A New Way to Empower Black Women

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.


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. 

Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor in the educational foundations program at Virginia Tech and director of the Four-Four Beat Project. Follow her on Twitter.