Variation of Responses to Core Themes
The existence of core themes does not mean that African-American women respond to these themes in the same way. Diversity among Black women produces different concrete experiences that in turn shape various reactions to the core themes. For example, when faced with stereotypical, controlling images of Black women, some women-such as Sojourner Truth–demand, “ain’t I a woman?” By deconstructing the conceptual apparatus of the dominant group, they invoke a Black women’s legacy of struggle. In contrast, other women internalize the controlling images and come to believe that they are the stereotypes (Brown-Collins and Sussewell 1986).
A variety of factors explain the diversity of responses. For example, although all African-American women encounter racism, social class differences among African-American women influence how racism is experienced. A young manager who graduated with honors from the University of Maryland describes the specific form racism can take for middle-class Blacks. Before flying to Cleveland to explain a marketing plan for her company, her manager made her go over it three or four times in front of him so that she would not forget her marketing plan. Then he explained how to check luggage at an airport and how to reclaim it. “I just sat at lunch listening to this man talking to me like I was a monkey who could remember but couldn’t think,” the Black female manager recalled. When she had had enough, she responded, “I asked him if he wanted to tie my money up in a handkerchief and put a note on me saying that I was an employee of this company. In case I got lost I would be picked up by Traveler’s Aid, and Traveler’s Aid would send me back” (Davis and Watson 1985, 86). Most middle-class Black women do not encounter such blatant incidents, but many working-class Blacks do. For both groups the racist belief that African-Americans are less intelligent than whites remains strong.
Sexual orientation provides another key factor. Black lesbians have identified homophobia in general and the issues they face living as Black lesbians in homophobic communities as being a major influence on their angle of vision on everyday events (Shockley 1974; Lorde 1982,1984; Clarke et al. 1983; Barbara Smith 1983). Beverly Smith describes how being a lesbian affected her perceptions of the wedding of one of her closest friends: “God, I wish I had one friend here. Someone who knew me and would understand how I feel. I am masquerading as a nice, straight, middle-class Black ‘girl’” (1983, 172). While the majority of those attending the wedding saw only a festive event, Beverly Smith felt that her friend was being sent into a form of bondage.
Other factors such as ethnicity, region of the country, urbanization, and age combine to produce a web of experiences shaping diversity among African-American women. As a result, it is more accurate to discuss a Black women’s standpoint than a Black woman’s standpoint.
The Interdependence of Experience and Consciousness
Black women’s work and family experiences and grounding in traditional African-American culture suggest that African-American women as a group experience a world different from that of those who are not Black and female. Moreover, these concrete experiences can stimulate a distinctive Black feminist consciousness concerning that material reality.2 Being Black and female may expose African-American women to certain common experiences, which in turn may predispose us to a distinctive group consciousness, but it in no way guarantees that such a consciousness will develop among all women or that it will be articulated as such by the group.
Many African-American women have grasped this connection between what one does and how one thinks. Hannah Nelson, an elderly Black domestic worker, discusses how work shapes the perspectives of African-American and white women: “Since I have to work, I don’t really have to worry about most of the things that most of the white women I have worked for are worrying about. And if these women did their own work, they would think just like I do-about this, anyway” (Gwaltney 1980,4). Ruth Shays, a Black inner-city resident, points out how variations in men’s and women’s experiences lead to differences in perspective. “The mind of the man and the mind of the woman is the same” she notes, “but this business of living makes women use their minds in ways that men don’ even have to think about” (Gwaltney 1980, 33).
This connection between experience and consciousness that shapes the everyday lives of all African-American women pervades the works of Black women activists and scholars. In her autobiography, Ida B. Wells describes how the lynching of her friends had such an impact on her worldview that she subsequently devoted much of her life to the antilynching cause (Duster 1970). Sociologist Joyce Ladner’s (1972) Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, a ground-breaking study of Black female adolescence, emerged from her discomfort with the disparity between the teachings of mainstream scholarship and her experiences as a young Black woman in the South. Similarly, the transformed consciousness experienced by Janie, the light-skinned heroine of Zora Neale Hurston’s (1937) classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, from obedient granddaughter and wife to a self-defined African-American woman, can be directly traced to her experiences with each of her three husbands. In one scene Janie’s second husband, angry because she served him a dinner of scorched rice, underdone fish, and soggy bread, hits her. That incident stimulates Janie to stand “where he left her for unmeasured time” and think. Her thinking leads to the recognition that “her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered … she had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (p.63).
- Patricia Hill Collins, via Feminist Ezine