A New Way to Empower Black Women

Traditional feminism has failed African-American women. It's time for a new way to address our issues.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — I am not a feminist, nor do I allow others to identify me as one. (Whew! I finally got that out.) I am not a black feminist, hip-hop feminist or third-wave feminist, and I have chosen not to align my scholarship with the hybrid frameworks born out of the traditional feminisms of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Nor am I an African-American, (neo)conservative woman who defines the empowerment of women according to the patriarchal notions of what women should or should not be doing. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I believe that women are the centers of their families and communities, and the decisions we make — whether it’s whom we marry or whom we befriend — should always honor this queen position.

I began to question the limits of traditional feminism after taking women’s studies courses in college. My discomfort with black feminism, and subsequently womanism, started to take shape in 2007 when I published “Tip Drills, Strip Clubs and Representations in the Media” in Gwendolyn Pough’s edited volume, Home Girls Make Some Noise. Using as my backdrop Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video and the controversy it caused among African-American women and the community at large, I argued for equality for all black women regardless of power, educational status or geographic location, because this glitch in the matrix revealed gaps between poor black women and not-so-poor black women. What created further division is the fact that the video presented complex versions of black female prototypes: dark-skinned and light-skinned; educated and uneducated; and those with degrees and those without, illuminating gaps that indicate, once again, how the risks of filtering our subjectivities through the language of feminism far outweighed the rewards.

Six years later, I am more convinced that a theoretical framework created by white women for white women cannot justifiably articulate, critique, heal or celebrate the complexities of black women’s perspectives without dropping the ball at some point. Regardless of the adjective placed in front of the f-word, our current social and political climate requires us to employ our critical imaginations in updated ways. Otherwise, we miss out when attempting to fully appreciate Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old teen friend who spoke with Trayvon Martin before he was gunned down by wannabe neighborhood security guard George Zimmerman. When we stay stuck in conceptual time warps, we fall short in our critiques of reality shows that show African-American women fighting each other over money, power, fame and men. We haphazardly elevate idolatry rap over the true spirit of hip-hop. We lose sight of the internal GPS that helps us navigate our way through a society gripped by oxymora and ironies, like the election of the first African-American president during an all-time high of gang violence among men of color and the possibility of losing the right to choose for women of color.

This is all very dicey terrain to get around. And for this reason, I am arguing for a paradigm shift — a remix of metaphors, languages and modes of thinking that can help African-American women do the healing we need to do internally and among one another. We need innovative ways of teaching and learning for truth-telling about 21st-century African-American experiences. We must create a comfort zone where African-American men don’t have to argue their way into a party they were never invited to in the first place. It is past time for a theoretical framework that is available to everyone — men, women, black, white and in between.

I refer to this paradigm as Critical Black Feminine Theory. Only recently have I mustered up the confidence to boldly and publicly articulate a new position that prioritizes from the outset the needs, desires, challenges and experiences of the African-American woman. When I use “black” from a CBFT perspective, I am referring primarily to a worldview of inclusiveness. When I use “feminine” I am referring primarily to an approach that is contemporary, interdisciplinary, more authentic and organic. A way of knowing that is subjective, nurturing, hands-on and community-centered. CBFT consciously departs from the top-down, hierarchical approach of traditional feminism and black feminism that has given me so much pause in the past when I’ve attempted to describe, explore, examine, critique and understand the discourses of women.

Below are six characteristics of the CBFT medium.

“Bag lady. You gon’ hurt yo’ back. Draggin’ all dem bags like dat.”“Bag Lady,” Erykah Badu

1. CBFT rejects language such as “feminism” and “feminist.” These terms rest within a historically colonizing framework that carries way too much baggage. They are politically charged and inherently divisive words that continue to cause great confusion within the African-American community and among women of color.  

“I get out. I get out of your boxes.” –“I Get Out,” Lauryn Hill

2. CBFT re-centers the stories of African-American women rather than reinforces the margins and double margins set by feminist theories and black feminist theories. Let’s take a bull’s-eye as a metaphor, for example. In the center of that target is the mainstream or the area of dominance. The first ring from the center is feminism and in the subsequent outer rings lie black feminism and any “othered” feminisms. Assuming everyone is trying to get to the center, then black feminism has further to travel, right? So rather than speaking from that second or 18th ring (depending on where you’ve been placed according to the traditional tenets of feminism), CBFT eliminates the rings and allows its followers to freely get up and move wherever necessary to avoid marginalization and retain authenticity.