In 1990, when the first edition of Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought1 was published, I was a ten-year-old biracial black and white “blackgirl”2 whose white mother had recently fled her violent white boyfriend who regularly screamed at and about her “nigger baby” in an alcohol- and drug-induced haze. That same year I found myself resentfully attending Alateen meetings while my mom attended Al-Anon3; ashamedly wetting the bed during nightmares; indignantly tolerating our etched-on-Michigan's-highways transience between my uncle's in Melvindale, grandmother's in Detroit, and school in Redford; and stubbornly expressing the worst attitude I could conjure up as a fifth-grader. My little blackgirl self was wounded, fearful, angry, and assured by the self-righteousness of youth that life would always hurt as much as it did right then; I felt blackgirl broken. Aside from my mom's steadfast routine of working-two-jobs-for-money-but-really-four-jobs as a single parent and my chauffer to and from school from wherever we were living, 1990 was chaotic and scary.
Fourteen years later, shaken to the core but not shattered by the remnants of familial dysfunction—an absentee father, childhood domestic violence, and teenage rape alongside always being one of the first, few, and/or only blackgirls in my class from kindergarten through a master's degree—I was at the University of Denver as a first-year doctoral student when a faculty member of color recommended that I read bell hooks. In response to his suggestion, I thought, “bell who?” A voracious reader, I engaged with hooks from one book to the next as if any possibility of inner peace whatsoever depended on understanding black feminism—because it did.4 Narrating my personal and academic circumstances alongside my “discovery” of black feminism with astonishing accuracy, hooks says, “I came to theory because I was hurting… I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me.”5
hooks led me to Angela Davis and then I encountered Collins's second edition of Black Feminist Thought, which profoundly refashioned how I understood myself and our world.6 Of importance to note is that I was in my mid-twenties and hooks, Davis, and Collins were the second, third, and fourth people in my life to tell me explicitly that black women could be intellectual. The first was my mother; she nourished, complimented, and necessitated my intelligence, and by doing so conveyed that being a biracial blackgirl signified far more than stereotypical reductions and “controlling images.”7 Long before I knew black feminist thought (BFT) by name, I considered myself smart and understood that being smart could foster success (even if being a blackgirl nerd was… complicated in predominantly white schools). Yet Collins offered at-first-perplexing-but-then-astute insight: “Not all Black women intellectuals are educated. Not all Black women intellectuals work in academia… doing intellectual work of the sort envisioned within Black feminism requires a process of self-conscious struggle on behalf of Black women.”8 Her words piqued my interest; in the margins I wrote, “being smart isn't enough,” followed by “become an intellectual.” Akin to vibrant flowers that bloom through cracks in concrete and reach for the sun, after reading Black Feminist Thought,9 I felt fortified by a newly intense understanding of Maya Angelou's wisdom that “Nothing will work unless you do.”10
Thereafter, I understood black feminist intellectualism as an invaluable opportunity and avenue if I invested in embodying black feminist sensibilities and utilizing BFT as oppositional knowledge. This is not to imply that I knew anything about how to do so. Yet, like many black transgender, gender-queer, and cisgender black women before me, I understood intimately that part of reckoning with my blackgirl brokenness required merging “thought… with pragmatic action,” and thinking about and living life differently.11 Armed with this understanding, I began by investing in myself as an individual and in our community as a collective. I read works by and about black women; attended workshops and keynotes presented by and about black women; drew connections between their words, works, workshops, and my/our experiences with sexism, racism, classism, etc. Most importantly, despite fear and uncertainty as a light-skinned, biracial black woman, I started connecting with black female peers and mentors. Still doing so today, I also teach “Black Feminist Thought as Theory and Praxis,” mentor black female undergraduate students, graduate students, and junior faculty, publish black feminist scholarship, cite black feminist scholars, and aim to embody black feminist praxis in my everyday life. By no means do I have it “right.” I have a lot to learn, and I identify with Roxane Gay when she says, “I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human.”12 Equipped with little certainty and even less desire for perfection in our imperfect world, what I do know unequivocally is that black women matter. I also know unequivocally that black feminism shapes, shades, changes, challenges, enlightens, and empowers as a critically conscious intellectual embodiment of resistance, humanization, and compassion.
The words and works of black feminists from beyond my field and those of communication scholars such as Marsha Houston, Olga Idriss Davis, Brenda Allen, and D. Soyini Madison opened up a world that I literally had not known existed. Said differently in angry tones that echo between my ears and bellow out accompanied by disgust toward the ease of exclusionary educational practices: I went to elementary school, junior high, high school, and earned two college degrees before I consciously understood that writing about black girls and women was a thing. Something that authors and artists and activists do… for a living. I earned bachelor's and master's degrees in communication without tangible examples of a black female or black feminist communication scholar—I do not recall having met any, being assigned their work, or being taught explicitly that the intellectual contributions of women of color in general and black women specifically were worthy of scholarly consideration in my field or others. Via my formal education and to my chagrin, I did not know that black women knew things about poetry, economics, astronomy, politics, art, environmentalism, history, music, war, and… and… and… I mean of course we are—as we have always been—individually and collectively epistemological. Yet still today black women from Africa, the United States, and elsewhere/everywhere are scarcely positioned as esteemed “producers of knowledge.”13
In part, this special issue is a response to our continued orchestrated absence. While works by and about black women from black feminist perspectives are arguably more visible than ever before, we are simultaneously disappearing as research subjects in multiple disciplines, are being discounted in public discourses, and our works are being appropriated and/or distorted with and without citation—all of which signals contemporary erasure.14 Therefore, our visibility should never be assumed equivalent to respect, empowerment, and/or humanization, and the tenuous friction between visibility, invisibility, and hypervisibility (which can serve as an ironic conduit to hyperinvisibility) is paramount to explore. This special issue contests dominant insinuations that black women are undeserving of singular focus and contradicts dominant practices that consider black women primarily in comparison to others (if at all). With intention and without apology, we center black women and girls; employ, challenge, and broaden black feminism; and incite kinship among diverse feminisms and feminists who identify at varying intersections of identities.
Emerging from and inspired by the lived experiences of black women across numerous centuries—including the eras in which literacy and “talking back”15 were punishable by death—up to this contemporary moment, our collective authorial stance conveys that scholars can indeed deeply respect and love what we critique.16 From an editorial perspective, what I value tremendously about our united labor is the de/stabilization of BFT accomplished by charting its contours, enacting its politics, and broadening its horizons to expose the framework as more inclusionary of some black women (e.g., cisgender, heterosexual, US American, Western, able-bodied) and more exclusionary toward black women additionally Othered by, for example, cisgenderism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and ableism. Also exposed are BFT's strong, ancestral roots alongside its productive instability as an evolving theory and method. Rather than signaling weakness or a lack of academic respectability, the instability of BFT suggests possibilities for innovative growth, progressive provocation, and sustained relevance. As such—akin to any framework—BFT is engaged in this special issue as always already both edifying and fallible.
Populated by four essays, four forum essays, and a reflective afterword authored by Collins, the contributors are united by their commitments to critical and qualitative research and use of BFT as a catalyst for theorization, advocacy, and alliance. These essays offer nuanced interpretations of the value of black women and black girls and black feminists and black feminist epistemologies. Working toward an academy in which black women and black feminists themselves are as welcome as black feminist works,17 the authors focus on distinguishing features and topics common to all three editions of Black Feminist Thought—self-definition, self-valuation, self-determination, intersecting identities and overlapping oppressions, othermothering, and controlling imagery—while also “present[ing] Black feminist thought as a shifting mosaic of competing ideas and interests.”18
The collection opens with Katelyn Hale Wood's theorization of Wanda Sykes as a black feminist comedic performer whose jokes address and challenge normative forces that regulate cultural understandings of time and space, coming out narratives and black womanhood at the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Wood's critical analysis of Sykes's performances situate her as a brilliant comic, pedagogue, and activist who delivers punch lines with serious implications while making audiences, including First Lady Michelle Obama, giggle and erupt with laughter that contradicts cultural silences and silencing. Positioning “black feminist comedy… as critical historiography” to literally and metaphorically “crack up” cultural “abidance with the institutional rhythms of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and cisgender normativity,” Wood explores exciting terrain in black feminist inquiry by placing BFT in conversation with black artistic performance, chrononormativity, and queer theory.
Congruent with Wood's focus on Sykes as a queer black feminist comedian, Marquis Bey entices contemplation on the margins of the margins. Presenting an ambitious articulation of blacktransfeminist thought (BTFT), Bey evokes and reckons with his cisgender and male privilege to advocate for the deliberate consideration of black transgender women. Oftentimes imperceptible in black feminist scholarship, Bey centers black trans women to reveal and theorize their absence in both academic and public discourses. Utilizing #BlackLivesMatter as an exemplar, he asks, “what might it mean for trans subjectivities to be not only included in black feminist theorization, but also constitutive of it?” Embodying “a black feminist posture,” Bey catechizes how transphobia and cisgenderism affect BFT despite its inclusionary ideals. Importantly avoiding a disingenuous “add Black [trans] women and stir”19 approach, Bey illuminates a productive, dignifying, and absolutely necessary alliance between black and transgender feminisms to oppose the invisibility of black trans women in black feminism and black women in trans feminism.
In conversation with each other, the next two essays authored by Ashley Patterson, Valerie Kinloch, Tanja Burkhard, Ryann Randall, and Arianna Howard, followed by Joëlle M. Cruz, Oghenetoja Okoh, Amoaba Gooden, Kamesha Spates, Chinasa A. Elue, and Nicole Rousseau, represent two diverse groups of seventeen black women (the Black Women’s Gathering Place), and six black women and two black girls (the Ekwe Collective), who epitomize sagacious assemblages of black feminists across multiple generations. Calling our attention to the rarity of research that examines black women's dialogic engagements with each other, these co-authored essays demonstrate the: power of conversation, beauty of mutual vulnerability, enactment of communal affirmation and strength, importance of self-love, practice of other/mothering, and complexity of black womanhood and girlhood. Essential to and for the development of community among black women, the Black Women's Gathering Place and the Ekwe Collective theoretically and methodologically demonstrate how to address, confront, and navigate “sisterarchy,”20 which manifests when black women capitalize on our respective access to systemic privilege(s) (e.g., identifying as a cisgender, heterosexual, US American, Western, able-bodied, light-skinned black woman) to oppress Others and create deep rifts that inhibit self-reflexivity and cohesiveness.
Unique to Patterson, Kinloch, Burkhard, Randall, and Howard is their conceptualization of BFT “as critical methodology” to challenge traditional methodologies that marginalize subjective and subjugated knowledges. Members of the Black Women's Gathering Place enact black feminist methodology to create “a space where black women could hear each other and be heard.” Similarly committed to collaborative research, Cruz, Okoh, Gooden, Spates, Elue, and Rousseau employ black feminist autoethnography21 “to carve out spaces for reflection and rich discussions on identity politics in this transitional time, when the world—amid its intense global connectivity—is fragmented by varying historical legacies, contemporary realities, and existential crises.” Through autoethnographic storytelling and poetry, the Ewke Collective centers black women's lived experiences on multiple continents impacted by complex and costly geopolitics to further black feminist engagement with the experiential, spatial, and generational dimensions of black femininity.
Capturing the impetus of our special issue forum space, Stacy Holman Jones says, “The purposes, practices, and uses to which our research is put are also decisions to be made—consciously, responsibly, reverently.”22 Mirroring Holman Jones, each forum essayist intentionally approaches BFT as a site and source of revelation, alliance, and growth. Beginning with AnaLouise Keating's meditation on linkages between Chicana and black feminisms, “threshold theorizing” is utilized to bring Gloria Anzaldúa's spiritual activism in conversation with Collins's visionary pragmatism. By highlighting how both theorists offer sophisticated articulations of spirituality from their respective positionalities, Keating effectively “chip[s] away at the spirit phobia and hyper-secularity dominating academic life,” and presents a politics of spirit and spirituality as a means to sustain and survive the injurious nature of social justice activism.
Taking up a similar endeavor to create connective pathways to black feminism is Kristin Waters's essay, which addresses a question that has inhibited feminist alliances for centuries: “How can white feminists productively engage with black feminist thought and practice?” In response, she narrates her own journey with willful and reflexive ignorance. When willfully ignorant, we are immersed in our respective privilege(s) and actively choose not to bear witness to oppression. By comparison, when reflexively ignorant, we actively choose transparency, accountability, and transformation to acknowledge and challenge systemic oppression(s). Offering “radical epistemological praxis” to foster more abundant epistemological inclusion, Waters makes clear that learning, teaching, and writing about black feminism cannot and should not be left solely to black women. Rendering a profound and forthright critique relevant to multiple (if not all) academic disciplines, she says, “In my field, leaving the labor of black feminist philosophical work to black women amounts to abandonment.”
Also concerned with alliance and activist coalitions, Nadine Naber describes rich connections between Arab and black feminisms through interviews with Linda Burnham and Miriam Ching Louie alongside recollections of her own lived experiences. Reaching as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, Naber offers a corrective to more recent feminist discourses that “[define] shifts in the 1990s towards transnational feminisms as a beginning rather than a re-constitution of globally conscious US feminisms.” Past and present examples of “Black–Palestinian solidarity” are recounted not only to illuminate the overlapping concerns of Arab and black feminists but also to recognize the continued relevance of neocolonialism, US imperialism, Zionism, and militarization to social justice. Recently made evident by Black for Palestine and the Z Collective in Detroit, MI, Naber advocates for more accurate historical accounts of global feminist activism and the interrelated significance of local, national, and international concerns.
Provocatively connected, both Naber and Karla D. Scott address the 2014 “Fires of Ferguson” ignited in Missouri in response to Michael Brown, an unarmed black male, being killed by a white male police officer. Naber notes the training of US police in Israel as a firm exemplar of why black solidarity with Palestine is necessary. Deeply impacted by the militarization of her community, Scott insists on the expansion of black feminist activism to include self-care. In the aftermath of her mother's passing and her father's decline in health, Scott describes being emotionally depleted, exhausted, and distressed by the self and cultural expectation that she be on the frontlines of the protests without regard for her own wellbeing. She says, “I felt like a failed black woman because I was unable to garner the historically bequeathed strength black women are always ‘supposed’ to have.” Working against this misconception, Scott positions self-care and caring about the health and well-being of black women as elemental to black feminism. Imperative to black feminist theorizing, she models how to deconstruct self and cultural expectations that black women should anesthetize our pain in a world that already sanitizes our suffering.
Patricia Hill Collins has curated a canonical influence that I imagine will be relevant for years, decades, and centuries to come. Signaling a profound respect that mere words cannot convey, this special issue culminates with her afterword as an overarching reflection on the collection of essays included and, more broadly, BFT as an oppositional framework. Anticipating your engagement with this special issue, my eyes are brimming with tears as I visualize each essay being read as a dialogic invitation for witnessing/contemplation/struggle/affirmation/awakening. Embracing that I am every age I have ever been,23 my ten-year-old blackgirl self is broken open by everlasting possibilities. As the dam breaks and my tears cascade, I feel immensely grateful toward Patricia Hill Collins alongside past/present/future sister scholars, activists, and artists. I am also beholden to the special issue editorial board, doctoral student reviewers, and each contributing author—all together we represent almost twenty appointed and joint-appointed disciplines. To Stacy Holman Jones and Sohinee Roy for their industrious labor to envision, shape, and fulfill our endeavor to secure and cultivate journal space for black feminist theorizing—many heartfelt thanks. Allowing Alice Walker the last intellectual/activist/poetic/black feminist/womanist word:
Here it is
the beauty that scares you.24