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Est. April 5, 2002
October 11, 2018 - Issue 759

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Feminism in Color

"Few are reading black feminist writers today. Most students
in high school and college must content with faculty who play
it safe by steering discussing focus on the superficial rather
than substantive discussions of the role race, gender, sexual
orientation, class, disability, for example, play in our lives.
How is it that in the year 2018 we have witnessed the take
over of the majority by the few? Who are those few?
What groups make up the majority?"

Old Spider Woman is one name for this quintessential spirit, and Serpent Woman is another. Corn Woman is one aspect of her, and Earth Woman is another, and what they together have made is called Creation, Earth, creatures, plants, and light.

Paula Gunn Allen,

The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions


There were well-meaning white students who had never had close contact with Negroes as peers and were anxious to increase their understanding of the racial problem… ‘Tell me in five minutes what it is like to be black.’

Pauli Murray,

Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet


I am a black woman, which means that when I read I have a particular stance. Because it’s clear to me that black people, black women, women, poor people, despite our marvelous resilience, are often prevented from being all they can be, I am also a black feminist critic.

On my refrigerator, there’s an old black-and-white photo of my late mother when she was very young, her in early twenties. She’s wearing the uniform of a nurse. She’s looking into the camera but sits, poised, slightly to her left. Both hands rest on one knee. Much later, I remember hearing from some relative that my mother worked in a doctor’s office, as his nursing assistance, until I was born. My mother would have been twenty-two years old then.

By the time I’m school age, my mother works as a maid in a family’s home, somewhere away from our home, my grandfather’s basement flat on the Southside of Chicago. The same for her sister, my late aunt. She works in housekeeping at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. By my early teen years, I become acquainted with an aunt on my father’s side, who also works in housekeeping at the Conrad Hilton Hotel downtown. Her sister owns her own beauty shop in a basement flat on the South-side. Many a Saturdays I had my hair washed and “pressed” before I decided to go “natural.”

Another aunt, at the time, was a seamstress. I can’t remember the details of this “piecemeal” operation she ran out of her apartment, but I do recall seeing her frail body struggling for air whenever she suffered an asthma attack.

Not one of these women would have considered themselves feminist. The word feminism would have been associated with the young white women out there in California somewhere. Feminism would have had nothing to do with them. As devoted Catholics (my mother and her sister) and Baptist (my aunts on my father’s side), Roe v. Wade would have meant nothing more than a way for white women to control nature and defy God’s law regarding a woman’s duty!

But as far as working outside the home, I can see them, each, shaking their heads, smiling. That is life!

These are the women who immediately came to mind when, years later, while re-reading Sojourner Truth’s autobiography, I asked, at a meeting of faculty, predominantly white and female, about teaching a black feminist course. The chair, white and a younger woman, sat across the room. I had taught women of color for nearly ten years by then, and most were feminist writers, but I had never taught a course that specifically examined not just the works of feminist writers, but also the theory, which is pretty straightforward.

Justice! A commitment to the achievement of social justice for black people, and by extension, all of humanity, all species on Earth. Opposition to violence, to oppression of any kind. An eradication, bell hooks has written, of all systems of domination.

To be a black feminist is to learn not to hate.

When I thought about the women in my family, I saw Sojourner Truth standing at that podium in Akron, Ohio, before an audience of mainly white women. Truth was pleading for inclusion of the black woman in the suffrage battle. She had been 40 years an enslaved woman and bore 13 children, and she witnessed the selling of those 13 children. Ain’t I a woman?

She hadn’t needed anyone to help her out of carriages or help her walk over mud puddles. But she’s a woman!

“Look at me! Look at my arm! [And she barred 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—ar’n’t I a woman?”

And there are women even before Sojourner.

If I hadn’t been silenced, I would have added that it’s not just Sojourner Truth black feminist look back to see forward, but also those women aboard slave ships headed this way, looking down at the waves, and with children, even babies in tow, followed the waves. Those women never landed. But we remember them when we think about what all black feminism encompasses. But we start with the kidnapping of her children, our husbands, ourselves. The rape and torture inflicted on our bodies as well as the bodies of those we bore into this world.

But before I could speak, I was silenced.

Look, she’s bring that black feminist stuff here!

And she probably couldn’t care less—but her message implied a lack of interest in those woman who were my family. In women like them. And as I was them, cut from their womb, represented a threat to their hegemony. Ruled by fear, the chair displayed her anger and preference to silence the enemy of ignorance!

I remember having to read The Second Sex (1949) in the year or Anita Hill (1991) or the “Year of the Woman” (1992), during my doctorate program, and, when asked what thoughts I had about the work, I remember saying to the professor (and class) that I had a hard time seeing any of the women as de Beauvoir did. I didn’t see myself, a forty-something black woman who had taught, as they say, here and there, struggling economically, without the benefit of familial support or professional mentoring. And when I looked behind me as well as around me, I recalled black mothers or aunts who dealt with a different set of issues because of differing priorities. What it meant to be a “citizens” in America for a black woman was different than that of a white woman, speaking universally.

American culture had no problems seeing black women working, so long as they worked as maids and nannies. Maybe school teachers, in the deep South, at an all black school.

What about the Sojourner Truths or Ella Bakers or those four girl children in that church one Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama?

Is it easier to systemically continue to talk over and around the lives, the stories, the concerns of the majority, assuring no real commitment to justice, beginning with those marginalized, excluded, need be addressed?

But we are doing it! We’re talking about feminism now!

Are we, really?

Since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, there has been more talk surrounding feminism, that is, the need for a feminist approach to addressing and educating the public about sexual assault, the use of sexual power, toxic masculinity, and the violence of war, of policies against women and children among white women, in particular, and white men as well. But the discussion surrounding feminism has always been limited to a group of women, privileged by race, class, and accessibility to the printed page, for openers.

But who has turned to black, brown, Indigenous, and Asian women to really engage in thought and action, beyond the stats, numbers and charts, that is, displaying the racial and social disparities? Women of color in the US don’t need numbers and graphs to tell us which way the winds blows! While viewing the coverage of the Kavanaugh Hearings and the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, I saw CNN’s Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Joy Reid both call attention to difference, in the same way SNL’s Michael Che noted that, if the old, white men on the Senate Judiciary could dismiss the testimony of a white woman, then what chance did he, a black man have? Lemon revealed the story about his own sexual assault and both anchors, along with guests, particularly the outspoken Symone Sanders, have called out the Trumps and Kavanaughs as racists, supporters of white supremacy and white nationalism. Nonetheless, I heard a few mentions of the word feminism. But I wish I had bell hooks’ faith in the users of that term. For me, I was certain no one remembered the women aboard those ships or Sojourner. Certainly not the women in my family.

Then, the other day, I come across the term, black feminism, in an October 2, 2018, Guardian article written by Carl Cederström. He’s recalling his recent experience. He’s spent a month reading the classic feminist texts, beginning with The Second Sex. Cederström explains how he’s embarrassed to admitted that he’s had a copy of book by Simone de Beauvoir, French philosopher and feminist, on his shelf for eons, and never read it. But he lied, claiming he did.

Cederström speculates that maybe there’s a “depressingly simply reason” for not getting around to reading feminist writers. Maybe it was just the fact that “the works of (white) male authors had always been closer to hand – through reading lists and book reviews and recommendations – than the works of (black) feminist writers.”

So when women came forth, charging Weinstein with sexual assault, inmost cases, rape, he listened. “It has been painful to listen to the stories of systemic sexual abuse that have emerged as a result of the #MeToo movement, and also an education; it has forced me to see things I had failed to see in the past,” writes Cederström. Last month, on the one-year anniversary of the Weinstein sexual assault scandal, he begins reading feminist writers.

But the author of “How to be a Good Man: What I learned from a Month of Reading the Feminist Classics,” need not be so apologetic. I couldn’t say black feminism as an academic in academia for years. I thought of the experience as being akin to those communist activists and writers during the McCarthy era. A good way to lose a position and become blacklisted.

Few were reading black feminist writers in 1991 or in 2004 with my encounter with a “feminist” set of white women. Few are reading black feminist writers today. Most students in high school and college must content with faculty who play it safe by steering discussing focus on the superficial rather than substantive discussions of the role race, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, for example, play in our lives. How is it that in the year 2018 we have witnessed the take over of the majority by the few? Who are those few? What groups make up the majority?

I worked my butt off! I got into Yale law school!

But the All-American, Ivy-league Kavanaugh doesn’t mention his grandfather and that legacy grandson inherits!

Wanting to be a good man is wanting to be human, curious about others, about difference without implementing exploitative policies and laws. I’m not sure, however, if Cederström understands the difference in historical inheritance between the feminist writers such as de Beauvoir and Dworkin and those of Lorde and Davis. You can place The Second Sex next to Davis’ Women, Race, & Class and, still the ancestors of the women in the former texts never had to decide whether or not to take a leap, into troubled waters. De Beauvoir’s texts has absent relatives: Who gathers the water and cooks? Who cleans? Who nurses, changes diapers—who soothes the teething, the colic? Who was there housekeeping, tidying up while de Beauvoir sat at her desk writing The Second Sex?

Still, Cederström is ahead of the curve when he reads and shares the list of feminist works, including the black feminist works of Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider) and Angela Davis (Women, Race, & Class), along with bell hooks’ Feminism Is for Everybody, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

I can’t end this article without refers to Indigenous, Chicano, Muslim, feminist writers. Wherever there are women and girls, lesbian, bi, and trans women, there are feminist thinkers and writers.

Paula Gunn Allen (The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions) and Leslie Marmon Silko (Ceremony)

Gloria Anzaldúa (Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza)

Bessie Head (Botswana) (A Woman Alone)

Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria) (Head Above Water)

Fatima Mernissi (Morocco) (The Veil And The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation Of Women's Rights In Islam)

Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) (The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World)

And there are more feminist writers of color. Many, many more. A month is not long enough to develop a way of thinking that leads to the collective goal of ending the systemic mindset and practice of oppression and exclusion. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.
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David A. Love, JD
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