Black Feminism Movement Analysis

Black feminism is the association of the Black Liberation and women’s liberation movements and has its own ideologies. African American women have created this thought for the sake of the Black women. Theoretical interpretations have been made from the lived experiences of the people involved (Wheeler, 2007, p.15). Gender, class and race oppressions have united to give rise to the Black Feminism. These oppressions can be traced back to the period of slavery in the United States. The social hierarchy consisted of the white men at the top followed by the women and then the black men and at the lowest rung was the black woman. With a 400 year history behind them, the Black women have learned survival techniques born of necessity. The Black woman has evolved the person with the best and keenest social and economic survival skills including the strategies for political resistance (Wheeler, 2007, p. 15). One class of oppression requires these women to identify themselves as Black first and woman next or vice versa. This according to them is unimportant. What needs to be done is to improve their lives which by itself would lead to the improved lives of the African American males, their families and their communities. Black feminism aims to empower the Black woman and help to create a humanistic society. The feminist movement of the white women missed the issues of the Black women. This marginalization was resented by the Black women (Wheeler, 2007, p. 16).

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The Black Feminist movement developed in the late 1960s and early 70s. The Combahee River Collective addressed capitalism as the primary cause of oppression.

The Nationalist Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) focused on the sexism and the homophobia of the male dominated Black Civil Rights Movement and the racism of the white feminist movement. The Combahee River Collective in Boston justified the legitimacy of the organization of the Black feminists (Wheeler, 2007, p. 16). The Collective addressed issues of homophobia and social issues and called for sisterhood among the Black women. Many women were reluctant to join the movement then. The NBFO soon made a pledge to address issues of racial and gender discrimination.

Journals for Black women

In1984, the first scholarly journal for Black Women was published. The Spelman was a Black Women’s college. A Press for publication of journals, the Women of Color Press, was started. Construction of Black feminist thought was possible through many publications. In Patricia Collin’s book major, subjects of Black feminist thought, were dealt with from the Black woman’s point of view (1990). The empowerment of Black women is possible through self definitions and self evaluations that create positive self images that eliminate the negative pictures of Black womanhood formed by the perceptions of others. Mammies, matriarchs, welfare queens and Jezebels were some of the descriptions of Black women (Wheeler, 2007, p. 17). The victimization of women was such in the minds of many people. Black Women’s studies were introduced in college. Understanding the lived experiences of the Black women was now possible. This also brought forth many Black women intellectuals in the 1980s. Alice Walker (1995), Toni Morrison (1973) and Gloria Naylor (1983) were among the greater writers. Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Black Intellectualistic Women

Black women’s history which dated from abolitionist times was one focal point that investigated the influences of social structure on Black women’s consciousness. The other focal point was the Black feminist literary criticism. The expression of women’s intellectualism was avoided in the Afrocentric and feminist critiques and was forced to find alternative locations for it. Even the black intellectuals could not accept the intellectualism of the Black women. The Black women were denied credentials by their own people by asserting that their research was not credible (Wheeler, 2007, p. 17). Circumstances forced Black women scholars, writers and artists to work alone or in some other unrelated organizations in the African American society. Enhancing their career was next to impossible. The Black feminists attempted to take intellectual thought along with political activism. Their lived experiences were obtained from the factories or at houses where they worked, in the process of acquiring good health care, organizing community gatherings and mothering. Their experiences in oppression were re-interpreted and narrated in their books so that their feelings changed to one of empowerment. Local communities which were known as submerged networks were another outlet for the intellectual Black woman (Wheeler, 2007, p.17).


Michele Wallace writes that there was an age when she and her sister were growing up to be women, not white (1975, p. 5). Black consciousness was gaining popularity in the late 1960s. Though knowing the history of slavery and her African ancestry, Wallace set about becoming a black woman. Her freedom was restricted by all her family and friends around. New freedoms were all taken away. The beauty parlor was out. She was not to entertain white men but she had to bear the black ones. Black women had to bear a lot from their own men. They worked and prayed while the men went off drinking and having drugs or illicit relationships. Whatever happened, the women always were at the receiving end. Black women have been pictured as domineering and loud spoken. However the women were really soft spoken and submissive. Being used by the Black men was an accompaniment to the role of the Black woman as wife, housekeeper and mother. The Black women were believed to have little intelligence and independence. Enslavement was a way of life for the Black woman.

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Education for Black women

On entering Howard University, Wallace came to realize that the women joined with the hope of securing husbands. Having to save herself from being branded as a fallen woman, she had to stay in and not go on dates (Wallace, 1975, p.8). The new Blackness was becoming the new slavery in college. There was an old grandmothers’ saying which meant that the black man has learned to hate himself and hate women even more (Walker, 1995, p. 9). The young women were warned against the black man. Black women were not treated decently by their own men. Wallace always tried to speak about humanity for black women all to no avail. Black men at the same time found white women irresistible. White women found black women ‘faceless masses’ and the victims of rape while the black men were co-victims, not men (Walker, 1995, p.10). Black women were forced to have a cultural movement due to the level of consciousness among them.

Womanism by Alice Walker

Alice Walker introduced the term of womanism in 1983. It was better accepted by most people who did not like the term Black feminist. She used it in her poem collection “In search of our mother’s gardens: womanist prose” (Wheeler, 2007, p.18). This was, necessary when the women moved away from their home front to the work environment. Already women were working away from home under the circumstances of dire necessity and definitely not for personal fulfillment. The Black Liberation movement spoke of equality for African American men and left the women unattended. Sometimes the term Africana womanism has been used to term the Black woman which reminds everyone of their African descent (Wheeler, 2007, p. 18).

Womanism by Layli Philips

Alice Walker speaks of the shared struggle of the African Americans for survival and improved quality of life (Philips, 2006, p. 120). The main concerns of womanist ideology were survival and community building and maintenance. The aim of the community building was to have a positive quality of life in economic, spiritual

and education spheres for men, women and children. She is of opinion that woman consciousness allows women to love themselves too. Walker advised black women to give themselves some time for relaxation while in the process of community building. She believed that a womanist is also a feminist, the feminist heritage going back to the nineteenth century. The womanist had respect and love for all women, sexually and non sexually (Philips, 2006, p. 120). Community building is not possible when men are included and when Black women do not respect their counterparts. Mothering and nurturing are the womanist’s vital characteristics.

Womanist theology

Womanist theology was to teach the Christians about moral life based on ethics.

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(Philips, 2006, p.122). This was to bring about social and theological transition. Walker mentioned that the African American woman had always respected the spirit. In the Black church, the effectiveness of the worship service was more important than its scholarly content (Philips, 2006, p. 123). The womanist theologians identified Biblical stories speaking of oppression and where women had close encounters with God’s messengers. The womanist theologians added their own interpretations to the services.

Womanism is not feminism

According to Layli Philips, “womanism is a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem-solving in everyday spaces extended to the problem of ending all forms of oppressions for all people” (2006, p.xx). Her definition further talks about the restoration of balance between people and the environment and associating human life in a spiritual dimension. She believes that womanism is not feminism or Black feminism.

Global dimension of womanism

The mid 1980s saw scholars of literature, history and theology investigating womanism in their disciplines (Philips, 2006, p. xxi). Later, the film world, theatre, anthropology, psychology, education, social work and nursing began to continue these investigations. Womanism was really popular in every form of culture including music and arts. The exploration of womanism was found globally. More of womanism was evident in the way of life than what has been expressed in the various disciplines. Womanist scholarship and terminology have been used broadly and many have attempted to correlate womanism and feminism and debated the merits of one against the other (Philips, 2006, p. xxii). Womanism has been related to lesbianism by some. Others have regarded it as a synonym for black feminism. Womanism is an ethnic and cultural perspective. It has been described as a celebration of women who have been ‘beat down’ by the system by Alice Walker. (p. xxii). Philips says that womanism openly acknowledges spiritualism.

The Solo Drama

There exists a long history of womanist ideology in the African American theatre but the solo drama is a new idea and an unconventional form of theatre (Tylee, 1997, p. 153). The woman’s perspective had always been ignored (Dickerson, 1988, p. 179). Exposure of arts to the womanist ideology was extending widely. Soon, women like Whoopi Goldberg blossomed. Though womanist ideas are expressed, the target is the white women. As more and more black women shifted into academics and arts, womanism was being acknowledged. Showing the true black woman in the role of Mammy exhibited their real identity and not what the whites expected of them (Dickerson,. 1988, p.180). Solo drama had enabled many potential actors to come forwards to select this medium over the others in theatre as it provided plenty of freedom of expression (Kearns, 2005, p. ix). Another advantage was that censorship was not instituted for solo drama. Continuity was also not required. A series of incidents could be presented which had time gaps. Many actors opted for the liberated behavior of solo drama because very few rules governed the act. Womanist themes were thereby just suitable for solo drama. Differences in world view and the meaning of universality allowed the feminist drama and women’s theatre to assume a non-traditional format (Zack, 1997). Striking out away from the normal Western tradition of dramatic theory of Aristotle with the theory of universality was the next step of the Blacks. Womanist theatre has been able to deliver the opinions of black women who were never a dominant group. The Black theatre placed importance on movement of ritual and spiritual nature (Harrison, 2004, p. 51). The Black tradition placed enormous value on the aural, visual, and rhythmic-language, spectacle, and music. Many believed that there was ritual healing in the solo drama. The actor was accepted with great communal response. However each drama lasted just one and a half hours as people were not tolerant for longer ones.

Black Theatre

Art had a main role in the pre-colonial African societies and the situation has remained the same even today. Most African festivals have visual and performing arts (Harrison, 2002, p.42). The arts are usually ritualistic but not necessarily religious. They are more of a humanistic nature. When the Africans reached America, some mixture of culture occurred. In the 1950s and 60s, Black playwrights started writing plays which needed a Black theatre, one which was ideologically and financially separate from the whites (Thomas, 1997, p. 4). The theory of cultural hegemony helps us to understand the development of the Black Theatre in America. The establishing of the African American theatre had met with problems of acceptance (Thomas, 1997, p.4). Many of the Black Americans were reluctant to accept their African descent. Feelings of inferiority and expressing shame for connecting their ancestry to Africans, the Blacks however failed to convince the others that they were not descended from the Africans (Thomas, 1997, p. 4). The white plays already had black characters which the whites themselves played. Later real Blacks played the roles. Barbara Ann Teer in 1968 helped to found the National Black Theatre at Harlem. Later most of the Black artists and performers accepted their biculturity (Harrison, 2002, p.56). Many of them are proud of it. Now biennial summits are being held in Africa to strengthen the bonds of heritage and history.

Showcasing the Black Women

The Essence Magazine had written that during the Civil Rights Movement, when the African Americans men were fighting, the women were participatory in the tumult but they were silenced by their men (Philips, 2006, p.216). There was an assumption that Black women had no agenda different from the white women or the black men (Oder, 1995, p. 26). The Essence Magazine was an undertaking of the Blacks who wished to showcase the African American women’s intellect, beauty and talent. The ‘In the spirit’ column by Taylor offered a spirituality component, articles, short stories talking about workplace politics, relationships, health and beauty care and education. The Essence was considered a lifeline for the Black women (Philips, 2006, p.217). “Essence must be a source for Black women, a handbook that inspires and informs us” (Taylor, 1990, p. 263). Susan L.Taylor was a former fashion and beauty editor who later assumed the editor’s post. Seven inter-related themes have been found in Taylor’s column: spirit power, harmony and balance, self affirmation, cultural history and ancestral reverence,

love, collective power and self destruction (Philips, 2006, p.219). Affirmation is the process by which reality is created through speech. There is nothing in the world to censor this (Vanzant, 1992, p.92). Through affirmation, mutual respect can be established. Researchers have advised African American women to affirm their beauty and intelligence by defying stereotypes. Taylor advised the Blacks to celebrate their

own and each other’s victories. Jealousy or envy was not to mar any individual or collective progress (Philips, 2006, p.227). She reminded them of the various factors which have prevented their success like anger, bitterness, self doubt, self pity and holding onto the past. The way out for eliminating these hindrances was also shown by her. Taylor’s worldview states that the Afrocentric worldview is based on historical, cultural and philosophical tradition of the African people. The value system of their behaviors had two guiding principles: a oneness with nature and survival (Baldwin, 1980).

The Essence and Taylor were instrumental in providing plenty of moral support to the Black Community especially the women. The columns speak of spirituality and intellect being conjoined, subjectivity to be appreciated, duality to be rejected, multiplicity of voice and social locations advised (Philips, 2006, p.229).

Womanist behaviors

Womanist methods of social transformation included the activities of harmonization, coordination, balancing and healing (Philips, 2006, p. xxvi). Hospitality, mutual aid, self help and mothering were behaviors of womanism. Physical and psychological well-being provided the grounds for social justice. The harmonization and coordination helped to unite disparate elements through differential consciousness. Womanist methods of fair arbitration and mediation helped to reconciliate two parties with disagreements. Prayer, rituals, meditation and other methods helped to cast spiritual energy on the social and political activities. Physical problem solving and healing also used this spiritual energy (Philips, 2006, p.xxviii). Motherhood in womanism has been evolved from the African cultural legacies. It was group behavior which helped the Black woman to take care of the family and nurture them. Her role extended to their education, involving them in spiritual mediation and dispute resolving. Physical healing was essential for general well-being and the ability to contribute this energy for greater concerns. All these were essential for rebalancing the world socially, environmentally and spiritual.

Womanism is not based on ideologies like Marxism or feminism. It only believes in the natural shaping of thoughts and relationships. All problems begin in beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. The Black woman uses tactics which ideologists might just write off as unimportant and ineffective. Womanism has been described as post modernism in the street (Philips, 2006, p. xxxii). In a familial system, feminism and womanism may be supportive of each other and the difference may be respected. The womanist perspective believes that solutions of problems or social justice are more important than bothering about classification or worrying about which group they come under (Philips, 2006, p. xxxiii).

The relationship of womanism with feminism

Womanism has a relationship with feminism. They both originate from common cultural and historical ancestors. Black feminism has racism in it while womanism does not. Both include a struggle against sexism and violence against women. Black feminism is considered to be what is left of womanism when feminism is eliminated. The feeling, the sound, the politics and the soul of Black feminism depict the same picture as of womanism without the feminism portion (Philips, 2006, p. xxxv).

Womanism is a perspective that can convey the feelings and sentiments of all humanity. It is not confined to the Black people. Problems of a cultural or ethnic type rather than racial account for one being called a womanist. Ideas about sexism are diverse. Free expression of sexuality should be allowed and sexuality-based oppression or undue privileges for one sexual group should be prevented by Philips (Philips, 2006, p.xxxvii).

Oppression always reduces humankind to lesser beings. This kind of humiliation must be dismantled if justice is to be meted out (Philips, 2006, p. xxxviii). For any real change in justice and healing to occur, concern for others must be a criterion. Single-based ideologists were unable to downtrod oppression. Black feminists who had generations of survival wisdom were the ones who came closest to doing so. Womanism had been in vogue long before the terminology was started.

The womanist mantra

Multiple communities thrived together and developed the ability to use multiple perspectives to think and reason. They moved in and out of the different cultural, cognitive, ideological emotional, social or spiritual frames easily. Harmony and coordination arose from these ever-changing problems and circumstances (Philips, 2006, p. xxxix). Poverty was the main issue causing the dehumanizing situations. The Black women who had learned from experience how to ‘make a way out of no way’ were prepared to be able leaders of the future. They had resisted dehumanization for generations. The womanist ‘mantra’ was “we can do it with or without you’ (Philips, 2006, p. xl). Changing human society is a vain effort many a time. Oppressions which are

eliminated may make their way back in other forms. Black women have always been wary of change. Womanists also know that self nurturing is as important as looking after others. Sticking to high principles is not the womanist’s attitude. Perfection is not the required feature for being good. People occupying high and influential positions may not have realized that womanists have devised many feasible, tried and tested theories and solutions derived from years of experience. Philips considers womanism as separate from Black feminism while many other authors equate the two (2006, p. xlvii). Womanism is a dynamic and fast evolving process.

Black Feminist Criticisms

Women writers have found it difficult to establish themselves. They have been judged or misunderstood according to male norms from male perceptions. Feminist critics have been making inaccurate and partisan judgments of women writers since the 1970s. Theorists and practitioners have defined feminist criticism as the ‘corrective unmasking of the omissions and distortions of the past, the errors of a literary critical tradition that arises from and reflects a culture that is created, perpetuated and dominated by men’ (Walker, 1995, p.5). The early feminist critics were white women. Black women writers have been ‘disenfranchised from the works on female traditions. The same treatment was meted out to them by the black male scholars of the Afro American Literary tradition (Walker, 1995, p. 6). Even if they were given critical consideration, their writings were usually dismissed as not credible.

Barbara Smith on Black feminism

Barbara Smith in her essay has pointed out that the writings of whites and black men are normal experiences and the experiences of black women are deviant (Walker, 1995, p.6). Barbara Smith mentions that the home that she remembers is the place where she learned the rudiments of Black feminism (Smith, 2000, p. xxii). The grandmothers trained their growing granddaughters for womanhood. The older generation always considered Georgia their home even though they had not seen it (Smith, 2000, p.xxiv). The upbringing caused the children to know much about their past and prepared them for the future. Smith mentions that she learned about Black feminism and the failings from the ladies at home. Black people who felt threatened by Black feminism carried the impression that anyone who became a Black feminist had left the Black community

(Smith, 2000, p.xxiv). Speaking out openly about sex did not please the feminist critics. Smith believed that being able to function with dignity, independence and imagination against adversity or the whites, the Black women exhibited a strong feminist potential. The Black men who wished to maintain supremacy over their females scared them away from thinking too much (Smith, 2000, p.xxvii). They were afraid of having to change themselves if their women did so. The men of the Third World believed in biological determinism when the whole race was threatened but when it became a question of gender, this principle hardly mattered.

Myths of feminism

Women of color had the fewest choices about the circumstances of their lives. The myth which said that women were already liberated was wrong (Smith, 2000, p.xxviii). Feminism is not just man hating. The second myth said that Black women faced only racist oppression. Women needed a fair deal and safety in their lives. The feminist and anti racist movements attempted to produce a decent life for the humans involved. Considering feminists as lesbians is tantamount to alienating them from normal decent black folks (Smith, 2000, p.xxxii). The movement in feminism is political while lesbianism is not feminism. The latter belief is another myth which often makes it double difficult for women to prove themselves. The aim of connecting feminism to lesbianism may deter many women from joining the movement which is probably the hidden agenda behind this myth.

The simultaneous oppressions against the blacks, the women and that of homophobia has been described as a triple jeopardy by Black feminist and musician Linda Tillery’s song, is one reason for a successful coalition building (1977). These simultaneous oppressions actually caused a bonding among the Black women due to their common need.

The movements working for the Black women

Organization over women’s issues is occurring globally among activists in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, India, New England and England (Smith, 2000, p.xxxvi). Groups like the Salsa Soul Sisters in New York and the Sapphire Saphos in Washington D.C. are dealing with issues of lesbianism, women and colored people and homophobia (Smith, 2000, p. xxxix).

Black feminist cultural work is being done. Building autonomous institutions for the Black women is essential. Rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, periodicals and publishers are some of the requirements of the Black feminists. Black women should try not to be different from each other (Smith, 2000, p.xli). Differences should not dilute the aims of the Black Feminist groups. Literature has definitely influenced the Black women to form coalitions. “This bridge called my back: Writings of radical women of color” edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua has been a catalyst for many coalitions (1984). Colored women of other races have also formed coalitions for solving their problems. Black feminists have been providing moral support.

Another oppression

Sexuality is a problem in feminist movements now (Smith, 2000, p. xlvii). Understanding oneself better would rescue one from the insinuations of others. Homophobia is another problem. Many men pretend that they are heterosexual while they are actually indulging in homosexual activity too. The gay men who cannot profess their sexuality within the community and the church marry women for the sake of the Black beliefs and have families while continuing their homosexual behavior. These men are described as on the ‘down low’ (Operario, 2008, p. 348). They are identified in society as heterosexual men and they deny any homosexual behaviors to their female partners. Unsuspecting wives are prone to HIV and AIDS. This is one more form of oppression.

Acceptance of forgotten black women

Attempts are being made to resurrect forgotten black women writers and revising opinions on their works. However there is still no body for criticism of the works of black women. Feminist writings have been taken as lacking theories for their ideas which are more practical based and are not sophisticated in presentation. Women writers have always had their viewpoints based on their own experiences. Root working, herbal medicine, conjure and midwifery have dominated the works of Margaret Walker (1966), Zora Neale Hurston (1991) and Alice Walker (1974). Their language has been singularly female oriented and related to sex. The questions has arisen, ‘do black women have their own language’ and ‘is this different from the language of black men?’(Walker, 1995, p.8). Many works have been classified as lesbian for the mere fact that they have harped on the problems of heterosexual marriages. Feminist critics believe that they can influence a transition by perceiving the literature of black women as ‘a cultural and political enterprise’ (Walker, 1995, p. 10). History reveals that in writings prior to 1940, the attitudes towards black women in that era need to be ensured before the criticism. ‘The messenger’, a magazine of the Harlem Renaissance, indicates that the social attitudes towards black women were similar to those towards traditional middle class women (Walker, 1995, p. 11). There existed a disparity between social pressure and artistic integrity (Walker, 1995, p. 12). Tillie Olsen wrote about the ‘power still in the hands of men’. Many feminist critics do not follow the methodologies of criticism handed down by white men. Annette Kolodny believed in retrieving the good in the old methodologies and inventing new ones as the necessity arises as one moves on (Walker, 1995, p.13). Lillian Robinson speaks of the feminist ideology as having specific format of sentences, metaphors, narrative techniques and exposition patterns. Barbara Smith suggests the common usage of terms in the language of black women writers. Description of clothes has frequently appeared in feminist writings (Walker, 1995, p.14). The journey taken by black men in their writings is different from the women writers’. The men end up talking about the underworld and the social and political implications. The black women speak about the physical and psychological aspects and how they moved from victimization to realization.

Though feminist critics are to look for common language and themes in the works of black women, the writers should not concentrate on these alone. Their writing must come from their hearts and not be influenced by mere language commonalities. Feminist critics have begun to examine the works of black male writers just to discover the negative imaging of black women.

Standpoint theory

This is the ‘lens’ through one views the world and one’s perspectives would vary with one’s lived experiences and the effects of oppression (Wheeler, 2007, p. 18). Black women have standpoint views and differing opinions due to the repercussions of their marginalized status and their survival tactics. A group consciousness would be evident.

Alternate ideas about the reality of situations may be open to them through their evolved

consciousness which has empowered them. The Black feminist standpoint theory is similar to the Marxist theory which teaches that the socially oppressed classes have an access to knowledge which is unavailable to the socially privileged (Wheeler, 2007, p.18). The Black women too have the advantage of viewing the dominant group from ‘unflattering angles’. This gave rise to the term ‘bifurcated consciousness’ which helps them to see things from the perspectives of both the dominant and the oppressed and thereby compare the two. This reminds us of the slave’s viewpoint. The slave is able to adjust and understand his master’s actions well. The master is not so interested in thinking in the same way about his slave and ignores him. Moreover women’s views vary

according to their social and economic status and the degree of marginalization they have experienced (Wheeler, 2007, p. 19). Collins speaks of Black women as having Black Feminist epistemology: the multiply oppressed as multiply epistemically privileged. Collins believes that this has arisen from the personal experiences of the racism and sexism and in the cognitive styles of the Black women. This epistemology is believed to help the women resist their negative images and be proud of what they are (Wheeler, 2007, p. 20).


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