For Colored Girls Considering Womanism When Feminism Isn't Enough

by Ashley Daniels

I have this thing. Whenever someone is talking to me about a subject that requires a bit of thought, I'll think of a song that applies to the question, as I'm thinking of an answer. For example, when asked, "Are you a feminist?" I think of Mya, while searching my brain for an answer: I'm so confused / I don't know what to do.

I have an answer, but it’s not as direct or simple as the question.

Growing up watching BET, MTV, and VH1 (before they became the holy ratchet television trinity), I only understood feminism to be three things: white, angry, and mostly lesbian. I watched scores of white women on a field wearing sundresses and combat boots holding hands with other white women wearing buzz cuts and flannel shirts, swaying to the spellbinding sounds of the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge at Lilith Fair. I listened as Meredith Brooks told the world how she was a bitch, a lover, a child, and a mother. The news showed hundreds of White college coed girls with megaphones, candles, and makeshift signs in an effort to "take back the night."

All these sounds and images bonded together in my pre-adolescent understanding of one word: feminism.
From hearing that word tossed around in interviews and news reports, I developed an associative understanding of feminism. But because I rarely saw faces that looked like mine in these spaces, I didn't think that feminism was a "thing" for a little Black girl like me. Every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of artists like Tracy Chapman or Meshell Ndegeocello on MTV or VH1, but I was more in awe of their Blackness on a predominately white music network than their feminism. It would not be until my sophomore year of college where my mind would change (sort of).

Every year, my aunt gives me a book as part of my Christmas gifts. In tenth grade, I received Kevin Powell's Step Into A World: A Global Anthology of New Black Literature. I skimmed through the book but hadn't really read it until I was in my dorm room one boring snowy Saturday years later. Flipping through the writings of Robin D.G. Kelly, Ras Baraka, and dream hampton, I happened upon an essay by a writer named Joan Morgan, who introduced me to the concept of hip-hop feminism.

When reflecting on the treatment of women during the Million Man March with Farrakhan banishing us from the National Mall to our kitchens to "cook for our warriors" as noted by Kristal Brent-Zooks, Morgan cited the need for a new kind of feminism that is relevant to Black women of the present 20th Century (the essay was written in 1999). She understood that not too many Black women were checking for "the f-word" due to deep-rooted racism from White women. But honestly, that wasn't the part that resonated with me. What drew me was the idea of being a "hip hop feminist."

Despite knowing all the words to "Bittersweet Symphony" and "You Oughta Know" thanks to binge-watching MTV and VH1, I'm still an avid rap and hip-hop fan. Trips to class were included background tracks from A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, or Missy Elliot in my ears. I can knowledgeably discuss the Roxanne Wars, the Bridge Wars, and how the Biggie/Tupac beef fucked all that up. I could tell you about the Zulu Nation and the significance of Afrika Bambaataa. So of course the notion of hip-hop feminism intrigued me.

But as a young Black woman, I was conflicted. This was around the time when sisters at Spelman were protesting Nelly's appearance on their campus after the infamous “Tip Drill” video. I applauded those sisters for standing up against the misogynoir that flooded our radio stations on a daily basis. But as a lover of rap and hip-hop, I questioned if I even allowed to do such a thing?

True, I wasn't constantly checking for songs that said Black women were nothing more than ass and titties wrapped in a quick weave. But I won't lie and pretend that my bitty booty doesn't automatically get ready to twerk a lil' sumthin' when I hear that Cash Money is taking over for the 99 and the 2000. Joan Morgan let me know that I was not alone. That there was a space (or there needed to be) where this intersected. We needed a kind of feminism that "was brave enough to fuck with the grays," as Joan Morgan writes in her classic text, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down. As Morgan writes, we needed a feminism that understands how "truth can't be found in the voice of any one rapper, but in the juxtaposition of many… they lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet—the juncture where 'truth' is no longer black and white, but subtle, intriguing shades of gray."

As part of my quest to find such a feminism, I ordered more books about Black feminism including those by Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks. I perused through essays by Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Barbara Smith. I read feminist studies on the writings of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.

Feminism and I formed a “situationship.” Where in a relationship you relate to the other party involved, I could appreciate learning about Black feminism… but I still couldn't seem to shake the idea of how “white” it was. While Morgan, Guy-Sheftall, Smith, hooks, and Collins helped me see myself in the mirror of feminism, its reflection was still fuzzy. I found myself still in search of an ideology that I could relate to. Not knowing of anything else at the time, I reluctantly linked up with feminism.

As I read more about the history of feminism, I understood my apathy. Doing research prior to joining my sorority, I learned that the founders of Delta Sigma Theta were regulated to march in the back of the processional, because of their race during the 1913 Women's Suffrage March. When doing a paper on the history of Black women voting, I learned that the rift in the alliance between Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony was caused with the decision to either support voting rights for Black men or White women. While I wasn’t really trying to claim feminism, historically it wasn’t claiming me either. The situationship lasted for the remainder of my undergraduate tenure up until my second year of doctoral school.

That's when I met Womanism.

Props must go to my Black Political Theory professor. In a discussion with him about what I wanted to study regarding Black women, he suggested that I check out Dr. Clenora Hudson Weems's 1993 classic Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. This book too was like looking in a mirror, but with a clearer reflection. Here was an ideal whose founding roots shared my own: being a woman of African descent in America. It was something I could relate to, therefore form a relationship with. I had dreamed of a "feminism" that didn't reluctantly acknowledge the racist roots of feminism, but that called it out on its bullshit. Dr. Weems did just that in her definition:
Africana Womanism is a term I coined and defined in 1987 after nearly two years of publicly debating the importance of self-naming for Africana woman. Why the term "Africana Womanism?" Upon concluding that the term "Black Womanism" was not quite the terminology to include the total meaning desired for this concept, I decided that "Africana Womanism," a natural evolution in naming, was the ideal terminology for two basic reasons. The first part of the coinage, Africana, identifies the ethnicity of the woman being considered, and this reference to her ethnicity, establishing her cultural identity, relates directly to her ancestry and land base: Africa. The second part of the term, Womanism, recalls Sojourner Truth's powerful impromptu speech "Ain't I A Woman," one in which she battles with the dominant alienating forces in her life as a struggling Africana woman, questioning the accepted idea of womanhood. Without question, she is the flip side of the coin, the co-partner in the struggle for her people, one who, unlike the White woman, has received no special privileges in American society.
As good as feminism could be, it still fails to address how intersectionalities—like race and gender—further complicated the realities of women of color. (An example of this is the recent discussions around closing the wage gap that white women like Patricia Arquette champion, without acknowledging that Black women make even less.)

Womanism does a better job at this, but it’s not perfect either. We have our beef, too. First there is a sense of exclusiveness, even among Black people. In reading about other Womanist works, there is a strong emphasis on spirituality and religion. By centering the concept around a particular religious belief, we are pretty much guilty of the same crime we accuse White feminists of committing: leaving folks out. I'm reminded of the approach Malcolm X proposed in his speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Regardless of our backgrounds, we must all come together to realize that we are catching the same two kinds of hell in America constantly: being Black and being woman. We cannot afford to ostracize anybody from our cause—no matter how religious affiliation, sexual identity, class, or education background. Every type of Black woman is necessary and should be represented in our fight for liberation. It makes no sense that we vote at the highest rate of all voters, yet our social progress is still among the lowest.

There is strength in solidarity and inclusiveness.

Second, I take issue with Womanism being a belief more so than an ideology. A belief is based on faith or perspective. It is what a person thinks or perceives. As noted by Karl Mannehiem in Idelology and Utopia, “an ideology is a vehicle used to mobilize a belief.”

Womanism still lags behind feminism in its ability to mobilize around womanist beliefs. From modern feminism’s early origins within the Suffrage Movement, women mobilized around the issues they believed in by forming organizations such as National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Organization for Women (NOW). As history has tells us, these mobilization efforts have done a pretty decent job thus far.
Africana Womanism, to me, has not yet reached that level of influence yet. We still need a vehicle to move our agenda forward, and we still need to create a centralized agenda on our own terms. We need to be our own champions, and not rely on the examples set for us by white women or Black men. We need to move from the trajectory of margin to center, as bell hooks, famed Black feminist, would tell us.

So am I a Black feminist? Yes and no. Am I a Womanist? Yes and no.

I guess I'm like Joan Morgan, in a sense. I have a need. I need a Womanism that encompasses the spirit and passion of Black feminism. I need a Black feminism that truly advocates for us, understanding that Black women are quick to get lost in the shuffle of other issues.

I need "the intriguing shades of gray" of both, I suppose.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ashley Daniels (also known as Ashfronomenal) is a third year Ph.D. student in Political Science program at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She is currently featured in the book, "The Miseducation of..." from the Ignorant Intellectuals. To purchase, please email

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