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Web Event #3: Unbinding Black Feminism

shainarobin's picture


Within feminism, there is an extension known as Black feminism. Black feminism was developed with the belief that sexism and gender oppression are not the only issues that bind women together. It instead argues that sexism along with classism and racism are all interconnected, forming an intersectional identity. When the Black feminist movement was developed, many people felt that there were feminists out there in the mainstream who wanted to overcome sexism along with classism, but left race out of the equation. Black feminists wanted to show that race could be used against women as a tool for discrimination. It is therefore unique in the fact that it was started by unbinding itself from the second wave feminist movement. I’ve decided to explore two layers of feminism unbound by examining how black feminism itself had been unbinded. In order to do this I will be referencing a video-recorded conversation that I had with my Mom about her experiences with black feminism as a teenager in the 1970s and comparing it with my experiences from today.

Feminism Unbound/Black Diaspora

For the purpose of this essay, I define the unbinding of feminism or “feminism unbound” as expanding the definition of human to define it beyond gender. In my interview with my Mom she talked about her experience with Black feminism while growing up in Jamaica.  When she entered high school (at the age of 12 in the British system) it was the tail end of the Civil Rights movement and black power was becoming a significant in my Mom and her classmate’s lives. “As black people we started to we had a say in what was going on in society and that we should talk about freedom more and get involved in freedom movements, freedom issues.”  For the Black diaspora, the petitions for civil rights and equality were in full swing and being aware of current events in the United States as well as in Africa and the Caribbean were important. “Things going on in Africa were also the things that we were really starting to get interested in because as Blacks in the Caribbean, we really started to be focused on what was going on in Black America, what was going on in Africa…”

Keeping this in mind, it is interesting to compare my experience as a member of the Black diaspora with my mom’s. I’ve grown up with the legacy of the Civil Right’s movement to teach me how to be kind, respectful, and aware. Yet even though I’ve been asked to represent these traits I have yet to be given a movement that continues the actions and accomplishments achieved by civil rights and black power activists. This can be seen as both a good and a bad thing. While there doesn’t seem to be a movement as monumental as Civil Right’s uniting all American Black feminists at the moment, we do have the freedom to explore our identities outside of race, and we have the chance to expand our intersectional identities farther than those of the original Black feminist movement. With the opportunity to pick and choose which aspects of Black feminism speak out to us the most, there isn’t as much pressure to jump on the bandwagon and support one big national movement.  



When talking with my Mom about what kind of apparel in the seventies influenced her the most, two pieces came up: the dashiki and the mini-skirt. The mini-skirt very much fit the style of clothing worn by a good chunk of feminists during the second wave while the dashiki seems to be an item that pertained specifically to the Black feminist identity. “[We] started to wear African colors, African prints; so something like the dashiki, which is the African sort of shirt-style dress with the very large sleeves; everybody had to have a dashiki...we saved up money just to get dashikis.” There was not only a sense of national pride for Blacks when wearing the dashiki but there was a sense of belonging that went along with it too. You could proudly claim your African identity and many of your peers were doing the same. There isn’t a piece of clothing for Black feminists today that compares or has the same impact that the dashiki had on my Mom’s generation. The argument could be made that the clothing typically associated with hip-hop and rap artists has made a significant and lasting impression on the Black community, but not all Blacks, myself included, identify with that culture; at least to the extent that the dashiki was a symbol for Black feminists. So as of right now, I believe that Black feminists have free range with what they want to wear. While there are critics for every style choice, we are mostly free to wear whatever suits our tastes. Insert photo of dashiki here.

Another staple piece for feminists and black feminists alike was the mini-skirt. With the emergence of the mini-skirt came a sense of youth, liberation, and sexual freedom. “We kind of cast off the cute little British dresses and then went into the mini-skirt. Everybody had a ‘mini’ and mine was very, very short because my legs were long.” When talking with my Mom she told me how all of the adults that she knew (including her own mother and grandmother) disapproved of this particular fashion trend. And though the dashiki had been appreciated by adults and young people alike, the mini-skirt in contrast was very controversial. While many of my Mom’s friends sported mini-skirts, most mothers designed them so that they would be longer than the traditional kind.

“So what many girls would do, and I had some friends that did this, was to make the skirt longer and as soon as you leave the home you just roll the waist over and just bring it up as short as you want to bring it up, and then you pull it back down when you’re going home...We had teachers who walked around with a ruler and if your skirt was more than an inch above your knee you would either get sent home, you would get spanked, you would get sent to the principal’s office, you could be expelled. So the big fight over the skirt and the length of the skirt, and how tight the skirt was was all about the women really clamping down on young girls.” Like the dashiki, there isn’t an equivalent to the mini-skirt today that shares the same relevance or impact that mini-skirt did back then. Feminism along with black feminism has unbound young women from identifying women belonging to these movements with specific fashion pieces. Today, a woman who considers her style to be “preppy” and can identify as much with Black feminism as someone who falls into the “artsy” category. There isn’t a universal dress code for Black feminists that distinguishes whether you belong or don’t.



When it came to hair for my Mom and her other Black feminist peers in the 1970s, it was go natural or go home. “...We had three different kinds of afros. We had the very short one that’s cut very close to the scalp, that was called a Makeba and that was named after Miriam Makeba. Most girls didn’t want to have a Makeba on unless your hair was really short because it really was a short cut. The next style was about an inch, if your hair was about an inch out you could get a small one. That’s what you call an afro… then the big one, like I had, was out to here (gestures with her hands widely) and was called a ‘soul’, because your hair could be like shoulder length and you just puff it all out. So I wore a ‘wicked’ soul in the seventies. And we had an afro pick, the whole thing...” For youth like my Mom in the Black diaspora, sporting natural hair was not only a sign of connecting with your African roots it was also a way to rebel against the European standards of beauty that had been imposed on them for years. By going natural you were making a statement that you were taking a stand against societal pressures to straighten your hair and that sporting one was something to be proud of. Interestingly enough however, parents and adults reacted to natural hair almost the way that they did to mini-skirts; harshly. “As long as you kept the souls and afros really rounded, [parents] were okay [with them] but they wanted us to straighten our hair because straight hair was supposed to be ‘pretty hair’ and this kind of African look with the soul, you know, they thought they had left it behind. So the parents weren’t wearing a soul.” Today, while natural hair is still an image equated with Black feminists I wouldn’t say that it dominates the movement. People with straightened hair, braided hair, natural hair, and ‘locked hair, to name a few, all identify as Black feminists. There isn’t one particular style that Black feminists flock to as a representation of the movement or to symbolize freedom from oppression with. The unbinding of Black hair has allowed Black feminists to take on whatever hairstyle suits their fancy. Now, I’m not trying to argue that their still isn’t conflict inside and outside of the Black community as to whether or not one style is more feminist than the other. Rather the point I’m trying to make is that there is no longer one concrete image of hair that is representational of Black feminists.


The unbinding of feminism to form Black feminism and the unbinding of Black feminism itself has been a very intriguing concept for me to explore. The multi-layeredness of the subject makes it a complex one to study but vital at the same time. While the emergence of Black feminism as an unbinding from feminism was large and impactful, it was still a movement that could and has been unbound itself. Whether that unbinding has been beneficial is hard to say. When talking with my Mom about her experience as a Black feminist during the 1970s, words like power, freedom, empowerment, and unity constantly popped up. By forming much of their identities around their physical appearances, they were making political statements that could be attributed to their participation in the movement. Today, it is much harder to tell whether or not someone is a Black feminist. Without defining outfits or hairstyles that could categorize a majority of us, there is a sense of ambiguity as to who constitutes as Black feminist appearance-wise. And while we might not have the same sense of unity that our mothers did, we also don’t have the same stress to adopt an aligning look or otherwise be left out. This is a topic that I’ve only begun to break through and would like to further explore in the future.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Miranda. "Black Hair Today: Does Being Natural or Not Mean Something?" Black Feminists. N.p., 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.

Austin, Barry. Female Tailor in Traditional Outfit Measuring Dashiki. Digital image. Corbis Images. Corbis Corporation, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.

Bettmann. Miriam Makeba Singing. Digital image. Corbis Images. Corbis Corporation, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.

"Black Feminism." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Jan. 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. <>.

Dionne, Evette. "Politics, Soul and Love: The History of the Afro." Clutch Magazine. Sutton New Media LLC, 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. <>.

Lusack, Sarah. "What Does Black Feminism Mean Today, and Why Do We Need It?" Varsity Online. Varsity Publications Ltd., 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. <>.

Preston, Neal. One of the Jackson Sisters. Digital image. Corbis Images. Corbis Corporation, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.

Roberts, H. Armstrong. 1970s Woman Long Auburn Hair Mini Skirt Dress Red Platform High Heeled Shoes. Digital image. Corbis Images. Corbis Corporation, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

generational change--more than stylistic?

Last month I was pretty confused about the relationship between “your” topic and “ours”—this month it’s crystal clear—thanks!

... I want to say first that your decision to interview your mom was just brilliant. What a great way to learn about the concrete particularities of generational change…

Where I have questions are in the eras before and after those your mother describes so vividly. There are of course always multiple ways to tell any story, and/but it surprises me that you begin the story of black feminism as an account of “unbinding” itself from second wave movement. I think you could actually (and maybe more fruitfully?) begin w/ Sojourner Truth’s “Aren’t I A Woman?” speech, which long preceded—really laid the groundwork—for intersectionality, beginning w/ her central claim that being black and working class does not mean she is not a woman. Starting here makes black feminism not “an extension,” as you say, but the really the ground of feminism writ large, especially of the sort of intersectional feminism we have been focusing on in this class. So I’m questioning your first move, the “unbinding of feminism to form Black feminism”…

I'd also like better to understand your last claim, that Black feminism itself has now been “unbound” from the strictures of dress and hairstyle that your mother and her peers followed. I hear you claiming repeatedly that, today, no single style dictates how black Feminists look. Does that mean that you and your generation are “unbound” FROM black feminism, or simply “unbound” from particular, personal demonstrations of it, in the styles you choose? Is this about style, substance, or the relation between them?

I’m glad to hear that this is a topic you’d like to further explore in the future—and look forward to that discussion.
As a beginning, you might enjoy listening to bell hooks and melissa harris in dialogue....and here are two other possibilities (both from posts in our class forum):