was November 1988,” Betty Winston Baye, recollected. “I
thought I'd died and gone to heaven, being invited to be in the
company of 27 other black writing women.”
who is an editorial writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in
Louisville, Kentucky, was describing the scene at the first-ever
Black women writers’ retreat in a 2007 interview with NPR. The
event was organized in the fall of 1988 by Essence Magazine, the
first mainstream magazine catering to African-Americans.
retreat almost 20 years ago still is a highlight of my writing life.
If I tried to tell even a tenth of what went on that weekend and who
all was there, I'd be accused of name dropping, of showing off. So I
won't tell it all. You just had to be there,” Baye told the
NPR. “I still get chills recalling the great poet, Sonia
Sanchez, chanting a prayer for all of us at the retreat and for black
people everywhere. Before it was over, Sister Sonia had dissolved
into no words, just guttural grunts and groans.”
have always been at the helm of leading intense debates around the
issues of race, class, gender, and identity.
like Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen and
Bessie Smith helped shape the Harlem Renaissance as an artistic and
cultural movement in the 1920s. Later generations saw authors such as
Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Angela Davis
and Toni Morrison pave the way for critical theorists and scholars to
align with the larger Black social movements of the time.
army of inspirational Black women has also shaped and defined the
architecture of Black literature as we see it is today.
the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, these
powerful women writers have created a ripple effect, creating a
regenerative role as they have inspired the future generations of
Black women to pen their own powerful narratives. And decade after
decade, emanating from Black women’s personal or
collectively-shared experiences, there came a strong, resilient
Formation: They Wrote Themselves in the Story
many Black women writers, it wasn’t uncommon to write
themselves into the narratives as an act of personal freedom and
defiance. Because their stories more than the stories of any other
group often go unwritten and untold.
would especially lift up the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Reading
Their Eyes Were Watching God as a young woman was formative for me
and it taught me something I needed to know about the
intergenerational power of writing as communication and ceremony that
could reach beyond death and give life again and again,” Alexis
Pauline Gumbs, a Ph.D. scholar, author of ‘Spill: Scenes of
Black Feminist Fugitivity,’ told teleSUR. Gumbs' 'Spill'
focuses on the radical works of Hortense Spillers, another Black
American scholar, and professor in the English Department at
would also say that my mother introduced me to the work of Ntozake
Shange, Alice Walker and Angela Davis at a relatively young age
because they were major influences on her and that had a major impact
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, she describes the precarious
plight of “strong Black women” as the “mules of the
world.” In the book which came at the tail-end of the Harlem
Renaissance, Hurston narrates a tale of a young Black woman who is on
a quest for love, spiritual and physical liberation and is ever ready
to bend normative gender and racial laws.
nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." She
(Black woman) is “worked tuh death,” “ruint wid
mistreatment,” yet strong enough to carry impossible “loads”
nobody else wants to “tote.”
powerful writer at the time, June Jordan, left no stone unturned, to
reflect on Black women's experiences at the time. In her all-powerful
protest poem, titled, "Poem about My Rights,” Jordan
am the history of rape
am the history of the rejection of who I am
am the history of the terrorized incarceration of myself
am the history of battery assault and limitless
against whatever I want to do with my mind
my body and my soul and
it’s about walking out at night
whether it’s about the love that I feel or
it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or
sanctity of my national boundaries
the sanctity of my leaders...
a discussion at the Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center, in
2017, both Spillers and Gumbs talked about their concerns over the
ideological disconnect found in iconic white philosophers' ideas on
Black and Brown people and their issues. They then remarked, that
they use white philosophers' ideas to support and assert their own
idea has always been to make Hegel speak my language, that's what I
like to do. I'm like come on in here, dude, sit down. Yeah, I'm gonna
put you right here, not over there, right here. That's the game,
that's cool,” Spillers told Gumbs during the interview. “It
is like you take anybody (philosopher) who is breathing or not, and
subject them to your fire, your heat, your imagination, your tongue."
around Black women's issues started as early as 1896 when the
National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was formed to address
the issues. It went on to become the largest federation of local
Black womens' clubs.
have always been Black women activists—some known, like
Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells
Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, and thousands upon thousands
unknown—who have had a shared awareness of how their sexual
identity combined with their racial identity to make their whole life
situation and the focus of their political struggles unique,"
the Combahee River Collective’s 1974 statement pointed out.
Black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal
sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters."
1960s and 70s, Black feminist scholarship, among other things,
emanates from the preceding powerful works of Black women writers.
archival papers of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, June
Jordan, Lucille Clifton and Toni Cade Bambara show their
correspondence with each other and other writers consistently across
their careers,” Gumbs said. “They collaborated on events,
read each other's writing, gave each other feedback and thanked each
other explicitly for their mutual impact.”
writing and reading each other’s work proved to be a cathartic,
surreal experience for Black women writers.
evidence is clear, not only in the shared themes of so much of their
work, but in their communication with each other. June Jordan, Alice
Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison specifically were part of a
group called "The
met regularly in their homes and the home of the other writers who
were involved. They brainstormed ways to support each other and
dreamt of creating their own press," Gumbs noted.
cited Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and Cherrie Moraga among those who
collaborated with other writers, especially members of the Combahee
River Collective to create Kitchen
Table: Women of Color Press in
the early 1980s.
writers not only drew inspiration from each other's works, they made
their lives out of life together. For me, this is an important
example for those of us writing today. I know that my work and life
have been supported by other Black women writers and thinkers, and
other women of color and queer black folks,” Gumbs explained.
Bell Hooks’ 1981 text, Aint
I A Woman,
Hooks devoted much of her efforts critiquing the limited, even
negative impact of the feminist practices that failed to acknowledge
the impact of sexual violence on Black women. Hooks also worked on
minimizing the ideological legacy of this devaluation.
other group in America," Hooks wrote, “has had their
identity socialized out of context as Black women.”
by Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith, in Boston in
1974, 'The Combahee River Collective,' had a broad range of issues
they wanted to focus on, but one of the ideas was to not only correct
the wrongs of white feminism at the time but to also be a guiding
force to fight racial, classist, sexist oppression at the time, and
aid the larger civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party.
the collective had been meeting since 1974, they published a formal
statement outlining their emergence and goals, three years after
their formation. The collective’s “Genesis” was
rooted in “Black womens' extremely negative relationship to the
American political system (a system of the white male rule) has
always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and
naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g.
mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloging
the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how
little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of
bondage in the Western hemisphere.
realize that the only people who care enough about us to work
consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a
healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which
allows us to continue our struggle and work," the statement
Combahee River Collective made the role of 'identity politics' very
believe the most profound and potentially most radical politics come
directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working for somebody
else’s oppression," they wrote in the statement.
radical and quintessential matter which stemmed from the Combahee
River Collective was its power to mobilize the "third world"
women writers as the Black lesbian collective also talked about the
liberation of "third world" women, the criticality of which
white feminism at the time failed to address as well.
an essay, 'Speaking in Tongues: The Third World Woman Writer,"
Gloria E. Anzaldua, a U.S. scholar of Chicana cultural theory, a
feminist and queer scholar, wrote scathingly, "As
first-generation writers, we defy the myth that the color of our
skins prevents us from using the pen to create."
are Third World women writers, so similar yet so different, similar
in the issues we confront, different in approach and style. What we
have in common is our love of writing and a love of the literature of
women of color. In our common struggle and in our writing we reclaim
our tongues. We wield a pen as a tool, a weapon, a means of survival,
a magic wand that will attract power, that will draw self-love into
our bodies," Anzaldua wrote in the piece speaking to the plight
of the oppression faced by women.
was certainly part of the multi-faceted Black Feminist intellectual
movement that was being created around the country but specifically
in Boston at the same time that the Combahee River Collective was
Smith talks about living room conversations where Black feminists
strategized about how to do their intellectual and political work in
their communities, in solidarity with other people of color around
the world, in the academic institutions where some of them worked, in
their conceptual fields and in national academic organizations like
the National Women's Studies Association, NWSA," Gumbs stated.
while it would seem that the essays and public speeches that Hortense
Spillers was giving at the time was about Black literature (she wrote
about Alice Walker's work, Zora Neale Hurston's work, Ralph Ellison's
work and more) it is also the case that she was part of conversations
that would shape the creation and interpretation of Black women's
writing for many years to come. It certainly has had a formative
impact on my work," Gumbs told teleSUR.
writings also shaped the ideologies of the prominent Black movements
at the time, for instance, the Black Panther Party, BPP. Even though
men in the group were often portrayed as the vanguard, women in the
Black Panther Party were at the helm of most activities.
the early 1970s, women formed nearly two-thirds of the Black Panther
Party. Not only did they serve important leadership roles alongside
the men, such as state and national secretaries, chair positions and
editors, but they were also carrying out essential duties, such as
feeding children, ensuring that they remained in schools and
strategizing to protect the neighborhood.
were women in the party like Barbara Susan, who could shoot better
than men, and there were women who were key philosophers, thinkers,
and strategists in the party," Mary Phillips, one of the
founding members of the Intersectional
Black Panther Party History Project,
IPHP, told teleSUR.
you look at the larger movements, like the civil rights movement, you
see these deep discussions around gender politics within these
movements, at one level, everyone coming to the organization brought
in their own biases, in many ways, the organization was struggling
with what the country at large was struggling with," Phillips
July of 2016, marking 50 years of the Black Panther Party's
inception, some of the known Black intersectional feminist scholars
such as Mary Phillips, and Black woman historians such as Robyn C.
Spencer, Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest and Tracye A. Matthews, came
together to discuss the status of women in the Black Panther Party.
of the recent collaborative processes have been discussed in detail
by these writers in an essay called, "Ode
to Our Feminist Foremothers:
The Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project on
Collaborative Praxis and Fifty Years of Panther History."
we lived hundreds of miles apart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and New
Orleans, we all relied on Black feminism to be our compass through
those times. Reconnecting in the shadow of the #BlackLivesMatter and
#SayHerName movements, we acknowledged that a commitment to Black
feminist politics continues to inform and inspire our work," the
work process circumvents communication barriers and expands modes of
knowledge production. Through sharing computer screens,
administrative work, expenses, and labor, we have created over a
dozen essays and short videos since October 2016.
our kitchen table, we riff off each other in a polyrhythmic discourse
akin to jazz and write with one editorial voice. Our collaborative
writing projects begin as a blank Google document and develop through
periodic meetings...and the blank page fills with freewriting,
brainstorming, and ideas that blend as we jot down parts of our
conversation in real time.
this process, sentences grow and expand into paragraphs. We are
empowered to build and rebuild each other’s sentences and
finish each other’s thoughts because we have made the conscious
choice to relinquish individual proprietary ownership and prioritize
collectivity and trust."
believes that all the powerful writing is sourced from "love."
think that no matter what we are going through, and even if we are
not in a so-called “empowered” or “positive”
space, mood, or situation, love is there. My study of Black women as
a Black woman has taught me that. Love is always there. Always. Even
when it seems completely impossible that it would be. In the
instances of violence and freedom-seeking, love is always somewhere,
even if the people in the scene are not expressing love," she
think that without the love of Black women and other women of color
most of what currently exists on this planet in human form would not
commentary was originally published by Telesur in English