Open Letter to Black Nationalists: On Women,
Black Feminism, and Gender Identity
by Webster Bernell Brooks, III, Alt-Black.com
"Black liberation movements in this country have created room, space,
and leadership mostly for Black heterosexual, cisgender men—leaving
women, queer and transgender people, and others either out of the
movement or in the background to move the work forward with little or
July 29, 2018
To the Black Nationalist Community and Friends,
The passage above on Black Lives Matter's website bespeaks an uncomfortable truth about the Black Liberation Movement of the sixties. Black women brandished shotguns and pistols, organized marches, published radical newspapers, debated Marxist and Black liberation theory, ran underground operations smuggling revolutionaries abroad, and served lengthy prisons sentences. Yet, Black Nationalists and Civil Rights male leaders demeaned Black women and pigeonholed them into gendered roles.
In the name of upholding 'Black masculinity,' women of the Darker Nation were sexually exploited and even physically abused. Black women resisted the power of patriarchy and hierarchy, seeking leadership roles and full investment in the Black Power project. They lost the majority of those battles, but not the war.
In the post-Black Power era, the gender gap that was exacerbated during the 60's sexual revolution and Women's Liberation Movement, still haunts Black Nationalism. Collectively, the brotherdom's failure to address what was called the "Woman Question," remains a contested issue fifty years later. Arguably, some Black Nationalists want to move on, simply acknowledging that times have changed and sisters have come a long way. Perish the thought. This attitude acknowledges the defeat without having to explain the reasons why it happened. That's not good enough.
Furthermore, over the past four decades attitudes have been shifting within the Darker Nation. The People of a Darker Hue are more accepting of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, same sex marriage and the adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples. This shift in attitudes is more pronounced among Black millennials concerning the traditional gender gap and gender identification issues. Thus, the dimension of a generational gap has been added to the equation.
On behalf of Alt-Black.com, this 'Open Letter' is an appeal to Black Nationalists to close the gender gap (cisnormative). It also calls for our trend to clarify its positions regarding an expanding field of gender identification issues. Our movement cannot be made whole absent a sincere effort to achieve reconciliation on gender issues.
This 'Open Letter' envisages three areas of engagement Black Nationalists may want to consider to address the gender challenge
1) To revisit the ideological and programmatic positions of Black Nationalist forces (former Black Panthers, Revolutionary Nationalists, Cultural Nationalists, Pan-Africanists, Black Marxists and Socialists) on women and Black Feminism from the sixties to the present.
2) To bridge elements of the generation gap on gender issues between Black Nationalists enrooted in the sixties Black Power experience, and millennial-based Black resistance movements like BLM.
3) To encourage Black Nationalists to address or clarify their positions regarding an expanding range of gender identities and theories.
4) To recognize how the cultural sensibilities of empowered Black women, Black feminism and LGBTQ communities are finding expression in emerging Black Alternative cultural movements like AfroPunk and Afrofuturism. 'The Heresy' at Alt-Black.com is optimistic that Black Nationalists men are "all in" for welcoming and promoting women in leadership positions. This includes supporting women in existing leadership roles and full spectrum participation in the Black Liberation project. In particular, we refer to Black Nationalists relations with Black Feminists and radicalized Black lesbians like the now defunct Combahee River Collective, who advocated for and supported the Black nationalist cause.
Generally speaking, "The Woman Question" should be a settled matter. Nevertheless, continuous ideological struggle is required. We still live in a culturally bound male-dominated society that influences our thinking.
Black Nationalists will certainly adopt different positions on Gays, Lesbians and Transgender people. However, Black Nationalists should agree on one first principle. We should oppose physical and 'hate crime' attacks on LGTBQ people--state sanctioned or otherwise. Unless we are in the business of purging "unwanted elements" from the race, these communities are part of the Darker Nation.
Opposing attacks on the LGTBQ community is a different matter than adopting positions supporting, opposing or remaining neutral concerning LGTBQ lifestyle choices. Within the Black Nationalist universe, there are faith-based and secular forces with moral and religious beliefs that must be weighed in the balance. That's fine. What should be avoided is being indifferent to these communities or pretending they don't exist.
An alternative approach to this issue would be to apply "Wakanda Vision." Imagine that Black Nationalists have won the war of liberation and we now leading an independent Black Nation. Would our government's policy allow sex-change operations? Would we give a government subsidy to pay for them? Would the LGTBQ community have a "Bill of Rights" or special laws guaranteeing certain protections? Working the issue from the future back to today may provide an alternative angle and viewpoint.
Since the tumultuous and heady days of the sixties, a "soft sexual revolution" has slowly been unfolding. The Darker Nation is very different now than it was in the sixties, especially as it concerns sexuality, gender and culture. Terms such as gender fluidity, queer affirming, transgender and cisnormative are not terms of art found on most Black Nationalist websites these days. Indeed, Alt-Black.com had to update it's own Alternative Black Nationalist Glossary of terms (Harriet's Code) to complete this article.
But these terms and many more are routinely used by Black Lives Matter, Black Millennial and Feminists websites today. Suffice it to say, the proverbial 'gender identity' genie is out of the bottle. As we shall attempt to demonstrate in the following narrative of the post-Black Power era, this is not a genie that can be stuffed back in the bottle.
Despite the shortcomings of the Black Nationalist trend, in the aftermath of the sixties, the sisterdom of the Darker Nation relentlessly pressed forward. They defined, articulated and organized around a broad-based agenda. Through their own efforts, they flourished as thought architects, social influencers and maximum organizational leaders. Thus, it's not surprising that three Black women founded Black Lives Matters in 2013, in response to an epidemic of police murders of Black people.
What was surprising was Black Lives Matter's meteoric ascent, moving from internet hashtag to national political notoriety in one year. Having arrived on the scene, it was clear BLM represented a radical rupture from previous national Black organizations in substance, style, and its critique of the Black Liberation Movement.
BLM broke with the 'sixties' single charismatic leadership model that witnessed the demise of national organizations following the death of leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. BLM's founders operated as a triumvirate of equals. They function as coordinators and resource providers to support their 40 local and international chapters.
BLM's decentralized model seeks to develop local leadership and activities, with grassroots participants having ownership of their political issues. As Alt- Black.com indicated in its recent article "The Tragic Death of the Black Liberation Collective" we believe BLM's decentralized model should be the subject of continued discussion. Decentralized models can certainly be used to build movements, but may be inadequate to vanguard organizations requiring command structure to execute its goals.
While BLM's 'unconstructed' model has proven to be effective, their focus on developing women in leadership positions, and unapologetic promotion of gays, lesbians, queers, and transgender people in leadership roles represents a sea change moment.
Some Thoughts on Black Women and Black Feminism
BLM dramatically expanded political space for women in L' Resistance Noir (Black resistance). Along with other women's groups and Black millennial organizations, thousands of Black women assumed frontline positions as spokespersons, protesters, grass-roots coordinators, student leaders and media communicators. From Ferguson, Missouri to Freddie Gray's murder by Baltimore's police and the subsequent rebellion, Black women evolved as the backbone of the anti-police brutality militant fightback.
For Black Nationalists rooted in the 60's and 70's, understanding the factors that led to BLM and other women's groups rise is critical to strengthening our trend. Recognizing that the woman-led and feminist political surge is the product of four decades of consistent battle against its detractors cannot be underestimated. When the revolutionary struggles of the 60's and early 70's ebbed, Black Feminists, women's groups, and the lesbian activists kept moving forward.
Black Feminism's roots germinated in opposition the Civil Rights Movement's exclusion of women from leadership positions, epitomized by SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael's comment that "The only position for women in the SNCC is prone."
Black feminists also simultaneously battled rampant sexism in the Black Power movement. Writer Shanice McBean's article outlined how the Black Panther Party (BPP) saw armed self-defense as an "affirmation of black masculinity" under attack by the white power structure, rather than affirming black dignity across gender boundaries. Gender politics and anti-sexism, McBean asserts, "was not a central tenant of the BPP."
Eldridge Cleaver, BPP Minister of Information regularly referred to female cadre as wielding ‘pussy power'. Elaine Brown, who became BPP Chairman in 1974--the only Black woman to run a national revolutionary organization--claimed Bobby Seale, BPP co-founder advocated that women should “give it up” to revolutionary men and learn to “shoot as well as cook”. When Elaine was beaten up by an underground BPP leader...leading members like Raymond Hewitt and Huey Newton, argued that it was a personal matter, not party business.
Engaged in a two-front war against the Civil Rights Establishment (The Tabernacle) and Black Nationalists over sexism and masculinism issues, Black Feminists opened a third front against the white-dominated feminists movement. In the late sixties Black feminists were crafting polemics against their white counterparts informing them that demands for women to work outside the home had no purchase. They had been there and done that many years ago.
Black Fems clashed with white fems over abortion. They were unable to convince white fems that issues like forced forced sterilization were an ever present danger to Women of the Darker Hue. At the core of the dispute, white fems could not grasp was how race and class impacted Black women in a qualitatively different way. That 'minor detail' rendered the matter of gender equality superfluous. The revolt in the 60's and 70's against white "Second Wave Feminism" found Black Fems upping the ante, generating a corpus of theoretical works by luminaries like Flo Kennedy, Celestine Ware and Patricia Robinson.
In 1983, the publication of poet-essayist Alice Walker's 'In Search of Our Mother's Garden' advanced a new theory called 'Womanism.' It shook up the women's and feminist movement. Walker acknowledged the agency of Feminism, by standing it on its head. Walker asserted that a woman's culture is the prism by which she embraces femininity. Thus, the Black women's historical experience, grounded in race and class-based oppression inclusive of Black culture, myth, spirituality and oral traditions serves as the vessel by which they envisage their wholeness.
Walker's 'Womanism' theory committed Black women (and other women of color) to the survival and wholeness of the Darker Nation, male and female, thereby breaking with white fems separatist notions. Womanism also opened a welcoming door to Black lesbianism, while stopping short of promoting it. Eschewing a frontal assault, 'Womanism' rerouted Black fems around white feminism, encouraging them instead to re-connect with their enrooted ancestral legacy steeped in colorful displays of courage, adventurism and a willingness to provoke outrage. Gathering the divergent threads of Black women's and feminists manifestos from the 60's to the 80's, Walker's "Womanism" project pointed Black women back to rediscovering their unique cultural legacy enrooted in Black southern culture.
The intellectual ferment that percolated in the ranks of radicalized Black women activists, Black feminists, and Black Lesbians since the sixties, seemed to lead inexorably to Intersectionality theory. Black feminists disputed white fem claims that Black women only suffered from gender domination. By linking racial oppression to male gender domination, they unmasked a potent condominium of oppression whose connectivity systematically reinforces the diminishment of Black women's life chances.
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the theory of "Intersectionality" at a University of Chicago legal forum, in a paper called "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics."
Well before Intersectionality was introduced in 1989, socialist and Marxist leaning Black feminists had developed a comprehensive critique of women's gender and class exploitation. Black lesbian activists had given voice to the violence, discrimination and political marginalization visited on gays and lesbians. Intersectionality theory was poised to expand the foundation of race and gender-based oppression to include class and sexual orientation.
Building on Kimberle Crenshaw's Intersectional theory, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins categorized the construct into three subsection of study. Collins' first branch examined the ideas, issues, conflicts, and debates within intersectionality. Her second branch of Intersectionality theory explored how to apply intersectionality analytically to social institutions and how they perpetuated social inequality. The final branch sought to formulate intersectionality as a praxis to glean how social justice initiatives can use intersectionality to bring about social change
It is the third branch of deploying intersectional feminism as a tool to develop cross-movement building or coalition building to combat multiple forms of injustice that is foundational to many Black millennial groups. Understanding where, how, and why progressive movements overlap, is fundamental to grasping the rise of Black Lives Matter.
One Black Lives Matter activist described their movement this way: "It’s an intersectional movement created by a shared vision of a world that ceases rampant, institutional violence against black bodies. The movement is rooted in lifting up the voices of all stripes of black people—including queer, trans, disabled, undocumented, and others marginalized within the broader ideal of black liberation. It is, at its very core, an inclusive movement."
In looking at the Black Lives Matter phenomenon, it's not inconsequential that founding members Patrice Cullors and Alicea Garza are both self-identifying 'queers' married to transgender partners. Highly educated, they are not simply armchair philosophers who discovered how to creatively deploy social media to build a movement. They have studied the history of Black Liberation Movements and are well schooled in the history of the women's movement, Black Feminism, Black Lesbian and LGTBQ movements. They've lived "the struggle" and have receipts on Beale Street (The Black Street) as community organizers.
Black Lives Matter and new Black millennial groups have arrived. They vibrate to a different rhythm, thrive under new organizational models, communicate in a new vocabulary and have assembled a new coalition of the marginalized. In many respects, they are the logical political extension and organic manifestation of the Black women's and feminist theoreticians that sprang to life in the post-Black Power era.
Finally, Harold Cruse, "Lord Protector of Black Nationalism" and author of the "Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" once asked of sixties activists 'Where is the substantial body of intellectual works and tradition?" For the past forty years Black Women and Feminists/Lesbians have established that intellectual tradition. Their theories are now guiding active measures on the ground, and are followed by movements outside the Black political eco-system.
Black Nationalists must strive to replicate the stellar intellectual and theoretical tradition Black women forged in the Post-Black Power era. Alt-Black.com implores Black Nationalists to give serious consideration to deepening its level of engagement with Black women's groups, Black feminists and the LGTBQ communities.
Despite the efforts of hundreds of radical and revolutionary Black men who did treat Black women with respect and welcomed their contributions and leadership at all levels, we missed the mark in the sixties. Much more will be at stake when the next revolutionary tide comes in. We cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.