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(This is the third installment of a four part series read part one and part two 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 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?
(We) Be Black Feminism and Embodiment
What is the relationship between the existence and relevance of something called “Black feminism” and the existence or categorization of a group of people called “Black women?” Do there need to be some people on the planet who identify as Black women in order for Black feminism to live?
Evelyn Simien’s study of Black feminist consciousness and identity poll people described as “Black citizens” and “Black men and women.” The struggle of defining the terms of the study reveals the unavoidable political scientific problem of categorization. Of course there have always been Black people inside the United States who are not “Black citizens” (and not only because Barack Obama had to pull out his papers last year). Did Black immigrants who may have been in the process of naturalization or undocumented participate in the survey without taking the risk of identifying as non-citizens? And of course there are indeed “Black citizens” who are neither Black men nor Black women. At the end of the day, like all researchers creating quantifiable evidence, Evelyn Simien had to choose and define categories. She had to choose to ask the questions she was asking and not every question that could ever be asked. And her study is success and a resource for political theory and a Black feminist victory in particular, as is Harris’s book as a whole. Simien’s bold and crucial act of creating a quantative study of Black feminism, implementing the crucial Black feminist analytical cornerstone (that race and gender matter) leads me to a question I have often asked myself.
What is the relationship between the project of Black feminism and the category of the “the Black woman”?
In one sense it is completely clear cut. Do Black women need to exist in order for Black feminism to exist? Yes. In fact, the project of Black feminism does and should take as its number one task the survival of Black women who are suffering violence, imprisonment, death and discursive disappearance at terrible rates.
The possibility of Black feminism and the materiality of Black women, and the laws, political structures, tendencies, and rituals that frame our lives are inextricably linked. This is why the work that Harris does to look specifically at how contemporary presidential administrations treat Black women as individual political figures and as a category of their constituencies is so important. This is also why it is important for Simien to measure whether citizens can see the political agency of Black women in nuanced ways beyond either race OR gender. (Remember it was only last presidential primary series that white feminists showed their ignorance of this fact by once again asserting that all the women—worth considering–were white and all the Blacks are men.)
The presence of Black women in the world is the call that Black feminism does and must respond to with love and action. Black feminism lives in me, not simply because I am Black woman, but more importantly because I take seriously the task of loving, celebrating, learning from, fighting for the transformative, miraculous complicated existence of Black women on this planet.
However, not all Black feminists identify as Black women and not all Black women identify as Black feminists. Black feminism lives in many of my brother-comrades and in their actions (not to excuse those who are faking the funk). Black feminism lives in the recognition and engagement of many radical women of color who do not identify as Black. Anti-racist white feminists participate in the life of Black feminism (and racist white feminists disrespect it with lip service). Black feminism has and must empower what the members of the Combahee River Collective called a suspicion of any form of “biological determinism” always remembering that gender is a constructed binary and that gender liberation includes the complicated work of all at once, challenging woman as a category, changing the meaning of woman as a category through liberated action and love, holding sacred a trans-inclusive non-exclusive understanding and practice of womanhood AND understanding that the category “woman” may not need to exist for ever.
And then there is the category Black. In her poem “Moving Towards Home,” June Jordan says “I was born a black woman but now I am become a Palestinian.” You see what I mean?
How do we stay specific about the expansive vision of Black feminism…which as a Black feminist love evangelist I see as crucial to the lives of every being on the planet, and the planet’s role in the universe itself?
If I wanted to quantify Black feminism (and some days I do, because I feel that it is absent from so many spaces), how would I go about it? Can Black feminism be quantified by counting self-identified Black feminists? Can the potential of Black feminism be measured by the amount of bodies read to be Black women? More sinisterly, can Black feminism be abstracted (like intersectionality already has been) in a way that it is no longer accountable to people who are oppressed along the lines of anti-Black racism and heteropatriarchy? Can Black feminism be stolen like the labor of Black women usually is, always has been, over and over again? When will Black feminism be over?
The need for Black feminism is written on the bodies of Trayvon Martin and his mother and his girlfriend on the phone. It is written on the bodies of the Black trans women who are murdered in the street in urban and rural areas in our country. It is written on the bodies of all the missing and disappeared Black girls. It is written on the bodies of effeminate Black men who are beaten within our communities for daring to be feminine. The need for Black feminism and it’s relationship to Black feminine embodiment are brutally clear in the present moment.
And if in the future there is a not a person intersectionally oppressed under the sign “Black woman” will we have won? As Harris and many other Black feminists have pointed out, there are many racist politicians who also envision a future without Black women, and we are not in alignment. There are many homophobic and heterosexist community leaders (like the board of trustees at Morehouse College) who would like to forbid men from expressing Black femininity as well.
But guess what? Black feminism lives. In my body. And unlike my body, I believe that Black feminism will live forever. When it no longer exists as a response to a need authored by oppression it will continue to live in the primary way it lives in my body today, as an expansive love beyond its name. In a complicated no matter what everyday simplicity that says love is crucial and will not be cut apart from itself. That Black feminism that is present in the intensity with which I listen to my living and dead grandmothers will exist under other names, in other forms in the world we deserve.
In the world that we deserve (earlier referred to as a Black feminist/abolitionist state) we will still need each other. We will want each other even more. We will act according to our love.
Which means that Black feminism is a practice. A daily practice for some of us. (Certainly for scholars like Harris and Simien) Black feminism embodied is the practice of preparing a world worthy of who we are as Black women, and everyone who we might love or become.