Writing A Short Comparison Of Two Questions

I am a product of an intellectual tradition which until twenty-five years ago did not exist within the academy. Like patchwork in a quilt, it is a tradition gathered from meaningful bits and pieces. My tradition has no name, because it embraces more than womanism, Blackness, or African studies, although those terms will do for now. —Barbara Omolade 1994, ix

It seems I am running out of words these days. I feel as if I am on a linguistic tread- mill that has gradually but unmistakably increased its speed, so that no word I use to positively describe myself or my scholarly projects lasts for more than five sec- onds. I can no longer justify my presence in academia, for example, with words that exist in the English language.The moment I find some symbol of my presence in the rarefied halls of elite institutions, it gets stolen, co-opted, filled with negative meaning. —Patricia Williams 1995, 27

U.S. Black women’s struggles on this “linguistic treadmill” to name this tradition with “no name” reveal the difficul- ties of making do with “terms [that] will do for now.” Widely used yet increas- ingly difficult to define, U.S. Black feminist thought encompasses diverse and often contradictory meanings. Despite the fact that U.S. Black women, in partic- ular, have expended considerable energy on naming Black women’s knowledge, definitional tensions not only persist but encounter changing political climates riddled with new obstacles. When the very vocabulary used to describe Black feminist thought comes under attack, Black women’s self-definitions become even more difficult to achieve. For example, despite continued acceptance among many African-Americans of Afrocentrism as a term referencing tradi- tions of Black consciousness and racial solidarity, academics and media pundits maligned the term in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, the pejorative meanings increasingly attached to the term feminist seem designed to discredit a move-

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C o p y r i g h t 2 0 0 0 . R o u t l e d g e .

A l l r i g h t s r e s e r v e d . M a y n o t b e r e p r o d u c e d i n a n y f o r m w i t h o u t p e r m i s s i o n f r o m t h e p u b l i s h e r , e x c e p t f a i r u s e s p e r m i t t e d u n d e r U . S . o r a p p l i c a b l e c o p y r i g h t l a w .

EBSCO Publishing : eBook Collection (EBSCOhost) – printed on 6/13/2020 1:53 AM via UNIV OF CALIFORNIA-SANTA CRUZ AN: 70795 ; Collins, Patricia Hill.; Black Feminist Thought : Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment Account: s8329998.main.ehost



ment dedicated to women’s empowerment. Even the term Black fell victim to the deconstructive moment, with a growing number of “Black” intellectuals who do “race” scholarship questioning the very terms used to describe both themselves and their political struggles (see, e.g., Gilroy 1993). Collectively, these developments produced a greatly changed political and intellectual context for defining Black feminist thought.

Despite these difficulties, finding some sort of common ground for thinking through the boundaries of Black feminist thought remains important because, as U.S. Black feminist activist Pearl Cleage reminds us, “we have to see clearly that we are a unique group, set undeniably apart because of race and sex with a unique set of challenges” (Cleage 1993, 55). Rather than developing definitions and arguing over naming practices—for example, whether this thought should be called Black feminism, womanism, Afrocentric feminism, Africana woman- ism, and the like—a more useful approach lies in revisiting the reasons why Black feminist thought exists at all. Exploring six distinguishing features that characterize Black feminist thought may provide the common ground that is so sorely needed both among African-American women, and between African- American women and all others whose collective knowledge or thought has a similar purpose. Black feminist thought’s distinguishing features need not be unique and may share much with other bodies of knowledge. Rather, it is the convergence of these distinguishing features that gives U.S. Black feminist thought its distinctive contours.

W h y U . S . B l a c k F e m i n i s t T h o u g h t ?

Black feminism remains important because U.S. Black women constitute an oppressed group. As a collectivity, U.S. Black women participate in a dialectical relationship linking African-American women’s oppression and activism. Dialectical relationships of this sort mean that two parties are opposed and opposite. As long as Black women’s subordination within intersecting oppres- sions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation persists, Black feminism as an activist response to that oppression will remain needed.

In a similar fashion, the overarching purpose of U.S. Black feminist thought is also to resist oppression, both its practices and the ideas that justify it. If inter- secting oppressions did not exist, Black feminist thought and similar opposi- tional knowledges would be unnecessary. As a critical social theory, Black femi- nist thought aims to empower African-American women within the context of social injustice sustained by intersecting oppressions. Since Black women cannot be fully empowered unless intersecting oppressions themselves are eliminated, Black feminist thought supports broad principles of social justice that transcend U.S. Black women’s particular needs.

Because so much of U.S. Black feminism has been filtered through the prism

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of the U.S. context, its contours have been greatly affected by the specificity of American multiculturalism (Takaki 1993). In particular, U.S. Black feminist thought and practice respond to a fundamental contradiction of U.S. society. On the one hand, democratic promises of individual freedom, equality under the law, and social justice are made to all American citizens. Yet on the other hand, the reality of differential group treatment based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship status persists. Groups organized around race, class, and gender in and of themselves are not inherently a problem. However, when African- Americans, poor people, women, and other groups discriminated against see lit- tle hope for group-based advancement, this situation constitutes social injustice.

Within this overarching contradiction, U.S. Black women encounter a dis- tinctive set of social practices that accompany our particular history within a unique matrix of domination characterized by intersecting oppressions. Race is far from being the only significant marker of group difference—class, gender, sexuality, religion, and citizenship status all matter greatly in the United States (Andersen and Collins 1998). Yet for African-American women, the effects of institutionalized racism remain visible and palpable. Moreover, the institutional- ized racism that African-American women encounter relies heavily on racial seg- regation and accompanying discriminatory practices designed to deny U.S. Blacks equitable treatment. Despite important strides to desegregate U.S. society since 1970, racial segregation remains deeply entrenched in housing, schooling, and employment (Massey and Denton 1993). For many African-American women, racism is not something that exists in the distance.We encounter racism in every- day situations in workplaces, stores, schools, housing, and daily social interaction (St. Jean and Feagin 1998). Most Black women do not have the opportunity to befriend White women and men as neighbors, nor do their children attend school with White children. Racial segregation remains a fundamental feature of the U.S. social landscape, leaving many African-Americans with the belief that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” (Collins 1998a, 11–43). Overlaying these persisting inequalities is a rhetoric of color blindness designed to render these social inequalities invisible. In a context where many believe that to talk of race fosters racism, equality allegedly lies in treating everyone the same. Yet as Kimberle Crenshaw (1997) points out, “it is fairly obvious that treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently” (p. 285).

Although racial segregation is now organized differently than in prior eras (Collins 1998a, 11–43), being Black and female in the United States continues to expose African-American women to certain common experiences. U.S. Black women’s similar work and family experiences as well as our participation in diverse expressions of African-American culture mean that, overall, U.S. Black women as a group live in a different world from that of people who are not Black and female. For individual women, the particular experiences that accrue to liv- ing as a Black woman in the United States can stimulate a distinctive conscious-

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ness concerning our own experiences and society overall. Many African- American women grasp this connection between what one does and how one thinks. Hannah Nelson, an elderly Black domestic worker, discusses how work shapes the perspectives of African-American and White women: “Since I have to work, I don’t really have to worry about most of the things that most of the white women I have worked for are worrying about.And if these women did their own work, they would think just like I do—about this, anyway” (Gwaltney 1980, 4). Ruth Shays, a Black inner-city resident, points out how variations in men’s and women’s experiences lead to differences in perspective. “The mind of the man and the mind of the woman is the same” she notes, “but this business of living makes women use their minds in ways that men don’t even have to think about” (Gwaltney 1980, 33).

A recognition of this connection between experience and consciousness that shapes the everyday lives of individual African-American women often pervades the works of Black women activists and scholars. In her autobiography, Ida B. Wells-Barnett describes how the lynching of her friends had such an impact on her worldview that she subsequently devoted much of her life to the anti- lynching cause (Duster 1970). Sociologist Joyce Ladner’s discomfort with the disparity between the teachings of mainstream scholarship and her experiences as a young Black woman in the South led her to write Tomorrow’s Tomorrow (1972), a groundbreaking study of Black female adolescence. Similarly, the trans- formed consciousness experienced by Janie, the light-skinned heroine of Zora Neale Hurston’s (1937) classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, from obedient granddaughter and wife to a self-defined African-American woman, can be directly traced to her experiences with each of her three husbands. In one scene Janie’s second husband, angry because she served him a dinner of scorched rice, underdone fish, and soggy bread, hits her.That incident stimulates Janie to stand “where he left her for unmeasured time” and think. And in her thinking “her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. . . . [S]he had an inside and an out- side now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (p. 63).

Overall, these ties between what one does and what one thinks illustrated by individual Black women can also characterize Black women’s experiences and ideas as a group. Historically, racial segregation in housing, education, and employment fostered group commonalities that encouraged the formation of a group-based, collective standpoint.1 For example, the heavy concentration of U.S. Black women in domestic work coupled with racial segregation in housing and schools meant that U.S. Black women had common organizational networks that enabled them to share experiences and construct a collective body of wisdom. This collective wisdom on how to survive as U.S. Black women constituted a dis- tinctive Black women’s standpoint on gender-specific patterns of racial segrega- tion and its accompanying economic penalties.

The presence of Black women’s collective wisdom challenges two prevail- ing interpretations of the consciousness of oppressed groups. One approach

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claims that subordinate groups identify with the powerful and have no valid independent interpretation of their own oppression. The second assumes the oppressed are less human than their rulers, and are therefore less capable of inter- preting their own experiences (Rollins 1985; Scott 1985). Both approaches see any independent consciousness expressed by African-American women and other oppressed groups as being either not of our own making or inferior to that of dominant groups. More importantly, both explanations suggest that the alleged lack of political activism on the part of oppressed groups stems from our flawed consciousness of our own subordination.2

Historically, Black women’s group location in intersecting oppressions pro- duced commonalities among individual African-American women. At the same time, while common experiences may predispose Black women to develop a dis- tinctive group consciousness, they guarantee neither that such a consciousness will develop among all women nor that it will be articulated as such by the group. As historical conditions change, so do the links among the types of expe- riences Black women will have and any ensuing group consciousness concerning those experiences. Because group standpoints are situated in, reflect, and help shape unjust power relations, standpoints are not static (Collins 1998a, 201–28). Thus, common challenges may foster similar angles of vision leading to a group knowledge or standpoint among African-American women. Or they may not.