According to the great mother of the Womanist theory, Alice Walker, “Womanist is to feminist as Purple is to Lavender.” Best known for her book, The Color Purple, she is an award-winning poet and activist who introduced womanism in her 1983 book, In Search Of our Mothers Gardens: Womanist Prose. The birth of Womanism identified and criticized racism in the predominantly white feminist movement, and sexism in the African American community. Through her prolific body of work, Walker liberated black women, and continues to do so, by creating a platform for more intersectional conversations on discrimination. Her intention was to illuminate that Womanism is kin to Feminism but allow for all to participate in the fight for equality, specifically black women.
“Womanist was our word, meaning that you were fiercely loving, courageous, sassy, and you are not afraid to break boundaries” -Reverend Dr. Renita J Weems
Womanist derives from the black southern folklore word “womanish”. The expression goes: “You actin’ womanish!”, used from black women to their daughters as a way to confirm, critique, and challenge them to ensure they would blossom into strong women in a world that sought to oppress and hinder their path to success. This word gives black women the self-validation where our voices are often drowned out by the more socially dominant.
Black women cannot divide their womanhood from their blackness, and needn't have to. In contrast to feminism, a space where the voice of white women often overshadows feminists of color, Womanism is about uplifting black women in a way that white women and black men have failed to do by indirectly classifying us as.... other. Feminism also has a serpartist undertone to their rhetoric; putting all men under the same villainous umbrella, in a fight against patriarchy. In contrast, Womanism seeks to create solidarity with black men and their plight, without ignoring our own, aiming to unite the family unit by placing emphasis on the relationship between women and men in supporting one another.
Division & Hierarchy
In 1993, The American Heritage Dictionary, recognized Womanist as “Having or expressing a belief in or respect for women and their talents and abilities, beyond the boundaries of race and class; exhibiting feminism that is inclusive especially of Black American Culture”. The fact that a new movement need to be sprouted from Feminism says alot about how black women were overlooked at the time of the suffrages.
Bell Hooks states in her book Feminism Is For Everybody, “It seemed incredible to black women that they were being asked to support a movement whose majority participants were eager to maintain race and class hierarchies between women…”. So because white women were reportedly in the majority of the suffrage movement, they had final say on which women’s right issues would be upheld and addressed through their feminist platform.
Another major cultural and racial barrier between black women and feminism is the pink hat wearing elephant in the room, which Justine Tally points out clearly in her article Why ‘Womanism? : The Genesis of a New Word and What It Means.
Tally writes, “many early so-called feminists supported racist eugenics initiatives, including sterilization of minority women”. And even today in the way in which the majority of white women put a rascist man in office. We can see those same hypocrisies in feminism, where the intersection of racial tensions in America and gender politics are completely ignored. Yet again, women of color are expected to rally behind another one-sided cause.
Today, the new cool thing for female empowerment is “intersectional feminism”, which we can clearly see are just empty words. Using the phrase “intersectional feminism” without holding true to its meaning and purpose does more harm than is actually acknowledged. It's worse to pretend to care for the cause of women of color who suffer a different kind of discrimination, than to ignore it outright because it presents a false pretense and becomes a manipulative tool to benefit predominantly white feminists organizations. In this sense, history is repeating itself, and black women have had enough.
Today there are 127 women serving in congress of different creeds and racial backgrounds, representing a major shift taking place right now, as society becomes more conscious of the levels of marginalization women still face. With a more vastly diverse staff, there will be more opportunities to address social issues through policies that directly affect women. Significant change has been made, but how does that affect the masses, and how can that power be wielded to benefit everyone, especially women of color, who fall at the bottom of the pay inequality scale, far below white males and below white females.
All hope is not lost despite the obvious multi-level oppression. The vision that Alice Walker created by evoking the word Womanism, still lives on. On September 29th, 2018, The Black Women’s March took over the National Mall as thousands of black women and their allies marched to Freedom Plaza. Coordinated by The Black Women’s Blueprint, this two-day event called for black women to finally give a voice to the voiceless cries of their foremothers, and their daughters, sisters, aunties, and mothers. It was a beautiful day of unity, allyship, and defiant joy. What’s particularly interesting about this day points to the reason black women are furious about not being able to advocate in PWFO’s. When Eleanor Smeall took the stage, an uncomfortable silence was felt, according to an unnamed now.org protest participant & representative. The issue wasn’t that she spoke, but that even in spaces designated for black women, white women still have a voice, and yet in spaces dominated by white women, black women are in the rear of the public forum.
Regardless of the constant opposition to every effort black woman's effort to find a voice and be treated as human, there will never be a day to give in to the status quo. Womanism lives on in song birds such as Solange and Janelle Monae, and other spoken word artists and activists alike in their communities and on the ground doing the work. If we don't care for each other, then who will. It's on us, and always has been, to set the stage for our triumph.
- Arabhis Nicholson