Black Feminisms

The term ‘Black’ is radically unstable and is applied to various, related political positions. An attempt to trace the meanings that surround and inform this term involves an engagement with its geographical, cultural and political indeterminacies, with its reliance on context and time. As a locus of antagonisms and conflicts, Black feminism distinguishes itself from White or ‘First World’ feminisms, and is at once involved in cultural or national ideologies, in ways which have become increasingly complex. In order to locate and identify a phenomenon such as ‘Black feminism’, the contexts of academic convention, cultural domination and cultural currency become determinate factors. Any analysis of the recent emergence of an identifiable field of Black feminist criticism, or Black feminist politics, has to include a keen sensitivity to the marked inscriptions of difference and specificity, of connection and visibility within the field.

A major polarity in Western Black feminist thought, particularly for the British context, is that between the terminology and politics of the United States and Britain. For the purposes of United States politics, ‘Black’ is a term referring to the African-American population, whereas Asian-Americans (meaning both South Asians and, for example, Chinese, Korean, Filipina descendants), Latinas and Native Americans are categorised as ‘people of colour’. In Britain, ‘Black’ is a political category often describing Asians (referring to people of the subcontinent), Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, with often a wider inclusion of ‘non-White’ people.

The current US preference for racial categorisation based on country or continent of origin or descent, hyphenated with national identity (as in ‘African- American’) over the politicised term ‘Black’, as well as the retaining of the term ‘Third World’ for North American ‘people of colour’, at once blurs and begs the distinction between national and cultural identities. The attempt, in the British context, to sub-categorise ‘Black’ into ‘more accurate’ sections, as in the 1991 Census 1 can result in a de-politicising of the term and a further obfuscation/ exclusion of various ‘Black’ identities under a spuriously scientific ‘comprehensiveness’. The titles, ‘Black Other’, or ‘Any other ethnic group’ marks the bearer as ‘more other than Black’.

The shifting meanings of ‘Black’ as a racial, cultural, national or political term has implications for the development and meanings of Black feminisms. The relationship between the terms ‘Black’ and ‘feminism’ allows for a sustained critique, both of the feminist movement and identities, and of Black politics.

Beginning with an anthology initially conceived in 1979, the rawness and violence of new articulations and new alliances can be traced. Moraga and Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back (1983) is a text of crucial importance for the staking out of what can now be acknowledged as oppositional territory. Its subtitle, ‘Writings By Radical Women of Color‘ immediately shifts these alliances into a political space that allows for connections ‘capable of spanning borders of nation and ethnicity’.2 What this means for an anthology emerging from United States feminist radicalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s is a reconfiguration of identity politics around ‘Third World’ immigrant women and African-American women. The internationalism of the text, its insistence that both connections and contentions with the United States will form the basis of ‘political necessity’,3 is one that is still, in 1983, a fraught and uneasy alliance of differences.

The ‘Third World’ dimensions of the political arguments in this anthology, based around issues in, for example, Central and South America, in the Caribbean and in South Africa, are primarily contained within the politics of the feminist movement. Toni Cade Bambara‘s Foreword (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983) points to ‘the initial motive’ behind several of the pieces included being a need to ‘protest, complain or explain to white feminist would-be allies that there are other ties and visions that bind’. Immediately following this, White feminism becomes secondary, even superfluous: ‘the process of examining that would-be alliance awakens us to new tasks’ (1983: vi).

Moraga’s original Preface supports Bambara’s sentiments with a reference to White feminists as ‘so-called sisters’ (1983: xiii). The prevalent conflicts that emerge from her Introduction are reflected by other writers in the anthology and attest to the complications of both feminist movement and cultural affiliation. Moraga’s lesbian identity presents itself, crucially, as an exclusionary threat to her identification with women and men of colour. Drawing attention to a continuing political thread throughout the text, Moraga launches an attack on separatism as the luxury of White feminism and the unacceptable sacrifice of feminists of colour: ‘But the deepest political tragedy I have experienced is how with such grace, such blind faith, this commitment to women in the feminist movement grew to be exclusive and reactionary. I call my white sisters on this‘ (1983: xiv).

The direct challenge to a White-dominated feminism and the continual calls for a more broad-based movement that allows for different cultural/racial communities and politics are significant aspects of This Bridge Called My Back. The concentration on relationships between women offers a scrutiny of class, race and cultural issues that promises to assault any notion of feminism as a stable place to usher in others.

Otherness, however, is equally not a stable place on which to build mutual identifications or communities of recognition. Many of the writers bear witness to misunderstandings and divisions between women of colour themselves. As a political grouping that amalgamates African-American, Asian-American, Latina and Native American women, ‘Women of Colour’ broaches and re-evaluates the notion of Black feminism and necessarily includes within itself urgent questions of cultural, racial and social affiliation. Brought into political visibility out of conflict with a predominantly White feminist movement, ‘Women of Colour’ do not become the automatic site of resolution.

These recognitions of difference and of conflict within difference in the context of feminism makes This Bridge an important milestone in Black feminist writing. The introduction of ‘Third World’ alongside African-American feminisms allows for a discussion of racial, economic and national issues that act as critical points of tension in defining Black feminism. The statement of Chrystos, as a Native American, that: ‘I am afraid of white people’ (1983: 68), a statement aimed at (White) feminist collectives, can be read alongside Moraga’s anxiety as a Chicana about Black lesbians: ‘Black dykes … I felt ignored me, wrote me off because I looked white’ (1983: xvii). If to be a ‘Woman of Colour’ is not (necessarily) a matter of physical visibility, the emphasis in the text slides between cultural, economic and social issues, negotiating and questioning the limits and meanings of racial identities. Black American women are represented here as another ethnicity within a larger ‘Third World’ movement, which also incorporates Japanese Americans. That Black Americans are not ‘Third World’ peoples or new immigrants allows the text to indirectly highlight the diferences between African American and Black feminisms and to insist on the non-comprehensiveness of African-American feminisms for theories and politics of race, culture or class.

Each chapter in the anthology is a self-categorisation within these limits. The repeated, ‘I stand here as … I am a …’, calls attention to a late twentieth-century preoccupation with dual or sub-national categories and with difference. Looked at from one angle the anthology bristles with conflict, with the splintering of feminism into disjointed and violently delineated groups (or individuals). Looked at again, the ‘poor women, black and third-world women, and lesbians’ (Audre Lorde, in Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983: 98) allow for coalitions, for fluidity and change. The temporary nature of these un-easy alliances and identitiesspoken with such desperation and tension in 1979remain as one of the most significant challenges for Black feminism to date.

This Bridge is a useful point of departure for a chapter about late twentiethcentury Black feminisms because it reveals the difficulties and complexities that accrue to both Black and feminist identities. Moraga, in her 1983 Foreword, claims that the original conception of This Bridge is now showing its age. Erupting primarily within and against mainstream (White) feminist movement, the 1979 preoccupations did not include detailed discussion of relationships between women and men of colour. Solidarity as nonWhite women creates a focus on feminism and Black/White divisions. The differences between women of different ethnicities, and different cultural backgrounds, pushes to one side any concentrated discussion of families or communities. They become what is different from, excluded by, hidden behind.

The difficulties of an alliance that places visible against felt, remembered or hidden difference presents a problematic unity in the anthology, revealing itself particularly in certain writings by Women of Colour who do not identity (unproblematically) as Black. Rosario Morales, for example, who accounts for herself as ‘indian bones … spanish sounds’, also describes an ambiguous social position: ‘what I do remember is to walk in straight and white into the store and say good morning in my see how white how upper class how refined and kind voice all crisp with consonants bristling with syllables’ (1983: 108).

Here, the confusion of racial identity with class identity, both of which are revealed as indicative of each other, succeeds in assessing ‘true’ Black identity as being at odds with an ambiguous, invisible identity that is, nevertheless, Black, or ‘of colour’. The accepted community of Black women in other sections of the text is here disrupted with the anxiety, ‘you don’t belong’ (1983: 108). This anguished ambiguity sits uncomfortably alongside the Black Feminist Statement from the ‘Combahee River Collective’ that very clearly and coherently sets out the agenda, meaning, genesis and beliefs of Black feminist organisation, stating that the Black feminist is what is distinguishable from and between Black (male) liberation movements and the White left (1983: 211).

The consistently oppositional stance of the essays and ideas in the anthology, defining non-White female identity continually in terms of difference from (community, collective, the visible, the obvious, or the White, the male …) creates a volume that presents the rage and violence of identities in the process of selfdefinition. Placing a range of histories, familial and cultural subjectivities under the difficult banner of ‘Women of Color’ ushers in an assault on feminist politics from a range of positions. Feminist identification becomes a matter of uneasy alliances, of negotiating difference, of interpreting the meaning and validity of sexuality, class, heritage, culture and even race. The spiritual visions underpinning many of the literary and political statements attest to the dedication to alternative self-definitions that the volume attempts to represent. Gloria Anzaldúa’s reading of the Tarot (1983: 246), Cherrie Moraga’s belief in astrology (1983: 248), and the final piece of the volume, by Chrystos, direct themselves to a search for other ways of living beyond North American capitalism. Chrystos‘s claim that ‘We have lost touch with the sacred’ (1983: 244) adds a kind of final vision to the book’s presentation of ‘alternative’ values.

This ‘alternative’, spiritual re-definition of self emerges in the writing of Alice Walker a Black feminist, or ‘Womanist’ whose contribution to Black feminist criticism and politics in the United States and beyond has been critical. Alice Walker’s rejection of the term ‘feminist’ for Black women in favour of ‘Womanist’ in her 1983 collection of essays is a response to cultural difference and the specificities of her own (Black, Southern) sense of community. With references to histories of slavery and sassiness, gardens of flowers, food and ‘the Folk’, Walker creates an essentially ‘home-grown’ vision of the Black feminist who ‘Loves the Spirit’ (1984: xii). 4

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, with essays written from 1970 to the early 1980s, is a collection that emphasises the significance of ‘home’, loyalty and roots. The South is the place of ‘the people’ who provide the emotional energy of the writing: ‘I see the same faces, hear the same soft voices, take a nip, once in a while, of the same rich mellow corn, or wine’ (1971: 138). Looking to the South for ‘wholeness’ (1975: 48) and for ‘continuity’ (1976: 13), Walker’s sense of herself as a ‘Black revolutionary artist’ (1971: 130) is linked indissolubly to her sense of origins and to her sense of connection with a Southern Black community and identity: ‘And when I write about the people there, in the strangest way it is as if I am not writing about them at all, but about myself. The artist then is the voice of the people, but she is also The People’ (1971: 138).

This certainty about belonging, identity and speakingfor a definable ‘people’ contrasts Walker with the conflictual, emergent and divided subjectivities that present themselves in This Bridge. Walker’s re-discovery and popularisation of Black Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston have, for her, the logic of unearthing a family. In her title essay, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker’s eulogy to her mother’s un-famous artistry becomes witness not only to an American, but to a long African heritage (1974: 243). This acknowledgement of community beyond the United States and the Southern states becomes a central point of Walker’s writing, and her sense of herself as spokesperson for the community becomes a larger and more problematic claim in the context of international, or other Black feminisms.

With the publication of her novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), Walker’s presentation of ‘African’ culture (in general) under American feminist judgement, reveals the difficulties of her position as spokesperson for all Black women. Her loyal allegiance to the United States in terms of ‘freedom’ and escape allows her to represent the ‘barbarity’ of African practices (including the undifferentiated practices of clitoridectomy, excision and infibulation) as part of a larger state of cultural unfreedom. Africa as victim needing American feminisman Africa to which Walker makes unhesitating claimpoints towards the dangers of internationalist Black feminism within the United States. The dimension in her previous writing of spiritual communion with her foremothers becomes a difficulty when applied over cultural and national borders. The complicated and uncertain union between the ‘Third World’ perspective and Black feminism in This Bridge can be recalled here both as a proviso and a corrective.

The institutionalisation of Black feminism in the United States becomes solidified through collections such as Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983). Home Girls sets out to promote Black feminism as distinct from both a Whitedominated feminist movement and the exclusive concerns of Black men. Barbara Smith is then able to state, in 1983, that ‘we have a movement of our own’ (1983: xxxi). The choice of anthology as a form for representing Black feminisms is an important one, allowing, as in This Bridge, a range of political ideas, concerns and approaches to exist together, and giving the impression of a field in the making. As Barbara Smith puts it in her Introduction to Home Girls: ‘anthologies which bring together many voices seem particularly suited to the multiplicity of issues of concern to women of color’ (1983: xlix). This multiplicity of issues covers subjects such as lesbianism, Black women artists, the family, culture and feminist organisation.

The significance of the concept of ‘home’ in the title-one of the concepts that is central to Alice Walker’s ideaslies in the longing for, or realisation of, a place from which to speak. This place of self and recognition is also a place to claim and to own. It provides the possibility of being an insider: ‘Home has always meant a lot to people who are ostracized as racial outsiders in the public sphere. It is above all a place to be ourselves’ (1983: li).

The conflation of Black women with ‘Third World’ women in the Introduction points to a difficulty that also hovers over the language of This Bridge. Merging the identity of racial outsider with national outsider, and therefore identifying unproblematically with women of the ‘Third World’ (particularly African women) confuses the theoretical positions of United States Black feminists. The identity of ‘home’ becomes, in this formulation, a widening and elastic metaphor of possession.

However, the final piece in the collection and, in many ways, the most significant, addresses precisely this issue of home, belonging and possession. Bernice Johnson Reagon‘s Coalition Politics: Turning the Century approaches the difficulties, dangers and necessities of feminist coalition by continually examining the meaning of ‘home’. If ‘home’ is cultural and racial security, the certainty of naming and defining, then coalition has nothing to do with ‘home’. For Reagon, speaking from a background of Black Civil Rights, the idea of feminist coalition involves the incursion of different women into feminism, its constant re-definition through conflict and flexibility. It does not, for her, involve the comfortable embracing of similar women into a safe place: ‘In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time’ (1983: 359).

Barbara Smith’s later article, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Relationships Between Black and Jewish Women (1984) continues with the issue of coalition and self-examination by exploring relationships between Africa American andJ ewish women, particularly within the feminist movement. Her clear statement: ‘I am antiSemitic’ (1984: 69), does not leave her with a safe place from which to speak and allows her to discuss honestly the possibilities of alliance and conflict even competition between Jewish and Black women. Refusing the temptation of ‘ranking … oppressions’ (1984: 75), Smith’s essay considers the connections as well as the mistrust between the two groups, emphasising (with references to Reagon’s earlier piece) the positive and vital nature of coalition politics. Referring to Black women as ‘Third World’ throughout the piece allows for a clear-cut argument between two apparently internally undifferentiated groups. The category ‘Black’, then, however, operates indistinctly across national and cultural boundaries.

Carole Boyce Davies‘s  text Black Women, Writing and Identity (1994) addresses this tendency to homogenise and delimit Blackness and Black womanhood to one particular location or cultural experience. Taking the experiences of Black women (im-)migrants as her primary example, Boyce Davies insists on the continual renegotiation of Black women’s identity between places and nations. In this way, Black womanhood and therefore Black feminism cannot become stratified to one particular history or set of preoccupations. Boyce Davies‘s emphasis on ‘migratory subjectivity existing in multiple locations’ (1994: 4) points also to the imperative to name, place and historicise where one is speaking from and to whom. Her identification of the United States as primary signifier and therefore definer of Black feminism through publication and cultural strength is significant here: ‘Thus to identify Black women’s writing primarily with United States writing is to identify with US hegemony’ (1994: 4).

The debates throughout the 1980s in Britain around the identity of Blackness who is to be included and who ruled outtook place in the context of a conscious political movement to locate Blackness within a range of communities who were excluded in particular, racialised ways, from Britishness. Blackness as the identity of non-White othersincluding, for example, Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Asians, Chinese placed issues of race above issues of culture, religion or origins, and created a broadbased, collective identification around racial difference:

In Britain in the 1980s, this shared sense of objectification was articulated when the racialized disempowered and fragmented sought empowerment in a gesture of politicized collective action. In naming the shared space of marginalization as ‘black’, postcolonial migrants of different languages, religions, cultures and classes consciously constructed a political identity shaped by the shared experience of racialization and its consequences. (1997: 3)

Heidi Safia Mirza‘s Reader, Black British Feminism (1997), is organised around this inclusive interpretation of ‘Black’ as a term that operates similarly to ‘Black’, ‘Women of Colour’ and ‘Third World Women’ in the US.

The different histories behind Black feminist writing in Britain and in African countries provide different conditions for political identities. For Afro-Caribbean, Asian and African British feminists, the link with a ‘Third World’ subjectivity is nuanced, generally, by more direct familial experience than is common in Black feminist writing from the United States. The relatively short history of Black feminism in Britain, due to the more recent settlement of postcolonial migrants 5 (although the history of Black people in Britain, particularly in the port cities of Cardiff, Liverpool, Bristol, London, spans colonial history-see Fryer 1984) is inexorably tied to issues of migration, re-location, ‘origins’ and cultural difference. The cultural stake in the nation of Britain is frequently problematised as well as energised by personal or familial memories of arrival.

The anthology, Motherlands (1991), emphasises the powerful influence of ‘Third World’ origins on the writing of British feminists. The term ‘motherlands’ is linked with histories of exile, longing and displacement, and the editor, Susheila Nasta‘s stated aim in the Introduction, to ‘generate a cross-cultural dialogue between critics and writers whether in ”First” or “Third” worlds’ (1991: xviii), reveals the intention of the book to remain sensitive to national/cultural specificities. The third section of the text, ‘Absent and Adopted Mother(land)s’, underlines the project’s concern with connections, with the liminalities of nations and homes, and with the continual renegotiation of racial and cultural identities. ‘Home Girls’, particularly in this section, gains a complicated and layered set of meanings, analysing the writing of immigrants and migrants whose home is both present and elsewhere.

The reading of African, Caribbean and Asian novels primarily explores the ‘universal’ issues and themes of motherhood, native language (or ‘mothertongue’) and the self-expression of women within the institutions of family, nation, community. The role of colonial institutions with their imposition of gendered or national identitiesplaces the criticism of these texts within a wider problematic of ‘First/Third’ world politics and power. The criticism of these texts also introduces the question of the politics of ‘First World’ criticism of ‘Third World’ texts. The difficulties of writing about (explaining, analysing) fiction from one (social/cultural) context out of another can itself risk the dynamics of imperialist encounter. The reading of Black women’s writing from the West or the ‘Third World’ has, then, to remain aware of the insights of Black and ‘Third World’ feminisms.

A text that is discussed more than once in the collection is Ama Ata Aidoo‘s novel, Our Sister Killjoy (1977). As a narrative that charts the experiences of a Ghanaian woman in Europe, the text acts as a locus for exploring the difficulties of dialogue between White/Western and African women. Histories of imperialism and the realities of racism and exploitation underlie Sissie’s analysis of inter-continental migration and inter-racial friendship between women. The peculiarities of this text, besides its blending of poetry and prose, of letter-form, autobiographical address and third person narrative, are the simultaneous recognition of the oppression of Africa and the violence of racism, and the representation of a relationship between two women that curiously reverses the expected power structure. The merging of genres and the shift in authorial address places attention on narrative voice and expression on the importance of narrative control. In this way, the relationship between Sissie and Marija is related from a position of knowledge, with Sissie taking up a ‘masculine’ position against Marija’s emotional dependence.

The effect of this is a narrative that promotes African subjectivity to the place of observer, definer and historical judge. Reversing dominant perspectives, African female subjectivity presents European history, landscape, people and language as ethnographically strange, with Marija’s German English placed at a similar expressive disadvantage as pidgin in European ethnographies/novels. The feminism of the text is, then, deliberately and inescapably placed within specific cultural locations, at the point of conflict between dominant and subordinate national identities. ‘Black feminism’, in relation to this text, is both a reevaluation of African femininity in respect of African communities and men, and a re-examination of racial and cultural differences between women.

The letter that moves towards the conclusion of the novel emphasises Sissie’s ‘anti-western neurosis’, and her fear of the loss of African identityparticularly African femininity. As a letter addressed to an African man, the text refuses a direct engagement with the politics or feminisms of ‘the West’ and yearns instead for the autonomy of definition ‘That is why, above all, we have to have our secret language. We must create this language … So that we shall make love with words and not fear of being overheard’ (1977: 116).

However, the ‘authenticity’ of origins, of cultural identity, of race, prevail as issues within the politics of Black feminisms. Identity politics and debates over ‘mixed race’ identity, forms of racism and class complicate the broad terrain of ‘racial difference’ on which ‘Blackness’ is identified. It is here that the impact of postmodernism on Black feminisms has been, in some ways, enabling. Its corrective against identity politics, against the ‘authenticity’ of Blackness, allows for multiple Black female identities to be expressed, recognised and valorised:

A postmodern black feminist identity … is not just based on racism and oppression but on recognizing the fluidity and fragmented nature ofracialized and gendered identities. In this sense we can reclaim subjectivity from the cul de sac of identity politics and reinstate it in terms of a powerful, conscious form of political agency. (Mirza 1997: 13)

bell hooks’s essay, Postmodern Blackness, explores the relevance of postmodernist theories for Black politics. Her recognition of the threat that postmodernism imposes on Black politics is significant and exposes the difficulties and dangers of postmodernist thinking for Black feminisms. As a critique of identity politics, potmodernism can be seen to threaten the formation and sustaining of an oppositional voice against the reality of racist society and institutions. As Pratibha Parmar claims:

To assert an individual and collective identity as a black woman has been a necessary historical process, both empowering and strengthening. To organize self-consciously as black women was and continues to be important; that form of organization is not arbitrary, but is based on a political analysis of our common economic and cultural oppressions. (Parmar 1987: 68)

However, postmodernism’s deconstruction of ‘the subject’, including ‘the Black subject’, or ‘the Black female subject’ can also be seen as liberating the diversity of Black lived experience and subjectivities: ‘Such a critique allows us to affirm multiple black identities, varied black experience. It also challenges colonial imperialist paradigms of black identity which represent blackness one-dimensionally in ways that reinforce and sustain white supremacy’ (hooks 1991: 28).

The autonomy of definition is a major issue within Black feminisms. However, this issue has a range of dimensions, as this brief ‘narrative’ of Black feminisms reveals. The layering of antagonisms, of conflicts and struggles that Black feminisms have undergone, whether within the general feminist movement, within cultural/racial communities, and, finally, between continents and cultures, defies any easy definition of a politics or an identity. The insistent need for an awareness of global inequalities and cultural difference, initially called for by Black feminisms, is a difficulty and an ongoing project within and between Black feminisms. In conclusion, the novel, Our Sister Killjoy, provides a useful and telling comment on the pitfalls and dangers of defining ourselves and others: ‘I know everyone calls you Sissie, but what is your name?’ (Aidoo 1977: 131).


Source: Contemporary Feminist Theories, Jackson, Stevi. Edinburgh University Press 1998

1. ‘After consultation with the Commission for Racial Equality, among others, nine separate categories White, Black Caribbean, Black African, Black Other, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Any other ethnic group were decided upon’ (AngLygate 1995: 18). 2. Cherrie Moraga, ‘Refugees of a World On Fire’, Foreword to the second edition, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds) This Bridge Called My Back.
3. Ibid.
4. In Search of OurMothers’ Gardens, published in Britain by The Women’s Press, 1984; first published by Harcourt BraceJovanovich in 1983, xii.
5. ‘However, if genealogies span centuries, can we undertake a genealogy of Black British feminism when the immediate history of concerted black feminist activity in Britain reaches back only over the last 50 years, over the relatively short time of postcolonial migration and settlement here?’ Heidi Safia Mirza (1997: 6).


Categories: Feminism, Gender Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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