On The Word “Womanist” Being “Made Up”
All words are made up. All of them. Language as we know it is a human construction. A word doesn’t have to be created by a White person for it to be a “real” word nor does a proper name have to be “approved” by Whites before it’s worthy of the non-White person who possesses it—before it’s a “good” name. I write this because I continue to encounter both White and Black people who think this. White supremacy is the culprit here.
Yesterday on Twitter, through a retweet, I saw a Black man tweet about “womanist” being a “made-up” word (and “made up” here was a pejorative), to the Black woman who mentioned it to him, the latter a mutual follow on Twitter. I replied to him with a bit of the history of the term. He did get rather brash towards her and I couldn’t understand his hostility over the word, at least not outside of its root word, “woman,” which by design seems to offend some men.
The word is “made up.” But ALL words are. However, the notion of it being made up “on the fly” (as many deeply uninformed people think regarding many terms associated with anti-oppression work) and him being confident in this assertion, at least until I replied to him, is proof that simply because we’re in an age of presumably unlimited information, we aren’t necessarily getting smarter, researching anything or are informed. At the least, when I’m presented with a word I’ve never seen before, I immediately start to research. I don’t ask anyone what it means (individual humans don’t have to play Google for me, nor is Google the only tool to research) nor do I make assumptions with braggadocio behind them. Assuming that there is no difference in privilege (the person has access to the web, understands how to search and research, has a smart device, has access to the library etc.) I am unclear as to why they do not do what I just mentioned.
Alice Walker introduced the term “womanist" in her book In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens - Womanist Prose By Alice Walker in 1983. It was important to her to highlight the role of Black women and women of colour committed to feminist anti-oppression work—work that has centuries of history. Part of her definition includes "committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female." This makes me think of bell hooks' definition of feminism in her book Feminist Theory, From Margin To Center (2000): “Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all of our lives.”
In 1996, Patricia Hill Collins published a paper, What’s In A Name: Womanism, Black Feminism and Beyond that examined the contradictions, details, and meanings in the terms “womanist” versus “black feminist.” Thirty years later from the word “womanist” surfacing to join the term “black feminist,” many Black women choose either term, both terms, or neither term, but are still actively engaged in anti-oppression praxis. The latter is the key. Though I defend a politics of social location (as Kimberlé Crenshaw articulates) in terms of labeling, the latter matters more than the label alone in this case.
Seeing this exchange on Twitter made me once again realize that even for men who might dislike or even despise feminism, to them, it’s still White women’s work. That’s all they know. How often are the contributions of Black women during The Civil Rights Movement and The Feminist Movement of that era marginalized despite us being critical to both? I’ve grown fairly tired of the Black = man and woman = White concept that willfully and virulently persists in every fabric of American society, even amidst movements that are theoretically progressive. Must the face of any progressive movement be the person with the most privilege? It persists today.
The fact that Black women, especially ones who identify as “womanist” (like me), who are concerned about the lot of all people (which has a focus that includes Black men, though said focus doesn’t NOT include applauding patriarchy, patriarchal masculinity, phallocentrism, sexism, misogynoir or male privilege) yet another (as I’ve witness this many times throughout my lifetime) Black man had no clue about it did make me sad a bit. Not angry. Sad. Because…even Alice Walker herself admitted to feelings of miseducation after college (she’s written about her youth, leaving Spelman because of intraracial paternalism yet feeling like she wasn’t exposed enough to Black women’s writing at Sarah Lawrence—if this isn’t an illustration of the manifestations of intersectionality and education itself—what is?) and how she studied more, on her own. Thus, if a genius as herself (with a college education) didn’t have all of the tools right away, I can’t assume that any other people do, especially on any topic that’s a direct threat to the status quo, as anti-oppression work such as Womanism is.
It’s just that…when things like this occur, when huge segments of Black women’s legacies are just completely unknown to Black men, I feel as if Black men aren’t really seeing us, again. (It’s not particular to class either; many educated Black people have gaping holes in their historical knowledge of Black people yet layered knowledge of Whites; White supremacy is the culprit here—how it impacts what knowledge is deemed “worthwhile” to be taught in the first place.)
James Baldwin wrote about how Whites have never had to know as much about Blacks or themselves as Blacks have had to know about Whites and themselves. I wonder if this could be applied to men and women? It seems that one of the “gifts” of privilege (whether White privilege or male privilege) is ignorance, willful or even…accidental. That which involves the oppressed as the focus is deemed less worthy of knowing. Couple it with purposeful obscuring if it challenges the status quo, and it’s rendered invisible. Hopefully I can do my part, by making it visible—by being visible. Not “mainstream" per se; what is ever "mainstream" but that which affirms status quo, with few exceptions? The world knows The Color Purple. However, barely anyone truly knows the breadth of anti-oppression work by Alice Walker in her lifetime. Very few even truly saw The Color Purple for what it is. Many (especially Whites) say "oh, it is so sad!" and that’s it, which let’s me know that they really didn’t see it (film) or most importantly, read it (book). No country for nuance? This is the great travesty—not knowing who we actually are.
I think of “Womanist” as a proper noun and Black feminist theory, intersectional feminism and all anti-oppression work (which today I view collectively as womanism) as nouns that describe the theory and praxis. I view feminism as a plural word, “feminisms.” This allows some of the same basic frameworks—recognition of all humanity, commitment to anti-oppression work for ALL and liberation—to be common to all of them (though we know how White supremacy or Western privilege, for example, can cloud or straight up ignore the “all”) but obviously cultural perspectives allows divergence in interpretation and nuance. Not allowing the latter is antithetical to any true anti-oppression work.
All real words are made up. The word “womanist” is real. Womanism is very real.
(I think about how everyone knows Gloria Steinem’s name yet not Alice Walker’s for anti-oppression work. In 2008, Melissa Harris-Perry had to CHECK Gloria Steinem for not recognizing intersectionality in her discourse on the election. Even Steinem herself said this recently on The View: "I mean Alice Walker…she’s ahead of us all on the path…")