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A Betrayal by Definition: Black Feminism Manifests Itself (Or Doesn’t) in the American Experience

mbeale's picture

       To purpose the ambiguous wanderings of my forming identity, I must first name myself.  By associating with resolute terms I mean to say I commit to them, taking both the burden and the pride of my self-claimed appellations, determinately thrusting myself under the weight of them. Inextricable from these things, they are a part of me. I take on their responsibility, actively challenging the connotations of those labels as I perceive them while also bearing in mind how I am perceived by outside of myself. I name myself a woman, resolutely. I name myself a feminist, resolutely. I name myself my mother’s daughter, resolutely. While I have been able to immerse myself in struggling with these few realms of self-discovery, troublingly, what I struggle most with is to claim my name as a Black woman.

      The notion of that this is a part of my identity has always made me uncomfortable for reasons I have been unable and reluctant, frankly, to pin down. I am aware that “Black” may be how I am marked by others though I cannot grip to it in my own imaginings of myself, my own naming. What does it mean to be a Black woman? On an African American woman? Not only do I feel I don’t quite ready to impart those answers, but in my ignorance, I feel compelled to escape even confronting the question. It is a question associated with an unsure oppressiveness, a weight I have difficulty with verbalizing its detail and source. Why this squirming against this particularity of who I am? What is there about coming into Black womanhood I’ve seen in my mother and my grandmother and other African American women that has infused in me this most insistent avoidance of self?  

    Perhaps it is the example of the fates of my predecessors that have deterred me. That is not to cast blame on my ancestors by any means, but rather it is a fear of what history has told me about who they are, and consequently, who I must become. What the Black woman means to the country that insists upon her ownership and rattled her being around so long, the United States, is problematic. The developing country in the era of 19th century slave culture capitalized not only on the capture for dehumanizing labor but also sexual coercion of slave women. Shaped into roles as reproductive machines for the sake of the continued work force the US hinged so heavily upon, the captured African woman, objectified, was hurled to the bottom of consideration that of the American conscience. Her existence was a sacrifice in itself to an entire system she had not chosen to commit to, but she had been burdened with being the center of. Now, the free descendants of this crippling system are to grapple with the nearly impossible but crucial task of restructuring her place in America.  She has risen up along with her “Black brothers” since that time, but the uneasy voice of the African American woman is still one scarcely told. We may be “Black and Proud,” the problem that manifests itself today is the oneness of her journey when she should have been considered with a doubleness, black and woman. “We are taught we are first black, then women. (Simmons)” Or on a most recent alternative, we are women and then we are black. We are rarely ever coming into the twoness of our identity, and therefore forever in conflict with a part of ourselves.

   To be sunken to the very depths of the American consciousness (for we are a guilty memory,) to be a black woman and a feminist is a difficult identity to cultivate because when once one arrives at that identity, she is consequently seen as something undeserving of respect and essentially irrelevant  to the American experience, to the Black experience. She is on the outside of the outside of America, outside of her role, her long-attested by the whole of society.   

     A pivotal moment (or rather, nonmoment) for the evolving black feminist community was the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas court case.  Professor of law and determined civil rights worker, Anita Hill worked for a period of time in the early 80s under then soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as his assistant. During her time of employment, she reported being harassed a number of times before and after she explicitly stated she did not desire to begin a romantic relationship with Thomas. She explained Clarence’s sexual talk made her “uncomfortable” and “almost as though [Thomas] wanted to put [her] at a disadvantage(Schlossberg)”, but she ultimately decided to stick with the position because of her allegiance to the work she and Thomas were doing, her sentiment of being “dedicated to civil rights work.” Coming forth only after the insistence of her peers, she came to the stance of truth and presenting information that the committee “might regard as relevant.” However, the truth as interpreted by others, especially a panel of all white, all male representatives is steeped in a much more perilous set of issues than Anita Hill might have anticipated.

    Throughout the proceedings of the over 37 hour long confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill was in clear discomfort and even went so far as to say, “I have nothing to gain from this.” Nothing to gain? She attested to speaking from a “duty,” but what is her duty, her truth without a motive? She faced a strange, familiar opponent in Clarence Thomas, a rare black conservative served under Bush administration, who had little experience and was in fact opposed to number of African  Americans’ views on civil rights and political procedures. He was criticized for being an obvious diversity clutch piece for Bush and has a sufficiently contradictory set of beliefs under his record. Though appointed as assistant secretary to the Office of Civil Rights and later the chairman of the EEOC and vehemently stating he condemned sexual harassment, he wanted to eliminate funding to sexual harassment prevention, believing it was not as “important” as other issues. Most appallingly, Thomas didn’t listen to Anita Hill’s testimony (“I’ve heard enough lies,”) lessening her relevance even more so. As a representative of the people who goes as far to say his duty is “enforcing the rights of victims of sexual harassment…as a boss, friend, and human being...”, he seemed irate and baffled, “I don’t know why family members would turn on each other,”  at the prospect  of Hill’s coming forward out of silence.

    Bell Hooks, in her essay, “Why Must We Call Every Woman Sister?” speaks to the “disempowering” outcome due to the way the hearing was handled. She points out that,  “…though many women viewers felt we understood Hill’s actions, for any woman for make such charges within the context of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, especially a black woman, if indeed she expected to be taken seriously, there should have been full recognition that she would need to do more than simply state her case.” Anita Hill’s “female martyrdom and masochism” by demonstrating that not only she clarified her belief that civil rights and her rights to a safe, nonromantic, work environment were separate from each other, but indeed in opposition of one another. Hooks points out how it is “crucial what we say, how we say it , and what our politics are,” in a society in which we must rise to consideration.  Anita Hill, in taking a non-responsibility for the potential significance of the Thomas case, negated the plausible significance of the woman extracting herself from the  maleness of her Blackness and forging a community on justice rather than non-contemplative solidarity in silence. To realize she is indeed extricable from the male body in general and can carve out a new role for the Black woman, feminist or not, without feeling betrayal at the solidification of her distinction.

Works Cited

Simmons, Aishah, dir. No! The Rape Documentary. AfroLez Productions, 2006. Film.

Sex and Justice:  The Highlights of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Hearings.  Dir. Julian Schlossberg.  Videocassette.  First Run/Icarus, 1993. 77minutes.

 Painter, Nell.  “Hill, Thomas and the Use of Racial Stereotype.”  Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power:  Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality.  Ed. Toni Morrison.  New York: Pantheon, 1992.  200-214.

 Stansell, Christine.  “White Feminists and Black Realities: The Politics of Authenticity.”  Race-ing Justice.  251-268.

 Hooks, Bell. “A Feminist Challenge:  Must We Call Every Woman Sister?” Black Looks:  Race and Representation.  Boston: South End, 1992.  79-86.

Smitherman, Geneva.  “Testifyin, Sermonizin, and Signifyin: Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the African American Verbal Tradition.”  African American Women Speak Out On Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas.  Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1995.  224-242.


Anne Dalke's picture

"Non-moment," "non-responsibility," not speaking?

you have crafted a very powerful opening to this meditation, with your decision to begin with the problematics of the public naming--and so claiming--of your self. You follow this with an as-powerful account of your "fear of what history tells you you must become" (this recognition of the danger of naming--because it enables a policing of that which is named--is very Foucaultian).

But then you turn to the "pivotal moment (or rather, nonmoment) for the evolving black feminist community," to Anita Hill's "taking a non-responsibility for the potential significance of the Thomas case," and I am confused. I hear your analysis of what did (not) happen then, presented through the lens of bell hooks' denunciation of Hill's investment  in "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy"--but what I don't hear is what follows from that--either from Hill's investment or from hooks' denunciation. What follows, that is, for you? If the goal is, as you say hooks says, to "carve out a new role for the Black woman," what is that role?

hooks has written a lot in this vein. If you want to seek further counsel from her, I'd recommend both Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism ("to be a feminist in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people., female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression" …. to be " no longer victimized, no longer unrecognized, no longer afraid…."). Or see the "radical feminist agenda" she advocates in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist/Thinking Black, with its dedication to a feminist vision "that is the practice of freedom."

Wherever you turn for your finale, however--whether to Hills as exemplar of what you do not want to be or to hooks as expression of what you do--the last words here need to be none of theirs, but your own.