From the academy to the streets

From the academy to the streets

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From the academy to the streets documenting the healing power of black feminist creative expression
Riley, Tunisia L
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[Tampa, Fla]
University of South Florida
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Subjects / Keywords:
African-American women
Bell hooks
Black feminism
Creative expression
Dissertations, Academic -- Women's Studies -- Masters -- USF ( lcsh )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


ABSTRACT: I explore through feminist content analysis how poetry, blogging, political narrative, and music are employed by Black women as a means of personal and political empowerment, healing, activism and feminist practice. I theorize the emergence of a new manifestation Black feminism represented in poetry, blogs, political narrative, and popular music-exploring its ties to the history of Black feminism. I seek to demonstrate how gender conscious Black women create poetry, blogs, political narratives, and music as the catalyst to spark anti-sexist activism in contemporary Black women who may or may not call themselves feminists.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2009.
Includes bibliographical references.
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Title from PDF of title page.
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Document formatted into pages; contains 83 pages.
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by Tunisia L. Riley.

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University of South Florida Library
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E14-SFE0002935 ( USFLDC DOI )
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From the academy to the streets :
b documenting the healing power of black feminist creative expression
h [electronic resource] /
by Tunisia L. Riley.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 83 pages.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2009.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
3 520
ABSTRACT: I explore through feminist content analysis how poetry, blogging, political narrative, and music are employed by Black women as a means of personal and political empowerment, healing, activism and feminist practice. I theorize the emergence of a new manifestation Black feminism represented in poetry, blogs, political narrative, and popular music-exploring its ties to the history of Black feminism. I seek to demonstrate how gender conscious Black women create poetry, blogs, political narratives, and music as the catalyst to spark anti-sexist activism in contemporary Black women who may or may not call themselves feminists.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Advisor: Cheryl Rodriguez, Ph.D.
African-American women
Bell hooks
Black feminism
Creative expression
Dissertations, Academic
x Women's Studies
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856


From the Academy to the Streets: Documenting the Healing Power of Bl ack Feminist Creative Expression by Tunisia L. Riley A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of WomenÂ’s Studies College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Cheryl Rodriguez, Ph.D. Gary Lemons, Ph.D. Fanni Green, M.F.A. Date of Approval: March 24, 2009 Keywords: African-American women, activis m, bell hooks, Black feminism, creative expression, political narrative, empowe rment, healing, Patricia Hill Collins Copyright 2009, Tunisia L. Riley


i Table of Contents List of Figures ............................................................................................................... ...... ii Abstract .................................................................................................................... i ii Introduction .................................................................................................................. ....1 What Is Black Feminist Theory ...............................................................................4 Methodology ............................................................................................................9 Roots of Black Feminist Theory ............................................................................10 Chapter 1: From Oppression to Expre ssion: Black Feminist Movements through Poetry ....................................................................................................................13 Poetry Is Not A Luxury..........................................................................................13 Woman Poem: Reflecting on Black Women Past and Present ..............................17 Writing to Heal: When “My Personal Gets Political” ...........................................20 Chapter 2: Political Narrative: Autobiogr aphy as Liberatory Prose and Feminist Practice ....................................................................................................................27 Who Is Assata Shakur? An Overview ...................................................................29 A Burgeoning Feminist’s Introduction to Assata Shakur through Hip-Hop .........34 Standpoint Theory and the Reading of Assata .......................................................38 Assata: An Autobiography as Black Feminist Thought? .......................................40 Self-Definition and Autobiography .......................................................................42 Chapter 3: Neo Soul Black Feminism: the Music is Activism/the Activism is Music ......51 Neo Soul: When Life Imitates Art .........................................................................52 Erykah Badu: More than a “Bag Lady” with “Mama’s Gun” ...............................53 India.Arie: Not the Aver age Girl in the Video ......................................................56 Goapele: If A Song Could Change it All ...............................................................59 Jill Scott’s Critique of Bl ack Male Misogyny (In Song) .......................................62 The Oppositional Gaze on Neo Soul CD Covers ...................................................64 Conclusion .................................................................................................................... 70 WWW.BlackFeminism: Blogs a nd Sites of Resistance ........................................70 The Arts as a “Space of Radical Openness” ..........................................................75 Notes ....................................................................................................................79 Works Cited ................................................................................................................... .80


ii List of Figures Figure 1 Cover of N. Shange’s Book For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf 54 Figure 2 Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” Video Still 54 Figure 3 Deaths from Breast Cancer by Race and Ethnicity 58 Figure 4 Erykah Badu’s CD Covers 66 Figure 5 Goapele CD Covers 67 Figure 6 India.Arie CD Covers 68 Figure 7 Jill Scott CD Covers 69


iii From the Academy to the Streets: Documenting the Healing Power of Bl ack Feminist Creative Expression Tunisia L. Riley ABSTRACT I explore through feminist content an alysis how poetry, blogging, political narrative, and music are employed by Black women as a means of personal and political empowerment, healing, activism a nd feminist practice. I theorize the emergence of a new manifestation Black feminism represented in poetry, blogs, political narrative, and popular music—expl oring its ties to the history of Black feminism. I seek to demonstrate how ge nder conscious Black women create poetry, blogs, political narratives, and music as the ca talyst to spark anti-sexist activism in contemporary Black women who may or may not call themselves feminists.


Riley 1 Introduction When we question the power structures that dictate our racial and gender identities, we are theorizing. When we seek to empower ourselves, heal ourselves and others in spite of our circumstances, we ar e activists and advocates. When we describe our struggles as Black women within th e rhyme of poetry, upon a painter’s canvas, through a photographer’s lens and in the me lody of song, we are artists and clever revolutionaries using our crea tive expression to subvert the power of our oppression. In this research, I examine how creative expression of poetry, political narrative, music, and most recently blogs, are used as a means of healing, empowerment, activism, and feminist practice in the lives of Black wo men. I define a new manifestation of Black feminism which uses music to bring Black feminist theory to a larger community extending beyond academia. I theorize that a group of new Black feminists, whom I have named Neo Soul Black feminist singers, utili ze the tools afforded th em by Black feminist scholars of previous generations to share with a new generation of Black women. I use the term “Neo Soul Black feminist singer” be cause within the naming of Neo Soul, as the name suggests Neo Soul Black feminist singers bri ng reverence to the Black Power and Feminist movements that bore Black femini st thought through consciousness raising techniques employed in their lyrics and the images they put forth of Black womanhood through CD covers and videos. Neo Soul Black feminist singers furthe r the principles of Black feminism through their activism in em powerment and community work outside of their music. Their lyrics expand and transfor m Black feminist theory into action, taking theory from academia to the streets. In this research I define Black feminism and feminist


Riley 2 content analysis. I expound on the link between Black feminist theory to poetry, political narrative, and the music and activ ism of Neo Soul Black feminist artists. My analysis is based on the Black feminist theories supporte d by Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Margo Perkins. I explore the foundations for the emergence of a Black feminist continuum within the context of th e poetry of Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. In the latter stages of orga nizing this thesis, I began to recall the CD covers of all the Neo Soul Black feminist artists I reference and I e xperienced an epiphany. As I thought on all their CD covers, I noticed a pattern that brought together Black feminist theory and the embodiment of Black feminist thought by these Neo Soul Black feminists. This manifestation of Black Feminist thought is represented in the production of each artistÂ’s successive CD cove r over time suggesting an evolving stage of Black womanhood consciousness in each artist. These women sei ze control of the gaze through the use of camera angles and control of who is looking at whom. With the progression of the first to most recent CD covers by Erykah Badu, Indi a.Arie, Goapele, and Jill Scott, each womanÂ’s image changes from a partial facial, eye, and/or body exposure on her first CD cover toward a progression of an assertive gaze in her more recent CD covers. I will explore the implications of this repr esentation more in chapter three. Neo Soul Black feminist singersÂ’ quest for self-definition and self-valuation through activism are concepts bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins define in texts like Black Looks, Yearning and Black Feminist Thought respectively. Both hooks and Collins discuss issues of self-valuation and resi stance to stereotypical images of Black womanhood which I argue are refl ected in the music of Neo S oul Black feminists. It is


Riley 3 also at this nexus where a self-reflexive appr oach to my research in my quest for selfdefinition, healing, activism, and empowerment as a young Black feminist poet begins, and is represented through my own poetic expression. The pr inciples I express through my poetry and community work align with th e music of Neo Soul Black feminists and the theory of such Black feminist scholars as Patricia Hill Collin s, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. Black feminism, while it can be defined as standpoint theory, is not a monolithic theory. Standpoint theory is grounded in oneÂ’s material reality a nd activity. Standpoint theory is also grounded in oneÂ’s engagement in and questioning of oneÂ’s position within society. The position of the sta ndpoint theorist grants her a privileged perspective in theorizing because of her social standing. Standpoint theory then becomes useful for Black feminists because it grants Black wome n access to theorizing from their societal position tied to their race, gender, and class. Standpoint theory personalizes oneÂ’s experiences as a place of inqui ry and position of power in theorizing that one outside of this perspective is not priv ileged to see (Hartsock 218). There are common elements that bind Black womenÂ’s experiences in the United States with regard to racism, sexism, and cl assism. Gender, race, and class have been and continue to be oppressive for ces in Black womenÂ’s lives to day. For example, during Civil Rights and the Black power movements, Black men marginalized Black women based on gender as first and second wave white femi nist women marginalized Black women based on race. We as Black women may have reach ed the point of defining ourselves for ourselves, and have entered academia as pr ofessors and young scholars but as Black


Riley 4 feminism has grown, so too have the questions and theorizing about what it means to be Black women in America, as poor Black wome n, as Black lesbians, as Black feminists, womanists, as middle class Black women, and Black women of the cl oth or atheists. At the core of Black feminism is self-defin ition, a connection to th e community, a complex existence tied to race, class, and gender th at causes Black women’s experiences to remain distinctly different from the experiences of Black men in America and white women in America. The 2008 Presidential Primary Elec tion process re-opened the discussion of theorizing Black feminism and defining allegiance s either to race or gender in light of the political rivalry of Senators Hillary Clinton (a white woman) and Barack Obama (a Black man) forcing Black women to choose between race and gender identities couched in the “either/or” categories of “Black” and “wom an.” This is a conflict Black women in America have faced dating as far back as slavery and the woman’s Suffragist movement. From this complex gender and racial problem atic, Black feminist thought emerged and continues to flourish in the work of Neo S oul Black feminist singers, in the work of Black women bloggers, and on websites geared towards Black women. Black feminism counters the belief that “all the women are wh ite and all the Blacks are men” (Hull). What Is Black Feminist Theory? Black feminist theory emerged as Black women became conscious of her position in a system of patriarchy becau se of her race, gender, class, and sexuality. Black feminist theory asserts the intersection of multiple systems of oppressions. Patricia Hill Collins offers a comparative definition of womanism and Black feminism in her 1997 piece, “What’s In A Name? Womanism, Black Femi nism and Beyond.” “What’s in A Name?”


Riley 5 is a chronological timeline of Black feminism as it has evolved from a monolithic theory to representing the multiplicity of Black women’s experiences. Black feminism represents a reaction to Black male se xism, internalized racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Womanism, with its roots in Black Nationalism reflects an afro centric view through Black identity. Black feminism and womanism spring from a notion of plurality in Black women’s standpoint a nd not simply a singular Black woman’s standpoint. When I use the term Black femi nism, I am using Collins’ and the Combahee River Collective’s definitions. The Combahee River Collective offers an additional definition of Black feminism I use to define Black feminism and distingu ish it from “white” feminism. In “A Black Feminist Statement” the Comb ahee River Collective discusses its struggles against white feminists’ separatist gender ideas. The Co mbahee River Collective encourages solidarity with “progressive Black men.” I am drawn to its definition of Black feminism in its call to collaboration amongst Black women and me n. But the Collective also addresses the dilemma Black women face with Black sexism. While Black feminists struggle “together with Black men against racism” the Collective no tes the catch 22 of this struggle as also a struggle “with Black men about sexism” (CRC 16). The Combahee River Collective expresses the urgency of Black women’s freed om as linked to all systems of oppression when they state “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessi tate the destruction of all systems of oppression. Feminism is, nevertheless, very th reatening to the majority of Black people because it calls into question some of the mo st basic assumptions about our existence,


Riley 6 i.e., that gender should be a determinant of power relationships” (CRC 18). Thus, Black women may practice Black feminism, but they ma y also be reluctant to align themselves with the label, “feminist”, because of their so lidarity with Black men. This is important to recognize when considering the Neo Soul Black feminists I refer to in the context of contemporary popular culture and when assessin g these artists within the frame of a hiphop generation divided across gender lines. To assess the evolution of Black feminism, one must first delve into the history of Black people in the United States, by return ing to the stories of Black women during slavery. Slave narratives such as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (published in 1861) combined with contem porary texts like Debrorah Gray White’s Ar’nt I a Woman? (published in 1985 and 1999) should be read concurrently to understand the birth and evolution of Black feminism, a nd the role of race and gender in Black women’s lives. An assessment and comparison must be made with historical texts to contemporary texts of poetry, popular culture and memoirs to understand the similarities of creative expression as legacies in healing, empowerment and activism in the lives of Black women in the United States. My research represents a pe rsonal and literal quest into the roots of contemporary manifestations of Black feminist thought related to its releva ncy, application, and transformational power connect ed to the use of creative expression by Black women. My research begins with an analysis of the poetr y of Black feminist aut hors of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s which I offe r as foundational in paving the way for contemporary Black female bloggers and Neo Soul singers. Specifically, I examine the


Riley 7 political narrative of poet, activist, and fo rmer Black Panther and member in the Black Liberation Army (BLA) Assata Shakur. Follo wing my examination of her work, I focus on the contemporary relevancy and applicati on of Black feminist thought in the music and community work of Erykah Badu, India.Arie, Jill Scott, and Goapele. I conclude with a look at internet uses of Black feminist thought through the use of blogging and websites by Black women directed towards Black women. As stated earlier, I include an analysis of my own creative expression as a Black feminist poet. My own work further illustrates the power, tradition and healing components of creative expression in the lives of Black women. Exploring the power of Black female creative expression, I se ek to address the following questions --Who are the new agen ts of Black feminism? How has Black feminism moved out of academia and in to popular culture to disperse its teachings/theories? How has poetry by Black women, autobiographical narrative expression, and popular music of a select group of R&B ar tists influenced today’s generation of Black feminist activism? I ask how have poetry, political narrative, music, and the internet become the arena for Black feminism to thrive in the millennium? June Jordan and bell hooks cite “love” as a source of healing and empowerment. hooks suggests that in order for healing to o ccur in the lives of Black women, there must be more literature “sharing theories, and stra tegies of decolonization that enable selflove” (2001: 92). I propose that Black wome n poets, autobiogra phers, and Neo Soul Black feminist singers promote healing and empowerment in their work. It creates the potential for collective activism in their audi ences. These Black female artists promote consciousness-raising to resist negative stereotypes and en courage self love which I


Riley 8 suggest is the byproduct of healing. June Jord an, a self identified Black feminist, draws upon the need for self love in her statement, “I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myse lf as though my very life depends on selflove and self-respect” (Whitehead 86). hooks also asserts that “an organized, mass-based, progressive, anti-racist political movement” is needed that makes our homes “sites of resistance, where we create the oppositional spaces where we can be self-loving” (2001: 92). I argue that Neo Soul Black feminists a nd Black women bloggers create this space of resistance in their lyrics, websites, comm unity activism and community consciousness raising, and for Neo Soul Black feminist singers by the image of Black womanhood they project with their CD covers. When I meditate on the meaning of the word “healing” I think of words and phrases like: “renew,” “regenerate,” and “to make whole what was once broken or unhealthy.” June Jordan and bell hooks (both women who are poets and essayists) place self-love at the heart of Black women heali ng themselves and others. I make the claim that it is through Black women’s use of cr eative expression they can heal, love, and empower themselves and ultimately do the same for those around them. This is a form of activism. When Black women come together to hear and comfort one another, they begin the healing process. Author Evelyn C. Wh ite calls Black women poets women who use their craft like a “soothing t onic” (White xv) when descri bing the poetry used in her collection of essays on Black women’s health.


Riley 9 Methodology I use feminist content analysis as a methodology for critically analyzing the content of Black feminist poetry, Black fe male authors, and contemporary Neo Soul Black feminist singers. Feminist content an alysis allows me to make a connection between Black feminist theory, early theorist s, and contemporary artis ts. Feminist content analysis provides a tool to investig ate Black women’s culture, their healing, empowerment, and activism through creative ex pression. Feminist cont ent analysis also allows me to dissect meaning within text s and products in order to understand how womanhood and race are viewed by Black women (Leavy 224). Through feminist content analysis, I locate act s of resistance employed by Black women within the creative expression of poetry, autobiographical politi cal narrative, music lyrics and their representation on musical CDs. I focu s on poetry about womanhood and violence towards women. The creative expression used by the Black women in my research focuses on consciousness raising for Black wo men, Black men, and society at large. The main focus of these authors, poets, blogge rs and musicians is on the empowering and healing of Black women. Black women have always questioned and continue to questio n the constructions of our identities, how our race and gender ar e sculpted, restricted, and misrepresented by American popular culture. When Sojourner Truth’s questioned those who attended the 1851 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio with “ain’t I a woman” she was questioning the contradiction of womanhood related to race. Her critique asks: who am I if I am not a woman? If she as a Black woman can bear children and white women can bear children,


Riley 10 what makes one better than the other? Her aw areness of this contradiction has more depth of understanding of the hegemonic system dict ating her racial and gender identity than white male oppressors during slavery and wh ite female oppressors during the women’s suffragist movement (Truth 36). Harriett Jacobs’ Incidents in the Li fe of a Slave Girl offers foundations for Black women theorizi ng their conditions in narrative form and establishing a tradition of us ing memoir as a source of em powerment which I explore in chapter two with Assata Shakur’s autobiographical political narrative. Roots of Black Feminist Theory Black women have been defining ourselv es for ourselves long before it was labeled Black feminist theory, as represente d in the memoir of Harriet Jacobs and the question “ain’t I a woman?” by Sojourner Trut h. Black feminist scho lars suggest that Maria Miller Stewart la id the foundation for a Black femi nist intellectual and activist tradition (Guy-Sheftall). In “L ecture Delivered at the Franklin Hall, Boston. September 21, 1832” Stewart makes an appeal to white wo men or “fairer sisters, whose hands are never soiled” and who have been “nursed in th e lap of affluence and ease.” In this article Stewart brings to light the in tersection of race, class and gender as it relates to Black women in the United States which are foundatio nal in Black feminist theory. She attacks the stereotype of Blacks as “lazy and idle” which the Liberator published. Stewart’s article boldly questions publicly held opinions of Black slaves. Stewart articulates an understanding of the intersection of race, class and gender, calls for multiracial and mixed gender collaboration and activism and lastly outlines how Black women’s experiences in America have been vastly different from white women and Black men,


Riley 11 therefore, requiring a movement which addres ses this complexity that both white women and Black men have historically tr ied to ignore or place on hold. In understanding the historical context of this era, one must read it within the following context: womanhood was defined as pu rity and respectabilit y. While Stewart is making a plea that Black women are of this sa me cloth as white women, she theorizes on racism, sexism, accessibility to education and poverty as hindrances to Black women’s ability to obtain this praised “womanhood.” She is asking the ques tion of “ain’t I a woman” before Sojourner Truth by raisi ng questions of access and gender roles. Furthermore, Stewart gives insight into the “wretched and miserabl e” daughters of Africa as doomed to spend lives as those in a lesser class, what is one’s motivation if there is nothing allowed or accessible for a Black person to aspire for? She is a self aware subject, challenging perspec tives of women and Blacks as second class citizens who don’t understand their plight. This theorizing on the intersectio nality of race, class and gender mirror the critiques bell hooks makes in Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000), Patricia Hill Collins argues against in Black Feminist Thought and when one analyzes the poetry and creative expression of poets Audr e Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, the memoir of Assata Shakur, the music of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Goapele, and India.Arie, one will see that these Black women continue to question white racism and Black sexism. Black women are still theorizing the idea of a Black female self but have moved beyond academia into music, poetry, and onto th e internet utilizing these platforms to promote activism, healing, and empowerment through self-definition. In this vain, there is significance in learning from one’s “outside r” experience in order to define one’s self


Riley 12 and find value in that self-definition as Patricia Hill Collins notes in her essay “Learning from the Outsider Within” and bell hooks notes in “Black Women Shaping Feminist Theory” and “Choosing the Margin as Space of Radical Openness.” These works lay the foundations for my exploration of the birth of the Neo Soul Black Feminist singer. She has her own style and defies stereotype s as well as responds to the misogyny of contemporary hip-hop lyrics and videos by cer tain male rappers. The music of this woman is personal and political, continuing the legacy of oral traditions and creative expression that continues to ask “ain’t I a woman” and questions common sexist misrepresentations of Black and womanhood. So ciologist Rana Emerson’s article “Where My Girls At?” and Essence Magazine’s “Take Back the Music” campaign address these issues. But before Erykah Badu and Jill Sco tt, there was Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Assata Shakur. These poets paved the wa y for the Neo Soul Black feminists with their poetry and consciousness-ra ising literature and activism.


Riley 13 Chapter 1: From Oppression to Expression: Black Feminist Movements through Poetry A crucial tool in questio ning Black womanhood, Black fe male self-definition, and the art of bringing awareness to the issues facing Black women in the United States is represented through the femini st poetry of Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Assata Shakur. Through poetry, these women theori ze, empower, and heal themselves and communities. In this chapter I address the importance of poetry in the healing and empowerment of Black women. In what ways are Black women’s lives transformed by Black feminist poetry? How a nd why Black women’s poetry is so vital to the lives of Black women and Black feminism. Through pe rsonal account and analysis of the poetry of Audre Lorde and Nikki Giovanni, I explore th ese tools to create a bridge to Assata Shakur’s political narrative wh ich I establish as the ideological foundation of the Neo Soul Black Feminist artist. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” In the essay “Poetry is Not A Luxury” A udre Lorde expresses the significance of poetry in the lives of the poet and her a udience. Lorde argues that poetry unearths “unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling…for women…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward surv ival and change” (Lorde 1984:37). Lorde explores this light toward s change in her poem “Need: A Chorale for Black Women Voices” a poem for Patricia Cowan and B obbie Jean Graham “and the hundreds of other


Riley 14 mangled Black Women whose nightmares in form these words” (Lorde 1992:199). According to the April 11, 1978 New York Times article “Actress is Slain At Michigan Audition,” and April 12, 1978 New York Times article “Around the Nation: Playwright Held in Death Of Aspiring Actress, 20,” Pa tricia Cowan was a 20-year-old Black actress who was “bludgeoned to death” by playwright James Thomas with a sledgehammer in Detroit, MI. She was then left in an alle y and set on fire as he r young son (who survived) cried out for help. According to an ar ticle appearing in the February 15, 1986 Boston Globe “Jury Convicts Man of Killing Girlfriend, ” Bobbie Jean Graham was a 34-year-old Black woman who was kicked to death by her boyfriend early May 1979 in Boston, MA. In her poem Lorde, describes the horrifi c events of Patricia Cowan and Bobbi Jean Graham’s deaths in the voice of poet a nd the victims. Lorde ta kes on the positions of “witness” and “spokesperson” in this poem as a reaction to the domestic violence and disregard of Black women’s deaths (Geo rgoudaki 110). Lorde opens her poem in the voice of “Pat” (Patricia Cowan). By addressi ng the victim as “Pat” suggests familiarity with the victim, as if she were a friend or si ster of the poet. Lorde recognizes Patricia as Pat to show a bond. As “Pat” she states “this woman is Black/so her blood is shed into silence…like the droppings of birds to be washed away w ith silence and rain” (Lorde 1992: 199), I believe this is to set the tone of the entire poem and illuminates the need for poetry as activism to shatter the silence in the violence against and erasure of Black women at the hand of Black male aggression. Lorde addresses interlocking oppressions of racism and sexism with her questioning of Black men and white men. Wh en she asks “do you need me imprinting


Riley 15 upon our children/the destruction our en emies print upon you…destroying us both” (Lorde 1992: 204). I believe the “u s” she is referring to are Black men who transfer their anger with racism upon Black women while th e “enemies” are any agents of racist, patriarchal domination against Black women. Lorde continues to play the role of advocate when she asks the reader “how much of this pain can I use?” She is aware of the necessity of using these women’s deaths in order to give voice to the voiceless Black women whose deaths would be in vain lik e the “droppings of bi rds,” if she, as poet/woman/advocate/witness, does not addres s this. While the poem is addressed to Bobbie and Patricia, it is also for the name less Black women whose names do not appear in the news when they are killed. Lorde is critiquing the sexism and racism that has fostered these crimes against Black women. She continues to challenge witnesses who deny the existence of violence against Black women when she writes: I do not even know all their names. Black women’s deaths are not noteworthy Not threatening or glamorous enough To decorate the evening news Not important enough to be fossilized Between right-to-life pickets And a march against gun-control We are refuse in this city’s war With no medals no exchange of prisoners No packages from home no time off For good behavior No victories. No victors. (Lorde 1992: 202) Audre Lorde’s poem represents the “pierc ing of invisibility of Black women’s objectification” as described by Patricia Hill Collins when she discusses Black women as the mouthpiece for other Black women (2000:104) Collins continues, “one can write for a nameless, faceless audience but the act of us ing one’s voice requires a listener and thus


Riley 16 establishes a connection (2000:104).” When Lo rde includes herself in this poem as “poet” she establishes a conn ection and advances the notion of connection between Black feminist author and Black women. Lorde is s uggesting that a crime against one is a crime against all Black women because what has happened in Detroit has happened in Boston and is likely happening in other parts of the country but goes unnoticed because it is instigated on an “invisible” Black female body, a body in which Lorde has reclaimed and given voice to in this poem. Lorde advances her point of a collective Black female in a stanza spoken from the perspective of both Bobbie and Pat when she states, “and I die in alleys of Boston/my stomach stomped through the small of my back /my hammered-in skull in Detroit” (Lorde 1992:204). Lorde is demonstrating that the loca tions are different. The violent crime is perpetrated by different men. However, these women are one in the same: Bobbie is Pat, Pat is Bobbie and both Pat and Bobbie are a ll Black women, which is expressed in the line “a ceremonial knife through my grandmot her’s used vagina” once again Lorde is establishing a connection between all Black wo men past and present within this poem. She ends this poem with a line referenced from Barbara Demming--“we cannot live without our lives.” The line is first spoke n by the poet and once ag ain closes by “all.” I believe Lorde writes as Poet then as the coll ective to reflect the internalization of living with our lives: we must be alive to live our lives both figuratively and literally. Lorde’s poem demonstrates the foundation that allows for the emergence of the Neo Soul Black feminist I discuss in chapter three. While Lorde’s poem offers social commentary on the violent deaths of Black women, Nikki Giova nni’s “Woman Poem” offers insight into Black womanhood and the plight of American Black women.


Riley 17 “Woman Poem”: Reflecting On Black Women Past and Present Nikki Giovanni’s “Woman Poem” theori zes the complexity of Black womanhood, showcases reversed gender roles and looks at the relationship Black women have with each other, Black men and others outside of the Black community. Giovanni’s poem also looks at the emotional scars of alienation that may result from these relationships. Giovanni’s “Woman Poem,” is consistently written in the first person of a Black woman’s voice. The poem opens with a woman whose whole life is “tied to unhappiness” and ends in affirming that unhappiness is the only “real th ing” she knows. As the poem continues to unfold, Giovanni reverses the ge nder roles of men work ing outside the house and women working inside the home as domestic, with her line “father cooking breakfast…or having no food…proving his inco mpetence” (Giovanni 55). It is worth explicating the “realness” of “unhappiness” as it relates to Black women, as it may be a direct response to the images of Jezebel and Mammy she addresses in the lines: it’s a sex object if you’re pretty and no love or love and no sex if you’re fat get back fat Black woman be a mother grandmother strong thing but not woman (Giovanni 55) To express “unhappiness” with these images of Blackness is to express an acute awareness of the limitations of these images Giovanni expresses “unhappiness” in being a pretty sex object (the Jezeb el), of being the fat Black mother and grandmother known for her strength and girth (Mammy). There is no reconciling these images of Black womanhood based on Giovanni’s use of the noun “it” denoting that these Black women are not really women but commodities used for their sexuality and strength, as


Riley 18 represented in the line “but not woman.” These Black women are deconstructed into multidimensional “women” versus a singular “woman.” Giovanni uses “Woman Poem” to cr itically analyze Black womanhood. Beyond analyzing Black womanhood, Giovanni later que stions the relationship Black women have with each other. While Lorde suggest s oneness in her poem for Patricia Cowan, Bobbie Jean Graham and others, Giovanni is critical of Black women when she states, “Smiles are only something we give/to properl y dressed social workers/not each other” which can connote an internaliz ed racism Black women harbor as a result of being the virgin/whore or Mammy/Jezebel thing she addresses the stanza prior. Giovanni then addresses class, and relationships of Black women to Black men in the lines: “it’s intellectual devastation/of everybody/to avoid emotional commitment/ ‘yeah honey I would’ve married/him but he didn’t have no degree’” (G iovanni 56). When Giovanni addresses the intellectual divide that create s a barrier between Black women and men, she could be addressing the dilemma facing Bl ack women in which Harlem Renaissance writer Elise Johnson McDougald addresses in the 1920 essay “Negro Womanhood” and what Julianne Malveaux addresses in 2008 in “Shouldering the Third Burden.” What I am suggesting is that Giovanni’s poem can wo rk as a bridge to the continuum of Black women theorizing their struggles at the in tersection of gender, race, and class. Elise Johnson McDougald essay “Negro Womanhood” addresses the interlocking of Black women’s and Black men’s oppression. McDougald’s essay also notes that as Black women were advancing academically in the 1920s, Black men were unable to attain high paying jobs or because of Black men’s suppressed resentment towards white racism, Black men used their homes as a space of “overbearing domination” towards


Riley 19 Black women (McDougald ed. Lewis, 70 & 73). In 2008, The State of Black America’s theme was on Black women. The State of Black America is an annual report prepared by the National Urban League which addresses pivotal matters concerning Black Americans that current year. In 2008, Julianne Malveaux’s essay “Shouldering the Third Burden: The Status of African American” represents a major example of Black feminism’s relevancy and Black women’s continued dile mmas in 2008 which bind theirs and Black men’s struggles together. Malveaux sugge sts that while Black women are now experiencing more success economically and academically, Black women are shouldering a third burden of economic responsibility as more and more Black men are incarcerated, have generally lower education levels and economic accessibility. The same issues of the 1920s and 1960s still plague Black women in 2008, several decades after legal desegregation and elevated opport unities for Black women. Malveaux suggests what womanist and Black femi nists have suggested as key elements to their arguments: “The fate of African American women is comp lexly intertwined with that of their male counterparts, and injustices plaguing th e one (gender) cannot be remedied without addressing the problems of the other (ge nder).” Malveaux’s c onclusion suggests why Black feminism is still relevant and im portant. McDougald and Malveaux explore the interlocking issues of race, class and gender that Black women in America continue to experience today binding them to Black me n (Malveaux 3). It is this issue which Giovanni covers poetically and critically in her “Woman Poem” to offer her readers insight into the inner fe elings of Black women.


Riley 20 Writing to Heal: When My “Personal Gets Political” Poets Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni offe r examples of Black women using poetry as a place of and vehicle towards h ealing, empowerment, and activism. Their words display a communal voice. The authors are angry, but the wo men are affirmative in their anger and words encouraging proactive actions from their readers. The concept of poetry as communal, angry, and affirma tive is suggested by Kim Whitehead in The Feminist Poetry Movement when describing the poetry of Ju ne Jordan, but I suggest this concept can be expanded to include a range of Black feminist poets like the ones I reference in this chapter. With each poem I have referenced, there is the resistance to injustice and/or a cause for self evaluation that drives the poem. I begin this section with autobiographical reflection. I came to the idea of “writing to heal” through my experi ence with the suicide of a childhood friend. From 1999 onward I used poetry to navigate through my em otions of grief, guilt, and anger resulting from her death. As I continued to write and work through my emotions, I began noticing the ways in which other Black women were using their creative expression in similar ways. I began to notice a recurring theme or set of themes being echoed in the poetry, music, and autobiographies by Black women whose works mirrored my own feelings and experiences. Before understanding Black femini st theory of self-healing and similarities in Black women’s creative expression and struggles, like bell hooks, I first came to theory and Black feminism because I was hurting.


Riley 21 On New YearÂ’s Day 1999, a woman named Timeeka committed suicide by jumping off of a 24 story building directly across the street from my window. She was 20years-old and had been my best friend sin ce we were three years old. Perhaps she was attempting to fly because words could no longer lift her, or maybe she wanted to send all her friends and family a final message to last in our minds forever. I will never know her motives, yet the pain and guilt I feel because of her death has instilled in me an undying desire to prevent another death like TimeekaÂ’s. The night before TimeekaÂ’s death sh e knocked on my door, perhaps to say goodbye or to ask for help. I will never know because I did not answer. Why? While we had grown up together and were babysat by my grandmother and her mother, our lives took different paths as we matured. The mo re I became focused on my education and the arts, the more consumed she became by drugs to the point that the woman who knocked on my door that night was no longer the woma n I knew. Her behavior was erratic at times. Once a plump little girl, the woman on the other side of my door was a dangerously thin woman as a result of drug addiction. She was a ghost of who she once was. I know now her memory and my choice of not opening the door haunts me; it drives me and reminds me of my inability to help, intervene, or acknowledge her circumstance. Today, I am not that self-centered and f earful young girl I once was. Instead, I am a confident, compassionate and creatively expr essive woman who desires to improve the lives of young girls lik e Timeeka was who feel they ha ve no voice. Prior to coming to this realization, I had to conf ront my feelings and the larg er implications of TimeekaÂ’s death that went beyond one young womanÂ’s su icide and another young womanÂ’s inability


Riley 22 to prevent it. Timeeka’s story is my story of taking the personal and making it political, fueling my activism as a Black feminist committed to female. Timeeka’s death moved me to reflect on my selfishness, elitism, and fears. In Black Feminist Thought Patricia Hill Collins asserts the importance of self-definition that advocates action, whether it is an internal transformation to transcend unchangeable circumstances or the type of transformation that goes from silence to words to actions changing external circumstances (2000: 112-11 3). I have used poetry to heal from Timeeka’s death. By writing poetry and j ournaling, I came to understand my role in improving my community as a burgeoning young Black feminist woman. I wrote poetry and journaled as a cathartic means of understanding Timeeka’s death. Through my journey toward self-healing, I learned that Timeeka was more than my friend. Timeeka represented many Black women growing up under the thumb of patriarchy, classism, and racism. Timeeka reminds me of the women in Audre Lorde’s “Need: A Chorale for Black Women Voices.” I am Timeeka’s poet, a dvocate, and the pupil of her lesson in community awareness. I am no longer sel f-centered but community-centered. Through her death, I have been made more aware of the ills of my childhood community and other urban places like it self -evaluating my role in the Black community just as Giovanni does in “Woman Poem.” Because of Timeeka’s suicide, I was moved to re-evaluate my purpose in the community. As a result, I became a mentor in a program known as Community Bridges Dream Catche rs of Maryland and a co f acilitator of a Girls Circle Group through the Ophelia Project of Tampa, Florida. Both volunteer programs provide young girls a safe environment to express th emselves through art, poetry, and role


Riley 23 playing, while helping them build healthy se lf-esteem and leadership skills. Through my work with the Ophelia Project I have had the opportunity to work with “at risk” young girls who, unlike Timeeka, have a forum to express themselves creatively and not destructively. I have encour aged the young women of the gr oup to journal and write poetry which has allowed them to see the power they possess within themselves. The girls I have worked with are more self-confident and self-awa re of who they are as young Black women. I am doing for them what I did not know how to do for Timeeka. I am helping them; I am encouraging them; and I am empowering them through exercises in creative expression. After Timeeka’s death, I struggled with how to interpret all the feelings. When I tried to j ournal, I would be overcome w ith emotions however writing poetry opened me up to understanding my fee lings of anger and sadness. Below is the first piece I wrote after Timeeka’s death. Casualties A Poem for Timeeka Stokes 1978-1999 Currency leads to casualties, this reality is insanity. Divinity in society? The existence of Thee is a mystery. Poverty is a normality to majorities in the country and minorities in the cities. Racists/sexists/homophobes plague the airways and tap my phone. Conspiracy after conspiracy


Riley 24 yet the government says, “trust me.” There’s misery in my community, casualties of poverty, of piety, of apathy, casualties of reality, and the reality is insanity. The reality is insanity? THE REALITY IS INSANITY! God saved me. God saves me. God, save me. Audre Lorde calls poetry a “ritual…it ha s always served me to underline for myself and for other people the sources of my power” (Lorde & Hall 146). When I wrote “Casualties,” the poem was my ritual in understanding the ci rcumstances leading to my friend’s death. It helped me comprehend my feelings of powerlessness and guilt resulting from her death. In this poem I am angry, conf used, and assertive. In the poem, I express the conditions which create the despair that caused a young Black woman, Timeeka Stokes to end her life. The repetition of “casua lties” reflects the idea of her death as a result of “something” outside herself. She was a victim of “piety,” “apathy,” and an insane “reality.” This poem, while it was inspired by her death, also illuminates the patterns of racism, sexism and classism that affects “majorities in the country” (poor white people in rural neighborhoods), and “mi norities in the cities ” (poor Blacks and Latinos in urban neighborhoods). It questions classism in th e statement “currency leads to casualties” and attacks classi sm, racism, sexism, and religi ous hypocrisy for the death of


Riley 25 Timeeka Stokes. I question the media and its representations of Black women and homosexuals with the line that begins “rac ists/sexist/ homophobes plague the airways…” I do not believe this is normal, when I state “reality is insanity.” In spite of my inability to fully compre hend my friend’s death, I am still affirmed of my relationship with a divine power, or spiritual grounding that has enabled me to work through my friend’s death. This poem wa s an outlet and a revelation to me that I was part of the insanity and the “apathy” that led to Timeeka’s death. I am using poetry to critique myself and the society. “Poetry—for me—is a way of living. It’s the way I look at myself, it’s the way I move through myselves, my world, and it’s the way I metabolize what happens and present it ou t again” (Lorde & Hall 146). I believed Timeeka’s death was preventable because she knocked on my door the night before her suicide. I assumed she was going to ask for money. Although we had grown up together in the same tenement of the South Bronx, I was considerably sheltered an d also consciously blind to the atrocities taking place in my neighbor hood (drugs, teenage pr egnancy, homicide, poverty, racism, sexism, and classism). It is only now when I recall my childhood I realize how much was going on. The poem refl ects insight into the events surrounding the premature deaths of young Black boys and girls in poor communities, and it was Timeeka’s death which opened my eyes to the reality surrounding me. Attempting to verbalize my pain to my pare nts or a therapist wasn’t as helpful as my writing poetry. In “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” Audre Lorde notes, “It is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed but already felt” (Lorde 1984: 36). In writing the poem inspired by


Riley 26 Timeeka’s death, I gained clarity of myself and my environment, more than the person, Timeeka came to represent my Black community that I had turned my back on when I chose not to answer the door. Her death was th e catalyst; poetry was the tool and activism was the result. It was Timeeka’s death that drove me to reflect on my own shortcomings and the classism I had learned. I came face to face with myself and the difficult question: “Do I now think I’m better than Timeeka a nd my poverty stricken Black neighborhood of the South Bronx because I’m pursuing a co llege degree at a predominantly white school?” I then asked “how can I prevent another sister friend’s death with what I’m gaining with an education?” Timeeka’s de ath jolted me into the introspections illuminated in my poetry and ultimately into my entrance into the Women’s Studies Master’s program of the University of South Florida, the formation of FIST and volunteer work with the Community Bridges of Maryla nd and the Ophelia Project of Tampa Bay. I wrote the poem to heal from my friend’s d eath. In writing it, I was moved to re-evaluate my lack of activism in the community prior to Timeeka’s death. Through my research on Black female creative expression (including my own), I have begun a process of selfhealing. Through this process I am empowered to continue the activism and advocacy her death catalyzed in me. For me personally, writing poetry has been a means of selfhealing. It is also a part of a legacy furthered by Black women from the Black Arts and feminist movements. Moreover, it continues in the lyrics and community activism of Neo Soul Black feminists. Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Assata Sh akur employed their poetry to teach, inspire, rebel, redefine, and heal themselves just as I have begun to do with my work.


Riley 27 Chapter 2: Autobiography as Liberatory Prose and Femi nist Practice: A Femi nist Analysis of Assata Shakur’s Autobiography “If we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others—for their use and to our detriment.” Audre Lorde In this chapter, I explore autobiography as a creative expression of feminist and healing practice in the political narrative of Assata Shakur. I also deconstruct the poetry Shakur creates in her political narrative. I analyze Assata Sh akur’s poetry. I explore the formation of FIST: Fighting Ignorance, Spitt in’ Truth (a group that works with the Ophelia Project conducting writing to heal wo rkshops for at risk young girls) and what lead me to see poetry by Black women as a means of healing, empowerment, and activism. I do not advocate Shakur’s innocence or guilt in the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster (Sullivan February1977 76), but I analyze Shakur’s memoir as feminist text. Authors Margo Perkins and Joanne Braxt on note the importance of Black female autobiography as an exerci se in self expression, comm unity activism, and Black collectivity in their books Autobiography as Activism and Black Women Writing Autobiography respectively. The political narrativ e of Assata Shakur explores the concepts of self-expression, community ac tivism, and Black co llectivity through her poetry, as she writes about her involvement with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army (BLA). She continues thr ough autobiography what Lorde, Jordan, and Giovanni do with their poetry: give voice to silenced Black women of sexism and racism.


Riley 28 She self defines, self analyzes, and sp eaks for collective rather than individual experience. Lorde, Jordan, Giovanni, and Sh akur assume the role of Black female collectivity when they pen their poetry and na rratives while continuing to shift the focus of individual Black woman authors to co llective politically engaged Black women. Assata: An Autobiography can be read as foundational in the political formation of Neo Soul Black Feminist consci ousness. She uses her life’s experience as a Black woman persecuted for her political views by the Un ited States governmen t during the 1960s and 1970s as a critical “standpoint.” This is standpoi nt theory in action. Late r in this chapter, I will expound on how her political memoir de monstrates a cultural awareness of the interlocking of racism, sexism and classism in the lives of Black women in the United States. Despite Assata Shakur’s arrest over 30 year s ago, she is still the topic of blogs, poetry, and music. Why has this generation ta ken up Assata Shakur’s story and how does her autobiography relate to sta ndpoint theory or Black feminist theory? Within the pages of Assata Shakur’s autobiography is the stor y of an African American female activist who uses poetry and prose to define herself in the face of being defined by others, namely the United States government. Assata Shakur does not describe herself as a feminist, but I analyze her autobiography, her use of poetry, and her method of writing within a feminist framework. As I look at Shakur’s autobiogra phy as feminist practi ce, I also address consciousness-raising within Black women’s lives through a personal account of my own introduction to Assata Shakur. I discuss Black female self-definition and its significance as explored by Shakur, in relati on to Patricia Hill Collins’ text Black Feminist Thought. I


Riley 29 analyze the style and conten t of Shakur’s autobiography focusing on her childhood, her activism, her arrest, and ultimate escape to Cuba. Who Is Assata Shakur? An Overview As of 2008 the FBI considers Assata Sha kur “armed and extremely dangerous,” a “domestic terrorist,” a fugitive and a cop killer1. It has offered a reward of up to $1,000,000 for any information leading to her arrest and return to the United States to be imprisoned for the alleged shooting deaths a New Jersey State Trooper and her friend (fellow Black Panther Party comrade) Zayd Shakur. Currently, she is in Cuba with political asylum, but within the last d ecade her story has become emblematic of institutionalized racism regarding the unfair treatment of U.S. Black political prisoners who were activists during the 1960s and 1970s Assata Shakur’s story has become a reminder of America’s racist past to contemporary artist s of the hip-hop generation. I suggest that her plight can be read within the context of curre nt police brutality which is a daily reality to Black men and women of Ne w York City and other urban areas of the United States where racial profiling and ex cessive police force is used on this hip-hop generation. Kitwana Bakari author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture defines the hip-hop gene ration as “young African Americans born between 1965 and 1984 who came of age in the eighties and nineties and who share a specific set of values and attit udes” (Bakari 4); while author Jeff Chang of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of he Hip-Hop Generation suggests, “the hip hop generation has come up in the shadow of the baby-boomer/civil rights generation”


Riley 30 (interview from ). I believe this generation views Assata Shakur as a patron saint of justic e: a woman who has been falsely accused of murder and robbery resulting from covert ac tions used by the United States government to dismantle all Black Organizations and leaders through COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). COINTELPRO was “the secret FBI program seeking to disrupt and divide the growing Black protest gr oups” (Kifner B6). According to another New York Times article from, June 20, 2004, COINTELPRO ’s aim was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize their ta rgets” (Cunningham SM20). To this hip-hop generation of Black activists, intellectuals, a nd lay people--Assata Sha kur is described as a heroine, poet, activist, and writer. Rapper Common cites Assata as a “power and pride, so beautiful”. 2 In his song “A Song for Assata,” his ly rics are also cite d on the Hands off Assata (HOA) site. Assata Shakur simply ca lls herself a “Black revolutionary woman” (Shakur 50). In her autobiography, Assata Shakur uses or iginal poetry in the chapters to further clarify or enhance the chapter’s point. Her incorp oration of poetry in he r text is of special significance. It illustrates how significant creat ive expression can be a pathway to healing in the lives of Black women and in transfor ming language and form into acts of selfexpression, protest and activism. Shakur intersperses poetry to show an intimate side of her story. She begins the aut obiography with the poem “Aff irmation” which opens with “I believe in living…I be lieve in life…I believe in living/I believe in birth/I believe in the sweat of love and in the fire of truth/and I believe that a lo st ship, steered by tired, seasick sailors, can still be gu ided home to port” before delvi ng immediately into the night she


Riley 31 was arrested. “Affirmation” is a hopeful poem for a dismal situation. This parallels the internal transformation Patricia Hill Co llins refers to as developing a “changed consciousness as a sphere of freedom” for Black women who are forced to remain “motionless on the outside” as in the case of Shakur’s imprisonment (Collins 2000:118). Author Margo Perkins suggests in her book Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties, Shakur’s poem reveals a “reverence for life, her faith in humanity, and her belief in the redemptive value of resistance struggle” (Perkins, 6). Despite being placed in solitary confinemen t, Shakur continues to have hope in the possibilities of freedom of herself and of her people. In the autobiography, she later speaks of reading two books whic h helped her keep her sanity: Black Women in White Amerika and Siddhartha along with unnamed books of poetry by Black authors. Two Black nurses gave Shakur these books while sh e was in a hospital. There Shakur was held before imprisonment and was harassed and phys ically abused by officers convinced she murdered a state trooper (Shakur 9-11). Art became her refuge and aided in her internal transformation: “When I read the book about Black women, I felt the spirits of those sisters feeding me, making me stronger. Black women have been struggling and helping each other to survive the blows of life si nce the beginning of time” (Shakur 16). Shakur demonstrates an understanding in the signifi cance of art as a healing balm and she expresses it in this statement. She also e xpresses the idea of the importance of Black female solidarity. According to Suze tte Henke, “Autobiography…offers a unique conflation of history and discourse, of verifiable fact and aesthetic


Riley 32 fabulation…incorporating social, psychological and cultural history” (Henke xiv). Shakur does this throughout her poetr y-infused autobiography. When Shakur was arrested, she was often placed in solitary confinement and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights not ed her case to be one of the worse cases of solitary confinement (Shakur 66). She spent over twenty months in two men’s prisons with conditions unsuitable for any pr isoner, however there is no record of her misconduct within the penal system that woul d “justify” confinement (Shakur 66). In the conclusion of her autobiography, she is writing during her exile in Cuba and closes with a poem called “The Tradition” where she addresse s the resiliency of people of the African Diaspora to carry on their trad ition in spite of their ensl avement and persecution. The tradition is the “it” she refers to in the fo llowing stanza: “Carry it on. Pass it down to the children. Pass it down. Carry it on. Carry it on now. Carry it on to FREEDOM!” (Shakur 265). She considered herself a part of this legacy of struggle but remains hopeful in the freedom of future generations of oppressed peopl e. This connects the id ea of the internal transformation with Black feminist theory of self liberation. In this sense “tradition” can be viewed as “freedom” to define her Black self and “freedom” of spirit that remains within the soul of Black women as exampled in Shakur’s autobiography. It is no coincidence that Shakur begins her book with an affirmation, which can be interpreted literally as a declaration of her identity and her resistance to being dominated. Interpreting the poem in relation to the first chapter’s expository writing style of the chaos of her arrest juxt aposes hope (the poem) with de spair (her arrest). This may also be a symbolic expression of what it is to be a Black American woman. Perhaps,


Riley 33 Shakur wants to demonstrate the strength of Black women as survivors/those who believe in living by suggesting she “belie ves in living” and even when one is weary and lost these resilient Black women will someday find their ways home. Home is subjective. Is she referring to Africa, Cuba (where she’s found asylum), or America? To begin her autobiography with the incident on the New Jersey Turnpike be fore introducing herself to the reader struck me as unique in that most autobiographies I have read often begin with the “I was born…” and “I first remember…” scenarios or begin in the author’s youth with her/his earliest memory. But in the narr ative of Assata Shakur the reader does not learn of her “birth” until chapter two. This can be interpreted one or two ways. On the one hand, the woman who wrote th is memoir as an activist, supposed domestic terrorist, and Black Panther revolutionary was born that ni ght, as a result of her arrest. On the other hand, a second interpretation might focus on th e connection Shakur has with the Black collective. In this sense, her actual birth is not important in the face of injustice. She sets herself (her individual importa nce) aside for the people. Assata Shakur’s autobiography reflects a passing down of oral history through narrative, akin to the tales a mother tells her ch ildren of their older re latives or the history of Black Americans which may have been negated from their child’s schooling. My parents and family were very active in introdu cing me to all the well known activists and heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and Black community; however, often those heroes were men. I remember receiving Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro as a gift for my ninth birthday and poet ry books by Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni when I was a teenager. While I was aw are of Maya Angelous’s autobiography I Know


Riley 34 Why the Caged Bird Sings and had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X I had never heard of Assata Shakur prior to listening to a rap song about her, after became an adult. For this reason, I look at a sele ct group of musicians as the new agents of Black feminist thought in a later chapter. A Burgeoning Feminist’s Introduction to Assata Shakur through Hip-Hop I was introduced to Assata Shakur through a hip-hop song by rapper Common called “A Song for Assata.” Common often pens socially conscious raps about empowering Black people and raising conscious ness of his listeners about issues of racism, classism and political involvement represented in his songs “Be” (from CD Be 2005) and “The 6th Sense” (from CD Like Water For Chocolate, 2000). “A Song for Assata” is not departure from these topics how ever it was the first song I had heard of his which addressed a topic I was comple tely unfamiliar with. The song opens: In the Spirit of God. In the Spirit of the Ancestors. In the Spirit of the Black Panthers. In the Spirit of Assata Shakur. We make this movement towards freedom for all those who have been oppre ssed, and all those in the struggle.3 God, ancestors, Black Panthers and Assata Sh akur--I had never heard of a Black Panther by that name. I was only familiar with Bobby Seal and Huey P. Newton. The song is a replication of “roll call” Shakur uses in her book. Margo Perkins defines “roll call” as a “convention of the oral tradi tion that recalls the names of other freedom fighters who have gone before and celebrates their place in a continuum of struggle” (Perkins, 11). The song progresses in describing Shakur’s arrest the shooting on the New Jersey Turnpike,


Riley 35 her false police accusations, po lice brutality, imprisonment, Black Panther involvement, beatings in jail, and escape to Cuba for pol itical asylum. Then the song ends with the voice of Assata Shakur: Freedom! You askin’ me about free dom. Askin’ me about freedom? I'll be honest with you. I know a whole more about what freedom isn't than about what it is, caus e I've never been free. I can only share my vision with you of the future, about what freedom is (HOA site). I listened to the song several times before making up my mind to fi nd out more about her life. It was then I discovered her au tobiography. Reading he r autobiography, I immediately saw similarities to The Autobiography of Malcolm X around issues related to the activism, racism, and evolution of the au thors’ identities as a result of their imprisonment and involvement with the Black Power movement. I also saw similarities between each author’s community involvements. As I have documented my own introducti on to Assata Shakur, it is important to understand the historical and contemporary r acial climate surroundi ng the resurgence of Shakur’s story. When Shakur was being arrest ed, Malcolm X and Mart in Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; the Black Panther Party was under constant surveillance by the United States government and was in the proc ess of being strategically dismantled by the FBI’s counterintelligence pr ogram (COINTELPRO). Fast fo rward to 2008 and there are the shooting deaths of Sean Bell and Amidou Diallo by excessive police gunfire. To this young group of Blacks and Latinos who are victim s of racial profiling, Shakur’s battle with police brutality resonates with them. According to the “Every Mother’s Son” documentary, produced and directed by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, “between 1994


Riley 36 and 1999, 107 civilian killings by police occurred in New York City under circumstances that community groups felt represented an overuse of force.” Sean Bell was gunned down by a barrage of police gunfire after his bachelor party in Queens, NY in 2006 under suspicion of ha ving a weapon; in 2008 all police officers were acquitted as many New Yorkers rallie d outside the courthous e of this verdict (Associated Press). In 1999, Amidou Diallo, “an unarmed African immigrant shot to death in the vestibule of a Bronx apartmen t building by officers who mistook his wallet for a gun” (Associated Press). Both incidents involved 41 or more shots to Black civilians by police offices in New York City. Lastly, another incident invol ving police excessive force involved Haitian immigrant Abner L ouima being sodomized with a “broken broomstick” by a police officer in 1999 ( m). It is in the contemporary frame of these racially charged representations of hegemony, a new generation find familiarity with Shakur’s story and empathy for her. Assata Shakur’s description of police violen ce and racial profiling is a subject that is likely to resonate with Black men and wo men of the hip-hop ge neration based on their own experiences with police violence and racial profiling. Therefore, it is no surprise that rappers, like Common, Dead Prez, Talib Kwe li and Mos Def (all of whom are Black men) would take up Assata Shakur’s story a nd become motivated to create a collective response to injustice through their music and involvement in bringing recognition to her cases, see VH1 article at 05252005/mos_def.jhtml?_requestid=222936 Hands Off Assata website and an article fr om the Village Voice referencing the annual Black August festival Dead Prez performs at and is sponsored by the Malcolm X


Riley 37 Grassroots Movement, see link to Village Voice article at 05252005/mos_def.jhtml?_requestid=222936 Common’s “A Song for Assata” introduces a ne w generation of listeners to Assata Shakur as her autobiography introduced her st ory to those of her generation, thereby creating a cross generation connection to shared history and creating a collective push for activism which is now spread through anothe r medium of the internet. Rappers Common and Mos Def offer music and commentary of Assata Shakur on the “Hands Off Assata” website, Users of social and networking websites such MySpace, show support of Assata Shakur or an awareness of her through websites such as She represents a survivor of police brutality and false imprisonment in an era when Black men are racially profiled, imprisoned and disenfranchised, a woman like Shakur who survived verbal and physical abuse by officers. According to a March 18, 1977 New York Times article by Joseph F. Sullivan (Sullivan March 1977, 54), “She was shot by a state trooper as she had her arms raised.” This was also supported by neurosurgeon Dr. Ar thur Turner Davidson in an earlier article by Walter H. Waggoner in the March 17, 1977 ar ticle which also appeared in the New York Times (Waggoner 64). Her escape represents a victory against oppression. Assata Shakur’s autobiography has become the cata lyst for social engagement by a group of Black men and women who have been affected by the hegemonic structures of New York City’s Police Department. The Police Departme nt in the life of Assata Shakur and those who support her has come to represent th e oppressive arm of abused power. When Shakur writes her poetry and political narrat ive asserting her identity as a Black woman oppressed by a white male dominated penal system, she uses her poetry and political


Riley 38 narrative as a place of resistance. Assata can then be read as repr esentative of standpoint theory although she never calls her work theory. Her experience as a Black woman in America, as a mother, as a member of the Black Power movement and ultimately as an American exiled in Cuba places her in a posi tion of privilege to critique race, gender, nationalism, and classism. Standpoint Theory and the Reading of Assata Patricia Hill Collins suggests that standpoint theory resembles “the norm of racial solidarity” and “group standpoint s (that) are situated in un just power relations, reflect those power relations, and help shape them ” (Collins 1998: 201). In the community of young, racially profiled Blacks and Latinos I mentioned previously who have found affinity with Assata Shakur’s autobiography, it is present an d historical experience which has connected them to her that allows fo r a standpoint theory analysis of her autobiography. Shakur does not write as an individual about individual injustices. She writes for the group of oppressed people. Earl y in her autobiography, she writes from the standpoint of a Black woman living in an oppr essive society divided by race. Yet by the end of her autobiography, she reveals an understanding the need for multiracial collaborations of men and women moveme nts towards dismantling oppression. Shakur says, “Any community seriously concerned wi th its own freedom has to be concerned about other people’s freedom as well. The vi ctory of oppressed people anywhere in the world is a victory for Black people” (Shakur 266). This concept of one’s freedom as contingent on other oppressed groups is furt her discussed by Collins in her definition of


Riley 39 “intersectionality” which I expanded upon in a later chapter discussing Assata Shakur’s autobiography as Black feminist thought. Shakur’s narrative demonstrates a view of the Black community as a body of which she is a part. This is supported by Co llins’ point about “exercising agency in response to and/or in be half of a group requires recognizing groups by seeing how past circumstances have profound effects on the pr esent” (1998: 217). In Shakur’s narrative “past circumstances,” such as her encount er with COINTELPRO, police brutality and surveillance connects to the “profound effects” in the pr esent related to the police brutality cases of Sean Bell, Amidou Diallo, and Abner Louima. In Shakur’s telling of her own experience against the hegemony of the United States government and the police departments, she is able to recognize her experience and the experience of those suffering around her as part of a larger and pervasive discourse in oppression. In chapter six of her autobiography, she suggests r ecognition of this pervasive discourse of oppression when describing how Black men and wo men interact with one anothe r, exhibiting internalized racism and sexism replicating the system of slavery on the plantation. When referring to how Black men and women treat each other she st ates, “If you ask me, a lot of us still act like we’re back on the plantation with massa pulling the strings” (116). Is she suggesting that Black people will always be enslaved b ecause of slavery? If Shakur is suggesting that “Black Americans” were created by the hegemonic structures born out of enslavement, how does she explain her ow n existence as a self-defined, Black revolutionary woman, hopeful of the promise of freedom?


Riley 40 Assata: An Autobiography as Black Feminist Thought? I explore Assata: An Autobiography as “emancipatory,” “reflective,” and an example of a “self-defined Black woman’s sta ndpoint.” According to Pa tricia Hill Collins “Black feminist thought aims to develop a theo ry that is emancipato ry and reflective and which can aid African-American women’s str uggles against oppression…Black feminist thought is of African-American women in that it taps the multiple relationships among Black women needed to produce a self-def ined Black women’s standpoint. Black feminist thought is for Black women in that it empowers Black women for political activism” (1997: 252). Collins’ definition allows Assata Shakur’s autobiography be read as a demonstration of Black feminist thought Shakur’s representation of her life and experience reveal a Black feminist standpoint in 1) redefining hers elf as a Black woman 2) the reflexivity of her autobiographical wo rk, and 3) the events documented within her text reveal a call toward reader activis m as she has been called to activism. Assata Shakur, the revolutionary and activis t, creates her own identity formed out of the oppression Black Americans were expe riencing as a result of institutionalized racism during the Civil Rights era and its aftermath of th e 1970s and 1980s. Chapter two of Shakur’s narrative opens st ating that the “FBI cannot fi nd any evidence of” her birth, but she continues “Anyway, I was born…the name my momma gave me was JoAnne Deborah Byron” (Shakur, 18). Her married name is Chesimard. JoAnne Chesimard becomes “Assata Olubala Shakur” to reflect her changing ideals and awareness of the injustices around her and her commitment to improving these conditions as reflected her statement:


Riley 41 “I didn’t feel like no JoAnne, or no Ne gro, or no amerikan…From the time I picked my hair out in the morning to the time I slipped off to bed with Mingus in the background…my mind, heart, and soul had gone back to Africa buy my name was still stranded in Europe somewh ere…as for Chesimard..Somebody named Chesimard had been the slavemaster of my ex-husband’s ancestors…I would stare up at the ceiling wondering how many Bl ack women Chesimard had raped, how many Black babies he had fathered, and how many Black people he had been responsible for killing…I wanted a name that had something to do with struggle, something to do with the liberati on of our people” (Shakur 185-186). One can read Shakur’s evolution as the same process that happens to women who become “feminists.” Linda Alcoff calls this evolution process a point when the subject comes to view the facts she had known all along in a different position: the subject realizes she is indeed a subject. She calls it a difference in “positional perspective” (Alcoff 350). Shakur reflects this difference wh en she consciously decides to change her name from JoAnne Chesimard to Assata Ol ubala Shakur. Each name she chooses for herself reflects her changed perspective as it relates to Black feminist thought and her commitment to the collec tive of Black people. “Assata” means “she who struggles;” Olugba la means “love for the people,” and “Shakur” is the name of her close friend Zayd (she chooses it out of respect for him). Through her self-naming, she defines hersel f on multiple levels bridging a connection between her personal struggles, the Black community and an awareness of her political struggle as a Black woman. Patricia Hill Coll ins suggests that Black feminism is “a


Riley 42 process of self-conscious str uggle that empowers women an d men to actualize a humanist view of community” (1997: 258), and by Sh akur’s self naming, including “one who struggles” and “love for the people,” she embodi es the material reality, lived experience, and a humanist view of community. I will not ca ll Assata Shakur a Black feminist. I will, however, suggest her text may be read as Black feminist thought based on the definitions Collins gives. For me to label Shakur as a Bl ack feminist is to impose my view of her identity upon her, thereby stri pping her of her own agency to self-define. I am merely suggesting her text should be considered as Black feminist tho ught for its political activism, struggle, community collective and the effort to improve the lives of those under the thumb of oppression by way of racism and classicism. Her own self-definition as “Assata” and as Black revol utionary activist woman is ke y to her autobiography being thought of as Black Feminist thought. Shakur’s work articulates “individual e xpressions of consciousness” (Collins 1997:247) making group consciousness a reality. She is giving a voice to the struggle that is not separate from real people’s lived expe rience. I stray away from labeling Shakur a feminist but will suggest analysis of Shaku r’s autobiography is significant in creating the collaborations Collins suggests is necessary between “Black women intellectuals” and “commonplace, taken-for-granted knowledge shared by African American women” (Collins 1997: 250). Self-Definition and Autobiography In Shattered Subjects Suzette Henke suggests that autobiography is a “powerful form of scriptotherapy” offering twentieth century women the opportunity to write of


Riley 43 their lives, tell their stories and reconstruct th emselves as subjects “ideologically inflected by language, history and social imbrications.” I would argue autobiography offers the same opportunity for twenty-first century wome n as well as in previous centuries. Henke continues to say, “Life-writing encourages the author/narrator to reas sess the past and to reinterpret the intertextual codes inscri bed on personal consciousness by society and culture…(autobiography) is an author attempting to fashion an enabling discourse of testimony and self-revelation, to establish a sens e of agency” (Henke xv-xvi). At its core, autobiography is an attempt at agency through self-definition. What autobiography becomes is a reclaiming of identity or establis hing a new identity that attempts to rebel against a forced identity in the instance of many Black memoir writers. Shakur is using autobiography to redefine her identity as a Black woman living under the oppression of a racist, sexist and classist society. She discu sses the intersections of her racialized and gendered identity. Shakur’s identities as Black and female do not conflict with each other; however, she writes as a self-aware Black person po litically engaged in the dismantling of the oppressions dictating her ident ity and persecution. This does not mean she is unaware of her womanhood, but in the context of her battle s, she addresses the ma terial problems of racism for Black men and women. The fluidity of race and gender are outlined when Shakur discusses her time childhood in Wilm ington, North Carolina and her time as a 13year-old runaway in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Lastly, race and gender are further outlined in her “To My People” taped speech and when she describes her relationship with the three matriarchs in he r family: her mother, grandmother, and aunt


Riley 44 Evelyn. Shakur is theorizing the dynamics of r ace, class and gender in these chapters of her narrative. In Shakur’s description of her ch ildhood, she outlines an awareness of internalized self loathing and in her reflectio ns describes her experi ences as being a Black girl in the segregated south. When she descri bes the “sacrifices to be beautiful” in the burning of her naturally coarse hair and her grandmother’s words “marry some man with good hair so your children will have good hair ” (Shakur 31), she is describing a scene that many Black women recall and which be ll hooks discusses specifically in her autobiography Bone Black Shakur shares an awareness an oppressive power structure which gets replicated within the oppressed cult ure (a concept she revi sits often) when she described “we had been brainwashed and we didn’t even know it; we accepted white value systems and white standards of beauty” (S hakur 31). This type of theorizing is what distinguishes Black feminist thought from other femini st theorizing. It reflects interlocking of race and gender in her a ssessment of “good” and “bad hair.” When Shakur runs away at the age of th irteen, she recalls an incident where she has escaped being gang raped. Shakur desc ribes how the boys argued with each other over who would be her first to rape her, recal ls “as if I was some kind of thing” (Shakur 113). Shakur then parallels this to slavery in a soliloquy where she speaks specifically of Black women as “fair game to anyone…mast er or any guest or redneck who desired her…considered less than a woman…she wa s between a whore and a workhorse. Black men internalized the white man’s opinion of Black women” (Shakur 116). Shakur’s retelling of her encounter with gang rape and then paralleling the experience to conditions born out of slavery allows for a Black femini st standpoint analysis. Shakur’s analysis


Riley 45 demonstrates the “legacy of struggle against racism and sexism” Collins speaks of as the common thread binding African American wome n (Collins 1997: 244). ” In this passage, subjectivity is then shaped by the historical and experientia l, as the practices of gang raping Black women by Black men echo the same sexual abuse of Black women as slaves. When Shakur discusses the making and c ontent of the “To My People” tape, she is re-defining herself in th e face of imposed definition by media and government. At the time of “To My People” Shakur had been ar rested and on July 4, 1973 (no surprise she would elect to release her ta pe on the United States’ day of Independence) she calls herself “a Black revolutionary” (Shakur 49). In this speech, she asse rts and distinguishes herself as “A Black revolutionary” and “a Black revolutionary woman” (Shakur 49). Shakur defines these identities in the following passage: “I am a Black revolutionary, and as such, i am a victim of all the wrath, hatred, and slander that amerika is capable of. Like other Black revolutionaries, amerika is trying to lynch me. I am a Black revolutionary woman, and because of this I have been charged and accused of every alleged crime in which a woman was believed to have participated. The alleged crimes in which only men were supposedly involved, i have been accused of planning” (Shakur 50). Shakur later does roll call of slain Civil Ri ghts leaders and unarmed civilians like Martin Luther King Jr., Emmit Till, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X to describe the criminal activity for which the United States was invol ved. She also finds solidarity with Third World “brothers and sisters in Vietnam, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, and South


Riley 46 Africa (Shakur 50).” It is important to r ecognize Shakur’s distin ctions between Black revolutionary and Black revolu tionary woman. She is aware of the difference and she is being penalized by an oppressive United Stat es government because she is a woman who is “Black” and “revolutionary.” To be “wom an” and “revolutionary” are a contradiction terms to a system of patriarchy and racism that doesn’t know how to classify Black women. Her imprisonment is then more a bout her identity as all three: “Black,” “revolutionary,” and “woman.” Shakur’s acknowledgement of Third World peoples being persecuted expands on the humanist definition of Black feminist thought that Collins defines in the process of raising consciousness in order to create community. Another significant theme echoed thr oughout Shakur’s autobiography is the relationship she has with the women in her fam ily. It is her grandmother who instills the foundations of pride. In one scene fro m her autobiography Shakur recalls her grandmother constantly making her speak a ssertively, especially among white people. Her grandmother would drill it into young Sh akur’s mind that pride and dignity were paramount (Shakur 20). Shakur clashes with her mother, likely as a result of Shakur’s admitted shortcomings. She recalls the argumen t that lead to her running away “I don’t even remember what the argument was about but I was hardheaded, stubborn, and under the impression that a grave injustice had been done to me. The next day I got up, packed my clothes, and headed straight for the V illage” (Shakur 99). It is her aunt, Evelyn who she has the strongest bond with, of the women in her family. This aunt would take her to museums as a child and as an adult she was th e first of her family allowed to see Shakur after her arrest. Evelyn is also a major figure in Shakur’s life as he r legal council. Shakur only briefly mentions her one year marriag e to Louis Chesimard whose name wasn’t


Riley 47 mentioned in her memoir. I found Chesimard’s name in Margo Perkins’ Autobiography As Activism Perkins writes, “In a single paragrap h devoted to both her marriage and its dissolution, Shakur suggests that her union with Louis Ch esimard…dissolved after just one year primarily because they were una ble to renegotiate traditional gender-role expectation” (Perkins 103). Shakur menti ons how her ex-husband expected a homemaker but Shakur was more interested in the “Bl ack Liberation struggle” rather than “mundane things like keeping house or washing di shes” (Shakur 196). Beyond this, she never speaks of her ex-husband neither negatively nor positively only to explain how she obtained the last name Chesimard. It become s clear in her autobiography that she is married to the struggle to empo wer and free oppressed Black people. Shakur manipulates language by usin g poetry in her autobiography. She also manipulates language through her re-spellings of words linked to systems of oppression such as “America” and “court.” She transf orms words court to “kourt,” America to “Amerika,” American to “Amerikkkan” and he r use of “I” is always lowercase which I interpret as her humbling herself for the grea ter good of her cause. It could be read as dismantling hierarchy. Is this not the same th ing we as feminist scholars try to do in feminism? Shakur’s shifting of language is both to reinvent, re -articulate and bring awareness to the social injusti ces of America. I interpret Sh akur’s use of “K” in America and court as her theorizing on the American connection to the Ku Klux Klan, signaling to readers the severity for which she and he r Black community suffers from American injustice. To merely read th e shift in language from “c” to “k” is to overlook the author theorizing her oppression by manipulating langu age. To overlook the author’s refusal to capitalize “I” is to overlook the attempts at shifting power through language. Moreover


Riley 48 Shakur’s manipulation of language suggests a pragmatist approach to language. Shakur’s manipulation of words and lowercase “i” invite s her community and r eaders to see her at their level. She does not use her status as writ er and creator of her narrative as a means of leverage above “the people.” Instead, she speak s in a language that gives insight into their circumstances and realities. By manipulating language and using lowercase “i”, she uses language to create balance betw een herself and the reader. Shakur blurs the line between creativ e expression, exposito ry, persuasive and narrative writing, allowing poetry and essay to co exist without dichotomizing the two forms of expression. She also uses what Ma rgo Perkins calls “ro ll call” of persecuted and/or slain activists” (Perkins 11). This “r oll call” re-affirms the concept of collectivity and standpoint theory which Patricia Hill Coll ins suggests is embedded in Black feminist thought. Shakur begins the “roll call”: It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains: In the spirit of: Ronald Carter William Christmas Mark Clark Frank “Heavy” Fields… Fred Hampton Lil’ Bobby Hutton George Jackson… Zayd Malik Shakur Anthony Kumum Olugbala White We must fight on. ( Shakur 52-53) I believe Shakur’s autobiogr aphy is cathartic for Assata the individual and Assata as part of the collective: “Revolution is about change and the first place the change


Riley 49 begins is in yourself” (Shakur 202). In Shaku r’s statement, there ar e suggestions of the need for one’s consciousness to be transforme d in order to affect change. When Shakur recognizes her subjectivity, she begins to he al from the historic al wounds of racism, sexism, and other injustices. Shakur transf orms herself through autobiography to begin the healing and opens herself for the reader and her community to transform as well. In Shakur’s closing chapter, she notes u pon escaping to Cuba, “The nightmare was over…the dream (of freedom) had come true. I was elated. Ecstatic” (266). This mature and reflective Shakur offers hope as her poems suggest; freedom is a possibility. The autobiography of Assata Shakur is a wo rk that can be read as Black feminist thought. By reading it as such, we place “Black women at the center of critical discourse and her own literary experience, instead of at the margins where she has been to often found” (Braxton 10) by second wave feminism a nd patriarchal attitude s exhibited in the Black Power Movement. Shakur’s autobiogr aphy engages the history of oppression, offering recognition and reflection on this oppression of Black women and men. Shakur’s narrative also connects its reader to polit ical activism seeking to eliminate this oppression. The reader is left with a memo ir documenting history and requiring social activism upon reading it. As stated earlier, Shakur’s words, though written thirty years ago, resonates with a contemporary hip-hop ge neration experiencing ra cial profiling and dying from excessive police force. Her battle continues and serves as an example of persecution, oppression, and hope; however, it al so serves as a reminder of an unjust American past. Assata Shakur’s story is more than one Black woman revolutionary’s


Riley 50 story; her story represents th e errors of America’s past but the vision to create a better future for Black communities and Third World communities. Shakur’s story is significa nt to Black feminist sc holarship introducing a new generation of feminist scholars to the work of Black women applying Black feminist theory to their work as literary and co mmunity activism. Feminist autobiography is personal and political. Margo Perkins proposes “autobiography as a form of political intervention, to educate as broad an audience as possible to the situ ation and issues at stake” (Perkins 7). However, this can also be applied to interventi ons taking place on the internet and in music in 2008. It is through blogs, music, and activism that Black women are taking their collective lived experiences a nd turning it into something powerful. Black women are sustaining themselves and communities through creative expression by bringing to light what is ha ppening in their communities to a broad audience. Blogs and music are the new “political interventions” Perk ins refers to when describing the memoir of Assata Shakur.


Riley 51 Chapter 3: Neo Soul Black Feminism: the Music is Activism/the Activism is Music In this chapter I place Black feminism in a contemporary context through Black female musicians I call Neo Soul Black feminists speaking in a communal and affirmative voice against racism, sexism, homo phobia, and classism. I argue that these women continue the legacy of the poets Lo rde and Giovanni menti oned in chapter one, with the same candor, urgency, and consciousne ss raising as Assata Shakur in chapter two. These women embody the Black feminist th eories put forth by Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and the Combahee River Collective. Neo Soul Black feminists use their music as a platform to express self-love, co mmunity building, poli tical activism, and consciousness raising through the critique of unjust practices towards Black women, the environment, and the poor. In my conclusion I suggest bloggers create an internet safe space for Black women to express their health concerns and anger w ith injustices they face because of their race, gende r, and sexual orientation. This chapter will reveal where and why Black feminism is alive and thriving beyond the academy and “in the streets”, being spread to a larger a nd more diverse audience. Contemporary Black feminism has found a ho me on the internet in blogs and in web-based support networks of other Black women. A new generation of Black feminists has a willing audience and the ability to connect with Black women in their neighborhoods, and across the U.S. Black wo men are creating blogs, sharing poetry, and mobilizing around issues relevant to their communities. They are connecting around such subjects as Jena Six, the role of gender a nd race in the Presidentia l election, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through Postcards from Ka trina, and social networking sites like


Riley 52 Facebook and MySpace. Black feminism has r eached a larger audi ence through the music of artists like Erykah Badu, India.Arie, Goapele and Jill Scott. These musicians, bloggers, and community leaders continue to advance Black feminism and ut ilize principles of theory through their lyrics, their news arti cles, websites, and social activism. The new Black feminist answers the call to action a nd activism through utilizing mass media and her craft to shape identity, tell her stor ies and thereby empowering herself and her community. She is conscious of health dispar ities, economic disparit ies, and she does not need to be an academic scholar to theorize her Black womanhood. She uses the tools of Black feminism through her insight on lived and local experiences. Like poets Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni who used their poetry to advance and disseminate Black feminist theorizing on Black women’s status in the United States, these Neo Soul Black feminists are using their music and celebrity st atus to create community organizations to improve their communities. These women display a great depth of compassion and understanding of art as a heal ing and an empowering tool to improve the lives of Black women nationally and globally. But why ca ll them Neo Soul Black Feminists? Neo Soul: When Life Imitates Art In 1998 Time Magazine published an article defining Neo Soul, a genre its author suggest garnered mainstream recognition with Lauryn Hill’s CD “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” According to’s Christopher John Farley “Simply defined, neosoul describes artists—like song-stylist Er ykah Badu—who combine a palpable respect for and understanding of the classics soul of the ‘60s and ‘70s…Neo-soul artists tend to create music that’s a good deal more r eal, a good deal more edgy than the packed


Riley 53 pop…And they tend to write lyrics that are more oblique and yet more socially and emotionally relevant than those of gansta rappers” ( Neo Soul with its consciousness raising lyrics and reverence to the 1960s and 1970s soul music marks a renewal of the past and urgency towards a tr ansformed future. The women I consider Neo Soul Black feminists--Erykah Badu, India.Arie Goapele, and Jill Scott--demonstrate the ideals of Black feminism. These artists have managed to advance their careers while helping their communities. Each woman is linked to a community based organization which uses creative expression to improve the lives of Black girls and women. These artists demonstrate an awareness of how their music and their projected images relate to Black feminist theorizing of self-liberation wh en considering Erykah Badu and India.Arie’s link to the gro undbreaking “choreopoem” by Ntozake Shange For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Su icide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. The play follows the struggles and self-discovery of Black wo men in the United States. Each woman in the play is named by the color she wears and th e play concludes with all the women coming together ending with the chanting in unison “I found God inside of myself and loved her fiercely” (Shange 63). Erykah Badu: More than a “Bag Lady” with “Mama’s Gun” Erykah Badu’s video “Bag Lady,” a song released off of her 2000 CD “Mama’s Gun,” pays homage to Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf from start to finish. The video op ens with the following lines scrolled across the screen: “A poemeography by e. badu” wh ich is a direct correlation to Shange’s play which she called a “choreopoem” (see Figures 1 and 2). The women of the video are


Riley 54 dressed in blue, yellow, red, purple, and green to reflect the ladies of Shange’s play. “Bag Lady” the song is about letting go of pers onal baggage and loving oneself enough to not carry everyone else’s bagga ge or your own about beau ty, single motherhood, physical abuse, or drugs as represented in the in strumental break which flashes the following across the screen: “nickel ba g lady,” “booty bag lady,” “pap er bag lady,” “punching bag lady” and “baby bag mama.” The lyrics begin: “Bag Lady, you goin’ hurt your back, draggin’ all them bags like that, I guess nobody ever told you, all you must hold onto, is you, is you” and the song ends “let it go, let it go, let it go…betcha love can make it better” (lyrics courtesy of badu_erykah/2114165/lyric.jhtml ). I believe these lyrics directly relate to Shange’s closing line, “I found God in myself and loved her fiercely,” which corre lates with the self love n ecessary for Black women to


Riley 55 empower and heal themselves from their past pains. This is a concept expressed in the poetry of Black feminist poets Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni c ountering racist and sexist notions of Black womanhood, while es tablishing clearly pos itive self-definition and self-valuation of Black womanhood. Erykah Badu continues a tradition Patric ia Hill Collins denotes in Black women blues singers who drew “progr essive art” from their str uggles to produce art that was emancipatory. Combining “thought, feeling and action” while helping Black women among others to see their world differently and act to change it” (Collins:2000, 111). Erykah Badu demonstrates her vision of the wo rld and action to change it in her activism through her nonprofit organization B.L.I.N.D. (Beautiful Love Incorporated Nonprofit Development). BLIND’s mission is “to create positive social change through economic, artistic, and cultural development of the co mmunity, B.L.I.N.D. will provide community driven development for inner-city youth through music, dance, theatre, visual arts, and the refurbishment of the Black Forest Theatre” ( ). In an interview with Philanthropy World Magazine Badu states, “I try not to preach, but to reach... God has not forgotten you, the community is here.” Badu’s activism refl ects the emergence of contemporary Black female artists theorizing their place in society and how they can affect change within these communities through their creative expr ession and activism. India.Arie represents another Neo Soul Black feminist who, like Badu, uses her music and celebrity to improve the in Black communities.


Riley 56 India.Arie: Not the Average Girl in the Video India.Arie, like Badu, has used her ly rics to address Black women’s selfdefinition and self-valuation. Indi a.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” reflects issues of race and gender. By using the metaphor of hair, sh e draws a connection to identity which bell hooks discusses in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. In a chapter on Black women and beauty, hooks notes “The fi rst body issue that affects Black female identity, even more so than color, is hair texture…Negativ e thinking about our hair is usually conveyed in the home” (2005: 63). hooks continues by suggesting that a major aspect of “white supremist thinking” wh ich permeates the “Black psyche” is the assumption that straight hair is good hair, and Black hair is both problematic and in need of being conquered” (64). India. Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” (which was released in 2006, a year after hook’s Sisters of the Yam ) provides a continuous story of the singer’s evolution of identity as reflected by her ch anging hair. Arie admittedly succumbs to the beauty standards of each era by altering her hair. She goes from relaxing her hair to make it straight or curly, locking it and then cutt ing it until finally concluding she is not her hair, her skin or the expectations society pl aces on her. The song skir ts with irony by restating the chorus or chant, “I Am Not My Hair” as each change to her hair would imply she is her hair. In order to define herself sh e had to detach herself from her hair. She is challenging the accountability that comes with processed hair, locked hair, or no hair at all. This song is significant as Black feminism in action as it a ddresses the beauty standards placed on Black women by Western society, while resisting notions of self


Riley 57 loathing resulting from internalized racism and sexism Black women experience in having or not having “good” hair which Ar ie references in the following lyrics: Good hair means curls and waves Bad hair means you look like a slave. At the turn of the century It’s time for us to redefine who we be… I am not my hair, I am not this skin I am not your expectations, no, no I am not my hair, I am not this skin I am a soul that lives within. Lyrics courtesy of arie_india/12816763/lyric.jhtml Arie uses this song to reaffirm natural b eauty of Black women and an understanding of the importance of self-definition and self-valuation which Patricia Hill Collins considers “foundational to politicized Black feminist standpoints, thus mu ch more is at stake here than the simple expression of voice” (Collins 2000:111). Hair becomes a metaphor for beauty and a signifier of iden tifiable Blackness when she reco unts different types of hair from locks, to perms to kinky natural afros, and her own progressi on in identity from press and curl to Jheri curl to relaxer (all of which damaged her hair) leading her to lock then cut her hair off. The evolution of hair identity reflects a theorizing of Black womanhood. Arie’s assertion “I am not my hair” reflects Black feminist though t in countering the hegemonic structures of beauty placed upon Black women’s bodies through their hair. Black women’s hair then becomes a modifiable aspect of the self which once the subject is free of her hair, she can be her own autonomous self as suggested in the lyrics, “I am not my


Riley 58 hair, I am soul that lives within.” This s ong also addresses breast cancer, an illness that affects Black women more lethally than their white counterparts. While Black women suffer less breast can cer, nationally Blac k women’s mortality rates from breast cancer are hi gher than their white counterparts (see figure 3 below). Figure 3 Deaths from Breast Cancer by Race and Ethnicity “The graph below shows that in 2004, Bl ack women were more likely to die of breast cancer than any other group. White women had the second highest rate of deaths fro m breast cancer, followed by women who are Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian/Pacific Islander.” Image courtesy of National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) obtained from reast/statistics/race.htm Female Breast Cancer U.S. Death Rates† by Race and Ethnicity, 1969–2004‡ *The group, or category, called "Hispanic" may be in cluded in other categories like White, Black, American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN), and As ian/Pacific Isla nder (Asian/PI). †Rates are per 100,000 and are age-adjusted to the 2000 U.S. standard population. ‡Source: National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Page last reviewed: September 26, 2007 Page last updated: September 26, 2007 Content source: Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion


Riley 59 Black feminism set the stage for India.Arie to address beauty standards, self-definition and valuation as well as the effects of breast cancer in the Black community to a contemporary audience that is accessible by pe ople of all ages and backgrounds. Similar to Badu, India’s activism extends beyond her lyrics as she is a Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF (see site for article on her UNICEF work) 01/unicef_ambassador_indiaarie_in.html Similar to Badu’s use of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf in her video, India.Arie connects to the play as she is was slated to make her Broadway debut in the play whic h was to be produced by Whoopi Goldberg according to a June 25, 2008 Seattle Times article before lack of funding prevented the opening, source below: http://seattletimes.nw ment/2008016524_webindiaarie25.html Musical artists like Goapele and Jill Scott can be placed in the category of Neo Soul Black feminists for their socially conscious lyrics and community activism. Both women are affiliated with organizations that prom ote self awareness and empowerment through creative expression. Goapele: If A Song Could Change it All Goapele is an example of a musician who uses her music to further her activism in an accessible form. She states on her site : “I want my music to truly represent me, instead of trying to fit stereotypes that women in this industry are encouraged to fit into.” Goapele’s quote parallels to theories expressed in bell hooks ’ essay “Choosing The


Riley 60 Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” whic h reflects hooks’ feelings of isolation and alienation in predominantly white institutions. Yet she finds power in that isolation and “Othered” identity. This mirrors the sa me isolation and al ienation Black women experience within the context of a misogynistic hip-hop cu lture. Instead of the margin being a place of awkwardness and discomfort there can be power within the margin. hooks argues that “those of us who live, w ho ‘make it’, passiona tely holding on to aspects of that ‘downhome’ life…do not intend to lose while simultaneously seeking new knowledge and experience, invent spaces of radical openness. Without such spaces we would not survive. Our living depends on our ab ility to conceptualize alternatives, often improvised….For me this space of radical openness is a margin-a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet nece ssary” (1996: 51). hooks’ words, “difficult yet necessary” imply without discomfort there is no progression, no change, no action this is the kind of environment that breeds Black fe minist thought in the lyrics of Goapele, India.Arie, and Erykah Badu. hooks’ quote captu res the whole essence of “otherness” within an oppressive and dominant culture which Neo Soul Black feminists challenge within their lyrics. When hooks speaks of inventing spaces of “radical openness,” I believe it is a call for action to those of us within the Black feminist struggle who call ourselves such and who are Black women, to speak openly and honestly of our experiences. In other words if we (Black women, Black feminists, Black artists, and progressive thinkers) do not see what it is we want to see, we must create our own path and create new visions, new voi ces: this is what the Neo Soul Black feminist does with her lyrics.


Riley 61 According to GoapeleArticle.htm in 2006 the Ella Baker Center for Hu man Rights presented Goapele with its first-ever Human Rights Cultural He ro award for her activism in the community. Goapele’s song “Change it All” was a res ponse to the 2000 presidential election of George Bush noting the high price of war and voting rights that were seemingly taken by the descendents of the formerly disenfranc hised Black Americans and women. Goapele’s use of music as activism and her connection to social activism outside of her music reflects the new face of Black feminism in th e digital age. Similar to how Nina Simone used her music as a platform for change, Goapele does the same in attempting to “change it all” through music…Goapele ends her song, “i f a song could change it all.” I find this particularly significant as a continuation of how Black women have used their life experiences and resources to cont ribute to community activism. Goapele’s community activism extends be yond her consciousne ss-raising lyrics. She is affiliated with “Be Present,” an orga nization that advances Black feminist thought through their work in the community and the lives of Black women in Atlanta, GA, New York, NY, and San Francisco, CA. Goapele is photographed on the site’s opening page. On June 27, 2008 I attended a fundraiser for “Be Present” held at The Loft in Atlanta, Georgia where she helped raised money for the organization. The concert was advertised as “a concert for all ages.” The concert also celebrated the 25th anniversary of “Be Present” which Goapele has been a member since the age of ten. “Be Present” is an organization that uses a “transformation mode l” for change and was created by Lillie P. Allen. The “Be Present Empowerment Model” (BPEM) “provides individual leadership skills” ( The mission of “Be Present” is “to learn how to expand the


Riley 62 dialogues and analyses on race, class, gender, age, and power, and to encompass what until now has been polarized between intellect ual and emotional discussions, and then apply theoretical understandings in practical ways” ( Jill Scott’s Critique of Bl ack Male Misogyny (In Song) Jill Scott’s “How It Make You Feel” as ks Black men, “How would you feel if all the Black women in the world were gon e?” The song critiques popular culture’s representation of Black manhood and Black men’ s internalization of such misogynistic representations. The song can be interpreted as a response to--absentee fathers in the Black community, the disproportionate deat hs of Black women due to HIV/AIDS and violent crimes, and/or the commonly held assumptions by many Black women that Black men are choosing to date and marry women (or men) of different races. Scott’s simple question “how it make you feel?” is an swered throughout the song addressing the significant value Black women play in the Bl ack community. It ultimately concludes that in order for the Black community to thrive it requires collaboration between Black men and women. On Jill Scott’s first CD “Who Is Jill Scott,” her original question which addressed the relationship of Black men and women was simply “Do you remember me?” “Do You Remember Me?” The song ta kes the listener across history of the steadfast relationship between Black men and women. The lyrics could be perceived as slightly abstract and less direct. But in “H ow It Make You Feel ?” Scott asserts the question: “How it make you feel?” There is no misunderstanding to whom she is directing the question. “How It Make You Feel?” is direct, communal, and affirmative.


Riley 63 I chose to focus on “How It Make You Feel ?” because it reflects Black feminist analysis of the complex and contradictory relationship Black women have to Black men. In Scott’s rap, which could be a direct respon se to the misogyny in some rap music, there is a critique of sexism: “You be tripping, Say you pimping it, Talking 'bout how you "Da Man.” then saying, “but you are something different.” Scott then critiques racism and the legacy of slavery when calling out the beha vior of Black men as a by-product of when "Massa" ruled your life, Spreading babies everywhere, couldn't think, couldn't care.” Scott suggests an opportunity for Black male decolonization 4 when she sings, “But you can (change) now” as in, Black man, you can think and can care now for Black women. Her critique places the culpability on Black men. Scott prompts the question: how can we, as Black men and women, improve our co mmunity together? In this song, Scott is exploring the concept of colle ctive collaborations paralleling what the women of the Combahee River Collective suggested decades ea rlier in their essay “A Black Feminist Statement” when they assert the following: “Our situation as black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race…we struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism” (Collective 213). Like the other Neo Soul Black Feminists, Jill Scott is involved in activism beyond her lyrics. Scott’s organization “Blues Babe” provides financial suppo rt and mentoring to students in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvani a and Camden, New Jersey area, nurturing college bound students of color, ages 16-21 artistically and academically ( In 2003 the orga nization donated “$60,000 to the graduating class of the Creative Arts High School in Camd en, NJ.” Blues Babe is the nickname of


Riley 64 Jill Scott’s grandmother. According to Scott’s website, the name was given to her grandmother because of the blue tint of he r brown complexion. Scott’s choice to name her foundation after her grandmother pays hom age to her legacy, gi ving recognition to a previous generation. Choosing to name he r foundation after her grandmother is reminiscent of Gloria Watkins decision to pay homage to her grandmother in renaming herself, “bell hooks.” The Oppositional Gaze on Neo Soul CD Covers Neo Soul Black Feminist artists are more than creative songstresses and entertainers; they are contemporary conduits to the theories of Black feminist thought. The Neo Soul Black feminist artist transf orms Black womanhood and experience into the source for her art. She is healing and empowe ring listeners with her consciousness raising lyrics which calls the listener to activism. Ne o Soul Black feminist artists also “practice what they preach” through their community work that advocates for the transformation of Black female images. Neo Soul Black femi nist provide scholarships for young Black girls and boys, fundraise for organizations that help em power young girls, work with UNICEF, and through all their efforts, they create spaces of “radical openness” for young Black girls and boys. More than their tale nts, activism, advocacy, and theorizing, Black Neo Soul Artists utilize the space of their CD covers as a place for what bell hooks calls the “oppositional gaze.” bell hooks suggests that the oppositional gaze can be used by Black women in film to create a place for Black women to assert a possible spa ce of agency. Simply


Riley 65 defined, the oppositional gaze is “the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would cont ain it” (hooks 1992: 116). Conscious of one’s power to manipulate external perception, th e oppositional gaze “opens up the possibility for agency” (hooks 1992: 116). I believe the “oppositional gaze” can, and is, employed by a select group of Neo Soul Black femi nist artists through their CD covers. From their first to their latest CD covers the Neo Soul Black feminist seizes the gaze of her viewers/listeners by moving from a covered pose to a full front-on representation of herself. In the release of her CD covers over time, there is a transformation of consciousness marked in her music and mirrored by her cover art. I suggest that by the Neo Soul Black feminist seizing the power of the gaze, she is asserting the power of liberated Black womanhood. She reclaims her body, her power, her image, and her agency. The Neo Soul Black feminist’s act of resistance through the transformation of her gaze is an act of affirmation of the power and diversity of Black womanhood, in the midst of a culture that seeks to distort Black womanhood as hypersexualized or dehumanized. With each CD c over the Neo Soul Black feminist asserts herself. Although Badu’s final cover doesn’t show her body, Badu utilizes her “hair,” a source of Black womanhood, to place various sy mbols, including symbols of life, death, and commerce. The images that follow repres ent the CD cover progr essions of Neo Soul Black feminists Erykah Badu, Goapele, India. Ar ie, and Jill Scott adva ncing from left to right (see figures 4-7). Images are courtesy of the artists’ respective official websites and


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Riley 70 CONCLUSION In 1990, the New York Times published Michelle Wall ace’s article “When Black Feminism Faces the Music, and the Music is Rap.” The article stated that male rappers had little respect or regard for the humanity of Black women as represented by their misogynistic lyrics and videos laden with s cantily clad women in h eels and short skirts compared to men in baggy jeans. However, Wallace’s critique of Black male misogyny in hip-hop in 1990 is still valid in 2009. The music Wallace challenged as having no regard for Black women continues to sh ape culture and perceptions of Black womanhood. Black women are still devalued and the representati on of Black womanhood is still distorted today in a misogynist hi p-hop lyrics and videos. Wallace states, “Can they (female rappers) inspire a more beneficen t attitude toward sex in rap? What won’t subvert rap’s sexism is the actions of men; what will is women speaking in their own voice, not just in arti ficial female ghettos, but with and to men” (20). I propose Neo Soul Black feminists respond to that question and answer in their own voices. Black feminism has found a home among bloggers, musicians, college students, artists, and in many other outlets which were formally unavailable to this group. WWW.BlackFeminism: Blogs and Sites of Resistance Sites that are extensions of printed magazines, like Essence Magazine and Heart and Soul offer Black women internet sites to co nnect with other Black women as well as experts on health, finances, and romance. But beyond that, they also offer spaces to give voice to the many silenced voices of Bl ack women. Web Blogs offer less formal platforms that create the spaces of “radical openness” that allow concerned or “angry”


Riley 71 Black women to express themselves and r eceive feedback. The web blog has created a space to make public and political that which is (or was) personal. In a culture that sadly continues to place Black woma nhood in the margins of mainstream health, beauty, and womanhood, web blogs and site s like and h place Black women and their concerns in the center. In conclusion I focus on,, a nd two blogs “The Angry Black Woman” blog and social networking site s like Facebook. Each of these s ites offer insight into the present and future of Black feminism. I chose these sites because they represent some of the diverse interests, demographics, and di verse forms of expression Black women are using via the internet. In 2005 Essence Magazine the premier African American woman’s magazine, sponsored a campaign called “Take Back the Music” to address the misogyny and negative representations of Black women in music videos, specifically hip-hop videos (CNN Music/03/03/hip.hop/index.html ). Essence ’s campaign represented Black women a ttempting to redefine Black female sexuality by addressing the misrepresentati ons in videos. The “Take Back the Music Campaign” marked a contemporary demonstr ation of Black femi nism in collective activism, self-definition and self-valuation by Black women. Unfortunately, the site no longer appears on the internet. When it was operational (June 2008) the “Take Back the Music” site allowed visitors to post comments and read comments by Essence Magazine’s editorial staff and in the music industr y to engage in a dialogue about how art can be harmful or powerful.


Riley 72 The Heart & Soul website, serves as an extension of the magazine in hard copy form. Both contribute to the mental and physical health of Black women. The site offers information on “die t and exercise, money matters and self improvement,” while creating an online space wh ere visitors can “meet to share ideas and discuss topics that are importa nt to them.” The site is di vided into “healthy, wealthy and wise” an allusion to the adage “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy and wise.” These sections offer easy to read tips on managing one’s physical health, wealth and mental health. An additional co mponent, which is more representative of Black feminist theory in practice, is th e blog component. A disproportionate amount of African American women suffer from diabetes low birth rates, and HIV/AIDS. A recent blog offered on the Heart and Soul site offers a place for women to openly discuss these issues such as the “Diabetes Diaries,” “The New Mommy Files,” and “It’s Time to Get Serious About HIV/AIDS.” Through the inte rnet, a community of Black women has formed to share wisdom and encouragemen t regarding issues affecting Black women individually and in their communities. Thes e women are networking with each other in order to improve their mental and physical well being. By creating this environment in cyberspace, these women are creating their ow n space to address the effects of racism and sexism on their health, actively seeking to improve their communities for themselves. The “Angry Black Woman” site at offers blogs by a seemingly “angry Black woma n” alluding to the stereotype that all Black women are angry. Instead, this site ta kes the “angry Black wo man” stereotype and turns it upside down to analyze the catalyst for legitimate grievances Black women face as individuals or as part of the larger Bl ack community. These grievances include racism,


Riley 73 sexism, and classism. The most recent blog addressed Fox News’ reference to Michelle Obama, the wife of then Senator Barack Obam a, as his “baby mama.” The author of the site states she would have written her own response, but another blogger wrote something that captures her reason for dismay and ange r. Ironically, the link was to a blog posted by a white, heterosexual male blogger named John Scalzi at His analysis of why Fox News’ “baby mama” comment is so troubling marks the re levance of Black feminism today and the hope that Black feminist thought is not restricted to those it attempts to empower, engage, and represent: Black women. The fact that a white heterosexual male can analyze such a blatant racist and sexist re mark by Fox News gives me hope for the future that Black feminist theory can transform individuals to critique racism and sexism. Scalzi remarks “ Calling Michelle Obama a ‘baby mama’ isn’t just Fox News having a happy casual larf; it’s using urban slang to a) remind you the Obamas are Black, b) belittle a woman of considerable personal accomplishment, and c) frame Barack Obama’ s relationship to his wife and children in a way that insults him, minimizes his lo ve for and commitment to his family, and reinforces stereotypes about Black men. ” In addition to blogs, free social netw orking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn also create internet spaces for Black women to form online groups to reconnect with old friends and family or to make new friends based on similar interests and concerns. Facebook offers users the opportunity to support causes on their site. Some causes include: The Black Women’s Health Impe rative, breast cancer awareness, diabetes awareness, the American Heart Association, and causes against domes tic violence. Users are allowed to recruit other supporters via the Facebook site and to donate money to any


Riley 74 of the causes that are register ed as a “501(c)(3) nonprofit or Canadian registered charity” ( ). The last of the sites I cite as a cont emporary demonstration of Black feminist thought in action and the future of Black feminism is The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) site c.eeJIIWOCIrH/b.3082485/ whose mission, similar to the Heart and Soul site, is to “promote optimum health for Black women” physically, mentally, and spiritually. This site is significant in addressing the new ch allenges Black women face in healthcare. The BWHI’s site creators note “It is imperative that we move beyond documenting the enormous health disparities that exist for Black women, and focus our efforts on actionable steps to eliminate them.” The Bl ack Women’s Health Imperative works with national and local organizations to create pr ograms and policies that affect Black women nationally and globally. A closer look at the BWHI’s timeline shows their exchange program with South Africa to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic effecting Black women disproportionately in the U.S. and on the Af rican continent. The Sisternet Blog connects readers to each other and offers monthly comm entary of special interest to Black women, such as “patient-provider relationships, inadequate medical care received by Black women,” and the importance of self-love,” fo r example. The site offers much more-promoting self-valuation and community activis m, two core elements in Black feminist thought. Overall, Black women’s mortality rates in preventable illnesses continue to rise making sites specifically geared towards th e health concerns of Black women an imperative in the future of Black feminism in the 21st century.


Riley 75 The Arts as a “Space of Radical Openness” Through their poetry, essays, and books Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Angela Davis cite art as a major form of empowerment and self-valuation that is highl y beneficial to the healing, influence, and consciousnessraising efforts for and by Black women. For example, Patricia Hill Collins asserts, “Art is special because of its ability to influence feelings as well as knowledge” (2000:105). As stated in chapter one, Kim Whitehead’s description of June Jordan’s poetry as communal, angry, and affirmative (86). Whitehead also a ffirms that all feminist poetry is political (35). When a Black woman speaks for herself and her sisters about sexual violence, sexism, racism, classism or heal th disparities, it becomes an act of resistance and in turn becomes political. In Audre Lorde’s “Need: C horale for Black Women Voices,” in Nikki Giovanni’s “Woman Poem,” in my poem “Casualties,” in Assata, in the lyrics of the Neo Soul Black Feminist artists, and in the blog of the “A ngry Black Woman”--a communal, angry, and affirmative statement resounds about Black womanhood. We are challenging the erasure of Black women’s stories, deat hs, and conflicts with Black men and women. Through our work in the radical space of poetry, music, and the internet, in these processes Black women are healing ourselv es. Black women are empowering ourselves. Today, Neo Soul Black feminist artists have become activists and advocates for Black women who have been silenced, shamed, raped, killed, and abused. It should come as no surprise that poet Nikki Giovanni employs creative expression as a strategy for, healing, empowe rment, and activism through her work with WritersCorps. WritersCorps is an organizati on founded on the principles of establishing


Riley 76 “a group of artists to teach creative writi ng at public schools and social service organizations in order to help unders erved youth improve their literacy and communication skills and to offer creative e xpression as an altern ative to violence, alcohol and drug abuse” (WritersCorps 128 ). Nikki Giovanni authored the foreword in the WritersCorp publication Paint Me As I Am a collection of poems by WritersCorps teens from sites in San Francisco, Califor nia, Washington, D.C. and Bronx, New York. Through creative expressi on, Black women are consciously questioning the effects of sexism, classism, and racism on their communities, dominant images of Black women representation and misr epresentation. Beyond the artistic and entertainment value of creative expression, through writing and mu sic in these forms there is a space for Black women to challenge stereotypical re presentations of Bl ack womanhood, establish connections to other Black women and form “spaces of radical openness” to create change. Audre Lorde created it in her piece on two Black women brutally killed. Nikki Giovanni created it when she expressed the dyna mics of Black women’s relationships to Black men and other Black women and conti nues to do so in contemporary writing and her involvement in the WritersCorps. Assata Shakur reclaims her identity when she penned her political narrative in Assata while in exile in Cuba. Her work through prose and poetry has connected members of th e hip-hop generation to her activism. Assata prompts readers to get involved in challengi ng racism and sexism in their communities. Musicians Erykah Badu, India.Arie, Goapele, an d Jill Scott take the Black feminist and womanist theories of bell hooks, Alice Wa lker, Ntozake Shange, the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, Darlene Clar k Hines and Rana Emerson and mold theory into an accessible form that extends to Black female and global communities in the form


Riley 77 of music, activism, and advocacy. Neo Soul Black feminists continue the tradition of Black women theorizing Black womanhood, Blac k women shaping their own identities, empowering their communities by empowering th emselves, and “bringing Black feminist thought to popular culture” (Zook SM86). Sim ilar to Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou who employed their novels, poe try, and autobiographies to give nameless Black women voices and sparked conversations about the legacy of slavery, domestic violence, and sexual abuse of Black women. Th e Neo Soul Black feminist artist uses her creative expression in music as a catalyst for political activism. Neo Soul Black feminists utilize their celebrity power to establish community based organi zations or to align themselves with established activist and advocacy organizati ons to improve the lives of Black women in their community and internat ionally. They put into play voice, power, and an opportunity to heal the wounds of slav ery and internalized racism and sexism to a new generation of Black women. In my own research on Black feminist cr eative expression, I have healed. In my attempt to give voice to my departed chil dhood friend Timeeka, it has been a labor of love. In the process, I have learned to forgive myself for not intervening on her behalf. I held onto feelings of guilt for so long, it beca me toxic to the completion of this research because it was too personal. I wanted to walk away from this project. But in my journey through the grief of Timeeka’s death, confr onting the hidden feelings of sadness and guilt years later, I found comfort, encouragement, and community in the art of the women I chose to research. For me, writing poetry wa s only part of the pro cess towards healing, empowerment, and activism. The poetry of Audre Lorde and Nikki Giovanni, the autobiography of Assata Shakur, the feminist theories of bell hooks and Patricia Hill


Riley 78 Collins, and lastly hearing the CDs of Erykah Badu, Goapele, India.Arie, and Jill Scott all have helped me heal. Each woman’s work has empowered me in understanding my story as not just my own but also belonging to the “herstory” of Black women’s quest for voice. The common theme in all of the works I have cited is the quest for self-love. If Black women can love ourselves enough to fo rgive the wrongs perpetuated against Black womanhood (in and outside our communities), to tell our stories, and open ourselves to hear the stories of others’ struggles against oppression, only then can Black women heal, experience self-empowerment, and be committed activists for social change. In the spirit of Timeeka Stokes, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Patricia Cowan, Bobbie Jean Graham, Sojourner Truth, Maria Miller Stewart, and the beautiful Black girls and women who history denied knowing your name, stre ngth, beauty, and existence-the transformational power of Black femini st thought is for you. Its legacy lives most profoundly in the work of Neo Soul Black feminist artist.


Riley 79 Notes 1 Current status of Assata Shakur by the US Government obtained from: 2 Hands Off Assata (HOA) Website 3 Hands Off Assata (HOA) Website (contains lyrics by Common) 4 The term decolonization is from bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam In it, she states, “decolonization refers to breaking with the wa ys our reality is defined and shaped by the dominant culture and asserting our understand ing of that reality, of our own experience” (2005: xxxi).


Riley 80 Works Cited Alcoff, Linda. “Cultural Feminism vers us Post-Structuralism.” The Second Wave Ed. L. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997. 330-35.5 Associated Press. “Actress is Slain at Michigan Audition.” The New York Times 11 April 1978: 13. Associated Press. “Slain groom’s family vows to fight — in court.” MSNBC.Com 26 April 2008 Be Present, Inc. 1 July 2008 B.L.I.N.D., Beautiful Love Incorporated Non-profit Development. 28 September 2008 Blues Babe Foundation. 28 September 2008 http://www.bluesb Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writi ng Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: An Interview With Jeff Chang by Oliver Wang. 28 September 2008. Comparing Breast Cancer by R ace and Ethnicity. 6 October 2008 reast/statis tics/race.htm Collins, Patricia Hill. “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought” Beyond Methodology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Collins, Patricia Hill. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. ---. “Defining Black Feminist Thought.” The Second Wave Ed. L. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997. 241-259. ---. Black Feminist Thought (Second Edition) New York: Routledge, 2000. Combahee River Collective. “A Black Femini st Statement.” All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies Ed. by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith.. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982. 13-22.


Riley 81 Cunnigham, David. “What the G-Men Knew.” The New York Times 20 June 2004. Emerson, Rana A. “Where My Girls At ? Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos.” Gender and Society. February 2002. 115-135. Essence Take Back the Music Campaign. 06 June 2008 Farley, Christopher John. “N eo-Soul on a Roll.” 06 July 1998. Ferguson, Ann. “Can I Choose Who I Am ? And How Would That Empower Me? Gender, Race, Identities and the Self.” Wo men, Knowledge and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy Ed. A. Garry and M. Pearsall. New York: Routledge, 1996. 108126. Fraser, Nancy. “Structuralism or Pragmatics.” The Second Wave Ed. L. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997. 379-395. Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. “Contemporary Black American Women Poets: Resisting Sexual Violence” Journal Of American Studies In Turkey 3 (1996): 107-124. Giovanni, Nikki. The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni New York: William Morrow and Co, 1996. Gold, Tami, Kelly Anderson, Iris Baez, Kadiat ou Diallo, and Doris Busch Boskey. Every Mother's Son A Film New York: AndersonGold Films, 2004. Hartsock, Nancy C.M. “The Femini st Standpoint.” The Second Wave Ed. L. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997. 216-240. Heart & Soul Magazine Site. 06 June 2008 Henke, Suzette A. Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Hinojosa, Maria et al. “30-y ear sentence for N.Y. policeman in torture of Black man” 13 December1999 12/13/volpe.sentencing.02/index.html hooks, bell. “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory.” Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought Ed. B. Guy-Sheftall. New York: The New Press, 1995. 270-282.


Riley 82 ---. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Women, Knowledge and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy Ed. A. Garry and M. Pearsall. New York: Routledge, 1996. 48-55. ---. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. Cambridge: South End Press, 2005. “Jury Convicts Man of Killing Girlfriend.” Boston Globe 15 February 1986. Kifner, John. “Ex-Panther in Prison Says Evidence Was Conccealed.” The New York Times 03 April 1989: B1. Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002. Lorde, Audre, and Joan Wylie Hall. Conversations with Audre Lorde Literary conversations series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches The Crossing Press feminist series. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. ---. Undersong: Chosen Poems, Old and New New York: Norton, 1992. Malveaux, Julianne. “Shouldering The Third Bu rden: The Status of African-American Women.” The State of Black Ameri ca 2008 In the Black Woman’s Voice McDougald, Elise Johnson. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader Ed. David L. Lewis. New York: Viking, 1994. Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activ ism : Three Black Wo men Of The Sixties Jackson : University Pr ess of Mississippi, 2000. Shakur, Assata. Assata: An Autobiography Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987. Shange, Ntozake. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow Is Enuf: A Choreopoem New York: Scribner Poetry, 1997. Sullivan, Joseph F. “Chesimard Attorney Acts to Call Kelley.” The New York Times 24 February 1977: 76. Sullivan, Joseph F. “Doctor Testifies on Bullet Scars in Chesimard Trial.” The New York Times 18 March 1977: 54. The Black Women’s Health Imperative. 06 June 2008


Riley 83 Truth, Sojourner. “Woman’s Rights: 1851” Wo rds of fire : an anthology of AfricanAmerican feminist thought. Ed. B. Guy-Shef tall. New York :The New Press, 1995. 36. Waggoner, Walter H. “Neurosurgeon’s Testimony Backs Mrs. Chesimard.” The New York Times 17 March 1977. Wallace, Michelle. “When Black Feminism Faces The Music, and the Music Is Rap.” The New York Times 29 July 1990: H20. White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Fe male Slaves in the Plantation South W.W. New York: Norton & Company, 1985. White, Evelyn C. The Black Women’s H ealth Book: Speaking for Ourselves Seattle: Seal Press, 1994. Whitehead, Kim. The Feminist Poetry Movement. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. WritersCorps. Paint Me Like I Am New York: HarperTempest, 2003. Zook, Kristal Brent. “A Manifesto of Sorts for a Black Feminist Movement.” The New York Times 12 November 1995: SM86.


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