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Black Feminism Is: Reflections on the Black Feminist Think Tank Symposium


On 20-21 March 2015, hundreds gathered at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor to examine black feminism as an intellectual and political practice and to chart a way forward. As faculty, students, and activists from around the United States and beyond, we shared our frustrations with the isolation and invisibility (or, in some cases, notoriety) we have experienced as black women and women of color in higher education. Twenty years after the path-breaking conference “Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name, 1894-1994” held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994, our situation and the position of our field of inquiry have not fundamentally improved. Although there are more feminist scholars of color today, our work and the long intellectual and political tradition of black and women of color feminisms that inspires and guides us are still marginalized or entirely unrecognized in mainstream institutions. A whole host of colleges and universities, as well as nonprofit organizations, pay lip service to “diversity” and misappropriate the concepts we have created, such as intersectionality, while deliberately ignoring the crucial questions of inequality and power. Instead, they capitalize on our physical, pedagogical, and intellectual labors and then undervalue or even dismiss the very women of color who have made this work possible.

Intersectionality originated as a term in critical race feminism to describe the challenges that black women face in Western societies, which often elude one-dimensional analyses of racism and gender discrimination. As the black feminist lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote in her groundbreaking essay, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” "Many of the experiences that black women face are not subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimination as these boundaries are currently understood,” and "the intersection of racism and sexism factors into black women’s lives in ways that cannot be captured wholly by looking at the race or gender dimensions of those experiences separately.” Feminists of color since Crenshaw have mobilized intersectionality to explore modes of oppression beyond race and gender—class, age, and ability, for example—and to uncover the multiple intersectionalities of contemporary power.   

We assembled as the Black Feminist Think Tank with the express purpose of examining how black feminism and women of color feminism have deepened our understanding of the multiple systems of stratification in the United States and abroad. Using the social media hashtag #BlackFeminismIs, we sought to emphasize black feminism as a living, dynamic force for social change, political involvement, and intellectual labor. Our common starting point for both scholarship and political activism is an intersectional approach to examining and confronting systems of oppression. Intersectional approaches are even more critical to our endeavors in light of the multiple and simultaneous challenges we face today: the militarization and privatization of all aspects of daily life; escalating violence against people of color around the world; the expansion of settler colonial borders at the expense of indigenous and colonized peoples; and the contraction of academic freedoms in our colleges and universities. 

We were especially concerned with exploring the various histories and genealogies posited by black feminists such as Toni Cade Bambara, Florynce Kennedy, Patricia Williams, Kim Crenshaw, Cathy Cohen, Beth Ritchie, Lorraine Hansberry, and Audre Lorde. We queried Black feminist analyses of sexuality by discussing black women’s sex work as well as the pleasure, creativity, and subversion found in queer performance. The speakers and participants took a clear stand on the issue of Palestine. In the words of the keynote speaker Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “I am not a PEFP feminist, “progressive except for Palestine.” We oppose the increasingly aggressive policing of our communities that is visible in the occupation and state-sponsored violence in both Ferguson and Palestine. 

During her keynote lecture, Beverly Guy-Sheftall reminded us that black feminist Toni Cade Bambara, in Louis Massiah’s words, “made revolution irresistible.” This ethic of irresistibility—of foregrounding pleasure even in the work of analyzing and contesting oppression, of taking joy in a committed, convivial community of black feminist intellectuals—guided our work during the symposium and, indeed, informs our work moving forward. The Black Feminist Think Tank has plans to collaborate on a book project and future gatherings, which we hope will provide opportunities for us, and many more, to continue our mischief together. 

Sherie M. Randolph is an assistant professor of African American Studies and History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the author of Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical (University of North Carolina Press, September 2015). 

Erica R. Edwards is an associate professor of English at the University of California, Riverside and the author of Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

Beverly Guy-Sheftall
is the founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College.

In my keynote talk, “Bearing Witness: The Legacy of Black Feminism,” I spoke about what it has meant for me to craft a Black Feminist scholarly practice and space: the Women’s Research and Resource Center, founded in 1981, at the oldest college for black women in the United States. I reflected on the genealogies that affected my own journey as a dissident feminist scholar/activist who has produced foundational texts, such as Words of Fire, and engaged in institutional transformation at various sites within and outside the academy. Words of Fire re-presented the long and rich history of Black Feminist thought and activism that prefigured Black Lives Matter. 

Toni Cade Bambara is among our visionary Black Feminist foremothers. I interviewed her in 1974, four years after the publication of her anthology The Black Woman, which is as significant in the annals of the history of US women’s movements for its early attention to the voices and theories of black women intellectual-activists. When I asked her about the possibility of black and other women of color forming alliances around the eradication of race and gender oppression, Toni revealed her involvement in what we would now call a global women’s movement or transnational feminist solidarities. Frustrated with the priorities of the “second-wave” women’s movement, she asserted, “In the whole bibliography of feminist literature, literature immediately and directly relevant to us wouldn’t fill a page.” By “us” she meant black and other third world women---sisters in Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, and Ghana, for example. When I asked her whether it was a dilemma for her to be both a feminist and a warrior in the race struggle, she asserted unequivocally, “I don’t find any basic contradiction or any tension between being a feminist, being a pan-Africanist, being a black nationalist, being an internationalist, being a socialist, and being a woman in North America.” A luta continua. The struggle continues.

Dayo Gore is an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Department and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego and the author of Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (New York University Press, 2012).  

I am a US historian by training, with specializations in African American and African diaspora history and the history of women and gender. Yet over the past decade my faculty positions have been as the resident historian in interdisciplinary departments. This bridging of historical scholarship and interdisciplinary programs speaks to the ways my work engages and is invested in historical methodologies as well as key historiographical and periodization debates, but does so through the frameworks and insights of historians of black women’s intellectual and political thought and black feminist theorizing. 

Historical biographies that take black women seriously as intellectuals, social movement architects, and theorists, as well as incorporate black feminist theorizing of such concepts as intersectionality, have provided me with invaluable models and analytical tools to read multiple archival sources ranging from fiction and poetry to political fliers as I explore issues of difference and power that are central in black women’s political thought and activism, the long Black Freedom Struggle, and US political and cultural history in the twentieth century. 

Indeed, historical and biographical studies of black women’s political thought that are informed by black feminist theory provide a powerful venue to explore individual experiences and intellectual work alongside collective identity and longer genealogies of black thought. This methodological practice illuminates black women’s intellectual work, which is rarely captured in easily accessible published texts but most often is embedded in protest fliers, letters and meeting notes, or personal collections. This type of documentation tends to become legible only through the process of piecing together a life story from a range of sites and sources. Thus, our collective work at the Black Feminist Think Tank helped to make visible a practice and intellectual method that is necessary for examining the breadth and depth of black women’s lives.    

Emily Thuma is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine. 

In a 2001 essay, Linda Burnham cautions against forgetting the contributions made by black feminist activist organizations of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Third World Women’s Alliance and the Combahee River Collective, to the development of intersectionality theory. She urges us to recognize “the struggle for social transformation as a powerful generator of theoretical insight.” This recognition of both the collaborative and dialectical nature of knowledge production through collective action has deeply influenced the ways in which I’ve approached researching and writing histories of feminist anti-violence activism. Black queer feminist theories of “deviance” and intersectional marginalization provide a critical optic for historical analysis of social movements, as they foreground the subjectivities, lived experiences, and politics of those constructed as outlaws, outsiders, the marginal, and the most vulnerable. This optic oriented me toward the site of the women’s prison in the radical politics of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and to Black Feminist, US Third World feminist, and multiracial feminist formations that made the interwovenness of carceral state violence and intimate violence the focus of their analysis and organizing. In coalitions and counterpublic spaces that transected prison walls and multiple marginalized identities, activists advanced an anti-violence agenda that opposed crime control and carceral approaches to rape and battering, and imagined an alternative way forward. 

Tiya Miles is the Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor of African American Women’s History at the University of Michigan. She is the former chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at Michigan and the author of Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (University of California Press, 2006).

My contribution to this vital discussion about the past and future of black feminist thought is to pose a new question: Where does the environment fit within our production of knowledge? Black women and women of color live within layered contexts shaped by the intersection of multiple factors. The natural world and human relationships to and through it is one of the most fundamental. Yet we have paid very little attention to environmental issues in our intersectional analyses. Given our commitment to a holistic social justice struggle, black feminist thinkers cannot afford to ignore the dramatic threat posed to human societies by climate change, as well as the critical environmental thresholds that we have crossed or are fast approaching. Environmental degradation and the social deterioration and economic crises that come along with it exacerbate many of the problems we grapple with, such as poverty, food scarcity, state violence, domestic violence, and forced migration. It is black and brown people, especially women and girls in the global South and in impoverished rural and urban places in the United States, who will be hardest hit by raging storms, rising flood waters, decreased agricultural productivity, and diminishing access to fresh water over time.

We have only to remember the media images that appeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to grasp this reality. Young, stricken black women, often carrying babies, filled those photographic frames. Waiting too long for basic necessities, they struggled to care for themselves and their families amidst contaminated floodwaters and in the inhospitable Superdome. When residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who had faced the worst of the storm were finally relocated to government-issued FEMA trailers, those “temporary” dwellings turned out to be toxic. Histories of residential segregation and poverty made black and brown people the most vulnerable to the storm, which then exacerbated their multiple vulnerabilities in ways that should arrest our attention. Building on the work of women of color intellectuals such as Alice Walker and Grace Lee Boggs, we can and must integrate environmental justice into our intersectional black feminist interpretive lens.

Maria Cotera is an associate professor in American Culture and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the author of Native Speakers: Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita Gonzalez and the Poetics of Culture (University of Texas Press, 2008). 

The importance of "collecting" and utilizing critical memory in women of color (WOC) feminisms of the 1960s and 1970s is at the heart of my recent work. I explore the connections between my current efforts to build a digital collection that documents WOC feminisms of that time and the collecting, sifting, sorting, remixing, and remediating practices that were so central to the development of intersectional feminisms in the years before the 1981 publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a collection coedited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa with a foreword by Toni Cade Bambara. What I call feminist memory praxis allows us to conceptualize a broad array of activities in which “doing,” “interpreting,” and “theorizing” are co-constituted in and through a mode of genealogical excavation. Essentially, I argue for an optic that mirrors that of earlier feminists and allows us to move beyond the book as the ideal object of recuperation to recover feminism’s “para-literary” dimensions, from the actual collecting practices of participants (can we “read” a collection of leaflets and posters as we would a text?) to workshops, speeches, performance, and media (such as filmstrips and slideshows). I am expanding my own genealogical practice of recovery and responding to the multimodal articulations of WOC feminism in its early years. Women of Color Feminism does not only allow for the development of this type of interdisciplinary methodology, it demands it. 

Mireille Miller-Young is an associate professor of Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Duke University Press, 2014).

Black Feminism has raised me. Black feminism has educated me—no, schooled me. Black feminism has comforted me; it has inspired me; it has hurt my feelings. Black Feminism has challenged me and spanked me—in good and bad ways. Black feminism has helped me survive.  

My relationship to black feminism has been a contested one. It has empowered me to struggle for a space for black theories and black bodies within the academy. But it has also made me feel an outsider to the struggle. A black feminist politics of respectability was expressed in the early rejection of my scholarship on the history of black women’s labors and performances in pornography. Senior Black Feminist scholars called me a pornographer and a pervert. Although I found this charge devastating at the time, I have come to embrace these labels. My informants in the porn industry do, and they are much more vulnerable to the kinds of harm such charges bring than I am. I have learned a lot about being a black feminist from these women: What it means to be brave. What it means to put your body on the line for the survival of your family. What it means to take risks unapologetically. I have engaged in a risky scholarship as a black feminist writer on pornography. But my theoretical insights are built on the work of other scholars who have been risk-takers: Cathy Cohen, Barbara Smith, June Jordan, Cheryl Clark, and LaMonda Horton-Stallings among them. My approaches to Black Feminist pornographics, illicit eroticism, erotic sovereignty, and “ho” theory are about thinking through black women’s encounters with sexual dangers, prohibitions, and misrepresentations, and the complex ways in which these women foster agency, desire, pleasure, and power through sexual labor and performance.

LaMonda Horton-Stallings is an associate professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University and the author of Mutha’ Is Half a Word!: Intersections of Folklore, Vernacular, Myth, and Queerness in Black Female Culture (Ohio State University Press, 2007).

As someone trained to be a literary scholar (a close reader, a translator and adaptor of narrative, a theorist in narrative structure) but whose subject of sexuality, desire, and queerness demand interdisciplinary approaches, I am often confronted by scholars in other fields demanding an outline of my methods, a line of reasoning that will make me and my theories of sexuality legible. So I decided to create a methodology for myself that is less reliant upon the disciplines used to generate knowledge about sexuality. Instead of composing a short scholarly piece to answer questions about how my own work engages textualities and sexualities, especially with regard to black feminist genealogies and methods, I decided to write a theoretical poem entitled “Fisting: Another Black Arts Movement” on the contributions that black queer women writers have made to Black Feminist sexual politics. The poem includes multiple explicit and implicit nods to the work of such writers as Gayl Jones, Ann Allen Shockley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Cheryl Clarke, Jewelle Gomez, Dionne Brand, Marlene Norbese Philips, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, June Jordan, and Kevin Quashie. But it also signals the importance of embodiment and desire in the physical activity of writing symbolized by the sex act of fisting.  My poem demonstrates the importance of the sexual imaginary’s embodied movement in order to remind us that black women’s imagination and creative desires have always shaped and will continue to inform their feminist politics. 

Donna Murch is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). 

The Ferguson Police Department’s shooting of eighteen-year old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 sparked a sustained campaign against police violence throughout the St. Louis metro area and in cities across the United States. This remarkably dense mobilization, which first cohered through social media, has attracted worldwide attention.  In addition to international solidarity efforts, youth activists have built an extensive national and international network of allies and supporters. In New York City, Los Angeles and cities across the country a nationwide movement has cohered around the claim that “Black Lives Matter.” While it is a diverse movement with multiple tendencies, an explicit goal is to seek justice for police shooting victim Michael Brown and to help activists across the country build anti-police, and anti-state violence groups, organizations, and efforts in their local communities. Black Feminism helps us to reexamine the daily protests, sit-ins, flash mobs, permitted and spontaneous marches and other acts of civil disobedience and their connection to the black women activists who helped organize these mobilizations. Just as black women were the majority of rank and file members of the Black Panther Party after 1968, we see a similar trend in Ferguson. Where women are many of the day-to-day organizers and have helped lead the movement against state sanctioned violence. They are especially vocal in confronting violence as central to the for-profit industry whereby the local and state government places a higher value on issuing warrants and raising revenues than on public safety.  

Ferguson activists are challenging extrajudicial killings and have made clear links between the state sanctioned violence in their communities and those in Palestine. One of the most exciting things about Ferguson is literally the making of a whole generation of activists in six months. There are now hundreds of activists in Ferguson and many of them have become very politicized around Palestine because of its global links to what happened in Ferguson and through the exchange of social media with the West Bank. 

Evelyn Alsultany is an associate professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, where she coordinates Arab and Muslim American Studies and the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York University Press, 2012).

My work has been concerned with an increase in sympathetic portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on US television after 9/11, in particular a new trend toward including a “positive” representation of an Arab or Muslim in a TV drama or film about Arab or Muslim terrorists to offset the negative depiction. I found that positive representations of Arabs and Muslims have helped to form a new kind of racism, one that projects antiracism and multiculturalism on the surface but simultaneously produces the logics and affects necessary to legitimize racist policies and practices. My former concerns about positive representations of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror has led to my increased preoccupation with the ways in which race is operating today, particularly the common insistence that events structured by racism have nothing to do with race. Denial of racism is not new. It has long been a key feature of racism and white supremacy. What is interesting is that despite greater social awareness of racism, there is little awareness of racial denial as a key feature of racism. We need a new paradigm to think about racialized violence today. Many ethnic studies and feminist studies scholars are doing this work: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Catherine R. Squires, Jodi Melamed, Howard Winant, and many of the participants in the Black Feminist Think Tank. Through briefly examining three recent instances of racial denial (e.g. framing the murder of three Muslim American students as a parking dispute instead of a hate crime; framing the murder of Eric Garner, an African American man, by a white police officer as his own fault given his health conditions; and framing the murder of approximately 2200 Palestinians by the Israeli military during the 2014 Israeli siege on Gaza as Hamas’ fault), I suggest that understanding how denial operates is important as we shape a critical paradigm on racialized violence. The praxis of Black Feminism and Women of Color Feminism teaches us that we must take our experiences seriously and use experience as a critical research methodology. It is through theorizing and building knowledge from experience that we can expose unequal social structures and logics and set out to change them. 

Sherene Seikaly is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the co-editor of the Arab Studies Journal and author of Seikaly's Men of Capital in Times of Scarcity: Economy in Palestine (Stanford University Press, November 2015). 

Black feminist thought and practice, as well as the insights of the think tank’s participants during this conference, can help us approach the study of Palestine as well as the similarities and differences between Palestine and Ferguson. Maria Cotera powerfully discussed Chicana archival practices as acts of resistance. Drawing on these lessons, we can approach Ferguson and Gaza as instances in a broader archive of colonialism and decolonization. I am grateful to Ebony Coletu, who has pointed me to Alexander Weheliye’s work, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human and how he questions why thinkers like Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault have become hegemonic in the studies of the human. Weheliye returns to theories of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter, effectively evidencing how black feminist theory interrogates the genres of the human. Finally, Marlon Bailey’s insight about family as ideology is a powerful invitation to think about the possibilities of international solidarity, an international family. 

It was in the moment when Israel subjected Gaza to unprecedented assault that Ferguson erupted in protest following the police murder of unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown. There were many echoes that were immediately visible that united Gaza and Ferguson: the lone figure in a cloud of tear gas facing down a tank; the bravery of individuals willing to risk life and limb; and the sight of many bodies coming together, if only for a moment, to act as one under the force of military assault.  Another resonance was the US government’s profound militarization and transformation of Ferguson into a laboratory for the latest technology in the violent suppression of political dissent.

I followed as events unfolded in Ferguson from Cairo. Friends and comrades commented on how the US government’s militarization of public space resembled Gaza. Many suggested: “It looks like the United States is taking tips from Israel.” This observation was a painful reminder of Maya Mikdashi’s argument that: “In the United States, settler colonialism has been so complete, and so successful, that the world has forgotten that South Africa, Australia and Israel are all reproductions.” It is the United States in this scenario that is decidedly the teacher. Most of us know that the United States provides the financial and diplomatic support that buttresses Israel’s unprecedented impunity in contravening international law. But there is a deeper connection in this relationship, one that can help us understand the very specific link between Gaza and Ferguson: and that is the long and ongoing history of settler colonialism. To understand both Ferguson and Gaza, we have to recognize both spaces and events not as singular incidences but as moments in a broader history, an archive of colonialism and of decolonization, of oppression and of resistance.


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