Engaging with Black Feminist Thought

One of the reasons for the persistent misreading of contemporary digital feminist activism, such as this unfortunate piece on the supposedly “toxic” atmosphere on Twitter for some feminists, is a lack of reading, understanding and deep intellectual engagement with black feminist thought by the vast majority of white women and most white feminists. By ‘deep intellectual engagement,’ I mean going beyond pulling a selective Audre Lorde quote out every once in awhile, like ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence…it is an act of political warfare ‘ to justify a spa day. (Afrofeminist Nigerian journalist SpectraSpeaks has a wonderful piece of writing here about the distinction between self-care as revolutionary or individualistic.)

And, to perhaps state the obvious, the (mostly) white-male-tech elite which is ascendant in building and theorizing the web has very little interest in engaging with feminist perspectives on technology, and black feminist perspectives are nonexistent in this realm. So, as something of a corrective, I offer these resources.

Back in November, 2013 PoliticoMagazine featured a cover story by Michelle Cottle, titled “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.”  In response to this piece, Melissa Harris-Perry, the public intellectual tour de force,  responded with a smackdown to Cottle in her regular ‘open letter’ segment and offered a ‘syllabus’ of suggested reading in black feminist thought for Cottle and the other white feminists she represents. Yesha Callahan at Clutch Magazine was good enough to pull all those books out, list the author, full title and links for easy, scrolling and clicking access to Professor Harris-Perry’s syllabus:

And, if you’d like a video supplement to your learning experience, I remind you of this wonderfully engaging dialogue between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks, which took place at The New School, November 8, 2013 (1:36):

What do you think? How has black feminist thought shaped your work, your activism, your scholarship? Are you new to these ideas? Intimidated about jumping in?

On Kwanzaa

Today, I celebrated Kwanzaa with the folks at my church. There are conflicting takes on Kwanzaa in the blogosphere from black neo-cons who take issue with it and white lefties who are anxious to make fun of white right-wingers making fun of Kwanzaa.  One of the common critiques (from the left and the right) about Kwanzaa is that it’s a “made up holiday.”  Hey, guess what?  All holidays are made up… including Christmas.

More positive takes on the holiday include The Grio’s post that enlightens us about the five things you didn’t know about Kwanzaa (but should) (#3. Hip Hop played an instrumental role in Kwanzaa’s growth in the eighties and early nineties).  There’s also Prof. (Dumi) Lewis’ excellent piece “Quit Frontin on Kwanzaa” in which he schools us all on the seven principles of Kwanzaa and reminds us of the importance of  looking around “your family, your neighborhood, your nation, and tell me if we can afford to continue to not be self-reflective and work towards a better community?”

In a piece from The Root from last year about this time, Erin Evans wonders about the commercialization and lack of real observance makes me wonder where the celebration will be in a generation or two.  Evans ends with this reflection:

In 2003, NPR’s Farai Chideya canvassed Ladera Heights, a largely black area of Los Angeles, to find out if young folks were celebrating Kwanzaa.

“Ain’t that a Jewish holiday?” asked Jaleel Miller, one of the young people she interviewed.

I shook my head when I heard it, but I could also relate. The future of Kwanzaa is in shaky hands—mine included.

I have my own issues with Kwanzaa, and they mainly have to do with the legacy of the founder Maulana Karenga (nee Ron Everett), once a member of the US organization – a political rival to the Black Panthers.   While a leader of US (as in “us” not “them”), two leaders of the rival Black Panthers were gunned down in a parking lot at UCLA.  Karenga was not charged with these crimes but was rumored to have been involved.  What Karenga was charged, and convicted of, was a brutal attack on two women – Deborah Jones and Gail Davis.    In 1971, Karenga and two other men were convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment for torturing Jones and Davis who were involved in the US Organization.  An article in the Los Angeles Times described the testimony of one of the women: “Deborah Jones, who once was given the title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis’ mouth and placed against Miss Davis’ face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga, head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said.”

Contemplating all this today sent me to the academic literature to see if I could find anything that would give me some answers.  I came across a very good peer-reviewed article by scholar Elizabeth Peck, called “Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966-1990” (Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 20, No. 4, Summer, 2001, pp. 3-28).    Pleck explores the discourse around Kwanzaa between its founding in 1966 and an artificial end point, 1990. Like all rituals, Pleck argues, Kwanzaa is a ritual that both reflects and is shaped by the discourses that surround it.

A key element in Pleck’s argument about Kwanzaa is that it is a ritual filled with ironies.   Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning:

“As a flexible ritual that changed, grew, and flourished over the years, the  history of Kwanzaa is replete with ironies. Born in part out of a critique of capitalism in the United States, the holiday owed much of its growing acceptance to refurbishing through consumerism. Originating among a black nationalist scornful of black “matriarchy,” Kwanzaa found its most eager enthusiasts among black women, who usually organized the feast in the home. Seen as an accessible ritual bound to appeal to the black masses, Kwanzaa was taken up mainly by the black middle class.  A ceremony intended to replicate a simple harvest festival, most Kwanzaa celebrations occurred among residents of large cities or suburbs. Created by an intellectual hostile to Christianity, Kwanzaa proved dynamic enough to be redefined as religious, secular, or both, and as fully compatible with Christianity. Stemming from a rejection of racial integration, the holiday-time Kwanzaa celebration at many public schools functioned as a sign of toleration for cultural difference. Seen as a ritual to develop a diasporic African identity, Kwanzaa became more appealing as it came to include many more elements of African American history and culture” (p.3).

Pleck traces the ebbs and flows of Kwanzaa’s popularity by examining the mentions of it in the black press.   Not surprisingly, much of the ritual’s popularity has followed the personal ups and downs of Karenga’s life.  While he was in prison for the crimes against Jones and Davis, Kwanzaa suffered what Pleck refers to as period of “duldrums.”   Pleck argues that the holiday “thus carried the weight of this specific incident,” as well as of Karenga’s fairly well-known attitudes toward black women in general.

Karenga in the 1960s believed that the proper role of black women was to be submissive to black men; he opposed equality between the sexes. In speeches between 1965 and 1967 he argued that “equality is false; it is the devil’s concept.” He said that the black husband had “any right that does not destroy the collective needs of the family” (p.11).

After his release from prison, there was a small but growing interest in the ritual. And, as Karenga transformed himself from radical political activist to professor and eventually chair of the African American Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach, the holiday’s popularity continued to rise.  Pleck also ties the rise in the ritual’s popularity with a growing black middle class and an increasing self-definition among middle class blacks as African American, and with an increasing desire to identify with African cultural roots.
Pleck notes that the black mainstream press discovered Kwanzaa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first article on Kwanzaa in the black mainstream press appeared in Essence in 1979, and seems to have been an act of self-promotion by a Bay Area nationalist, who had written a Kwanzaa manual.  But it was in the early 1980s that the ritual began to really emerge in the black mainstream media:

“The more significant date is 1983, when Ebony and Jet first published articles about Kwanzaa.  Black sororities began to invite speakers to show their members how to celebrate Kwanzaa. Cedric McClester’s handbook on the holiday, written in a more accessible style than Karenga’s … pamphlets, appeared in 1985. He developed a lengthier script for the Karamu. He also created the folk figure of Nia Umoja, a Kwanzaa “Santa” and teller of African tales, who brought gifts to children. Large national museums, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (beginning in 1985) and the Smithsonian (beginning in 1988), staged Kwanzaa celebrations” (p.13).

These large institutions, most located near large, urban, black populations, Pleck argues, wanted to add programming that showed an interest in and demonstrated good will toward African Americans.

“Celebrations of Kwanzaa at many college campuses date from this period. Increased publicity about Kwanzaa on television, radio, and main stream newspapers encouraged the celebration, although many first learned about it from a friend. Some of those who celebrated Kwanzaa in public school or at a community center later came to practice it at home” (p.13).

Through the 1980s and 1990s while many black women, both in institutions such as college sororities and in private family homes, increasingly adopted Kwanzaa as a way of celebrating ancestral heritage and uniting family, at the same time Pleck notes that some black feminists, such as bell hooks, have remained critical:

In 1997, the feminist social critic bell hooks was interviewed in Essence and offered several reasons why she did not celebrate Kwanzaa. She began by noting her dislike for what she considered the rigid format of Kwanzaa and the Ngusa Saba. She also told the interviewer, “Another troubling thing about Kwanzaa is that you’re talking about patriarchal Black Nationalist men who decided they had to reinvent [these principles]. As if they didn’t already exist” (p.13).

And this is where I come back to with Kwanzaa. Is there a point to this ritual in a way that’s meaningful for me or is this, as hooks would have it, a celebration of patriarchal principles that already exists elsewhere in the culture?  Pleck argues that because black women took on most of the organizing work of Kwanzaa that they re-made the ritual and in so doing, “erased entirely Karenga’s initial ideas about the submissiveness of women” (p.20).    This was certainly what I saw today at my (queer), multi-racial church where black women led a transformed Kwanzaa celebration that highlighted diversity and the work of black women who did the work of organizing the civil rights movement, such as Ella Baker.   Honoring this chosen and diverse family, unity around social justice and a commitment to a faith that the world can be a better place are worth celebrating.