Black Feminism

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Black feminism refers to ideologies centered on the experiences of Black women. A central theme in Black feminism is intersectionality, which refers to the ways gender, race, and other social categories interact to influence an individual's life outcomes and experiences of oppression. Prominent Black feminists from the 19th to 21th centuries include Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Jean Watkins aka bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Claire Heuchan aka Sister Outrider.

History

Women such as Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells exemplified Black feminist activism in the nineteenth century.

In 1851, women’s rights advocate and abolitionist Sojourner Truth gave a speech at a women’s rights convention in which she challenged both racism and sexism faced by Black women. No actual transcription of the speech exists, although Marius Robinson, who was present during the speech and who worked with Truth, published the following written version some weeks after the original speech:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. [sic] I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

About a decade later, women's rights and abolition activist Gage published a different version, featuring a heavy Southern dialect, recalled from her memory. Following is her recalling of the speech, with the Southern dialect edited to more common English for easier reading:

The leaders of the movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sunbonnet, march deliberately into the church, walk with the air of a queen up the aisle, and take her seat upon the pulpit steps. A buzz of disapprobation was heard all over the house, and there fell on the listening ear, 'An abolition affair!" "Woman's rights and niggers!" "I told you so!" "Go it, darkey!" . . Again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said, with earnestness, "Don't let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced." My only answer was, "We shall see when the time comes."

The second day the work waxed warm. Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist minister came in to hear and discuss the resolutions presented. One claimed superior rights and privileges for man, on the ground of "superior intellect"; another, because of the "manhood of Christ; if God had desired the equality of woman, He would have given some token of His will through the birth, life, and death of the Saviour." Another gave us a theological view of the "sin of our first mother."

There were very few women in those days who dared to "speak in meeting"; and the august teachers of the people were seemingly getting the better of us, while the boys in the galleries, and the sneerers among the pews, were hugely enjoying the discomfiture as they supposed, of the "strong-minded." Some of the tender-skinned friends were on the point of losing dignity, and the atmosphere betokened a storm. When, slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had scarcely lifted her head. "Don't let her speak!" gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation above and below. I rose and announced, "Sojourner Truth," and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments.

The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows.

"Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be somethin' out o' kilter. I think that twixt the niggers of the South and the women of the North, all talkin' about rights, the white man will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talkin' about?"

"That man over there say that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!" And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. "And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man--when I could get it--and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have born thirteen children, and seen 'em most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"

"Then they talk 'bout this thing in the head; what this they call it?" ("Intellect," whispered some one near.) "That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or nigger's rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?" And she pointed her significant finger, and sent a keen glance at the minister who had made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.

"Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from?" Rolling thunder couldn't have stilled that crowd, as did those deep, wonderful tones, as she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated, "Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do with Him." Oh, what a rebuke that was to that little man.

Turning again to another objector, she took up the defense of Mother Eve. I can not follow her through it all. It was pointed, and witty, and solemn; eliciting at almost every sentence deafening applause; and she ended by asserting: "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together (and she glanced her eye over the platform) ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they're asking to do it, the men better let 'em." Long-continued cheering greeted this. "Obliged to you for hearin' on me, and now ole Sojourner hasn't got nothin' more to say."

In 1892 another Black woman, Anna Julia Cooper published A Voice from the South, a book in which she described the importance of the voices of Black women for social change. Another exemplary Black feminist, Ida B. Wells, an activist and journalist, led a crusade against lynching during the 1890s. The work of these and other Black women shows how Black community politics laid the foundation for social justice toward sexism from Black men, marginalization from White feminists, and disenfranchisement under White male privilege.

Intersectionality

A central theme in black feminism is intersectionality, which refers to the ways gender, race, and other social categories (such as class, sexual orientation, etc.) interact or "intersect" to influence an individual's life outcomes and experiences of oppression. The term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, though the concept predates her coining of the term.

In the 1970s, a group of Black women formed the Combahee River Collective. They saw intersectionality (as it is called today) as integral to the distinction between their movement and that of White feminism, because “the major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions”. During the twentieth century, Black women remained active in social justice movements as Black feminism and intersectionality expanded into academic and professional discourse. Women like sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, and writer bell hooks are a few examples.

In recent years, the term intersectionality has frequently been misappropriated by transgender activists, who insist that intersectional feminism must center male people who identify as transwomen and frequently make comparisons between Black women and transwomen, which some Black women find to be incorrect and racist, since Black women, unlike transwomen, are unambiguously female.

References