As a black woman/feminist, I must look about me, with trembling, and with shocked anger, at the endless waste, the endless suffocation of my sisters. . . . How is my own lifework serving to end these tyrannies, these corrosions of sacred possibility? ~ June Jordan, 1936-2002
A few years ago I was invited to give a presentation on scholarship and activism at The College Preparatory School in Oakland. I spoke to both the school’s Black Student Union, and Ms. Tigress Osborn’s Women’s Studies class in honor of Women’s History month. As much as I thought I would be a nervous, fumbling idiot (it had been a while since I’d visited this work; the possibility that I’d forgotten much of the content and context was a fear I carried), I pleasantly surprised myself by being able to talk about my intellectual and community organizing experience with ease and confidence. I began my presentation with a little educational background, which went a little something like this:
The genesis of this study began at Merritt College with my first African American course… Black Families in the U.S., taught by a very passionate and committed professor by the name of Dr. Cecilia Arrington.
While grateful for the knowledge I received from Dr. Arrington’s instruction and the body of work developing, I was left feeling full but not quite satisfied. The seeds of my feminist consciousness were germinating although not developed enough to articulate the ideas shaping and forming my perspective nor to comprehend and challenge those ideas that were inherently flawed or questionable. Patriarchy and heterosexism, as an ideology and practice prevailed as a dominant theme and common denominator in solving the problems of Black women who headed households without a spouse or economic stability. And together, patriarchy, racism and class (as in the maintaining of the status quo) are powerful and “seductive ideologies in any nation-state, and will always have its adherents”, but I wanted to subversively disrupt this trilogy. Like a sponge, I had absorbed much of the discourse that Dr. Arrington provided, but this was only the beginning of my intellectual journey.
At this point, I was able to take off and my presentation flowed as it should; the students seemed to be engaged, and a Q & A followed. I was happy to impart to them what I’d learn, and encouraged them to consider wedding their own scholarship to activism as tools for seeking and demanding social justice. I shared with them my research and interest in the Suffrage movement and how Black women had played a significant role in this and in the early stages of a U.S. women’s movement, but that finding this information was not easy.
My thesis is primarily focused on the invisibility of Black women from mainstream U.S. history, U.S. women’s history, and U.S. Black history (coming from the perspective that U.S. history and Black history is overwhelmingly male-centered, and that women’s history is disproportionately white). This invisibility continues to exist (although more scholarship is emerging from Black feminists/scholars and activists). Moreover, this work stemmed from a need to seek social justice through scholarship.
Through an examination of historical literature, essays (over 100), and film (2), I devoted more than a few pages outlining discoveries of omission as well as uncovering and citing work that chronicle the diverse lives of Black women during this historical period.
Also established were signs of feminist tensions that question the sustainability of a feminist movement (in theory and practice) at times openly operating as an agent/perpetrator of racial and class oppression. As late as 1984, Audre Lorde, in her seminal work, Sister Outsider, posed the question to a group of her white colleagues, asking “What is the theory of racist feminism?” I argued that …to critique sexism under the false assumption (as the only assumption) that all women suffer equally from sexist oppression is to ignore racism (that it is a problem and one that exist for women of color) often employed by many white women within the feminist/women’s movement. Further, this myopic and racially exclusionary ideal was an "expedient" tool used by white women leaders of the Suffrage movement to further their cause and to gain the support of their white male counterparts.
In this work, it was not my intention to rehash or repeat what was widely accessible (acceptable, even) and discursive with regard to women’s history and the period between 1848-1920, a historic designation for white women, but to season this history with the spices missing to make this historical stew more flavorful and add color to a clear, unappealing broth. However, I invariably wanted to draw attention to the hardships and struggles burdening Black women then and now, which contextualizes why Black women would indeed want to participate in any liberation movement, whether it is for the right to vote or freedom from racial, sexual and class oppression. A theme of resistance and activism was at the core of my research.
I’d been asked what I thought influenced sexism, to which I responded that the relentlessness of patriarchy, capitalism and its attendant popular culture, were surely prevailing culprits and practices. And discursively, a thorough examination of capitalism is critical to understanding how the other two operate and collude. Yet it is also important to underscore how physical and emotional violence were/are competing agents in this ongoing drama of oppression, creating a perfect hegemonic storm of power over the lives of women.
When asked what drove me to this particular moment in Black history, I stated that it was anger, an anger that sparked a righteous indignation. Anger is good if it can be used in constructive ways to counter and disrupt ideals that oppress a majority of bodies. To both groups I implored them to always challenge the status quo and injustice in all its variations, to work with community, to organize and to do so from a place of love—loving themselves, each other, and to maintain healthy boundaries of care.
Overall, I think there were some teachable moments, and I discovered, again, just how important this work was and continues to be.