celebrating black feminism

I get Google alerts every morning. All the news about “black women” and “feminism” gets sent to my inbox. I noticed some time ago that more writers and bloggers hurl charges against feminism than embrace it. A number of pieces that mention feminism chart how it has been “bad for women” or “bad for men” of just plain bad (meaning bad not meaning good). One of today’s gems is titled “Does neo-feminism lead to prostitution or sexual freedom?” No, I’m not kidding.

A couple of weeks ago in observance of Feminist Coming Out Day, I noticed a similar scorn for feminism when I asked on Twitter: “What does feminism mean to you?” The overwhelming disdain for feminism made me post as my Facebook status last week: 

“Jennifer Williams wishes people hated patriarchy as much as (some hate) feminism”

Because of my caliber of friends, the status hailed lots of “likes.”  

I know all the misconceptions about feminism: that it’s a “white” thing, an anti-male thing, a lesbian thing, and on and on and on. To be sure feminism–particularly in its narrow, Anglo, classist sense–is not above reproach, but before we critique it, we have to agree on what it is, don’t we? When I teach black feminist literature and theory, I notice that most of my students don’t have a working definition of black feminism or feminism. Places I like to start for clarification:

“Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.‘” Anna Julia Cooper

“I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.” June Jordan
“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.” Combahee River Collective

“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Alice Walker
“Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives … Feminism as a movement to end sexist oppression directs our attention to systems of domination and the inter-relatedness of sex, race, and class oppression.” bell hooks
This past week, I was delighted to witness female and male black feminists embracing and celebrating black feminism. The brilliant and always timely Beverly Guy-Sheftall reminds us that black feminism has an “emancipatory vision” that can help us understand the complicated and interlocking nature of oppression in the U.S. and other parts of the globe. Filmmaker Byron Hurt recounts his process of becoming a “black male feminist.” G.D. of Postbourgie joins the fray and celebrates the women in his life who have encouraged him to identify with feminism. I join these writers and scholars in celebrating and touting the continued necessity for a black feminist politics today.
Photo Credit: David Fenton/Getty Images
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About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

8 responses to “celebrating black feminism

  1. Todd Onderdonk

    Lots of loud obnoxious voices out there, but maybe there is hope in the change of norms: my students deny being feminists for lots of stereotype-related reasons, but they universally support the notion that women should have equality in all things. I'm like “psych!” you're all feminists! That new norm of equality can be abused and manipulated, and race is still “overlooked” in harmful ways, but there has been a cultural sea change created by feminist and black feminist thought and voices.

  2. You know this post needs to have a love button 🙂 I meet more women that men who hate feminism. I'm finding more men who realize that all patriarchy did for us – is create more men (except with vaginae) 🙂

  3. BlackNDeckr

    It's not necessary for a group to agree on what feminism is to attack it for it's vitriol just as it's not necessary for everyone to agree what Patriarchy was before it was attacked. It's almost as though your setting up a rather weak argument where whoever doesn't agree w/ your presentation is barred from it's criticism which is ridiculous.

    And Todd if you have to “draft” your listeners you said alot about the weakness of your position. Why is your skew necessary to recognize “Equality”. No, your students knew better.

  4. @Todd and @Nicky: Yes! I've had similar experiences and conversations. @BlackNDeckr: You're rather proving my point. Thanks.

  5. Anonymous

    Some of the worst racists I as a Black man have ever had to deal with were my white female professors in college so that colors my negative perceptions of feminism. I think what it says it is and what it really is are quite different.

  6. You have some valid concerns to be sure. Were those white female professors feminists? It's certainly possible that feminists can be racist, racially marginalized groups can be sexist, and on and on. Just as it would be unfair for someone to base their views of black men on a few negative experiences, maybe you could keep an open mind about feminists as well. Thanks for reading.

  7. Anonymous

    They were STRONG feminists who were very active and did the seminars and retreats and the whole bit. I have great regard for Melissa Harris-Perry but to me calling oneself “feminist” is like saying one is a “christian”–it's all in the behavior rather than the title.

  8. ana

    Hey Jennifer
    I am Julia, from Brazil.
    I am studying an afro-american writer named Ntozake Shange – i bet you like her:)- and I would like to exchange emails with you about feminism and literature. My email address is english.jules55@yahoo.com
    Could you write me an email so that we can start talking? It will be very usefull to me to get a chance to chat with you.
    Best,
    Júlia

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