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Cover Story: The Queen of the Chessboard - The Gambit By Nathaniel Turner, BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board

 
 
 
 

“In some ways, the black woman is the most emotionally free adult in American society: freer to show love than many men, particularly black men; freer to show anger, even ferocity, than middle-class white women; freer to tell the blunt truth than just about any adult in polite society. She really is like the queen on the chessboard, able to move in any direction, depending on the game.”

That’s from Sheri Parks new book, Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture. I’m reading it because with Mother’s Day around the corner, I felt the words “Strong Black Woman” calling me like the voice of feminine wisdom in the book of Proverbs.

“Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go: keep her, for she is thy life. Doth not wisdom cry? And understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places,…Unto you, O men, I call…Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom: I am understanding; I have strength.” (Proverbs 4:13; 8:1-14)

Professor 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.”

And 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.

“In 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 protective.”

And 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.

“The 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.”

Parks 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.”

She 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.

Along 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.”

Towards 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.”

After 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 King.

Of 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.”

But, 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.”

Black 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.

Black 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.

None 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 family “pathology.”

Still, 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.

Everyone 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 chess queen.

Chess 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.

On 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.

Yalom told The 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.”

Yalom 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?”

There’s no one answer, she concluded, but three historical/cultural influences that point towards an answer.

1) 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.

Historical 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 presence.”

It 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!”

Parks might take it one step further and say long live the Sacred Dark Feminine, “the queen of the chessboard!”

It 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.

What 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.”

The 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.

“When 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.”

For 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.

 
 

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May 6, 2010
Issue 374

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