The editorial team of Hood Communist would like to acknowledge that there are arguments in this piece that are bio-essentialist – meaning there are arguments that uphold an understanding of gender tied to and defined primarily by European constructions of biology. We want to state explicitly that we do not believe woman to be a biological category and we do not believe that the only women are those assigned female by Western science (which is colonial, capitalist, and white supremacist). We believe gender and sexual identity are socially constructed and extremely expansive, not binary or biologically based. Trans women are women. Non-binary and gender non-conforming people exist, are valid, and are on the front lines of the struggle for African liberation around the world.
We also want to acknowledge that while Africana womanism is upheld as a liberatory strategy by some Africans, there are others that have criticisms of the framework. To that end we want to share this previously published piece – Extending the Imagination of African Gender Thought – which has a more expansive analysis of feminism as well as some criticisms of Africana womanism.
Africana Womanism and Black Feminism are two different approaches that attempt to redefine and contextualize the experiences of African/Black women. Though both of these ideologies underscore Black women’s experiences, the principles and methods of these two approaches differ and sometimes conflict. The main difference between Africana Womanism and Black Feminism is the terminology, the prioritization of battles (racism, classism, and sexism), the relationship with the male counterpart, and the liberation from traditional gender roles vs the idea of family centrality.
Terminology in Africana Womanism and Black Feminism
The first major difference is the name. The terminology “feminist” or “feminism” is a product of white Anglo-Saxon women’s struggles. In Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves, Clenora Hudson-Weems writes, “…no matter what form of feminism one may identify with, be it mainstream, cultural, radical, or Black feminism, the term ‘feminism’ itself is firmly etched in the ideology or theoretical concept…which replicates dominant Eurocentric perspective” (37). Hence, the term “Feminism” is not only insufficient to conceptualize the experiences of African women but harmful in the sense that it is assimilationist. Adding “Black” to a pre-established Eurocentric line of thought argues Hudson-Weems is, in fact, a lazy approach to creating a sufficient ideology and representative of the complexities of African/Black women.
Africana Womanism, coined by Hudson-Weems, was an attempt to create something completely separate from pre-established movements. The term “Africana,” as described by Hudson-Weems, is to identify the “ethnicity of the woman being considered” and establish her cultural identity as it “relates directly to her ancestry and land base—Africa” . Womanism, in turn, partly inspired by Sojourner Truth’s impromptu speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” is another attempt to separate oneself from the terminology of “Feminism/Female.” Especially because “only a female of the human race can be a woman.” This nuance is crucial because it goes a long way in not only distinguishing but humanizing the African Woman, especially in a world that does everything to dehumanize her. The combination of these two words, in essence, is the radical self-definition that black women need. It is this self-definition that Black Feminism preaches but fails to practice. Bell hooks, Black Feminist and author of Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, writes, “Much feminist theory emerges from privileged women who live at the center, whose perspectives on reality rarely include knowledge and awareness of the lives of women and men; who live in the margin.” Here, bell hooks states the simple fact that the existing framework (feminist theory) excludes non-white peoples. For bell hooks and Black Feminism, the main struggle is to move to the “center.” The same center that wants to exclude them. This is where conflicts arise because Africana Womanism is separationist. It centers the ancestral homeland of all Black women—Africa—as the foundation. For Africana Womanists, the “center” is Africa. Hudson-Weems argues that for African/Black women to identify themselves within the framework of any type of “feminism” is to attempt to make room for black women within the anti-black “center” of which bell hooks speaks.
Prioritization of Racism, Classism, & Sexism
The next major difference is the prioritization of racism, sexism, and classism. Black Feminism prioritizes its struggles with sexism being at the forefront, racism second, and classism last. Africana Womanism prioritizes racism, the liberation of all her sisters and brothers, classism, and sexism, respectively.
Hudson-Weems says that like Black Feminism, Africana Womanism “acknowledges societal gender problems as critical issues to be resolved,” however she also argues that feminism is “a sort of inverted white patriarchy, with the White feminist now in command and on top.” Adding “Black” next to feminism again attempts to make space for people at a table they were never wanted. Hudson-Weems writes, “When the Black feminist buys the White terminology, she also buys its agenda”. This claim is founded on the very fact that Black Feminism works to overthrow the patriarchy first before battling the racist system overall. Black Feminism also does not make room for the fact that Black men, just like Black women, are victims of the patriarchal system.
Because Black Feminism comes from feminism, it retains the idea that the respective male counterpart is a perpetrator of patriarchy. Since Black Feminism sees patriarchy in the American context as the first order of business, there lacks an approach to fighting racism, classism, and sexism in the global context. Considering this, it becomes clear that Africana Womanism is a more universal framework that goes beyond the borders of the United States. When Hudson-Weems coined the terminology, Africana Womanism, it included all Africans, within and without the continent. The global approach to battling oppression is key because African women, regardless of their location, face racism, imperialism, and neo-colonialism on a global scale; linking up with all African peoples is absolutely crucial.
Relationship with the Male Counterpart
The next major difference is the relationship with the male counterpart. One major driving force to feminism, and by extension Black Feminism, is the aversion to the male counterpart as all males are seen as perpetrators of the patriarchal system. Feminism does not allow for this nuance because it is a white-centered approach. White men have oppressed white women, this is true. White women were denied suffrage, political careers, and a few other basic rights. However, the same cannot be said for African/Black women in relation to Black men. Black men were never and still are not, in a position to oppress Black women as white men have white women. A group of people cannot successfully deny basic rights to another group without institutional power. I repeat, black men do not, and have never, had institutional power. Black Feminist Thought falls victim to this white-centered approach and is evident in contemporary Black Feminist academics such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Brittney Cooper. The rhetoric employed by these women makes sweeping and general statements about Black men and causes gender-division across African peoples.
Liberation from Traditional Gender Roles vs Family Centrality
Another major factor to feminism is liberation from traditional women roles like motherhood and housewifery. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan (though she concedes the importance of family later in her life) writes that she wants more than her husband and more than her children. This attitude shaped an entire generation of women who viewed bearing children as backward and restrictive. At this point in time, getting married and raising children had become a burden to white women because they were denied everything else. It became an unwanted duty forced upon them by the patriarchy. The same cannot be said for Africana women. In fact, because of the lengths the patriarchal system has gone to hinder Black men from getting a job, the gender roles within the African community have never been set in stone. If anything, Black women have had to play the role of breadwinner because again, the patriarchy goes the extra mile to dehumanize the Black man by denying him a living. Because both Black men and women were equally oppressed because of their race, Africana Womanism emphasizes the importance of being in concert with the Black male counterpart. And by extension, it also stresses the significance of a strong African family unit in the fight for liberation.
Because of colonialism in Africa and slavery in the Americas, African men and women have become equal victims of these racist systems worldwide. Black women and Black men are both victims of the patriarchy. Hence, the idea of a perpetual struggle among the genders for African men and women simply does not hold up. Traditional gender roles, like many other European values of individualism and capitalism, were brought to Africa from outside. Africana Womanism emphasizes the importance of family centrality as the true Africana Womanist sees her nurturing and mothering role as crucial to creating a strong African family unit; The same strong African family unit is the foundation critical in fighting for the liberation for all African peoples.