Black Feminist Thought

Feminist media theory focuses on gender as a crucial instrument in creating and maintaining both symbolic and material worlds along with the experiences people have in them (Laughey, 2007). Black feminist studies falls under feminist media theory, where scholars investigate the roles of both gender and race as tools that shape our world. Black feminism analyzes the structures that work to suppress Black women through economic, political, and ideological methods. Maria W. Stewart was the first U.S. Black woman to lecture publicly on political topics. In the 1830s she emphasized that Black women should strive to reject the images that portrayed negative stereotypes about them (Collins, 2000). Patricia Collins wrote Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment which centers on Black feminism and the dialectic relationship of oppression and activism in Black feminist thought in the U.S. (2000). The goal of Black feminist thought is to empower Black women through social justice that emphasizes on intersecting oppression (Collins, 2000).

A distinguishing feature of Black feminist thought is the diversity in response to common challenges within Black feminism (Collins, 2000). In reaction to the hegemonic oppression Black women face Collins notes that some women internalize their feelings while others take control of their images and ideas (2002). The latter is done by reconstructing self-definitions and governing the images that represent Black women in the realm of society. Black feminist thought is necessary because Black women have been and continue to be socially, economically, and politically oppressed through institutionalized racism and sexism. Collins emphasizes “as social conditions change so must the knowledge and practices designated to resist them” (2000, p. 39). The dialectic relationship between scholarship and social justice is vital to furthering the advancement of Black women’s standpoint in America.

Collins appoints economic exploitation as a dimension of oppression imposed upon Black women in the United States. Black women have had little opportunity to succeed in the intellectual workplace in America and instead hold positions in menial jobs. The social, economic, and political development of the United states has made domestic work the most common career path for African American women. Black women are no longer in-house nannies for White families, but they continue to hold jobs dedicated to emotionally nurture and clean up after others (Collins, 2000, p. 40). The exploitation of Black women’s labor has been “essential to U.S. capitalism” (Collins, 2000, p. 4). Marx’s concept of base and superstructure encompasses how this is possible.

The base is made up of the means and relations of production while the superstructure consists of cultural factors including religion, education, and politics (Marx, 1976, p. 8).  Social factors like economic class constitute the relationship someone has with production. It is nearly impossible for Black women to fight against or escape the structured oppression they face in the workforce. The elite hold positions of power in the workforce, while poor citizens commit to difficult labor. Just like social class, race is not something that an individual can simply change about their identity. Therefore, people are unwillingly placed into their relation of production at birth (Marx, 1976, p. 8) and usually remain in the same status for their whole lives.

Figure 1 Impact of the Wage Gap on Black Women in the U.S.

The exploitation of Black women’s labor is evident in the enormous wage gap in the United States. From 2004 to 2014 Black women’s income dropped 5.0 percent for full time labor, while White women’s income only dropped 0.3 percent (Chen, 2016). While it is troubling that both Black and White women’s wages had decreased, it cannot be ignored that there is a significant difference in the two averages. Black women’s work is being exploited twice not only for their race but also their gender. Over the course of their lives, Black women working in the United States will gain nearly $900,000 less than white men and about $450,000 less than white women (Chen, 2016). Black feminist thought fights for injustices like these and stresses the importance of intersectional activism to better the standpoint of all women.

Black women have been excluded from the feminist narrative constructed by White feminist intellectuals (Collins, 2000). Due to the hegemonic forces that are so deeply ingrained in U.S. institutions it is extremely difficult for Black women to have their ideas heard. Williams theory of selective tradition says those in power have the ability to determine what will be recorded for the remembrance of the time (1961). Usually, the storyline chosen serves to not only spread ideas that the elite want shared, but also showcase those groups as ideal (Williams, 1961). This concept shows how the work of U.S. Black women is eliminated from lasting public knowledge; as well as how the elite are able to spread negative stereotypes of Black women through images.

Black feminist thought encourages Black women to continuously reconstruct new meanings to the ideas existing in Black feminist works (Collins, 2000).  Collins argues that continuous reticulation is needed to form new meaning and stimulate resistance against hegemonic influences (2000, p.32). Meaning Black feminist intellectuals need to challenge the framework that exists and take control of the images that represent them. This work can be accomplished both in and outside of the academic realm.

Figure 2 Mammy Stereotype

Additionally, hegemonic forces have mass produced images that relay negative stereotypes of Black women. Two common stereotypes depicted in these images are the Mammy and the Jezebel. The Mammy is seen in representations of Aunt Jemima. Her image was created in 1889, to spread stereotypes about Black women. She wore a head scarf and an apron. She was usually cooking or cleaning for White families. Aunt Jemima shared the belief that Black women were meant to serve white families (Brown, 2019). Her image has been spread through movies, posters, figurines, and even pancake mix. The Jezebel stereotype paints Black women sexually aggressive, man stealing individuals (Eck, 2018). Depicting Black women as promiscuous whores was meant to justify the sexual assaults that White men would commit on their women slaves (Eck, 2018). The Jezebel stereotype also excused the expectation that enslaved Black women were supposed to bear children (Eck, 2018). The spread of the depictions of the Mammy and the Jezebel serve as examples of the exploitation of Black women’s work. They also simultaneously show how an image constructed by hegemonic forces to define a Black women’s standpoint.

Figure 3 Jezebel Stereotype

Black feminist thought must continue to evolve as injustice exists and social change occurs. Black women, along with other groups, are institutionally oppressed through hegemonic forces. Therefore, Black feminist thought must continue to develop its dialectical relationship between activism and intellectual ideas. According to Black feminist thought, combining knowledge and social action will contribute to the advancement of Black women’s standpoint in their experienced lives

Works Cited

Brown, E. (2019, March 27). Mammy jars mock Black people. Why are they still being collected? [Web article]. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/arts/mammy-jars-black-history-month.html?searchResultPosition=7

Chen, M. (2016, August 29). The wage gap is worse for Black women. [Web blog]. Retrieved from: http://www.thenation.com/blogs

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed., pp. 1-43). New York, NY: Routledge.

Eck, C. E. (2018). Three books, three stereotypes: Mothers and the ghosts of Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire in contemporary African American literature. BYU Scholars Archive: Provo, Utah.

Hegewisch, A., Phil, M. & Hartmann, H. (2019 March 7). The gender wage gap:2018 earnings difference by race and ethnicity. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://iwpr.org/publications/gender-wage-gap-2018/

Laughey, M. (2007). Feminisms and Gender: Key themes in media theory (pp. 100-121). New York, NY: Open University Press.

Marx, K. (1976a). Base and superstructure. In J. Storey (Eds.), Cultural theory and popular culture a reader (4th ed., p. 8). Harlow England: Pearson Education.

Williams, R. (1961). The Long Revolution. In B. Mills & D. M. Barlow (Eds.), Reading media theory: thinkers, approaches & contexts (2nd ed., pp.426-459). New York, NY: Routledge.

Image Attribution: Figure 1 Created by author, Figure 2 Creative Commons, Figure 3 Creative Commons

Written by Milena Rodriguez, 2019

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