Black Queer Feminism
- Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
Black queer feminism is a set of approaches to thought, expression, and political action that critiques structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and several other forms of oppression. The term “black queer feminism” expands existing modes of feminism and queer/LGBTQIA + activism (activism by and for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual people, as well as others who experience structural gender and sexual oppression) by highlighting the connections between racial, gender, and heterosexist oppression. It also expands on some popular understandings of “black feminism” by placing the voices and political lives of black queer and LGBTQIA + people at the center of black feminist movements both past and present.
One of the key ways black feminism makes these critiques is through an “intersectional” approach—a framework for understanding the political and social world that centers the inseparability of oppressive structures such as racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism/homophobia. The term “intersectionality” was first coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the simultaneous impacts of racism and sexism on black women, yet the experience of multiple, interconnected forms of oppression has been a key concern of black women’s writing since the nineteenth century, if not earlier. Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Akasha Gloria Hull, and bell hooks are among a number of prominent scholars who have charted the presence of black feminist models of power in black women’s writings prior to the twentieth century.
Particularly from the nineteen seventies onward, many black women writers and activists emphasized sexuality—simultaneously with race, gender, and class—in their critiques of structural oppression. One of the most important examples of such an analysis was developed by the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminist writers and activists including Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, which in 1977 issued a “Black Feminist Statement” (often referred to as the “Combahee River Collective Statement”) to define and call attention to the “manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face” (Combahee River Collective, 1977, p. 210). Writing as a group of “feminists and lesbians,” the Collective states: “…[W]e are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking” (Combahee River Collective, 1977, pp. 213, 210). This statement articulates a black feminist political approach that centers the interconnectedness of racist, sexist, classist and homophobic power structures well before terms like “intersectionality” and “queerness” took hold in popular and academic discourse.
Black queer feminism extends this perspective by calling attention to the nexuses of racism, sexism, and heterosexism that operate in several activist communities and animate several academic fields. Black queer feminism argues that all effective feminist work requires an active critique of racism, anti-blackness, heterosexism/homophobia, classism, and other interrelated power structures. It also stresses the ways in which anti-homophobic and anti-heterosexist action are crucial to black feminism, and how anti-racist work is crucial to all effective queer/LGBTQIA + activism. Black queer feminism also calls attention to the presences of black queer voices in fights against several linked power structures including classism, ableism, transphobia, ageism, xenophobia, fat-phobia, Anglo-centrism, colonialism, language oppression, and many others.
Sites of Black Queer Feminist Work
Because of its expansive focus, black queer feminist analysis occurs in many intellectual and geographic spaces. Many black queer feminists view their work as inherently transnational and maintain a sustained emphasis on how colonialism and neo-colonialism impact queer and feminist communities throughout the African Diaspora. In addition, because of its emphasis on both analysis and practice, the work of black queer feminism—like the work of black feminism—takes place in many intellectual, cultural, and activist locations both within and outside of academia. Foundational voices in black queer feminist discourse of the late twentieth century include activist/educators such as Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier (co-writers of the Combahee River Collective Statement); poets, novelists, and playwrights such as Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Cheryl Clarke, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Pat Parker, and Jewelle Gomez; and scholars such as Cathy Cohen, M. Jacqui Alexander, Wahneema Lubiano, Evelynn Hammonds, Mae G. Henderson, Gloria Wekker, and several others. Many of these figures occupy multiple academic and activist spaces, contributing to creative, academic, and activist discourses, and often blurring the boundaries between them to reach multiple audiences and make more nuanced claims about power.
It would be anachronistic and, in some cases, inaccurate to term all of these figures “black queer feminists,” even as their work is foundational to contemporary black queer feminist discourse. The terms “black,” “queer,” and “feminist” are historically, geographically, and socially specific terms that mean different things depending on time and place. For example, until the late 1980s and early 1990s the term “queer” held largely violent and pejorative connotations in most places in the United States, and continues to hold such connotations in several contexts both there and elsewhere in the world. Many of the figures mentioned here use “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” or other terms to describe their identities or sexualities. In addition, many figures who make key contributions to black queer feminist discourse find terms like “trans* feminism” or “lesbian feminism” (for example) more useful in describing their work, because such terms both highlight a focus on these particular experiences of sexuality and critique the erasure of these experiences in other feminist discourses.
As a theoretical framework, black queer feminism aims to address such erasures. Many black queer feminists take up intersectional models of “queerness” like that which scholar Cathy Cohen calls for in her 1997 essay “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” In this essay, Cohen challenges the white queer activists’ failure to center race, gender, and class in their politics. She argues, “For many of us, the label ‘queer’ symbolizes an acknowledgment that through our existence and everyday survival we embody sustained and multisited resistance to systems (based on dominant constructions of race and gender) that seek to normalize our sexuality, exploit our labor, and constrain our visibility” (Cohen,1997, p. 440). Cohen calls for a queer political and analytical approach that centers the raced, gendered, and classed oppression of many queer people—for example, black queer women—and acknowledges how heterosexism and homophobia work in tandem with racism, sexism, classism, and labor exploitation within and beyond queer communities. This perspective on queerness also informs several areas of black queer studies, a closely related field with roots in black feminism. In fact, Cohen’s essay opens that field’s foundational anthology, Black Queer Studies: A Reader, edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (2005).
Even before debates around the meaning of queerness emerged, black women writers have charted political frameworks that center sexuality in their anti-racist and anti-sexist critiques. In her 1979 short story “Coming Apart,” Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” (which she further developed in her 1983 work In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens), to describe a black feminist practice that centers “sexual… and non-sexual…” love between women, as well as appreciation for black women’s creative expression, pleasure, spirituality, and the natural world. The term “womanist” was later taken up in other areas, especially theology, and has since reemerged in several fields, leading to the publication of The Womanist Reader: The First Quarter Century of Womanist Thought, edited by Layli Phillips (2006). Some writers who contribute to black queer feminist discourse describe their work as “womanist,” partly because the word “womanist” itself creates a space outside of white-centered and heterosexual-centered politics that the term “feminist” can invoke.
For many contemporary scholars, writers, and activists, claiming the term “black queer feminist” is, in itself, a political act. Scholars including Laura Alexandra Harris, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Janaé E. Bonsu, Charlene Carruthers, Mel Michelle Lewis, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, and several others use the term explicitly to address the erasure of queer voices from several discourses and to call for a more fully intersectional approach to power within feminist, queer, and black studies fields. Approaching theory and politics from a specifically black queer feminist perspective emphasizes the ways in which queer, feminist, and black studies theorizing have consistently relied on black feminism, and the ways in which black feminism has always been queer.
Twenty-first Century Directions of Black Queer Feminism
In the twenty-first century black queer feminists have used this approach to forward a multi-sited critique of power that includes anticolonial, anti-transphobic, anti-ableist, and other forms of anti-oppressive thought and action. Hakima Abbas, Sokari Ekine, Zethu Matabeni, visual activist Zanele Muholi, and many others have expanded the field tremendously by centering queer feminist politics and expression in several African nations, with one major contribution being the publication of The Queer African Reader, edited by Hakima Abbas and Sokari Ekine (2013). Likewise, scholars and writers including Alexander, Omise’eke Tinsley, Rosamond King, Thomas Glave, and others have amplified queer feminist Caribbean perspectives, particularly with the publication of Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, edited by Thomas Glave (2008). Black trans scholars and activists including Janet Mock, C. Riley Snorton, Victor Mukasa, Lee Mokobe, Matt Richardson, Kai M. Green, and Kortney Ryan Ziegler have moved black queer feminist discourse forward by centering black trans experiences and by calling for anti-transphobic thought and action in black, queer, and feminist spaces. Similarly, black queer and feminist (dis)ability studies has also expanded the field in crucial ways. Scholars, writers, and activists including Therí Pickens, Sami Schalk, Eddie Ndopu, and others have pushed these fields to critique hegemonies of able-bodiedness in their engagements of embodiment and normativity, and to center differences of ability in their analyses of power.
The twenty-first century has also opened new spaces for black queer feminist political engagement in the digital sphere and beyond. In 2013 Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti co-created the #BlackLivesMatter movement to forward a model of black liberation that “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.” Since that time, Cohen, Carruthers, organizations such as Black Youth Project 100, and others have extended this work to develop explicitly black queer feminist modes of activist engagement and social justice for the current moment. These developments join the work of numerous bloggers and digital artists, educators, and activists, all of whom extend the crucial histories of black feminist publishing of the late twentieth century into the digital sphere with a black queer feminist focus.
These movements show that just as black queer feminism’s concerns are multiple and interlocking, so are its modes of engagement. Black queer feminism occupies many spaces, taking up a black feminist model of queerness to center several connected experiences of power, and defiantly speaking to and for multiple communities at once.
- Abbas, Hakima, and Sokari Ekine, eds. Queer African Reader. Oxford: Pambazuka Press, 2013.
- Carruthers, Charlene. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. New York: Beacon Press, 2018.
- Cohen, Cathy. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ 3 (1997): 437–465.
- Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement.” Reprinted in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, pp. 210–218. Watertown, Mass.: Perspehone Press, 1981.
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139–167.
- Garza, Alicia. “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” The Feminist Wire. 7 Oct. 2014. https://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.
- Glave, Thomas, ed. Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008.
- Johnson, E. Patrick, and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005.
- Walker, Alice. “Coming Apart.” In Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer, pp. 84–93. New York: Bantam, 1979.
- Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.