Black Feminist Interventions in Africa and the Americas
Updated: Feb 15
Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2009) asks that we be critical of what she calls “the dangers of a single story”. That is, the repetitive and stereotypical narratives we recite about people, places, and things that reduce them to incomplete monolithic versions of themselves.
For Ghanaian feminist pioneer and writer Ama Ata Aidoo (1998) this would entail disrupting the myth that feminism is “un-African” or “imported from the West”. According to Aidoo (1998) the “docile, mendicant, African woman of today is a media creation” (42; see also, Haddy Gassama’s Women Kings, Invisible Reigns, 2019). Mama Aidoo identifies three historical factors that have shaped the idea that contemporary African women are weak, submissive, “not feminist”, or counter-feminists/feminism. They include: 1) Indigenous African societal patterns; 2) the conquest of Europe; and 3) the lack of vision, courage or leadership of African leaders in the postcolonial period (42).
Speaking to African women who claim to not be feminists, or those who brag about being submissive and lesser than men, Aidoo goes on to add that “if she does exist, she is the result of the traumas of the last five hundred years’ encounter with the West, the last one hundred years of colonial repression, and the current neocolonial disillusionment” (42; see also, Gassama, 2019). Despite these challenges African feminists have resisted and continue to do so.
In, The African Woman Today, Aidoo (1998) gives examples of African women who fought for liberation from various European colonizers well before North American first wave feminism was ever formally a thing. Aidoo (1998) directs our attention to ancient Benin circa the 1600’s where “all-female battalions of Dahomey [women] protected their empire from being invaded” (Aidoo, 1998: 42). During the seventeenth century Queen Njinga Mbandi “fought [with] uncompromising viciousness to prevent the Portuguese from overrunning Angola” (42; see also, Gassama, 2019). In Ghana, known then as the Asante Empire/Kingdom (home of my people and land of my birth), Queen mother Yaa Asantewaa led an uprising against the British during the War of the Golden stool also known as the Asante-British War of 1900 (Aidoo, 1998:42; see also, Gassama, 2019; Edgerton, 1995; Google).
In Nigeria, Igbo women in the East “harassed the British colonial administration in 1920” to the point where they had to move their headquarters from Calabar to Lagos (Aidoo, 1998: 40-1). In Zimbabwe, Mbuya Nehanda was hanged for an insurgency against the British (Aidoo, 1998). And in Kenya, General Muthoni was a guerrilla leader during the Mau Mau Rebellion against the British (Aidoo, 1998). Aidoo (1998) also calls the names of powerful African women of more recent times who stepped into leadership roles such as Winnie Mandela, Sibongile Mkhabela, Albertina Sisulu, and Zodwa Sobukwe.
Similar to other Indigenous and racialized communities globally, these narratives are absent from mainstream white feminism. As a Black continental African these stories of African feminists were foreign even to me. This is especially disturbing given that as an Asante, my people are matrilineal, like the Navajo, Apache, and Iroquois. They have historically valued women as leaders in our communities (take for example, the role of Queen mothers). This lack of education is particularly troubling because I have spent the last fifteen years studying feminism in institutions of higher learning.
Unless African feminists intentionally centre themselves, there is very little mention of them in mainstream feminism. While Africa is the origin of so much of what has come to be co-opted and appropriated, African feminism (and Africa in general) has been etched into the collective consciousness as obsolete, an after-thought, and to use Mohanty (2003), as mimicry.
Yet these feminists exist and have existed, and they continue to engage in revolutionary work. This trailblazing spirit of African feminists can be found through-out the continent and also extends to those in the Diaspora.
In the Americas, Black women born during the era of slavery such as Black disabled revolutionary leader Sojourner Truth were actively engaged in feminist organizing as early as 1851 (Hobbs and Rice, 2013; Jones, 2019; Springer, 2002). In, Third Wave Black Feminism? Kimberly Springer (2002) brings our attention to Black feminist figures who were already actively resisting sexism, slavery, and anti-black racism as far back as the antebellum period. Notably, Springer (2002:1062) highlights contributions from Angela Davis (1995), Deborah Gray White (1985) and Harriet Jacobs (1987) who contributed to slave narratives that shed light on how enslaved women fought back against rape, forced pregnancy, and separation from their children and families.
These forms of feminist rebellion predate first wave feminism.
As with much of mainstream feminism, the erasure of Black women (and Blackness in general) meant that these accounts were minimized, if not erased entirely. For this reason, Black women have had to carve out their own place within the feminist movement. Black feminism was a direct response to second wave white feminism and its anti-black exclusionary practices. Black Feminist Theory emerged in the late 1960’s thanks to Black second wave thinkers and activists who took issue with white mainstream feminisms inability to address Black women who stepped into the movement as both gendered and Black racialized beings.
Black feminist theory gained popularity by the 1970’s and was well-positioned as a theoretical framework due in large part to The Combahee River Collective founded in 1973 (see the Combahee River Collective, 2015; Feminista Jones, 2019; and Becky Thompson, 2003). The Combahee River Collective is best known for their role in the creation of Black feminist theorizing and Black feminism (Combahee River Collective, 2015; Jones, 2019). The Collective originated in the United States and was born out of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) (Combahee River Collective, 2015, Jones, 2019).
According to Black feminist writer Becky Thompson (2003: 400), the collective was named after a river in South Carolina where it is said that Black disabled revolutionary Harriet Tubman had led a resistance movement that resulted in seven hundred and fifty slaves becoming free. According to Black feminist activist and author of Reclaiming Our Space Feminista Jones (2019), members of the Combahee collective included “Chirlane McCray, the First Lady of New York City and wife of Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and the acclaimed writer and activist Audre Lorde” (5). Jones (2019: 5) adds that The Combahee River Statement, a manifesto drafted by the collective, was put together by Black activists such as Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier.
The collective was formed out of resistance in an attempt to challenge white supremacy within mainstream feminism. They took issue with white feminism’s inability to hold space for issues of anti-black racism, diverse sexual orientation, gender variance, disability, and class as inseparable from one’s gender. Black feminists found it problematic that while they were able to organize on behalf of a vast majority of women, not just Black women, mainstream feminism struggled to mobilize on behalf of Black and other racialized women of colour (Jones, 2019; Collins, 1996; Springer, 2002). While Black queer and trans women worked toward a truly universal vision of freedom and liberation for more women, including those that were poor and low-income, as well as located outside of the United States, white mainstream feminism was given the credit for being universal while Black women were told they were divisive and polarizing (Jones, 2019; Collins, 1996). It is out of this genealogy that Black feminist theory was born. More on this tomorrow.
Happy International Women’s Day! Celebrate and pay the Black feminists in your life. We deserve.
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Until next time, in solidarity.
Photo Cred: C.J. Cromwell
Image Description: A Black woman leans her arm against a concrete wall. She is wearing a bright orange African print dress. She has straight hair and bangs.