Leadership Is Autobiography: An Ode to Black Feminism

Like most Black folks, I have a Black woman to thank for my existence (my mother) who, in turn, has another Black woman to thank for her existence (my grandmother), and so on. I have them, and my tías and older primas to thank for my survival in this oppressively hostile world.

Black women othermothers—neighbors, friends, teachers, mentors and colleagues—have educated me, protected me, supported me, advised me, and loved me in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Even now, as I fumble through my late 50s simultaneously dealing with an existential crisis about my third act and always recovering from the trauma of navigating the matrix of domination in everyday life, I have Black women family, sister-friends, othermothers, researchers, theorists and writers to lean on during my journey.

Black feminism and its emphasis on intersectionality has saved my life.

I’m fond of saying I am unabashedly a Black feminist. Recently, I started reflecting on what this means and what exactly should my relationship to Black feminism and intersectionality be at this stage of my life. One reason this is front of mind is that my sister-friend is the first Black laureate of the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture (aka the Nobel Prize in philosophy) for her intellectual activism in the Black feminist thought and critical social theory canons, including elucidating the relationship of social power and intersectionality to provide new pathways toward equality and justice.

It also could be that a bout with impaired vision (literally) has me questioning my eyesight and my insight on how to do intersectionality as a thought leader.

It was Dr. Collins who introduced me to the framework of intersectionality and Black feminism more generally as an undergraduate student. She transformed my life and my future by awakening my sociological imagination and teaching me how to apply an intersectional gaze to my own lived experience and social contexts.

My grandmothers were Black feminists. And to survive in this world and make meaning out of it, they had to be.

In graduate school, one of my professors regularly reminded us that “all teaching is autobiography.” His point being that most teachers are teaching to themselves. I often think about how that tidbit of wisdom applies to the life I now live. Lately, this has left me thinking—leadership is autobiography.

What do I mean by that deceptively simple sentence? Lots of things, I suppose. Most fundamentally I mean that as leaders, the messages we elevate, the lessons we return to, and the actions we undertake are often those that are most comfortable and relatable to our own positionality—we recognize how our intersectional social position shapes our worldview. Black feminism’s emphasis on positionality is a gift that has allowed me to embrace the influence of my personal biography on my leadership.

Dr. C schooled me in the theory of intersectionality and Black feminist epistemology when I worked as the research assistant on her first book, Black Feminist Thought. The research experience was exhilarating and unexpectedly cemented the foundation for what has become a 35-year friendship with Pat.

Inheriting Feminism

But I came to Black feminism much earlier through my grandmothers—Beulah and Mae. When they came of age they left their rural birthplaces in North Carolina and West Virginia to be mothers, wives, domestic hustlers, active church ladies, and occasional community organizers, all while living as Black women on the urban plantation.

I knew by observation and through conversations with them that their experiences with discrimination were unique—even different from one another’s and certainly different from my own. But also I saw, through their example, a reclamation of a self-defined humanity and a certain self-actualized consciousness that they exercised through constant struggle—whether by political or social activism.

Though I didn’t know it when I was a young girl, my grandmothers—who never read Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, the good Lorde Audre or Patricia Hill Collins—were Black feminists. And to survive in this world and make meaning out of it, they had to be.

In Women’s Studies 101 back in the ’80s, feminism was presented as an opposition to and a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and sexual oppression. One might think, based on this definition, that putting “Black” in front of “feminism” means that Black feminism aims to end sexism and oppression only against Black women. If so, Black feminism as a social justice project is quite narrow at best and self-serving at worst, at least according to this view.

But Black feminism is much more than a feminism that focuses on Black women. This doesn’t mean that Black women aren’t the focus with their experiences and voices centered in it—attention that the co-founders of the movement found lacking in mainstream feminist and racial justice struggles. The 1977 Combahee River Collective’s statement says Black feminism entails the belief that Black women are inherently valuable. This isn’t to say Black women want to be put on pedestals—rather that we be recognized as “levelly human.”

To be a Black feminist is to see a Black woman’s value not in the sex, domestic and community work she provides but merely in her existence as a human being (e.g., when Aretha belts out R-E-S-P-E-C-T). It acknowledges that Black women face not just sexist or racist oppression but racial-sexual oppression. It’s not that Black women are necessarily more oppressed than others, but that our experiences are unique and Black women’s lives have a “multilayered texture.”

‘Those Black feminist foremothers knew that identity alone was not enough to overcome oppression.’

Black feminism is all about understanding the depths of the inequalities and the relationships among them in any given context. Several popular analytic and theoretical concepts—intersectionality and identity politics to name two—have emerged out of Black feminism to help us make sense of the world and respond to it.

Intersectionality, a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is the idea that inequality cannot be understood through race, class or gender alone. Intersectionality as a framework shows us how race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, class, etc., relate in complex and intersecting ways to produce inequality. For example, viewing the Williams sisters’ experience in tennis only through the lens of race or gender does not allow us to fully capture their mistreatment. Or looking at the wealth gap through only race or gender doesn’t fully capture the economic situation of Latina migrants at the border. Intersectionality helps us to see that we cannot understand or fight against transphobia (which has resulted in an annual rise in homicides of trans women in the United States) without addressing racism, poverty, gender norms, sex work and misogyny.

Although Crenshaw coined the term, it is very much genealogical for we find Black women before her—Maria W. Stewart (1832), Sojourner Truth (1851), Anna Julia Cooper (1892), Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1895), Mary McLeod Bethune (1920), Mary Church Terrell (1940), Beah Richards (1951), Pauli Murray (1965) and Francis Beal (1970)—referencing simultaneous oppressions. We also might say that what differentiated their theories from one another were the implications of and conditions that gave rise to the theories in the first place.

Identifying With the Movement

The contested term—identity politics—used a lot in ideological debates is at its core an analysis that validates Black women’s experiences while simultaneously creating an opportunity for us to become politically active to fight for the issues most important to us. We need to be intentional about describing what identity politics is not. It is not conceived as an exclusionary politic in which only those who are part of a particular group can fight against those particular issues. Neither is it a claim as “the most oppressed.” Those Black feminist foremothers knew that identity alone was not enough to overcome oppression. But they saw identity as a way to See-Engage-Act against systemic oppression.

Black feminism as a self-identifying movement arose in the 1970s as a critique of and frustration with the single-issue politics of white feminist, gay liberation, and Black nationalist movements. The idea was that if Black women carved out a space for themselves, they would in turn also carve out a space for every kind of individual. This was because Black feminists’ analysis and practice would create a consciousness that could benefit everyone.

Black feminism, like any other liberation movement with an oppositional discourse, has faced and continues to face challenges. Critics have written on what they believe to be the contradictory nature of intersectionality, have misused and warned against using the concept of identity politics, and many continue to decenter Black women even when co-opting racial justice (i.e., #BlackLivesMatter) or survivor justice (i.e., #MeToo) movements created by us.

Myths such as “Black women are doing better than Black men” and “Black feminist thought is not nuanced” are often echoed to delegitimize Black feminism. But we ought not take these as threats to the movement but rather as merely “side effects” that come with any attempt to revolutionize and transform the way we think and move in the world.

From the cultural and social theorists, artists and freedom fighters, plus ordinary Black feminists like my grandmothers, I’ve learned why a Black women’s standpoint—the experiences and ideas shared by Black women that provide a unique angle of vision on self, community, and society, coupled with the theoretical interpretation of Black women’s reality by those who live it—is essential to my own survival and indelible in my leadership.

As such, the truths I hold self-evident in my Black feminist praxis have never wavered. First, I can join the fight for liberation just as I am. Second, my experiences of oppression should not be sidelined for a “greater cause.” Third, being “book smart” and knowing concepts and theories doesn’t mean anything if they do not guide my political practice. And finally—no matter what group(s) a person may identify with—Black feminism is for everyone!

Patrice L. Dickerson is ASA’s Equity Strategy Director.

Photo caption: Patrice Dickerson in the fall of 1990 with Dr. Patricia Hill Collins.

Photo credit: Courtesy Patrice Dickerson.