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(This is part 2 of a four part series. Read part one here)
“Contemporary Black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy and work by our mothers and sisters.”
“We have found it difficult to organize around Black feminist issues, difficult even to announce in certain contexts that we are Black feminists.”
-both quotations from the Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977
Can Black Feminism be quantified?
I do not dream in numbers. I am one of those word-lovers who even disdains scrabble because I find the transmutation of words into unequal numerical values such as “triple word score” somewhat sacrilegious. So when I read the title of Part III of Miriam Duchess Harris’s Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama that asks “Can Black Feminism Be Quantified?” my knee jerked. No. I said to the waiting pages. Measure love. Measure the universe. Measure God. Black Feminism cannot be quantified.
And then I realized that all of these things had already been done. Numbers are hiding everywhere, declared or undeclared. Every quilt has a certain number of stitches, took a certain number of hours and days to make. Oppressed people travelling under night have been numbering the stars for generations. My mother calls me a certain number of times during any given week.
What an evocative question. Can Black Feminism be quantified?
II. Black Feminism: A Statistic?
To address the question of whether or not Black feminism can be quantified Miriam Harris turns to the quantitative analyses of the scholar Evelyn Simien which she calls “groundbreaking work to develop an empirical model that would take into account the interlocking effects of race and gender,” (99). Without rehashing the in-depth explanation of Simien’s survey methods and findings in Harris’s book ( YOU SHOULD READ THE BOOK!) basically what we have is statistical confirmation of the fact that Black women are asked to choose race over gender while Black men never are and this discursive problem, and the fact that within racist heteropatriachy such a choice can even be imagined, is what leads Harris to conclude that “gender matters.”
Of course gender matters. To what extent do statistics matter in the reiteration of this ongoing and necessary critique of an androcentric Black political imaginary?
I’m not going to lie. Though I had a statistics teacher in high school who was truly passionate about statistics, I only endured it as an advanced placement class that would allow me to get out of taking calculus in college (now that I’m teaching myself calculus while developing a theory of black feminist calculus based in a black feminist poetics of limits I’m not so sure that was a great idea, but I digress.)
It seemed to me statistics was a plot and the point was to present a narrative about the world. A statement, shall we say, designed to argue that life is predictable.
And I am still too philosophical to settle the question of the meaning of life. Is life itself predictable? I am not sure. I do notice that oppression is rather predictable, since it is designed for the task of fragmenting life away from freedom, dividing you away from the time of your life, striving to keep us apart as collaborative trouble-makers. Our life experiences are interrupted by predictable patterns of oppression (How many times a day do you think about food? What is the ratio of trees to people?), but that does not make life itself predictable. Does it make oppression understandable?
Simien’s inspired and useful study measures whether when asked to fragment their political vision along lines of race or gender, women (aka people who have already answered affirmatively to a very binary question about what possible meaning their life has in relationship to the political category of gender) will fall for the trick of choice (Simien calls it “hierarchy of interests”) , or will continue to be multiple. Black feminist consciousness, in this particular study is measured by whether a respondent will affirm the Black feminist proposition that both sexism in the “Black movement” and racism in the “women’s movement” impact the lives of Black women.
I am a Black feminist and I say yes. The Black feminism of the question is that it does not allow the respondent to segment the two simplified movements. And the Black feminist claim of the study itself (which the responses support even when the respondents do not demonstrate feminist consciousness) is that Black feminist consciousness is not the same as “feminist consciousness,” (Harris adds the key word when she explains Black feminism is not equal to white feminism) and also that Black feminist consciousness is not the same as race identification. Fragmentation can be measured and quantified. Oppression is predictable: it divides us from each other, from ourselves, and sometimes, politically from our own best interests. But what is ultimately quantified here? Is it Black feminism itself or its distance and isolation from other forms of self-understanding? Gender does matter, as an analytic and a form of identification. But does the practice of Black feminist quantifcation on these terms lead us to remake and remake ourselves into doublecrossed statistics bound to proving our positionality instead of shifting the terms of our existence?
Where is the Black Feminism itself? Can the variables of the unlikely decision to choose our whole selves and each other be enumerated? The substantive vision itself, the world we want to live in? The in the moment ethics that our Black feminism implies and enacts? Maybe those are questions destined to stay qualitative, since the quality of our lives and those of those to come depend on them.
Can Black feminism be quantified? Maybe not…
(To be continued Thursday with “We Be: Black Feminism and Embodiment”)