Freedom Papers

Freedom Papers


Mar 11, 2016


‘Why these dudes done gone to talkin’ and writin’ that feminist mess?’ ‘Guess maybe they sayin’ what we been needin’ but didn’t hear enough. And we didn’t write.’

-Black Man to Black Man in a Barber Shop

Patriarchy: A system of male domination that is widespread but historically specific and can vary over time and context. Originally, this term was used to describe societies characterized by ‘the rule of the father….’ The term has now come to refer to the overall systemic character of oppressive and exploitative relations affecting women.

-Jane L. Parpart

  The systemic effects of U.S. patriarchy, or male dominance, in Black lives have been publicly and privately argued for generations.[1] Spanning both the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black scholars like Anna Julia Cooper articulated Black feminist opposition to the oppressions of race and gender (“sex”) and class. The Sojourners for Freedom and Justice elaborated Cooper’s Black intersectional agency between the successful Bolshevik Revolution and WWII; centering Black working-class women within their evolving theory of “triple oppressions.” Following WWII, Black radical women joined critiques of racialized and patriarchal capitalism with their internationalist networking for Black and Third World liberation struggles (See Kimberly Springer’s and Barbara Ransby’s works).

In turn, Ella Baker and Fran Beale would help to nurture a new generation of Black feminist practice and theory during the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. Today, around the United States, the intergenerational strivings of Black feminists are once again being expressed in the movement-building activities of #BlackLivesMatter. [2] In every one of these historical periods, Black women have been obliged to affirm their lives despite being made “others” by the race/gender/class/sex dynamics of U.S. society.[3] Despite decades of persistent activity, however, the intergenerational efforts of Black feminist women, like Black lives generally, still don’t seem to matter much.

In recent public conversations aimed at the reclamation and rebuilding of Black Liberation, political activists and writers seem to be largely committed to retrieving only those political ideas and projects in which the systemic effects of patriarchy have been ignored and underestimated. In this Freedom Paper, we want to consider several recurring ideas and analytical approaches at the heart of recent discussions. We hasten to emphasize that we welcome these recent discussions. Indeed, they are essential, inasmuch as they indicate the irrepressible initiative of Black people to clearly assess the conditions that daily shape and threaten Black lives. Yet even as we welcome efforts to provide radical accounts of oppression and resistance, we are concerned about the ways in which some ongoing narratives are reproducing analytical and theoretical understandings that simplify, obscure, denigrate, and/or delegitimize lived experiences that are complex and frequently marginalized. Such recurring accounts are wrong because they marginalize and deny Black experiences that can still teach us much about the human rights violations of Blacks as an oppressed social group.[4] These narratives are also misleading because they tend to reproduce narrow, cut-and-dried analyses of experience that cannot contribute to inclusive, democratic, and transformative strategies for change. Even naming such accounts as “misleading” and “wrong” is inadequate to tell the hurtful actions and dire consequences—both personally and organizationally—to which they can contribute over time in Black lives.   WHY DON’T BLACK LIVES MATTER? In a recent blog discussion entitled “An Unbroken Line: New Afrikan Resistance from 1619 to the Present,” well-respected activist and educator Kali Akuno opens his account by asserting the necessity for Blacks to oppose “white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.” Yet, in identifying white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism as the most analytically significant systems of U.S. oppression, Akuno fails to mention the system of patriarchy—a system that Black feminists have been critiquing for the past four decades. A recent Philadelphia conference aimed at “Reclaiming Our Radical Black Tradition” engaged a marvelously diverse group of participants and panelists in revisiting radical ideas and political projects that Blacks have used in previous historical periods.[5] Sadly, however, in several weekend panels invited speakers narrowly framed contemporary conditions within frameworks underscoring the significance of systemic race and class factors, while remaining largely muted regarding the importance of gender and sexuality, systemically, for understanding how race and class are actually experienced—and resisted—in these neoliberal times.[6] A number of participants even protested that the conference did not fully represent the radical nature of the Black tradition.[7] Prior to the conference, another well-respected and veteran activist-writer, Glen Ford, had shared his hopes with former Black Panther Eddie Conway [8] regarding the prospective contribution(s) of the conference toward the building of a new, mass-based, and transformative political movement in the United States. Ford spoke hopefully about both (1) the urgency of a Black and radical component that can help shape the building of a new and transformative movement; and (2) the recognition, by all the conference organizers, that no effective movement can be built without radical understanding. However, Ford’s hopeful comments indicated nothing about the need for a radical shift in thinking about how race and class experiences are also shaped by gender and sexuality. This would represent a seismic shift that would enable more inclusive analyses, more transformative behaviors, and more democratic mass organizing. This is one of the very shifts for which #BlackLivesMatter activists have been agitating! Following the Philadelphia conference, a flurry of posts—including one by conference organizers—have criticized young participants at the conference. Criticisms have generally focused on the “unacceptable” disruptions caused by some participants; their apparent preferences for “ideologies of intersectionality rather than socialism;” and their apparent confusion regarding the ways in which Black lives are affected by race and class, as well sexuality and gender. Time and prudence do not allow for a point-by-point discussion of every single nuance of every one of these posts and discussions. In subsequent Freedom Papers discussions, we will address ongoing questions and issues of debate. What seems most useful, here, is a broader discussion of certain themes that seem common to current critiques by a number of veteran activists.   STILL ‘MISSING THE BEAT’: CAN’T SEE IT? CAN’T FIGHT IT! In a 1992 Black Scholar essay treating class and gender in Black lives, Deborah K. King critically named the pervasive problem that, for many, “the experiences of black men have become both definitive and representative of all African Americans.”[9] King’s observation remains tragically relevant to previously mentioned discussions about why Black lives do not matter in current U.S. conditions. Taken together, these recent discussions approach the need for radical assessments of Black life with a male-centeredness that renders Black feminist assessments almost unintelligible. By focusing our attention on the dominations of race, class, and nation (which are typically evoked when we speak of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism), writers completely ignore the fact that over 40 years ago, The Combahee River Collective (CRC) summarized their experiences—and those of Black people generally—by acknowledging that “the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.” Writers who define only white supremacy (or structural racism), capitalism, and imperialism as analytically significant are ignoring the intergenerational efforts of Black women to illuminate the particular ways in which their experiences of these systems have been shaped.[10] Black feminists since the CRC have continued to build upon the work of similar feminist groups up until the present efforts of the feminists who began #BlackLivesMatter. Current calls to struggle that overlook Black feminist analyses and interventions not only minimize what Black women have said about their own lives;[11] they also contribute unwittingly to reinforcing and reproducing the effects of oppression in the lives of both Black females and Black males.[12] This brings us to a second problem. In failing to acknowledge the political practices, analyses, and theories advanced by Black women, current writers undermine Black abilities to understand and radically oppose the complexities of oppressions. One of the most critical insights of Black women in the CRC was their recognition that multiple systems of domination have been simultaneous and interlocking. In other words, Black lives have not experienced these forms of oppression in piecemeal or additive fashion; [13] we have experienced them at the same time, within the same social spaces, and in complex interplays that affect how we experience them. In other words, as peoples of African descent have been confronted by white supremacy, their racializing experiences have been shaped by the imperatives of profit and patriarchy. Similarly, the advancement of capitalist domination has been racialized as well as impacted by prerogatives of men who have been mainly (though not exclusively) “white.” Male-centered institutions (e.g., the military, most U.S. “Christian” churches, and the heteronormative “nuclear” family) have been developed according to the needs and imperatives of capital and white supremacy. Increasingly developing their understanding of these interlocking oppressive conditions, Black feminists (and their women-of-color and Anglo allies) have repeatedly worked toward unified opposition (of oppressed peoples) against all forms of oppression. Yet as activists have continually refused to consider and integrate the intergenerational efforts of Black feminists, efforts to build and strengthen Black Liberation have often been analytically flawed, behaviorally dysfunctional, politically fragmented, ideologically complicit (with oppressions), and organizationally undemocratic and underdeveloped. A third problem that we encounter in current discussions is the failure of activists to provide understandings of lived experiences that have been customarily silenced by commonplace theories and analyses of “race” and “class.” Even if activists reject the assessments of some Black women and men about how their lives have been racialized and classed and gendered and sexualized, these activists will inevitably have to account for these experiences in order to effectively join with Blacks—who self-affirm as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and/or queer—in organizing new stages of transformative social movements.   WHAT IS “RADICAL VOICE”? Current calls to radical consciousness force us to reconsider the question of “what is radical voice today?” As we consider, and participate in, these discussions on Black lives and Black resistance, we are obliged to remember that radical voice has too often been viewed as a question of who is allowed to speak. Patriarchal impacts of Black experiences of racial-capitalism have often resulted in Black policing of behaviors that have not been deemed normal and normative. As Deborah K. King has noted, Black acceptance of the notions that Black (heterosexual) male experiences have been definitive and representative has all too often minimized the experience and agency of Black persons deemed “deviant” or “not-black-enough.” If Black people are now seeking radical understandings, we must rethink what we mean by radical. Perhaps radical voices are not simply those voices that affirm the ideas and political projects that have opposed particular forms of domination, but those that also have directed us “to go to the root,” by questioning everything in U.S. society. In There Is a River, Dr. Vincent Harding provides an insightful example of how Black people during different historical periods have come to an understanding of the meaning of “radical.”[14] Summarizing the radicalism of Blacks in the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Harding notes the following:

[I]t was not the call to armed insurrection which was the hallmark of antebellum black radicalism, but a careful, sober capacity to see the entire American government, and the institutions and population which it represented, as the basic foe of any serious black struggle, whatever its form might take. It was America, not simply slaveholders, which needed to be transformed, and above all the government and its institutions.

Here we can readily see that in defining “radical” we must not only consider who is enabled and allowed to speak. We must also question what is being said and whether (or not) it opposes or accommodates oppression.   WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT CELIE KNEW Before her much too early death, a brilliant Black feminist scholar, Barbara Christian, crafted a stirring essay entitled “What Celie Knows That You Should Know.” Rehearsing a pivotal conversation in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Christian underscores Celie’s womanist recognition of the oppressive forces by which Mister seems unreflectively bound, and she affirms her will to exist and resist, oppressions notwithstanding. Unlike Alice Walker and Barbara Christian, Celie had fewer opportunities for formal education. Yet she knew about the forces that denied Black female and male humanity. The daily denials of the truths Celie and many other Black women have known is not merely a trivial footnote on why Black lives don’t really matter. The denial is itself a lie, a lie crafted in the minds of oppressors and spawned in the beleaguered minds of the oppressed. But Celie learned, and so can we.[15] Those of us who continue to deny the importance of what Black feminists have learned--and tried to teach--have not intentionally become enemies of Black people. But we have assumed that liberation is simpler than it will be. When we gloss over the mistakes and missteps of the past and present, we can offer no accurate, reliable, or trustworthy assessments of how we have resisted and survived. We therefore dismiss unacknowledged victories. We set ourselves up as well-meaning guides, but we remain unreliable witnesses to available lessons we have failed to learn. In this storm surge of unending grief and angst, when outrage tosses us between vengeance and madness, Blacks can afford neither misremembering nor misdirection. We need to retrieve potent efforts that have been repeatedly silenced. We must retrieve them, learning lessons we have been denied and knowing that not only those efforts, but the silences as well, have shaped our contemporary courses of action and inaction. At the rate we are learning, (to tell one bitter truth) Black Liberation may not be achieved as soon as we have hoped. Yet we can still quicken its coming if we cease to think and act as if we have claimed no easy victories and (re)told no lies.


[1] While many U.S. Black women have led efforts to understand and resist all systems of U.S. oppression; their feminist/womanist oppositions to patriarchy (in practice and theory) have often been ignored. Some activists and scholars have even asserted that Blacks in the U.S. have not been victimized by male dominance, given the structural and institutional assaults of legal and extra-legal racism—especially those violating the humanity of Black males.
[2] Much has been written during the past four decades regarding the recurrent problem of how to conceptualize and analyze inequality and oppression within U.S. society. In one of the most incisive discussions to date, Bonnie Thornton Dill and Ruth Enid Zambrana have noted that: “These disparities are neither new nor randomly distributed throughout the population, but occur in patterns along such major social divisions as race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and physical ability. Social scientists have traditionally analyzed inequalities by isolating these factors and treating them as if they are independent of one another… Historical linkages and systemic interrelationships that reveal the underlying ways any one dimension of inequality is shaped by another are rarely examined. A problematic result is that the experiences of whole groups are ignored, misunderstood, or erased, particularly those of women of color.” See Emerging Intersections: Race, Class, and Gender in Theory, Policy, and Practice, (Eds.) Bonnie Thornton Dill and Ruth Enid Zambrana, Foreword by Patricia Hill Collins, Rutgers University Press, 2009.
[3] It is important to note that in numerous instances, that have often been infrequently remembered and inadequately understood, Black men (e.g., Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois) have also sought to affirm the lives and contributions of Black women. However, such well-intentioned efforts, have too often been inconsistent due to the insidious interplay of patriarchy with anti-racist and/or anti-capitalist resistance.
[4] One of the most contentious concepts in contemporary U.S. social science, public policy, and politics is “oppression.” Iris M. Young presents a critical examination of this concept—and how it can be beneficial to radical social movements—in Justice and the Politics of Difference.
[5] The January conference at Temple University should be acknowledged and applauded for its outreach. What must be recognized, however is the remaining work to be done to go beyond the expansion of diversity. Beyond the expansion of different groups (and thus different experiences of oppression) we must become adept at engaging all who matter to understand how our experiences interrelate. In other words, we must need to become more keenly aware of all the systems shaping experiences of oppressed people. Beyond mobilizing an expanding number of different of Black people to think and act for transformative change, we must also help diverse gatherings rethink the arrangements and the justifying ideas that make our oppressions work.
[6] Racial capitalism, i.e., the interdependent interplay of ideas and practices that create the racially distinct ways different human groups are incorporated and function within U.S. capitalism, must be understood if it is to ever be dismantled. Yet understanding racial capitalism requires that we grasp the ways in which patriarchy shapes—and is shaped by—racial and class factors.
[7] What does this really mean, to say that the Black Radical Tradition—as we have generally come to understand it—is not radical enough? It means at least this: What we have taken, and still take, to be “radical” has been shaped, as oppressed African peoples have, by the same systems of oppression. If patriarchal impacts on racial capitalism, and vice-versa, have been intellectually and ideologically marginalized and muted, our capacities to think “to the root” about racial capitalism have undoubtedly been similarly muted. It is not surprising, then, that Black activists have not typically acknowledged thinking about patriarchy as a way to understand racial and class effects. Since many of us, as Blacks, have not typically thought intersectionally about all the ways people can be “Black,” we tend (still) to think of “being radical” in the same system-bound ways in which we exist every day.
[8] Marshall “Eddie” Conway is a former Minister of Defense for the Baltimore Chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1971, he “convicted of murder…in a trial with many irregularities. In 2014 he was paroled, and continues to work within the Black community, via his involvement with The Real News, a regular radio broadcast. On January 5, 2016, Eddie Conway interviewed Glen Ford, Executive Editor for Black Agenda Report.
[9] See “Unraveling Fabric, Missing the Beat: Class and Gender in Afro-American Social Issues,” in The Black Scholar, Volume 22, Number 3. Emphasis added.
[10] In the interest of nurturing a dialogue instead of launching merciless critiques, we must acknowledge the perennial problems U.S. political actors have had thinking and theorizing about the ways oppressions impact human experiences. Thinking about, and understanding, how we are oppressed is essential to developing strategic movements to transform oppressive conditions. Yet, as bell hooks has noted, the recurring tendency of framing intellectual and social options as binary categories is one of the central flaws of Western ‘civilization. In turn, Black feminist theory and practice have opposed binary thinking with the “both/and” approach of intersectionality. See bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman; Black Women and Feminism. For discussions that can help to explain intersectionality in terms of lived experiences see also Chapter 4 of Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional: Fighting the Cultural Wars, Robin D.G. Kelley; Chapter 2 of Workplace Justice: Organizing Multi-Identity Movements, Sharon Kurtz; and “Making Our Roads by Walking: Using Feminist Theory and Practices in Labor Studies Teaching,” M. Thandabantu Iverson, in Feminist Solidarity at the Crossroads: Intersectional Women’s Studies for Transracial Alliance, (Eds.) Kim Marie Vaz and Gary L. Lemons.
[11] Present-day writers steering clear of Black feminist interrogations miss crucial opportunities to learn from, and build upon, Black feminist examinations of U.S. Black nationalist positions. For one such excellent discussion, see E. Frances White, “Africa on My Mind: Gender, Counterdiscourse, and African-American Nationalism,” in Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability, E. Frances White, 2001.
[12] In her 2007 essay, “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System,” Maria Lugones makes clear that there are very real consequences when men hold on to patriarchal privilege. Speaking directly to the indifference born of patriarchal privilege, Lugones notes the following: “This indifference is insidious since it places tremendous barriers in the path of the struggles of women of color for our own freedom, integrity, and well-being and the path of the correlative struggles toward communal integrity…Feminists of color have made clear what is revealed in terms of violent domination and exploitation once the epistemological perspective focuses on the intersection of…categories. But that has not seemed sufficient to arouse who have themselves been targets of violent domination and exploitation any recognition of their complicity or collaboration with the violent domination of women of color. In particular, theorizing global domination continues to proceed as if no betrayals or collaborations of this sort need to be acknowledged and resisted.” See Hypatia, Vol. 22, No.1, 2007.
[13] When social activists and social scientists speak of principles or forms of oppression as additive they intend to suggest that the subordinations of diverse social groups cannot be understood as “occurring along a single categorical axis.” Moreover, race, class, gender, and/or sexuality do not operate (as principles or axes or constructs of discrimination) in social/political spaces independently of other forms. What feminists have helped to show is that experiences of oppression cannot be fully understood unless and until we begin to understand how they operate simultaneously and interdependently, mutually connecting and impacting other forms. For an instructive essay examining the “single-axis” orientation, see Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989).
[14] There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, Vincent Harding, p.200. For other excellent discussions which help to illuminate the meaning of a radical standpoint and vision in Black life, see Joy James, Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals, and Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.
[15] What too many current discussions about Black lives are missing is an understanding of the meaning of Black women’s intersectional, and intergenerational, agency. The fact that Black women have thought and acted in opposition to injustice is well and widely known. This, as so many might say today, is not news. What often goes unsaid, and even more often does not come to mind, is the meaning of Black women’s activism. Throughout their torturous sojourns in the United States, Black women have repeatedly infused Black struggles—and other struggles, too—with an authoritative and audacious resistance to injustices and oppressions of every kind. Because they have lived within the turbulence and currents in which all the privations of the U.S. order swirl and surge with volcanic ferocity; Black women have been obliged to develop sensibilities of simultaneity and intersectionality. This is to say that Black women have learned, by painful experiences, to name their pains. See “Intellectual Genealogies, Intersectionality, and Anna Julia Cooper,” Vivian May, in Feminist Solidarity at the Crossroads      

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