Black Feminist Politics
By Joy James
St. Martin's. 224 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Mark Anthony Neal
It has been more than 20 years since Michele Wallace made blackness synonymous with feminism with the publication of her provocative book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. That her views remain a secret to many is due to the marginalizing of black women's voices in the feminist movement, the ignoring of them in the mainstream, and the silencing of black women in the black community. Though bell hooks has rightfully benefited from the elite academy's star-making system, becoming the singular representative of black feminist thought to many (only one Negro at a time), others like Patricia Hill-Collins, Barbara Smith, Stanlie James, Barbara Christian and Masani Alexis DeVeaux have toiled in relative obscurity. Joy James challenges many of these and other dynamics with her new book, Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics.
James succeeds in these challenges, in part, by countering the one-size-fits-all logic of mainstream feminist writers such as Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi and what James calls "black feminisms that focus on cultural politics as isolated from state power and middle-class sensibilities." Invoking the radicalism of previous generations of black women, James resurrects the political lives of Maria W. Stewart, a contemporary of Frederick Douglass; Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching crusader; and Ella Baker, often described as the most effective and influential organizer in the early years of the modern civil rights movement.
James labels these women as "protofeminists, who provided models and strategies for resistance that rejected strict black female adherence to middle-class norms." These were powerfully committed women whose legacies of struggle and fighting cast shadows (hence the title Shadowboxing) on future generations of cultural and political workers dedicated to eradicating anti-black and anti-women forces in American society. James's choices here are compelling: These women emerge not simply in the service of feminist politics but as willing to re-define the roles of women in broader social and political struggles.
In a somewhat predictable sequence in the book, James re-examines the politics and political after-lives of the "Black Panther Women," most notably Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur and Angela Davis. While all of them have more than held their own in various autobiographical narratives about their experiences within the Black Power movement, James brings a new focus by questioning continued references to them as "revolutionary sweethearts." In a society that has largely reduced Davis and her radical legacy to her Afro, the youth and sexuality of Black Panther Women, particularly in comparison to their older, largely religious counterparts in the traditional civil rights movement, have often provided the exoticism for distorted representations of the period in such mini-series as "The '60s."
Ironically, in one of the book's strongest moments James acknowledges and encourages what she calls "Black Male Profeminisms." While black male sexism and misogyny remain clear subtexts of pro-feminist efforts among black women, there has been little if any acknowledgment of black male struggles against these debilitating emotions. James cites the work of literary theorist Michael Awkward, philosopher Lewis Gordon and critical race theorists Devon Carbado and Richard Delgado. While all four writers have brilliantly represented pro-feminist discourse, they are not the most accessible writers on Black Male Profeminisms. In an era when it is in vogue for black male intellectuals to give lip service to feminist concerns, Greg Tate, Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, among others, have consistently challenged sexism, misogyny and the simplification of feminist concerns, at least in their public writings. James's choices reflect her commitment to be more inclusive.
As in her previous book, Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals, an insightful and explosive critique of patriarchy in the black intellectual tradition, Joy James brings a refreshing passion to the new work. Although she doesn't fall prey to the social-scientist blather that many critics seem to specialize in, she does eschew the kind of folksy, home-girl sassing, writing style that often sells books, in favor of a more straight forward and direct prose; her writing may border on the impersonal, but it is usually interesting.
With the publication of Shadowboxing and her recent move to Columbia University, where she is the distinguished visiting scholar in African-American Studies, Joy James is poised to become a major figure among contemporary black intellectuals. It is to be hoped that her focus on black feminist politics will also become a dominant concern in the new century.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of "What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture" and assistant professor of African Studies and English at SUNY-Albany.