Black Feminism and Womanism Have Always Been Crucial to Anti-Racist Work

by Candace Simpson

Disclaimer: I have long identified as a Black Feminist and a Womanist. These are two separate schools of thought. In this essay, I use these labels interchangeably, because I happen to identify as both. Not everyone does. (It’s always best to ask a woman how she identifies before you label her.)

I was sitting at a happy hour last summer. In the midst of good drinks and good food, someone asked a bad question, followed by an equally bad statement: “Don’t you think feminists are destroying the Black family? We need to go back to the days when women weren’t bitter and worked for Black empowerment.”

How do you explain to a Brother that your politics have room for both him and you? How do you explain that self-advocacy doesn’t mean you’ve left him behind? How do we convince vocal anti-feminists to recognize that our liberation is tied up together?

Black Feminism and Womanism are the bases of my activism. When we work, we channel the spirit of Angela, Assata, Sojourner, and Ida. I channel the work of my mother, my grandmothers, the women of my church, and the teachers who loved and nurtured me. Activism, however we’ve defined it, is a womanist imperative. Our foremothers have imbued us with the spirit of resistance. We honor their legacy by continuing the work they started. And this work is hard!
Thankfully, we’re beginning to get credit. Several articles and news reports laud the leadership of Black women in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Pictures of Black women holding megaphones at rallies get hundreds of likes and shares on Facebook. This is important. Never in history has there ever been such a mindfulness to lift up the work of Black women. Our foremothers did not enjoy such a luxury. I suppose I should be grateful for progress.

Still, I notice my activism is sexy, praise-worthy, and an indicator of my status as a good woman only when I’m talking about Black men and their interests. When I say “Black Lives Matter,” I mean all of us. I mean Black women too, and not just the women who happen to be straight or cisgender. I sense an anti-feminist stance from men, and particularly from the men who proclaim to be “Pro-Black.” When women bring banners with the names of Black women and girls who have been killed by state-sanctioned violence to protests, we are accused of “making this about us.” I’m beginning to believe that those who are against Black feminist politics are only interested in strong women when we are strong for the sake of men.

One of my former students told me that Rosa Parks was, “Dr. King’s assistant who sat down for him.” Sadly, this is not too far from the history we circulate as adults. Most of us know Rosa Parks’ name because she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. But not many of us know that she investigated rapes of Black women. It’s logical. Why wouldn’t the same woman who resisted white supremacy also take particular interest in the welfare of her sisters?

Black feminism is, and has always been, a way of resisting and critiquing power. Yes, we stage die-ins, lead teach-ins, and appear on panels as ways to work against police brutality. This is our critique of power. It follows that womanists will also fight against the violence we experience at the hands of men who say they love us. We are not any less committed to the empowerment of our communities just because we question Bill Cosby. This is also a critique of power.

Black Women who demand reciprocity present a threat to power. So yes, we challenge misogynoir in our own homes. How many women stay with men who are abusive because we’ve been told “that’s what a woman does”? Black feminism disrupts that. How many women let their lovers have unrestricted access to their accounts on the terms that “a woman supports her man”? Womanism disrupts that. How many women worry about street harassment during their commute, only to be mocked by men? Black feminism disrupts that. How many women have starved themselves or worn those ridiculous waist trainers because we feel the pressure of body critique? Womanism disrupts that. Consider the harrowing statistics. The sister who has led a protest, spoken on a megaphone, or been arrested for the cause is likely also a survivor of sexual assault. The web is tangled.

I’ll say it: Some people are against Black feminism and womanism because they empower us Sisters to challenge power in our own homes. As Black people and as women, we are important and demand to be treated as such. This political assertion is about survival. We are the women who critique Stop and Frisk. We are also the women who challenge the men who follow us and whistle at us for seven blocks. We demand to be safe. We will not stay where we are hurt. If you hurt us, or our families, we have options. We want our neighborhoods to be safe, our schools to be of quality, and our homes to be a place of love. This is why we protest, write, dream, and teach. It is also why we check you. We believe in freedom, and we won’t rest until we get it in every arena.

If you don’t know about Black feminism or womanism, there are resources. Do your research. Get to learning. If you are convinced that Black Feminists and Womanists are traitors, you’re not hearing us. That’s your responsibility to remedy, not ours. But don’t expect me to be quiet. Black feminism and womanism demand me to be loud, to be present, to command attention.

My voice is strong because I intend to make myself heard. Do not expect me to whisper when you do me wrong.

Photo: Alice Walker, writer and activist, who created the term "womanism"

Candace Simpson is a seminary student in Harlem and a Brooklyn native. You can follow her tweets @CandyCornball.

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