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Black feminism argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together.[1] Forms of feminism that strive to overcome sexism and class oppression but ignore race can discriminate against many people, including women, through racial bias. The Combahee River Collective argued in 1974 that the liberation of black women entails freedom for all people, since it would require the end of racism, sexism, and class oppression.[2] One of the theories that evolved out of this movement was Alice Walker's Womanism.

Alice Walker and other Womanists pointed out that black women experienced a different and more intense kind of oppression from that of white women. They point to the emergence Black feminism after earlier movements led by white middle-class women which they regard as having largely ignored oppression based on race and class.[3] Patricia Hill-Collins defined Black feminism, in Black Feminist Thought (1991), as including "women who theorize the experiences and ideas shared by ordinary black women that provide a unique angle of vision on self, community, and society".[4]

Black feminists contend that the liberation of black women entails freedom for all people, since it would require the end of racism, sexism, and class oppression.[5] There is a long-standing and important alliance between postcolonial feminists, which overlaps with transnational feminism and third-world feminism, and black feminists. Both have struggled for recognition, not only from men in their own culture, but also from Western feminists.[6]

Black women faced the same struggles as white women; however, they had to face issues of diversity on top of inequality. Black feminist organizations emerged during the 1970s and face many difficulties from both the culture they were confronting and their adjustment to their vulnerability within it. These women also fought against suppression from the larger movements in which many of its members came from. Black feminist organizations had to overcome three different challenges that no other feminist organization had to face. The first challenge these women faced was to “prove to other black women that feminism was not only for white women.” [7] They also had to demand that white women “share power with them and affirm diversity” and “fight the misogynist tendencies of Black Nationalism”[7] With all the challenges these women had to face many activists referred to black feminists as “war weary warriors”.


Black Feminist Organizations

Angela Davis speaking at the University of Alberta on March 28, 2006

The NBFO, the National Black Feminist Organization, founded in 1973. These women focused on the interconnectedness of the many prejudices that faced African American Women such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and lesbophobia.[8] As an active organization the NBFO stopped operating nationally in 1977. The Combahee River Collective was one of the most important black socialist feminist organizations of all time. Primarily a black feminist and lesbian organization this group began meeting in Boston in 1974, a time when socialist feminism was thriving in Boston. The name Combahee River Collective was suggested by the founder and African-American lesbian feminist, Barbara Smith, and it refers to the campaign led by Harriet Tubman who freed 750 slaves near the Combahee Rive in South Carolina in 1863. Smith said they wanted the name to mean something to African American women that “it was a way of talking about ourselves being on a continuum of black struggle, of black women’s struggle”[9] The members of this organization consisted of many refugees from other political movements such as the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, labor movement, and others. Demita Frazier, co-founder of the Combahee River Collective says these women from other movements found themselves “in conflict with the lack of a feminist analysis and in many cases were left feeling divided against [themselves].”[10] As an organization they were labeled as troublemakers and many said they were brainwashed by the man hating white feminist, that they didn’t have their own mind they were just following in the white women’s footsteps. Throughout the 1970s the Combahee River Collective met weekly to discuss the different issues concerning black feminists. They also held retreats throughout the Northeast from 1977-1979 to help “institutionalize black feminism” and develop an “ideological separation from white feminism.” As an organization they founded a local battered women’s shelter and worked in partnership with all community activists, women and men, gay and straight playing an active role in the reproductive rights movement.[10] The Combahee River Collective ended their work together in 1980 and is now most widely remembered for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement, a key document in the history of contemporary black feminism and the development of the concepts of identity.[10]

Development of Recent Black Feminism

Recent Black Feminism is a political/social movement that grew out of Black women's feelings of discontent with both the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. One of the foundation texts of Black Feminism is An Argument for Black Women’s Liberation as a Revolutionary Force, authored by Mary Ann Weathers and published in 1969 in Cell 16's radical feminist magazine No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation.[11 ] Weathers states her belief that "Women's Liberation should be considered as a strategy for an eventual tie-up with the entire revolutionary movement consisting of women, men, and children," but she posits that "(w)e women must start this thing rolling"[11 ] because

All women suffer oppression, even white women, particularly poor white women, and especially Indian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Oriental and Black American women whose oppression is tripled by any of the above-mentioned. But we do have females' oppression in common. This means that we can begin to talk to other women with this common factor and start building links with them and thereby build and transform the revolutionary force we are now beginning to amass.[12]

The following year, in 1970, the Third World Women’s Alliance published the Black Women’s Manifesto, which argued for a specificity of oppression against Black women. Co-signed by Gayle Linch, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Maxine Williams, Frances M Beale and Linda La Rue, the manifesto, opposing both racism and capitalism, stated that:

The black woman is demanding a new set of female definitions and a recognition of herself of a citizen, companion and confidant, not a matriarchal villain or a step stool baby-maker. Role integration advocates the complementary recognition of man and woman, not the competitive recognition of same.[13]

Other Black feminists active in early Second Wave Feminism were Civil Rights Lawyer and author Florynce Kennedy, who co-authored one of the first books on abortion, 1971's Abortion Rap; Cellestine Ware, of New York's Stanton-Anthony Brigade; and Patricia Robinson; who all "tried to show the connections between racism and male dominance" in society.[14]

Not only did the Civil Rights Movement primarily focus only on the oppression of black men, but many black women faced severe sexism within Civil Rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Feminist Movement focused on the problems faced by white women. For instance, earning the power to work outside of the home was not an accomplishment for black feminists; they had been working all along. Neither movement confronted the issues that concerned black women specifically. Because of their intersectional position, black women were being systematically ignored by both movements: "All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men but Some of Us are Brave", as titled a 1982 book by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith.

Black women began creating theory and developing a new movement which spoke to the combination of problems they were battling, including sexism, racism, and classism. Angela Davis, for instance, showed that while Afro-American women were suffering from compulsory sterilization programs, white women were subjected to multiple unwilled pregnancies and had to clandestinely abort.[15]

The short-lived National Black Feminist Organization was founded in 1973 in New York by Margaret Sloan-Hunter and others. Two years later, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Cheryl L. Clarke, Gloria Akasha Hull, and other female activists tied to the civil rights movement, Black Nationalism or the Black Panther Party established, as an off-shoot of the National Black Feminist Organization, the Combahee River Collective, a radical lesbian feminist group. Their founding text referred to important female figures of the abolitionist movement, such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Welles Barnett and Mary Church Terrell, president of the National Association of Colored Women founded in 1896. The Combahee River Collective opposed the practice of lesbian separatism, considering that, in practice, Separatists focused exclusively on sexist oppression and not on others oppression (race, class, etc.)[16] This group's primary goal was "the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking." They rejected all essentialization or biologization, focusing on political and economical analysis of various forms of domination. The Combahee River Collective, in particular on the impulse of Barbara Smith, would engage itself in various publications on Feminism, showing that the position of Black women was specific and adding a new perspective to Women's studies, mainly written by White women.

The Black Lesbian Caucus were created as an off-shoot of the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, and later took the name of the Salsa Soul Sisters, Third World Wimmin Inc. Collective, which was the first "out" organization for lesbians, womanists and women of color in New York [1]. The Salsa Soul Sisters published a Literary Quarterly called Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Sisters are now known as African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change, and is the oldest black lesbian organization in the United States.[17][18]

As stated above, the Black Feminist movement grew out of the Civil Rights Activist movements of the 60's and 70's, stemming from groups like SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Black Panthers and other such groups. It wasn't so much a growth , but more of a separation from black Civil Rights groups because the main focus was male oppression. In the autobiography by Anne Moody, she has a quote that brings the idea of Black Feminst into focus, she states, "...we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being 'ladylike' and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people."[19] Black women not only had to deal with racism, but sexism as well and it was even more prevalent with black males. According to the authors, another reason why Black women were oppressed more is because of the certain stereotype attributed to black women, i.e. mammy, Sapphire, whore and bulldagger to name a few. These names are just an example of how insignificant these Black women's lives have become, and it's not only white people who continue the name calling, but also more importantly black males.

While the explanations above do a decent job of explaining the Black Feminist Movement, there are certain ideas that are not addressed that play a major role in Black Feminism. When compared to the White Feminist, Black Feminist do no face the threat of being undermined by their own people. No one better exemplifies this ideal better than Michelle Wallace who was a famous Black Feminist who also was a member of the Combahee River Collective. She states in a certain excerpt that, "We exist as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world." [20] The Black Feminist movement had to contend to Civil Rights movements that wanted women in a lesser role. Men believed the Black Women would organize around their own needs and minimalize their own efforts; loosing reliable allies in the struggle for civil rights. Black Feminist movement not only had to contend with racial prejudice but also the structure of our patriarchal society making their struggle that much harder.

Recent Black Feminism

July 2009 saw the release of Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton, (Palgrave Macmillan) by Associate Professor Duchess Harris, which analyzes Black women's involvement in American political life, focusing on what they did to gain political power between 1961 and 2001, and why, in many cases, they did not succeed.

All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, (Editors Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith) describes Black feminists mobilizing "a remarkable national response to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate Hearings in 1991, naming their effort African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.[21]

E. Frances White's expressed her belief that feminists need to revise the movement's relationship to the concept of "the family"; to acknowledge that, for Women of Color, "the family is not only a source of male dominance, but a source of resistance to racism as well."[22]

In her year 2000 introduction to the reissue of the 1983 Black feminist anthology, Home Girls, theorist and author Barbara Smith states her opinion that "to this day most Black women are unwilling to jeopardize their 'racial credibility' (as defined by Black men) to address the realities of sexism."[23] Smith also notes that "even fewer are willing to bring up homophobia and heterosexism, which are, of course, inextricably linked to gender oppression.[23]

Starting around 2000, the "third wave" of Feminism in France took interest in the relations between sexism and racism, with a certain amount of studies dedicated to Black Feminism. This new focus was displayed by the translation, in 2007, of the first anthology of US Black feminism texts.[24]

Black Feminist Literature

The Importance of Identity

Michelle Cliff believes that there is continuity "in the written work of many African American Women,... you can draw a line from the slave narrative of Linda Brent to Elizabeth Keckley's life, to Their Eyes were Watching God (by Zora Neale Hurston) to Coming of Age in Mississippi (Anne Moody) to Sula (by Toni Morrison), to the Salt Eaters (by Toni Cade Bambara) to Praise Song for the Widow (by Paule Marshall)." Cliff believes that all of these women, through their stories, "Work against the odds to claim the 'I'".[25]

Activist and Cultural Critic Angela Davis, was one of the first people to articulate a written argument centered on intersectionality, in Women, Race, and Class.[26] Kimberle Crenshaw, prominent feminist law theorist, gave the idea a name while discussing Identity Politics in her essay, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color." Another Feminist theorist is Patricia Hill Collins, who introduced the sociological theory of Matrix of Domination; much of her work concerns the politics of black feminist thought and oppression.

Black Publishing

The Autumn 1979 issue of Conditions was edited by Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel. Conditions 5 was "the first widely distributed collection of Black feminist writing in the U.S."[27] Articles from the magazine were later released in Home Girls, an anthology of Black lesbian and feminist writing published in 1983 by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a publisher owned and operated by Women of Color.

Examples of Black Feminist Literature

Alice Walker, a follower of Womanism, a movement tied to Black theology, is the author of The Color Purple.

Pat Parker's (1944–1989) involvement in the black feminist movement was reflected in her writings as a poet. Her work inspired other black feminist poets like Hattie Gossett.[28] Other Black feminist authors include: Jewelle Gomez, June Jordan, Sapphire, Becky Birtha, Donna Allegra, Cheryl Clarke, Ann Allen Shockley, Alexis De Veaux and many others.

See also


  1. ^ "Defining Black Feminist Thought". Retrieved May 31, 2007.  
  2. ^ "Combahee River Collective: A Black Feminist Statement - 1974". Retrieved May 31, 2007.  
  3. ^ Walker, Alice, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (Phoenix, 2005), ISBN 9780753819609
  4. ^ Quoted in Henrice Altink, “The misfortune of being black and female”: Black feminist thought in interwar Jamaica, Third Space, volume five issue two, January 2006 ... issn 1499-8513
  5. ^ A Black Feminist Statement - 1974, retrieved on May 31st 2007.
  6. ^ Weedon, C: "Key Issues in Postcolonial Feminism: A Western Perspective", 2002
  7. ^ a b Burns, Stewart. 2006. Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980, Journal of American History 93: 296-298
  8. ^ But Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States; Interview with Robbie McCauley by Alex Schwall. 2004
  9. ^ Duchess, Harris. Interview with Barbara Smith
  10. ^ a b c Breines, Wini. 2002. What’s Love got to do with it? White Women, Black Women, and Feminism in the Movement Years. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27: 1095-1133
  11. ^ a b Weathers, Mary Ann. An Argument For Black Women's Liberation As a Revolutionary Force, No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation', Cambridge, Mass, by Cell 16 vol. 1, no. 2 (Feb 1969)
  12. ^ Weathers, Mary Ann. An Argument For Black Women's Liberation As a Revolutionary Force ''No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation', Cambridge, Mass, by Cell 16 vol. 1, no. 2 (Feb 1969) (English)
  13. ^ Black Woman's Manifesto (English)
  14. ^ Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, University of Minnesota Press, 1990, ISBN 0816617872, p291,p383
  15. ^ Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (1981) ISBN 0-394-71351-6
  16. ^ Smith, Barbara. Response to Adrienne Rich's Notes from Magazine: What does Separatism Mean?" from Sinister Wisdom, Issue 20, 1982
  17. ^ Smith, Barbara . The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, ed. Wilma Pearl Mankiller, Houghton Mifflin 1998, ISBN 0618001824 p337
  18. ^ Juan Jose Battle, Michael Bennett, Anthony J. Lemelle, Free at Last?: Black America in the Twenty-First Century, Transaction Publishers 2006 p55
  19. ^ (reference, Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, Delta Trade Paperbacks, New York: 1968)
  20. ^ (Michele Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. 1978. ISBN 978-18594296)
  21. ^ Hull, Smith, Scott. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, pxvi
  22. ^ White, E. Frances. Listening to the Voices of Black Feminism, printed in Radical America, quoted in Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, ISBN 0816617872, p239
  23. ^ a b Smith, Barbara. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Rutgers University Press, 2000, ISBN 0813527538, p xiv
  24. ^ Elsa Dorlin (ed.) Black Feminism - Anthologie du féminisme africain-américain, 1975-2000. Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007. Introduction on-line (French)
  25. ^ Cliff, Michelle. Women Warriors: Black Women Writers lead the Canon, Voice Literary Supplement, May 1990
  26. ^ List of Books written by Black Feminists, retrieved on May 31st 2007.
  27. ^ Smith, Barbara. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press 1983 p1
  28. ^ Biography of Hattie Gossett, retrieved on May 31st 2007.

Further reading

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