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Unpacking Intersectionality: Black Women Holdin’ it Down and Showing Us the Way

me.mae.i's picture

Unpacking Intersectionality: Black Women Holdin’ it Down and Showing Us the Way

In a society that pitted black women at the bottom of all structures, socially, politically, and economically, the magic and genius that sparked from that shared struggled introduced a framework that united all oppressed groups, despite their level of privilege or proximity to whiteness. This new framework was called Intersectionality and it continues to be a tool that many rely on in various forms of activism, liberation movements, and identity discourse. The dictionary defines the intersectionality as, “the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual” ( 

The concept came to the forefront in the late 70s and was valued as a framework that guided many oppressed groups when it came to fighting for socio-political change. More specifically, black feminists, including the authors of the Combahee River Collective Statement, dedicated their lives to exercising intersectionality and teaching it to many, on both a theoretical and practical level. In this essay, I will rely on the Suzan Lori Parks’ novel Getting Mother’s Body, to show how intersectionality serves as a concrete method that ushers both an ideal and pragmatic approach to unifying and accepting of all of humanity because it grounds itself and focuses on experience.

Before delving into the characters in Getting Mother’s Body, I would like to take time to expand the definition of intersectionality and go deeper into its meaning. Leaning on the work and genius of the black feminists who worked to define and teach intersectionality, I turn to the Combahee River Collective Statement. Here they write,

Black feminists often talk about their feelings of craziness before becoming conscious of the concepts of sexual politics, patriarchal rule, and most importantly, feminism, the political analysis and practice that we women use to struggle against our oppression. The fact that racial politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives did not allow us, and still does not allow most Black women, to look more deeply into our own experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression (CRCS 2)

While these women are not explicitly defining an intersectional structure, they are applying an essential foundation, which is an experiential way of understanding life—furthermore, struggle. This distinction is key, because these women are showing that change formulate or come to light based off of a conscious conceptual understanding of a politic. Rather, it is initiated, and arguably, built off a common shared emotion. Those feelings of craziness that introduces the quotes are times of recognition of the experiences in life that makes us human. The love, the fear, the desire to want more and better. Everyone, regardless of an identifier feels them. Therefore, what is impactful to understand here is that no political or structural action can happen without the acceptance and awareness of the feeling and experience that tells the story of one’s life and struggle. 

The means to developing a political plan of action or movement starts by unity, and unity forms throughout an emotional pull to want and need better. Intersectionality exists only because black women advocated for a space and recognition for this pull. With it’s visibility, movements are sustained and true action is achieved. Even more, people are able to see each other, to understand, and to break the binds of black, white, woman, man, gay, and more. Intersectionality lights a fire that energizes people to rely on their inner beings as the impetus of connection and sight, while their identities act as the lenses that allow them to focus on a cause and find solution. 

Suzan Lori Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body serves as an excellent text in unpacking the weight and truth about intersectionality because it focuses on the characters as people first, and then black. In a talk hosted by Bryn Mawr College’s English Department, Suzan Lori Parks talks about her writing process and character development. She explained that she talks to her characters as normal people and checks on them by who they are. She does not limit the adaptation of their plots by constricting them to one label.

For example, Dill’s character speaks to this unbinding of the persona through gender. Dill is Willa Mae’s (Billy’s mother) former lover and is also coping with her death. At certain points of the book, Dill is referred to by using the pronoun, she. However, she is described with what may seem as to be having very masculine traits. For example, she takes care of pigs, gets haircuts, and driving pick up trucks. She is the closest Billy gets to having a father figure. She offers to kill the Snipes, after he got Billy pregnant and mislead her to thinking he was going to marry her. Dill often talks to Billy about her mother Willa Mae and always gives Billy advice. What’s interesting about Dill’s character is that throughout the progression of the book other characters begin to refer to Dill as he. 

There wasn’t a big scene that announced it or a major part of the book dedicated to discussing it. Rather, the shift from she to he was natural due to the experience, feelings, and actions that Dill’s character read. While readers may not be able to pinpoint Dill’s gender or identity, Suzan Lori Parks gives an ample amount of space for readers to connect to who it feels to lose someone you have loved that probably wasn’t a good person or deserving of love. That is the genius of Parks’ writing and heart of intersectionality—the ability to relate.

While Dill serves as a great example in debunking the lines of literal naming of identity and language in intersectional dialogue by paying attention to pronouns, Willa Mae’s character speaks to the power of experience and shows how black women use their experience to define that. Willa Mae is one of the most problematic figures in the novel. After her death many people resented her and even Billy rejects her as a mother figure. However, even though everyone thinks of her as negative and manipulative, they hold onto her memory because her essence alone sparks a feeling that is deep and that everyone can relate to. This feeling can be thought of those same of crazy feelings that the women of the Combahee River Collective described. This feeling is a hole. Parks’ writes,

Everybody’s got a Hole. Ain’t nobody ever lived who don’t got a Hole in them somewheres. When I say Hole you know what I’m talking about, dontcha? Soft spot, sweet spot, opening, blind spot, Itch, Gap, call it what you want but I call it a Hole… Everybody’s got one, just don’t everybody got one in the same place… if a person’s got a Hole in they heart and you offer them knowledge, you won’t be able to sway them none. A Hole-in-the-heart person craves company and kindness, not no book. (Parks 31)

Willa Mae’s description of this “Hole” holds the essence of intersectionality and does so in a fashion that is widely relatable. She speaks of this hole in the heart as a need for compassion, a need for understanding. Two principles of intersectionality that focuses on liberation, and not the bureaucracy of labeling. She rejects the book because it is a spaces that lacks, or rather, has a difficult time with appealing to emotion. I would even argue that we could extend Willa Mae’s notion of the book to societal norms. Just like a classroom teaches literature, grammar, writing, and structure, society teaches behavior, what’s considered good, and what’s considered a family. With that said, when someone is lacking something deep in the heart, telling them what society says is the right way or normal does not feel that hole. Rather, it is the compassion, understanding, connection, and warmth of others that fills that hole.

In conclusion, intersectionality is the work that fills our holes. Getting Mother’s Body, Suzan Lori Parks, and the women that formed the Combahee River Collective are just a few black women who have laid this structure down for the world to use. Whether through a political statement, informal talk, and the art form of novels, intersectionality manifests in many different ways. Even its conception was created from a group of people who society gave nothing to but expected so much from. Black women are the heart of intersectionality. Dill and Willa Mae are just two examples. Through experience they are able to relate, reach out, educate, and do the work necessary to achieve liberation. The want to define, categorize, and label is natural. It helps rationalize. However, that is not to be that tendency to rationalize does not uphold the power of being intersectional. The ability to relate, to give and receive in the spirit of growth and moving forward, to dig deeper and also put in some soil in your grow, is the purpose of true intersectionality.


Works Cited


"The Combahee River Collective Statement." The Combahee River Collective Statement. Combahee River Collective, Apr. 1977. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother's Body: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

I was so surprised to see this; I’d thought the essay about The Love Ethic  that you’d posted 10 days ago was your second paper… and here again is another, one that expands in so many ways on what you argued in “The Love Ethic”: that the Combahee River Collective, like the characters of Getting Mother’s Body, like James Baldwin, are advocating company and kindness, reaching for the love that we all crave.

You trace this path from “craziness” to “consciousness,” a move towards political action that starts with accepting one’s own life and struggle. You show Parks engaging in this activity, talking to her characters, checking in on them and where they want to go, rather than constricting them to labels. You show Dill debunking literal naming, in the shifting of pronouns, and Willa Mae as both ‘sparking those crazy feelings’ that are the beginning of consciousness, and naming the hole and the outreach it necessitates, as we notice and respond to one another’s vulnerability.

Along the way, you’ve also answered, in a wonderfully expansive way, that  questions I asked, in response to your paper on Reading Beloved in Womanist Thought, about the exclusiveness of womanism in response to those who are “he-she” (like Dill), unable to bear children (like June), disabled in other ways (like Baby Suggs Sethe and Beloved), or not black (like the Bodwins). I had asked then, in its celebration of “holding families together,” how womanism apprehends those that fall apart. Your answer here is that we all fall apart, all have holes that need filling with soil, and love, and that this is what we can do with one another, how we intersect, and so intervene the systemic oppression and discrimination that binds us all.

Thank you so much for these healing words.

And now: deep breath. Let’s talk today, or after break if you’d rather, about what work you might do for your independent study. Do you think you might still take images for our exhibit? I was thinking that this might constitute your final project for me, a way of showing the intersections among us, the large web that hold us all, even as we separate and turn away from one another. What do you think of that idea? Could you write about the process of making these images, what you hope they might add to the exhibit? How might a wall of us, backgrounding the objects we’ve selected, help to fill a hole in this class?

There are many other possibilities, of course, less visual, more textual, or sensual in other ways…I look forward to exploring them with you, as the way opens.