(This isn’t every Black woman’s story; this is my story)
So I have this thing. Whenever someone is talking to me about a subject that requires a bit of thought, I’ll always think of a particular song lyric that applies to the question as I’m thinking of an answer. For instance, let’s say somebody asks me, “Are you a feminist?” While searching the brain for a statement, I think of Mya:
I’mmmm so confused/I don’t know what to dooooooo
No matter if I knew the person was going to ask or not, I’m always confused whenever this question is asked. I’m not confused in the sense that I don’t have an answer. I have one, but it is not as direct or simple as the question.
Growing up watching countless hours of television, switching channels from BET, MTV, and VH1 (this was the 90s before they became the holy ratchet television trinity), I had only understood feminism to be three things: White, angry, and mostly gay. I watched scores of White women on a field wearing sundresses and combat boots holding hands with other White women wearing buzz cuts and flannel shirts, all swaying to the spellbinding sounds of the Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, and Melissa Etheridge at Lilith Fair. In the basement far from the watch of my mother or my grandparents, I listened as Meredith Brooks told the world how she was a bitch, a lover, a child, and a mother. News reports showed hundreds of White college coed girls taking to their campuses with megaphones, candles, and makeshift signs in an effort to “take back the night.” All these sounds and images were bonded together in my pre-adolescent understanding by one word: feminism. From hearing that word tossed around at interviews and news reports of the aforementioned events, I developed an associative understanding of feminism. But based on how I rarely saw similar faces in these spaces that looked like mine, I didn’t think that feminism was a “thing” for a little black girl like me. Sure, every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of artists like Tracy Chapman or Meshell Ndegeocello on MTV or VH1, but I was more in awe of their blackness on a predominately White music network than their feminism. It would not be until my sophomore year of college where my mind would change…sort of.
As she had pretty much done for my entire life, my aunt gave me a book as part of the plethora of Christmas gifts she gave me each year. The Christmas that I was in the 10th grade, I received Kevin Powell’s Step Into A World anthology. I skimmed through the book a time or two, but hadn’t really read it until I was in my dorm room one boring snowy Saturday. With a glass full of apple juice and a large bag of M&Ms, cracked open the book to give my eyes something to do besides look at nothing on television. Flipping through the writings of Robin D.G. Kelly, Imani Tolliver, Ras Baraka, and dream hampton, I happened upon an essay by a writer named Joan Morgan. In about 5 pages, I was introduced to a concept called hip-hop feminism. When reflecting on the treatment of women during the Million Man March with Farrakhan banishing us from the National Mall to our kitchens to “cook for our warriors” as noted by Kristal Brent-Zooks, Morgan cites the need for a new kind of feminism that is relevant to Black women of the present 20th Century (the essay was written in 1999). She understood that not too many Black women were checking for “the f-word” due to the deep-seeded racism from White women. But honestly, that wasn’t the part I was checking for. What drew me was the idea of being a “hip hop feminist.” Despite my knowing all the words to Bittersweet Symphony, You Oughta Know, Criminal, and Kiss From A Rose (yes, by Seal) thanks to my binge-watching of videos on MTV and VH1, I’m still an avid Rap and Hip Hop fan. At any given time heading to or from class, I was pumping A Tribe Called Quest, DMX, The Roots, or Missy Elliot in my ears. I can intelligently discuss the Roxanne Wars, the Bridge Wars and how the Biggie/Tupac beef fucked all that up. I could tell you about the Zulu Nation and the significance of Afrika Bambaataa. So to discuss a concept that puts hip hop with anything I was already interested. But as a young Black woman, I was slightly conflicted. This was around the time when the sisters at Spelman protested against Nelly’s appearance on their campus in light of the infamous Tip Drill video, one of many menageries of misogyny seen in rap videos at the time. Yes, I applauded those sisters for standing up against the hypersexual male bravado that flooded our radio stations on a daily basis, but as a lover of rap and hip-hop was I even allowed to do such a thing? True, I wasn’t constantly checking for songs that had the repetitive message that Black women were nothing more than ass and titties wrapped in a quick weave. Sure, I was more apt to listen to uplifting and educated rap from Kanye West, Common, or Slum Village. But I won’t lie and pretend that my bitty booty doesn’t automatically get ready to twerk a lil’ sumthin’ when I hear that Cash Money is taking over for the 99 and the 2000. Joan Morgan let me know that I was not alone. That there was a space (or there needed to be) where this kind of thing intersected. We needed a kind of feminism that “was brave enough to fuck with the grays” (Morgan, 1999, 59) We needed a feminism that understands how “truth can’t be found in the voice of any one rapper, but in the juxtaposition of many…they lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet–the juncture where ‘truth’ is no longer black and white, but subtle, intriguing shades of gray” (62). As part of my quest to find such a feminism, I use a good portion of my refund check to order books from Amazon about Black feminism including Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks. I perused through essays from Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Barbara Smith. I read studies on the feminist writings of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.
Based on that, feminism and I had formed a relationship situationship. It was a situationship instead of a relationship is because to be in a relationship means that you relate to the other party that is involved. Therein was my problem. I could appreciate learning about Black feminism; but I still couldn’t seem to shake the idea of how White it was, perhaps from the lasting first impression of it from my childhood. While Morgan, Guy-Sheftall, Smith, hooks, and Collins helped show me myself in the mirror of feminism, its reflection was still a little fuzzy to me. So I found myself in a situation where I was in search of an ideology that I could relate to. In not knowing of anything else at the time, I reluctantly linked up with feminism. I was with it but I wasn’t WITH it, per se. As with most situationships, there were no labels. But reading more about the history of feminism, I understood my apathy. In my historical research prior to joining my sorority, I learned that the founders of Delta Sigma Theta were regulated to march in the back of the processional because of their race during the 1913 Women’s Suffrage March (Paula Giddings, In Search of Sisterhood, 1988, 55-56). When doing a paper on the history of Black women voting, I learned that the rift in the alliance between Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony was caused with the decision to either support voting rights for Black men or White women (E. Susan Barber, “100 Years Towards Suffrage: An Overview,” 1998). I learned that while I wasn’t really checking to fully claim feminism, historically it wasn’t really checking for me, either. The situationship lasted for the remainder of my undergraduate tenure up until my second year of doctoral school when I met Womanism.
While I would love to say that I found out about Womanism on my own, props must go to my Black Political Theory professor for putting me on. In a discussion with him about the things I wanted to study regarding Black women, he suggested that I check out Dr. Clenora Hudson Weems’s 1993 classic Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. Looking at the book was like looking in a mirror, but only this time my reflection was clearer. Here was an ideal whose founding roots were rooted in me, a woman of African descent in America. It was something I could relate to, therefore form a relationship with. I had heard about Womanism through readings of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. But with her saying that feminism and womanism were one in the same, I wasn’t really feeling it. After reading its sordid history, I dreamed a “feminism” that didn’t just merely acknowledge the racist roots of feminism that continue to subliminally grow, but called it out on its bullshit. Dr. Weems did just that in her definition of Africana Womanism:
Africana Womanism is a term I coined and defined in 1987 after nearly two years of publicly debating the importance of self-naming for Africana woman. Why the term “Africana Womanism?” Upon concluding that the term “Black Womanism” was not quite the terminology to include the total meaning desired for this concept, I decided that “Africana Womanism,” a natural evolution in naming, was the ideal terminology for two basic reasons. The first part of the coinage, Africana, identifies the ethnicity of the woman being considered, and this reference to her ethnicity, establishing her cultural identity, relates directly to her ancestry and land base–Africa. The second part of the term, Womanism, recalls Sojourner Truth’s powerful impromptu speech “Ain’t I A Woman,” one in which she battles with the dominant alienating forces in her life as a struggling Africana woman, questioning the accepted idea of womanhood. Without question, she is the flip side of the coin, the co-partner in the struggle for her people, one who, unlike the White woman, has received no special privileges in American society (22-23)
As good as feminism could be, there are still subtleties of racism that cannot and should not be ignored. Case in point, this whole minimum wage thing. While there is an uproar about White women making less than men, very little is mentioned about Black women making less than White women. In the scholarly world, that’s called intersectionality where you have two or more minority issues intersecting at the same time (in this instance, race and gender). Feminism still hasn’t done the best job in addressing it. There are even books about the issue, like The Trouble Between Us by Wini Breines.
But that’s not to say I’m now in deep, passionate, theoretical love with Womanism either. We have our beef, too. First, it’s the sense of exclusiveness even among Black women the concept seems to have. In reading about other Womanist works, there is a strong emphasis on spirituality and religion. As a self-identified Christian, I get it. As a student of political science, I’m bothered by it. By centering the concept around a particular religious belief, we are pretty much guilty of the same crime we accuse White feminists of committing: leaving folks out. I’m reminded of the approach Malcolm X proposed in his speech, The Ballot or the Bullet. Regardless of our backgrounds, we must all come together to realize that we are catching the same two kinds of hell in America constantly: being Black and being a woman. With that understood, we cannot afford to ostracize anybody from our cause. Whether she is Christian, Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, Rastafarian, straight, lesbian, bisexual, upper class, middle class, working class, educated by the schools, educated by the streets, every type of Black woman is key in this issue. It makes no sense that we as Black women vote at the highest rate of all voters (Black or White; men or women), yet our social progress is still among the lowest.
The problems surrounding Black women are in way too critical of a condition to shut out anyone or force them into a situationship with feminism because they do not feel completely embraced or welcomed by Womanism. There is strength in solidarity.
Second, I take issue with Womanism being is moreso a belief than an ideology. Yes, there is an actual difference between the two. A belief is based on faith or perspective. It is what a person thinks or perceives. An ideology, as noted by Karl Mannehiem, is a vehicle used to mobilize a belief (Ideology and Utopia, 1936). Let’s take a look at feminism to break down what I’m saying. From its early origins in the Suffrage Movement, feminism has always had a vehicle to move its belief in the form of organizations such as National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Organization for Women (NOW). Those organizations have the ability to create and move an agenda based on the beliefs of these feminists. And as history has tells us, they have done a pretty decent job thus far. It can be considered a national fact that there is hell to be paid in FULL when feminists, mostly white with some Black sprinkled, get mad at something or someone. Africana Womanism, to me, has not yet reached that level of influence yet, mainly because there is no vehicle to move our agenda which has yet to be created. When setting our agenda, we need to do so on our own terms, and it would be better done if we did not always look to organizations built on the backs of Black men to champion those ideas for us. We should be our own champions. This would require us to move from the trajectory of margin to center (ironically, that’s a quote from by bell hooks, a Black feminist).
So, back to the initial question at hand. Am I a Black feminist? Yes and no. Am I a Womanist? Yes and no. I guess I’m like Morgan, in a sense. I have a need. I need a Womanism that encompasses the spirit and passion of Black feminism. I need a Black feminism that doesn’t just acknowledge that there is racism in feminism, but calls it out as part of its advocacy with the understanding that Black women are quick to get lost in the shuffle of other issues. I need a blend of both, I suppose.
Now playing in my mind, Come Together by The Beatles.