"Feminism Is a Black Thing"?: Feminist Contributions to Black Family Life

By West, Carolyn M. | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

"Feminism Is a Black Thing"?: Feminist Contributions to Black Family Life


West, Carolyn M., National Urban League. The State of Black America


Black feminist scholar, bell hooks (1995) passionately declares that "feminism is a Black thing." Yet, some members of the African-American community express suspicion and contempt for feminist beliefs. This essay is a review of feminist contributions to black family life. More specifically, I will define feminism, review black feminist history, and discuss the research on feminist attitudes among African Americans. The concluding section will explore how a feminist perspective can help us to understand diversity among black families, gender and family roles enacted by men and women, childhood gender socialization, and intimate partner violence.

Definitions of Feminism

"Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression"(hooks, 2000, p. 1). Although this definition seems fairly innocuous, there are many myths about sexism and feminism (Smith, 1983, p. xxvi-xxxi). Some common misconceptions include:

* Feminism primarily addresses the concerns of middle-class white American women;

* Feminists are mostly lesbians;

* Feminists are angry and man-hating, attitudes that will undermine black male-female relationships;

* Racism is the primary form of oppression experienced by black women; therefore, feminism is less relevant to their lives;

* Black women don't need feminism because they are already "liberated."

Despite these stereotypes, African-American scholars have articulated a feminist worldview that addresses the diversity and complexity of the black experience (Collins, 2000). For example, Alice Walker (1983) defined a "womanist" as "...committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female" (p. xi). The Combahee River Collective, a 1970s grassroots black feminist organization, offered a political definition:

...We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking ... As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of color face. (Smith, 1983, p. 272-282)

Which term is correct: Womanism, Black Feminism, Afrocentric Feminism? Scholars will continue this debate for years. Regardless of terminology, the feminist perspective would not privilege gender oppression over race or class oppression. Instead, this standpoint challenges us to consider how living at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, including racism, classism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation influence the life experiences of African Americans (Collins, 2000).

Our Black Feminist History

Rudolph Byrd and Beverly Guy-Sheftall (2001) unearthed an extensive history of black male feminist thought. In his address, delivered in 1888 to a convention of the New England Woman Suffrage Association, Frederick Douglass stood before the crowd and unapologetically declared: "I am a radical woman suffrage man." In addition to being a "race man," W.E.B. Du Bois was also invested in the economic uplifting of black women. In his essay, The Damnation of Women," which was actually a tribute to black women, he acknowledged black women's contributions to the struggle for racial equality: "...Despite the noisier and more spectacular advance of my brothers, I instinctively feel and know that it is the five million women of my race who really count." This anti-sexist tradition has continued in the work of contemporary scholars and activists, such as Michael Eric Dyson (2003) in his celebratory book Why I Love Black Women. Even young men in the hip-hop community challenge their counterparts to reject sexist behavior and violence against women (Powell 1997).

African-American women have also played a prominent role in the feminist movement During the suffrage movement, which was considered the first feminist wave in the U. …

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