For decades, feminist and critical scholars have spoken explicitly about the politics of citations. Sara Ahmed writes, “Citation is feminist memory,” then continues by “citing feminists of color who have contributed to the project of naming and dismantling the institutions of patriarchal whiteness.”1 In November 2017, thousands of feminists gathered at the National Women's Studies Association conference to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement, an often-cited Black feminist text that served as a roadmap for some and a sacred text for others.2 This statement and its regular citation together demonstrate feminist memory as well as two connected ways to think about Black feminist media studies scholarship as an area that connects media studies to the radical reimaginings of Black feminist/womanist theory. This area functions through its relentless challenge of the canon, which often excludes the contributions of Black women, and even the notion of the canon, and by challenging old, simplistic narratives about Blackness and Black womanhood.
Naming, thus, is fundamental in these works. For instance, the tradition of “bringing out our dead” is well documented, including in the works of James Baldwin. Many Black feminist scholars, and women of color feminists more broadly, have fallen, some in their forties and fifties, leaving behind a legacy, but their premature passing also presents questions about the conditions of our lives in the academy and beyond.3 The works of a few scholars who challenge the institutions of patriarchal whiteness that impact knowledge production are foregrounded here in order to celebrate their contributions. What follows is meant more like a tribute and thank you, and less of a comprehensive picture of this area of study. Many other scholars can and should be included in thinking about feminist interventions in Black media studies, but space constraints make it impossible to include them all in this short entry.
Black feminists intervene in the broader field of media studies and Black media studies by asking who represents and who is represented. Black feminists in media studies engage with Black and mainstream productions of Blackness, asking, How are Blackness and Black people represented? How and when do Black people represent themselves? Notably, the scholarship insists on engaging with gender and sexuality, in addition to class and nation. This body of work follows a trajectory similar to that of Black feminist interventions in women's studies and Black studies for the last few decades, as we and our predecessors have insisted on moving away from singular identity theorization and analysis toward greater nuance. Scholars in this area build on foundational works such as Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith's All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1993) that call out Black women's multiple exclusion from Blackness and womanhood, and continue to question and develop analytics to address Black women's marginality and the need for our liberation.4 While the interventions of early Black feminist intellectuals centered Black women who were otherwise erased from public discourse, they also began theorizing interlocking oppressions, which laid the foundation for the theory of intersectionality. This theorization goes against the ways that scholars previously spoke about positionality, location, and power. The Combahee River Collective's statement informed critical race and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw's coining of the term “intersectionality,” which has since been employed across Black feminist media studies scholarship.5
For Black feminist media scholars, intersectionality is not a buzzword but a central analytic for articulating our experiences and representations as multiply oppressed. Feminism in Black media studies claims that Black women matter, are subjects, have agency, and are to be taken seriously.6 bell hooks posits that criticism is an expression of love, and in many instances what these scholars write and produce through their research are love letters to us. They are saying “I see you,” and “We matter.”7 This body of scholarship challenges a media studies canon that does not engage with Blackness or racialized gender in media.
Black feminist media scholars work across the academy (sociology, ethnic studies, communication, film, education), as Black media studies scholarship has always been interdisciplinary. Black feminist interventions that inform Black media studies can be traced to a time period long before the advent of mass media when Black women also spoke and wrote against popularized notions of knowledge production, including who is considered an intellectual. As a group whose intellectual contributions were written out of history, and a group whose representations have been limited to a few tropes and controlling images, Black feminists write ourselves back into existence, benefiting from the unearthing of Black feminist foremothers.8 These figures, including Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Ann S. Cary, Ida B. Wells, and Phyllis Wheatley, spoke against popularized expectations and stereotypes of womanhood and Blackness, and critiqued a normative womanhood that excluded Black women. Finally, scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, who do not come from media studies or communication disciplines, have both been taken up as foundational by media scholars, particularly for their articulation of intersectionality and Black women's media representations.9
Collins and hooks also are part of a cohort of Black feminist scholars whose work fundamentally changed media studies. For instance Jacqueline Bobo offers a body of work that spans time but is anchored in Black studies, Black feminism, and media studies. Bobo engages Black women as cultural readers, producers, artists, and audiences in ways that move them from being “things” and objects to centered subjects.10 Similarly, Robin Means Coleman merges film and media studies while also offering insights on Black women. Coleman writes that feminist media studies “scholarship should continue to be built upon and encourage heterogeneous dialogue so that, in the end, diversely rich understandings of Black womanhood can be heard.”11 Finally, Beretta E. Smith-Shomade also crosses film and television. Her 2002 book Shaded Lives is noted as one of the first to center Black women in an examination of television, a genre that Smith-Shomade argues already marginalizes Black women.12
As media studies, and more specifically cultural studies, requires that scholars pay attention to the text as well as the audience, some of the most innovative Black feminist media scholarship demonstrates that Black women are sometimes a part of the text. This is visible for example in Aisha Durham's Home with Hip Hop Feminism (2014), which merges textual analysis with interviews, autoethnography, poetry, and screenplays.13 Durham, also coeditor of one of the first texts on hip-hop feminism, likewise anchors Home with Hip Hop Feminism in Black feminist theory, whose form reflects the future that editors of and contributors to the iconic woman of color feminist text This Bridge Called My Back (2015) might have dreamed of thirty years ago, and which, as Cherríe Moraga says, “reflect(s) our color loud and clear.”14
Additionally, some scholars also contest conceptualizations of Blackness, encouraging expanded and more nuanced ways to engage this categorization. For instance, Ralina L. Joseph's Transcending Blackness (2013) is a mainstay text in my Black feminism class, as it centers Black feminist theory while critiquing representations of mixed-race African American women, challenging tropes and narratives that serve multiple ideological and political functions.15 Drawing upon scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Joseph advocates for an expansion of our imaginations and also calls for a “third space.” Like Joseph, Catherine Squires writes extensively about post-race ideology, offering a language to make sense of constantly shifting racial discourses and political landscapes.16 Susan Harewood encourages readers to think critically about Blackness transnationally, and brings forward Caribbean texts, contexts, and figures to theorize media. Her work on popular soca star Alison Hinds, calypso, and tourism offers nuanced conceptualizations of nationalism, gender, and performance.17 Finally, although Stuart Hall may not be categorized as a Black feminist, his work has been instrumental to those who take up the task of complicating Blackness. Hall's commentary on the fundamental sameness of representations of Black people and Black women, despite the appearance of change over time, interweaves with Black feminist interventions.18
Black feminists make visible Black women's stories and intellectual contributions in a mediascape where we are either hypervisible or invisible. In writing about Black women in media, this group offers criticism, which, as Barbara Christian argues, is a response to those to whom there is often no response.19 Notably, most of the scholars discussed here practice feminist memory while bridging Black feminism with Black media studies. As Anna Julia Cooper wrote, “'Tis woman's strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice.”20 Black feminist media studies scholars write ourselves into history and into media studies so that we may continue to exist, in our own fashioning and image.