Black Feminism:

I would like to focus on the emergence of the Black Feminist movement as an offshoot of the Civil Rights Movement, which was centered primarily around male oppression, and the divergence between Black and White Feminism. I am very interested in the effects that racism, classicism, and sexism have had on black female empowerment, and how these three power struggles have shaped the Black Feminist movement as a collective whole. I am focusing primarily on the contemporary Black Feminist Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and I hope to examine Black Feminism through the lens of black female voices (Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde), and the power that has accompanied the vocalization of female oppression with the written and spoken word
~Kelsey Henry ('08-'09)

Systemic oppression in all forms, including sexism, racism, classisism, elitism, capitalism, and imperialism have never existed in a vacuum. Every societal limitation that has been placed on women and men has stemmed from the divisive nature of American culture; we as an American people are given label after label to further perpetuate "differences" that pit women against women, men against men, and women against men. White. Black. Asian. Latino. Woman. Man. Heterosexual. Homosexual. Rich. Poor. Powerful. Weak. These divisions are midleading because the intersections between them are often not taken into account. No one is simply white, simply black, simply gay, or simply straight. Human beings are far too complex to be defined by these words. It is not in our nature to be simple, yet we are told what we are and who we will be with these words and we are expected to fill them. We are raised within our clearly cut communities, and our identites are chyrstallized in definitions of human existence that seek to explain why we are unlike each other We are a product of the labels that divide us, yet when 'isms' arise from our diffences (e.g. racism, sexism, and classism), they generalize and sterotype and attempt to condense and simplify all of the oppressed.
It is these generalizations within racism, sexism, and classicism that falsely assume that all women, all black people, and everyone within the same socioeconomic bracket, are the same. Resulting libertation movements, namely the Feminist movement and the Civil Rights movement, served only one type of woman and one type of African American, discrediting the fact that not all women have the same values, priorities, sexual preference, or racial and socioeconomic standing, and not all black people are men within a patriarchal society that is biased towards only those with X and Y chromosomes. What both of these movements failed to recognize, at least in their initial stages, were the people who were neither male nor white. Black Women. Women of all minority groups who by nature have entered this world with two counts against them. To not be white or male in a capitalistic American culture run by privledged white men is essentially excluded women of color from feminism that racist and served predominately white women, and further excluded women of color from civil rights activism that was primarily focused on black male empowerment. Black women are impacted by race and sex inescapably, and with added class differences, these women have been misrepresented and ignored by the people who theoretically were meant to represent them. Birthed from the intersection of race, sex, and class came the Black Feminist movement, which by nature was built on the conviction "If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression," (Angela Davis).

Genesis of the Black Feminist Movement:

Arising from societal unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. black women found neither a voice with the Betty Friedan feminists who were upper middle class white women nor the blacks in a Civil Rights Movement that was more interested in social mobility for black men than their wives. Black women needed to develop an entirely new movement that served to combat the racisim that kept them from joining ranks with white feminists and the sexism that kept them from being equals with black men. Additionally, black women were further disenfrachised by socioeconomic hardship, and they found it difficult to define themselves within the elitist political/ecomomic hierarchy of the United States of America.

Divergence between White Women and Black Women and the Separate Feminist Movements that Resulted:
After writing The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan was higly praised for setting the stage for contemporary feminism. However, Friedan's book focused only on the world and women she was accustomed to, and by "unshackling" white housewives, very little was done for the silent minority. A false unity was conveyed in the ideology of early feminism. Sexism was fought in isolation of all other "isms." Women were portrayed as being a solid unit that had the same wants and needs. However, not once in the early 1960s or 1970s was it fully acknowledged by Betty Friedan feminists that not all women were equal at the start of the feminist movement, and thus whatever progression a middle class white woman made had little to no impact on a black single working mother. As white women went to pursue something "more," in the form of careers, she freed herself from the bondage of domesticity, but who did she leave in her wake. Black women and other women of color became nannies and housekeepers to tend to the raising of white children with two working parents and to tidy homes that white women were now too "evolved" to attend to. One type of woman was freed while another was further enslaved.The truth is, only women with time, money, and white skin could pursue the "feminine mystique." (2)

The subdivision between white women and black women was not a new concept in the 1960s seeing as as far back as the early 1800s, black and white female abolitionists politically split in regards to the 15th Amendment. White women continually pushed for universal suffrage, while black women were more interested in the betterment of their race as a whole. While white women were able to focus all of their time and attentiveness into their own personal suffrage. black women establishe a feminist platform that grew to include fights against racism, class oppression, sexism, and homophobia. Sexism could never be the sole focus of a black woman's struggle. Additional factors weighed her down unlike her white counterparts. Even following the creation of the National Black Feminist Organization in1973 (a feminist initiative that attempted to include women of all races and back grounds), there were divisions amongst the women themselves that was hindering their ability to make proposals an enact change in a unified way. The organization was comprised of Radical Lesbians, members of the Socialist Worker's Party, and the National Organization for Women (N.OW.). While the earliest meetings concerned controversial topics including abortion, birth control. and welfare, these women lacked a commonality that was simply not fulfilled by the fact that they were all women and all oppressed. A black woman proposed that they hold a political rally on African Liberation Day, and a white woman promptly replied, "That wouldn't be right for our white sisters." Furthermore, amongst the earliest ranks of women, there were divisions beyond race that made coming to a consensus highly difficult. Amongst white women and black women there were differences in socioeconomic status and sexuality that only proved more clearly that not all women were the same. Poor women often could not see eye to eye with rich women, and similarly straight women did not always agree with the lifestyles of lesbian women of their same race. This led to polarized opposition amongst women, which hurt our collective ability to thrive in a man's world that did not accept us because we were not accepting of each other. (2)

Person to Know:

Barbara Smith: A teacher, lecturer, scholar, writer, and Black lesbian feminist. Her essays were published in The New York Times, Ms., and Conditions (a magazine that showcased/published lesbian writers), to name a few. She was a member of the orginal National Black Feminist Organization, and she organized the Combahee River Collective in 1974, which was a more exclusive group of Black lesbian women who focused on the progression of black women and the black community as a whole. She also founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press with Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga, which was the first publishing company devoted entirely to women of color.(8)

Divergence between Black Men and Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement:
As early as 1947, Ann Petry wrote an article for the Negro Digest titled, "What's Wrong with Negro Men," which critisized sexism within the black community. Black men dominated both the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist Movements, and the women involved at this time were often overlooked. While women like Rosa Parks are nationally respected and recognized, can you think of any other names that immediately come to you when associating black women with the Civil Rights Movement? It is not that they were not present, but it is clear that the Civil Rights Movement, although revolutionary, was not fighting primarily for black women, but for black men. Wives of prominent black men, like Corretta Scott King (Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife) harnessed national attention because of the men they were with. Without a platform to stand on, most black women were shoved into the background and silenced not only as black people but as women. (4)

Person to Know:
Angela Davis: A black activist, writer, and philosopher, she was highly active in the Civil Rights Movement, and she was particularly involved with the Black Panthers. She ran for Vice Presidency of the United States on the Communist Party ballot in 1980, hoping to combat racism and sexism with communist and social ideals. She believed that by equalizing the U.S. economically, minorities would stand a better chance at success with at least one form of oppression lessened.(9)

Significance of the Written and Spoken Word as a Medium for Social Change:
Michelle Cliff, a well known feminst activist, once said that the black female continuum of literature has been so influential and empowering because they "work against the offs to claim the 'I'". Women such as Toni Morrison (Sula), Alic Walker (The Color Purple), and Toni Cade Bambara (The Salt Eaters) establish voices as black women that allow them to claim their individualism and strength depsite adversity. (7)Women like Angela Davis were able to establish concrete Black Feminist ideology with books like Women, Race, and Class which critiqued intersectionality, and poets like Audre Lorde used words as a vessel for changing human beings with imagery and beauty that was drawn from her own experiences, but were echoed in the heats of so many other black women. Black feminst organizations established written documents, such as the Combahee River Collective Statement and the Black Woman's Manifesto (devised by the Third World Women's Alliance), which served to solidify what Black Feminism meant theoretically, allowing it validity in the world academia and identity politics. (7)Black journalistsm like Mary Anne Weathers, wielded their words like carefully fired bullets, and words, both written and spoken, became the true mark of the Black Feminist fight.

Hanging Fire by Audre Lorde
I am fourteen
and my skin has betrayed me
the boy I cannot live without
still sucks his tumb
in secret
how come my knees are
always so ashy
what if I die
before the morning comes
and momma's in the bedroom
with the door closed.

Alice Walker's In Our Mother's Gardens
Who were these "Saints"? These crazy, loony, pitiful women?
Some of them, without a doubt, were our mothers and grandmothers.
In the still heat of the Post-Reconstruction South, this is how they seemed to Jean Toomer: exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them, except as "the mule of the world." They dreamed dreams that no one knew-not even themselves, in any coherent fashion-and saw visions no one could understand. They wandered or sat about the countryside crooning lullabies to ghosts, and drawing the mother of Christ in charcoal on courthouse walls.
They forced their minds to desert their bodies and their striving spirits sought to rise, like frail whirlwinds from the hard red clay. And when those frail whirlwinds fell, in scattered particles, upon the ground, no one mourned. Instead, men lit candies to celebrate the emptiness that remained, as people do who enter a beautiful but vacant space to resurrect a God.
Our mothers and grandmothers, some of them: moving to music not yet written. And they waited.

"The black woman is demanding a new set of female definitions and a recognition of herself of a citizen, companion and confidant, not a matriarchal villain or a step stool baby-maker. Role integration advocates the complementary recognition of man and woman, not the competitive recognition of same."-Black Woman's Manifesto (3)

"We have found that Women's Liberation is an extremely emotional issue, as well as an explosive one. Black men are still parroting the master's prattle about male superiority. This now brings us to a very pertinent question: How can we seriously discuss reclaiming our African Heritage -- cultural living modes which clearly refute not only patriarcy and matriarchy, but our entire family structure as we know it. African tribes live communally where households let alone heads of households are non-existant…..Are we women or leaning posts and props? It sounds as if we are saying if we come our from behind him, he'll fall down. To me, these are clearly maternal statements and should be closely examined…Le it be clearly understood that Black women's liberation is not anti-male; any such sentiment or interpretation as such can not be tolerated. It must be taken clearly for what it is -- pro-human for all peoples….This man is playing the death game for money and power, not because he doesn't like us. He could care less one way or the other. But think for a moment if we all go together and just walked on out. Who would fight his wars, who would run his police state, who would work his factories, who would buy his products?
We women must start this thing rolling. "-Mary Anne Weathers (6).

Person to Know:

Audre Lorde: A self proclaimed "black feminist lesbian mother poet," she explored themes of oppression both sexually and racially driven. She was always interested in uniting the divergent parts of herself, and never wished the separate her "blackness" and her "womanness." Before she died, she did partake in a traditional name giving ceremony in Africa, at which point she assumed the name Gambda Adisa, which means Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known." (10)

How the Intersectionality of Race. Sex, and Class Impact Us Today

I think it is easy for some Americans to assume that our election of Barack Obama as the first African American (technically biracial but I will not linger on technicalities) President of the United States, is an indication that we have eradicated racism and all that is associated with it. Similarly, when we look at strong and empowered black women, like Oprah Winfrey, it is often easy to make assertions about the progression of all minorities in America, and I think we forget about the intersections I have established. Race, class, and gender, amongst many other human characteristics, determines our success and opportunities in life to a certain extent. There is still racism, sexism, and classicism, and while some people break through these barriers (and they are breakable), every human being is still subject to them. We cannot stop talking about these "isms." We must remember that the progression we feel is not felt by all men and women like us, and we cannot reach a point where we are too well off and too dissociated to see the people who are still struggling all around us. We cannot become blind to the world and we must recognize that human empowerment is a daily fight and a natural inescapable struggle that we all most be apart of. It is when we divide ourselves further that we risk loding human connections and commonalities that makes us the same species. We cannot risk this.



Thank You all ex-APUSHers. This year has been incredible. I will miss you all!