We're Part of History Too: Black Women and the Struggle to Locate Our Stories

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by Rochelle Robinson

It was the beginning of Women’s History month and I was looking forward to joining my housemate to see a film written and produced by filmmaker Jennifer Lee, titled: Feminist Stories from Women's Liberation, 1963-1970.

I also wanted to start the month off by honoring the many Black and Women of Color (WOC) feminists/womanists whose shoulders I stand on. While this piece is not intended to be a review of Lee’s work, it did, however spark some internal dialogue and thinking about feminism that I want to flush out.

I've identified as a feminist for many years but never have I fully embraced the essentialist view of feminism as “The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Whether intended or not, this narrative has been part and parcel of the white imagination. It’s safe, efficient, expedient, and more often than not, class and race exclusive. There remain many aspects of this history that often does not include all voices and agents of radical transformation with regard to feminist activism. However, Lee mindfully points out that, even in her attempt to tell this story, she is not able to “tell all of them because there were so many. I [couldn’t] interview all of the feminists because there are far too many.”

Generally, feminist/women’s liberation ideology and its one-size fits all approach has certainly put Black women, who can almost always be found front and center of race and class struggles, at odds with White women.

Admittedly I was curious if the film/filmmaker would offer a new feminist perspective that wasn’t an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, heteronormative rendition of previous colonized/ imperialist history. A history like “All the women are white, all the blacks are men…” (though fails to admit that), “…some of us are brave.” Lingering assumptions and misgivings about long-standing feminist activism among Black women and other WOC, situates this history on the periphery of the collective imagination. Still, I do not want to subordinate Lee’s perspective and her research, as it is indeed a very important part of women’s struggles but not all women’s struggles.

As Maxine Williams wrote during this history’s period:

The middle-class mentality of some white women’s liberation seem to be irrelevant to black women’s needs. For instance, at the November 1969 Congress to Unite Women in New York, some of the participants did not want to take a stand against the school tracking system fearing that “good” students thrown in with “bad” ones would cause the “brilliant” students to leave school, thus lowering the standards. One white woman had the gall to mention to me that she felt women living in Scarsdale were more oppressed then [sic] Third World women trapped in the ghetto! There was also little attempt to deal with the problems of poor women, for example the fact that women in Scarsdale exploit Black women as domestics. ~ 1970.

I managed to scribble a few notes, looking for clues, images, names that would lead me to the promised land of feminist inclusivity while my stream of feminist consciousness rambled on in my head. I gave a firm nod at the mention of Pauli Murray, who’d referred to sexism as “Jane Crow.” Fran Beal, author of “Double Jeopardy: To be Black and Female” (1969), set some historical groundwork with her analysis of the intersectionalites Black women (and WOC) face, in turn positioning these groups of women at opposite ends of the feminist spectrum with folks like Betty Friedan and other white feminist leaders. There were anecdotes and criticisms by Byllye Avery, Aileen Hernandez, and Bettita Martinez (if you don’t know who these women are, I suggest you look them up).

On screen, Ms. Lee remarks: “When you whisper the word ‘feminist’, you disregard the women’s movement.” In other words, to barely speak its name, or feign that you might be so inclined, is to strip it of its credibility and power, lessen the importance of its existence. But for me, those words also become indicative of how mainstream feminism has operated with its (not always subtle) subordination of Black women, WOC, and Queer women of color (QWOC).

Our experiences and struggles are nothing more than a whisper (as in, “There were non-white feminists? Really? I can’t imagine…”), even as some have gone to great lengths to build alliances, name the differences, and have these differences recognized as part of on-going feminist struggle, not apart from it. Indeed, many of us wanted to be in on this campaign for women’s rights. We wanted white women to be as proactive about our battles as their own. To render us invisible dislocates our influence and agency. If we can’t be found—but in a few paragraphs or sound bites—in mainstream feminist activism story-telling, we can’t begin to be taken seriously, and this clearly delegitimizes our involvement unless the gatekeepers say otherwise. Typically, the dominant theory and practice of women-centered discourse repeatedly fails to examine and critique the biases, complexities and contradictions of this movement. It has become historical servitude, giving white men and women full control of the narrative. Until this changes, we must continue to take ourselves seriously, and we will.

Black women remain caught between the Scylla and Charybdis [rock and hard place] of hperinvisibility and invisibility. Everyone thinks they know everything there is to know about us, but based on facts alone, very little is actually known. ~ Brittney Cooper.

To her credit, Lee pulled this film together on a shoestring budget and without the kind of resources that one might expect from a feature documentary with substantial financial backing. She was very clear about how scarce funding is for feminist projects. I also realize that 64 minutes is not nearly enough time to cover seven years of Women’s Liberation movement, no more than I can exhaust this subject in the limited space I’ve allocated to write about it, so I ain’t mad at her and give her props for her efforts. Her cinematic contribution may help to re-open dialogue about various approaches to feminism that Black, WOC, and QWOC have chosen.

Moreover, this film reminded me that my feminist ideals run deeper—informed, motivated, and nurtured by a legacy of Black women’s and women of color activism and their struggle for liberation of all people. I cut my feminist teeth on the works of Patricia Hill-Collins, bell hooks, Chandra Mohanty, Cherie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Toni Cade Bambara, Paula Giddings, Katie Cannon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Audre Lorde and a host of other fierce and fabulous feminist writers and cultural workers who also engaged in transnational/third world feminism. This consciousness enables me to challenge status quo feminism, ableism, ageism, racism, classism, and all concomitant -isms that discriminates against, isolates and marginalizes entire groups of people. It is not a matter of either/or, but, both/and, and, and, and…in my world, shit overlaps and is complicated by structural and institutionalized oppressions.

I find it empowering that there are emerging, young and rock-steady feminist voices and groups championing our causes and keeping us present, informed, and fired up. They include: The Feminist Wire—with their recent and admirable “Praise the Lorde project; Incite! Women of Color Against Violence; Black Feminists; QueerBlackFeminist; Everyday Feminism; Feministing.com; The Crunk Feminist Collective; For Harriet; Black Women’s Blueprint; Black Girl Dangerous (and countless other non-white women and men, here and abroad)….

Repeatedly, these sistahs (and their allies), and their ensuing, evolving, revolutionary projects remind me how critical our various experiences are, that all voices matter. It reinforces the need for feminist writers and filmmakers like Jennifer Lee to further their exploration, analysis, and commitment to critiquing/re-imagining old and broken frames that have yielded barely visible results and perpetuate the invisibility of non-white women. Our history does not fit neatly in a box. Oh, honey, no. We’re part of this history, too. And we have so much more work to do as Black women and Women of Color continue to be targeted victims of domestic, state, and sexual violence, exploitation, transphobia and homophobia, overwhelming unemployment, under employment, wage disparity, and disproportionately represented within the prison industrial complex. This is but a tip of the iceberg. And this is what troubled me during the viewing of this film. It opened a can of worms. I plan to write more about this in the near and distant future.

My best guess, based upon our post-film discussion is that Jennifer Lee is open to constructive criticism/feedback about her work and is not opposed to engaging and broadening her knowledge about a long legacy of feminist activism whose major players were not all white. I’m confident she understands that this struggle is more complex than what has been named and defined (thus, incomprehensive), and I hope she will consider these issues as she moves forward to promote her film and women’s liberation.

Yes, there are far too many names, faces, stories that make this history whole. I’m just saying that they’re not all white, and too often we’re left out. There is an opportunity here for us to reconcile the past and own up to its failure to make it more comprehensive. How it is this failure that prevents us from realizing a more powerful women’s liberation movement. It’s not about blame and one upping the other, rather, it is more about what this discourse has not and does not get into and then doing the work it takes to achieve feminist equality. It’s got to be all or none of us. Think about this as you continue to celebrate women’s history today and everyday.

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