This article is part of a series of articles entitled The Triple Consciousness of Black Womanhood: A History and Analysis of Black Feminism, The Importance of Intersectionality, & The Trials of Black Girlhood. To read Part 1, click here. To read Parts 2 & 3, click here. For the announcement post and (upcoming) list of works cited throughout the article series, click here.
IV. Birthing An Ideology: A Backstory of Maria Stewart & Black Feminism Defined
In 1832, Maria Stewart became the first recorded American-born woman to publicly give a speech in the United States, and she dedicated her life to justice as a black, female feminist-abolitionist. Maria Stewart was born Maria Miller to free black parents in Connecticut in 1803, but she was orphaned by the page of five and then was hired as a domestic servant. After working for a clergyman’s family for ten years, she left that position to seek an education at a Sabbath school. While attending school, Maria Miller supported herself doing domestic work until her marriage to James Stewart in 1826 and became Maria Stewart. Together, Maria and James were heavily influenced by the works of David Walker, who was a black abolitionist author and made several cases for the “idea of freedom.” Stewart disagreed with Walker’s militant approach to abolitionist activism, but she found her own meaning in his works, agreeing with Walker’s goal of freedom.
James Stewart died three years after he and Maria married, and it was at this time that Stewart realized she was unable to inherit anything from her late husband. It was because of this that Stewart shifted her work from supporting others to becoming an activist herself, and she began writing, having one of her essays published in The Liberator, the famous black newspaper owned by William Lloyd Garrison. She also began giving speeches, and the content of her speeches were focused on giving light to the inequalities that plagued black women at the time. Stewart prompted black women to refuse the dominant, domestic stereotypes that were commonly associated with black women. In a speech, she asks, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath…iron pots and kettle,” noting that because of poverty, the idea that women were inferior to men, and the systematic roadblocks put in place to keep black Americans from gaining financial freedom, black women were unable to reach their full intellectual potential and freedom (Soogrim, Lost Women of History: Maria Stewart, the First Black Feminist-Abolitionist in America). Stewart dedicated her life to creating a black activist community that was inclusive to women, even in the face of a society that saw women as weak and domestic. Stewart, however, recognized the power within black women and the immense contributions they could bring to the activist community, if only given the opportunity.*
As the first black feminist, it is Maria Stewart’s legacy in which Black Feminism was created, along with those of many other extraordinary deceased and living black feminist such as Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ida B. Wells, and Kimberle Crenshaw. Much like Stewart’s ideological and practical work, Black Feminism centers black women and the unique struggle that is inherent to only black women. Audre Lorde was a queer black feminist activist, poet, and essayist, and she explained that “black feminism is not white feminism in blackface,” disagreeing with the notion that black feminism is just mainstream feminism renamed and rebranded (Lorde, Sister Outsider, 60). As suggested by the phrasing, Black Feminism focuses on the combined race and gender oppressions that are specific to black women, and these issues are largely ignored in traditional feminism. For instance, when talking about the wage gap in the United States, a common statistic is that for every one dollar a man makes, a woman with the same positions makes seventy-seven cents. The correct statistic is that for every one dollar a white man makes, a white woman with the same position makes seventy-seven cents, while a black woman with the same position earns sixty-three cents to that white man’s one dollar.** Yes, both white and black women are paid less than white men, but black women are still paid even less than white women. For black women, this pay gap is a compounded issue of race and gender, as black Americans have historically made less than white Americans and, women, less than men. It is black women’s existence at this intersection that allows for black women’s wage gap problem to be a result of both types of oppressions.
When talking about feminism, it is important to realize the differences in experience that women of different ethnic and racial backgrounds have, especially in comparison to white women. While this ideal, this is not always the case and, historically, has not been the case. Feminist conversations that try to include the acknowledgement of the intersections of gender and race are usually met with resistance from white feminists who do not see the need for adding race to the conversation, and, in the eyes of black feminists, this is unacceptable. As mentioned before, mainstream feminism has been critiqued as suffering from a gross lack of intersectionality because it has traditionally been dominated by the views of white womanhood and, for a long time, did not allow for nuanced looks into how women and femmes of color must deal with an existence at the intersection of race and gender (among other things). It is because of this that black women who identify with the basis of feminism were and are drawn to Black Feminism. Black Feminism promises to center black women and their liberation from the two-fold chains of oppression. It is greatly needed, especially in light of the fact that mainstream feminism ignores this. When writing about the necessity of Black Feminism as a separate world of theory within feminism, Audre Lorde puts in best:
Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we [black women] fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying (Lorde, Sister Outsider, 119).
While both white and black women are oppressed by the (white) male patriarchy, the tools used to oppress the two groups are different, and it is crucial to the survival of feminism as a possibly inclusive movement to recognize this and work to include all women and non-binary people.
It would be difficult to define Black Feminism, as it would be difficult to define any movement or critical social theory that applies to an entire section of the population. This is primarily because, as Patricia Hill Collins breaks down in her book Black Feminist Thought, black Feminism has multiple key components and attempts to accomplish a multitude of goals. It covers and expands on broad principles and ideologies in order to support, acknowledge, and analyze the experiences of black women. Even though black women are not a monolith, meaning our experiences are not all the same, Black Feminism attempts to speak to the shared oppression we face. The purpose of Black Feminism is to resist the oppression imposed upon black women, and as long as there is systemic and societal oppression of black women, Black Feminism will always needed.
As mentioned before, it was a black feminist who explored and named the concept of intersectionality, so it makes sense that the idea of intersectionality would be at the core of Black Feminism. Even before intersectionality was given a title by Kimberle Crenshaw, its concept was a reality for black women. It is because of black women’s intersecting oppressions (and exclusions from other movements) that Black Feminism is needed. In theory, Black Feminism attempts to cover more intersections than just race and gender. According to Patricia Hill collins, it fights for and analyzes “Black women’s subordination within intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation,” making it a more well-rounded and expansive practice and ideology than other pro-Black movements (Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 25). Black Feminism makes it a point to empower black women who deal with these intersecting oppressions on a daily basis, and it covers a broad spectrum of black women’s experiences so that intersecting oppressions can be eliminated. A legacy of struggle has always been present in the lives of black women. It is these struggles that are present in the lives of a myriad of black women. It is because of this that recognizing other intersecting identities and oppression lodged against black women is at the core of Black Feminism.
Another key component of Black Feminism is the task of linking lived experiences with ideology. This is crucial, as giving any oppressed people the tools and information to both name and fight their oppression is imperative. Having ideologies and intellectual standpoints written by and for black women leads to a sense of community and self-empowerment. This centers the self-empowerment of black women at the heart of Black Feminism and leads to a built-in sense of community and common interest. Self-empowerment and a sense of community among black women helps to foster black women’s drive and dedication to activism. Because of the gap between ideology and lived experience, between academia and real life, black women may not even know that our actions and believes are black feminist in nature. This means that a black feminist may not identify outwardly as such, but their actions and ideologies suggest otherwise. This does not mean that having Black Feminism as a critical social theory is useless, as black women need a “general knowledge that helps U.S. Black women survive in, cope with, and resist our differential treatment” (Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 35). On talking about the significance of Black Feminism, Collins furthers explains that:
…Black feminist thought goes far beyond demonstrating that African-American women can be theorist. Like Black feminist practice, which it reflects and which it seeks to foster, Black feminist though can create a collective identity among African-American women about the dimensions of a Black women’s standpoint. Through the process of rearticulation, Black feminist thought can offer African-American women a different view of ourselves and out worlds…by taking the core themes of a Black women’s standpoint and infusing them with new meaning, Black feminist thought can stimulate a new consciousness that utilizes Black women’s everyday, taken-for-granted knowledge. Rather than raising consciousness, Black feminist thought affirms, rearticulates, and provides a vehicle for expressing in public a consciousness that quite often already exists. More important, this rearticulated consciousness aims to empower African-American women and stimulate resistance (Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 36).
A major key component of Black Feminism is also realizing the potential for the critical social theory to change as time progresses. Black Feminism must remain dynamic, since black women remain dynamic and the ways in which we are oppressed are also dynamic. This is not new for any critical social theory, as all need to accept change as time progresses in order to make sure that the groups they are trying to protect and fight for are protected as time continues. Black women’s position and interactions with society change as society does, and because the oppression we face may manifest in different forms, Black Feminism must morph and adjust to react and dissect these changing manifestations of oppression.
V. What Is Black Feminism Tackling?: An Overview of the Main (Original) Points
Central to the basis of Black Feminism is the exploration of the oppression that is lodged against black women as a supposed subgroup of society. Before one can truly understand how to work against oppression, one must be able to define it and it’s ability to be multilayered. Patricia Hill Collins describes oppression as “any unjust situation where, systematically and over a long period of time, one group denies another group access to the resources of society,” and this definition of oppression extends to not just racism and sexism, but classism, homophobia and anti-queer ideologies, ageism, and more (Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 6). For black women, if one were to look solely at our identity as black and woman, the oppression we face is a convergence of race and gender, as well as other oppressions for those who are part of other marginalized groups of people.
In her book Black Feminist Thought, Collins explains how the oppression of black women on the basis of our race and gender is a three-part machine that relies on black women’s labor, lack of political rights and privileges, and stereotypes. Ever since black people were stolen from the shores of West Africa, their labor has been exploited, and this specifically includes the labor of black women, both in the fields and when white slave masters raped them and used their bodies as breeders in order to birth more enslaved black people. In a more modern context, various popular ideologies and movements were started by and/or built on the academic and intellectual work done by black women. Their labor, though not physical but intellectual, is often ignored and then stolen, reproduced, and repackaged as the ideas of white women. This is especially true in the mainstream feminism movement, where ideologies that are produced by black women are now being used en masse without any reference to the originators of these theories and definitions.
Lack of political rights and privileges that are automatically bestowed on white men but are denied to black women create boundaries for black women that further perpetuate their subjugated place in society. Forbidding and making it difficult for black women to vote, systemically excluding black people and women from public office, and withholding equitable treatment in the criminal justice system are all systems that add to the oppression of black women. While black women have had the right to vote freely since the 1960s (even though the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920), voter disenfranchisement heavily affects communities of color and, in turn, black women.*** Voter disenfranchisement operates systemically and prevents a significant amount of the population from fully accessing their right to vote. The right to vote has always been an aspect of American citizenship that has been long debated, and it is one of the most basic rights. When certain groups are denied this access, specifically black women, they lose their voice in society, and, no matter how small this voice was, this is a travesty that helps perpetuation their subjugation.
Stereotypes have always been a part of the story of black women. Ever since the times of slavery, white society has framed us a jezebels*, mammies**, and sapphires***. These stereotype are used against black women to dehumanize us. The jezebel stereotype was used by white slave masters to justify raping black women slaves because we were seen as unrapeable and/or always wanting to have sex. The use of the mammy stereotype allows for black women, when we are not seen as salacious, to be seen as non-sexual beings, which binds us in a construct that is both afraid and hates our sexuality and ability to be loved. The sapphire stereotype is used to discredit black women’s thoughts and opinions if we are seen as speaking too passionately. This leads to a confining existence that perpetuates the fear of our full range of emotions.
Black Feminism’s existence directly challenges black male patriarchy’s idea that by liberating cisgender, straight black men first, everyone else’s liberation will follow afterwards. This thinking idea of trickle-down liberation not only perpetuates the societal teaching that men must come first, but it does not bear any acknowledgement to reality. Black Feminism is necessary because it attempts to highlight and protect the lowest group in society: black women, including and especially queer and trans black women. True liberation for black people is making sure that the group at the lowest level in society (black women) are liberated and that the stories and experiences black women bring to the movement are crucial in dismantling oppressive systems. Including black women into the narrative of revolutions — especially trans, queer, disabled, poor, and sex worker black women — ensures that ideologies within the movement are not exclusionary. When a movement is led by group members who are societally higher than others in their community, the movement is bound to have fallacies and weak points, as those who are given privileges by society are pre-disposed to overlook the oppression those beneath them, societally, have to face. This is why pro-black movement led by cis, straight black men are exclusionary of methodologies and ideologies that protect, help, or acknowledge anyone other than cis, straight black men. As both cisgender and straight, these black men are at the top of the societal hierarchy within the black community and often help perpetuate harmful oppression towards those who are not cisgender, straight black men. It is only by liberating the most oppressed group in a given community and society that everyone can rise.
To Be Continued…
Parts 6 & 7 of of this article series, entitled The Black Unicorn is Not Free (yet): Black Feminism as the path to True Freedom, will be released on July 2nd.
* Soogrim, Lost Women of History: Maria Stewart, the First Black Feminist-Abolitionist in America
** Mercado, Mia. “8 Startling Statistics That Show How The Pay Gap Affects Women Of Color Differently.” Bustle, Bustle, 11 Sept. 2017, http://www.bustle.com/p/8-startling-statistics-that-show-how-the-pay-gap-affects-women-of-color-differently-48351.
*** Voter disenfranchisement are policies and laws that systemically allow the government to prevent certain people from voting, usually through unfair and unnecessary voter laws, usually targeted towards communities of color.
* Jezebels are women who are sexually free and are framed as only thinking and desiring sex.
** Mammies are de-sexualized women whose only reason for existence is to serve other people.
*** Sapphires are women who are characterized ass overly-sassy and domineering, usually seen as emasculating their male partners through sarcasm and nagging.