Black Feminism in the United States

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Black Feminism in the United States

A major sociological issue in any analysis of race and racism is the absence of a gender lens in race studies. This may seem surprising in the early twenty-first century in the wake of the growth and development of the feminisms of women of color in general and black feminist theorizing in particular. Nonetheless, the attempt to fully integrate gender and class into studies of race and racism remains incomplete. Yet the effort to transform studies of race and racism to reflect a complex matrix of inequalities continues. For at least two decades the absence of embedding race and racism relationally and interrelationally with gender, class, and sexuality has been challenged by black feminist thinkers and activists in the United States. Thus, black feminist thinkers have played a major role in recentering our understanding of race through an intersectional analysis: gender, sexuality, race, and class. Indeed, capitalist patriarchy profoundly shapes male/female relations generally, but it operates in the context of racism and white supremacy. This fundamental idea is at the core of black feminist thinking. Black feminist E. Frances White (2001) points out that in the race-centered political stances found in black nationalism, a gender-centered analysis is often not visible. This erasure of gender among black men is matched by the erasure of race in white feminism. As White asserts, neither of these approaches is analytically sound and both need to be rethought. In short, black women are rendered invisible in such either/or approaches.

Another signature move in the theory and practice of black feminism is placing black women at the center of analyses of race and racism. By theorizing from the bottom up, that is, through the everyday lives of African-American women and from the top down by analyzing social structure and political economy, the explication of the interplay between agency and social structure is central to black feminist theory and practice. Moreover, running through black feminist analyses is the principle of what Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, in their 1982 book, call “the simultaneity of oppression.” These systems of inequality are in play at the same time but must be viewed in historical context. Race, for example, operates as a master signifier in a white supremacist society such as the United States, but not without being deeply shaped by class and gender. This is the conceptual underpinning of much of black feminist conceptualizations of African-American life.

The black feminist sociologist Deborah King (1988) calls attention to the multiplicative effects of race, class, and gender. These are not simply in additive relationship to one another (race + class + gender); these systems forcefully shape one another. Her work critiques additive thinking, parallelist tendencies, and oppositional dualistic thinking found in Western European intellectual thought. Gender must be articulated and theorized in the context of race and racism. This is a point largely absent from the “race alone” analyses of racism.

Black feminism is also rooted in a relational framework. This idea of relationality can be thought about in the context of the gendered, racialized, and class histories of peoples of color. These interrelated histories cannot be written strictly as comparative narratives. The issue is how deeply dependent and interconnected these legacies are. Indeed, the decisions and actions regarding the history of Asians, for example, is connected and informed by the decisions and actions regarding Africans, Native Americans, Europeans, and Latinos/Chicanos. Race, for example, is called into being simultaneously around the making of whiteness and the othering of so-called “non-whites.” This fundamental ideological rationalization for exploitation takes on a number of dimensions. Certainly the centrality of blackness and “absolute inferiority” of Africans, as was argued by racist scientists, conditions the way other groups are thought about in relationship to “whites.” Whiteness is made as are these other identities. Race is called into being in deep relationality to the expropriation of labor, enslavement, land theft, and the making of empire.

The gender dynamic must be considered in these histories. If white maleness represented the height of the “Great Chain of Being,” as Anne McClintock contends (1995), women of all groups were inferiorized and black, brown, and yellow men were feminized. Black women were masculinized and sexualized; and Asian women were sexualized and exploited. Latinas were sexualized as well as exploited as workhorses. Native women were sexualized and killed. These stories have to be thought about in relationship to the issues of labor and land as well as the deep intersectionality of race, class, and gender in these interconnected histories. Most critically, black feminist theoretical moves are grounded explicitly in the black cultural experience in the United States and go beyond the simple inclusion of black feminist thought in white feminist sociology. This is the thanks that black feminists give to black nationalism, even in the wake of its gender problem. The power of representation and self-definition is a key theme in black nationalism, and these important ideas have certainly influenced black feminist thinkers. Analysts like White (2001) understand that race is deeply embedded in gender and class in the United States. Oyuranke Oyewumi (2005) contends that a feminist framework, rooted in white privilege and power, too often imposes a conceptual logic on black women that distorts or mis-represents that experience.

In sum, what is central about black feminism in the United States is its rootedness in the articulation of multiplicity, intersectionalities, relationality, and the simultaneity of oppressions. This intellectual frame not only challenges traditional studies of race and racism but a range of existing frameworks in sociology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and other disciplines that treat these inequalities in analytical isolation. Patricia Hill Collins (1986), for example, defines the disciplinary liability of dichotomous oppositional thinking. Upon this epistemological assumption is built the categories “white” over “black,” “male” over “female,” and all other hierarchies of oppression. An intellectual agenda that draws on the both/and cultural traditions of African-American women represents a healthy transformation of Eurocentric epistemologies.

Nonetheless, conflict around the meaning of black feminism is evident. The philosophical splintering on meaning runs the gamut from a mild form of feminism that weakly chastises men for sexism, placing a strong emphasis on the significance of complementarity in African life, to womanism in its various expressions. Complementarity and Africana womanist articulations of the gender dynamic in black life are rooted in more conventional black nationalist notions of womanhood. Some versions of womanism, such as that of Clenora Hudson-Weems (1998), locate it deeply in African principles rather than white European women’s so-called culturally saturated feminism. This Afrocentric feminist perspective places itself squarely in a framework articulating the centrality of African culture, especially the principles of complementarity, self-determination, self-definition, and race first. These ideas coincide, of course, with the basic tenets of cultural nationalism.

Whatever the philosophical bent, black women’s feminist or proto-feminist organizations have defined themselves broadly. Organizations such as Combahee River Collective stressed the simultaneity of oppressions: race, class, gender, sexism, and hetereosexism. Black feminists have called to task and criticized analyses that miss the powerful interplay of gender, race, and class. Their inventions have implications for the way the social sciences conceive of race. Most important, black feminist interventions have influenced the way black life in the United States is conceptualized.

At the center of black feminist thinking in the academy are the following questions: Where are the black women in scholarly analyses? How might one shift the center of much of the disciplinary scholarship locating the nexus of race, class, and gender as organizing frames in the production of knowledge? How do we render visible the history of lived experiences of black men and women in Africa and the African diaspora? African feminist centered knowledge(s) underpin a good deal of the current critique of black feminist thought in the United States. Oyewumi (2005) locates African thought and culture in knowledge reconstitution. She challenges through her cultural lenses the body logic of Western gender frames. Finally, a queer color critique has developed in the innovative work of scholars such as Roderick Ferguson (2004). Ferguson draws deeply on black feminist thinking while simultaneously challenging the embrace of the hetereonormative in sociological theorizing.

The influence of black feminist thinking appears to be shaping the scholarship of those analysts who do not explicitly define themselves as black feminists. They seem to be somewhat more attuned to gender and race as interlocking realities in studies of race (for example, see the 2000 work of Joe Feagin, Racist America). Also worth noting is the recognition that black feminists in the academy, such as Angela Davis (1981), give to black women’s activism and everyday lived experiences in the development of black feminist thought. As evidenced by Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s 1995 anthology, this knowledge has begun to be systematically incorporated into the social sciences and humanities. Black feminist scholarship has affected the arts, humanities, history, social sciences, black studies, and health sciences, among other fields.

Yet some questions still remain: Whose interests are served by black women’s scholarship within the academy? How might these scholars balance social responsibility with career imperatives? Studies in established university and research settings are centered in issues of power and inequality. Even so, the case can be made that African-American women have forged a resistive, self-defined, even sometimes feminist identity in the academy. Even before black feminism’s visibility in the halls of academe, there was a long history of black women acting along both gender and race lines. Racially conscious women such as Anna J. Cooper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett were active in race and gender struggles at the turn of the twentieth century and into its early years.

The power of representation and self-definition is a key theme in black feminism, and these important ideas have certainly influenced the way social scientists have begun to rethink African-American agency. Yet the difficulties of understanding multiplicity within black communities, cross-cut by age, region, ethnicity, and class, are not resolved. Nevertheless, black feminists have placed gender at the center of race and class analyses. This intervention is changing the way race is being conceptualized and the way black life and thought are being imagined through the intersectional frames of black feminism.

SEE ALSO African Feminisms; Black Feminism in Brazil; Black Feminism in the United Kingdom; Feminism and Race; Sexism; Sexuality; Womanism.


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Davis, Angela Y. 1981. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Random House.

Feagin, Joe R. 2000. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.

Ferguson, Roderick A. 2004. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. 1995. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. New York: New Press.

hooks, bell. 1981. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.

———. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.

Hudson-Weems, Clenora. l998. “Africana Womanism.” In Sisterhood, Feminisms, and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora, edited by Obioma Nnaemeka, 170–182. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith. 1982. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.

King, Deborah K. 1988. “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology.” Signs 14 (1): 42–72.

McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context. New York: Routledge.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. 2005. African Gender Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

White, E. Frances. 1983. “Listening to the Voices of Black Feminism.” Radical America 18 (2–3): 7–25.

Rose M. Brewer