Black feminism is still misunderstood, considered as not different from other feminists movements, the equivalent to intersectional feminism or anti-black men. Feminism itself is often seen as monolithic, a cause combining all women’s causes. Universal feminism cannot meet the needs of all women. It rejects other realities such as islamophobia, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, classism and all the forms of oppression feeding their conditions.
Black feminism is paramount for black transgender and cisgender women to develop the tools necessary to resist and dismantle this oppressive system.
The Beginnings of Black Feminism in the United States
In the 1800s, social issues focused on the struggle for the abolition of slavery and access to the right to vote for everyone. In the 1830s, several feminist associations, such as the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Ladies’ New York City Anti-Slavery Society joined forces against the abolition of slavery. Conventions, such as the National Women’s Rights Convention held in New York City in 1886, are regularly organized to address the issue of access to the vote for women and the black community.
However, feminist associations diverged very quickly on the issue and resulted in the exclusion of black US-American women from white US-American women’s clubs. Within that framework, black feminism emerged. Many white women activists refused to ally themselves with black women activists, referring to their questionable ethics and thus raising a discourse of the modern sexist and racist ideology against black women, justifying some of the most violent practices in history, as rape, torture, sexual harassment. The construction of feminine norms was therefore carried out in opposition to black women, who were considered lecherous, violent, boorish, “bad mothers” or “abusive” matriarchs.
Black US-American scholars stand up for a range of initiatives crucial to the beginnings of Black feminism such as the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America , taking place place in 1895 in Boston, creating black women’s club like the Woman’s Era Club, or the National Associaton of Women of Color . National Association Women of Color, founded by a couple of black women scholars such as Harriet Tubman, advocated for black women’s empowerment through access to university studies, vocational programs or facilitating childcare.
The first publications theorizing the concept of black feminism also emerged, such as ‘Lola Leroy ’ by Frances Harper, ‘Voice from South’ by Anna Julia Cooper, ‘Contending Forces ’ by Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.
The exemplification of Black feminist activism through the Combahee River Collective
The second key period in the evolution of black feminism came in the 1970s, thanks to foundational writings, initiatives and social activities. The Combahee River Collective was one of the most important feminists organizations. The Combahee River Collective was founded in 1974 by Barbara Smith, Cheryl Clarke and Gloria Akasha Hull, black feminist and/or lesbian activists.
The organization distinguishes itself by its “retreats” becoming the tool for defining its political project. Retreats regularly took place, to create a safer space Black feminists while sharing good times, reconnecting with their spirituality and engaging in in-depth discussions such as on Black feminism and the academic world, love between women – lesbian, non-lesbian, black and white, class conflicts between black women, issues of importance even today.
Although their deaths stirred emotions, voices were soon raised urging black women to stay at home. To their dismay, the Combahee River published a pamphlet entitled ‘Six Black Women: Why Did They Die? ’ denouncing the dual aspects of these crimes, both racist and sexist, and underscoring the urgency of addressing the issue of violence against women in the Black community, the inability of municipal authorities to recognize and concretely address the problem of violence against Black women.
The growth of the Black feminist movement went on with a tour bringing together black artists under the name The Varied Voices of Black Women, the publication in 1978 of Michèle Wallace’s ‘Black Macho’’, the first manifesto of Black feminism Doble Jeopardy: to be Black and Female by Frances Beal, all initiatives supporting the evolution of Black feminism.
Does the third wave mean the end of Black feminism in academia for a revival in music?
A third wave followed in the 1990s. Patricia Collins ‘Black Thought’ explored the ideas of the founding black feminists, including the survival of black feminism through the marginalization of black feminist intellectuals (Ann duCille (1996), ‘the pernicious politics of resegregation’ (Barbara Christian (1994) and the inclusion of black women writers and the exclusion of black women from everyday life under an oppressive system (Hazel Carby (1992).
Black feminism manifests itself not only in an academic setting, but also in a cultural setting, through music for example. Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, have each contributed to black women empowerment through their career achievements or their lyrics addressing, amongst various issues, sexual liberation, gender equality, financial independence and respect for women.
The following lyrics from Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y. the song, is a very unpleasant moment, which we probably all had to do when wearing a short outfit in the summer.
Feminist ideals continued to manifest themselves in music in the 2000s, namely with Nicky Minaj, Beyoncé and more recently Cardi B.
However, critics argue that they are not feminist artists and that ‘twerking is not feminist’.
A reductive phrase underestimating the impact of these women. Overall, their soft power contributes to women’s empowerment and they address the multiple forms of sexism they encounter, using the objectification of their bodies in their marketing strategy. The question of whether they are feminists or not is not in itself very relevant, but rather to ask what is their contribution to the black feminist movement and other feminist movements, through female empowerment?
Black feminism and Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter was recently in the spotlight, many demonstrations took place, often under the leadership of performative activism.
The murders of cisgender and transgender women are not receiving the same attention. With the exception of Breonna Taylor, we hear very little about violence against cisgender women and even less about transgender women.
Sexism also affects the struggle for social justice. Marcia Chatelain, scholar of race and ethnicity, explains the reasons why in an interview with ‘Dissent‘ magazine: ‘Sexism is a factor, but so are market forces—an industry built on saving, rehabilitating, and disciplining men of color has emerged, which has attracted state funding and enriched some leaders of color and their organizations. Since the 1980s, private and public dollars have been devoted to solving the problems of boys and young men of color in ways that they haven’t for girls. This reinforces the notion that in times of scarcity, girls and young women are a low priority’.
The Black Lives Matter movement must continue to work to open its space for discussion and struggle against violence against cisgender and transgender women, as well as the black LBGTQIA+ community.
Black queer feminism
‘Black queer feminism is a set of approaches to thought, expression, and political action that critiques structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and several other forms of oppression. The term “black queer feminism” expands existing modes of feminism and queer/LGBTQIA + activism (activism by and for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual people, as well as others who experience structural gender and sexual oppression) by highlighting the connections between racial, gender, and heterosexist oppression’.
Black feminism was at the time not defined as “black queer feminism” as it is today. But black feminism has always been ‘a black feminist queer movement’. Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde, two lesbian feminist scholars, theorize and work hard to conceptualize and take into account the issues of black lesbian women, addressing issues such as lesbian separatism, love relationships between black and white lesbian women.
The movement further grows to ‘have moved black queer feminist discourse forward by centring black trans experiences and by calling for anti-transphobic thought and action in black, queer, and feminist spaces.’ Moreover, the movement includes African, Caribbean and disability perspectives.
What future for black feminism
So why does the United States need black feminism? Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Viola Davis, so many models that prove that black feminism has succeeded? The United States is regularly seen as a model of success for black women with successful careers.
Such an attractive storefront of success would lead us to believe the US society no longer needs black feminism due to social mobility. Visibility in no way changes the problems faced by black American women, intrinsically linked to each other: sexism, racism, discrimination, mysoginoir.
Inequalities impact them in many areas, such as the medical environment and work, to name a few examples. Black women account for 10% of low-paying jobs, i.e. jobs paying less than $11 per hour, or about $22,880 per year, while they represent only 6.2% of the total workforce.
Black feminism remains a project of social justice, and must continuously be invested through rhetorical texts, debates, demonstrations, cultural and associative projects.
Black feminism in North America is inspiring and fundamental for many other black diasporas, is pluralized by adapting itself to several realities.
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Le Combahee River Collective, pionnier du féminisme Noir, Jules Falquet, 2006
Black Queer Feminism, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, 05/2019