Black feminism

Frances M. Beal on Black Women’s Struggle

Frances M. Beal
Frances M. Beal

Frances M. Beal is one a Black feminist whose writing inspires me. I recently read her 1975 Black Scholar essay “Slave of a Slave No More.” The piece delved into how struggles for justice, including Black women’s, take the path of accommodation and resistance. While society at large expects Black women to accommodate patriarchy and racism, many among have chosen to resist.

The essay seemed appropriate in light of reactions on Black Twitter to a piece on Very Smart Brothas that pointed out how Black men act as conduits of white supremacy in the lives of Black women. Anyone who picks up a text in the field knows that among Black feminists, this is not a controversial claim. Beal writes:

The black intellectual and the black nationalist who are striving to make it in this country have a class interest, not a racial interest in attempting to promote ideas of dependence and submission amongst black women. We must understand that these ideas serve the interest of the capitalist class in this country. They tend to divide the working masses and allow exploitation and oppression to continue. The super exploitation of women on the job harms the entire working class. Therefore, blacks who promote these ideas of male supremacy, are agents of capitalism and imperialism and are the enemy, not only of Afro-American women, but the laboring people in this country because they spread ruling class propaganda amongst the masses and confuse them. 1

I think Beal’s argument serves as a strong pushback to the notion that Black women acknowledging sexism in the Black community is divisive. Yet, the inability to acknowledge or eliminate the abuses faced by Black women within their communities means division prevails.

I think several reasons exist in regard to misperceptions about Black women’s oppression within the Black community:

  1. Heteronormativity – Society still holds fast to beliefs in human relationships as familial units headed by men. This privileges Black men who fit these ideals and the women who reinforce them, all the while erasing the diversity of gender and sexual expressions in between.
  2. Intersectionality – There remains a lack of intersectional analysis in mainstream Black thought in regard to gender oppression. Presumably the issues that face Black men take primacy, particularly if they identify as straight and cisgender. People who fail to grapple with intersectionality tend to have a “race first” attitude.
  3. Misogynoir – Colonial narratives about Black womanhood ensure the normalization of violence and hypersexualization towards Black women’s bodies.

Beal writes about how society presumes Black women are second to Black men. The tendency to reinforce ideals of Black love through the lens of African kings and queens, for instance, leads to a problematic set of relations that still reinforce oppression:

The days of kings and queens presupposes commoners-presupposes a privileged class and an exploited one. We must never forget that it was through the accommodationist policy carried out by certain ruling class African elements which collaborated with the slave trade and played a part in sending us to these wretched shores.2

In truth the Black woman, the ever exploited laborer and lover, has a history of resistance that runs contrary to the insistence on submission and accommodation popular even in hip hop music as the “Ride or Die” trope. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper advocated for the abolition of slavery before the Civil War. Ida B. Wells led an investigative campaign against lynching in the early days of the KKK. Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless other Black women served on the front lives of the Civil Rights Movement.

So why does the notion that harmonious intracommunity relations require Black women to accommodate Black men? One reason Beal volunteers as I think it implicates the strategy I most often choose, which is nonengagement:

By my standards, women who talk about the impossibility of change in chauvinistic men or who promote separatist theories of one kind or another, fall into the accommodationist category. While they recognize that the society is oppressive, they are really not willing to work to change that situation, they prefer to remove themselves and set up little enclaves amongst themselves and in a sense leave things as they are.3

Beal had a similar stance on Black separatism, which puts Black women in a difficult place. If we can neither make a Black enclave or a female enclave as our safe spaces to heal ourselves, then what should we do? Beal suggests looking toward socialism, but something tells me if the idea that men can be oppressors regardless of race is unpopular, I’m not sure anyone in that camp is taking up Marxism.

  1. Beal 1975: 6 ↩︎
  2. Beal 1975:5 ↩︎
  3. Beal 1975: 8 ↩︎