A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women: A Contribution to a Discourse

When Mary Wollenstencraft published her polemic on Feminist Philosophy in 1792,  against the tumultuous background of the French Revolution, she concerned herself with the rights afforded to “woman” – an abstract category. However, in Wollenstencraft’s world, there was seemingly something in the body social that drew all women together and merged their experiences. In today’s society, the difference in the female experience because of intersections such as race and class have become increasingly more apparent and in the case of black women – as men and women of other ethnicities – try to define who we are for us, it is time we ask ourselves ‘What does it mean to be a black woman?’ and furthermore, consider the reasons why Black Feminism still requires independent recognition in academic thought. As Tuesday 15th October draws near – the evening of which a panel discussion on Black Feminism will take place at Girton College, Cambridge – Priscilla Mensah, the organiser, tells us why she decided it was time to hold an event that explored black female identity, and place a spotlight on black women’s place in society, as well as exploring where the ‘Angry Black Woman’ stereotype came from.  

“I couldn’t stand bein’ sorry and colored at the same time/ it’s so redundant in the modern world.” For Colored Girls, by Ntozake Shange.

To be a black woman is, and has always been, a complex negotiation. By definition, negotiation means to discuss with the aim of reaching an agreement, yet Shange’s powerful quote encapsulates how, for so many black women, there seems no discourse on how one goes about being black and a woman simultaneously. Rather, in the Western world, women— Black women in particular— have been taught to concede: to be wary of any factor that makes them deviate from the standard. A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women is an event about identity, or rather, the pursuit of Black women to find their own, unbound by racist, sexist stereotypes. Black Feminist poet and writer Audre Lorde said so aptly “if you don’t define yourself for yourself, you will be crushed into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.” It is this definition that has historically been robbed from black women, from the twentieth century Civil Rights Movement where black female activism was eclipsed by that of their male counterparts, to present day popular culture where the black female is so often dehumanised, crushed into an angry, ghetto-fabulous, twerking caricature. A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women asks why women of colour have for so long been relegated to the back benches in academia, in politics, in science, in medicine, in media, and explores how, in the midst of it all, they go on to accomplish great things.

The past meets the present in a complex and very unique way for black women. In the modern world of progressive politics, women, black women, and ethnic minorities, are told of institutional change, the way in which institutions, organisations, politics wants to celebrate difference. Access schemes are aplenty, encouraging you to be ‘more black’, ‘more female’ and encompass diversity in any way you can to fill the quota. And yet for the black woman, this comes into direct contact with historical sexist, racist stereotypical images, depicting the black woman as the angry, predatory hyper-masculine aggressor. In short, the term “Angry Black Woman” did not just fall from the sky.

black rage

The “Angry Black Woman” imagery is a stereotype so ingrained that it no longer requires explicit reference. Though I have become accustomed to hearing the phrase dropped casually, for example to describe one of the few black women cast in popular TV shows— who are almost always single— I am convinced that our generation has stepped back from actually analysing why the term is so damaging. The “Angry Black Woman” is an imagery created by a racist patriarchal society to stifle black female pain, and more importantly, black female progress. By making the term “angry” synonymous with being black and female, the term achieves one particular goal: the term forces black women to embody raw emotion, the inference being that the black woman is too engaged with feeling to be trusted as rational. And yet this is not enough for sexist and racist pursuits. With the social construction of anger as a testosterone-fuelled male emotion, black female frustration becomes inherently masculine, robbing black women of their ability to feel or show anger at all for fear of losing touch with patriarchal femininity. In turn, the celebrated phrase, referencing the “strong independent black woman who don’t need no man” begins to expose a true ugliness… black women don’t need men— because they are… like them?

So what then of Black female progress? Audre Lorde wrote and spoke passionately about how anger, when transformed into positive energy, could be an exceptionally powerful force. We witness how transformative anger has liberated lives all over the world; we know now that strength and anger are two positive things. Yet this popularised phrase signifies how we are yet to see these definitions shift away from the romanticisation of the long-suffering black woman or encoded gender rules. For this reason, black female success is framed by female singularity. Jessica Pearson in Suits, Willhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty, Olivia Pope in Scandal: black female strength and progress must be counter-balanced by the fact that patriarchy does not want them, or the threat they pose.

olivia pope scandal

I, like many other women of colour I meet, struggle with this acute awareness. It is an awareness that cautions if you talk too loud, you are shouting, and if you act with conviction you are angry—not passionate. From a sexist world— a world from which we fight to divorce ourselves from ourselves — I cannot pretend to be ignorant of how the over-active and angry black woman stereotype derives from an attempt to retain a strict idea of what it means to be feminine. Irrespective of the ways in which she is unique, the black woman in the western world may often attempt to skirt the persisting reality of her gender and race so as to avoid falling into negative depictions of black womanhood, this is whilst simultaneously feeling the repression enact on her everyday. Ironically had the black woman been given the right to speak for herself, to forge her own image, maybe she might not be so “angry.”

Mary Wollstonecraft sought to write a polemic for “woman” in 1792. In her world, there was something in the body social that drew all women together and merged their experience.

Wollstonecraft-right-of-woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women, unlike Wollstonecraft’s original title, does not just insert the adjective “Black” but also uses the plural “women.” This is in attempt to reflect the differences in female experience I have witnessed over the last year that fulfils no stereotypes of black women popular culture would have us believe. A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women is a contribution to a discourse on all the ways it means to be a black woman: as an academic, a mother, a student, a politician. It will be an exploration of black women in activism, in history, in weakness and in strength. It compels us to ask questions about social constructs and how we slot different people around and outside of them. Above all, ‘A Vindication’ will hopefully add to the emerging discussion on black females and black feminist thought in popular culture, providing a platform for the women of colour I witness everyday unapologetically refusing to allow themselves to be pigeonholed.

A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women will be held at Girton College, Cambridge University on Tuesday 15th October, 2013 from 7pm to 9pm. Professor Heidi Mirza, Professor Joan Anim-Addo, Nydia Swaby, and The Right Honourable Diane Abbott, MP will all be speaking on the night. The event is FREE and entrance is on a first come first served basis. 

For further details and to RSVP, visit the Facebook Page.

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