Matheus Natan

Blackbird: Sisters in Flight

Black women. We stay on guard. We’re moving through spaces where we’re not welcome. We persist in times of oppression, invisibility, disregard and misunderstanding. We break rules that were meant to hold us back. And it seems like the world reminds us that we’re not meant to have what we’ve already taken.

I’m reminded of this almost always and almost everywhere: nobody wants you anywhere.

So, why you wanna fly?

In her song, Blackbird, Nina Simone sang directly to us with an understanding, pleading pain:

Why you wanna fly, Blackbird? You ain’t ever gonna fly.

No place big enough for holding all the tears you’re gonna cry

‘Cause your mama’s name was lonely and your daddy’s name was pain

And they call you little sorrow ’cause you’ll never love again

So why you wanna fly, Blackbird? You ain’t ever gonna fly

You ain’t got no one to hold you; you ain’t got no one to care

If you’d only understand dear, nobody wants you anywhere

So why you wanna fly, Blackbird?

You could hear Nina’s words as a warning: don’t bother trying, Blackbirds. Your tragic past will hold you back, the world will stay against you, and no matter where you go, it won’t get better.

But, of course, Nina knew better than that. Blackbird wasn’t a warning. It was an invitation. An invitation to keep fighting, resisting, moving, flying.

And thank goodness for every Black woman out here who keeps flying, because they keep me going.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been saved by a Black woman. The Black woman who knowingly smiles at me when we’re the only two Black people in the whole place, even if we don’t speak the same language. The group of Black women who can meet at an event and talk for hours about where to buy Black hair care products in a predominately white country. The Black woman who works in the mayor’s office who responds to my cold email inquiry, introducing me to four other Black women leaders who can help me reach my professional goals. I’m so grateful for the countless Black women who are walking paths that can be similar or distant from mine – paths that connect us at just the right time, offering me those life-saving moments of familiarity, comfort and sanity.

Black women unite

When I moved to the Netherlands about eight years ago, I was a student at the University of Amsterdam. Sadly, I saw very few Black women in the university buildings and not one in my program. So, my first friends were my classmates from other parts of Europe – Greece, Hungary, UK and even a couple of Dutch people. We talked about challenging assignments, the quirky professors, the difficulties of finding decent, affordable housing in Amsterdam. These friendships were valuable and a few even lasted long after my school days ended.

However, I didn’t take a full, deep breath until I stumbled into a meeting that was organized by a group of Black activists. Honestly, I don’t remember the topic they were discussing. But a Black woman who spoke a mix of Dutch and English led a panel discussion, several Black women were on the panel, and even more Black women were engaged in the crowd. These Black women had claimed that space with a power and authority that wasn’t granted to them, it was simply taken. It was a familiar and comforting dynamic. Maybe I could finally be at home in the country where, prior to that moment, I felt like I was flying solo. Although I was too shy to make a new friend that day, I felt rescued from isolation. I felt understood without being heard. And I felt seen without being introduced.

A few years later, I ate brunch with four dear friends – all Black women. We discussed a complicated topic: although we all knew plenty of Black women living in Amsterdam and other parts of the Netherlands, we lacked a sense of community. Where was the community for Black women? We wanted to talk politics, discuss books, exchange ideas and contacts, drink wine, complain about Dutch people and just be free around each other.

Sisterhood’s Confidence

On an intentional whim, we tested the waters by starting a group on meetup.com: Amsterdam Black Women Meetup. Too obvious to fail? Exactly. Today, the group has grown to more than 400 women on Meetup and 1,100 women on Facebook. Events range from book club and political discussions to wine tasting and burlesque dance classes. Members of the group have found new besties, roommates and work colleagues. We help each other confront Dutch racism, navigate immigration matters and locate rare spices. We also share stupid jokes, laugh out loud and generally feel at ease with each other. We’re Black women of all types, many nationalities and even more languages who have created one very important community.

More recently, I moved to Bristol in the UK to be with my partner. Whether or not that was a smart motivation remains to be seen. Aside from the typical challenges of a relatively new relationship, moving in with a man who has man ways, and starting over in all work and immigration matters, I didn’t know anyone else in the city. So, I signed up for new meetup groups and attended periodic events of interest, including an embarrassing vegetarian game night. But it’s been difficult to find my people, and, on many occasions, I’ve doubted my strength and energy to proceed.

Despite the doubts around my social life, I’ve had no choice but to push forward, making professional connections and scheduling meetings with anyone who will listen. Last month, I was invited for a second meeting with someone at a local university to discuss opportunities for funding and collaboration (fingers still crossed). The man I was meeting invited two of his colleagues, including a professor who was interested in my work.

When she entered the room, a powerful Black woman with enough warm energy for all of us, I felt some relief. And when she began to share her stories about traveling in the US, Cuba, South America, West Africa and wherever else, and she complained about the lack of diversity in UK higher education, and she rolled her eyes at the topics of Theresa May and Donald Trump, I knew she was my people. Since then, we’ve had lunch, made plans for a hike of some sort and shared multiple stories that would make someone else think we grew up in neighboring towns rather than different continents.

My new friend in Bristol, along with a few more Black women I’ve met since then, have recharged and lifted me up just when I needed them most. So, as always, I’m thankful for Black women.

When we work together and support each other, we don’t just fly, Nina. We soar.

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