There's No Beef: Black Feminists and Womanists Must Come Together to Do the Work

by Gabrielle Clark

It is within the context of Black feminist spaces that I found language to articulate the deeper politics of being black and being a woman. But as a human being who is always changing, no label fits my resistance quite right…

Black feminism and womanism are two blooms stemming from the rich soil of Black Women’s Thought. Two distinct manifestations of Black women’s lived experiences, intellectual and community work. They share important tasks, including collecting the undervalued philosophy of our maternal ancestors and giving space to empower ourselves by centering Black women’s thought in our lives. Although these schools of thought both spring from the same source and share a goal of liberation for Black people and all beings -- they differ in their methods of unpacking the oppression that follows being black and a woman at the same time. Still, there are other important things to consider when engaging Black women’s philosophy than distinguishing one theory from the other. More importantly is acknowledging that black women face inferior conditions because we live in a society that dehumanizes blackness, womanness and queerness. Due to this imbalance of power, there is a deep need for Black women’s philosophy. Also important is recognizing that the existence of multiple modes of Black women’s thought mirrors the sheer diversity in our lived experiences. When we look to Black women’s theory, we must pay attention to the places where the ideologies overlap; there we find the heartspace of black women’s wisdom about liberation.

Rooted in Resistance
The Black feminist is a warrior resisting structural racism and misogynoir- not only in practice, but uprooting very the logics that justify its existence. For her, racism is not theory; racism is marked by frequent events that never allow her to forget her Blackness. Beyond that, she recognizes the link between her individual experiences and those of other Black women. When she looks at the world around her, she notices that Black people, her people, have to survive inferior conditions and she is at the bottom of the pecking order. She acknowledges the way Black men access power through male privilege and how this impacts her personal relationships. Her philosophy is bold and rooted in resistance, like she is.

Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender
Centering the experiences, needs and thoughts of Black Women, womanism stands as a philosophy all its own. The womanist is a whole human being that centers herself, loves other women (sexually and/or not) and recognizes her interdependence with men and the larger community. She is intuitive and honors Spirit. Likewise, her philosophy is intuitive, inspired in its fluidness and ambiguity. She is futuristic in her optimism, knowing she can help restore her community to balance. The womanist explores the positive aspects of black life, love and thought.

Alice Walker’s womanism situates itself in a positive dialectic with Black Feminism. By defining womanism as “A black feminist or feminist of color,” she creates a fluid relationship between the philosophies that allows an exchange of thought. This statement centers the importance of Black Women’s existing philosophy to the foundation of the womanist space. When Walker states “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” she highlights the relationship between the two by using the same color family. A deeper hue than lavender, the color purple may represent deeper thought, a sharpening in perspective that allows for a richer theory.

The Power of Black Women’s Thought
I get it. Identifying as a Black feminist may be uncomfortable for some Black women. The word “feminism” has been dirtied by white mainstream society and is held in contempt in the black community. Now it smacks of male-bashing, bra-burning and white women struggling to achieve a more powerful place in the colonized world order- with or without their men. We don’t necessarily want to be attached to the politics of white women who were and continue to be complicit in our oppression. We have been ignored, abused and misunderstood by white feminists who do not want to learn how our struggle is more nuanced than their own. Despite creating a distinct space for Black women’s thought, there is a misconception that Black feminist thought is a byproduct of white feminism.

This is a problem for several reasons -- first, it presupposes that Black women are not capable of independent thought and contextualizing our experiences without borrowing the logical frameworks of our colonizers. Black feminism is inherently black because it comes from the experiences and thoughts of Black women. Period. Second, it falsely positions Black feminism amongst the waves of the white feminist movement. Black feminism is an organic philosophy that is intergenerational and complex. Because of the transatlantic slave trade, postcolonial conditions that forced immigration from Africa and our systematic dehumanization, Black feminism and womanism reconnect us with lost ancestral knowledge by incorporating not only Black women thinkers that identify as feminists, but historical Black women who embodied resistance in their liberation work. This has never been a project of white feminist theory. Finally, it ignores the fact that the white feminist’s understanding of intersectionality depends upon studying Black feminists and women of color. Although women are an oppressed group, white women’s whiteness affords them a position of power that shelters them from knowing racism and misogynoir firsthand. White feminists are only able to learn intersectionality through observing the oppression of women of color and developing empathy.

Black feminism and womanism have more in common with each other than they do with white feminism. Because black women feel our intersecting oppressions intensely, our philosophies value Black life at the core. A white feminist may or may not understand our social conditions and may or may not engage in work that helps black people and black women achieve liberation. The white feminist has the privilege of concentrating her efforts on eliminating sexism alone. Unlike them, Black women’s survival depends upon eliminating ALL of the oppressions. Simultaneously.

Resurrecting Our Deep Thought
When I took my first class as a Philosophy major in university, it became painfully clear that Black women are not believed to have contributed anything of value to the intellectual landscape of the modern world. The demographic makeup of my classes reflected the scholars we studied- mostly entitled straight white men. It’s no surprise the world has slept on and excluded our ideas for so long. Part of our intellectual heritage’s work is collecting the fragments of wisdom that have been obscured by racism and misogynoir. Alice Walker’s womanism elevated Zora Neale Hurston’s work and allowed us to recognize a grandmother that the ivory tower neglected. Black feminism pieced together the remainders of Maria W. Stewart’s work, admitting us to learn about the first woman in America to give public talks on race, gender and class struggles. The presence of Black feminist and womanist scholars means that there are, and will continue to be, women committed to the practice of restoring our ancestors’ voices to power.

“None of these authors created something new; rather, each named something that had been in existence for some time, functioning below the academic and activist radar and outside the dominant histories of consciousness.” - Layli Phillips

We are involved in a process of naming, renaming and cultivating a tradition that Black women have been valuing in spirit and service for generations. This is important because naming empowers us with self-determination. Naming helps us to more easily identify those with commonalities and makes space for our work to be done in community. However, we must not be so preoccupied with the naming itself that we lose momentum in working on what it is we are naming. We render ourselves stuck on the “linguistic treadmill,” to borrow Patricia Williams’ language, dissatisfied as changes in academic trends and society heaps shame on the names we choose for ourselves. What would be a more effective use of our time? Patricia Hill Collins advises “revisiting the reasons why Black feminist thought exists at all.”

You don’t have to call yourself a Black feminist to empower Black women. You don’t have to be a womanist to contribute to the healing of Black people. My grandmother did not have the privilege of learning Women’s and Africana studies in a university. She did not have access to the technology that makes exchanging these ideas easy now. But naturally, her love, wisdom and intuition have instilled within me the desire to value my womanhood and serve my community. Is that not what Black feminism and womanism look like in practice?

Learning about our philosophy is empowering because we can become more conscious of the similar conditions we face as Black women. We realize we do not have to be caged by the current dynamics of the world. We are powerful enough to do the work to manifest magical changes. Change will not come solely from renaming ourselves, though. We must commit to doing the work that our ancestors have done and build upon their ideas. In the age of hashtags and retweets, it is easy to mistake the mere appearance of Black feminist and womanist thought with practice. Still, we are living in an era where we are able to transcend geography to educate and empower each other through ideological frameworks that we have built… what a time to be alive.

Photo: Shutterstock

Gabrielle Clark is a child welfare paralegal, independent writer and community-conscious creator on a path of liberation. She is a graduate of Temple University with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Philosophy and Journalism. You can find her at and follow her @allwolfnosheep.

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