Bridges On Whose Backs We Walk: Some History of Black Feminism

01/24/2016

 

 

The history of Black feminism is the history of feminism is the history of America. “[Black women’s] story,” Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson write, “is history. There are few kings or military campaigns in it, but it is history in the purest and deepest sense, the record of what has happened to us—all of us—as a people. At its greatest moments and in its cruelest times, black women have been a crucial part of this country's history.” To know the intricate lives of Black women in de jure bondage; to read bell hooks, Barbara Christian, Toni Cade Bambara, Ula Y. Taylor; to listen to Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Queen Latifah (“Who you callin’ a bitch?!”), Janelle Monae; to see the aura of Angela Davis with her fist raised, afro on fleek, or Sojourner Truth’s visage, calm and powerful (“Is God Dead”), or Toni Morrison’s profile, gray locks the shape of knowledge-awakening serpents is to gain literacy in the history of ourselves.

 

            What is this thing we call Black feminism? If feminism is “the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women—as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women,” and a commitment to “Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement,” as Barbara Smith defines it, how else to say that only through its truths can we live all the way in the world, its past, its now, its to come?

 

Black feminism instantiates Black women, both trans and cisgender, as the thread running through social justice movements for foundational change, rather than the cis male body. It posits “that cis and trans black women,” Cathy Cohen avers, “can represent the intersectional positionality and oppression that black communities face,” and indeed the texture of the world in which we all struggle. The question now is where is our place in this mode of living—because, indeed, Black feminism is not simply a belief, an ideology, an act, a stance; Black feminism is a grammar of the body—when we are, like myself, Black men; when we are white women, white men, neither, shades of both?

 

            Our place, tentatively, timidly, is: indebted—for our livelihood, our awakenings, our courageous reckoning with ourselves and our past, and our impending triumph—to those Black women who so necessarily, so meticulously shared with us all who we are and whence we come.

 

In examining U.S. history as a veritable history of Black women asserting their ontological validity, which is to say a history of Black feminism, which is to say a history of the embattled terrain of U.S. race and gender dynamics—which is all to say, quite simply, history—it is fruitful to crystallize this around the consequentialness of Black feminism, particularly in an era where many are rejecting the term, and thus rejecting its radical legacy.

 

            I take whatever knowledge I proffer here largely from the wisdom of Ula Y. Taylor’s history of Black feminist thought. In both “Making waves: The Theory and Practice of Black Feminism” and “The Historical Evolution of Black Feminist Theory and Praxis,” Taylor keeps it 100, is on point, gets historically turnt up, or whatever vernacular idiom you prefer. “It seems that far too many black people continue to link the feminist movement exclusively to the activism of bourgeois white women and not to the struggles initiated by African Americans for freedom, justice, and equality,” she writes. Feminism with a capital “F,” in all of its proverbial waves, emerges from social movements indelibly imprinted on, and immersed in, African American activism—or, might we even say, (Black) feminism stems from the fight to ensure that Black life/lives matter(s)? Connected to, and an outgrowth of, the abolitionist movement, which historian Shirley Yee details as such: “between 1830 and the 1860s, black women abolitionists had developed a collective feminist consciousness that reflected their particular experiences as black women as well as the aspects of sexism they shared with white women”; the modern Civil Rights movement, in which Black women were the most crucial organizers and activists; and most obviously the third wave, which is, in Leslie Heywood’s and Jennifer Drake’s terms, a “feminism [that] has been theorized as proceeding from critiques of the white women's movement that were initiated by women of color, as well as from the many instances of coalition work undertaken by U.S. third world feminists,” feminism, one could say, is not a “white bourgeois” movement but has always been “Black.”

 

            As Treva B. Lindsey says as she provides a contemporary commentary of Taylor’s essay, “Taylor’s reconfiguration and reperiodization of the widely accepted feminist wave model unequivocally connects U.S. feminism to African American history, and particularly to the lived experiences and activism of black women.” In short, to concede to the originary whiteness of feminism is to obfuscate how integral women of Color have always been to feminism’s goals.

 

            But, but, but…they also say, we prefer Womanist to feminist; Womanism, as defined by its creator Alice Walker, refers to “A black feminist or feminist of color” and states that “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” For the most part, this is cool, and, as a cis Black male, I’d hate to imply the invalidity of any term or identification with which Black women choose to characterize themselves. I wonder, though, along with Taylor:

 

Are womanists discarding feminism because of its connection to privileged, white, middle- and upper-class women, despite Audre Lorde's statement that "Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface." Or, are womanist's rejecting the presumed "anti-feminine" baggage of feminism? Or, is adopting a concept—womanism—named by a black woman, merely “politically correct"?

 

            No doubt Black feminism and Womanism have much badass shit in common, to be quite frank, and no doubt Womanism grants Black women an unapologetically valid femininity that is often disallowed under the banner of feminism—a femininity historically disassociated from Black women, which justified racially gendered crimes against their bodies. No doubt, as Taylor notes, “the denial of black women's ‘femininity’ has been the main vehicle used to exploit their labor power and womanhood.” But must Womanism supplant Black feminism; must Black feminists be, instead, Womanists?

 

            Theologian Monica Coleman asks this very question. In “Must I Be Womanist?” Coleman speaks to the ways in which Womanism does not do the ideological and social work she wants. It doesn’t have the heft, the fortitude, the “stuff” that Black feminism has. Womanism has often meant “black Christian women,” which both erases secular or atheist feminists, and excludes cis men and trans folk from valid feminist or Womanist identification. In other words, Coleman writes, “womanists have created a Christian hegemonic discourse within the field.” As well, there is also “the possibilit[y] of the appropriation of womanism by individuals promoting homo-antagonistic and, specifically, anti-lesbian sentiments.”

 

            What is perhaps most compelling about Coleman’s ultimate “Nah, I’m good” to Womanism in favor of Black feminism is her anecdotal rationale, and as any good Black feminist knows, the personal, experiential standpoint particular to Black women’s life narratives is one of the most profound sources of epistemological validity. She writes:

 

To put it in anecdotal terms, when I tell my black male friends

 that I'm a womanist, they think of me as a black churchwoman, which I sometimes am. When I tell them that I am a black feminist, they get a little uneasy, because they start to wonder if I'm aligned with lesbians, if I'm going to question their power, and if I'm going to call God “She”—all of 

which I also do. I find the word feminist, whether modified by black or not, to have the disruptive effect that I want.

 

            It is the disruptiveness of the feminist appellation that is key. Black feminism as a title, an ideology, a mode of being and behaving in the world is concerned primarily with, to put it crassly (but not at all inaccurately), fucking (racial and gendered) shit up.

 

            This is the legacy that we inherit when we deem ourselves (Black) feminists, and this is the legacy we rebuke, though not always maliciously, when we choose to disidentify with feminism. So what are you ‘bout? ‘Cause, like all the most badass people in our history, I’m ‘bout that Black feminism.

 

            So you can run and tell that, homeboy.

 

 

Epilogue

 

Late Middle English: from French épilogue, via Latin from Greek epilogos, from epi ‘in addition’ + logos ‘speech.’

 

In addition to the history to which they’re so integral, an archive the examination and dissemination of which is feminist activism, Black women’s voices can shift the dynamics of our world. In “That Transformative Dark Thing,” an essayistic ode to the spiritual strength of Black women, Alexis Gumbs tells of the first time she spoke aloud, with twenty-one Black feminists, that Black women are inherently valuable. Proclaiming this truth at the Combahee Pilgrimage in South Carolina, Gumbs relays that “Some of us felt like we were speaking an illegal truth. A dangerous truth. A truth that contradicted our daily lives.” This vocal proclamation of, to purloin with a difference Alicia Keys’ mellifluous pronouncement, “a [Black] woman’s worth” endangers the order of the world. Black feminist epistemologies, Black feminist parrhesia, threatens the hegemonic violence saturating the linens blanketing marginalized bodies.

 

When Patricia Hill Collins wrote Black Feminist Thought she sought to “speak the truth to these power relations by making black women’s lives and ideas central,” to write a book—to highlight a visceral knowledge—that her mother should have been able to read. It is a book comprised of the invalidated truths of people like Collins’ mother, my mother and grandmother; a book, and a way of living and loving in the world’s trenches, that remedies “the harm done via exclusionary policies that deemed my mother as inherently lesser than almost everyone else.” It made Black women’s lives—Black women’s life—matter.

 

Black feminism demands revolution. And revolution without the eradication of (hetero)sexism is, well, no revolution at all.

 

One can only hope that Black feminism grabs life by the horns—the bell hooksian imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy horns—and locks its jaws. Only then can this world be reformed, reformulated. Hope must exist in our living, our writing. We do not know, as Rebecca Solnit says, if our actions are futile; it is a virtue, in fact, “that you don't have the memory of the future; that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be; and that, in the end, we always act in the dark.” Our actions—our Black feminist actions—“may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. That is when the words of so many writers often resonate most.” So if hope is characteristic of life, of African American social life, then so, too, might wishes.

So, too, might wishes.

 

“Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars?

I can really use a wish right now,

Wish right now,

Wish right now…”

 

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