Feminism and the Black Arts Movement

6 Oct. 2016

An Excerpt—A Dialogue between Kalamu ya Salaam (Deep River) and Margo Natalie Crawford (Afro-Blue)

Afro-Blue: I am the daughter of the Black Arts Movement, and like Ntozake Shange, I could say, “even though they didn’t know they were going to have a girl!” But I claim the Deep River of the movement. Why did people sometimes forget, during the movement, that the water was deep enough for Black Power feminism?

Deep River: Because most of us men, if not, to one degree or another, all of us men were patriarchal and thus saw feminism as our enemy. Let me cut to the core of my analysis, an analysis that is undergoing constant evolution but never loses sight of the fundamental principle of self-determination and the support of everyone and anyone to advocate and effectuate their own self-determination, especially on a gender basis. I believe that nationalism is problematic and requires patriarchy to exist. Moreover, the Christian belief that “god gave man dominion over the earth” is the religious and philosophical justification for patriarchy.

Here I will use a short hand and employ a metaphor: land is looked at as feminine. The insistence on private property as a bedrock principle of social organization, especially when that private property includes “real estate” is the basis for justifying male domination of women including the desire for women to be submissive to men.
At the risk of being totally misunderstood, I assert my belief that nationalism is not only a major problem but that this is a sine qua non of sexism and its various manifestations. The waving of national flags is one thing, however the phallic image of the flag pole stuck into the ground with some material waving in the wind as a signification of ownership is a recreation of the male desire to sexually control and dominate the female in the missionary sexual position. The idea/ideal of saluting a flag is an ideological genuflecting to patriarchal power.

On the contrary, I don’t think that “the water was deep enough.” I think that black power feminism hit on the fundamental contradiction of nationalism and thus the two could not co-exist, we could not have nationalism and feminism in the same movement. One of the two dynamics had to be in the lead. By 1980 when we published Our Women Keep Our Skies From Falling, I had consciously chosen to uphold feminism and stopped referring to myself as a pan-African nationalist and instead just say pan-Africanist.

On the continent itself, I believe a major problem is that there are no African defined nations but rather European defined nations trying to force themselves to be these various nations with each one struggling with the issue of how to identify the self when you have one particular grouping (commonly called tribe) in a position of leadership, if not outright dominance. We have bought into the euro-centric formulation of male domination of land, i.e. nationalism, so thoroughly that we think of the problem as how to make the nation work, when really the question ought to be do we really need the euro-defined nation. Maybe we need to re-look at Booker T. Washington’s often derided formulation, dust it off, up-date it and consider it as a political statement of supporting diversity: i.e. in matters purely social, be as separate as the fingers, in matters of mutual defense and development work as a fist.

I believe our diversity must include women as agents of their own existence and we should destroy the dynamic of women as objects of male desire and control, i.e. patriarchy, and by extension, nationalism.

There was a reason, if we were not always conscious of why so, that black feminism and black nationalism could not co-exist. Indeed, let’s take it one logical step further. Within the post civil rights era in the united states, black feminism is black power in action.

The basic principle of black power is not power based on our race but rather the power of agency: the rights and prerogatives of self-determination regardless of whomsoever we humans may be and howsoever we choose to define ourselves. Within the black community, women are the most oppressed and exploited. When black women organize themselves, speak for themselves, define and defend themselves that is the ultimate expression of black agency. In that regard those who are last put themselves first and decide for themselves how they want to live their lives regardless of what others might think, either from within or from outside the community. Implicit in this position is not only open support for women’s rights to self-determination, but also open support for what is now called Lgbt (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and trans-gender) rights of self determination. Patriarchy has no human rights precisely because patriarchy denies agency to women to determine their lives. Any philosophy that denies the rights of the other is flat wrong. Moreover, to be progressive means that you stand up not only for your own agency but that you respect and champion the agency of others. Agency begins with self, and ends with self. Control yourself and respect other selves, howsoever the other defines their self, howsoever we define who is the other. Respect all others, respect all “selves.” 

With that in mind, within our communities you cannot get any blacker than black women defining themselves: exercising the agency to determine how they will live their lives. That is the most thoroughgoing revolution that can happen in our community. And of course the fundamental or bedrock principle remains: the doers are, or should be, the decision makers.

Marvin X. Jackmon

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