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  • Cited by 4
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: November 2006

1 - On canons: anxious history and the rise of black feminist literary studies

from Part 1 - Problematics emerge


“Twice in the history of the United States the struggle for racial equality has been midwife to a feminist movement. In the abolition movement of the 1830s and 1840s, and again in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, women experiencing the contradictory expectations and stresses of changing roles began to move from individual discontents to social movement in their own behalf. Working for racial justice, they gained experience in organizing and in collective action, an ideology that described and condemned oppression analogous to their own, and a belief in human “rights” that could justify them in claiming equality for themselves.”

– Sara Evans, Personal Politics (1980)

Black feminist literary studies, like black women themselves, has had a troubled relationship to the larger rubric “feminist.” The trouble stems in part from the history of elitism and exclusion that attends the development of feminism as a social and intellectual movement in the United States and as a politics of reading in the academy. In the nineteenth century, decades before the term feminist came into popular usage, the mainstream woman's rights movement spoke and wrote of itself in the singular to reinforce a sense of sisterhood in female body, mind, and spirit. In actuality, however, the use of the singular woman reflected a shortsightedness that bordered on tunnel vision, a sense of self and sisterhood that was – well – selfish. The universal “woman” this early movement embraced was generally white, middle to upper class, and based in the eastern portions of the United States. It did not include the pioneer women pushing their way west or the native women displaced in the name of Manifest Destiny. Nor did it include poor white women or immigrant women from the working classes. And it most certainly did not include the female slaves whose inhuman condition was so inspirational for the white proto-feminists who saw in the captives' oppression a metaphor for their own domestic slavery.

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