For more than a year now, I’ve been trying to figure out how much of a capitalist I am. Am I doing what I must to navigate the capitalist system I live in, or have I become convinced this system that so brutalized my ancestors and that continues to make people and their knowledge, gifts, and talents a commodity, can benefit me? Do I want to ascend to the top of this system and wield its power for myself?
In the summer of 2019, after Jay Z signed a deal to with the NFL to lead its entertainment and social justice initiatives, I stumbled onto a tweet from a Black feminist professor describing “The Carters” as “insidious” for having adopted the language of social justice and employing it for their personal wealth.
The thing that gets me about The Carters™ is the extent to which they’ve monetised the symbolism, language and iconography of social justice as a primary means of hoarding wealth. With other Black capitalists, we all know the game, but this particular method is so insidious
— jade bentil (@divanificent) August 15, 2019
Beyoncé couldn’t be left out of the critique, Black Twitter said, because …
Y’all act like Beyoncé was sneaking off to read Audre Lorde and Assata when Jay was in the studio lol. He said what’s better than one billionaire, she said “TWO!” — Aubrey’s Angel (@Darke_Sister) September 1, 2019
and because …
THIS but also, the critique is rooted in the fact that over the past 5 years or so, Beyoncé has used symbolism and rhetoric rooted in Black feminism to sell her capitalist ventures. There’s something specifically exploitative within this co-option that we’re trying to uproot. https://t.co/otus6L8ZFr
— jade bentil (@divanificent) September 3, 2019
But maybe she’s not deserving of critique, because maybe she isn’t a black feminist at all but doesn’t know that she’s not because she’s just meditated on the concept, not studied it.
i woke up this morning frustrated about how so many of you believe you can identify yourself as black feminist + womanist without doing any kind of studying or understanding of the black feminist / womanist radical traditions.
they’re not yu-gi-oh cards but yet, here we are.
— #freekeithdavisjr (@GoldWomyn) September 5, 2019
I saw these tweets as I was thinking of an October re-launch of Black Womanhood Revival, what I had titled my first e-course. I used to describe it as “6 weeks of Black Feminism to help you reclaim your body, renew your sense of power, and reset yourself, your family, and your community on the path to F.R.E.E.D.O.M.” The first go-round of Black Womanhood Revival, I charged $397 per person. I gave everyone a $200 discount. The second time, I tried not to offer any discounts at all.
I charged people money for a curriculum I had created; for the experience, knowledge, and expertise that had led me to be able to create this curriculum; for the time and brain work the creativity took; for the time I’d spend preparing each week; for the live facilitation I’d give each week; for the fact that this was a 6-week program. In addition to all of the above, I based the pricing on what I was offering in comparison to things like one-on-one coaching, weekend conferences, college/grad school/continuing adult education tuition, and a few comparable web products. But I also charged money for a course rooted in theories that are anti-capitalist.
Needless to say, the Twitter conversations (which I only liked/saved but didn’t enter) struck a nerve. Black women in the U.S. don’t have a lot of wealth, and as a Xennial (old Millennial, young Gen Xer), I know the recession wiped out what little wealth we’d built and that student loans take the rest. So what kind of womanist says she “loves the folk,” but excludes a large sector of them them through her pricing? What kind of black feminist offers freedom that isn’t free? You’re using the language of black feminism–womanism when you delve into spiritual matters–but is helping other black women really your purpose with this?
In this midst of these questions, I also asked myself, “But what about helping my mother and myself?” Also in September, my mother had watched someone drive by in her old car as she waited at the bus stop. It was the car that had broken down on Thanksgiving Day 2018 and never run again. She sold it in August 2019 to a neighbor who loves rebuilding and reviving old cars that seemingly won’t run again.
My mother deserves better, and I want to be—and thought I would be by now—able to take care of her, to tell her, “Just wake up, and I’ll take care of the rest.” Daddy too. My grandmothers too. And loving and caring for not only The Folk but also one’s own folk is black feminist as fuck. And sometimes it is impossible to give the folk the care they need without a great influx of cash.
And I do believe I have something to offer black women who want a space where they can learn and talk openly and honestly about spirituality, sexuality, friendship, anger, black identity, their fears, and receive guidance from brilliant black women they may not have known existed. And if that’s something they want, why shouldn’t they pay for it? I mean, we pay therapists. We pay to attend Essence Fest. We pay to see Michelle Obama speak. We pay to see Beyoncé in concert. Someone described what I do as healing-centered arts. It’s an actual field people are paid to do stuff in.
I still question, though, if I’m a bad black feminist for selling the language of black feminism. But then I realize, that’s silly, too. When I think of women like Feminist Jones, Brittney Cooper, and Roxane Gay, black women whose books about black feminism or more mainstream feminism have been bestsellers, and imagine a publisher, university, or conference to ask them to write, teach, or speak for free, I just laugh. Are they navigating a capitalist system or embracing it? Are they demanding equality and demanding black folk, mainstream academia, and the publishing industry value their work and the work of black feminists throughout history by demanding payment for their work, or are they giving up on socialism? Granted, a hardback book may cost $21-$35, but to hear these women speak for 30 minutes at a conference, to learn under them as a college or graduate student, or to bring them to your event so other people can hear them ranges from $200 to $10,000. The either/or, then, the extreme, is absurd.
I don’t need to be a billionaire. I don’t want to be. I need to buy my mom and myself a car. I need an apartment (or home) with a dishwasher and a washer/dryer in the unit. I need to be able to afford to go home more often and to visit my friends in other states. I need to pay off my credit cards. I need my student loans forgiven. I need good health insurance.
And I need to do work that feels urgent and important and that pays me fairly, not exploitatively. I have worked for “exposure” as a writer for years. Even when the gigs are paid, I’ve never been paid $1 per word, the amount that was fairly common for freelancers before the digital revolution. It’s usually around 15 cents per word, and I’ve no agent or book deal to show for it. As an adjunct instructor, I taught a subject I didn’t care about, in front of college sophomores who didn’t want to be there, and once you figure lesson planning, grading, and office hours, I made less than minimum wage for it. In contrast, by developing my own line of e-courses, I teach subjects I love, and because I know people always find a way to invest in or spend their money on what they believe has value to them, I know that the only people in the class are the ones who want to be there. But the financial results for me are parallel: I have yet to be compensated for my time in creating the course, and I haven’t broken even on the money that went into course creation, either (i.e., ads and promotions, appointment scheduling apps, PayPal business account fees, several e-courses to teach me how to create and launch my own e-course and promote it before spending money on ads).
I know capitalism, racism, and patriarchy produced this struggle, and I am mad at them for the clusterfuck they’ve put us all in. But I also reject the notion that black feminism’s solution is that black women keep giving, and giving, and giving—giving our minds and bodies, giving the culture its culture—and never be compensated.
As for how this affects my e-courses, I do payment plans and sliding scales, and I ask people who have the means to purchase registration for a black woman. I’ve also applied for (but haven’t received yet) grants that would subsidize registration fees. And I’m working on developing something smaller, less intensive, less in-depth.
But man, do I hate thinking small. And I hate not offering black women my best, even if “good” is “affordable.”