But Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States

The Black Feminist Movement grew out of, and in response to, the Black

Liberation Movement and the Women’s Movement. In an effort to meet the

needs of black women who felt they were being racially oppressed in

the Women’s Movement and sexually oppressed in the Black Liberation

Movement, the Black Feminist Movement was formed. All too often,

“black” was equated with black men and “woman” was equated with white

women. As a result, black women were an invisible group whose

existence and needs were ignored. The purpose of the movement was to

develop theory which could adequately address the way race, gender,

and class were interconnected in their lives and to take action to

stop racist, sexist, and classist discrimination.

Black Women Confronting Sexism and Racism

Black women who participated in the Black Liberation Movement

and the Women’s Movement were often discriminated against sexually and

racially. Although neither all the black men nor all the white women

in their respective movements were sexist and racist, enough of those

with powerful influence were able to make the lives of the black women

in these groups almost unbearable. This section investigates the

treatment of black women in these two movements and aims to show how,

due to the inability of black men and white women to acknowledge and

denounce their oppression of black women, the movements were unable to

meet the needs of black women and prompted the formation of the Black

Feminist Movement, which, though it had been gathering momentum for

some time, marks its “birth” with the 1973 founding of the National

Black Feminist Organization in New York.

Black Women in the Black Liberation Movement

Black women faced constant sexism in the Black Liberation

Movement. Although there were several different movements for black

liberation (the Civil Rights Movement, Black Nationalism, the Black

Panthers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others)

for the purposes of this paper they are all considered under the title

Black Liberation Movement. The movement, though ostensibly for the

liberation of the black race, was in word and deed for the liberation

of the black male. Race was extremely sexualized in the rhetoric of

the movement. Freedom was equated with manhood and the freedom of

blacks with the redemption of black masculinity. Take, for example,

the assumption that racism is more harmful to black men than it is to

black women because the real tragedy of racism is the loss of manhood;

this assumption illustrates both an acceptance of masculinity defined

within the context of patriarchy as well as a disregard for the human

need for integrity and liberty felt by both men and women.

Many black men in the movement were interested in controlling

black women’s sexuality. Bell hooks comments that during the Black

Liberation Movement of the 1960s, “black men overemphasize[d] white

male sexual exploitation of black womanhood as a way to explain their

disapproval of inter-racial relationships.” It was, however, no

contradiction of their political views to have inter-racial

relationships themselves. Again, part of “freedom” and “manhood” was

the right of men to have indiscriminate access to and control over any

woman’s body.

As well, there was disregard for the humanity and equality of

black women. Black men in the Black Liberation Movement often made

sexist statements which were largely accepted without criticism.

Consider these two statements, the first by Amiri Baraka and the

second by Eldridge Cleaver.

And so this separation [of black men and women] is the cause of our

need for self-consciousness, and eventual healing. But we must erase

the separateness by providing ourselves with healthy African

identities. By embracing a value system that knows of no separation

but only of the divine complement the black woman is for her man. For

instance, we do not believe in the ‘equality’ of men and women. We

cannot understand what the devils and the devilishly influenced mean

when they say equality for women. We could never be equals… Nature

has not provided thus.”

Baraka insists that men and women are unequal by nature. This is an

attitude which he considers healthy and worthy of promotion to other

black men and women. Not only are men and women different, he says,

but there is no reciprocity in their relationship to each other;

hence, a black man is not ‘for’ his woman as a black woman is ‘for’

her man. The two do not submit to one another; rather, the woman

submits to her black man.

I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I

started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto-in the black

ghetto where vicious and dark deeds appear not as aberrations or

deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil

of a day-and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the

tracks and sought out white prey.

Cleaver later goes on to express his remorse at his action but retains

his misogynist attitudes. One can see both sexism and racism at work

in this citation: not only is he committing violence against women,

but he considers the violence against black “girls” to be less serious

than that against their white counterparts. While it is true that a

crime against a white woman bore more weight in the judicial system,

the gravity of the crime-i.e., the damage it causes and terror it

invokes both individually and within the community-is not diminished

when committed against a black woman.

Sexual discrimination against women in the Black Liberation

Movement not only took the form of misogynist writings, it was also a

part of daily life. Elaine Brown recalls an organizational meeting of

the Black Congress in which she and the other women were forced to

wait to eat until the men were served food for which they had all

contributed money. The “rules” were then explained to her and a

friend: “Sisters… did not challenge Brothers. Sisters… stood

behind their black men, supported their men, and respected them. In

essence, … it was not only ‘unsisterly’ of us to want to eat with

our Brothers, it was a sacrilege for which blood could be shed.”

Similar discrimination existed within the Civil Rights Movement. E.

Frances White recalls, “I remember refusing to leave the discussion at

a regional black student society meeting to go help out in the

kitchen. The process of alienation from those militant and articulate

men had begun for me.”

It must be stressed that it was not only many of the men but

also a great number of the women in the Black Liberation Movements who

were enforcing strict gender roles on black women. In much the same

way that women in dominant society do not resist but encourage sexism,

black women fell prey to perpetuating patriarchy within the black

community.

Black Women in the Feminist Movement

Black Women who participated in the feminist movement during

the 1960s often met with racism. It generally took the form of

exclusion: black women were not invited to participate on conference

panels which were not specifically about black or Third World women.

They were not equally, or even proportionately, represented on the

faculty of Women’s Studies Departments, nor were there classes devoted

specifically to the study of black women’s history. In most women’s

movement writings, the experiences of white, middle class women were

described as universal “women’s experiences,” largely ignoring the

differences of black and white women’s experiences due to race and

class. In addition to this, well-known black women were often treated

as tokens; their work was accepted as representing “the” black

experience and was rarely ever criticized or challenged.

Part of the overwhelming frustration black women felt within

the Women’s Movement was at white feminists’ unwillingness to admit to

their racism. This unwillingness comes from the sentiment that those

who are oppressed can not oppress others. White women, who were (and

still are) without question sexually oppressed by white men, believed

that because of this oppression they were unable to assume the

dominant role in the perpetuation of white racism; however, they have

absorbed, supported and advocated racist ideology and have acted

individually as racist oppressors. Traditionally, women’s sphere of

influence has extended over the home, and it is no coincidence that in

1963, seven times as many women of color (of whom 90 percent were

black) as white women were employed as private household workers. It

has been the tendency of white feminists to see men as the “enemy,”

rather than themselves, as part of the patriarchal, racist, and

classist society in which we all live.

Not only did some white feminists refuse to acknowledge their

ability to oppress women of color, some claimed that white women had

always been anti-racist. Adrienne Rich claims, “our white foresisters

have … often [defied] patriarchy … not on their own behalf but for

the sake of black men, women, and children. We have a strong

anti-racist female tradition;” however, as bell hooks points out

“[t]here is little historical evidence to document Rich’s assertion

that white women as a collective group or white women’s rights

advocates are part of an anti-racist tradition.” Every women’s

movement in the United States has been built on a racist foundation:

women’s suffrage for white women, the abolition of slavery for the

fortification of white society, the temperance movement for the moral

uplifting of white society. None of these movements was for black

liberation or racial equality; rather, they sprang from a desire to

strengthen white society’s morals or to uplift the place of white

women in that society.

Toward a Black Feminist Movement

Faced with the sexism of black men and the racism of white

women, black women in their respective movements had two choices: they

could remain in the movements and try to educate non-black or

non-female comrades about their needs, or they could form a movement

of their own. The first alternative, though noble in its intent, was

not a viable option. While it is true that black men needed to be

educated about the effects of sexism and white women about the effects

of racism on black women’s lives, it was not solely the responsibility

of black women to educate them. Noted Audre Lorde:

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap

of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our

needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the

oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear it is the

task of women of Color to educate white women-in the face of

tremendous resistance-as to our existence, our differences, our

relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies

and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.  In light of

these facts, the women decided to forge their own movement, the Black

Feminist Movement.

Building a Black Feminist Movement was not an easy task.

Despite the need for such a movement, there were few black women in

the early 1970s who were willing to identify themselves as feminists.

Barbara Smith articulates the reservations of many black women about a

black feminist movement:

Myths to divert Black women from our own freedom:

1. The Black woman is already liberated.

2. Racism is the primary (or only) oppression Black women have to confront.

3. Feminism is nothing but man-hating.

4. Women’s issues are narrow, apolitical concerns. People of color need to deal with the “larger struggle.”

5. Those feminists are nothing but Lesbians.

These myths illustrate long-held misconceptions about black women,

including the belief that the extraordinary strength black women have

shown in the face of tremendous oppression reveals their liberation.

In fact, this “freedom”-working outside the home, supporting the

family economically as well as emotionally, and heading the

household-has been thrust upon black women. Women of all races,

classes, nationalities, religions, and ethnicities are sexually

oppressed; black women are no exception. Upon further examination, the

other myths prove to be false. Racism and sexism must be confronted at

the same time; to wait for one to end before working on the other

reflects an incomplete understanding of the way racism and sexism, as

forms of oppression, work to perpetuate each other. Black feminism

struggles against institutionalized, systematic oppression rather than

against a certain group of people, be they white men or men of color.

While it often requires no stretch of the imagination to infer

man-hating in some early (and some recent) feminist writings, the goal

of feminism is the end of sexism. It is only a sane response of an

oppressed people to work toward their own liberation. Finally, the

assumption that feminists are nothing but lesbians reveals the

homophobia which persists in many black communities as well as a

misunderstanding of both lesbians and motivations for joining the

feminist movement.

Definition and Focus of the Black Feminist Movement

Having decided to form a movement of their own, black women

needed to define the goals of the Black Feminist Movement and to

determine its focus. Several authors have put forth definitions of the

Black Feminist Movement. Among the most notable are Alice Walker’s

definition and the Combahee River Collective Statement. Alice Walker,

coined the term “Womanist” to describe the Black Feminist Movement.

She writes:

Womanist 1. From womanish. (opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous,

irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color…

Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful

behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered

“good” for one… Responsible. In charge. Serious.

2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually.

Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility

(values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s

strength… Committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people,

male and female. Not separatist, except periodically, for health.

In addition she supplements her definition saying, “Womanist is to

feminist as purple is to lavender.” Noteworthy are the emphases on

self-determination, appreciation for all aspects of womanhood, and the

commitment to the survival of both men and women. This definition is

both affirming and challenging for it commends a woman’s stretching of

her personal boundaries while at the same time calls on women to

maintain their connections to the rest of humanity. The entire self,

which is connected to others in the community, is valued in womanism.

The Combahee River Collective Statement sets forth a more

specific, political definition:

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would

be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial,

sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular

task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon

the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The

synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As

Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to

combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of

color face.

It is a broad statement. For a single movement to deal with all of the

issues listed requires multi-focused, strategic action, which is

exactly what was needed for black and Third World women. It was

important for black feminism to address the ways that racism, sexism,

classism and heterosexism all worked to perpetuate each other.

In these two definitions of black feminism/womanism, one can

see the complementary nature of one’s personal life in relation to

one’s political life. From the personal, the striving toward wholeness

individually and within the community, comes the political, the

struggle against those forces that render individuals and communities

unwhole. The personal is political, especially for black women.

Black feminist writings were to focus on developing theory

which would address the simultaneity of racism, sexism, heterosexism,

and classism in their lives. In addition, the audience of these

writings was to be black women, rather than white feminists or black

male activists. As mentioned earlier, to continue to address the

oppressor’s needs would be a waste of valuable energy. Black women

needed to develop a critical, feminist consciousness and begin a

dialogue which directly addressed their experiences and connected them

to a larger political system.

Early Actions and Organizations in the Black Feminist Movement

The specific issues worked on in the Black Feminist Movement,

according to Barbara Smith, were/are: reproductive rights,

sterilization abuse, equal access to abortion, health care, child

care, the rights of the disabled, violence against women, rape,

battering, sexual harassment, welfare rights, lesbian and gay rights,

aging, police brutality, labor organizing, anti-imperialist struggles,

anti-racist organizing, nuclear disarmament, and preserving the

environment. To this end, several organizations were established

during the late 1970s and early 1980s. A partial listing of the

organizations and some noteworthy events includes:

¥             1973 Founding of the National Black Feminist Organization in New York.

¥             1973 Founding of Black Women Organized for Action in San Francisco.

¥             1974 Founding of the Combahee River Collective in Boston.

¥             1977 First publishing of Azalea, a literary magazine for Third World lesbians.

¥             1978 Varied Voices of Black Women concert tour.

¥             1979 Publishing of Conditions: Five, the first widely distributed collection of Black feminist writings in the United States. (It also included a sizable amount of black lesbian writings.)

¥             1979 The Combahee River Collective protest of the murders of twelve black women in Boston.

¥             1980 First National Conference on Third World Women and Violence in Washington, DC.

¥             1980 First National Hui (Conference) for Black Women in Otara, New Zealand.

¥             1981 Establishment of a Third World women’s clinic in Berkeley, CA.

¥             1981 Establishment of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

¥             1981 Establishment of the Black Women’s Self-Help Collective in Washington, DC.

¥             1981 First Black Dyke Hui in Auckland, New Zealand.

The two earliest organizations formed in the movement, the

National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) and Black Women Organized

for Action (BWAO), clearly reflected the goals put forth in the

Combahee River Collective Statement. (Although the statement had not

yet been written at the time of their inception, the ideas and

dialogue which influenced the statement were being created during that

time.). Their membership included black women from all class levels;

well-educated, middle-class women worked together with poorly-educated

women on welfare to address issues that pertained to all of them.

Because all of the women were affected by sexism as well as racism in

their various fields of employment, these issues were specifically

addressed by these organizations.

Conclusions

The Black Feminist Movement was formed to address the ways sexism,

racism, and classism influence the lives of black women whose needs

were ignored by the black men of the Black Liberation Movement and

white women in the Women’s Movement. The movement has spawned several

important organizations which are committed to the struggle against

all forms of oppression. They have created a unique model for

cross-class organization in which the needs of the poor are not

usurped by the needs of the middle-class and the wealthy.

The effectiveness of the movement has not been uniform in the

white feminist and black communities. Many white women in the feminist

movement have acknowledged their racism and made attempts to address

it in anti-racist training seminars. Feminist theory now includes an

analysis of the way race, class, sexuality, as well as gender

influence women’s lives. The women’s studies departments of many

prominent universities and colleges now have courses which focus on

black women’s writings and history, in the United States and in other

countries. However, in the black community, the movement has not been

as effective. The rhetoric of current black liberation movements still

fails to adequately address issues which affect black women. Awareness

of sexism has increased within the black academic community but the

popular culture (especially that which primarily involves black men,

such as the rap music industry) continues to be extremely sexist and

misogynist.

There are several challenges facing the Black Feminist

Movement. Most importantly, the movement must find a way to broaden

support among black and Third World women. Education about the true

nature and goal of the movement as well as resources and strategies

for change must reach the women who have little or no access to the

movement. There is a need for the development of mentor relationships

between black women scholar/activists and young black students, both

female and male. Individual struggle must be connected with a larger

feminist movement to effect change, and so that new black feminists

need not reinvent theory or search again for history that was never

recorded. There is also a need to develop black female subjectivity to

address black women as the primary audience of theoretical and

critical black feminism. Black women and men need to develop a

critical style which encourages further dialogue and development of

ideas rather than merely “trashing” and silencing new black feminist

voices. Respect for fellow black women must be developed and guarded

in spite of the sexist, racist, and classist “cultural baggage” with

which all Americans are weighed down. Differences among black women

must be acknowledged and affirmed, rather than ignored. Finally,

alliances must be strengthened between the black feminist movement and

its parent movements. The black feminist movement must hold the

current male-dominated black liberation movement accountable for its

sexism and at the same time work with the movement to end the

oppression of black people. As well, there must be a working dialogue

between the white-dominated feminist movement and the black feminist

movement to continue to develop theory and action which strives toward

the end of sexism. The power and influence that each of these groups

has cannot be ignored. As one NBFO member has said, “White women are

our natural allies; we can’t take down the system alone.”


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