Ash Williams talks gender, race and hip-hop

“I like to think of femme as inherently non-binary,” said Ash Williams. “I like to think of femme as inherently trans and as inherently gender nonconforming and as inherently black. And I think it’s a word that describes how people perform. I think it’s a word that describes people’s resistance to the gender binary.”

On March 29, Williams gave a presentation titled, “From Coretta to Cardi B: Rethinking Black femininity, politics of respectability and reproductive justice.” Their talk touched over many concepts and issues related to black feminism.

“Ash Williams is a transgender, nonconforming organizer from Fayetteville, North Carolina,” said Krista Craven, assistant professor of justice and policy studies. “Ash works to combat police brutality through direct action and political education … Ash began working for Sister Song in October and actively works to educate the community on the ways reproductive oppression is a human rights issue.”

Williams actively engaged the audience of the tightly packed Multicultural Resource Center by asking for examples, definitions, opinions or useful information that could add to the discussion. For example, they surveyed the room on whether black women had the freedom to have multiple partners without a change in public perception.

“Society dictates (that) if you’re a black femme, you’re not supposed to be sexual, your sexuality belongs to a man,” said Rehshetta Wells ‘17. “So if you’re sexually free or have a number of sexual partners, you buck what society says, and you also haven’t saved yourself for a man. If you’re sexually free, there’s something wrong with you, so you’re not free to express yourself.”

Williams then segued into the definition of reproductive oppression which is the control and exploitation of women, girls and individuals through their bodies, sexuality, labor and reproduction.

“I know in the state of North Carolina a person has to wait three days before they can have an abortion, after they spit lots of scary words at you on paper, and then ask you if you are OK with the words that you don’t know what they mean,” said Williams.

“I definitely think that’s … an example of reproductive oppression. I think the fact that black women who were enslaved had to nurse white people’s children is reproductive oppression. I think police killing Keith Lamont Scott on the spot in September 2016 is an example of reproductive oppression. I think student debt is an example of reproductive oppression.”

Eventually, the conversation turned to the very heart of what Sister Song, the organization Williams is a part of, fights for.

“Reproductive justice is about the right for folks to have babies, not to have babies, a right to bodily autonomy and the idea that each person should be able to live in the type of community they want to live in,” said Williams. “A lot of times, folks think that reproductive justice is only about having babies … which is not true. There’s a lot of issues that are erased with that narrative. People also think that reproductive justice and reproductive oppression is only about women, which is also not true, and it erases a lot of folks who have families and live in communities.”

The control of the hip-hop industry by white Jewish men was another topic for conversation. According to Williams, Jews are in control of the initial capital in making hip-hop music while black individuals are the original creators of the music, leading to an unfair distribution of overall wealth in the partnership. This divide has a historical background as well.

“There are a lot of people that would talk about white Jews’ (talking about their own) oppression,” said Austin Bryla. “It was almost like calling black folks and Jews to unite against the system … and also clearing out some of the people that were originally in Israel so that the Jews could stay there. (However, there would be) no reparations for black people, no clearing the land for black people. Malcom always said ‘the Jews want us to fight for them, let them fight for themselves.”

The culmination of the presentation was a discussion of Corretta Scott King’s lack of power and individuality as a result of the influence of her husband, as well as the media’s and society’s role in controlling the autonomy of Cardi B, a rapper and social media icon.

“Reproductive justice is certainly about bodily autonomy, and I think that the way that folks get displayed on TV has a lot about how we understand how much autonomy they have,” said Williams.

The fluidity and audience engagement of the talk enabled Williams to cover a wide range of issues. Despite this, there are countless of other matters in the field which require attention and cannot be solved or even truly understood within a single sitting.