chapter  21
15 Pages

When the Margin Is the Center: African-American Feminism(s) and "Difference"

In March 1995, the magazine Emerge, which bills itself as "Black America's Newsmagazine:' published a lead article entitled "Is Feminism Too White?" The provocative title prominently displayed on the front cover had a different headline inside: "A Feminist Vision: Black Women Challenge the Community to Examine Issues of Gender, Race and Class:' Despite the shift in title, it was clear that the article intended to address the question posed on the cover. The introductory comments to the interview with four African-American feminists noted that "for many African-Americans, feminism is a dirty word."l The interviewer reported on a recent national survey of MricanAmericans conducted by the University of Chicago, which found that 29 percent believed "Black feminists just divide the Black community:' When asked to explain why so many Black women find the term feminist offensive, lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw responded, "I think we do have to acknowledge that one of the reasons Black women are so reluctant is [that] feminism is always associated with White women."2 Crenshaw went on to note that Black feminism differed from White feminism because "from a White perspective, the only issue that they are trying to politicize is gender .... For Black feminism, it is impossible to reduce the range of injuries and harm to just gender. You have to simultaneously talk and politicize the ways in which race, along with gender, along with class, contribute to the problem." But scholar/educator Beverly Guy-Sheftall was not in total agreement with Crenshaw. For her, "feminism is not White. Feminism is something that Black women have attempted to define and have been eloquent about since the 1870s." For Guy-Sheftall, the issue for Black women is to "claim that movement and talk about the ways in which we have actually been more revolutionary and more progressive around gender issues than White women have. But as long as we give it up to them, then we won't be as much in touch with our own history:'3 In the final interview, tenant organizer Monifa Akinwole argued that the term womanist should be used by Black women who supported a feminist agenda because this term reflected a "selfdefining movement" and helped Black women to "identify with something that we've created and named."4 The exchange among these women foregrounds the most persis-

tent and conflicted questions concerning the possibilities for coalition among White and Black women in this so-called second wave of the U.S. women's movement: Is feminism White? What is Black feminism? Are the needs of Black women who want to address issues of gender, race, and class within Black communities better served by the use of the term womanist? Is the move from Black feminism to womanism just one of semantics, or does it reflect and articulate a different understanding of community, gender relations, power, sexuality, history, and heritage within African-American communities? Does Black feminism attend to differences among Black women?