I Was Told I Couldn’t Be a Feminist Because I’m Black

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It was a simple email – just eight words and no signature. It read: “A black woman cannot be a feminist. Sorry.”

I replied, “Why not?”

No answer.

So I took it to the tweets and told my Twitter followers what happened. My tweeps responded in shock and horror and they all assumed the author of the email was white. I did not.

I am a blogger, freelance journalist, and self-proclaimed “Southern fried feminist.” Just days before I received the aforementioned email, I had written a guest post for a popular natural hair blog about how embracing my naturally curly coif made me a better feminist. Several commenters on that post couldn’t believe I, being a black woman, would call myself a feminist.

I remember the first time I wrote and published a piece for a newspaper in Louisville, Ky., declaring myself a feminist. My email inbox was inundated with messages from like-minded women. The owner of a local boutique cut out the article and taped it to the wall of her shop. But I also received a message from a black man who couldn’t believe that a black woman would dare associate herself with a movement that was spearheaded by “racist, wealthy white women.”

And I get it. Even though recently I was so excited that I had chills as I watched the PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America, I did yearn to see more women of color on my TV screen.

I am not naïve about feminism’s history. First wave feminists and women’s suffrage activists, many of whom were also part of the movement to abolish slavery, were infuriated when black men were given the right to vote before white women. In 1869, during a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, Elizabeth Cady Stanton stated that “Sambo”, like the immigrant new comer” wasn’t ready for the vote. And in an effort to gain support of white Southerners, Susan B. Anthony forged alliances with groups that opposed enfranchisement for African Americans and with women’s groups that excluded black women.

But I am well accustomed to the balancing act of loving something with a sordid past. I was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., a city whose history is colored by the killing of four little girls in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, by images of high-power water hoses being turned on brown bodies protesting for their civil rights, and by tales of the terrors caused by the Ku Klux Klan.

But my city is not a bomb or a burning cross. My city is my home and in it I see great potential to raise up artists and activists who will transform the South. Likewise, I am a feminist because the issues tackled by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s – such as the unfair treatment of women in the workplace, the lack of women’s representation in government, and the need to challenge traditional notions of marriage and motherhood- are still issues today. I believe the feminist movement has the potential to raise up artists and activists who will transform the country and maybe even the world.

But as the feminists of 1960s and 1970s often said, “The personal is political.” So enough about politics, let’s get personal.

I am a feminist because I believe in sisterhood. Yes, I know feminism isn’t simply about women’s rights, but the equality of the sexes. Still, all my life I’ve felt an inexplicable kinship to nearly every woman and girl I meet, and I want each one of them to feel truly free.

I am a feminist because I don’t believe my worth is tied to the wholeness of my hymen, the clothes in my closet, or the number that looks back at me when I step on a scale.

I am a feminist because even though I am happily married I don’t believe every woman’s purpose in life is to be a wonderful wife and model mother.

I am a feminist because one day my father told me I could be and do whatever I wanted and I believed him.

And these things don’t change simply because my skin is a darker shade of brown. In fact there is a quote by the late African-American poet June Jordan that reconciles being both feminist and a woman of color quite wonderfully:

“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 myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.”

Javacia Harris Bowser is an educator and freelance writer in Birmingham. Javacia is the founder of See Jane Write, an organization for local women writers, and she blogs at The Writeous Babe Project.