Parks’ observation may strike you as counterintuitive. But, the
idea that the Black Woman “is like the queen on the chessboard”
is built on a sturdy historical foundation that “starts at the
beginning of the world as we know it.”
whether you’re black, white, red, yellow or brown -- the Black
Woman is Mama to us all, figuratively and biologically speaking. She is “the beginning of (our) world as we know it.”
Just as the universe was birthed out of utter blackness into what
cosmologists call the Big Bang, humanity owes its very existence
to the dark womb of mitochondrial Eve. And just as remnants of
the Big Bang can be found in cosmic background radiation, particles
of dark female matter can be found buried deep in the roots of
every ancient culture, Parks reminds us.
all of the ancient myths, she is there. For cultures in continents
as far flung as Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia, she was
the mother of everything that came after…she became the Sacred
Dark Feminine, the Mother Goddess -- Nana Buruku, the most powerful
diety and Mother of the West African gods; the Hindu Kundalini;
Tara, the name of the mother for both the European Druid gods
and the Asian Buddhas -- all dark, all powerful, and fiercely
though “the people who were least like the Sacred Dark Feminine
-- who were not female or dark -- worked to suppress the Sacred
Feminine,” her alluring power endures.
Sacred Dark Feminine is stubborn,” Parks notes. “There are hundreds
of Black Madonnas -- brown and black versions of Mary -- all over
Europe, usually on the same sacred sites of the dark earth goddesses.
Catholic reformers just built chapels on top of them.”
gets right to the point about why this is important, especially
if you’re a black woman. “It is important to establish the ongoing
historical presence of the Sacred Dark Feminine in America --
how she has been seen and revered -- because the beliefs and practices
form the basis by which black women continue to be interpreted.”
then traces the multicultural manifestations of the Sacred Dark
Feminine from Africa across Europe and Asia, through slavery and
the crucible of an American South-imposed mammy-hood, on down
to today’s most popular representation of the Strong Black Woman,
First Lady Michelle Obama.
the way, Parks notes that “the Sacred Dark Feminine is becoming
more popular, and what was once an obscure image in the West is
now more widely recognized and revered. Many people already have
emotional involvement without any consideration of race on their
part, and they are embarking on movements with far-reaching implications
for women and the planet….If black women are to have a say in
the new movements, they will have to speak up now.”
the end of the book, she drives the point home. “The Dark Feminine
is deeply embedded in Western and other cultures, and the fierce
femininity is so inextricably associated with the black female
body that black women could not divorce themselves from it in
the eyes of others if they wanted to.”
a whirlwind tour in the preceding chapters exploring the history
of the Dark Feminine, it’s in Chapter 5 (“Becoming Coretta: A
Cautionary Tale”) where Parks sweeping cultural narrative comes
into sharp focus. It begins with Dr. King’s involvement in the
Sanitation Workers Strike just before he was assassinated. “We
are tired of our men being emasculated so that our wives and daughters
have to go out and work in the white lady’s kitchen,” she quotes
course, King was murdered “but the culturally ensconced idea that
black manhood was dependent upon men assuming a Western patriarchal
position vis-à-vis a specific and projected image” carried on.
“In their mourning, many African-Americans would project onto
Coretta Scott King the image of the quiet and docile helpmeet.”
as it turns out, “in the twenty-first century, African American
women find themselves at a unique place in American history; they
are now a race of women more professionally advanced and accomplished
than many of the men in their culture.”
women are creating businesses faster than any other demographic
group. Faster than white men and three times as fast as black
men. In 2002, the U.S. census found that black women accounted
for 40 percent of black-owned businesses, compared to 34 percent
of white businesses owned by women.
women are also are more likely to be employed than black men,
the only racial group of women in America where that is the case.
And no one who has spent any time on college campuses will be
surprised by the findings of the National Center for Education
Statistics. Black women graduate twice as often as black men --
to the point where many colleges are reporting that the graduation
rates of black women have surpassed white men, which is undoubtedly
tied to the high rate of homicide, unemployment and incarceration
rates among African-American men.
of this is to suggest black women have it easy. Far from it. They
are still paid less than men. They are still the primary victims
of HIV and domestic abuse. And they’re still held up for ridicule a
la the Moynihan report in which black women are seen as being at the heart of black
there is this hidden Dark Feminine power. It’s a power that plumbs
the primal depths of our collective humanity, even as black women
have been made to carry the burden of being the visceral image-bearer
of the Sacred Dark Feminine.
and everything the Dark Feminine touches is changed, whether it’s
something as particular as my own unique strong black mother or
something as metaphorically broad as the male-dominated game of
chess. Parks doesn’t elaborate on it in her book, but her characterization
of the Black Woman as “the queen of the chessboard” is no coincidence.
It’s a story that mirrors the mysterious ascent of the actual
has been around since the 5th century and from the beginning,
the pieces were all male. But in the late 15th or early 16th
century (no one knows the exact date), one of the most fascinating coups
d’etat in history took place. The counselor who stood by the King’s side for centuries
had a sex change and became an all mighty Queen, endowed with
the combined power of the Rook and Bishop. Instead of moving just
one square at a time, she could now move to and fro, horizontally
and diagonally, thus establishing herself as the true ruler of
the board; the most powerful piece to roam the 64 squares.
a quest to get to the bottom of this mystery, cultural historian
Marilyn Yalom set out to discover the Birth
of the Chess Queen.
Yalom was at first intrigued when she was invited to the Isabella
Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The curator showed her Gardner’s
“chess queen” -- a three-inch carved ivory piece from 14th century
Scandinavia, depicting a nursing Madonna.
Boston Globe that
what fascinated her was that “a chess piece is an artifact, with
aesthetic properties, and the queen is unique. She exists within
an all-male context. How did she develop her role? It’s not obvious
that a queen would arise in the first place, nor that she would
become the most powerful piece on the board.”
eventually learned that the museum’s Madonna was not actually
a chess piece, but that still didn’t answer the bigger questions
she was exploring: “Why, in a world ruled by men, would a game
with an all-powerful queen be accepted?”
no one answer, she concluded, but three historical/cultural influences
that point towards an answer.
The Virgin Mary became an iconic power figure in medieval Europe.
(The Black Madonna is at the symbolic heart of that tradition.)
2) The Middle Ages also produced a cult-like obsession with courtly
love where knights devoted themselves to their Lady. 3) The rise
of powerful real-life queens like Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504),
who married King Ferdinand and ruled Spain with him.
origins aside, Yalom argues that, considering chess’s metaphorical
nature, questions about the queen are all the more significant
because “the king is the most important piece, but the queen is
the most powerful. Freudians have a great time with this. I read
their literature -- it’s so ahistorical that it doesn’t make a
lot of sense, but there may be some unconscious factors in the
way the game is played. The world is incomplete without a female
should not surprise us then that Yalom suggests girls take up
the game. “Any woman wishing to follow the chess queen’s lead,”
she writes, “especially in the public realm, needs to be tactically
superior to the men around her, relentless in battle, even cruel
when necessary. Whether or not she is called upon to protect her
husband . . . she will have to learn to negotiate a treacherous
terrain, not unlike the chessboard, if she wants to move forward,
both at home and in the workplace. She, and those committed to
her well-being, could do worse than take up the chess queen as
their personal emblem and silently utter those ritual words: Long
live the queen!”
might take it one step further and say long live the Sacred Dark
Feminine, “the queen of the chessboard!”
was the Prussian chess master, Siegbert Tarrasch, who said “chess,
like love, like music, has the power to make men happy.” Of course,
the same could be said of the Sacred Dark Feminine and the Strong
Black Woman. And that power is none other than the power of love.
Parks articulates is an important caveat. “For the women to whom
I spoke, love was more than a feeling; it was an action verb.
It was a process by which a person or group of people became the
focus of an intervention. It’s fierce.”
fierceness of Parks’ insight comes at the very end of her book,
when she discusses the need for black women “to maintain a balance
between selflessness and self-care” before powerfully summarizing
the Sacred Dark Feminine that animates our present moment.
black women move out of the suppressed, loyal helper role into
the lead, they turn the traditional hero story on its head. In
American stories…the strong (and male) hero is usually alone,
unhampered by emotional distractions. Love, in American discourse,
is often seen as a passive emotion. It is a feeling, a good feeling
but one without a muscle. Evil, on the other hand, is often seen
as strong and threatening. It is a rather odd way to think about
good and evil because it suggests that evil always has the upper
hand. But for African American women as they think of themselves,
the battle is not so uneven. They mean for their Strong Black
Woman love to threaten evil….They remind us that strong love,
intelligently and energetically applied, can evoke great change.
They are the worth daughters of Harriet Tubman, these Fierce Angels.”
Mother’s Day this year, as a sign of gratitude for the Sacred
Dark Feminine, maybe I should give my mother, wife and daughters
a black chess queen. Either that or a fierce angel.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Nathaniel Turner is
a pseudonym for a Gen X writer, newspaper editor and activist. He
is a news analyst who offers commentaries on contemporary issues
facing the progressive movements in the USA Click here to
contact brother Turner.