Part I of an ongoing series on the basics of feminism.

Many of my black sisters have ambivalent relationships with the label “feminist.” I don’t blame them. In fact, I’ve flounced from the feminist collective before, frustrated over some high-profile or online feminist’s cluelessness about the challenges facing women who are not white or middle-class or heterosexual or able-bodied or cisgendered. But after belatedly reading bell hook’s amazing Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, I realized that niether Gloria Steinem nor Jezebel commenters nor Slut Walk organizers own feminism. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all feminism, there is also no feminism movement. There are only feminisms and movements. There is intersectionality–a term coined by amazing black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw. And there is this: Black women have borne the brunt of multiple oppressions over centuries. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston wrote famously that the black woman is “de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” And Zora ain’t never lied. We’ve also been resisting this oppression for centuries–before the resistance had a name. For this reason, black women have as much right to embrace and define feminism as anyone else. I have a right to be a feminist–a black feminist.

And despite the (sexist) narrative that feminists are all harridans eager to crush men beneath their heeled jack boots, I find that as a black feminist, I am in stellar company. Following is a list of black feminists you should know. Note that none of these women reject the realities of racism and other oppressions nor do they shy away from partnerships with non-black women or men. Feminism is no more anti-man than anti-racism is anti-white people. Those who would tell you different are often invested in maintaining their own privilege. Believe that.

Shout out other black feminists in the comments.

Coretta Scott King – When Scott King died in 2006, America lost a powerful voice for black civil rights, but also GLBT and women’s rights. She campaigned on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and sat on the board of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Scott King was a champion for equality who understood how oppressions intersect: “Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”

Audre Lorde – A writer and activist, Lorde criticized feminists for focusing on white, middle-class women. Indeed, she believed that much of white feminism actively worked to further oppress black women and wrote extensively on the subject, including in her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.” Among many other works, Lorde wrote Sister Outsider , a collection of essays and speeches, in 1984. “Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ‘60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply invisible as a Black lesbian and feminist.”

bell hooks – An author and activist, hooks has published more than 30 books. Her work focuses on the connection between race, capitalism and gender. Among her must-read works are Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. She has provided what some say is the best definition of feminism, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

Beverly Guy-Sheftall – Since she came to her alma mater, Spelman, as a professor in 1971, scholar Guy-Sheftall has worked to broaden women’s studies to include issues pertinent to African American women. Guy-Sheftall helped to establish two resources for Black Women’s Studies: Spelman College’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, which she founded and served as the director for over two decades; and the periodical SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, which Guy-Sheftall co-founded with Patricia Bell-Scott.Guy-Sheftall is currently president of the National Women’s Studies Association.

“Coming out of the civil rights era, black feminism was a contentious, debatable, demonized and divisive notion. It was perceived to be a pro-white, anti-male doctrine that would destroy black families and prohibit unity. I can remember going to all-black gatherings and people asking me whether or not I was a lesbian, because being pro-female translated into a hate for men.

Now, though, black feminist thought is very much an important part of a broader women’s studies — it would be very difficult to avoid black feminism when speaking about a more general feminism. What’s interesting, though, is that black feminism is still very much a suspect politic in black spaces. Despite our progress, it seems that in some hetero-patriarchal paradigms, like black studies and black culture, feminism seems to be less accepted.” Read more…

Angela Davis – A political activist, author and scholar, Davis is widely known for her work in the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party. According to the Columbia University social justice wiki, Angela Davis’ philosophy of black liberation emphasizes that it is crucial to address the specific concerns of racism and sexism. Through much of her work, Davis discusses the concerns of black women and traces their history of oppression in the United States while searching for solutions to these issues.“Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men.”

Patricia Hill Collins – Scholar Patricia Hill Collins published a seminal black feminist work, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. In it she offers that oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation are intersecting, and that since black women have a unique history with these intersection, our specific experiences can offer a window into liberation for not just black women, but other groups.

Cohambee River Collective – The collective was a black lesbian feminist organization active in Boston in the late 70s. They are best known for creating the powerful Cohambee River Collective Statement–a sort of black feminist manifesto. The Collective defined black feminist issues as “struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression.” This includes, by the way, racism within white feminist organizations. Read the full text. 

Shirley Chisholm – In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman in Congress. She is known for advocating against the Vietnam War and for women’s and minority rights. Read her righteous speech on behalf on the Equal Rights Amendment for women.  She hired only women for her staff. Chisholm ran for president in 1972, becoming the first black person and first black woman to run for president on a major party (Democratic) ticket. She is also the first woman to win delegates for a presidential nomination from a major party. Her actions paved the way for both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic campaigns in 2008. “I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”

Sojourner Truth – Abolitionist and women’s right activist, Truth, who was born in slavery, gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.

“Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, 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 de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ 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?”

Truth gave other notable speeches, including one to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850 and the American Equal Rights Association in 1867, where she spent the first part of her speech addressing women’s rights.

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  • QofNew

    On those rare occasions when Feminism is principled, it isnt just for women.

  • Val

    I’m as pro-woman as you can be but I would never label myself a “Feminist”. To me it’s like being a Black Republican. A Black person may share conservative values but how many want to be associated with something so racist as the Republicans. Same goes for Feminists. I share many of their values but to me the Feminist movement is a racist movement, if only by exclusion. So why would I want to be associated with that?

  • Yb

    I think that feminist is a term that should to describe white women who are apart of the (white) womens rights movement, while womanist and womanism should be used to describe woman of color who fight for their rights.

    • Black Womanist

      Agreed. Any 21st century black woman calling herself a feminist is either oblivious to or in denial about the racism and elitism in feminism.

      bell hooks articulates the racial aspect in her text Ain’t I A Woman. hooks argues, in part, that some (not all) white feminists are reluctant to add a racial critique to their theories because many (not all) white women are aware that they receive benefits in a white male dominated patriarchy. It is strange that Tami Harris read this text and cites it to support her black feminism.

      Likewise, Janis Hutchinson’s sociological study entitled “The Hip-Hop Generation: African-American Male-Female Relationships in a Nightclub Setting” explains the class antagonisms in feminism. Hutchinson argues that many (not all) working class women have no interest in feminist defined gender roles because they are often couched in middle-class realities. Specifically, some (not all) working class women do not have access to the education or occupations enabling the sort of male-free, uber female independence some (not all) feminists promote. Oftentimes (not all the time) the working class woman’s reality is thankless work for low wages. Some (not all) working class women are in turn very willing to trade access to their bodies in exchange for male sponsored “help” and “security.”

      I would go a step further to say that many (not all) middle-class women find feminist theories of female independence insufficient for the realities of inflation and the exploding cost of living. The dustup in the wake of Herman Cain’s dalliance with Ginger White demonstrates as much. White is a self-made Atlanta business woman who, despite her success, found it necessary to trade sex for a little male-sponsored “help” and “security.” In fact, Grio contributor Demetria Irwin suggests “cul-de-sac tricking” is nothing new among middle-class women. You can read about it here:

      Those circumstances led Alice Walker to break from feminism to champion womanism in her text In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. That a black woman still identifies as a feminist is strange.

    • black_feminist

      @Black Womanist

      Did you read the post? Who is oblivious or in denial? Tami (and black feminists in general) recognize racism and classism within feminism. The whole point of the post responds to why black women still embrace feminism.

      Have you read bell hooks? She identifies as a black feminist. Alice Walker did not break from feminism. She is also a black feminist.

  • I do identify with the concept to promote positivity in the women’s community such as reaching out to shelters to educate about business and other concepts that may be beneficial.

    While I don’t hate Nicki Minaj (and others like her), I will be happy when she disappears for good and hope that music will go back to good sounds and not a persona.

    Also, I have to admit that I’ve watched the ‘wives’ reality shows though they are predictable, a little boring and can be stereotypical. Since I don’t hang with these people in my personal life, it’s like walking into another world but I realize that parts of these shows (baby daddy drama, extreme shopping when you pay rent) are very much a reality that holds Black women back on many things.

    While I may be considered too much of a hypocrite to be labeled a feminist, I’ve found that some media that identify with the label are also contradictory. A few years ago, Bitch magazine wrote a long article about how Prince is with the feminist movement and loves women. Sorry but anyone who’s seen Purple Rain knows there were several scenes that could have been deleted. And that’s just one example in his 30+ year career.
    People who identify with the feminist label say that either Nicki and other female rappers are empowering or are a disgrace. I say if we stop worrying so much about the media and find out why so many girls want to have kids with no education or career in the 21st Century and let them know there is much more to life, then we (Black and Brown women) can progress and be less “oppressed”.

  • I think that there is power in refusing to give up a label to elements of your group that you don’t agree with. For example, if you are an Evangelical Christian but you don’t want to call yourself that because people think it means you’re homophobic or hateful, it’s like letting the Evangelical Christians who are homophobic or hateful win.

    But if you proudly proclaim to be an Evangelical Christian and are less homophobic and hateful, it allows the definition to expand, and also allows you to hold on to a piece of your identity that is important to you. People meet you and have the opportunity to change some of their preconceived ideas about what these labels mean.

    • Val

      [email protected] homophobic and hateful

      So less homophobic and hateful is better than just outright homophobia and hatred?

      *scratches head*

    • I intentionally put “less homophobic” to reinforce the idea that there are not people who have zero homophobia/heterosexist biases. As a function of living in this society, people are going to have biases against GLBTQ people.

      However, just because a person identifies as an Evangelical Christian, it doesn’t have to mean they also actively fight against GLBTQ people, or oppose GLBTQ people having rights. Just like how if someone identifies as a feminist, it doesn’t have to mean that she hates men, or that she believes all women should work outside the home, or whatever other commonly held notions people have about what feminists believe.

    • apple

      That’s fine in theory but usually doesn’t work to defy what a majority or visible amount of a group is doing,Like trying to escape certain stereotypes.

    • Val