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)

Rachel Jeantel personifies this CBFT tenet simply in the way she signifies her body language and speech on Don West, Zimmerman’s defense attorney. She rejects his language in comments such as “That sounds retarded, sir,” and “I don’t understand you. I do understand English … sir.” However, when funneled through the typical feminist lens, Jeantel, and what she embodies, runs the risk of being described as ratchet, illiterate, Madea-like and in need of some English-immersion classes that might “emancipate” her from cultural and ethnic inadequacies — like something is wrong with her. That’s problematic.

As a consequence, Jeantel — similarly to Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson — is laughed at, mocked on social media and demoted by the “privileged ones” who present her as having some sort of “deficiency” according to set norms and sophistications.

“Am I a freak for dancing around? Am I a freak for getting down? I’m cutting up. Don’t cut me down. Yeah I wanna be, wanna be Queen.” –“Q.U.E.E.N.,” Janelle Monae

3. The language of CBFT rejects the use of stereotypical ideologies associated with feminism such as disdain for motherhood, rejections of all things feminine, the idea that ratchet is wrong and pleasure has a “place” or the notion that women who want to empower other women and resist patriarchal structures are undercover lesbians or male-bashers, who would rather “procreate” with other women. Resisting from a new perspective provides a clearer view of the oppressor — which, in the case of feminism, is often other feminists. Our new perspective helps to keep a reflective eye on the oppressor so that our resilience is framed around our abilities to respond, react and resist stereotypes. Through the appreciation of all narratives, CBFT offers a new framework for the next generation of scholars and activists.

“I’m conversating to the folks who have no whatsoever clue. So listen very carefully as I break it down for you … Respect due to the mother who’s the root of it.”“Ladies First,” Queen Latifah featuring Monie Love

4. CBFT recalls the rituals and traditions of building community that black women have been doing before feminism was even a word. Women of color — especially African-American women — have been holding it down and truth-telling since day one. Harriet Tubman didn’t self-identify as a black feminist or womanist while running the Underground Railroad. But she would threaten to shoot yo’ ass if you decided to turn back and reject the ideal of freedom. Our narratives have always included the idea that we take care of each other. Therefore, CBFT harkens back to these histories as examples of how we should continue to heal ourselves and strengthen our beloved communities.

“U.N.I.T.Y. You gotta let ’em know.” –“UNITY,” Queen Latifah

5. CBFT reunites men, women and children in the cypher of discourse regardless of power and status, gender, sexual preference, skin tone, marital status or age. It includes the voices of those characterized as “ratchet,” “ghetto” and unable to speak for themselves under the weight of what Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson calls “concentrated poverty.” (pdf)

Often we forget about those operating in the trenches when we “escape” the trenches. In that respect, CBFT theorists argue against the use of one-dimensional voices that tend to speak on behalf of the greater community, which ultimately reinstates these unwarranted power dynamics among multiple narratives. In order for CBFT to function appropriately as a possible family- and community-building strategy, black men must be included from the outset. They, as well as every other stakeholder, don’t have to fight to get in on the conversation when filtering ideas through the CBFT framework.

“Who should I be sorry for? Who should I be sorry to? The fact is you can’t please everybody.” –“Sorry,” TI, featuring Andre 3000 and Stacy Barthe

6. CBFT requires an unapologetic stance that is focused on truth-telling. We ain’t asking for nothing. We are declaring our independence and disassociation from feminism because it has divided our communities for way too long. It has separated black women from one another and black men and women by creating top-down hierarchies and elevated egos that diminish our potential to heal ourselves. I don’t say this to argue that black men and black women need to date, love and procreate with one another exclusively. I don’t submit this point to say that black women need to be friends with other black women exclusively. But we must respect one another and have dialogue with one another, regardless, and that requires a space and a pedagogy that is both nurturing and critical.

As I mentioned, it has taken me several years to acknowledge these internal struggles, recalibrate my views and articulate them in such a way that I am sure will make many uncomfortable. But what is the alternative? To continue filtering my/our individual and collective narratives through limiting frameworks that only get us so far to that ideal of “freedom” and “emancipation”? To sit back and just watch the house burn down? This disruption in tradition should leave us no choice but “to Amistad” the f-ship and sail to another destination. What we do when we get there remains to be seen.

Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor of sociocultural foundations of education at Virginia Tech and a hip-hop archive fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Her interests are hip-hop pedagogies, STEM education and women’s studies. She is also the director of the HipHop2020 Curriculum Project and co-editor of thecbft.wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter.