This article is authored by Anvita Bhardwaj, currently pursuing B.A.LLB(Hons) from Symbiosis Law School, Noida. This article discusses the philosophy of black feminism in the context of the United States.
Table of Contents
The Black Feminist Movement was born out of and in response to the Women’s Movement and the Black Liberation Movement. The black women felt racially oppressed as they could not find a place in the Women’s protests and sexually oppressed in the Black Liberation Movement; as a result, the Black Feminist Movement came into light. Very frequently, the term “black” was considered equal to the black men and the term “women” was equated with the white women. This is the reason that black women felt they were ignored and invisible. Their existence and their needs were not acknowledged. The ideology behind the black feminist movement was to develop a way that could appropriately cater to the need of black women and address the ways in which race, class and gender were inter-connected in their lives. There was a need to take action against the oppressive racist, sexist and classist discrimination these women went through.
Black Feminism: A Brief History
In the year 1851, a women’s right advocate Sojourner Truth delivered a speech at a women’s rights convention where she asked the powerful and impactful words, “Ain’t I a woman?” Black feminism is a form of empowerment to create new ways of critically thinking and analyzing problems faced by women of colour, their social issues and inequalities. These issues come from mutually constructed systems of oppression. Women like Ms Truth played a major role in exemplifying black feminism in the nineteenth century.
In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper, another black woman, published a book titled “A Voice from the South.” This book primarily focused on emphasizing the need to hear and listen to the voices of Black women to bring a social change. In the 1980s Ida B. Wells who was a journalist and an activist; led a crusade against the lynching that happened during that time. We can come to know that the work of these three and numerous other lack women showed how the Black community laid a solid foundation for social justice towards sexism, a male privilege enjoyed by White men and discrimination and marginalization from White feminists in those times. A very important concept of Black Feminism is intersectionality.
Intersectionality is a way in which gender, race and other social categories come together and interact such that the life and outcomes of an individual are affected. It is a theoretical framework used by people by analyzing the aspects of a person’s life such as his/her socio-political identities. These include gender, race, class, caste, religion, physical appearance etc. All these factors might come together and create different modes of discrimination and privilege in the life of an individual. For example, a black woman might face discrimination in society if she runs a business due to both race and gender. A group of Black women in the 1970s formed the Combahee River Collective. They saw intersectionality as an important part of their movement. It made their movement distinct from White Feminism because they believed that their fight was not for one or two issues but to address an entire wide range of oppressions. The movement expanded into academic and political discourses in the 20th century. Even in the 21st century, intersectionality plays an important part in Black feminism. The #BlackLivesMatter, an anti-racist social movement started to address police brutality was also founded on the principles of intersectionality.
The term ‘Intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberle William Crenshaw (a Black feminist scholar) in the year 1989. It was not adopted by feminists on a wide scale till the 2000s. She used this term in her paper for the University of Chicago Legal Forum. This paper was titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. In her paper, she explores various themes such as categories of violence, and how it is distinct in the case of non-White women, she talks about invisibility faced by Black women and need for representation. She identifies two categories of violence faced by women, the first one being domestic violence and the second one being rape. She mentions how due to structural intersectionality the women of colour experience both these types of violence in a different qualitative way. She explored sub-themes of political intersectionality, structural intersectionality and representative intersectionality.
Definition and Focus of the Black Feminist Movement
After deciding the need to form a movement of their own, the black women needed to define the goals and ambitions of the Black Feminist Movement and to determine what it will focus on. Many authors have put forward various definitions of the Black Feminist Movement. Amongst these, the most popular and notable are the definition given by Alice Walker and the statement given by Combahee River Collective. To describe the Black Feminist Movement, Alice Walker coined the term ‘Womanist”. According to her, a womanist was someone who was audacious, courageous and responsible. A woman who loved other women sexually or non-sexually and is a feminist can identify as a womanist.
This definition was very challenging for the simple reason that it widened the range of a woman’s personal boundaries and at the same time called on women to maintain their connection with the rest of humanity. Black women used literature as a way to forward their message. They wrote to analyze the complex social issues faced by them because of being black and women. They expressed their unfathomable pain, injustices suffered and the horror of slavery. They hold white people and black men accountable for the oppression faced by them. However, the white female scholars and writers deliberately excluded the works of black women from literature and other critical studies. So, one can see that black women writers were dismissed and misrepresented in literary history.
Black women initiated this movement to put an end to sexist oppression. However, soon they realized that white women were hardly supporting them or even concerned about the problems faced by women of colour. The racial segregation was so prominent that the word “women” meant white women and “blacks” signified black men. This cruel practice of racial discrimination resulted in the emergence of the Black Feminist movement, one whose sole aim was to end racism at first. The movement emphasized upon the fact that sexism, racism and class oppression were intersectional and interlinked. The goal of black feminists was to build unity and cooperation amongst themselves which would, in turn, influence the American culture significantly. The whites perceived black women as undisciplined and sexually immoral. They were perceived to be evil, vicious, adamant, deceitful and despiteful. This image was something that needed reformation. Black women were to leave their subordinate position (in relation to black men) and become leaders who struggle against racism. The main goal of this Movement was to empower the black women on a mental, spiritual and economic ground in order to fight against oppression. Even when women were granted the right to vote for the first time, Black women were ridiculed at polling booths and excuses were made for them to not vote. All these things needed reformation. The Black women needed to reclaim their identity in their true form.
Black Feminist Identity Politics
The Black Feminist identity politics can be described as understanding and knowing one’s own identity while considering both personal experiences as well as experiences of people in the history to help initiate the formation of a group consisting like-minded people who sought a change in the political framework of the society. It may alternatively be defined as the rejection of oppressive measures (in terms of political injustice) against an individual’s group. Identity politics has frequently implemented isolated categories such as race, class and gender as a means of excluding people who weren’t a part of the dominant group. Kimberle Crenshaw believed that these constructed biases formed by race, class and gender need not be used as a means of degradation but as a form of self-worth and empowerment. Ignorance of these factors only creates more division in the social groups.
The conflict surrounding the group formation and safe spaces for black women is another issue of identity politics. The increased literacy in the 1970s promoted writing and scholarship as an outlet for black women for their voices to be heard. As a result of this, the women found peace and solace in the safe spaces and found the freedom to discuss important issues like oppression and segregation. This promoted unity and became a means of achieving social justice.
The inception of the Black Feminist Movement in the United States
As we have already discussed above, the Black women who participated in the Liberation Movement for the Blacks and the Women’s movement were not only discriminated against sexually but also racially. However, neither all the Black men nor all the White women in their movements were sexist or racist, but enough of those people who had an influential position in the society did their best to make the lives of Black women unbearable. The treatment of Black women in these two movements shows the inability of Black men and White women to acknowledge and denounce their oppression of Black women. These movements did not meet the needs of the Black women in any way and this is why they were prompted to start their own movement, the Black Feminist Movement. The movement had been gathering momentum for some time but it was only in 1973 that the National Feminist Organization was founded in New York. The founding members were Florynce Kennedy, Michele Wallace, Faith Ringgold, Doris Wright and Margaret Solan-Hunter.
The Black Feminist Movement is a way to address racism, classism and sexism. There are several organizations associated with this movement that are committed to ending the struggle of women against all forms of oppression. Due to this movement, many White women have acknowledged their racism and addressed the same by organizing anti-racist seminars. However, the effectiveness has not been the same in the white feminist and black communities. While, the feminist theories have broadened their range and scope by including race, class, sexuality etc., in the Black community the movement was not very effective. In colleges and other academic institutes of the USA, there are now the writings and the history of black women in the women’s study department. The Black Liberation Movement in retrospect still fails to recognize issues that affected Black women. The awareness has surely increased in the academic community of the Blacks about the sexism faced by women, but the pop culture which includes singers and rappers still continues to be misogynistic and sexist in their music.
Several challenges are still faced by the Black Feminist Movement. The first challenge of this movement is to broaden its scope amongst the Black and the Third World women as well as garner more and more support from them. Education and awareness is a must for those who are clueless about this movement or its need even in the contemporary era. There is a need for the development of positive mentor-mentee relationships between Black scholars and young Black students.
The Black Feminist Movement must hold the Liberation Movement accountable for the sexism they suffered and at the same time work with the Liberation Movement to end the oppression of all forms for the black people. Continued dialogue between the White feminist movement and Black Feminist movement should also exist as a way to address the individual as well as shared issues of sexism. In the end, women need to support other women instead of putting them down in order to achieve true liberation from the male-dominated oppressive system. The influence or power of Black Feminism cannot be ignored. It must be acknowledged and contributed to. The individual struggle of a woman must be connected with the larger feminist movements to bring about an effective change.
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