Human civilisation from its origins has been punctuated by epochs of unremitting intolerance and strife between nations, races, sexes, tribes and various groupings that define its continuing existence. The motive force behind such tensions has almost always been the quest for power, be it social, economic or political. Those who emerged victorious in those often gratuitous power struggles naturally imposed themselves upon others whom they sought to entrench hegemony, a consequence of which only served to breed resentment, mistrust, further intolerance and amplified the wide social, political and economic chasms.
Located within these struggles have been the struggles of the oppressed and brutalised black people for social, political and economic liberation; the struggles emanating from the time the first slave ships left African shores heading towards the sugar plantations in the West Indies; to the time of the arrival of the first white colonial ruffians and their missionaries in Africa (in particular), to the time of institutionalisation of racial discrimination through a savage system of apartheid in South Africa. Located within these black struggles for total emancipation, has always been the struggles of black women against the patriarchal system that sought to relegate them to the lower rungs of society.
The Haitian Revolution in 1791 which was propelled to its logical conclusion by the successful slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Overture along with female slaves such as Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére and Suzanne Belair, highlights the historical truth that the struggles for emancipation and the struggles of female slaves for women’s rights were never mutually exclusive. Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913) is among many abolitionist-feminists like Angelina Grimke (1805-1879), Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) and Abbie Kelley (1810 – 1887) whose struggles for women’s rights did not exist in isolation to the struggles of black slaves for freedom and liberty.
Prominent male abolitionists like Frederick Douglass (1817 – 1895) who escaped from slavery in Maryland, championed the cause of women’s rights with equal valour, passion and determination as they did the cause for the emancipation of black slaves. Douglass was a regular speaker on issues of women’s rights during the time. He died in 1895 fighting for women’s rights. Following his address at the First Women’s Rights Convention in New York in 1848, Douglass shortly wrote:
“In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman; and if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is, that ‘Right is of no sex’.”
Abolitionists-Feminists understood that the struggles of black women and black slaves for freedom and liberty are intrinsically linked and could not be separated. They understood that without solidarity amongst the oppressed and brutalised black people their common goals as a people would be self-defeating.
Douglass was not the only prominent male abolitionist-feminist of his time. William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), editor of the paper the Liberator, was a vocal advocate of women’s rights who like progressive revolutionaries of his generation understood that the struggles of black folks against slavery were greater than merely securing rights of men but human rights in the main. Female abolitionists-feminists such as Grimke and Kelley too understood the power of black solidarity and to antagonise their male allies would have not only impaired the greater struggle for emancipation but their own feminist cause.
The abolition of slavery did not mean full social, political and economic emancipation of the black people nor did it mean emancipation of women from the invisible chains of patriarchy. The unrelenting plight of the black man and the black woman carried through into the era of colonial savagery into which white supremacy mutated and continued to subvert the cause for total emancipation.
Pan-Africanism bears its origins from the black solidarity among abolitionists-feminists of the 1800s. Widely dispersed descendants of the freed slaves found themselves to have physically lost their homeland through dispossession and slavery. Out of these trials and tribulations emerged peculiar race-consciousness amongst progenitors of the freed slaves in the Diaspora. They had been born and integrated into the post-slavery society dominated by white values and culture that had no respect for their blackness.
Poet Langston Hughes, who was of mixed race, was among the generation of Africans that had woken up to their blackness. He wrote:
“I am a Negro;
Black as the nights’s black;
Black alike the depth of my Africa.”
The decolonisation of the black mind was rooted in this race-consciousness. Colonialism not only robbed the black nation of its resources, wealth and its home but eroded black traditions and culture including the manipulation of the thinking of the black people through colonial education spread by missionaries in Africa and co-option of the African Diaspora into the colonial system they were born into. The struggles of the black woman through the rise and spread of the Pan-Africanist philosophy remained. The race-conscious black man and black woman, united in their common struggles, became a solid opposition against colonial domination.
A Pan-Africanist and historian, Cheikh Anta Diop (1923 – 1986), wrote in the book Black Africa that among the steps to restore African unity, it is the indubitable task of black people, “to restore consciousness of our historic unity” and “work out an effective form of representation for the female sector of the nation.” Diop recognised the significance of the historic unity among the oppressed slaves who fought with equal measure and determination for abolition of slavery and for women’s rights.
As it happened throughout slavery, the suppression of rights of black people was through violence; and such violence aimed to maintain and sustain white supremacy and power over the oppressed black race. The civil rights movement rose to challenge racial violence against black Americans. Located within the civil rights movement was the black feminist movement whose struggles was conjoined to the civil rights struggles as it has been in history.
Unity amongst the oppressed black race pose a considerable threat to the hegemony of the ruling white elite. Instructive lessons from history to the oppressor are that with solidarity amongst the oppressed black people, they eventually triumph. They defeated slavery and threatened the colonial and imperialist hegemony. In the US when black feminism gained traction and prominence alongside the civil rights movement, the CIA intervened to subvert the struggles of black people through the manipulation of the black feminist struggles.
In 1958, the CIA hired a young white American student, Gloria Steinem, who rose to prominence in the 1960s to become a leading voice of what emerged as the antagonistic and virulent strain of feminism. Steinem’s rise to prominence was assisted by the CIA project called Project Mockingbird whose primary aim was the control and manipulation of the mainstream media. The CIA had co-opted journalists from renowned publications such as Esquire, the New York Times, and others, and funded publications like Ms Magazine in order to reshape the feminist narrative in society. Steinem became the contributing editor of Ms Magazine where she propagated her antagonistic and vulgar feminism targeted at black feminists.
The CIA appreciated that, “there is no more fundamentally delicate relationship in society than that between men and women”; that by undermining the family structure, weakening the social fabric and relations between civil rights activists and black feminists, the civil rights movement in its entirety could be derailed. The CIA funnelled tons of money into the feminist movement through front non-profit organisations like Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and USAID throughout the 1960s and the 1970s.
Michele Wallace, a black feminist emerged from relative obscurity as a devout disciple of the antagonistic and virulent branch of CIA-sponsored feminism. In 1978, her book The Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman was actively promoted by Gloria Steinem. Wallace wrote about “chauvinist macho pigs” and launched an unwarranted attack on heroic abolitionists-feminists like Harriet Tubman whom she called “stupid” for working with male abolitionists in promoting women’s rights. The CIA had succeeded capturing the likes of Wallace and producing a core of angry black feminists whose primary objective, often unwittingly so, was to subvert the very cause of feminism they claim to be advocating. Steinem with the promotion of Wallace’s book managed to trigger an avalanche of “Hate Black Men” books. The primary goal of socioeconomic equality which feminism sought to achieve got buried under the heavy fog of anti-men narrative that successfully hijacked black feminism.
These new angry and radical black feminists separate the struggle of black women from the struggle of black people. They hold a flawed and misguided belief that in the same manner that the white oppressor cannot be accommodated in the black consciousness movement, equally progressive men whom they view as the oppressor cannot be meaningful advocates of women’s rights. They identify their struggles as women to be separate from the struggles of black people as a racial group. They fail to distinguish between prejudice against women – patriarchy – and the cause for the realisation of their own aspirations – feminism. In their determination to vulgarise feminism, they continue in their failure to distinguish between struggle for decolonisation of the mind and attainment of the envisaged self – black consciousness – and this cause for the realisation of their own aspirations – feminism.
Steve Biko (1946 – 1977) explained the black consciousness philosophy in the book I Write What I Like as promoting, “strong solitary amongst blacks whom white racists seek to prey.” He defined blacks as, “those discriminated against politically, economically, socially as a group and identifying themselves as unit in the struggle towards the realisation of their aspirations.” Black consciousness is about, “the attainment of the envisaged self.” It makes perfect sense that whites who accumulated white privilege through discriminative laws and historic violence cannot be honest and reasonable advocates of black consciousness. They do not understand blackness and being black. They view blackness as a problem and a threat to their white privilege. They seek to co-opt amiable and gullible black person into white culture and values while acting as, “self appointed trustees of black interest.” Biko refers to this integration as, “integration in which black man will have to prove himself in terms of white values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation.” It is for that reason that black consciousness rejects integration with white liberals”.
In his book Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism, Kwame Ture (1941 – 1998), wrote that:
“Civil rights protest has not materially benefited Negroes, it has not materially benefitted the masses of Negroes; it has helped those who are already just a little ahead. The main result of that protest has been an opening up of the society to Negroes who had one of the criteria for upward mobility… In a sense, the Negroes helped by the protest have been those who never wanted to be Negroes.”
Biko wrote about ‘non-whites’ in reference to a section of black people who do not identify with blackness and the struggles of black people; those who have integrated with white liberals and assimilated to white culture and values. These are Negroes that Ture bemoan as beneficiaries of black civil right protest, which was infiltrated and subverted by the CIA.
The virulent strain of feminism which masquerade as radical black feminism, which seeks to betray black solidarity and exclude black men from the struggles of black women, has already had that negative consequence on the civil rights movement, which Kwame Ture notes as having not benefited the Negro but the “non-white”.
A black man and a black woman are born into each other’s immediate circumstances and presence; they are born into mutual blackness and thus born integrated. Their struggles, born of the historic burden of blackness are common struggles for pride in blackness, common struggles against dehumanisation and oppression. The struggles of a black woman are more intertwined with those of a black man than they ever would be with those of a white woman, who is less agitated by white patriarchy due to the congenital comforts of white privilege.
The respected black feminist Gloria Jean Watkins, known as “Bell Hooks”, and author of Feminism is for Everybody wrote:
“Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.”
It is black feminists like Gloria Watkins who understands the meaning and goals of feminism. It is these feminists who understand and espouse the significance and power of black solidarity in the struggle for the realisation of our common and unique aspirations. On the opposite side of black solidarity and black consciousness are angry and virulent black feminists like Michelle Wallace whose purpose is to betray the struggles of the black woman while undermining our collective struggles as a people.
In the same manner that as black people we exclude white liberals from black consciousness; it is upon radical black feminists to craft for themselves a female-gender consciousness philosophy that asserts black woman pride and and seeks to liberate the mind of the black woman; for the black woman to liberate herself from the social, political, economic, religious and cultural shackles of patriarchy. It is within such philosophy that men can be excluded. It is such a mentally liberated woman who would harbour no intolerance of the black male feminist.
It is the conscious black feminist who, for example, may be a devout Catholic will seek dismantle entrenched patriarchy in the church; a conscious black feminist who subscribes to Pan-Africanism who with equal zeal will seek to dismantle entrenched patriarchy within the African culture that she defines herself by. It is the conscious black feminist who will espouse without reservation the gender-neutrality of feminism and the magnitude of black solidarity.
We must reject the antagonistic and virulent strain of feminism that permeate itself among the black struggle; among the black woman struggle. The freedom of the black race cannot be separated from the freedom of black women.
Let black women rise!