The Revolutionary Practice of Black Feminisms

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The black feminist tradition grows not out of other movements, but out of the condition of being both black and a woman. It is a long tradition which resists easy definition and is characterized by its multi-dimensional approach to liberation.

In 1864, Sojourner Truth sold cartes-de-visite, small photographs mounted to a paper card, to support her activism. Featuring the slogan “I sell the shadow to support the substance,” Truth capitalized on the popularity of these collector’s items to support herself and fund her speaking tours. As a formerly enslaved person, claiming ownership of her image for her own profit was revolutionary. Truth reportedly said that she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own.” Though expressions of black feminism can be seen in written accounts as far back as the 1830s, Sojourner Truth is the most widely known nineteenth-century black feminist foremother. Throughout her life, Truth linked the movement to abolish slavery and the movement to secure women’s rights, stating that for black women, race and gender could not be separated. 

Truth’s speeches and activism represent an early expression of the black feminist tradition. Black feminism is an intellectual, artistic, philosophical, and activist practice grounded in black women’s lived experiences. Its scope is broad, making it difficult to define. In fact, the diversity of opinion among black feminists makes it more accurate to think of black feminisms in the plural. In an oral history interview from the Museum’s collection, noted activist and scholar Angela Davis speaks to this point:

I rarely talk about feminism in the singular. I talk about feminisms. And, even when I myself refused to identify with feminism, I realized that it was a certain kind of feminism . . . It was a feminism of those women who weren’t really concerned with equality for all women...

Dr. Angela Davis August 5th, 2019, Oral History Interview, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Despite different visions, a few foundational principles do exist among black feminisms:

  • Black women’s experience of racism, sexism, and classism are inseparable.
  • Their needs and worldviews are distinct from those of black men and white women.
  • There is no contradiction between the struggle against racism, sexism, and all other-isms. All must be addressed simultaneously.
An oval pin in gold with the words "Lifting as we climb."

Pin for the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs owned by Mary Church Terrell, 20th century.

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Gift of Ray and Jean Langston in memory of Mary Church and Robert Terrell

“Lifting as we climb,” the slogan of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), became a well-known motto for black women’s activism in the late nineteenth century. By this time, middle class black women organized social and political reform through women’s organizations, or clubs. Having had more resources and access to education than a woman like Sojourner Truth, these women’s experiences led them to a different expression of black feminism. Their project of racial uplift focused on combating harmful stereotypes surrounding black women’s sexuality and gender identity.

Problematically, they emphasized elevating poor women, less out of a sense of good-will, than out of a recognition that black women of any class would be judged through the circumstances of those “with the fewest resources and the least opportunity.” In discussing the motto of the NACW, Mary Church Terrell, founding president of the organization, said, “Even though we wish to shun them…we cannot escape the consequences of their acts… Self-preservation would demand that we go among the lowly… to whom we are bound by ties of race and sex.”

The black feminism of the club movement is often overlooked, but as black feminist theorist Brittney Cooper points out, clubs such as the NACW can be seen as sites of development for black feminist leadership and thought despite their elitism. The club movement ushered in a new era of intellectual, artistic, and philosophical production by black women about their own experiences.

Placard with "STOP RACISM NOW" message, late 20th century. Commissioned by the National Organization for Women.

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Pauli Murray, an activist, writer, Episcopal priest, and legal scholar, played an important role in several civil, social, and legal organizations including the National Organization of Women (NOW), which she cofounded in 1966. Throughout her life, Murray had romantic relationships with women but did not consider herself a lesbian. Her biographer, Rosalind Rosenburg, suggests that had Murray been alive today, she likely would have embraced a transgender identity. Murray wrote and theorized extensively on her experiences of black womanhood asserting that, for her, gender, race, and sexuality could not be separated. This refusal to separate her identity fueled her legal work and activism. In the NOW placard above from shortly after the group’s founding, the political connections between the women’s movement and anti-racist activity can be seen. However, Murray would soon become disillusioned with NOW as she saw the organization distance itself from economic and racial justice.

As the only female student at Howard University Law School, Pauli Murray developed the term Jane Crow, the “twin evil of Jim Crow,” to describe the sexism black women faced. She would continue to develop theoretical, legal, and political frameworks for describing black women’s experiences. Her legal work connecting race-based and sex-based discrimination led to the inclusion of sex-based discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause. However, due to the Civil Rights Movement’s demands for “respectable” performances of black womanhood, Murray’s many contributions to civil rights history remain relatively unknown. Despite this neglect of her work, the legal and theoretical parallels she drew between racial discrimination and gender discrimination set the stage for feminist thinkers to follow.

One truth, especially within the context of black feminisms, is that queer black feminism has always been part of this. That queer black women, queer black folks have always been in these spaces.

Dr. Treva Lindsey 2019 NMAAHC public program "Is Womanist to Feminists as Purple is to Lavender?: African American Women Writers and Scholars Discuss Feminism"

The 1970s marked an increase in explicitly black feminist organizing, due in part to tensions inflamed during the Women’s Liberation and Civil Rights Movements. By this time, queer black feminists were becoming more openly and visibly positioned within black feminist groups. They also began creating their own organizations—such as the Salsa Soul Sisters, one of the first out and explicitly multi-cultural lesbian organizations —due to tensions with straight black feminists as well as white gays and lesbians. The influential Combahee River Collective statement, co-authored by Barbara Smith, expressed a radical, queer black feminist platform still relevant to expressions of black feminism today.

In 1983, Alice Walker developed the term “womanist” to describe “a Black feminist or feminist of color.” Her term defined a more communal and humanist expression of feminism that acknowledged queer black women and aligned with long-standing traditions of black women’s thought and activism. Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde, is one of many foundational womanist writings produced during this period. In her essays and speeches, Lorde discusses the connected issues of sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism, while calling for new tactics that centered these intersections.

Black women are often thought to be at a disadvantage because of racism and sexism, but some black feminists view their position as one of possibility. They argue that in the struggle for freedom, the people most exposed to different forms of oppression understand best how to dismantle them. While late nineteenth century black feminisms were grounded in heterosexual black women’s bodies, by the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, radical black feminisms came to center queer and trans black women, girls, and gender nonconforming people.

Outside black feminist circles, black feminisms are often described as an outgrowth of other freedom struggles. While black women’s experiences working within political and social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries certainly informed articulations of black feminism, black feminisms have never been derivative, nor do they fit cleanly into the “waves” of feminist history. For black women and other women of color, race and gender are inseparable, and black feminists resist all movements that ignore this reality. From women’s suffrage to the Women’s March of 2017, they have been unwilling to compromise on the assertion that a feminism which does not incorporate different experiences of womanhood cannot achieve full liberation. Since before Sojourner Truth sold her “shadow,” women in the black feminist tradition have developed theoretical frameworks and practices born of their experiences, to get, as black feminist scholar Dr. Treva Lindsey put it, “freer and freer and freer.”

Browse Feminism in the NMAAHC Collection

Written by Max Peterson, Fall 2019 Intern

Published on March 4, 2019