I am in need of help with a book review for the attached book. This must be a well written scholarly paper. black_feminist_though_by_patricia_hill_collins.pdfPraise for the first edition of
Black Feminist Thought
“The book argues convincingly that black feminists be given, in the words immortalized by Aretha Franklin, a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T. . . . Those with an appetite for
scholarese will find the book delicious.”
“With the publication of Black Feminist Thought, black feminism has moved to a
new level. Collins’ work sets a standard for the discussion of black women’s lives,
experiences, and thought that demands rigorous attention to the complexity of
these experiences and an exploration of a multiplicity of responses.”
—Women’s Review of Books
“Patricia Hill Collins’ new work [is] a marvelous and engaging account of the social
construction of black feminist thought. Historically grounded, making excellent use
of oral history, interviews, music, poetry, fiction, and scholarly literature, Hill proposes to illuminate black women’s standpoint. . . . Those already familiar with black
women’s history and literature will find this book a rich and satisfying analysis.
Those who are not well acquainted with this body of work will find Collins’ book
an accessible and absorbing first encounter with excerpts from many works, inviting
fuller engagement. As an overview, this book would make an excellent text in
women’s studies, ethnic studies, and African-American studies courses, especially at
the upper-division and graduate levels. As a meditation on the deeper implications
of feminist epistemology and sociological practice, Patricia Hill Collins has given us
a particular gift.”
“Patricia Hill Collins has done the impossible. She has written a book on black
feminist thought that combines the theory with the most immediate in feminist
practice. Collins’ book is a must for any feminist’s library.”
“Finding her own voice and sharing with us the voices of other African-American
women, Collins brilliantly explicates our unique standpoint. As a black feminist,
Collins traverses both old and new territories. She explores the familiar themes of
oppression, family, work, and activism and also examines new areas of cultural
images and sexual politics. Collins gently challenges white feminist dominance of
feminist theory and nurtures an appreciation for diversity in positions reflecting different race, class, and gender junctures. Her work is an example of how academics
can make their work accessible to the wider public.”
—Elizabeth Higginbotham, Professor of Sociology, University of Delaware, and
co-editor of Women and Work: Exploring Race, Ethnicity, and Class (Volume 6)
REVISED TENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Patricia Hill Collins
New York and London
Published in 2000 by
29 West 35th Street
New York, NY 10001
Published in Great Britain by
11 New Fetter Lane
London EC4P 4EE
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2002.
Copyright © 2000 by Routledge
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced
or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means,
now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and
recording or in any information storage or retrieval system, without
permission in writing from the publishers.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Collins, Patricia Hill, 1948–
Black feminist thought : knowledge, consciousness, and the
politics of empowerment / Patricia Hill Collins. — 2nd ed.
cm. — (Perspectives on gender)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-415-92483-9 (hb). — ISBN 0-415-92484-7 (pb)
1. Feminism—United States. 2. Afro-American women. 3. United
States—Race relations. I.Title II. Series: Perspectives on
gender (New York, N.Y.)
ISBN 0-203-90005-7 Master e-book ISBN
ISBN 0-203-90009-X (Glassbook Format)
Preface to First Edition vi
Preface to Second Edition x
The Social Construction of
Black Feminist Thought
1.The Politics of Black Feminist Thought 1
2. Distinguishing Features of Black Feminist Thought 21
Core Themes in
Black Feminist Thought
3.Work, Family, and Black Women’s Oppression 45
4. Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images 69
5.The Power of Self-Definition 97
6.The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood 123
7. Black Women’s Love Relationships 149
8. Black Women and Motherhood 173
9. Rethinking Black Women’s Activism 201
Black Feminism, Knowledge,
10. U.S. Black Feminism in Transnational Context 227
11. Black Feminist Epistemology 251
12.Toward a Politics of Empowerment 273
hen I was five years old, I was chosen to play Spring in my preschool pageant. Sitting on my throne, I proudly
presided over a court of children portraying birds, flowers, and the other, “lesser”
seasons. Being surrounded by children like myself—the daughters and sons of
laborers, domestic workers, secretaries, and factory workers—affirmed who I
was. When my turn came to speak, I delivered my few lines masterfully, with
great enthusiasm and energy. I loved my part because I was Spring, the season of
new life and hope. All of the grown-ups told me how vital my part was and congratulated me on how well I had done. Their words and hugs made me feel that
I was important and that what I thought, and felt, and accomplished mattered.
As my world expanded, I learned that not everyone agreed with them.
Beginning in adolescence, I was increasingly the “first,” or “one of the few,” or
the “only” African-American and/or woman and/or working-class person in my
schools, communities, and work settings. I saw nothing wrong with being who
I was, but apparently many others did. My world grew larger, but I felt I was
growing smaller. I tried to disappear into myself in order to deflect the painful,
daily assaults designed to teach me that being an African-American, workingclass woman made me lesser than those who were not. And as I felt smaller, I
became quieter and eventually was virtually silenced.
This book reflects one stage in my ongoing struggle to regain my voice. Over
the years I have tried to replace the external definitions of my life forwarded by
dominant groups with my own self-defined viewpoint. But while my personal
odyssey forms the catalyst for this volume, I now know that my experiences are
far from unique. Like African-American women, many others who occupy societally denigrated categories have been similarly silenced. So the voice that I now
seek is both individual and collective, personal and political, one reflecting the
intersection of my unique biography with the larger meaning of my historical
I share this part of the context that stimulated this book because that context
influenced my choices concerning the volume itself. First, I was committed to
making this book intellectually rigorous, well researched, and accessible to more
than the select few fortunate enough to receive elite educations. I could not write
a book about Black women’s ideas that the vast majority of African-American
women could not read and understand. Theory of all types is often presented as
being so abstract that it can be appreciated only by a select few. Though often
highly satisfying to academics, this definition excludes those who do not speak
the language of elites and thus reinforces social relations of domination. Educated
elites typically claim that only they are qualified to produce theory and believe
that only they can interpret not only their own but everyone else’s experiences.
Moreover, educated elites often use this belief to uphold their own privilege.
I felt that it was important to examine the complexity of ideas that exist in
both scholarly and everyday life and present those ideas in a way that made them
not less powerful or rigorous but accessible. Approaching theory in this way
challenges both the ideas of educated elites and the role of theory in sustaining
hierarchies of privilege. The resulting volume is theoretical in that it reflects
diverse theoretical traditions such as Afrocentric philosophy, feminist theory,
Marxist social thought, the sociology of knowledge, critical theory, and postmodernism; and yet the standard vocabulary of these traditions, citations of their
major works and key proponents, and these terms themselves rarely appear in the
text. To me the ideas themselves are important, not the labels we attach to them.
Second, I place Black women’s experiences and ideas at the center of analysis. For those accustomed to having subordinate groups such as African-American
women frame our ideas in ways that are convenient for the more powerful, this
centrality can be unsettling. For example, White, middle-class, feminist readers
will find few references to so-called White feminist thought. I have deliberately
chosen not to begin with feminist tenets developed from the experiences of
White, middle-class, Western women and then insert the ideas and experiences
of African-American women. While I am quite familiar with a range of historical and contemporary White feminist theorists and certainly value their contributions to our understanding of gender, this is not a book about what Black
women think of White feminist ideas or how Black women’s ideas compare with
those of prominent White feminist theorists. I take a similar stance regarding
Marxist social theory and Afrocentric thought. In order to capture the interconnections of race, gender, and social class in Black women’s lives and their effect
on Black feminist thought, I explicitly rejected grounding my analysis in any single theoretical tradition.
Oppressed groups are frequently placed in the situation of being listened to
only if we frame our ideas in the language that is familiar to and comfortable for
a dominant group.This requirement often changes the meaning of our ideas and
works to elevate the ideas of dominant groups. In this volume, by placing
African-American women’s ideas in the center of analysis, I not only privilege
those ideas but encourage White feminists, African-American men, and all others to investigate the similarities and differences among their own standpoints
and those of African-American women.
Third, I deliberately include numerous quotations from a range of AfricanAmerican women thinkers, some well known and others rarely heard from.
Explicitly grounding my analysis in multiple voices highlights the diversity, richness, and power of Black women’s ideas as part of a long-standing AfricanAmerican women’s intellectual community. Moreover, this approach counteracts
the tendency of mainstream scholarship to canonize a few Black women as
spokespersons for the group and then refuse to listen to any but these select few.
While it is certainly appealing to receive recognition for one’s accomplishments,
my experiences as the “first,” “one of the few,” and the “only” have shown me
how effective selecting a few and using them to control the many can be in stifling subordinate groups. Assuming that only a few exceptional Black women
have been able to do theory homogenizes African-American women and silences
the majority. In contrast, I maintain that theory and intellectual creativity are not
the province of a select few but instead emanate from a range of people.
Fourth, I used a distinctive methodology in preparing this manuscript which
illustrates how thought and action can work together in generating theory. Much
of my formal academic training has been designed to show me that I must alienate myself from my communities, my family, and even my own self in order to
produce credible intellectual work. Instead of viewing the everyday as a negative
influence on my theorizing, I tried to see how the everyday actions and ideas of
the Black women in my life reflected the theoretical issues I claimed were so
important to them. Lacking grants, fellowships, release time, or other benefits
that allow scholars to remove themselves from everyday life and contemplate its
contours and meaning, I wrote this book while fully immersed in ordinary activities that brought me into contact with a variety of African-American women.
Through caring for my daughter, mentoring Black women undergraduates,
assisting a Brownie troop, and engaging in other “unscholarly” activities, I
reassessed my relationships with a range of African-American women and their
relationships with one another.Theory allowed me to see all of these associations
with fresh eyes, while concrete experiences challenged the worldviews offered
by theory. During this period of self-reflection, work on this manuscript inched
along, and I produced little “theory.” But without this involvement in the everyday, the theory in this volume would have been greatly impoverished.
Fifth, in order to demonstrate the existence and authenticity of Black feminist thought, I present it as being coherent and basically complete. This portrayal is in contrast to my actual view that theory is rarely this smoothly constructed. Most theories are characterized by internal instability, are contested, and are
divided by competing emphases and interests.When I considered that Black feminist thought is currently embedded in a larger political and intellectual context
that challenges its very right to exist, I decided not to stress the contradictions,
frictions, and inconsistencies of Black feminist thought. Instead I present Black
feminist thought as overly coherent, but I do so because I suspect that this
approach is more appropriate for this historical moment. I hope to see other vol-
umes emerge which will be more willing to present Black feminist thought as a
shifting mosaic of competing ideas and interests. I have focused on the pieces of
the mosaic—perhaps others will emphasize the disjunctures distinguishing the
pieces of the mosaic from one another.
Finally, writing this book has convinced me of the need to reconcile subjectivity and objectivity in producing scholarship. Initially I found the movement
between my training as an “objective” social scientist and my daily experiences
as an African-American woman jarring. But reconciling what we have been
trained to see as opposites, a reconciliation signaled by my inserting myself in
the text by using “I,” “we,” and “our” instead of the more distancing terms
“they” and “one,” was freeing for me. I discovered that the both/and conceptual stance of Black feminist thought allowed me to be both objective and subjective, to possess both an Afrocentric and a feminist conciousness, and to be
both a respectable scholar and an acceptable mother.
When I began this book, I had to overcome my reluctance concerning committing my ideas to paper. “How can I as one person speak for such a large and
complex group as African-American women?” I asked myself. The answer is that
I cannot and should not because each of us must learn to speak for herself. In the
course of writing the book I came to see my work as being part of a larger
process, as one voice in a dialogue among people who have been silenced. I
know that I will never again possess the curious coexistence of naiveté and
unshakable confidence that I had when I portrayed Spring. But I hope to recapture those elements of the voice of Spring that were honest, genuine, and
empowering. More important, my hope is that others who were formerly and are
currently silenced will find their voices. I, for one, certainly want to hear what
they have to say.
initially wrote Black Feminist
Thought in order to help empower African-American women. I knew that when
an individual Black woman’s consciousness concerning how she understands
her everyday life undergoes change, she can become empowered. Such consciousness may stimulate her to embark on a path of personal freedom, even if
it exists initially primarily in her own mind. If she is lucky enough to meet others who are undergoing similar journeys, she and they can change the world
around them. If ideas, knowledge, and consciousness can have such an impact
on individual Black women, what effect might they have on Black women as a
group? I suspected that African-American women had created a collective
knowledge that served a similar purpose in fostering Black women’s empowerment. Black Feminist Thought aimed to document the existence of such knowledge and sketch out its contours.
My goal of examining how knowledge can foster African-American
women’s empowerment remains intact. What has changed, however, is my
understanding of the meaning of empowerment and of the process needed for it
to happen. I now recognize that empowerment for African-American women
will never occur in a context characterized by oppression and social injustice. A
group can gain power in such situations by dominating others, but this is not the
type of empowerment that I found within Black women’s thinking. Reading
Black women’s intellectual work, I have come to see how it is possible to be both
centered in one’s own experiences and engaged in coalitions with others. In this
sense, Black feminist thought works on behalf of Black women, but does so in
conjunction with other similar social justice projects.
My deepening understanding of empowerment stimulated more complex
arguments of several ideas introduced in the first edition. For one, throughout
this revision, I emphasize Black feminist thought’s purpose, namely, fostering
both Black women’s empowerment and conditions of social justice. Both of these
themes were in the first edition, but neither was as fully developed as they are
here. This enhanced emphasis on empowerment and social justice permeates the
revised volume and is especially evident in Chapter 2. There I replace my efforts
to “define” Black feminist thought with a discussion that identifies its distinguishing features. This shift allowed me to emphasize particular dimensions that
characterize Black feminist thought but are not unique to it. It also created space
for other groups engaged in similar social justice projects to recognize dimensions of their own thought and practice. I tried to reject the binary thinking that
frames so many Western definitions, including my earlier ones of Black feminist
thought and of Black feminist epistemology. Rather than drawing a firm line
around Black feminist thought that aims to classify entities as either being Black
feminist or not, I aimed for more fluidity without sacrificing logical rigor.
My analysis of oppression is also more complex in this edition, in part
because neither empowerment nor social justice can be achieved without some
sense of what one is trying to change. Whereas both editions rely on a paradigm
of intersecting oppressions to analyze Black women’s experiences, this edition
provides a more comprehensive treatment. Race, class, and gender studies were
being established when I wrote the first edition. Just as this area of inquiry has
greatly expanded since that writing, so has my treatment of this framework. For
example, in this edition, I broaden my analysis beyond race, class, and gender
and include sexuality as a form of oppression. Issues of social class and culture
also receive a more complex analysis in this edition. The first edition was especially concerned with issues of Black culture yet said less about social class.
Culture and class were both there, but not in the balance that characterizes this
edition. My arguments have not substantially changed, but I think they are more
In this edition, I also place greater emphasis on the connections between
knowledge and power relations. I have always seen organic links between Black
feminism as a social justice project and Black feminist thought as its intellectual
center. Stated differently, the relationship between African-American women’s
activism and Black feminist thought as an intellectual and political philosophy
integral to that endeavor for me are inextricably linked.These links continue, but
as social conditions change, these ties must be rethought.
Rethinking empowerment also led me to incorporate new themes in this
edition. For example, this volume says much more about nation as a form of
oppression. Incorporating ideas about nation allowed me to introduce a transnational, global dimension. Whereas the discussion here of transnational politics
and the global economy remains preliminary, I felt that it was important to
include it. U.S. Black women must continue to struggle for our empowerment,
but at the same time, we must recognize that U.S. Black feminism participates in
a larger context of struggling for social justice that transcends U.S. borders. In
particular, U.S. Black feminism should see commonalities that join women of
African descent as well as differences that emerge from our diverse national histories.Whereas this edition remains centered on U.S. Black women, it raises questions concerning African-American women’s positionality within a global Black
Providing more complex analyses of these themes required trying to retain
the main arguments of the first edition while changing their time-bounded
expression. Just as political and intellectual contexts change, so does the language
used to describe them. Some changes in terminology reflect benign shifts in
usage. Others signal more deep-seated political issues. The cases that are most
interesting occur when the same language continues to be used, whereas the
meaning attached to it changes. This type of shift certainly affected the term
Afrocentrism, a term that I used in the first edition. As understood in the 1970s and
1980s, Afrocentrism referred to African influences on African-American culture,
consciousness, behavior, and social organization. Despite considerable diversity
among thinkers who embraced this paradigm, Afrocentric analyses typically
claimed that people of African descent have created and re-created a valuable system of ideas, social practices, and cultures that have been essential to Black survival.
In the 1990s, however, news media and some segments of U.S. higher education
attacked the term as well as all who used it. Effectively discrediting it, as of this
writing, the term Afrocentrism refers to the ideas of a small group of Black
Studies professionals with whom I have major areas of disagreeement, primarily
concerning the treatment of gender and sexuality. For me, the main ideas of
Afrocentrism, broadly defined, continue to have merit, but the term itself is too
value laden to be useful. Readers familiar with the first edition may notice that I
have retained the main ideas of a broadly defined Afrocentrism, but have substituted other terms.
Providing more complex analyses while trying to retain the main arguments
of the first edition led me to modify the overall organization of the volume. In
order to strengthen my analyses, I moved blocks of text and even some chapters,
all the while being careful to omit very little from the first edition. For example,
because of the developments in the field of sexuality, I expanded the two chapters dealing with the sexual politics of Black womanhood and moved them earlier in the volume.This new placement allowed me to strengthen ideas about sexuality in the remainder of the volume. Similarly, I moved much of the material
in the final chapter of the first edition into earlier chapters. In its place, here I
present a new chapter on the politics of empowerment that provides a new capstone for the entire book. Readers familiar with the first edition will find that the
three chapters in Part III have been most affected by this reorganization of text.
These changes in Part III, however, enabled me to present a more theoretically
rich analysis of the connections between knowledge and power than that provided in the first edition. Overall, the arguments from the first edition are here
as well, but may appear in new and unexpected places.
I have learned much from revising the first edition of Black Feminist Thought.
In particular, the subjective experience of writing the first edition in the mid1980s and revising it now has been markedly different. I can remember how difficult it was for me to write the first edition.Then my concerns centered on coming to voice, especially carving out the intellectual and political space that would
enable me to be heard. As the preface to the first edition points out, I saw my
individual struggles as emblematic of Black women’s collective struggles to claim
a similar intellectual and political space. The events surrounding the publication
of the first edition certainly involved considerable struggle. One month before
Black Feminist Thought was to be released, the entire staff that had worked on it
was summarily fired, victims of a corporate takeover. We were all in shock.
During its first year with its new publisher, the book received little promotion.
Despite its media invisibility, Black Feminist Thought quickly exhausted its initial
print run. I was despondent. I had worked so hard, and it all seemed to have been
taken away so quickly. Fortunately, during that awful year before the book was
sold yet again to its current publisher, Black Feminist Thought’s readers kept it
alive. People shared copies, Xeroxed chapters, and engaged in effective word-ofmouth advertising.To this day, I remain deeply grateful to all of the readers of the
first edition because without them, this book would have disappeared.
I am in another place now. I remain less preoccupied with coming to voice
because I know how quickly voice can be taken away. My concern now lies in
finding effective ways to use the voice that I have claimed while I have it. Just as
I confront new challenges, new challenges also face U.S. Black women and Black
feminist thought as our self-defined knowledge. Because Black feminist thought
is created under greatly changed conditions, I worry about its future. However,
as long as Black feminist thought, or whatever terms we choose in the future to
name this intellectual work, remains dedicated to fostering both Black women’s
empowerment and broader social justice, I plan on using my voice to support it.
I recognize that the struggle for justice is larger than any one group, individual,
or social movement. It certainly transcends any one book, including my own. For
me, social injustice is a collective problem that requires a collective solution.
When it comes to my work, the only thing that is essential is that it contribute
toward this end.
Writing this book was a collaborative effort, and I would like to thank those most
essential to its completion. For the three years that it took me to write the first edition, my husband, Roger L. Collins, and daughter, Valerie L. Collins, lived with my
uncertainty and struggles. During that time we all ate far too much fast food and certainly did not reside in a spotless house. But despite this book—or perhaps because
of it—we are a stronger family.
I also wish to thank those individuals who could not be with me while I produced this volume but whose contributions are reflected on every page. I drew much
of my inspiration from the many Black women who have touched my life. They
include my aunts, Mildred Walker, Marjorie Edwards, and Bertha Henry; teachers,
friends, and othermothers who helped me along the way, Pauli Murray, Consuelo,
Eloise “Muff” Smith, and Deborah Lewis; and countless Black women ancestors, both
famous and anonymous, whose struggles created the foundation that nurtured me. I
especially acknowledge the spirit of my mother, Eunice Randolph Hill. Often when I
became discouraged, I thought of her and told myself that if she could persist despite
the obstacles that she faced, then so could I. One great regret of my life is that my
mother and my daughter will never meet. I hope these pages will bring them closer
Many of my colleagues listened to partially articulated ideas, read earlier drafts of
chapters, and generally offered the encouragement and intellectual stimulation that
enabled me to remain critical my own work yet persevere. Special thanks to Margaret
L. Andersen, Elsa Barkley Brown, Lynn Weber Cannon, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Cheryl
Townsend Gilkes, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Sandra Harding, Deborah K. King, and
Maxine Baca Zinn for their enthusiastic support. I am especially indebted to the
Center for Research on Women at Memphis State Univerity for providing resources,
ideas, and overall assistance.Also, I am deeply grateful to Elizabeth Higginbotham and
Rosemarie Tong for reading this manuscript in its entirety and offering helpful suggestions.
I have many people to thank for permission to reproduce copyright materals.
Earlier versions of Chapters 2 and 10 appeared in Signs 14 (4), Summer 1989, pp.
745–73, and Social Problems 33 (6), Oct./Dec., 1986, pp. S14–S32. I also thank June
Jordan and South End Press for On Call, 1985, and Marilyn Richardson and Indiana
University Press for Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Women Political Writer,
edited by Marilyn Richardson, 1987. This book takes materials from Drylongso,
A Self-Portrait of Black America, by John Langston Gwaltney, copyright 1980 by John
Langston Gwaltney, reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.; “Strange
Fruit,” by Lewis Allan, copyright 1939, Edward B. Marks Music Company, copyright renewed, used by permission, all rights reserved; and “Respect,” lyrics and
music by Otis Redding, copyright 1965 and 1967 by Irving Music, Inc. (BMI), international copyright secured, all rights reserved.
One special person participated in virtually every phase of the first edition of this
project. As a research assistant, she prepared literature reviews, read and commented
on chapter drafts, and skillfully located even the most obscure materials. Her contributions often surpassed the scholarly—she provided child care so I could work and
even fed my family’s cats. During our many long conversations, she patiently listened
to my ideas, bravely shared parts of her life that profoundly influenced my thinking,
and in many unspoken ways told me on a daily basis how important it was that I keep
going. Special thanks therefore go out to Patrice L. Dickerson, an emerging Black feminist intellectual, a future colleague, and always a solid sister-friend.
For the institutional support that I needed to work on this second edition, I thank
Joseph Caruso, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of
Cincinnati, John Brackett, Head of the Department of African-American Studies, and
Robin Sheets, Director of the Women’s Studies Program.The Charles Phelps Taft fund
at the University of Cincinnati also made an important contribution to this project.
The research budget that accompanied my being named Charles Phelps Taft Professor
of Sociology funded part of the expenses incurred in final manuscript preparation.
My students at the University of Cincinnati were also important in helping me
complete this project. The undergraduate majors in the Department of AfricanAmerican Studies proved to be invaluable in helping me clarify arguments concerning power that became important in the second edition. I also thank the graduate students in Women’s Studies who enrolled in my graduate seminars “Black Feminism:
Issues and Challenges” and “Black Women and the Politics of Sexuality.”The students
in these courses greatly enriched my understanding of issues of global feminism and
of the significance of sexuality. Special thanks goes out to Amber Green, my research
assistant for the year. We were both under considerable stress, but we both made it
through the year.
The staff at Routledge has been wonderful. Heidi Freund, my editor at
Routledge, who politely yet persistently kept asking me to do this revision until I
finally agreed to do it, deserves special credit. Also, I thank Shea Settimi, Anthony
Mancini, and other members of the staff at Routledge for making the production
process so positive for me. I also thank Norma McLemore for meticulous copyediting of the manuscript. As any writer knows, a good copyeditor is important.
Finally, I remain grateful for the numerous invitations that I have received over
the years to lecture on college campuses and at professional meetings. These trips
enabled me to work through the ideas in the second edition with diverse audiences.
Whereas the list of colleagues and new friends that I met during these visits is too
long to list, I appreciate all of the ideas that people shared with me. I especially thank
the students, parents, poets, high school teachers, activists, and ministers whom I met
on my trips.The conversations that I was able to have with you proved to be invaluable. I thank you all, and hope that you each see a bit of yourselves in these pages.
The Social Construction of
Black Feminist Thought
n 1831 Maria W. Stewart asked,“How
long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” Orphaned at age five, bound out to
a clergyman’s family as a domestic servant, Stewart struggled to gather isolated
fragments of an education when and where she could. As the first American
woman to lecture in public on political issues and to leave copies of her texts, this
early U.S. Black woman intellectual foreshadowed a variety of themes taken up by
her Black feminist successors (Richardson 1987).
Maria Stewart challenged African-American women to reject the negative
images of Black womanhood so prominent in her times, pointing out that race,
gender, and class oppression were the fundamental causes of Black women’s
poverty. In an 1833 speech she proclaimed, “Like King Solomon, who put
neither nail nor hammer to the temple, yet received the praise; so also have the
white Americans gained themselves a name . . . while in reality we have been their
principal foundation and support.” Stewart objected to the injustice of this situation: “We have pursued the shadow, they have obtained the substance; we have
performed the labor, they have received the profits; we have planted the vines, they
have eaten the fruits of them” (Richardson 1987, 59).
Maria Stewart was not content to point out the source of Black women’s
oppression. She urged Black women to forge self-definitions of self-reliance and
independence. “It is useless for us any longer to sit with our hands folded,
reproaching the whites; for that will never elevate us,” she exhorted. “Possess
the spirit of independence. . . . Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising,
fearless and undaunted” (p. 53). To Stewart, the power of self-definition was
essential, for Black women’s survival was at stake. “Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reason you cannot attain them. Weary them with your importunities.You can but die if you make the attempt; and we shall certainly die if you
do not” (p. 38).
Stewart also challenged Black women to use their special roles as mothers to
forge powerful mechanisms of political action. “O, ye mothers, what a responsibility rests on you!” Stewart preached. “You have souls committed to your
charge. . . . It is you that must create in the minds of your little girls and boys a
thirst for knowledge, the love of virtue, . . . and the cultivation of a pure heart.”
Stewart recognized the magnitude of the task at hand. “Do not say you cannot
make any thing of your children; but say . . . we will try” (p. 35).
Maria Stewart was one of the first U.S. Black feminists to champion the utility of Black women’s relationships with one another in providing a community
for Black women’s activism and self-determination. “Shall it any longer be said of
the daughters of Africa, they have no ambition, they have no force?” she questioned. “By no means. Let every female heart become united, and let us raise a
fund ourselves; and at the end of one year and a half, we might be able to lay the
corner stone for the building of a High School, that the higher branches of knowledge might be enjoyed by us” (p. 37). Stewart saw the potential for Black women’s
activism as educators. She advised, “Turn your attention to knowledge and
improvement; for knowledge is power” (p. 41).
Though she said little in her speeches about the sexual politics of her time,
her advice to African-American women suggests that she was painfully aware of
the sexual abuse visited upon Black women. She continued to “plead the cause of
virtue and the pure principles of morality” (p. 31) for Black women.And to those
Whites who thought that Black women were inherently inferior, Stewart offered
a biting response: “Our souls are fired with the same love of liberty and independence with which your souls are fired. . . . [T]oo much of your blood flows
in our veins, too much of your color in our skins, for us not to possess your spirits” (p. 40).
Despite Maria Stewart’s intellectual prowess, the ideas of this extraordinary
woman come to us only in scattered fragments that not only suggest her brilliance but speak tellingly of the fate of countless Black women intellectuals. Many
Maria Stewarts exist, African-American women whose minds and talents have
been suppressed by the pots and kettles symbolic of Black women’s subordination (Guy-Sheftall 1986).1 Far too many African-American women intellectuals
have labored in isolation and obscurity and, like Zora Neale Hurston, lie buried
in unmarked graves.
Some have been more fortunate, for they have become known to us, largely
through the efforts of contemporary Black women scholars (Hine et al. 1993;
Guy-Sheftall 1995b). Like Alice Walker, these scholars sense that “a people do not
throw their geniuses away” and that “if they are thrown away, it is our duty as
artists, scholars, and witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of
our children, . . . if necessary, bone by bone” (Walker 1983, 92).
This painstaking process of collecting the ideas and actions of “thrown
away” Black women like Maria Stewart has revealed one important discovery.
Black women intellectuals have laid a vital analytical foundation for a distinctive
standpoint on self, community, and society and, in doing so, created a multifaceted, African-American women’s intellectual tradition.While clear discontinuities
in this tradition exist—times when Black women’s voices were strong, and others when assuming a more muted tone was essential—one striking dimension of
the ideas of Maria W. Stewart and her successors is the thematic consistency of
If such a rich intellectual tradition exists, why has it remained virtually invisible until now. In 1905 Fannie Barrier Williams lamented, “The colored girl . . .
is not known and hence not believed in; she belongs to a race that is best designated by the term ‘problem,’ and she lives beneath the shadow of that problem
which envelops and obscures her” (Williams 1987, 150). Why are AfricanAmerican women and our ideas not known and not believed in?
The shadow obscuring this complex Black women’s intellectual tradition is
neither accidental nor benign. Suppressing the knowledge produced by any
oppressed group makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the seeming absence of dissent suggests that subordinate groups willingly collaborate in
their own victimization (Scott 1985). Maintaining the invisibility of Black
women and our ideas not only in the United States, but in Africa, the Caribbean,
South America, Europe, and other places where Black women now live, has been
critical in maintaining social inequalities. Black women engaged in reclaiming
and constructing Black women’s knowledges often point to the politics of suppression that affect their projects. For example, several authors in Heidi Mirza’s
(1997) edited volume on Black British feminism identify their invisibility and
silencing in the contemporary United Kingdom. Similarly, South African businesswoman Danisa Baloyi describes her astonishment at the invisibility of
African women in U.S. scholarship: “As a student doing research in the United
States, I was amazed by the [small] amount of information on Black South
African women, and shocked that only a minuscule amount was actually written by Black women themselves” (Baloyi 1995, 41).
Despite this suppression, U.S. Black women have managed to do intellectual
work, and to have our ideas matter. Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B.
Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Toni Morrison, Barbara Smith, and countless others have consistently struggled to make themselves heard. African women
writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, and Ellen Kuzwayo have used
their voices to raise important issues that affect Black African women (James
1990). Like the work of Maria W. Stewart and that of Black women transnationally, African-American women’s intellectual work has aimed to foster Black
This dialectic of oppression and activism, the tension between the suppression of African-American women’s ideas and our intellectual activism in the face
of that suppression, constitutes the politics of U.S. Black feminist thought. More
important, understanding this dialectical relationship is critical in assessing how
U.S. Black feminist thought—its core themes, epistemological significance, and
connections to domestic and transnational Black feminist practice—is fundamentally embedded in a political context that has challenged its very right to exist.
The Suppression of Black Feminist Thought
The vast majority of African-American women were brought to the United
States to work as slaves in a situation of oppression. Oppression describes any
unjust situation where, systematically and over a long period of time, one group
denies another group access to the resources of society. Race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, age, and ethnicity among others constitute major forms of
oppression in the United States. However, the convergence of race, class, and
gender oppression characteristic of U.S. slavery shaped all subsequent relationships that women of African descent had within Black American families and
communities, with employers, and among one another. It also created the political context for Black women’s intellectual work.
African-American women’s oppression has encompassed three interdependent dimensions. First, the exploitation of Black women’s labor essential to U.S.
capitalism—the “iron pots and kettles” symbolizing Black women’s long-standing ghettoization in service occupations—represents the economic dimension of
oppression (Davis 1981; Marable 1983; Jones 1985; Amott and Matthaei 1991).
Survival for most African-American women has been such an all-consuming
activity that most have had few opportunities to do intellectual work as it has
been traditionally defined. The drudgery of enslaved African-American women’s
work and the grinding poverty of “free” wage labor in the rural South tellingly
illustrate the high costs Black women have paid for survival. The millions of
impoverished African-American women ghettoized in Philadelphia,
Birmingham, Oakland, Detroit, and other U.S. inner cities demonstrate the continuation of these earlier forms of Black women’s economic exploitation (Brewer
1993; Omolade 1994).
Second, the political dimension of oppression has denied African-American
women the rights and privileges routinely extended to White male citizens
(Burnham 1987; Scales-Trent 1989; Berry 1994). Forbidding Black women to
vote, excluding African-Americans and women from public office, and withholding equitable treatment in the criminal justice system all substantiate the
political subordination of Black women. Educational institutions have also fostered this pattern of disenfranchisement. Past practices such as denying literacy
to slaves and relegating Black women to underfunded, segregated Southern
schools worked to ensure that a quality education for Black women remained the
exception rather than the rule (Mullings 1997). The large numbers of young
Black women in inner cities and impoverished rural areas who continue to leave
school before attaining full literacy represent the continued efficacy of the political dimension of Black women’s oppression.
Finally, controlling images applied to Black women that originated during
the slave era attest to the ideological dimension of U.S. Black women’s oppression (King 1973; D. White 1985; Carby 1987; Morton 1991). Ideology refers
to the body of ideas reflecting the interests of a group of people. Within U.S.
culture, racist and sexist ideologies permeate the social structure to such a
degree that they become hegemonic, namely, seen as natural, normal, and
inevitable. In this context, certain assumed qualities that are attached to Black
women are used to justify oppression. From the mammies, jezebels, and
breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes,
ubiquitous Black prostitutes, and ever-present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, negative stereotypes applied to African-American women
have been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.
Taken together, the supposedly seamless web of economy, polity, and ideology function as a highly effective system of social control designed to keep
African-American women in an assigned, subordinate place.This larger system of
oppression works to suppress the ideas of Black women intellectuals and to protect elite White male interests and worldviews. Denying African-American
women the credentials to become literate certainly excluded most AfricanAmerican women from positions as scholars, teachers, authors, poets, and critics. Moreover, while Black women historians, writers, and social scientists have
long existed, until recently these women have not held leadership positions in
universities, professional associations, publishing concerns, broadcast media, and
other social institutions of knowledge validation. Black women’s exclusion from
positions of power within mainstream institutions has led to the elevation of elite
White male ideas and interests and the corresponding suppression of Black
women’s ideas and interests in traditional scholarship (Higginbotham 1989;
Morton 1991; Collins 1998a, 95–123). Moreover, this historical exclusion means
that stereotypical images of Black women permeate popular culture and public
policy (Wallace 1990; Lubiano 1992; Jewell 1993).
U.S. and European women’s studies have challenged the seemingly hegemonic ideas of elite White men. Ironically, Western feminisms have also suppressed Black women’s ideas (duCille 1996, 81–119). Even though Black women
intellectuals have long expressed a distinctive African-influenced and feminist
sensibility about how race and class intersect in structuring gender, historically
we have not been full participants in White feminist organizations (Giddings
1984; Zinn et al. 1986; Caraway 1991). As a result, African-American, Latino,
Native American, and Asian-American women have criticized Western feminisms
for being racist and overly concerned with White, middle-class women’s issues
(Moraga and Anzaldua 1981; Smith 1982a; Dill 1983; Davis 1989).
Traditionally, many U.S. White feminist scholars have resisted having Black
women as full colleagues. Moreover, this historical suppression of Black women’s
ideas has had a pronounced influence on feminist theory. One pattern of suppression is that of omission.Theories advanced as being universally applicable to
women as a group upon closer examination appear greatly limited by the White,
middle-class, and Western origins of their proponents. For example, Nancy
Chodorow’s (1978) work on sex role socialization and Carol Gilligan’s (1982)
study of the moral development of women both rely heavily on White, middleclass samples. While these two classics made key contributions to feminist theory,
they simultaneously promoted the notion of a generic woman who is White and
middle class. The absence of Black feminist ideas from these and other studies
placed them in a much more tenuous position to challenge the hegemony of
mainstream scholarship on behalf of all women.
Another pattern of suppression lies in paying lip service to the need for
diversity, but changing little about one’s own practice. Currently, some U.S.White
women who possess great competence in researching a range of issues acknowledge the need for diversity, yet omit women of color from their work. These
women claim that they are unqualified to understand or even speak of “Black
women’s experiences” because they themselves are not Black. Others include a
few safe, “hand-picked” Black women’s voices to avoid criticisms that they are
racist. Both examples reflect a basic unwillingness by many U.S. White feminists
to alter the paradigms that guide their work.
A more recent pattern of suppression involves incorporating, changing, and
thereby depoliticizing Black feminist ideas. The growing popularity of postmodernism in U.S. higher education in the 1990s, especially within literary criticism and cultural studies, fosters a climate where symbolic inclusion often substitutes for bona fide substantive changes. Because interest in Black women’s
work has reached occult status, suggests Ann duCille (1996), it “increasingly
marginalizes both the black women critics and scholars who excavated the fields
in question and their black feminist ‘daughters’ who would further develop
those fields” (p. 87). Black feminist critic Barbara Christian (1994), a pioneer
in creating Black women’s studies in the U.S. academy, queries whether Black
feminism can survive the pernicious politics of resegregation. In discussing the
politics of a new multiculturalism, Black feminist critic Hazel Carby (1992)
expresses dismay at the growing situation of symbolic inclusion, in which the
texts of Black women writers are welcome in the multicultural classroom while
actual Black women are not.
Not all White Western feminists participate in these diverse patterns of suppression. Some do try to build coalitions across racial and other markers of difference, often with noteworthy results. Works by Elizabeth Spelman (1988),
Sandra Harding (1986, 1998), Margaret Andersen (1991), Peggy McIntosh
(1988), Mab Segrest (1994), Anne Fausto-Sterling (1995), and other individual
U.S. White feminist thinkers reflect sincere efforts to develop a multiracial,
diverse feminism. However, despite their efforts, these concerns linger on.
Like feminist scholarship, the diverse strands of African-American social and
political thought have also challenged mainstream scholarship. However, Black
social and political thought has been limited by both the reformist postures
toward change assumed by many U.S. Black intellectuals (Cruse 1967; West
1977–78) and the secondary status afforded the ideas and experiences of AfricanAmerican women. Adhering to a male-defined ethos that far too often equates
racial progress with the acquisition of an ill-defined manhood has left much U.S.
Black thought with a prominent masculinist bias.
In this case the patterns of suppressing Black women’s ideas have been similar yet different. Though Black women have played little or no part in dominant
academic discourse and White feminist arenas, we have long been included in the
organizational structures of Black civil society. U.S. Black women’s acceptance of
subordinate roles in Black organizations does not mean that we wield little
authority or that we experience patriarchy in the same way as do White women
in White organizations (Evans 1979; Gilkes 1985). But with the exception of
Black women’s organizations, male-run organizations have historically either not
stressed Black women’s issues (Beale 1970; Marable 1983), or have done so
under duress. For example, Black feminist activist Pauli Murray (1970) found
that from its founding in 1916 to 1970, the Journal of Negro History published
only five articles devoted exclusively to Black women. Evelyn Brooks
Higginbotham’s (1993) historical monograph on Black women in Black Baptist
churches records African-American women’s struggles to raise issues that concerned women. Even progressive Black organizations have not been immune
from gender discrimination. Civil rights activist Ella Baker’s experiences in the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference illustrate one form that suppressing
Black women’s ideas and talents can take. Ms. Baker virtually ran the entire organization, yet had to defer to the decision-making authority of the exclusively
male leadership group (Cantarow 1980). Civil rights activist Septima Clark
describes similar experiences: “I found all over the South that whatever the man
said had to be right. They had the whole say. The woman couldn’t say a thing”
(C. Brown 1986, 79). Radical African-American women also can find themselves
deferring to male authority. In her autobiography, Elaine Brown (1992), a participant and subsequent leader of the 1960s radical organization the Black
Panther Party for Self-Defense, discusses the sexism expressed by Panther men.
Overall, even though Black women intellectuals have asserted their right to speak
both as African-Americans and as women, historically these women have not
held top leadership positions in Black organizations and have frequently struggled within them to express Black feminist ideas (Giddings 1984).
Much contemporary U.S. Black feminist thought reflects Black women’s
increasing willingness to oppose gender inequality within Black civil society.
Septima Clark describes this transformation:
I used to feel that women couldn’t speak up, because when district meetings were being held at my home . . . I didn’t feel as if I could tell them
what I had in mind . . . But later on, I found out that women had a lot to
say, and what they had to say was really worthwhile. . . . So we started talking, and have been talking quite a bit since that time. (C. Brown 1986, 82)
African-American women intellectuals have been “talking quite a bit” since
1970 and have insisted that the masculinist bias in Black social and political
thought, the racist bias in feminist theory, and the heterosexist bias in both be
corrected (see, e.g., Bambara 1970; Dill 1979; Jordan 1981; Combahee River
Collective 1982; Lorde 1984).
Within Black civil society, the increasing visibility of Black women’s ideas
did not go unopposed. The virulent reaction to earlier Black women’s writings
by some Black men, such as Robert Staples’s (1979) analysis of Ntozake Shange’s
(1975) choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, and Michele
Wallace’s (1978) controversial volume, Black Macho and the Myth of the
Superwoman, illustrates the difficulty of challenging the masculinist bias in Black
social and political thought. Alice Walker encountered similarly hostile reactions
to her publication of The Color Purple. In describing the response of AfricanAmerican men to the outpouring of publications by Black women writers in the
1970s and 1980s, Calvin Hernton offers an incisive criticism of the seeming
tenacity of a masculinist bias:
The telling thing about the hostile attitude of black men toward black
women writers is that they interpret the new thrust of the women as
being “counter-productive” to the historical goal of the Black struggle.
Revealingly, while black men have achieved outstanding recognition
throughout the history of black writing, black women have not accused
the men of collaborating with the enemy and setting back the progress of
the race. (1985, 5)
Not all Black male reaction during this period was hostile. For example,
Manning Marable (1983) devotes an entire chapter in How Capitalism
Underdeveloped Black America to how sexism has been a primary deterrent
to Black community development. Following Marable’s lead, work by Haki
Madhubuti (1990), Cornel West (1993), Michael Awkward (1996), Michael
Dyson (1996), and others suggests that some U.S. Black male thinkers have
taken Black feminist thought seriously. Despite the diverse ideological perspectives expressed by these writers, each seemingly recognizes the importance of
Black women’s ideas.
Black Feminist Thought as Critical Social Theory
Even if they appear to be otherwise, situations such as the suppression of Black
women’s ideas within traditional scholarship and the struggles within the critiques of that established knowledge are inherently unstable. Conditions in the
wider political economy simultaneously shape Black women’s subordination
and foster activism. On some level, people who are oppressed usually know it.
For African-American women, the knowledge gained at intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender provides the stimulus for crafting and passing
on the subjugated knowledge2 of Black women’s critical social theory (Collins
As an historically oppressed group, U.S. Black women have produced social
thought designed to oppose oppression. Not only does the form assumed by this
thought diverge from standard academic theory—it can take the form of poetry,
music, essays, and the like—but the purpose of Black women’s collective thought
is distinctly different. Social theories emerging from and/or on behalf of U.S.
Black women and other historically oppressed groups aim to find ways to escape
from, survive in, and/or oppose prevailing social and economic injustice. In the
United States, for example, African-American social and political thought analyzes institutionalized racism, not to help it work more efficiently, but to resist it.
Feminism advocates women’s emancipation and empowerment, Marxist social
thought aims for a more equitable society, while queer theory opposes heterosexism. Beyond U.S. borders, many women from oppressed groups also struggle
to understand new forms of injustice. In a transnational, postcolonial context,
women within new and often Black-run nation-states in the Caribbean, Africa,
and Asia struggle with new meanings attached to ethnicity, citizenship status, and
religion. In increasingly multicultural European nation-states, women migrants
from former colonies encounter new forms of subjugation (Yuval-Davis 1997).
Social theories expressed by women emerging from these diverse groups typically do not arise from the rarefied atmosphere of their imaginations. Instead,
social theories reflect women’s efforts to come to terms with lived experiences
within intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation,
and religion (see, e.g., Alexander and Mohanty 1997; Mirza 1997).
Black feminist thought, U.S. Black women’s critical social theory, reflects similar power relationships. For African-American women, critical social theory
encompasses bodies of knowledge and sets of institutional practices that actively
grapple with the central questions facing U.S. Black women as a collectivity. The
need for such thought arises because African-American women as a group remain
oppressed within a U.S. context characterized by injustice. This neither means
that all African-American women within that group are oppressed in the same
way, nor that some U.S. Black women do not suppress others. Black feminist
thought’s identity as a “critical” social theory lies in its commitment to justice,
both for U.S. Black women as a collectivity and for that of other similarly
Historically, two factors stimulated U.S. Black women’s critical social theory.
For one, prior to World War II, racial segregation in urban housing became so
entrenched that the majority of African-American women lived in self-contained
Black neighborhoods where their children attended overwhelmingly Black
schools, and where they themselves belonged to all-Black churches and similar
community organizations. Despite the fact that ghettoization was designed to
foster the political control and economic exploitation of Black Americans
(Squires 1994), these all-Black neighborhoods simultaneously provided a sepa-
rate space where African-American women and men could use African-derived
ideas to craft distinctive oppositional knowledges designed to resist racial
Every social group has a constantly evolving worldview that it uses to order
and evaluate its own experiences (Sobel 1979). For African-Americans this
worldview originated in the cosmologies of diverse West African ethnic groups
(Diop 1974). By retaining and reworking significant elements of these West
African cultures, communities of enslaved Africans offered their members explanations for slavery alternative to those advanced by slave owners (Gutman 1976;
Webber 1978; Sobel 1979). These African-derived ideas also laid the foundation
for the rules of a distinctive Black American civil society. Later on, confining
African-Americans to all-Black areas in the rural South and Northern urban ghettos
fostered the solidification of a distinctive ethos in Black civil society regarding
language (Smitherman 1977), religion (Sobel 1979; Paris 1995), family structure
(Sudarkasa 1981b), and community politics (Brown 1994). While essential to
the survival of U.S. Blacks as a group and expressed differently by individual
African-Americans, these knowledges remained simultaneously hidden from and
suppressed by Whites. Black oppositional knowledges existed to resist injustice,
but they also remained subjugated.
As mothers, othermothers, teachers, and churchwomen in essentially allBlack rural communities and urban neighborhoods, U.S. Black women participated in constructing and reconstructing these oppositional knowledges. Through
the lived experiences gained within their extended families and communities,
individual African-American women fashioned their own ideas about the meaning of Black womanhood. When these ideas found collective expression, Black
women’s self-definitions enabled them to refashion African-influenced conceptions of self and community. These self-definitions of Black womanhood were
designed to resist the negative controlling images of Black womanhood advanced
by Whites as well as the discriminatory social practices that these controlling
images supported. In all, Black women’s participation in crafting a constantly
changing African-American culture fostered distinctively Black and womencentered worldviews.
Another factor that stimulated U.S. Black women’s critical social theory lay in
the common experiences they gained from their jobs. Prior to World War II, U.S.
Black women worked primarily in two occupations—agriculture and domestic
work. Their ghettoization in domestic work sparked an important contradiction.
Domestic work fostered U.S. Black women’s economic exploitation, yet it simultaneously created the conditions for distinctively Black and female forms of resistance. Domestic work allowed African-American women to see White elites, both
actual and aspiring, from perspectives largely obscured from Black men and from
these groups themselves. In their White “families,” Black women not only performed domestic duties but frequently formed strong ties with the children they
nurtured, and with the employers themselves. On one level this insider relation-
ship was satisfying to all concerned. Accounts of Black domestic workers stress
the sense of self-affirmation the women experienced at seeing racist ideology
demystified. But on another level these Black women knew that they could never
belong to their White “families.” They were economically exploited workers and
thus would remain outsiders. The result was being placed in a curious outsiderwithin social location (Collins 1986b), a peculiar marginality that stimulated
a distinctive Black women’s perspective on a variety of themes (see, e.g.,
Taken together, Black women’s participation in constructing AfricanAmerican culture in all-Black settings and the distinctive perspectives gained
from their outsider-within placement in domestic work provide the material
backdrop for a unique Black women’s standpoint. When armed with cultural
beliefs honed in Black civil society, many Black women who found themselves
doing domestic work often developed distinct views of the contradictions
between the dominant group’s actions and ideologies. Moreover, they often
shared their ideas with other African-American women. Nancy White, a Black
inner-city resident, explores the connection between experience and beliefs:
Now, I understand all these things from living. But you can’t lay up on
these flowery beds of ease and think that you are running your life, too.
Some women, white women, can run their husband’s lives for a while, but
most of them have to . . . see what he tells them there is to see. If he tells
them that they ain’t seeing what they know they are seeing, then they have
to just go on like it wasn’t there! (in Gwaltney 1980, 148)
Not only does this passage speak to the power of the dominant group to suppress the knowledge produced by subordinate groups, but it illustrates how
being in outsider-within locations can foster new angles of vision on oppression. Ms. White’s Blackness makes her a perpetual outsider. She could never be a
White middle-class woman lying on a “flowery bed of ease.” But her work of
caring for White women allowed her an insider’s view of some of the contradictions between White women thinking that they are running their lives and
the patriarchal power and authority in their households.
Practices such as these, whether experienced oneself or learned by listening
to African-American women who have had them, have encouraged many U.S.
Black women to question the contradictions between dominant ideologies of
American womanhood and U.S. Black women’s devalued status. If women are
allegedly passive and fragile, then why are Black women treated as “mules” and
assigned heavy cleaning chores? If good mothers are supposed to stay at home
with their children, then why are U.S. Black women on public assistance forced
to find jobs and leave their children in day care? If women’s highest calling is to
become mothers, then why are Black teen mothers pressured to use Norplant and
Depo Provera? In the absence of a viable Black feminism that investigates how
intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and class foster these contradictions,
the angle of vision created by being deemed devalued workers and failed mothers could easily be turned inward, leading to internalized oppression. But the
legacy of struggle among U.S. Black women suggests that a collectively shared,
Black women’s oppositional knowledge has long existed. This collective wisdom
in turn has spurred U.S. Black women to generate a more specialized knowledge,
namely, Black feminist thought as critical social theory. Just as fighting injustice
lay at the heart of U.S. Black women’s experiences, so did analyzing and creating
imaginative responses to injustice characterize the core of Black feminist
Historically, while they often disagreed on its expression—some U.S. Black
women were profoundly reformist while more radical thinkers bordered on the
revolutionary—African-American women intellectuals who were nurtured in
social conditions of racial segregation strove to develop Black feminist thought as
critical social theory. Regardless of social class and other differences among U.S.
Black women, all were in some way affected by intersecting oppressions of race,
gender, and class. The economic, political, and ideological dimensions of U.S.
Black women’s oppression suppressed the intellectual production of individual
Black feminist thinkers. At the same time, these same social conditions simultaneously stimulated distinctive patterns of U.S. Black women’s activism that also
influenced and was influenced by individual Black women thinkers. Thus, the
dialectic of oppression and activism characterizing U.S. Black women’s experiences with intersecting oppressions also influenced the ideas and actions of Black
The exclusion of Black women’s ideas from mainstream academic discourse
and the curious placement of African-American women intellectuals in feminist
thinking, Black social and political theories, and in other important thought such
as U.S. labor studies has meant that U.S. Black women intellectuals have found
themselves in outsider-within positions in many academic endeavors (Hull et al.
1982; Christian 1989). The assumptions on which full group membership are
based—Whiteness for feminist thought, maleness for Black social and political
thought, and the combination for mainstream scholarship—all negate Black
women’s realities. Prevented from becoming full insiders in any of these areas of
inquiry, Black women remained in outsider-within locations, individuals whose
marginality provided a distinctive angle of vision on these intellectual and political entities.
Alice Walker’s work exemplifies these fundamental influences within Black
women’s intellectual traditions. Walker describes how her outsider-within location influenced her thinking: “I believe . . . that it was from this period—from
my solitary, lonely position, the position of an outcast—that I began really to
see people and things, really to notice relationships” (Walker 1983, 244).
Walker realizes that “the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not previously been taken into account” (p. 264).
And yet marginality is not the only influence on her work. By reclaiming the
works of Zora Neale Hurston and in other ways placing Black women’s experiences and culture at the center of her work, she draws on alternative Black
Developing Black Feminist Thought
Starting from the assumption that African-American women have created independent, oppositional yet subjugated knowledges concerning our own subordination, contemporary U.S. Black women intellectuals are engaged in the struggle
to reconceptualize all dimensions of the dialectic of oppression and activism as
it applies to African-American women. Central to this enterprise is reclaiming
Black feminist intellectual traditions (see, e.g., Harley and Terborg-Penn 1978;
Hull et al. 1982; James and Busia 1993; and Guy-Sheftall 1995a, 1995b).
For many U.S. Black women intellectuals, this task of reclaiming Black
women’s subjugated knowledge takes on special meaning. Knowing that the
minds and talents of our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters have been suppressed stimulates many contributions to the growing field of Black women’s
studies (Hull et al. 1982). Alice Walker describes how this sense of purpose
affects her work: “In my own work I write not only what I want to read—understanding fully and indelibly that if I don’t do it no one else is so vitally interested, or capable of doing it to my satisfaction—I write all the things I should
have been able to read ” (Walker 1983, 13).
Reclaiming Black women’s ideas involves discovering, reinterpreting, and,
in many cases, analyzing for the first time the works of individual U.S. Black
women thinkers who were so extraordinary that they did manage to have their
ideas preserved. In some cases this process involves locating unrecognized
and unheralded works, scattered and long out of print. Marilyn Richardson’s
(1987) painstaking editing of the writings and speeches of Maria Stewart, and
Mary Helen Washington’s (1975, 1980, 1987) collections of Black women’s
writings typify this process. Similarly, Alice Walker’s (1979a) efforts to have
Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave recognized parallel her intellectual quest
to honor Hurston’s important contributions to Black feminist literary traditions.
Reclaiming Black women’s ideas also involves discovering, reinterpreting,
and analyzing the ideas of subgroups within the larger collectivity of U.S. Black
women who have been silenced. For example, burgeoning scholarship by and
about Black lesbians reveals a diverse and complex history. Gloria Hull’s (1984)
careful compilation of the journals of Black feminist intellectual Alice DunbarNelson illustrates the difficulties of being closeted yet still making major contributions to African-American social and political thought. Audre Lorde’s (1982)
autobiography, Zami, provides a book-length treatment of Black lesbian communities in New York. Similarly, Kennedy and Davis’s (1994) history of the for-
mation of lesbian communities in 1940s and 1950s Buffalo, New York, strives to
understand how racial segregation influenced constructions of lesbian identities.
Reinterpreting existing works through new theoretical frameworks is another
dimension of developing Black feminist thought. In Black feminist literary criticism, this process is exemplified by Barbara Christian’s (1985) landmark volume
on Black women writers, Mary Helen Washington’s (1987) reassessment of
anger and voice in Maud Martha, a much-neglected work by novelist and poet
Gwendolyn Brooks, and Hazel Carby’s (1987) use of the lens of race, class, and
gender to reinterpret the works of nineteenth-century Black women novelists.
Within Black feminist historiography the tremendous strides that have been
made in U.S. Black women’s history are evident in Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s
(1989) analysis of the emerging concepts and paradigms in Black women’s history, her study of women in the Black Baptist Church (1993), Stephanie Shaw’s
(1996) study of Black professional women workers during the Jim Crow era, and
the landmark volume Black Women in the United States: An Historical Encyclopedia
(Hine et al. 1993).
Developing Black feminist thought also involves searching for its expression
in alternative institutional locations and among women who are not commonly
perceived as intellectuals. As defined in this volume, Black women intellectuals
are neither all academics nor found primarily in the Black middle class. Instead,
all U.S. Black women who somehow contribute to Black feminist thought as critical social theory are deemed to be “intellectuals.” They may be highly educated.
Many are not. For example, nineteenth-century Black feminist activist Sojourner
Truth is not typically seen as an intellectual.3 Because she could neither read nor
write, much of what we know about her has been recorded by other people. One
of her most famous speeches, that delivered at the 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, comes to us in a report written by a feminist abolitionist some time after the event itself (Painter 1993). We do not know what Truth
actually said, only what the recorder claims that she said. Despite this limitation,
in that speech Truth reportedly provides an incisive analysis of the definition of
the term woman forwarded in the mid-1800s:
That man over there says 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? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and
planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I
a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could
get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried
out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a
woman? (Loewenberg and Bogin 1976, 235)
By using the contradictions between her life as an African-American woman
and the qualities ascribed to women, Sojourner Truth exposes the concept of
woman as being culturally constructed. Her life as a second-class citizen has been
filled with hard physical labor, with no assistance from men. Her question, “and
ain’t I a woman?” points to the contradictions inherent in blanket use of the term
woman. For those who question Truth’s femininity, she invokes her status as a
mother of thirteen children, all sold off into slavery, and asks again, “and ain’t I
a woman?” Rather than accepting the existing assumptions about what a woman
is and then trying to prove that she fit the standards, Truth challenged the very
standards themselves. Her actions demonstrate the process of deconstruction—
namely, exposing a concept as ideological or culturally constructed rather than
as natural or a simple reflection of reality (Collins 1998a, 137–45). By deconstructing the concept woman, Truth proved herself to be a formidable intellectual.
And yet Truth was a former slave who never learned to read or write.
Examining the contributions of women like Sojourner Truth suggests that
the concept of intellectual must itself be deconstructed. Not all Black women
intellectuals are educated. Not all Black women intellectuals work in academia.
Furthermore, not all highly educated Black women, especially those who are
employed in U.S. colleges and universities, are automatically intellectuals. U.S.
Black women intellectuals are not a female segment of William E. B. DuBois’s
notion of the “talented tenth.” One is neither born an intellectual nor does one
become one by earning a degree. Rather, doing intellectual work of the sort envisioned within Black feminism requires a process of self-conscious struggle on
behalf of Black women, regardless of the actual social location where that work
These are not idle concerns within new power relations that have greatly
altered the fabric of U.S. and Black civil society. Race, class, and gender still constitute intersecting oppressions, but the ways in which they are now organized
to produce social injustice differ from prior eras. Just as theories, epistemologies,
and facts produced by any group of individuals represent the standpoints and
interests of their creators, the very definition of who is legitimated to do intellectual work is not only politically contested, but is changing (Mannheim 1936;
Gramsci 1971). Reclaiming Black feminist intellectual traditions involves much
more than developing Black feminist analyses using standard epistemological criteria. It also involves challenging the very terms of intellectual discourse itself.
Assuming new angles of vision on which U.S. Black women are, in fact,
intellectuals, and on their seeming dedication to contributing to Black feminist
thought raises new questions about the production of this oppositional knowledge. Historically, much of the Black women’s intellectual tradition occurred in
institutional locations other than the academy. For example, the music of working-class Black women blues singers of the 1920 and 1930s is often seen as one
important site outside academia for this intellectual tradition (Davis 1998).
Whereas Ann duCille (1993) quite rightly warns us about viewing Black
women’s blues through rose-colored glasses, the fact remains that far more Black
women listened to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey than were able to read Nella
Larsen or Jessie Fauset. Despite impressive educational achievements that have
allowed many U.S. Black women to procure jobs in higher education and the
media, this may continue to be the case. For example, Imani Perry (1995) suggests that the music of Black women hip-hop artists serves as a new site of Black
women’s intellectual production. Again, despite the fact that hip-hop contains
diverse and contradictory components (Rose 1994) and that popularity alone is
insufficient to confer the title “intellectual,” many more Black women listen to
Queen Latifah and Salt ‘N’ Pepa than read literature by Alice Walker and Toni
Because clarifying Black women’s experiences and ideas lies at the core of
Black feminist thought, interpreting them requires collaborative leadership
among those who participate in the diverse forms that Black women’s communities now take. This requires acknowledging not only how African-American
women outside of academia have long functioned as intellectuals by representing the interests of Black women as a group, but how this continues to be the
case. For example, rap singer Sister Souljah’s music as well as her autobiography
No Disrespect (1994) certainly can be seen as contributing to Black feminist
thought as critical social theory. Despite her uncritical acceptance of a masculinist Black nationalist ideology, Souljah is deeply concerned with issues of Black
women’s oppression, and offers an important perspective on contemporary
urban culture. Yet while young Black women listened to Souljah’s music and
thought about her ideas, Souljah’s work has been dismissed within feminist
classrooms in academia as being “nonfeminist.” Without tapping these nontraditional sources, much of the Black women’s intellectual tradition would remain
“not known and hence not believed in” (Williams 1987, 150).
At the same time, many Black women academics struggle to find ways to do
intellectual work that challenges injustice.They know that being an academic and
an intellectual are not necessarily the same thing. Since the 1960s, U.S. Black
women have entered faculty positions in higher education in small but unprecedented numbers. These women confront a peculiar dilemma. On the one hand,
acquiring the prestige enjoyed by their colleagues often required unquestioned
acceptance of academic norms. On the other hand, many of these same norms
remain wedded to notions of Black and female inferiority. Finding ways to temper critical responses to academia without unduly jeopardizing their careers constitutes a new challenge for Black women who aim to be intellectuals within
academia, especially intellectuals engaged in developing Black feminist thought
(Collins 1998a, 95–123).
Surviving these challenges requires new ways of doing Black feminist intellectual work. Developing Black feminist thought as critical social theory involves
including the ideas of Black women not previously considered intellectuals—
many of whom may be working-class women with jobs outside academia—as
well as those ideas emanating from more formal, legitimated scholarship. The
ideas we share with one another as mothers in extended families, as othermoth-
ers in Black communities, as members of Black churches, and as teachers to the
Black community’s children have formed one pivotal area where AfricanAmerican women have hammered out a multifaceted Black women’s standpoint.
Musicians, vocalists, poets, writers, and other artists constitute another group
from which Black women intellectuals have emerged. Building on African-influenced oral traditions, musicians in particular have enjoyed close association with
the larger community of African-American women constituting their audience.
Through their words and actions, grassroots political activists also contribute to
Black women’s intellectual traditions. Producing intellectual work is generally not
attributed to Black women artists and political activists. Especially in elite institutions of higher education, such women are typically viewed as objects of study,
a classification that creates a false dichotomy between scholarship and activism,
between thinking and doing. In contrast, examining the ideas and actions of
these excluded groups in a way that views them as subjects reveals a world in
which behavior is a statement of philosophy and in which a vibrant, both/and,
scholar/activist tradition remains intact.
O b j e c t i v e s o f t h e Vo l u m e
African-American women’s social location as a collectivity has fostered distinctive albeit heterogeneous Black feminist intellectual traditions that, for convenience in this volume, I call Black feminist thought. Investigations of four basic
components of Black feminist thought—its thematic content, its interpretive
frameworks, its epistemological approaches, and its significance for empowerment—constitute the core of this volume. All four components have been
shaped by U.S. Black women’s placement in a political context that is undergoing considerable change. Thus, Black feminist thought’s core themes, interpretive frameworks, epistemological stances, and insights concerning empowerment will reflect and aim to shape specific political contexts confronting
African-American women as a group.
In this volume, I aim to describe, analyze, explain the significance of, and
contribute to the development of Black feminist thought as critical social theory.
In addressing this general goal, I have several specific objectives. First, I summarize selected core themes in Black feminist thought by surveying their historical
and contemporary expression. Drawing primarily on the works of AfricanAmerican women scholars and on the thought produced by a wide range of
Black women intellectuals, I explore several core themes that preoccupy Black
women thinkers. The vast majority of thinkers discussed in the text are, to the
best of my knowledge, U.S. Black women. I cite a range of Black women thinkers
not because I think U.S. Black women have a monopoly on the ideas presented
but because I aim to demonstrate the range and depth of thinkers who exist in
U.S. Black civil society. Placing the ideas of ordinary African-American women as
well as those of better-known Black women intellectuals at the center of analysis
produces a new angle of vision on Black women’s concerns. At the same time,
Black feminist thought cannot be developed in isolation from the thought and
actions of other groups. Thus, I also include the ideas of diverse thinkers who
make important contributions to developing Black feminist thought. Black
women must be in charge of Black feminist thought, but being in charge does
not mean that others are excluded.
Using and furthering an interpretive framework or paradigm that has come
to be known as race, class, and gender studies constitute a second objective of
Black Feminist Thought. Rejecting additive models of oppression, race, class, and
gender studies have progressed considerably since the 1980s.4 During that
decade, African-American women scholar-activists, among others, called for a
new approach to analyzing Black women’s experiences. Claiming that such experiences were shaped not just by race, but by gender, social class, and sexuality,
works such as Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis (1981), “A Black
Feminist Statement” drafted by the Combahee River Collective (1982), and Audre
Lorde’s (1984) classic volume Sister Outsider stand as groundbreaking works
that explored interconnections among systems of oppression. Subsequent work
aimed to describe different dimensions of this interconnected relationship with
terms such as intersectionality (Crenshaw 1991) and matrix of domination. In this
volume, I use and distinguish between both terms in examining how oppression
affects Black women. Intersectionality refers to particular forms of intersecting
oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and
nation. Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced
to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice. In contrast, the matrix of domination refers to how these intersecting
oppressions are actually organized. Regardless of the particular intersections
involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power
reappear across quite different forms of oppression.
My third objective is to develop an epistemological framework that can be
used both to assess existing Black feminist thought and to clarify some of the
underlying assumptions that impede its development.This issue of epistemology
raises some difficult questions. I see the need to define the boundaries that delineate Black feminist thought from other arenas of intellectual inquiry. What criteria, if any, can be applied to ideas to determine whether they are in fact Black and
feminist? What essential features does Black feminist thought share with other
critical social theories, particularly Western feminist theory, Afrocentric theory,
Marxist analyses, and postmodernism? Do African-American women implicitly
rely on alternative standards for determining whether ideas are true? Traditional
epistemological assumptions concerning how we arrive at “truth” simply are not
sufficient to the task of furthering Black feminist thought. In the same way that
concepts such as woman and intellectual must be challenged, the process by
which we arrive at truth merits comparable scrutiny. While I provide a book-
length treatment of these theoretical concerns in Fighting Words: Black Women
and the Search for Justice, here I focus on the distinguishing features of a Black
I aim to use this same epistemological framework throughout the volume.
Alice Walker describes this process as one whereby “to write the books one wants
to read is both to point the direction of vision and, at the same time, to follow
it” (1983, 8). This was a very difficult process for me, one requiring that I not
only develop standards and guidelines for assessing U.S. Black feminist thought
but that I then apply those same standards and guidelines to my own work while
I was creating it. For example, in Chapters 2 and 10 I argue that Black women
intellectuals best contribute to a Black women’s group standpoint by using their
experiences as situated knowers. To adhere to this epistemological tenet required
that, when appropriate, I reject the pronouns “they” and “their” when describing U.S. Black women and our ideas and replace these terms with the terms “we,”
“us,” and “our.” Using the distancing terms “they” and “their” when describing
my own group and our experiences might enhance both my credentials as a
scholar and the credibility of my arguments in some academic settings. But by
taking this epistemological stance that reflects my disciplinary training as a sociologist, I invoke standards of certifying truth about which I remain ambivalent.
In contrast, by identifying my position as a participant in and observer of
Black women’s communities, I run the risk of being discredited as being too subjective and hence less scholarly. But by being an advocate for my material, I validate epistemological tenets that I claim are fundamental for Black feminist
thought, namely, to equip people to resist oppression and to inspire them to do
it (Collins 1998a, 196–200). To me, the suppression of Black women’s intellectual traditions has made this process of feeling one’s way an unavoidable epistemological stance for Black women intellectuals. As Walker points out, “she must
be her own model as well as the artist attending, creating, learning from, realizing the model, which is to say, herself” (1983, 8).
Finally, I aim to further Black feminist thought’s contributions to empowering African-American women. Empowerment remains an illusive construct and
developing a Black feminist politics of empowerment requires specifying the
domains of power that constrain Black women, as well as how such domination
can be resisted. Ideally, Black feminist thought contributes ideas and analytical
frameworks toward this end. Moreover, it is important to remember that Black
women’s full empowerment can occur only within a transnational context of
social justice. While focused on U.S. Black women, U.S. Black feminism constitutes one of many historically specific social justice projects dedicated to fostering the empowerment of groups within an overarching context of justice. In this
sense, Black feminist thought constitutes one part of a much larger social justice
project that goes far beyond the experiences of African-American women.
I am a product of an intellectual tradition which until twenty-five years ago did
not exist within the academy. Like patchwork in a quilt, it is a tradition gathered
from meaningful bits and pieces. My tradition has no name, because it embraces
more than womanism, Blackness, or African studies, although those terms will do
for now. —Barbara Omolade 1994, ix
It seems I am running out of words these days. I feel as if I am on a linguistic treadmill that has gradually but unmistakably increased its speed, so that no word I use
to positively describe myself or my scholarly projects lasts for more than five seconds. I can no longer justify my presence in academia, for example, with words
that exist in the English language. The moment I find some symbol of my presence
in the rarefied halls of elite institutions, it gets stolen, co-opted, filled with negative
meaning. —Patricia Williams 1995, 27
.S. Black women’s struggles on this
“linguistic treadmill” to name this tradition with “no name” reveal the difficulties of making do with “terms [that] will do for now.” Widely used yet increasingly difficult to define, U.S. Black feminist thought encompasses diverse and
often contradictory meanings. Despite the fact that U.S. Black women, in particular, have expended considerable energy on naming Black women’s knowledge,
definitional tensions not only persist but encounter changing political climates
riddled with new obstacles. When the very vocabulary used to describe Black
feminist thought comes under attack, Black women’s self-definitions become
even more difficult to achieve. For example, despite continued acceptance
among many African-Americans of Afrocentrism as a term referencing traditions of Black consciousness and racial solidarity, academics and media pundits
maligned the term in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, the pejorative meanings
increasingly attached to the term feminist seem designed to discredit a move-
ment dedicated to women’s empowerment. Even the term Black fell victim to
the deconstructive moment, with a growing number of “Black” intellectuals
who do “race” scholarship questioning the very terms used to describe both
themselves and their political struggles (see, e.g., Gilroy 1993). Collectively,
these developments produced a greatly changed political and intellectual context
for defining Black feminist thought.
Despite these difficulties, finding some sort of common ground for thinking
through the boundaries of Black feminist thought remains important because, as
U.S. Black feminist activist Pearl Cleage reminds us, “we have to see clearly that
we are a unique group, set undeniably apart because of race and sex with a
unique set of challenges” (Cleage 1993, 55). Rather than developing definitions
and arguing over naming practices—for example, whether this thought should
be called Black feminism, womanism, Afrocentric feminism, Africana womanism, and the like—a more useful approach lies in revisiting the reasons why
Black feminist thought exists at all. Exploring six distinguishing features that
characterize Black feminist thought may provide the common ground that is so
sorely needed both among African-American women, and between AfricanAmerican women and all others whose collective knowledge or thought has a
similar purpose. Black feminist thought’s distinguishing features need not be
unique and may share much with other bodies of knowledge. Rather, it is the
convergence of these distinguishing features that gives U.S. Black feminist thought
its distinctive contours.
Why U.S. Black Feminist Thought?
Black feminism remains important because U.S. Black women constitute an
oppressed group. As a collectivity, U.S. Black women participate in a dialectical
relationship linking African-American women’s oppression and activism.
Dialectical relationships of this sort mean that two parties are opposed and
opposite. As long as Black women’s subordination within intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation persists, Black feminism as an
activist response to that oppression will remain needed.
In a similar fashion, the overarching purpose of U.S. Black feminist thought
is also to resist oppression, both its practices and the ideas that justify it. If intersecting oppressions did not exist, Black feminist thought and similar oppositional knowledges would be unnecessary. As a critical social theory, Black feminist thought aims to empower African-American women within the context of
social injustice sustained by intersecting oppressions. Since Black women cannot
be fully empowered unless intersecting oppressions themselves are eliminated,
Black feminist thought supports broad principles of social justice that transcend
U.S. Black women’s particular needs.
Because so much of U.S. Black feminism has been filtered through the prism
D I S T I N G U I S H I N G F E AT U R E S O F B L AC K F E M I N I S T T H O U G H T
of the U.S. context, its contours have been greatly affected by the specificity of
American multiculturalism (Takaki 1993). In particular, U.S. Black feminist
thought and practice respond to a fundamental contradiction of U.S. society. On
the one hand, democratic promises of individual freedom, equality under the
law, and social justice are made to all American citizens. Yet on the other hand,
the reality of differential group treatment based on race, class, gender, sexuality,
and citizenship status persists. Groups organized around race, class, and gender
in and of themselves are not inherently a problem. However, when AfricanAmericans, poor people, women, and other groups discriminated against see little hope for group-based advancement, this situation constitutes social injustice.
Within this overarching contradiction, U.S. Black women encounter a distinctive set of social practices that accompany our particular history within a
unique matrix of domination characterized by intersecting oppressions. Race is
far from being the only significant marker of group difference—class, gender,
sexuality, religion, and citizenship status all matter greatly in the United States
(Andersen and Collins 1998). Yet for African-American women, the effects of
institutionalized racism remain visible and palpable. Moreover, the institutionalized racism that African-American women encounter relies heavily on racial segregation and accompanying discriminatory practices designed t…
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