ABSTRACT

It seems I am running out of words these days. I feel as if I am on a linguistic treadmill that has gradually but unmistakably increased its speed, so that no word I use to positively describe myself or my scholarly projects lasts for more than five seconds. I can no longer justify my presence in academia, for example, with words that exist in the English language.The moment I find some symbol of my presence in the rarefied halls of elite institutions, it gets stolen, co-opted, filled with negative meaning. —Patricia Williams 1995, 27

U.S. Black women’s struggles on this “linguistic treadmill” to name this tradition with “no name” reveal the difficulties of making do with “terms [that] will do for now.” Widely used yet increasingly difficult to define, U.S. Black feminist thought encompasses diverse and often contradictory meanings. Despite the fact that U.S. Black women, in particular, have expended considerable energy on naming Black women’s knowledge, definitional tensions not only persist but encounter changing political climates riddled with new obstacles. When the very vocabulary used to describe Black feminist thought comes under attack, Black women’s self-definitions become even more difficult to achieve. For example, despite continued acceptance among many African-Americans of Afrocentrism as a term referencing traditions of Black consciousness and racial solidarity, academics and media pundits maligned the term in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, the pejorative meanings increasingly attached to the term feminist seem designed to discredit a move-

ment dedicated to women’s empowerment. Even the term Black fell victim to the deconstructive moment, with a growing number of “Black” intellectuals who do “race” scholarship questioning the very terms used to describe both themselves and their political struggles (see, e.g., Gilroy 1993). Collectively, these developments produced a greatly changed political and intellectual context for defining Black feminist thought.