Despite the many debates over Beyoncé’s claim to feminism, the pop star boldly cleared up any questions when she stood on stage before the brightly lit word “FEMINIST” during her 15-minute performance at MTV’s VMA show on August 24, 2014, before receiving its highest award – the Michael Jackson Vanguard Award.
Not only was this moment remarkable for the popular rebranding of the F-word, but it also signals something else: a black woman’s reclaiming of the word without adjective – “BLACK FEMINIST” – or renaming – “WOMANIST.”
I think of this moment in pop culture because of a younger generation of women of color who have been raised to be suspicious of feminism. Granted, that suspicion is widespread – all women and men, across races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations – are hard-pressed to define what a feminist actually is because they’ve already heard the stereotypes: “manhater,” “domineering,” “bitter,” “unattractive,” and the list goes on.
Then, here comes today’s most prominent sex symbol claiming the F-word, exulting in her sexiness while her husband takes care of child duties. Talk about rebranding in one fell swoop!
That Beyoncé is a black woman at the top of her musical enterprise takes this rebranding to another level.
Women of color, who may have thought feminism was a “white woman thing,” may have to rethink this.
As I had written during the Black History Month season of 2012, when that year’s theme highlighted the achievements of African American women in history, black women were the “founders of the feminist party.” Flo Kennedy, a Civil Rights lawyer and radical feminist, founded the Feminist Party for the express purposes of launching a political platform on which Shirley Chisholm could enter into the 1972 presidential race. When Chisholm, who co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) with Kennedy, Pauli Murray, and Betty Friedan, did become a presidential candidate, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination and the first major-party black candidate for president.
Just one year before, another black woman, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, posed with Gloria Steinem for Esquire Magazine as she and Steinem kicked off a media campaign on feminism while also co-founding Ms. Magazine, the premier feminist news magazine.
Hughes was also a child welfare advocate and is responsible for founding the first day care center in this country. She’s also the aunt of Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe of Precious and American Horror Story fame. In a moving speech, Sidibe talks about finding strength from the portrait of her aunt standing next to Steinem:
Every day, I had to get up and go to school where everyone made fun of me, and I had to go home to where everyone made fun of me. Every day was hard to get going, no matter which direction I went. And on my way out of the house, I found strength. In the morning on the way out to the world, I passed by a portrait of my aunt and Gloria together. Side by side they stood, one with long beautiful hair and one with the most beautiful, round, Afro hair I had ever seen, both with their fists held high in the air. Powerful. Confident. And every day as I would leave the house… I would give that photo a fist right back. And I’d march off into battle. [She starts crying] I didn’t know that I was being inspired then.
I think of images in media and how they inspire us (or demonize us), and I think of black women’s public positioning in feminism. Prominent black feminist scholar, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, had noted this when she participated in the public documentary program Makers: “When popular media talk about feminism, they rarely ever show a black face.”
This is why it’s so easy to forget a Dorothy Pitman Hughes, even though we all know Gloria Steinem. This is why it’s easy to dismiss the historical fact that black women were foundational to – not marginal within – the modern women’s movement. But these historical erasures and the privileging of whiteness have led to a literal and figurative “whitewashing” of the feminist brand.
It would seem strange to racialize the image of the feminist when we have numerous powerful black women as examples – from Guy-Sheftall to Angela Davis to bell hooks to Audre Lorde to Barbara Smith to a new millennial generation including Brittney Cooper, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Feminista Jones (who organized the national day of silence honoring murder victim Michael Brown) and blogs like The Feminist Wire and For Harriet. Even if we were to name and hail feminist heroes of the past – think Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – how often do we think of black feminists? Perhaps Sojourner Truth and her “Ar’n’t I a Woman” speech comes to mind, and maybe even Harriet Tubman. But are they the first faces that we think of when we reclaim women’s history?
Indeed, when organizing a special symposium honoring the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s passing in March 2013, someone had asked me: “Aren’t you late with this event? Why are you doing it in March when Black History Month was last month?”
“Well,” I responded. “Tubman’s anniversary is on March 10, and March is Women’s History Month. And Harriet Tubman was, you know, a woman.”
Whether we are talking of icons in the past or the present, the black woman as feminist is hard to recognize. This is why, I imagine, when a pop star like Beyoncé Knowles-Carter answers in the affirmative, whenever she is asked about being a “feminist,” the debate rages on.
Perhaps popular media rarely show a black face when talking about feminism, but Beyoncé has most definitely changed the game: A game where black women don’t have to modify the moniker and can just be “Feminist.” No qualifiers necessary.