In 1831 Maria W. Stewart asked, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” Orphaned at age five, bound out to a clergyman’s family as a domestic servant, Stewart struggled to gather isolated fragments of an education when and where she could. As the first American woman to lecture in public on political issues and to leave copies of her texts, this early U.S. Black woman intellectual foreshadowed a variety of themes taken up by her Black feminist successors (Richardson 1987).
Maria Stewart challenged African-American women to reject the negative images of Black womanhood so prominent in her times, pointing out that race, gender, and class oppression were the fundamental causes of Black women’s poverty. In an 1833 speech she proclaimed, “Like King Solomon, who put neither nail nor hammer to the temple, yet received the praise; so also have the white Americans gained themselves a name … while in reality we have been their principal foundation and support.” Stewart objected to the injustice of this situation: “We have pursued the shadow, they have obtained the substance; we have performed the labor, they have received the profits; we have planted the vines, they have eaten the fruits of them“ (Richardson 1987, 59).
Maria Stewart was not content to point out the source of Black women’s oppression. She urged Black women to forge self-definitions of self-reliance and independence. “It is useless for us any longer to sit with our hands folded, reproaching the whites; for that will never elevate us,” she exhorted. “Possess the spirit of independence… . Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted” (p. 53). To Stewart, the power of self-definition was essential, for Black women’s survival was at stake. “Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reason you cannot attain them. Weary them with your importunities. You can but die if you make the attempt; and we shall certainly die if you do not” (p. 38).
Stewart also challenged Black women to use their special roles as mothers to forge powerful mechanisms of political action. “O, ye mothers, what a responsibility rests on you!” Stewart preached. “You have souls committed to your charge …. It is you that must create in the minds of your little girls and boys a thirst for knowledge, the love of virtue, … and the cultivation of a pure heart.” Stewart recognized the magnitude of the task at hand. “Do not say you cannot make any thing of your children; but say … we will try” (p. 35).
Maria Stewart was one of the first U.S. Black feminists to champion the utility of Black women’s relationships with one another in providing a community for Black women’s activism and self-determination. “Shall it any longer be said of the daughters of Africa, they have no ambition, they have no force?” she questioned. “By no means. Let every female heart become united, and let us raise a fund ourselves; and at the end of one year and a half, we might be able to lay the corner stone for the building of a High School, that the higher branches of knowledge might be enjoyed by us” (p. 37). Stewart saw the potential for Black women’s activism as educators. She advised, “Turn your attention to knowledge and improvement; for knowledge is power” (p. 41).
Though she said little in her speeches about the sexual politics of her time, her advice to African-American women suggests that she was painfully aware of the sexual abuse visited upon Black women. She continued to “plead the cause of virtue and the pure principles of morality” (p. 31) for Black women. And to those Whites who thought that Black women were inherently inferior, Stewart offered a biting response: “Our souls are fired with the same love of liberty and independence with which your souls are fired…. [T]oo much of your blood flows in our veins, too much of your color in our skins, for us not to possess your spirits” (p. 40).
Despite Maria Stewart’s intellectual prowess, the ideas of this extraordinary woman come to us only in scattered fragments that not only suggest her brilliance but speak tellingly of the fate of countless Black women intellectuals. Many Maria Stewarts exist, African-American women whose minds and talents have been suppressed by the pots and kettles symbolic of Black women’s subordination (Guy-Sheftall 1986). 1
Far too many African-American women intellectuals have labored in isolation and obscurity and, like Zora Neale Hurston, lie buried in unmarked graves.
Some have been more fortunate, for they have become known to us, largely through the efforts of contemporary Black women scholars (Hine et al. 1993; Guy-Sheftall 1995b). Like Alice Walker, these scholars sense that “a people do not throw their geniuses away” and that “if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists, scholars, and witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, … if necessary, bone by bone” (Walker 1983, 92).
This painstaking process of collecting the ideas and actions of “thrown away” Black women like Maria Stewart has revealed one important discovery. Black women intellectuals have laid a vital analytical foundation for a distinctive
standpoint on self, community, and society and, in doing so, created a multifaceted, African-American women’s intellectual tradition. While clear discontinuities in this tradition exist—times when Black women’s voices were strong, and others when assuming a more muted tone was essential—one striking dimension of the ideas of Maria W. Stewart and her successors is the thematic consistency of their work.
If such a rich intellectual tradition exists, why has it remained virtually invisible until now. In 1905 Fannie Barrier Williams lamented, “The colored girl … is not known and hence not believed in; she belongs to a race that is best designated by the term ‘problem,’ and she lives beneath the shadow of that problem which envelops and obscures her” (Williams 1987, 150). Why are African-American women and our ideas not known and not believed in?
The shadow obscuring this complex Black women’s intellectual tradition is neither accidental nor benign. Suppressing the knowledge produced by any oppressed group makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the seeming absence of dissent suggests that subordinate groups willingly collaborate their own victimization (Scott 1985). Maintaining the invisibility of Black women and our ideas not only in the United States, but in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and other places where Black women now live, has been critical in maintaining social inequalities. Black women engaged in reclaiming and constructing Black women’s knowledges often point to the politics of suppression that affect their projects. For example, several authors in Heidi Mirza’s (1997) edited volume on Black British feminism identify their invisibility and silencing in the contemporary United Kingdom. Similarly, South African businesswoman Danisa Baloyi describes her astonishment at the invisibility of African women in U.S. scholarship: “As a student doing research in the United States, I was amazed by the [small] amount of information on Black South African women, and shocked that only a minuscule amount was actually written by Black women themselves” (Baloyi 1995,41).
Despite this suppression, U.S. Black women have managed to do intellectual work, and to have our ideas matter. Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Toni Morrison, Barbara Smith, and countless others have consistently struggled to make themselves heard. African women writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, and Ellen Kuzwayo have used their voices to raise important issues that affect Black African women (James 1990). Like the work of Maria W Stewart and that of Black women transnation-ally, African-American women’s intellectual work has aimed to foster Black women’s activism.
This dialectic of oppression and activism, the tension between the suppression of African-American women’s ideas and our intellectual activism in the face of that suppression, constitutes the politics of U.S. Black feminist thought. More important, understanding this dialectical relationship is critical in assessing how U.S. Black feminist thought—its core themes, epistemological significance, and
connections to domestic and transnational Black feminist practice—is fundamentally embedded in a political context that has challenged its very right to exist.
The Suppression of Black Feminist Thought
The vast majority of African-American women were brought to the United States to work as slaves in a situation of oppression. Oppression describes any unjust situation where, systematically and over a long period of time, one group denies another group access to the resources of society. Race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, age, and ethnicity among others constitute major forms of oppression in the United States. However, the convergence of race, class, and gender oppression characteristic of U.S. slavery shaped all subsequent relationships that women of African descent had within Black American families and communities, with employers, and among one another. It also created the political context for Black women’s intellectual work.
African-American women’s oppression has encompassed three interdependent dimensions. First, the exploitation of Black women’s labor essential to U.S. capitalism—the “iron pots and kettles” symbolizing Black women’s long-standing ghettoization in service occupations—represents the economic dimension of oppression (Davis 1981; Marable 1983; Jones 1985; Amott and Matthaei 1991). Survival for most African-American women has been such an all-consuming activity that most have had few opportunities to do intellectual work as it has been traditionally defined. The drudgery of enslaved African-American women’s work and the grinding poverty of “free” wage labor in the rural South tellingly illustrate the high costs Black women have paid for survival. The millions of impoverished African-American women ghettoized in Philadelphia, Birmingham, Oakland, Detroit, and other U.S. inner cities demonstrate the continuation of these earlier forms of Black women’s economic exploitation (Brewer 1993;Omolade 1994).
Second, the political dimension of oppression has denied African-American women the rights and privileges routinely extended to White male citizens (Burnham 1987; Scales-Trent 1989; Berry 1994). Forbidding Black women to vote, excluding African-Americans and women from public office, and withholding equitable treatment in the criminal justice system all substantiate the political subordination of Black women. Educational institutions have also fostered this pattern of disenfranchisement. Past practices such as denying literacy to slaves and relegating Black women to underfunded, segregated Southern schools worked to ensure that a quality education for Black women remained the exception rather than the rule (Mullings 1997). The large numbers of young Black women in inner cities and impoverished rural areas who continue to leave school before attaining full literacy represent the continued efficacy of the political dimension of Black women’s oppression.
Finally, controlling images applied to Black women that originated during the slave era attest to the ideological dimension of U.S. Black women’s oppression (King 1973; D. White 1985; Carby 1987; Morton 1991). Ideology refers to the body of ideas reflecting the interests of a group of people. Within U.S. culture, racist and sexist ideologies permeate the social structure to such a degree that they become hegemonic, namely, seen as natural, normal, and inevitable. In this context, certain assumed qualities that are attached to Black women are used to justify oppression. From the mammies, Jezebels, and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes, and ever-present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, negative stereotypes applied to African-American women have been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.
Taken together, the supposedly seamless web of economy, polity, and ideology function as a highly effective system of social control designed to keep African-American women in an assigned, subordinate place. This larger system of oppression works to suppress the ideas of Black women intellectuals and to protect elite White male interests and worldviews. Denying African-American women the credentials to become literate certainly excluded most African-American women from positions as scholars, teachers, authors, poets, and critics. Moreover, while Black women historians, writers, and social scientists have long existed, until recently these women have not held leadership positions in universities, professional associations, publishing concerns, broadcast media, and other social institutions of knowledge validation. Black women’s exclusion from positions of power within mainstream institutions has led to the elevation of elite White male ideas and interests and the corresponding suppression of Black women’s ideas and interests in traditional scholarship (Higginbotham 1989; Morton 1991; Collins 1998a, 95–123). Moreover, this historical exclusion means that stereotypical images of Black women permeate popular culture and public policy (Wallace 1990; Lubiano 1992; Jewell 1993).
U.S. and European women’s studies have challenged the seemingly hegemonic ideas of elite White men. Ironicaly, Western feminisms have also suppressed Black women’s ideas (duCille 1996, 81–119). Even though Black women intellectuals have long expressed a distinctive African-influenced and feminist sensibility about how race and class intersect in structuring gender, historically we have not been full participants in White feminist organizations (Giddings 1984; Zinn et al. 1986; Caraway 1991). As a result, African-American, Latino, Native American, and Asian-American women have criticized Western feminisms for being racist and overly concerned with White, middle-class women’s issues (Moraga and Anzaldua 1981; Smith 1982a; Dill 1983; Davis 1989).
Traditionally, many U.S. White feminist scholars have resisted having Black women as full colleagues. Moreover, this historical suppression of Black women’s ideas has had a pronounced influence on feminist theory. One pattern of suppression is that of omission. Theories advanced as being universally applicable to
women as a group upon closer examination appear greatly limited by the White, middle-class, and Western origins of their proponents. For example, Nancy Chodorow’s (1978) work on sex role socialization and Carol Gilligan’s (1982) study of the moral development of women both rely heavily on White, middle-class samples. While these two classics made key contributions to feminist theory, they simultaneously promoted the notion of a generic woman who is White and middle class. The absence of Black feminist ideas from these and other studies placed them in a much more tenuous position to challenge the hegemony of mainstream scholarship on behalf of all women.
Another pattern of suppression lies in paying lip service to the need for diversity, but changing little about one’s own practice. Currently, some U.S. White women who possess great competence in researching a range of issues acknowledge the need for diversity, yet omit women of color from their work. These women claim that they are unqualified to understand or even speak of “Black women’s experiences” because they themselves are not Black. Others include a few safe, “hand-picked” Black women’s voices to avoid criticisms that they are racist. Both examples reflect a basic unwillingness by many U.S. White feminists to alter the paradigms that guide their work.
A more recent pattern of suppression involves incorporating, changing, and thereby depoliticizing Black feminist ideas. The growing popularity of postmodernism in U.S. higher education in the 1990s, especially within literary criticism and cultural studies, fosters a climate where symbolic inclusion often substitutes for bona fide substantive changes. Because interest in Black women’s work has reached occult status, suggests Ann duCille (1996), it “increasingly marginalizes both the black women critics and scholars who excavated the fields in question and their black feminist ‘daughters’ who would further develop those fields” (p. 87). Black feminist critic Barbara Christian (1994), a pioneer in creating Black women’s studies in the U.S. academy, queries whether Black feminism can survive the pernicious politics of resegregation. In discussing the politics of a new multiculturalism, Black feminist critic Hazel Carby (1992) expresses dismay at the growing situation of symbolic inclusion, in which the texts of Black women writers are welcome in the multicultural classroom while actual Black women are not.
Not all White Western feminists participate in these diverse patterns of suppression. Some do try to build coalitions across racial and other markers of difference, often with noteworthy results. Works by Elizabeth Spelman (1988), Sandra Harding (1986, 1998), Margaret Andersen (1991), Peggy McIntosh (1988), Mab Segrest (1994), Anne Fausto-Sterling (1995), and other individual U.S. White feminist thinkers reflect sincere efforts to develop a multiracial, diverse feminism. However, despite their efforts, these concerns linger on.
Like feminist scholarship, the diverse strands of African-American social and political thought have also challenged mainstream scholarship. However, Black social and political thought has been limited by both the reformist postures
toward change assumed by many U.S. Black intellectuals (Cruse 1967; West 1977–78) and the secondary status afforded the ideas and experiences of African-American women. Adhering to a male-defined ethos that far too often equates racial progress with the acquisition of an ill-defined manhood has left much U.S. Black thought with a prominent masculinist bias.
In this case the patterns of suppressing Black women’s ideas have been similar yet different. Though Black women have played little or no part in dominant academic discourse and White feminist arenas, we have long been included in the organizational structures of Black civil society. U.S. Black women’s acceptance of subordinate roles in Black organizations does not mean that we wield little authority or that we experience patriarchy in the same way as do White women in White organizations (Evans 1979; Gilkes 1985). But with the exception of Black women’s organizations, male-run organizations have historically either not stressed Black women’s issues (Beale 1970; Marable 1983), or have done so under duress. For example, Black feminist activist Pauli Murray (1970) found that from its founding in 1916 to 1970, the Journal of Negro History published only five articles devoted exclusively to Black women. Evelyn Brooks Higginbot...