I was once asked to finish the statement, "My feminism is…" It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer. I’m a gay, black woman. My feminism is intersectional. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, your experiences in life are shaped by the intersection of class, race, gender, sexual orientation and identity.
During the '60s and '70s, the faces of the women's right’s movement were white. But that’s not because black women weren’t part of the movement. Those just happened to be the faces that the media wanted to display. When asked if feminism plays a part in the black liberation movement, activist and journalist Gloria Steinem tells me, “Black women were there from the beginning.”
Black women were often asked to choose which was more important, the civil rights movement or the black liberation movement. Of course, there was no choice. Women of color don’t get to choose what aspect of who they are should be equal. But one cannot discuss the relationship between feminism and the black liberation movement without mentioning the significance of Angela Davis.
Known for her work advocating for the intersection of issues like gender, prison, race and politics, which brought her major attention in the early ‘70s for her radical activism and quest to fight for the freedom of political prisoners everywhere, Angela Davis has been a formidable force in feminism and the black liberation movement for over four decades.
Earlier this month, just a few days shy of the 44th anniversary of her acquittal on murder charges, she was honored at the Brooklyn Museum by the Sackler Center First Awards. The annual event honors extraordinary women who are first in their fields. In attendance was Chirlane McCray (First Lady of New York City), Elizabeth A. Sackler (founder of Sackler Center First Awards and Brooklyn Museum Board Chair) and members of five social justice organizations: Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Bard Prison Initiative, College and Community Fellowship, Women’s Prison Association, and Black Lives Matter. Before Davis accepted her award, she and Gloria Steinem sat down for a candid conversation on Davis’ work and and the importance of movements following a partial screening of a 2013 film titled, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” Directed by Shola Lynch, the film documents Davis’ revolutionary life and chronicles the obstacles she overcame in fighting systematic oppression.
In 1969, Angela Davis garnered national attention after being removed from her teaching position, in large part due to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, at UCLA as a result of her social activism and her membership in the Communist Party, USA. In 1970, she was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List on false charges, and was the subject of an intense police search that drove her underground and culminated in one of the most famous trials in recent U.S. history. During her sixteen-month incarceration, a massive international "Free Angela Davis" campaign was organized, leading to her acquittal in 1972.
During the conversation, Steinem asked Davis about the significance of black liberation movements today, like Black Lives Matter. “Black Lives Matter, this is what we’ve been waiting for,” Davis said about the necessity the movement fulfills among civil rights advocates. “This is a historical conjuncture where all the ingredients came together in an amazing way and Opal, Patrisse, and Alicia (the co-founders of the movement) were able to read the times and understand that this is what we need at this moment.”
Recognizing other groups, including Justice League in New York and BYP 100 in Chicago, she said, “All of this is connected and I think that is a moment when there is so much promise, so much potential. Of course we never know what the outcome is going to be, we can never predict the consequences of the work that we do. But as I always like to say, we have to act as if it is possible to build a revolution and to radically transform the world.”
Founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter is “rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those who have been “marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” For me, Black Lives Matter is the embodiment of feminism.
Although black individuals have entered economic, social, and political hierarchies, an overwhelming number of black people are subject to economic, educational and carceral racism to a far greater extent than during the pre-civil-rights era.
So just what is the relationship between feminism and black liberation? They are synonymous. You can’t have feminism without racial equality. Feminism cannot accomplish its goals without intersectionality. I’m not one to dictate one’s feminism, but to quote Flavia Dzodan, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” Feminism cannot ignore the mass incarceration of the black community, the high rate in which trans women of color are being murdered or the police brutality toward blacks that has gone unpunished.
In the wake of the police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, mass protests in many forms have erupted all across this country, highlighting the mistreatment and blatant disregard of black life. Reframing the conversation and bringing present day oppression to the forefront, the Black Lives Matter movement has awakened a new generation of activists who will not be silenced. Thank you to Angela Davis and many other feminists who have paved the way for these intersectional feminist organizations.
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Jacy Topps is a New York-based writer and PR executive. She writes primarily about fashion, NYC, music, LGBT culture and wine. Her love for Lifetime movies is bordering on an obsession. When she’s not attending fashion events in NYC, you can find her sipping wine and binge watching Gossip Girl on Netflix. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jacytopps.