Black Feminist Thought: Patricia Hill Collins

I loved Black Feminist Thought, the way it battles to discover what is unique to black women’s voices and experiences, and how they can empower, aid in resistance, and form part of the larger coalition that is needed to create a more just world.

I’ve pulled out her own basic summary of what she wants this book to do and be, because it highlights what is missing from much other work, and because it is ambitious and beautiful and she almost does it all:

First, I was committed to making this book intellectually rigorous, well researched, and accessible to more than the select few fortunate enough to receive elite educations.

Second, I place Black women’s experiences and ideas at the center of analysis…I take a similar stance regarding Marxist social theory and Afrocentric thought. In order to capture the interconnections of race, gender, and social class in Black women’s lives and their effect on Black feminist thought, I explicitly rejected grounding my analysis in any single theoretical tradition.

Third, I deliberately include numerous quotations from a range of African-American women thinkers, some well known and others rarely heard from. Explicitly grounding my analysis in multiple voices highlights the diversity, richness, and power of Black women’s ideas as part of a long-standing African-American women’s intellectual community. Moreover, this approach counteracts the tendency of mainstream scholarship to canonize a few Black women as spokespersons for the group and then refuse to listen to any but these select few.

Fourth, I used a distinctive methodology in preparing this manuscript which illustrates how thought and action can work together in generating theory. Much of my formal academic training has been designed to show me that I must alienate myself from my communities, my family, and even my own self in order to produce credible intellectual work. Instead of viewing the everyday as a negative influence on my theorizing, I tried to see how the everyday actions and ideas of the Black women in my life reflected the theoretical issues I claimed were so important to them. Lacking grants, fellowships, release time, or other benefits that allow scholars to remove themselves from everyday life and contemplate its contours and meaning, I wrote this book while fully immersed in ordinary activities [xiii]

Fifth, in order to demonstrate the existence and authenticity of Black feminist thought, I present it as being coherent and basically complete. This portrayal is in contrast to my actual view that theory is rarely this smoothly constructed. Most theories are characterized by internal instability, are contested, and are divided by competing emphases and interests. When I considered that Black feminist thought is currently embedded in a larger political and intellectual context that challenges its very right to exist, I decided not to stress the contradictions, frictions, and inconsistencies of Black feminist thought. Instead I present Black feminist thought as overly coherent, but I do so because I suspect that this approach is most appropriate for this historical moment. I hope to see other volumes emerge which will be more willing to present Black feminist thought as a shifting mosaic of competing ideas and interests.

Finally, writing this book has convinced me of the need to reconcile subjectivity and objectivity in producing scholarship. Initially I found the movement between my training as an “objective” social scientist and my daily experiences as an African-American woman jarring. But reconciling what we have been trained to see as opposites, a reconciliation signaled by my inserting myself in the text by using “I,” “we,” and “our” instead of the more distancing terms “they” and “one,” was freeing for me. [xiv]

It is a key for the theorisation of movement I think, the ways in which different struggles come together. I find that I quite hate the words ‘identity politics’, they carry with them a negativity now, as though women, African-Americans, queer folks did not need to find their voice and power and address the terrible things that they faced unique to other groups. Class politics are not seen as identity politics, though class is an identity as much as anything else. She begins to work through the differences between autonomy and separatism, though I think more needs to be done

In her introduction to Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, Barbara Smith describes this difference: “Autonomy and separatism are fundamentally different. Whereas autonomy comes from a position of strength, separatism comes from a position of fear. When we’re truly autonomous we can deal with other kinds of people, a multiplicity of issues, and with difference, because we have formed a solid base of strength” (1983, xl). [35]

… the full actualization of Black feminist thought requires a collaborative enterprise with Black women at the center of a community based on coalitions among autonomous groups. [36]

How this will actually work in practice is what is absent from this book, but helping to form a position of wholeness and strength from which to work and struggle in solidarity is its strength. It also opens up a greater analytical depth in analysis of oppression, she writes

Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new paradigms. The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more groups than Black women.
Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. [225]

This, to me, summarises how we all need to be looking at the world and our place in it. She draws from bell hooks to look at how the ‘matrix of domination’ works along axes of class, race, and gender, and how these are experienced and resisted at three different levels: the personal, the group or community, and systemic level of societal institutions. All three must be studied, challenged. I particularly liked the examination of ‘the objectification of the black woman as other’, as much of this was more new to me (my own fault I know) and I had never really thought through how black and white identity are so intertwined through the ways in which those with power have posited them in opposition and in destructive binaries that made me physically nauseous. The ways in which such awfulness has infected everything, particularly sex and self-valuation I found so important, so obvious when pointed out but something like an unknown source of pain until it was.

I also loved that it ended with a way forward, I always love books that do such a wonderful thing, and they are so rare. But Collins outlines an afrocentric feminist epistemology that I find quite useful, especially in highlighting what is absent from academia today. The main headings are:

1. Concrete experience as a criterion of meaning. This puts a huge crack in academic expertise, which perhaps explains why I still find experience, even professional experience, not valued in academic institutions.

2. The use of dialogue in assessing knowledge. Sitting down together to talk through an issue to discover deeper truths? My favourite thing, and more effective than debate in my opinion.

3. The ethic of caring. A respect for individual uniqueness, for the emotions attached to our words, a development of our capacity for empathy. How better to theorise the making of a better world?

4. The ethic of personal accountability. What we do impacts others, and we can disempower, empower, or best of all? Co-create.

I feel like this should be a manifesto that people sign on to.

I know that this is early work, and in a later essay I’ve read Collins offers some critique and talks about the ways in which her thinking has moved forward, particularly around her thinking on autonomy and etc, I so look forward to moving with her! And until I read this I had never heard of June Jordan, but there are a couple of quotes in here that gave me a huge writer crush. The way that Collins draws on such a wide array of authors makes this also an amazing resource for voices rarely heard but very wise…