Groundings With Our Sisters: Incorporating Black Feminist Lenses
Morgan State University professors Drs. Anika Simpson and Jennifer Williams discuss their varied Black feminist approaches looking specifically at the work of Africana women, the 2016 elections and Beyonce’.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: …I’m working right now on a book on Black women’s literature after the Depression and before the end of segregation, and I think that their narratives of urban segregation, and class, and sexuality, and race have not been centered, and absolutely need to be centered, and absolutely need to be part of these narratives of liberation. A lot of times when we think of urban confinement, whether its carceral or whether it’s, you know, geographic confinement, we think about the plight of urban, Black men. And so, I think it’s like, the time has been right to center Black women’s narratives of liberation. And as far as [Walter Riley] is concerned, and radicalism, I was telling my queer theory class last night that, to me, the Combahee River Collective Statement is still–
ANIKA SIMPSON: –Still relevant–
WILLIAMS: Still relevant–
WILLIAMS: Still so, yeah, still so ahead of its time, and bringing together race, class, sexuality, gender, men and women in a Black feminist framework. So, to me, that still is kind of like the urtext of Black feminism and radicalism. Would you agree, yeah? [Laughs]
SIMPSON: Of course I would agree. I do agree. I’m trained as a philosopher, so I’ve been working on Black feminist philosophy, and of late I’ve been looking at Black women’s sexuality and the erotic, the erotic critique of marriage through the particular lens of single, Black mothers. And I think that’s hopefully an intervention, if you look at gender-inclusive racial justice as what I’m trying to get at, so I think if we’ve had voices that have not been centered and not been primarily heard, so what does like a Black family look like when you’ve got 70 percent of Black children living in homes with single mothers?
There may be fathers present, and that’s fine, but unmarried women are raising the majority of our children, so what does that say about Black families? What type of policies do we need to have in place to support the majority of Black families that are raised with this type of configuration? And that’s not a negative. I personally don’t think that it’s a negative, but I think having a gender-inclusive, racial justice model allows us to get closer to Black liberation, because it should be liberation for all; it shouldn’t be liberation for cisgendered, straight men. What does Black liberation look like for disabled bodies? For marginalized masculinities? For Black women? For queer Black women? So I think we need to take the totality of Black lives into account, and I think having centering Black feminist work can be a helpful intervention in advancing liberation.
WILLIAMS: I keep hearing people talk about ‘the Black vote,’ and I don’t think there is a ‘the Black vote,’ because if you can listen to all the different Black, public folks who are coming out for Bernie or Hillary, you know, this just in: Spike Lee came out for Bernie. You know you have…
SIMPSON: Ben Jealous, that thing, ’cause…
WILLIAMS: Ben Jealous, for…
SIMPSON: For Bernie…
WILLIAMS: For [Bernie]–Yeah, and so, different people vying for different candidates because of their commitments. I do think there’s a fear in the Democratic Party of, this ongoing fear of losing, losing to a Republican and so trying to vote for the person that’s winnable, but I don’t think we should play ourselves cheap. And you should vote for the person who stands for what you believe in, and not just who’s–And I think either of them is more electable than the frontrunner of the Republican Party.
SIMPSON: I think I have a more dire outlook on American politics. So, I haven’t been a registered, a member of the Democratic Party since my 20s, and I think, I’m not sure which candidate is going to do that much for Black people. I read a powerful piece by Charles Blow in the New York Times, and he had a lengthy quote from James Baldwin, who talked about seeming apathy amongst Black voters, and he said it wasn’t that they weren’t engaged politically. It was that they had no faith that once, after the election, after the pandering, that once whoever is in office gets to the White House, that any change is going to happen that will significantly improve the life prospects of Black people.
And I look at Bernie, and I look at Hillary, and Trump, Cruz, Rubio, I mean, anyone you throw out, and I have deep respect and adoration for our first Black president, President Obama, but he also rolled out My Brother’s Keeper, which I have spent, since the day it came out, much time trying to roll that back, as I now hear, well, “The women are all right. We need to work on Black men, and straight, Black men. I also have queer, Black men saying, “Where do I fit into My Brother’s Keeper?” and that was coming from a Black President. So, now to turn to Hillary or Bernie? I don’t have much faith that once either one of those people are in office much change will happen, that that Black liberation we’ve been talking about is going to go away. Like, now we are saved, we’ve got President Clinton or President Sanders.
So I think, looking at–And I also am troubled by ‘the Black vote.’ I mean, in my dream world all Black people will pull out of each party and actually make the parties work, because we are a very strong voting block, and Black women especially got, pushed President Obama through in his election, so I wish we would galvanize that power by leaving the party. And make each one work for us.
SIMPSON: I think, like many an American, on the day that the video came out, it stopped life as I knew it. All of my plans that I had intended to perform went out the window, and I spent a lot of time watching the video, caught up in excitement. And then the academic piece of my heart kicked in, so I had to start to interrogate and analyze why I was so excited, and why I didn’t go out, and why I was watching this video over and over again. And I think what has jumped out, now that I’ve had time to process, is the centering of Black women and images of Black power, and some might say Black resistance and also Black queerness, which is not something that we see often. And for it to be coming from the pop icon that is Beyoncé I think was very powerful, which we’ve seen with the chatter and the commentary that’s come after.
The Super Bowl performance was both exciting and problematic, but as we start looking at, again, performances of Black feminism on a national stage and a very corporate environment, I think will take some further unpacking, but those are my initial thoughts, basically centering around Black women at the fore of a Black power movement.
WILLIAMS: My initial reaction to the video was that it was aesthetically beautiful. I came to it from a position of art. There was a lot of beautiful photographs and visual imagery that tied together a contemporary moment with history in a way that I thought was so powerful. So I went to look to see who the videographer was. From a literary and visual aesthetics perspective I was wondering who. I think, you know, Beyoncé and her team were brilliant, but I also wanted to know, you know, who’s the brains around all of this visual imagery, as well as Beyoncé being the brains around the performance and the lyrics, or whatever her part was in it.
So, as a production, I thought, okay, this is powerful. This is beautiful. I’m excited. I didn’t watch as much as some of my friends. [Laughs] I watched it a few times, I stepped back from it. I watched in on a bigger screen after I had watched it on my small screen. Some of the most powerful images I thought just really had to do with Louisiana, and to remind–I mean, I think about my students sometimes, who were either very young or weren’t around during Hurricane Katrina, and so to bring that moment back, for me, was, you know, some of the most impactful work that that video did.
And the Super Bowl performance, I mean, I’m not a football fan, so I tuned in right as the halftime–Forgive me, everybody–right as the halftime performance was about to start, and that was the most exciting. I have to admit I didn’t catch the X formation initially, and I watched it again and I thought, ah, Malcolm X, Black Panthers. This is great. This is the Blackest Black History Month ever. And to have that with women at the center I thought was really important. I know questions have been raised about women at the center, and then, you know, sexuality being at the center of the screen as well, because, you know, it’s also sexy and provocative as the video was also. So I think that’s something people need to wrestle with and take up.
SIMPSON: I don’t know if it’s fair to put that moniker on Beyoncé the pop artist. I think what’s exciting for me is to see the conversation starter. So I think she’s an entry point. As a professor, I don’t know how many of my students are just picking up a book on Assata Shakur. I mean, there’s maybe some very thin notions of what the Black Panther Party meant, but now that they’ve seen an X formation on a football field, I think that’s an entry point for further conversation, and now that I now put myself on the elder path, I think that there’s work for me, then, to do to unpack.
So I showed the clean version of the video to my first and third grade daughters to see what they got from it, and then that was a way for us to then have a conversation about Black women. And to see Blue Ivy, who they know, to talk about Black hair, and that’s been a continuing conversation that we’ve had in our household. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to put all of that onto Beyoncé, to say, yes, she is now our revolutionary. She is now our mother of feminism, or our icon of Black feminism. I don’t know if that’s a fair moniker to put on her, but I think she does serve a good purpose: an excellent way for us to have larger conversations about Black feminism, about Black sexuality, about queerness, about marginalized Black bodies that I think have been left out of some of these conversations around Black nationalism, Black pride. So, I mean, that’s what I would say.
WILLIAMS: She was performing revolutionary memory. You know, she’s a performer, is what she is, and it doesn’t mean that popular culture can’t work in radical ways, and I think it can, and I completely agree with Anika that people project a lot of desire onto pop culture stars, and it’s not to lessen the impact of it. I’m not sure Billie Holiday knew what the impact of singing “Strange Fruit” would be. Was she on the front lines? No, she was singing in a cafe. But that didn’t mean that her performance wouldn’t have revolutionary impact years on.
So, I think the performance itself has, and can have, some impact, and different people can do different kinds of work. I wouldn’t compare her to members of the Black Panther Party. I think that’s a little bit ridiculous. But I think some of it is people projecting their desires onto what they want her to stand for. I do think she’s a feminist because she says she’s a feminist, and who am I to say she’s not? So, that’s where I start. Sure you’re a feminist. There are different kinds of feminists. There are liberal feminists, there are radical feminists, there are Black feminists, there are queer feminists, you know? So I do think she’s a liberal feminist.
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