“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” – Sojourner Truth, 1851
Truth was an advocate for abolition and women’s rights. In her famous, “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, she was one of the first to articulate the blatant social differences between white women and black women. While all women were seen as vessels to bear workers, during the institution of slavery in the United States (1619-1865), black women were also expected to do all the work that male slaves could do.
Yet there is always an air of discomfort in the room whenever I say that I identify as a black feminist in a room full of other “feminists” that are unaware of what this distinction truly means. There is the argument that some black women just want to create racial divides in a movement where there should not be; however, the remnants of historical oppression are visible in the day-to-day lives of black women even today, and this legacy of the systematic oppression of black women and white women differ dramatically.
Mainstream feminism of today is primarily concerned with equal pay, more representation in professional fields and breaking glass ceilings, but it fails to take into account how race and class cause women of color to struggle everyday.
Now I am by no means saying I do not support the mainstream feminist movement, and I am not saying that some of the goals do not align in both. I am saying that in a country in which pieces of legislation had to be passed to tell black women that it is okay to get married and have custody of their own children, the intersectionality of race and womanhood needs to be acknowledged as valid.
Black feminism is my claim to feminism, and it is my birthright.
Intersectionality is the study of the the interaction and layering of different systems of oppression. UCLA Professor Kimberle Crenshaw interprets intersectionality in feminism as follows:
“The view that women experience oppression in varying configuration and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity.”
The motivation behind activism is sometimes hyper-personal. It is through experiences of oppression that activism finds its way into individuals’ agendas. My hyper-personal activism leads me to claim a feminism that reflects the history of oppressions felt by black women. My hyper-personal activism leads me to claim a feminism as nuanced as my experience as a woman.
The Seneca Falls Convention held in 1848 was a pivotal moment in the feminist movement. Organizers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were white abolitionists who were inspired to hold this convention after they were excluded from the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. They boldly crafted the “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” that stated in the preamble “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.”
The convention was largely attended by white, middle and upper-class women, and the convention failed to include women of color. Just as Stanton and Mott were excluded from discourse in London, women of color were left out in Seneca Falls. Seneca Falls is a large foundational display of how, even within the feminist movement, remembering intersectionality is crucial.
In fact, matters of race have always forced a schism within the feminist movement. After the success of the Women’s Suffrage, black women were faced with adversity when casting their votes in the South. Sixty black women came to the National Women’s Party Convention in 1921 to discuss these issues with convention leader Alice Paul, but they were met with indifference.
The Combahee River Collective Statement issued in 1982 is considered one of the most beautifully articulated pieces about the importance of black feminism. The women who wrote the piece explained how the struggles of black women include sexism and racism.
Mainstream feminism does not boldly tackle enough of the issues that many black women face in their daily lives. It doesn’t try to understand a black woman’s relationship to hip hop, the struggle with hair appearance, over-sexualization, pleasure politics, the idiocy of colorism and the loyalty and hurt that black women may feel towards black men. These, and others, would never be on the agenda of mainstream feminism.
However despite these differences, black feminism can be for everyone. My introduction to black feminism came from a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class man who unapologetically claims that he looks at everything in his life from a black feminist lens. Stanford alumnus Milton Achelpohl told me, “I see the world through a black feminist lens because of the language I found in the works of black feminist writers. The intersectionality, self-love, and indeed a centering of what I see as radical love made sense to what I imagined as a more just, compassionate and desirable future. Through black feminist politic, I better understand and interrogate my white masculinity, and my relationship to the world.”
Black feminism is not about drawing divides. Black feminism is about understanding that levels of oppression are nuanced, layered, and distinctive. Claiming black feminism is acknowledging the role of gender and race in the lives of black women everyday and black women on plantations.
Black feminism is giving validation to truth.