Widely used yet rarely defined, Black feminist thought encompasses diverse and contradictory meanings. Two interrelated tensions highlight issues in defining Black feminist thought. The first concerns the thorny question of who can be a Black feminist. One current response, explicit in Patricia Bell Scott’s (1982b) “Selected Bibliography on Black Feminism,” classifies all African-American women, regardless of the content of our ideas, as Black feminists. From this perspective, living as Black women provides experiences to stimulate a Black feminist consciousness. Yet indiscriminately labeling all Black women in this way simultaneously conflates the terms woman and feminist and identifies being of African descent-a questionable biological category-as being the sole determinant of a Black feminist consciousness. As Cheryl Clarke points out, “I criticized Scott. Some of the women she cited as ‘black feminists’ were clearly not feminist at the time they wrote their books and still are not to this day” (1983, 94).
The term Black feminist has also been used to apply to selected African-Americans-primarily women-who possess some version of a feminist consciousness. Beverly Guy-Sheftall (1986) contends that both men and women can be “Black feminists” and names Frederick Douglass and William E. B. DuBois as prominent examples of Black male feminists. Guy-Sheftall also identifies some distinguishing features of Black feminist ideas: namely, that Black women’s experiences with both racial and gender oppression that result in needs and problems distinct from white women and Black men, and that Black women must struggle for equality both as women and as African-Americans. Guy-Sheftall’s definition is helpful in that its use of ideological criteria fosters a definition of Black feminist thought that ecompasses both experiences and ideas. In other words, she suggests that experiences gained from living as African-American women stimulate a Black feminist sensibility. But her definition is simultaneously troublesome because it makes the biological category of Blackness the prerequisite for possessing such thought. Furthermore, it does not explain why these particular ideological criteria and not others are the distinguishing ones.
The term Black feminist has also been used to describe selected African-American women who possess some version of a feminist consciousness (Beale 1970; Hooks 1981; Barbara Smith 1983; White 1984). This usage of the term yields the most restrictive notion of who can be a Black feminist. The ground-breaking Combahee River Collective (1982) document, “A Black Feminist Statement,” implicity relies on this definition. The Collective claims that “as Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” (p.17). But in spite of this statement, by implying that only African-American women can be Black feminists, they require a biological prerequisite for race and gender consciousness. The Collective also offers its own ideological criteria for identifying Black feminist ideas. In contrast to Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the Collective places a stronger emphasis on capitalism as a source of Black women’s oppression and on political activism as a distinguishing feature of Black feminism.
Biologically deterministic criteria for the term black and the accompanying assumption that being of African descent somehow produces a certain consciousness or perspective are inherent in these definitions. By presenting race as being fixed and immutable-something rooted in nature-these approaches mask the historical construction of racial categories, the shifting meaning of race, and the crucial role of politics and ideology in shaping conceptions of race (Gould 1981; Omi and Winant 1986). In contrast, much greater variation is afforded the term feminist. Feminists are seen as ranging from biologically determined-as is the case in radical feminist thought, which argues that only women can be feminists-to notions of feminists as individuals who have undergone some type of political transformation theoretically achievable by anyone.
Though the term Black feminist could also be used to describe any individual who embraces Black feminist ideas, the separation of biology from ideology required for this usage is rarely seen in the works of Black women intellectuals. Sometimes the contradictions among these competing definitions can be so great that Black women writers use all simultaneously. Consider the following passage from Deborah McDowell’s essay “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism”:
“I use the term here simply to refer to Black female critics who analyze the works of Black female writers from a feminist political perspective. But the term can also apply to any criticism written by a Black woman regardless of her subject or perspectives book written by a male from a feminist or political perspective, a book written by a Black woman or about Black women authors in general, or any writings by women.” (1985, 191)
While McDowell implies that elite white men could be “black feminists,” she is clearly unwilling to state so categorically. From McDowell’s perspective, whites and Black men who embrace a specific political perspective, and Black women regardless of political perspective, could all potentially be deemed Black feminist critics.
The ambiguity surrounding current perspectives on who can be a Black feminist is directly tied to a second definitional tension in Black feminist thought: the question of what constitutes Black feminism. The range of assumptions concerning the relationship between ideas and their advocates as illustrated in the works of Patricia Bell Scott, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the Combahee River Collective, and Deborah McDowell leads to problems in defining Black feminist theory itself. Once a person is labeled a “Black feminist,” then ideas forwarded by that individual often become defined as Black feminist thought. This practice accounts for neither changes in the thinking of an individual nor differences among Black feminist theorists.
A definition of Black feminist thought is needed that avoids the materialist position that being Black and/or female generates certain experiences that automatically determine variants of a Black and/or feminist consciousness. Claims that Black feminist thought is the exclusive province of African-American women, regardless of the experiences and worldview of such women, typify this position. But a definition of Black feminist thought must also avoid the idealist position that ideas can be evaluated in isolation from the groups that create them. Definitions claiming that anyone can produce and develop Black feminist thought risk obscuring the special angle of vision that Black women bring to the knowledge production process.
The Dimensions Of A Black Women’s Standpoint
Developing adequate definitions of Black feminist thought involves facing this complex nexus of relationships among biological classification, the social construction of race and gender as categories of analysis, the material conditions accompanying these changing social constructions, and Black women’s consciousness about these themes. One way of addressing the definitional tensions in Black feminist thought is to specify the relationship between a Black women’s standpoint-those experiences and ideas shared by African-American women that provide a unique angle of vision on self, community, and society-and theories that interpret these experiences.1 I suggest that Black feminist thought consists of specialized knowledge created by African-American women which clarifies a standpoint of and for Black women. In other words, Black feminist thought encompasses theoretical interpretations of Black women’s reality by those who live it.
This definition does not mean that all African-American women generate such thought or that other groups do not play a critical role in its production. Before exploring the contours and implications of this working definition, understanding five key dimension of a Black women’s standpoint is essential.
The Core Themes Of A Black Women’s Standpoint
All African-American women share the common experience of being Black women in a society that denigrates women of African descent. This commonality of experience suggests that certain characteristic themes will be prominent in a Black women’s standpoint. For example, one core theme is a legacy of struggle. Katie Cannon observes, “throughout the history of the United States, the interrelationship of white supremacy and male superiority has characterized the Black woman’s reality as a situation of struggles struggle to survive in two contradictory worlds simultaneously, one white, privileged, and oppressive, the other black, exploited, and oppressed” (1985, 30). Black women’s vulnerability to assaults in the workplace, on the street, and at home has stimulated Black women’s independence and self-reliance.
In spite of differences created by historical era, age, social class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, the legacy of struggle against racism and sexism is a common thread binding African-American women. Anna Julia Cooper, a nineteenth-century Black woman intellectual, describes Black women’s vulnerability to sexual violence:
“I would beg … to add my plea for the Colored Girls of the South:-that large, bright, promising fatally beautiful class … so full of promise and possibilities, yet so sure of destruction; often without a father to whom they dare apply the loving term, often without a stronger brother to espouse their cause and defend their honor with his life’s blood; in the midst of pitfalls and snares, waylaid by the lower classes of white men, with no shelter, no protection.” (Cooper 1892, 240)
Yet during this period Black women struggled and built a powerful club movement and numerous community organizations (Giddings 1984, 1988; Gilkes 1985).
Age offers little protection from this legacy of struggle. Far too many young Black girls inhabit hazardous and hostile environments. In 1975 I received an essay entitled “My World” from Sandra, a sixth-grade student who was a resident of one of the most dangerous public housing projects in Boston. Sandra wrote, “My world is full of people getting rape. People shooting on another. Kids and grownups fighting over girlsfriends. And people without jobs who can’t afford to get a education so they can get a job … winos on the streets raping and killing little girls.” Her words poignantly express a growing Black feminist sensibility that she may be victimized by racism and poverty. They also reveal her awareness that she is vulnerable to rape as a gender-specific form of sexual violence. In spite of her feelings about her community, Sandra not only walked the streets daily but managed safely to deliver three younger siblings to school. In doing so she participated in a Black women’s legacy of struggle.
This legacy of struggle constitutes one of several core themes of a Black women’s standpoint. Efforts to reclaim the Black feminist intellectual tradition are revealing Black women’s longstanding attention to a series of core themes first recorded by Maria W. Stewart (Richardson 1987). Stewart’s treatment of the interlocking nature of race, gender, and class oppression, her call for replacing denigrated images of Black womanhood with self-defined images, her belief in Black women’s activism as mothers, teachers, and Black community leaders, and her sensitivity to sexual politics are all core themes advanced by a variety of Black feminist intellectuals.
To be continued…
- Patricia Hill Collins, via Feminist Ezine
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- A Letter to the Feminist Movement: Speak Out Against Violence Targeting Abolitionists
- Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C. [review]
- Different Histories, Different Strategies: More on SlutWalk
- Forum: Political Economy of Feminist Blogging [#Feminist Friday]