Contested memories: a critical analysis of the black feminist revisionist history project.

Author:Watkins, Valethia
Position:Essay
 
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"... [F]eminism does not automatically reside in female bodies ..." --Patricia Hill Collins [1]

"It is not our differences which separate women, but our reluctance to recognize those differences and to deal effectively with the distortions which have resulted from the ignoring and misnaming of those differences."--Audre Lorde [2]

The Politics of Difference and the Power of Naming

Properly framing and naming the intellectual and political tradition of Black women has become contested terrain and reflects the political and ideological diversity and differences among Black women. Black women are often treated as if they are a homogenous group when, in reality, they are diverse in their political consciousness, perspectives, ideas and commitments as any other group. Black women do not speak with a single voice; hence, efforts to articulate "the" Black women's standpoint or perspective are misleading and hegemonic by definition. One of the ways this political diversity has manifested itself within Black Women's Studies and Black political life has been an on-going debate between competing conceptual and analytical approaches of Africana womanism on the one hand in contradistinction with feminism, and womanism unmodified on the other hand. Interestingly, within this debate it is rarely acknowledged there are still many Black women who eschew all of the traditional labels as they continue to search for meaningful alternatives. Each school of thought has engaged in an intellectual and political battle to win the hearts and minds of Black women and to become either the dominant or exclusive framework used to frame, guide, and determine how research on Black women is done and analyzed. In addition, they have scrambled to determine which label becomes the default political name for Black women's intellectual and activist traditions.

Was Ida B. Wells a feminist? What about Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, or Harriet Tubman? Were any of these ancestral women self-identified feminists? What criteria should be used as the litmus test for calling them feminist, especially if they were not self-identified as feminists?[3] If they did not choose--intentionally or unintentionally--to use this label to describe themselves then is it even proper or historically accurate to characterize or label them as feminists? Why does it or should it matter whether or not they used the term "feminist" to describe their own activism, intellectual work, organizations, or political commitments, if they inspired people who are followers of feminism? If these historical figures never overtly professed to being feminist, but they advocated for women and opposed gender discrimination what possible harm is there in labeling and framing them as exemplars of feminism and feminist icons posthumously? Whose interests does it serve or not serve and does it fundamentally change the meaning and significance of the historical legacy of these important Black women leaders for Black Women's Studies in general and Africana history in particular?

In this essay, I explore the aforementioned questions and their implications for the field of Black Women's Studies within the Discipline of Africana Studies. Specifically, I address the attempt of many self-identified feminists and others under the influence of feminism to construct a usable past via the strategic intellectual and political initiative this essay refers to as the "Black Feminist Revisionist History Project (BF-RHP)". The Black Feminist Revisionist History Project is defined as the subjective practice and pattern of indiscriminately and randomly labeling historically significant Black women as "feminist" often posthumously in historical narratives, reference materials, encyclopedias, journal articles, textbooks, and via social media.

This imposition of a feminist label on many of these figures is tantamount to "discursive domination"[4] to use African Women's Studies Scholar, Oyeronke Oyewumi's terminology, a mode of appropriation and codification of knowledge, which within the context of this essay, I contend, results in the assertion of what can in effect be interpreted as staking a proprietary claim over historically significant women in our collective memories. In other words, this is a concerted effort to control and monopolize the interpretation of them and their contributions to the Africana world. Is there evidence in the retrievable data of a consistent and transparent criterion for the proper imposition of this label on a given historical figure? Does the label of feminist align with the person's own self-definition or is this a largely external imposition? This paper analyzes the meaning, political significance and theoretical considerations of the BF-RHP. The construction of a usable past provides current manifestations of (Black) feminism with an intellectual and political genealogy that extends anterior to the mid-twentieth century as well as provides a means to mitigate for feminists the potential political damage and vulnerability emanating from the sensitive issue that feminism remains a controversial and contentious subject matter among and between Black women. It should be noted that throughout this essay I use the designation African to refer to people of African descent in the diaspora; Moreover, I have also used the terms Black, African, and Africana interchangeably in this essay.

Feminism has demonstrated historical difficulty in grappling with differences between women. Black feminist and LGBT advocate Audre Lorde was one of the pioneering voices challenging feminism's universalizing tendencies. In one of her most widely read text, Sister Outsider, she writes a series of essays which articulates very cogently the pivotal role of the 'politics of difference' in creating tensions between mainstream feminists and Black women. [5] Unapologetically, Lorde criticizes the routine failure of mainstream feminists to adequately account for or incorporate differences of race, class, and sexual orientation, in their gender analyses. Today this dynamic is commonly referred to as intersectionality. Lorde does a masterful job in discussing the negative and alienating impact of the absence of an intersectional lens for Black women's relationship with feminism. Additionally, she notes that this failure has had the effect of privileging Euro-American women at the expense of other groups of women. In this context, Lorde makes the following observation about feminism, "[t]here is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist." [6] Extending her argument, one finds that this problem of difference and representation applies internally to Black women of diverse political persuasions. Black Women's Studies scholars also face the challenge of coming to terms with internal political differences and ideological diversity among and between different groups of Black women. I argue, that the BFRHP can be viewed as privileging one group of Black women vis-a-vis the naming of the intellectual and activist traditions of Black women and the women who created it; in this case, it privileges those women with a preference for Black feminism, at the expense of other women who have expressed a different preference in favor of either Africana womanism, unmodified womanism, or those that favor no label at all.

Patricia Hill-Collins in her article entitled, "What's in a Name? Womanism, Black Feminism and Beyond," identifies the challenge of accommodating diversity between different groups of Black women as being the root of the current naming debates between Black feminists versus womanists. [7] Interestingly enough, in an article on the critical need to recognize diversity, Patricia Hill-Collins does not overtly reference two rather large groups of Black women, African womanists and/or independent Black women who eschew all of the conventional labels. Ultimately, this naming debate requires the balancing of competing interests and preferences of different Black women, precisely because we are not monolithic. Hill-Collins writes, "Thus, ensuring group unity while recognizing the tremendous heterogeneity that operates within the boundaries of the term "black women" comprises one fundamental challenge now confronting African American women." [8] One of the first steps in this process, it seems to me, is the recognition of the fact that those Black women who intentionally choose not to embrace the label of (Black) feminist are making a significant statement about their identity, their politics, and their exercise of self-determination. [9] The sustained resistance to embracing the term feminist should not be dismissed out of hand or later causally disregarded by the imposition of the label. After all, reasonable people can disagree over political approaches and strategies even if they all share the goal of eradicating the system of sexism. Those Black women whose views do not align with feminism should not have their political commitment to gender equality questioned or erased because of their conscious resistance to labeling themselves as feminist or aligning themselves with feminism.

The BF-RHP involves the conscription of African women activists and intellectuals under the banner of "feminist." Additionally, this revisionist project systematically engages in the arbitrary assignment of the label feminist to potentially any or every African women in our history who has engaged in important social or political action. This process deliberately marginalizes and/or erases the underlying ideological perspectives that informed the shared activism of black women and men. The criteria behind this feminist practice amounts to subjectively lumping together African women as "feminist" solely on the basis of their shared anatomy as a biological group. The scholarship produced by the BF-RHP treats the terms "female" and "feminist" as synonyms. The litmus test for...

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