Beverly Guy-Sheftal’s masterful anthology of African-American feminist thought, “Words of Fire,” is a reminder that African-American women sometimes publicly expressed feminist thought before white women did.
Guy-Sheftal describes a small group of free Black “feminist abolitionists” who surfaced in the early 19th century, including Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth and Frances E.W. Harper. Anna Julia Cooper said that African-American women confront both a “woman question and a race problem,” and Guy-Sheftal describes this question as the essence of Black feminist thought in the 19th century. In the late part of the 20th century, though, Black women are often told that we have to choose between race and gender.
Johnetta Cole has the answer to that. In her epilogue essay in Guy-Sheftal’s book, she likens the choice between race and gender to a swimmer with both arms tied behind her back. Which would you have released, Cole asks? Would you fight racism or sexism when the battle against these twin evils is essential to your survival?
Because of the history of racism in the women’s movement, many Black women find it hard to be “down” with white women. But many Black women, myself included, refuse to cede “feminism” to white women. In the name of women like Maria Stewart and Ida B. Wells, we are obligated to struggle for women’s rights, even as we struggle for the rights of African Americans.
There were substantive reasons for some African-American feminists, myself included, to oppose the October 1995 Million Man March. If it were merely billed as a Black male “love-in,” I would have had fewer objections. If Black women had not so explicitly been told (not asked) to stay home and “pray and teach” while the men “marched and led,” the march would not have had the taint of traditional gender roles. If it had not been cast in the shadow of the 1963 March on Washington — a march that did not exclude women’s participation — it might not have been as objectionable. And if it did not take on the conservative tinge of “atonement” and “taking responsibility” in a policy arena when these are exactly the things policymakers are asking of African-American people, it would not have been as much of a problem for me.
Despite my objections to the march, I was intrigued by its spirit. On the morning of the march, I was moved by the sea of Black men who moved as if choreographed — courteous, strong, focused. But while noting its importance, I still feel the march was fundamentally flawed.
Many who supported the march decided to make it a litmus test on Blackness. If you didn’t support the march, you couldn’t “really” be Black. Or you couldn’t have the interests of African-American people at heart. Many of us who visibly opposed the march were the targets of ugly hazing and harassment, moves that seemed designed to muzzle dissent and evoke fear. Perhaps this is why so many women only gingerly voice feminist concerns. Consider Pearl Cleage, writing about O.J. Simpson and female self-defense in “Words of Fire”: “I am afraid as I write those words. Afraid that my brothers will read it and be angry with me. Afraid that I will be accused of male bashing, of judging O.J. before he’s even had a trial. … Even worse, I can hear the howls of outrage that I could even think of advocating that Black women arm themselves when our community is already an armed camp.”
Cleage drew courage from Ida B. Wells, who wrote about Black self-defense. She drew parallels between her argument and Wells’ and affirmed her obligation to write about the status of women. She acknowledged that she’d rather write about “love and healing and nationalism and wholeness,” but wondered what she would write if her daughter had been battered.
Like Cleage, I’d rather be writing about the economic liberation of African-American people than about anything else. But even as I write about economic justice, the data make it clear that African-American women shoulder more than our share of the economic injustice in our community. More than Black men? That’s not the comparison I choose to make. African-American men and women have both been affected by a capitalist patriarchy that devalues our culture and our communities. Our pain has been a collective pain, and we have sometimes inflicted pain on each other. In writing about economic liberation, I would be less than honest if I didn’t tackle issues about the status of African-American women and the way institutions in the African-American community are sometimes instruments of oppression.
I could swallow my objections in the name of Black unity, or sidestep the angry attacks that so often come when a Black woman speaks out. Instead, I choose to voice my objections. In the name of love for Black men and women. In the name of truth. And in the name, and the footsteps of Ida B. Wells, of Maria Stewart, of Anna Julia Cooper, I stand concerned about race and gender. I am Black, feminist, outspoken, unintimidated — and claiming Women’s History Month as a time for African-American women to deal with these feminist issues.
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