Women’s History Month: Black feminism, misogynoir, and attempts to erase black women’s voices

I was startled when I saw that USA Today was making an attempt to be helpful, and that their tweet included the term “Misogynoir.”

The Twitter responses I read were almost completely negative, right-wing, and dismissive, but I was pleased to see an attempt being made, no matter how facile. “Intersectionality”/intersectional feminism was included (with no direct link to Kimberlé Crenshaw). “Identity politics” was not. 

Then this week, Google got into the act.

Applause-worthy? Nope. Because just like the corrections to #MeToo had to be made—finally un-erasing Tarana Burke, who started the movementCaShawn Thompson, the black woman who started #BlackGirlMagic, was ignored and un-credited in Google’s effort. 

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Feminista Jones (Michelle Taylor) joined the convo:

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My thoughts go back to Audre Lorde, for in many ways she is the mother of this all.

Where to start?

Perhaps with her seminal speech/essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” which opens with:

I agreed to take part in a New York University Institute for the Humanities conference a year ago, with the understanding that I would be commenting upon papers dealing with the role of difference within the lives of American women: difference of race, sexuality, class, and age. The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal and the political.

It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians. And yet, I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist, having been invited to comment within the only panel at this conference where the input of Black feminists and lesbians is represented. What this says about the vision of this conference is sad, in a country where racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable. To read this program is to assume that lesbian and Black women have nothing to say about existentialism, the erotic, women’s culture and silence, developing feminist theory, or heterosexuality and power. And what does it mean in personal and political terms when even the two Black women who did present here were literally found at the last hour? What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.
 

I know that feeling well, having often been the sole black woman speaking, or presenting, or in an academic department ostensibly set up to deal with women’s studies.

She cuts to the core of the issue:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

Poor women and women of Color know there is a difference between the daily manifestations of marital slavery and prostitution because it is our daughters who line 42nd Street. If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color? What is the theory behind racist feminism?

To dive in deeper, I suggest reading the following two books:

I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde 

Book cover: I Am Your Sister
Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was not only a famous poet; she was also one of the most important radical black feminists of the past century. Her writings and speeches grappled with an impressive broad list of topics, including sexuality, race, gender, class, disease, the arts, parenting, and resistance, and they have served as a transformative and important foundation for theorists and activists in considering questions of power and social justice. Lorde embraced difference, and at each turn she emphasized the importance of using it to build shared strength among marginalized communities.

I Am Your Sister is a collection of Lorde’s non-fiction prose, written between 1976 and 1990, and it introduces new perspectives on the depth and range of Lorde’s intellectual interests and her commitments to progressive social change. Presented here, for the first time in print, is a major body of Lorde’s speeches and essays, along with the complete text of A Burst of Light and Lorde’s landmark prose works Sister Outsider and The Cancer Journals. Together, these writings reveal Lorde’s commitment to a radical course of thought and action, situating her works within the women’s, gay and lesbian, and African American Civil Rights movements. They also place her within a continuum of black feminists, from Sojourner Truth, to Anna Julia Cooper, Amy Jacques Garvey, Lorraine Hansberry, and Patricia Hill Collins. I Am Your Sister concludes with personal reflections from Alice Walker, Gloria Joseph, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and bell hooks on Lorde’s political and social commitments and the indelibility of her writings for all who are committed to a more equitable society.

For those of you who may have missed this review in The Guardian a few years back by R.O Kwan, it’s worth reading:

Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde review – prophetic and necessary

This is the first time a British publisher has brought together Audre Lorde’s essential poetry, speeches and essays in one volume, which isn’t to say it will be the first time British readers will have encountered her work.

Even those who haven’t yet engaged with her incandescent prose and poetry might have come across individual lines, quoted in other writers’ books and essays, and on social media, such as the titular exhortation: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” Other lines include: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”; “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface”; and “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained.”

These and other excerpts have been posted, tweeted and pinned in part because of their ongoing relevance. Lorde seems prophetic, perhaps alive right now, writing in and about the US of 2017 in which a misogynist with white supremacist followers is president. But she was born in 1934, published her first book of poetry in 1968, and died in 1992. Black, lesbian and feminist; the child of immigrant parents; poet and essayist, writer and activist, Lorde knew about harbouring multitudes. Political antagonists tried, for instance, to discredit her among black students by announcing her sexuality, and she decided: “The only way you can head people off from using who you are against you is to be honest and open first, to talk about yourself before they talk about you.” Over and over again, in the essays, speeches and poems collected in Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Lorde emphasises how important it is to speak up. To give witness: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”

This is an audio interview with Lorde.

Those of you who can should take a look at Third World Newsreel’s documentary about her life and work.

A Litany For Survival: the Life and Work of Audre Lorde

An epic portrait of the eloquent, award-winning Black, lesbian, poet, mother, teacher and activist, Audre Lorde, whose writings — spanning five decades — articulated some of the most important social and political visions of the century. From Lorde’s childhood roots in NYC’s Harlem to her battle with breast cancer, this moving film explores a life and a body of work that embodied the connections between the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, and the struggle for lesbian and gay rights. At the heart of this documentary is Lorde’s own challenge to “envision what has not been and work with every fiber of who we are to make the reality and pursuit of that vision irresistible.”

Reviews

“Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, available in both 60- and 90-minute versions, has already proven a productive text in courses on feminist theory, queer studies, and black women’s writing. The film uncovers the trajectory of Audre Lorde’s literary, theoretical, and activist work, telling of her childhood; her years as a student at Hunter College; her involvement in the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay and lesbian rights movements; her work as a teacher; and her battle with breast cancer. Strategically juxtaposing Lorde’s own words and interviews with her partner, family members, friends, her students, and other poets such as Sonia Sanchez, Jewelle Gomez, and Essex Hemphill, the film imagines relationships, collaboration, and intimacy as the fuel for political and artistic labor.”- Erica R. Edwards, Films for the Feminist Classroom Journal

I’m going to fast forward—skipping past the Combahee River collective, Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Feminist Thought, and Kimberle Crenshaw speaking about intersectionality, to get to a term that is fairly new but grounded in all the theory that went before it: Misogynoir. ( I’ll return to what I skipped next Sunday)

The term is cropping up more frequently these days because we have a black woman running for president, and quite a few newly elected black woman members of Congress.

Here’s an example:

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Imani goes on to say, “I didn’t invent the term misogynoir. Moya Bailey did. Folks should definitely read up on it so you’ll recognize it when you see it, ” and links to this article by Eliza Anyangwe who wrote “Misogynoir: where racism and sexism meet”:

The term was coined in 2010 by gay black feminist American academic Moya Bailey, who defined it “to describe the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual and popular culture”.

Since then black women – and some men – predominantly on social media, have taken ownership of the term, using it to describe prejudice experienced in a range of contexts.

“Misogynoir provides a racialised nuance that mainstream feminism wasn’t catching,” says black feminist commentator, Feminista Jones. “We are talking about misogyny, yes, but there is a specific misogyny that is aimed at black women and is uniquely detrimental to black women.”

On Moya Bailey, Misogynoir, and why both are important:

One of the Black women that should be on your radar is Moya Bailey. Known for creating the term Misogynoir, Bailey defines it as the intersection of racism, anti-Blackness, and misogyny that Black women experience. The term is specific to Black womanhood, as Misogynoir cannot be experienced by women of any other race, but can be perpetuated by people of any gender or race. Similarly, racialized misogyny towards Black trans women is called ‘transmisogynoir.’

Bailey first used the term in an essay titled, ‘They Aren’t Talking About Me’ for the Crunk Feminist Collective. She defines it as a “word I made up to describe the particular brand of hatred directed at Black women in American visual and popular culture.” Examples of Misogynoir include the rejection of Black women’s natural hair and ‘twerking’. In coining and writing about Misogynoir, Bailey speaks of an oppressive experience only she and other Black women share. “I was looking for precise language to describe why Renisha McBride would be shot in the face, or why The Onion would think it’s okay to talk about Quvenzhané the way they did, or the hypervisibilty of Black women on reality TV, the arrest of Shanesha Taylor, the incarceration of CeCe, Laverne and Lupita being left off the TIME list, the continued legal actions against Marissa Alexander, the twitter dragging of black women with hateful hashtags and supposedly funny Instagram images as well as how Black women are talked about in music,” Bailey wrote in a blog post titled ‘More on the Origins of Misogynoir.’ “All these things bring to mind Misogynoir and not general misogyny directed at women of color more broadly.”

Black feminist writers online have widely accepted ‘Misogynoir’ into their repertoire, including Trudy of Gradient Lair (in a piece about Misogynoir and Black men), Aisha Mirza of BlackFeminists.org, and Brittney Cooper of Crunk Feminist Collective (both about Misogynoir in general). Critics of the word claim that it is not etymologically correct, as ‘misogyny’ is a Greek word and ‘noir’ is French. Bailey responded on her Tumblr blog by writing, “I don’t care. I’m far more concerned that I felt like I needed a word to describe the particular f***ery Black women face in popular culture.” She goes on to say that noir also has a media connotation necessary to the meaning of the word.

Trudy writes:

“Misogynoir” is not expandable and consumable under the term “women of colour.” “Black women” and “women of colour” overlap as identifiers only because Black women can be considered women of colour (in addition to other non-Black women of colour) and because Loretta Ross, a Black woman no less, and her work, is why the phrase “women of colour” exists. “Black woman” and “woman of colour” are not synonyms to be used interchangeably. “Women of colour” is a political identity of theoretical solidarity of non-White women because of the impact of White supremacy, racism and White privilege on non-White women. However, it is not also a racial classification in the way that “Black woman” is. Black women’s experiences do not then become non-Black women of colour’s experiences to co-opt and commodify as “women of colour” just like they don’t then become White women’s experiences to co-opt and commodify as “women.” The very notion that this co-opt is acceptable is a violent notion and anti-Blackness. Co-opt through context-stripped generalization is erasure and is not intersectionality. Erasure is violence. Misogynoir is not about non-Black women of colour or White women; period. Misogyny impacts women. Racialized misogyny impacts women of colour. Misogynoir impacts Black women because of misogyny and dehumanization through anti-Blackness.

This is very important to understand. I have seen the term being applied—incorrectly—to women of color. Noir = black. Period.

I’ve also seen the term attributed to women who did not birth it.

Why is recognizing and calling out misogynoir important for us as Democrats

Here’s why:

We have an exciting group of new black congresswomen. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), they have attracted very little attention here on Daily Kos with the exception of Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is caught up in the never-ending and vituperative Israel/Palestine battles from both the right and the left. 

Erasure of black women is another form of misogynoir. 

We have watched the misogynoir hurled at Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who has been constantly vilified by the Orange Bigot, and who will face heightened hate now that she is the new chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

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It’s vile:

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On a side note, here’s coverage from Canada of Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a member of the Canadian House of Commons who is pushing back against misogynoir.

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Kamala Harris’ entry into the Democratic Party race for the presidential nomination unleashed a sh*tstorm of vituperation. Most of it came from the right, but certain elements of black male Afro-Centrism, aka “Hoteps” who are misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-choice, went after her as well. 

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Of course, misogynoir should be looked at across the board. We have observed it for decades in the treatment of the Williams sisters in tennis, most recently focused on Serena

More importantly, it has deadly systemic results, specifically related to black women’s maternal mortality rates.

Is Misogynoir Killing Black Women?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women are nearly four times more likely to die while giving birth than white women. In a report, they also stated that high blood pressure and heart disease are some of the most common causes of maternal death. In a New York Times article published in April of this year, journalists followed a black woman’s pregnancy journey and noted that multiple times, she reported to her medical team that she felt ill and was experiencing symptoms that indicated she may be suffering from pre-eclampsia — a very seriously life-threatening medical condition for expectant mothers. In the article she recalls how her doctor told her to “calm down” before warning her that he was going out of town soon and could deliver the baby by C-section six weeks early if she wished. She said it seemed as if he were attempting to rush her medical decision due to his own scheduling and added that he appeared visibly inconvenienced due to her suffering from this condition. Some time later, she looked into her medical records and realized her doctor did not even bother to document her condition — it was as if he were indifferent to her troubles, despite being her doctor.

This may seem like a very specific, very isolated “bad” doctor — but this level of apathy is one that has been recounted by expectant black mothers time and time again, all across the nation. This issue has been pushed under the rug for so many years by the US government that in 2014, Monica Simpson (director of SisterSong — an organization solely dedicated to maintaining reproductive rights for women of color) testified in Geneva before the United Nations. In her testimony, she claimed that the United States’s failure to acknowledge the crisis in black maternal and infant mortality was a direct violation of international human rights treaties on racial discrimination. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination then ruled that the US must take steps to eliminate racial disparities in the field of sexual health and to address the causes of those disparities. Despite Monica Simpson’s incredible dedication and effort, the US still has yet to even begin to identify and eliminate the crisis of black maternal death and near-death.

In a study published by researcher Danelle Stevens-Watkins and associates at the University of Kentucky, a direct association was established between deteriorated health of black women and stressful life events stemming from racism and sexism. As a concept, misogynoir affects nearly all black women, living all over the world and it even transcends social and economic classes. Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter, the second highest ranking female Grammy awardee in history, was recently named the world’s most powerful woman in the music industry by BBC News. Serena Williams, tennis superstar, is hailed by many as the greatest female athlete of any sport that has ever walked on this earth. Oprah Winfrey, news anchor turned multi-billion-dollar industry tycoon, is one of the most well respected international journalists and talk show hosts in the world. All of these women are well spoken, creative, dynamic, interesting and give the world something special that is unique only to them. They are businesswomen dominating fields that have historically excluded both black people and women. Despite all odds, these women are succeeding at rates unimaginable by the average Joe on the street. However, these women — despite their heightened public presence and international fame — have recently experienced traumatic events that can be attributed to the permanence of misogyny in many countries and cultures around the world.

In an open letter to feminist writer and philosopher Mary Daly, author of the book Gyn/Ecology, Audre Lorde wrote:

When I started reading Gyn/Ecology, I was truly excited by the vision behind your words and nodded my head as you spoke in your First Passage of myth and mystification. Your words on the nature  and  function  of the  Goddess, as well as  the ways in which her face has been obscured, agreedwith what I myself have  discovered in my searches through African  myth/legend/ religion for the true nature of old female power. So I wondered, why doesn’t Mary deal with Afrekete as an example? Why  are her goddess  images  only white, western european, judea—christian? Where was Afrekete, Yemanje, Oyo, and Mawulisa? Where were the warrior goddesses of the Vodun, the Dahomeian Amazons  and the warrior—women of Dan? Well, I thought, Mary has made a conscious decision to narrow her scope  and to deal only with the ecology of western european women.

Then I came to the first three chapters of your Second Passage, and it was obvious that you were dealing with noneuropean women, but only as victims and preyers—upon each other. I began to feel  my  history and my mythic background distorted by the absence of any images of my foremothers in power. Your inclusion  of African  genital  mutilation was  an important  and necessary piece in any consideration of female ecology, and too little has been written about  it. To imply, however, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used by  women without awareness against each other.

To  dismiss our Black foremothers may well be to dismiss where european women learned to love. As  an  African—american woman in white patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized, but it is  terribly painful  to feel  it being done by a woman whose  knowledge so much touches my own. When I speak of knowledge,  as you know, I  am speaking of that  dark  and  true  depth  which  understanding serves,  waits upon,  and makes  accessible through language to ourselves  and others. It is this depth within each of us that nurtures vision.What you  excluded from Gyn/Ecology dismissed  my  heritage and the heritage of all  other noneuropean women,  and denied the real connections that exist between all of us.

It is obvious that you have done a tremendous amount of work for this book. But simply because so little material on nonwhite female  power and symbol exists in white women’s words from a radical feminist perspective, to exclude this aspect of connection from  even comment in your work is  to deny the fountain of noneuropean female  strength  and power that nurtures each of our visions. It is to make a point by choice.

Lorde did not coin the term misogynoir, nor did she live to see the cultural dominance of social media platforms. She did set the philosophical foundation for those who came after her.

It is now our task to see misogynoir countered, and eventually eliminated. We must not remain silent.

What recent examples of misogynoir have you identified or noticed?  Who have you seen targeted?

Let’s discuss.

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