relatable and you say, “Oh, that is the same way we used to organize” And some of the strategies still do work, and to show that we do read some of the same books or enjoy some of the same things, it’s just a different way of expression, so I think some of that conversation, which I think is going well.
MS: What do you think are some of the most important issues facing African American women today that need to be a part of the conversations that the "women's movement" takes on?
CJ: Well, I’m a little bit biased because – it’s great to hear so much of the conversations of how to address released prisoners – because I think that is a reality. But a few huge issues for African American women – they do kind of revolve around the relationship sector. One is, we have the fastest rate to infection for HIV/AIDS – it’s not a white, gay man’s disease – the faces of the highest cases are looking like mine. And they’re in relationships with men. So I think some of this empowerment I think we’re missing. It’s interesting because if you were just going to look at stereotypes, you would think that black women are expected to be so strong – it’s almost like a survival mechanism, so I think a lot of that is just huffin’ and puffin’ and these women are insecure, they haven’t dealt with a lot of issues from the past, and just our new stresses.
You know, a recent statistic that has been big with us in a lot of African American media outlets – something we all know about, the large amount of single black women who would like to be in relationships, but those who have higher degrees of masters or doctorates are a lot less likely to be married and have kids. Whereas for any other area or any other group, how getting a higher advance degree increases your marketability in the marriage market, for black women that’s not so, because the higher they go up, the less they see black men, and for black women the majority of the preference is to date a black man, where other races are a little more open to people – black women are a lot more dedicated to dating a black man then black men are dedicated to dating exclusively black women. Now, that’s just something that there’s not a quick answer – it’s just a lot of the ills that have happened in the community that have just rolled into a ball. And just the break down of the black family is huge – it impacts everything else, and I think that’s why I am so passionate because these are things that can be addressed and things that can be fixed, and a lot of it has to be a community to care, because you have to be able to sustain – it’s sustainable living like anywhere else, so we have to be able to come together and build strong communities, and strong communities are from strong families. And strong families start from a strong couple. So we have to just learn to communicate together and I think that’s part of letting our feminine part and being loving creatures and bringing that love back to power I think has to be an issue.
And I think it just has to be a two-way street of information and awareness, because as an African American woman, having my story quilted into this larger, international story of women, creates a stronger sense of awareness for me and a stronger sense of being, being a part of this world, of being connected. Just by knowing her story, I feel connected. I feel empowered. Because if she can teach girls in Afghanistan then OK, maybe getting together a group at my church to talk about stronger relationships isn’t so far fetched. It just sort of pushes you stronger and pushes you and makes you feel that wholeness. Because another issue with African American women sometimes is that we do have issues relating to each other. We’re very hard on each other. And I think sometimes coming together as women, and bonding together as women, makes us stronger. It’s a door that sometimes you feel like it’s family business, oh we don’t want to talk about it, so people don’t talk about it. But it’s true, even inside of a family there’s friction and there’s competition where it doesn’t have to be. So just sort of being a part of a bigger project or having a stronger awareness of the world makes your small corner that much more special to you. And that much more beautiful just because it is part of a bigger picture.
MS: Where do you find your courage? You’re out there as an activist, you’re blogging about your opinions, you’re coming to conferences like this to speak out.. What is the source of all your energy and inspiration?
CJ: It’s funny – I don’t feel like I’m that courageous, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything so huge…I guess I think of things historically a lot of the time. I am always thinking in the future, but I’m very aware of my grandmother, and ten generations before that they had so little, so I am always like – wow. Look at how far how we’ve come in just a little bit of time, so I think that always pushes me to realize – this really isn’t just my life, you really are standing on some shoulders and you have some weight to pull – like all those things that you just enjoy, someone had to fight for that. And so it just motivates me and keeps me questioning myself and my actions, and you never feel like you’ve done enough, or that you’ve done anything – though you have – but it pushes you. When you read memoirs and you see these amazing women who have been through and fought through so much, it just empowers you to say wow – not only do I want to do that, but I want to make sure other girls know what this is, because it just changes the dynamic, and changes the emotion. Because a lot of times if you put on the TV, if you pick up magazines – you’re not always sort of the cover. Celebrities have been elevated so much, that those are the stars, those are the heroes, when there are people who really have done something, that are worthy of that title.
You know, I’m very optimistic, but I’m also very...I’m spiritual in the sense of A: I believe in God. And B: I’m not afraid of death. Like I’m very much spiritual in the sense of we’re only here for a season. I mean you read enough history books, you’re like wow – humans are living 70, 80 years, when there are thousands of years. So it’s like when you put it in that frame it just sort of makes you realize how big this universe is, and just to sort of get as much out of it as you can, because you know life is short. We have just a short amount of time here so making the most of those moments you do have has been cool.
MS: What message would you most want to instill in girls and younger women?
CJ: I just want to awaken them to know how much power they have – and I know it sounds cliché but I want them to know, just the power of vision – because if you can see it, you can get there. Because I think a lot of times a lot of people are lost – they just don’t believe they could do it, and if you could, and just make one step towards it – you can. And I think just envision that person you would want to be. And just do a little research. Because for me, some of the most amazing things have been to sort of see people up close or read their stories to see, "OK, they started off just like I did." so they’ve done some of those things. Even like Oprah Winfrey – like, OK, she started off at this college – you could see the steps. And just realize that phasing yourself will get you there. It will.
Even when people said "for every no there will be a yes later down" – it just makes you stronger and just to tap into the network that you have. And build the network. Because people are a lot nicer than you would think. If you send a nice e-mail, people are receptive to you and open to what you want to bring to the world. So I just think, like listen to yourself, and listen to your soul because people will tell you what you should be or what you shouldn’t be. Like, “You should go to law school Charreah, you should be a lawyer.” “No, I don’t want to be a lawyer.” “You’ll make so much money.” “I don’t want to!” You just have to have that strength within yourself just to push.
MS: What do you think is the next phase for the “feminist movement”? What do you think needs to happen? Where do we go from here? Everyone’s saying now it’s our time. Is it these type of conversations among different groups?
CJ: I definitely think it’s this – I think keeping these issues intertwined is key. And I’m just reminding people – that you’re an activist. You’re a human rights activist. Call it what you want, but we’re all fighting toward the same thing and empowering women. So the next phase I would think would have to just be continuing to…I think we have to target even younger. Because I feel like a lot of us in college at those moments are awakened. But to sort of keep pushing, and to sort of - not necessarily try to make it cool but people – I’m not even articulating this correctly, but I do think it has to be sort of these conversations and these sort of these reminders. And tying it to what’s still taking place in the world, because it’s easy to think that we’ve made it. You look at the White House, you look at the Secretary of State – not to make the mistake I’ve made in the past and make these exceptions the rule. Because that’s not the rule – the majority still look different, so we have to push for even higher ground for them not to be so much definition by these classes, by these definers – to realize that we are a lot more alike than different.
And I think it’s also incorporating the men too, and sort of fusing our masculine and feminine, embracing both, and having both sexes sort of free to do that. So it just has to be a continued push for that. And I would love to see more men involved because I think we have to communicate better as the sexes so we have to have these conversations and we have to invite more men. And it’s great to empower us, but we have to find a way to bring that conversation or do a script on our own hill when we get back – how do we have this conversation with our dads or our boyfriends?
You know, does my boyfriend know the things that I feel, or do I go there with him as I should? You know, maybe I don’t. So it’s sort of pushing all of us to sort of branch out and embrace this thing wholly and to realize that - sort of call us what it is. And like with my mom – is she a feminist? I don’t know, but let’s discuss it because maybe she would, maybe if she understood it a little more.
For more on Charreah Jackson, visit her blog.
Note: Portions of this interview were featured in the article Coming to Terms with the "F Word" which appeared at The Women's Media Center.
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Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
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