In our Fall '09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists address
the politics of feminism, race and a new progressive movement.

Reigniting Black Feminist Power
Review by Christine E. Hutchins

Duchess Harris, Associate Professor of American Studies at Macalester College, opens her important new book, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton, with a problem. In Paula Giddings's 1996 book When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, Giddings asks, "Who has presented the political agenda for Black women?"

On The Issues Magazine - Sojourner Truth; From the Library of Congress
Harris invokes Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?"; From the Library of Congress

Harris and Giddings show that the 1963 March on Washington represented an overwhelmingly male Black consciousness and Betty Friedan's 1966 Feminist Mystique an essentially middle-class and white feminist movement. Harris begins, "Since Giddings did not answer her own question, this is where I enter. I wrote this book because I wanted to take up the analysis of Black women's involvement in American political life where Giddings left off."

Harris's analysis is both hopeful and disheartening. On the one hand, Harris provides oral, archival and literary histories of Black women without whom neither the Black Power nor the feminist movements would have progressed. On the other hand, Harris demonstrates that these movements, so beholden to Black women, have never adequately or fairly represented their needs and desires. Worse, they have too often asked Black women to choose between identities, prioritizing one over others.

The insistence that they choose may be Black women's worst dilemma, pressured as they are under the combined weight of racism, sexism and homophobia. The Black Power movement often asks Black women to set aside concerns over unequal status; feminist organizations often have difficulty recognizing the ways that race factors into equations of gender and power.

Harris shows through examination of media, Congressional records and survey data that in situations in which they feel they must choose, Black women overwhelming concede gender to race. Harris demonstrates that Black women strongly backed O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his former wife, a white woman. In the hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, testimony by Anita Hill about his sexual improprieties required Black women to balance the possibility of a Black Supreme Court appointment or a gender-troubled appointment. Black women generally excused Thomas, Harris argues, "considering it more important to take a Black hero where one could be found, however flawed he might be."

Woman Power Comes and Goes

Harris divides the book into four parts: A History of Black Feminism; The 1990s in Context; Black Women's Relationships to Party Politic; and Doubting the Democrats.

Black feminist writers faced vitriol

In these parts, Harris charts the long and winding paths Black feminism traversed from the mid- to late-twentieth-century. Throughout, she describes patterns of significant advances for Black women co-existing with virulent backlash.

For example, although the 1961 Fourth Consultation of President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women advanced Black women's causes by explicitly stating that a section of the committee's report should address issues specific to Black women, the final report dropped this section. Even New York Times reports omitted reference to data the committee had compiled and analyzed for this fourth section. The final printed report of the commission included three sections on employment opportunities, volunteer work and media representations, without reference to issues specifically affecting Black women.

Although the commission’s planned section on Black women never appeared, Black women sat on the commission. Black women made great strides toward gaining seats at the tables of political organizations throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Women of color were active in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 and the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973. Harris credits the Combahee River Collective, emerging in 1975 from the Boston National Black Feminist Organization, as first among Black feminist organizations to integrate fully the principles of both Black Power and feminism. Harris argues, "The scope of the [Combahee River Collective’s] activities confirmed the members' understanding of multiple oppressions [the combined forces of racism, sexism, and homophobia] and their willingness to engage in wide-ranging advocacy actions advancing multiple interests." Despite its advances and its continuing influence through successive reprints of the Combahee River Collective Statement, the group dissolved after a mere six years; no organization since has emerged as its successor.

Harris lingers on this moment in Black feminist organizing when, with the Combahee, it seemed possible for Black women to address the combined effects of race, gender and sexuality without prioritizing one over others. For this book, Harris interviewed six members of the Combahee River Collective: Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier, Cheryl Clarke, Gloria Akasha Hull, Margo Okizawa Rey and Sharon Page Ritchie. Smith is eloquent on the group's mission. "I didn't have to leave my feminism outside the door to be accepted, as I would in a conservative Black political context. I didn't have to leave my lesbianism outside. I didn't have to leave my race outside, as I might in an all-White women's context where they didn't want to know all that. So it was really wonderful to be able to be our whole selves …”

Outspoken Women Pay A Price

The "step forward and jump back" trajectory that Harris traces for Black feminism continues through her analysis of Black organizing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Harris documents a nearly relentless struggle in both white and Black circles against Black women's efforts to raise their voices in public forums.

Outspoken Black feminist writers flourished, and in return they faced increasing vitriol not only from white society, but from Black men as well. For example, Harris describes Michele Wallace’s writings in the Village Voice in 1975, later expanded into a book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Ntozake Shange's 1976 opening at the New Federal Theatre of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and Alice Walker's 1981 novel The Color Purple, as much-needed "catalysts for discussions of sexism within Black society." She says that reactions within the Black community, for the most part, were contained in angry printed rebuttals that reflected outrage that these Black feminist writers strayed from the (overwhelmingly male-dominated) Black movement. Harris concludes, "Black men had a long way to go before grasping Black feminism and its concerns."

Among responses to these Black feminist writers, Harris discusses two male writers with mockingly titled denunciations. Robert Staples described Michele Wallace as man-hating and divisive in his 1979 Black Scholar article, "The Myth of Black Macho: A Response to Angry Black Feminists." In The Guardian in 1987, John Cunningham published "New Black Man's Burden," describing "the revenge of the women," and declaring Black feminist writers' criticisms of sexism in Black society as continuous with and supportive of the defamatory work of white racists.

Cycles of success and defeat

Harris links the cycles of success and defeat for Black feminism in the 1980s to a series of very public defeats in the 1990s. These include President Bill Clinton's scandal-dogged nomination of Lani Guinier for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in 1993 and the forced resignation of Dr. Jocelyn Elders as the Surgeon General in 1994. In each case, Black women gained political stature only to face criticism that Harris suggests could have been countered had there been adequate mentoring available to Black women in politics.

She also points to the election of Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), who in 1993 became the first (and only) Black woman elected to the Senate. Senator Moseley Braun's political fortunes declined when critics focused almost exclusively on perceived personal weaknesses, such as an affair with an aide, financial gaffes and a visit to Nigerian leaders at a time when their human rights record was abysmal. What critics overlooked were Moseley Braun's achievements, including her much-praised 1993 Senate speech that won an overwhelming reversal on a vote that would have given sanction to an insignia with the Confederate flag. Harris points out Moseley Braun's largely positive record of securing promised improvements for constituents, and argues that with a little mentoring from a senior member of the Senate, Moseley Braun could have better polished her image and survived the media onslaught.

Harris concludes that losses in the 1980s and 1990s so effectively squelched Black feminist organizing and action that its status in the early 21st century is best understood through Congresswoman Barbara Lee's (D-CA) lonely, principled stand against military intervention in Iraq. Black women's virtual disempowerment as a political force was quietly and nearly total. Harris acknowledges the prominent role played by Condoleezza Rice in George W. Bush's administration, but attributes her political visibility to her willingness to cede discussion of her identity as a member of a Black community.

In her epilogue, Harris further extends this portrait to pre-election efforts to deride Michelle Obama. She points to commentary by Fox News’ Bill O'Reilly, who declared, "The perception is that she's angry in some quarters," and then asked his guest, a magazine editor, to confirm that Obama is "not warm and fuzzy."

She also addresses under-representations of 2008 Green Party Candidate Cynthia McKinney. McKinney may have known she would not sweep the electorate, Harris says, but "when it came to the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton was White, Barack Obama was a man, but Cynthia McKinney was brave."

All actions, however seemingly unwinnable, are brave, Harris says. Although the cause of Black feminism has languished, Harris invokes Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" on the necessity of lifting Black women out of their combined oppressions. Truth's comment "where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter," ultimately won the day, inspiring women to act in favor of abolition and suffrage.

Now, Harris says, "[t]here is so much racket that we, too, know something is out of kilter." Harris calls for a renewal of Black feminist organizing and activism, one that refuses to concede either gender or race, but insists on the entire package.

Christine E. Hutchins, is an Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY, where she teaches literature and writing. Her doctorate is in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her scholarly writings are included in the Ben Jonson Journal, Reformation and other publications and include works on Shakespeare, Chaucer, lyric poetry and combatants on all sides of the early modern Reformations of Religion. She is the Book Editor of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Faith Ringgold, The Art Perspective in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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