Manual Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women

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Theorizing black feminisms

Skip to content. Perusall turns often-skipped solitary reading assignments into engaging collective activities students don't want to miss. Students collectively annotate each reading — asking questions, responding to each other's questions, or sharing other perspectives or knowledge. Never losing sight of the dignity of everyday struggle As the many perspectives presented in Theorizing Black Feminisms illustrate, arriving at some predetermined destination is less important than struggling for some ethical end; and dignity is achieved in struggling for something worthwhile.

But today, scholars like Andrea Benton Rushing, a professor of English at Amherst College, are drwaing on searing personal experiences to open up discussion. Winkler, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Convert currency. Add to Basket.

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Collins, Patricia Hill

Thus, when Black women entered the discipline, they confronted not only the concrete problems of being outsiders in an institution, but also the epistemological problems of working within a discipline predicated on their absence. Collins identifies three particular historical periods in the history of Black women's participation: "contested participation" from ; "heightened visibility" from , and "critical mass" from to She also identifies four possible responses to historical exclusions: "surrender", or uncritical acceptance of prevailing wisdom; "seeming acceptance", or overt agreement with covert disagreement; "critique", or a more visible rejection of commonsense assumptions; and "constructing new knowledge", in which critique is developed and new material produced.

Although Collins argues that all three periods presented some level of the four responses, it was only during the period of critical mass that all four were actualized. Collins then turns to two questions which now present themselves for Black feminist scholars in the current context. First, how American sociology as science can be reorganized, given the challenges presented in terms of content and process of scientific knowledge?

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And second, how can Black women use the legitimation process of science to challenge its exclusionary practices? Chapter Four, "What's Going On? Black Feminist Thought and the Politics of Postmodernism". In this chapter, Collins explores Black feminist engagement with the discipline of postmodernism, outlining some of the central tenets of postmodernism, while assessing their usefulness for Black feminist thought. Postmodernism is a contradictory project for Black feminists: on one hand, it calls into question notions of universal truth and hierarchical power relations which are useful for critiquing systems of institutional power; on the other, it presents a radical decentering of the subject and avoidance of social policy recommendations, which make it difficult to develop a coherent political identity.

Instead of assessing the "truth" of various postmodernist claims, Collins examines postmodernism as "a series of organizing strategies that make theorizing possible. Collins chooses to engage with three main aspects of postmodernist strategy: decentering, deconstruction, and difference. The first theme which Collins identifies is decentering, or "unseating those who occupy centers of power as well as the knowledge which defends their power.

On one level, this kind of reversal of authority is a useful place from which Black women can speak. However, in practice, marginality tended to become distanced from its roots in actual struggle and structural critique. Marginal status has been assumed by elites who are in fact implicated in hierarchical power relations, as in Memmi's "colonizer who refuses"; a discourse of marginality allows them to critique certain things without actually having to concede power or acknowledge their role in practicing injustice.

Furthermore, the "crisis of identity" which decentering precipitates is often more about declaring the death of the humanist subject in the face of critique by marginalized voices, rather than examining the operations of actual power relations. As many theorists have pointed out, it is interesting that decentering of the subject is proposed as a strategy at exactly the time when marginalized groups have begun to speak. Real struggles are thus reduced to discursive games by knowledge elites.

The second theme which Collins takes up is deconstruction, or a variety of methodologies which are applied to "dismantling truths". Collins identifies three areas of concern for Black feminist scholars around the issue of deconstruction.

First, are deconstructive methodologies sufficient on their own for producing alternative explanatory frameworks? Deconstructive methodology is always in danger of collapsing in upon itself, since the development of alternative truth claims violates the rules of deconstruction. Second, how is deconstruction able to claim validity, authority, or credibility for itself?

Collins notes that "the answer lies in old ways of legitimating knowledge… in the power of an interpretive community to legitimate what counts as knowledge. Third, "[b]y challenging the notion of a self-defined Black women's standpoint, deconstructive methodologies undermine African-American women's group authority. The third theme of postmodernism which Collins examines is that of difference. She feels that "difference" in the postmodern context is not new, but reflects the Western positivist tradition of categorizing normativity and deviance.

As Code has discussed, evaluative reversals of binaries are not always successful as a political strategy; a strategy located in valorizing a previously negative connotation of difference reifies the very binary it critiques. Collins points out two additional political implications of the rubric of "difference" under postmodernism.

The first is the problem of commodification of "difference" under advanced capitalism, particularly within the academy. The second is the relationship between "difference" and relations of power. Collins situates postmodernist theories on a continuum: on one end, the extreme deconstructivism which collapses untheorized differences into endless play; on the other, a position which "appears unwilling to relinquish the possibility of a politically effective postmodernism organized around difference. Collins locates the solution to problems of "difference" in what she terms "intersectionality".

Intersectionality, for Collins, "may shed light on the mutually constructing nature of systems of oppression, as well as social locations created by such mutual constructions. This is not to say that postmodernism is to be jettisoned by Black feminist scholars; rather, Collins believes that it "provides powerful analytic tools and a much-needed legitimation function for those Black women and similarly situated intellectuals whose struggles take place in academic arenas. Afrocentrism is defined loosely as a commitment to centring scholarship on people of African descent with a view to Black nationalist projects.

In this chapter, Collins examines some practices of Afrocentrism as critical social theory, and in particular its relationship to gender given that gender is a fruitful lens through which to examine nationalist projects. According to Collins, Black cultural nationalism "concerns itself with both evaluating Western treatment of Black culture as deviant… and constructing new analyses of the Black experience. First, in response to mainstream discourse which constructed Black culture as "primitive" and "deviant", the Black Aesthetic attempted to produce an alternative, positive, philosophically discrete Black culture predicated on an "essential Blackness".

As Collins notes, how "culture" was defined changed according to actual and imagined freedom struggles; notions of "culture" grounded in concrete praxis tended to emphasize the dynamic, fluid character of culture, while concepts of "culture" grounded in contemporary Afrocentric constructions utilize a set of cultural norms developed from elements of various African societies.

Second, the Black Aesthetic served as a vehicle for the reclamation of Black identity. The search for a singular Black identity grounded in normative models of essential Blackness presents obvious problems with defining norms and deviance, not the least of which is reifying the models of positivist science which had previously been used to oppress Blacks. Third, racial solidarity was maintained and grounded in a particular notion of Black community.

Theorizing Black Feminism: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women

Fourth, "when nurtured by this unified Black community relating as family, this newfound Black identity would stimulate a new politics for African-Americans. This is not to say that "strategic essentialism" is not sometimes a useful political tool, but, as Collins asks, "who benefits from Black essentialist positions that appear unable to generate theoretically compelling arguments for political practice?

Applying the question of gender to Afrocentrist and Black nationalist projects generates some interesting problems. Exceptional women are permitted only if they do not challenge the fundamental structure of Afrocentric assumptions.

Furthermore, Collins points out that "Black women's absence and invisibility structure the very terms of the argument advanced. First, it reifies the very binary that it aims to challenge. Second, it operates using rigid and problematic notions of gender.


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In this section, Collins uses the model of "visionary pragmatism" espoused by the Black women of her childhood as a point of entry into discussing models for Black feminist activism. She chooses "visionary pragmatism" as a fruitful model because it successfully "approximates a creative tension symbolized by an ongoing journey… at the same time, by stressing the pragmatic, it reveals how current actions are part of some larger, more meaningful struggle.

For example, "[h]ow will we determine whether a critical social theory increasingly supports social injustice rather than challenging it? Collins suggests three questions for epistemologically evaluating critical social theory. First, "does this social theory speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?

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Second, what is the stance of each critical social theory toward freedom; what is its emancipatory vision? This not only requires that theory provide some tools for people to struggle, but that it declares itself engaged in such a project, and takes a particular position.