Womanism is a theory which emanates from this history, and which self-consciously aims to make history. It is a reaction to the negation and silencing of Black women, and a theory and praxis which enables Black women to speak. It is a wonderful thing to speak African womanism!
This paper begins by contextualizing womanist theory in African realities. It goes on to provide a glossary of key terms, explain the theoretical underpinnings of womanism and present its historical background. It argues that womanism is the key to creating a revolutionary theory which will liberate African women as female members of a conquered people. Lastly, it places an analysis of the historiography of a Khoekhoe wokman, Sarah Bartmann in the context of womanist concerns.
The oppression of women is an issue which Africans have to take very seriously. It lies at the heart of African liberation. All too often African men measure their degree of empowerment by the degree of power they hold over African women. This may be readily explained by reference to the emasculating effects of colonialism. An explanation, however, is not the same as an excuse. There can be no excuse for the oppression of your mother, aunt, wife, sister, daughter or niece. Yet this oppression is endemic to Africa today. Christine Obbo presents a frightening picture of African married life:
...The central issue is economic autonomy. The men viewed this as a zero-sum game in which women acquired economic autonomy while the men lost control over the women. If a man cannot control the woman's money directly, he can at least devise all sorts of ways to spend the money that women earn, pretending to be short of money all the time or making a wife feel that any money earned is indirectly due to the husband who brought them to town in the first place."
Inequality of power within the household is now the fundamental force holding back African liberation. Not only does it disempower African women. It also means that African men, who should be devising means to roll back the shackles of physical, financial and mental colonialism, spend their time maintaining this inequality of power. Machera describes African family life in the eighties and nineties as a battlefield more than a nexus of affective relations:
It should also not be forgotten that the colonization of the mind has succeeded. One of the most difficult issues which African women's movements have to confront is the reality of women passing on oppression to other women. Often, this oppression occurs between people who should hold one another dear, like mother and daughter. Njiro points out that factors such as gender and age, rather than the closeness of the affective relationship, determines access to the most fundamental goods:
In this discussion of gender relations in Africa, it is obviously not suggested that this is a picture of all Africans. Indeed, African scholarship has not come so far as to begin to estimate or quantify the scale of the problems, and any wild guesses at this time would miss the point. It is wrong that any African household should be like this. It keeps us all enslaved. A revolution which depends on the male, the rich and the well-fed for its success is not going to get very far.
Womanism poses a set of solutions to the twin problems of theoretical analysis and activism on these issues. It reaffirms African solidarity, both in Africa and in the African diaspora, while pointing out the hollowness of a solidarity which relies on the oppression of African women for its continuance. Womanism, by positing woman's liberation as an African issue, creates a unique opportunity to give African women voice. For in their concern for family, community, nation and continent, African women are lightyears ahead of their male compatriots. They will not be held back by their menfolk for ever.
Womanism is a theory which defines race, class and gender as mutually constitutive categories of analysis. The meaning of 'mutually constitutive' is perhaps best illustrated by example, and many examples will be given here. But first, key definitions need to be set. A womanist theory rests on womanist language, and a womanist language is constructed through experience and struggle. The glossary which follows is rooted in the historical experience and the legacy of resistance which is mine.
Black is not a colour, it is a race. Race is a social construct based on physical difference. Here, I do not mean to introduce any false distinctions about reality. The social construct is real, as real as the range of genetic variation in the human species. Race is the social construct which assigns meaning to this variation in such a way that it groups those differences into white and Black; and assigns negative or positive cultural values to the grouped differences. Genetic variation is a normal part of any species' development. Race is a product of our history, and shall be deconstructed by that same history one day.
A derivation of the word 'race' is racism. The mere definition of the word 'race' does not amount to racism. Racism is a set of attitudes and social mores which devalue one race in order to empower another, as well as the material power to deploy those values in the destruction of the lives of the devalued race. Therefore those at the receiving end of racism cannot be racists. They may develop counter-values which despise racists, but precisely because of racism, they lack the material power to implement those values.
If white supremacy is the thesis, Black is the anti-thesis. It is an effort to construct grouped variations in such a way that shared oppression becomes joint resistance. Racial oppression; that is to say the systematic oppression of human beings on the basis of socially constructed meanings of group differences; is the very foundation of being Black. The SASO-BPC constitutions define Black as follows:
If Black is the anti-thesis to oppression, where then is the autonomous, self-generated source of Black pride? Black people know that we are more than the sum of our oppression and our resistance to oppression. I myself find my center in Africa, for it is to my African heritage that I owe the physical characteristics which allow me to be grouped under the category 'Black', as well as the culture of resistance which enables me to be proud of it. So it is with apologies to the Black Dravidians, the First Nations Australians and all the other Black native peoples of the world that in this paper, the words 'Black' and 'African' are used interchangebly. From my position in the world they mean the same thing.
'African' is not the citizenship of a continent. It is a heritage and a consciousness. The PAC constitution of 1959 defines African as follows:
Africa is a product of history. Its recent history can be summed up in a word: colonialism. Pan-Africanism itself is a product of this history. Colonialism and capitalism created the conditions under which it flourished. The murder, enslavement and dispossession of Africans, regardless of tribe or clan allegiance, brought home to them the necessity of forming larger allegiances. What became uniquely farsighted about this response to colonialism in Africa was the growth of a movement which saw beyond alliances based on neocolonial state boundaries (as defined by the Berlin Convention of 1885) to inspire a continental ideology, striving towards a common spirit. For Africans, despite all their bewildering variety of custom and belief, are being united by their history.
Divide and rule is the maxim of any oppressive system, and a racist colonialism has sometimes attempted to create variety where there is none. The action of race in the world is two-fold: it unites Black people with one another and divides them from the white master-race. It provides a sense of unity with millions of people out there, and a sense of disunity with people with whom one may be in close contact. We cannot walk away from hundreds of years of history. The meaning which lies in my Black skin does not disappear, simply because it has become inconvenient in the construction of a neo-colonial nation. Neither does the meaning of the skin colour of those who for generations have benefited from white supremacy, disappear. These differences can not be wished away, nor shall they dissappear as long as race defines significant differences in culture, life-chances and material outcome.
Most, if not all, systems of white supremacy seek to undermine this fundamental unity of oppression and disunity with those who oppress by introducing a scale of racial values. Lighter-skinned Black people, those who in phenotype somewhat approach the white, will be accorded an intermediate place in the racial hierarchy, similar to the position of the middle-class in the capitalist value system. The function of this racial scale is to undermine the unity of Black resistance. In South Africa there was introduced in the late nineteenth century, and more forcefully under segregation and apartheid, the category 'coloured', a variant of the previous colonial category 'bastard', and meaning exactly the same thing. The sheer contempt embodied in this historical term demonstrates quite clearly the place which coloureds were to hold in the value system of white supremacy. Destined never to rise to the level of their white masters, coloureds were expected to eschew Black solidarity and yet accept that they would never rise to the level of the white man, either ontologically or materially. Unlike other systems of colourism, such as that in the Caribbean, the identity 'coloured' in South Africa was not one of choice. During the forced racial classification drives of the late fifties and early sixties, people with the requisite phenotype were classified much against their will. The identity document, which by law all adults were forced to carry, determined this classification based on the opinion of the classifying official. Personal choice was never at issue.
The people who came to be classified coloured were many things, but they were not stupid. To rise slightly above the generality of Black people may have proved tempting, were it not for the fact that coloured classification doomed them to remain far below the most uncultured white. Moreover, the meagre rewards of coloured-dom could never make up for the loss of our historical rights, or even for the equal rights we were being denied. How the constructors of apartheid ever expected people to accept a position of permanent inferiority is an interesting question. They must have believed their own racist myths.
The identity coloured has been deployed to gain access to weapons, land or education. People did the best they could with what they had - and amongst the landless descendants of slaves, what they had was not much. We should be the more surprised that not everyone who could gain some modicum of benefit from colourism succumb. Yet for each one who accepted this imposition, there was one who fought against it. The rural western Cape was the heartland of the Pan Africanist Congress in the sixties and early seventies. The Black Consciousness Movement of the late seventies and early eighties boasted its strongest branches in the urban Cape. The civics, trade unions and student organizations who came together to form the United Democratic Forum in 1984 choose Mitchell's Plain, a coloured township of Cape Town, for their founding congress.
If coloured is the thesis then Brown is its antithesis: a reaction to the racism forced upon a group of people on the basis of an observable phenotype, rooted in a political tradition as old as colourism itself. One heir to this intellectual tradition is the !HCM's definition of Brown:
If Brown is an identity which reacts to a particular history of oppression, then Khoekhoe is the act of self-naming. As with Black and African, I use the terms Brown and Khoekhoe interchangebly. To me they mean the same thing: the possibility of choice, the power of action, and the act of turning a legacy of oppression, in this case colonial land dispossession and slavery (as signified by 'Brown'), to a self-named centre of cultural autonomy: Khoekhoe.
Khoekhoe are defined as the native southern Africans. 'Native' in this context means much more than the simple chronological fact of being here first. What does it mean to be a culture and a people who live on the same land for millennia? What does it mean to refrain from developing a culture and a people which expands, until eventually it takes other people's land and culture? It stands to reason that First Nations people are distinct by virtue of more than the simple fact of long-standing geographical continuity in residence. They are also people who have created, and are creating, a history of choosing not to be colonizers.
The term 'Khoekhoe' is used here to include both those whom a non-African anthropology has defined as hunter-gatherers, and those defined herders. There is no justification either in the historical records, or in my oral tradition, to make any such systematic distinction between First Nations people in southern Africa. I used to use the term 'Khoisan' to denote this, but always found it a clumsy invented academic portmanteau term whose meaning was nonsensical in the indigenous language. The word 'Khoekhoe' came about to accommodate the criticisms of my uncle, my mother and my aunt, who all pointed to the importance of the root word: 'Khoe' or 'Ghwe' (sometimes 'Khwe', or 'Khoi' further south), meaning 'person'. When the elders speak unanimously, it is foolhardy to persist in opposition! Therefore Khoekhoe, people of people or in English, human beings.
These definitions have arisen of a history of struggle. The organizations which discussed and debated these definitions did so out of necessity: the need to create an identity-based politics which defined clearly who was the enemy and who had the potential to be a friend. These movements opposed scientific racism with positive definitions of oppressed identities. Scientific racism, on the other hand, stemmed from an epistemology which defined reality as wholly objective and wholly knowable. This epistemology was sublimely oblivious to the complexities introduced by a subjective scientist trying to know reality. Scientific racism defined the various genotypes as constituting genetically distinct races, a concept which has been convincingly debunked by modern writers. In opposing scientific racism, however, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. While we cannot draw the lines between various clusters of human genetic configurations in such a way that they will constitute separate races in a biological sense, it remains a fact of life that genetic configurations do cluster. They do this because of a multitude of subjective choices which people have made regarding the meaning they assign to these configurations, as well as with whom to reproduce. This has resulted in a reality in which some people look more like one another than others.
On this biological reality, the white intellectuals of the post-Enlightenment period built a set of social constructions which we refer to as racism. Racism in turn formed the basis of social constructs which deprived a set of people with certain genotypical characteristics of subjective choice. We may refer to this set of constructs as land theft, genocide, and slavery. Slavery and colonialism have no doubt done much to bring certain genetic clusters closer to each other in a biological sense. Yet they have simultaneously managed to broaden the chasm between two sets of people - the colonizer and the colonized - in such a way that the increasing genetic closeness has been completely outweighed by the social construct. So 'race' today is certainly a concept in which the social construct is more important than the biological essence; that is to say, it has greater force of causation. Nonetheless, this would not justify us in claiming that race is purely social in nature. To do so would be to ignore not only the historical development of the concept but also the consciousness of Black people today. `Mama Afrika, they took me away from you, Mama, long before I was born', laments Peter Tosh. `Africa's inside me, taking back her child, giving me my pride and setting me free' exult Arrested Development. 'Word to the Motherland', say POC. The position of these movements I have cited is that everything is not a text. The idea of race as a purely invented construct is nonsensical in the context of the liberation struggle. The freedom fighters who were and still are imprisoned for the causes of Pan-Africaniam and Black Consciousness are sitting behind iron bars, not texts. Our many heroes, men and women, who confronted the possibility of dying in the struggle, knew well that their lives were more than a social construct. To lay down the breath of your body for an ideal is to be profoundly aware of the material nature of reality.
In this tradition I consider reality to be constituted of both the essence and the social construct. This is a womanist position. Tuzyline Allen describes womanism as "[r]esolutely idealistic and essentialist...", and the criticism, though contradictory, is also apt. Womanist practice must demonstrate our ability to use the tension between the real and the symbolic to speak to our position in the present and create a liberatory future.
I treasure an old-fashioned belief in the truth - I believe reality exists, that it consists of a complex interplay between the objective and the subjective, and I believe it to be fully knowable, if not always by myself. The Pan-Africanist and Black Consciousness Movements of Azania were organizations dedicated to both material transformation and spiritual revolution. The history of resistance created by these movements demonstrates clearly that the decolonization of the mind and the land were processes only separable conceptually. That this conceptual distinction was often necessary for purposes of strategy did not obscure the fact that, for these movements, the two levels were united in revolutionary practice.
Knowing this, it is ironic that the arguments which were used to debunk scientific racism are now being deployed against its chief victims. Houston Baker warned us of this:
The retreat into subjectivity in modern science is no reason to ignore the reality of racial and ethnic solidarity. How could it when it was precisely this reality which has empowered so many Black people in the recent past? My very position in white-dominated academia is due to the struggle of Black people everywhere, and particularly thanks to the social movements of the eighties in South Africa. To deploy this understanding theoretically is not easy. The multiple subtleties of subjectivity are hard to track down, understand and explain. But the immensity of the task should not intimidate us into the complete intellectual retreat of denying the existence of an objective reality. Without an essence there could be no social constructs - with what would we do the constructing?
If we were to use one concept without the other, we would do violence to the reality we are attempting to describe and change, because the social construct and the essence seldom exist in isolation. The processes of land theft, genocide, and slavery are undoubtedly processes which are deeply ideological in nature, yet each has a set of material causes and consequences. To attempt to describe these processes, either as merely a set of justifying ideologies, or as solely a transfer of material goods and labour power from the possession of one race to another, would be to mis-describe the nature of these processes in history. A poor theory will lead to failure in practice.
The concept of history itself is one where the subjective and objective clearly intermingle. For instance, Brown history was created by a multitude of subjective choices interacting with certain objective realities, be they chains or profit and loss sheets. The one thing I find very comforting about the past is that it is over, in the sense that there is nothing I can do to change it. This is my definition of objective: as something which is unchangeable. To me as an activist, the past constitutes an objective reality. What I can change is the future - let me rephrase that - what I will change is the future. It is my subjective choices in the present which will create the world for my children. This is the strength of the political tradition to which I belong.
As an intellectual, the past may appear very much more subjective. The past I read about as an undergraduate was not, in a sense, my past. Apart from obvious misconceptions, it included few Brown people and almost no women. So as an historian I may rewrite it, fill in missing gaps, correct misconceptions, and strive to create a piece of historical writing which may be useful `in the service of the Other'. Still, my desire to tell a different story cannot change the fact that the events of which I write actually happened in the way they happened. I am not the master of the past. The sequence of events, chain of causation, and constellation of ideologies which I study existed independently of my interpretation: the present cannot determine the past. It can determine the future. I can write a history which liberates instead of one which oppresses. In doing so, it important that the truth be told. This may apply in a purely empirical sense. The concept of truth is equally important in an emotional and spiritual sense. It is the concept of history as composed both of the essence and the social construct which frees me to address questions which to others might appear to be both crass materialism and subjective balderdash. This is the strength of my intellectual tradition.
Class is a relationship to property: some have it and some have not. Like race, it is heritable, that is, poverty and wealth alike tend to run in families. Unlike race, it is not linked to any physical characteristic, although it often expresses itself in classist cultural constructions. The very idea of science as an occupation of the propertied elite, is one such classist construct. I use the marxist definition of class, as determined by a person's relation to the mode of production. Structure is important in drawing our attention to the necessity to change the system. Abrahams argues that:
However, a concern with structure can be overdone. This applies, for instance, when a definition of the mode of production based on a European theory and an analysis of Europe is imposed wholesale upon African reality. One needs to avoid the more structuralist mistakes of marxist analyses of Africa. I deliberately avoid using the phrase 'dominant mode of production' because I am not convinced that several modes of production can be defined so as to co-exist. If capitalism, through war and conquest, has become the defining mode of production then people build their economic survival systems around this fact. These systems must by definition be capitalist. They are certainly not 'pre-capitalist' or 'pre-colonial', unless we are suggesting that different historical periods can exist simultaneously. That all over Africa some Black people (mostly male) have managed to hang onto means of production, along with a set of familial relations of production with which to work them, does not make them pre-anything. They live in the present, just like the rest of us. Rather, their successful resistance to complete dispossession must surely be seen as an indication of the failure of capitalists to completely dominate the world. May they continue to fail!
Womanism is a theory which arises out of community activism. As such, class as defined by our relationship to the means of production cannot be the only indicator of consciousness. Income matters, as well as what you do with it. This is because the lesson of many decades of activism is that poverty disempowers. A woman who has to spend hours fetching wood and water is not going to have much time left over for the struggle. A woman who works the fields (nominally hers but with cash crops in practice her husband's) for twelve hours a day, is not likely to attend a meeting in the evening. And a girl-child living on the edge of starvation is not going to be an effective guerrilla.
A revolution is made of material things as much as by liberatory theories. So the fact that many poor Africans are directing their energies to acquiring money, cannot in and of itself be considered a counter-revolutionary activity. Rather one needs to ask: what do they do with the money once they get it? Do they go to meetings or to cocktail parties? Do they invest in designer clothes or in community projects? The problem of the African middle-class is one which can only be solved in practice. At present, that practice is overwhelmingly determined by racially defined ownership of the means of production. In both Namibia and South Africa, over 90% of the economy and 87 % of the land has remained in the hands of white capitalists. In Zimbabwe, the effort to redistribute land, while falling far short of an effective transformation, has rendered unstable a government in power for two decades. Certainly in southern Africa the middle-class has not overly impressed us with their ability to convert their new riches into liberatory activity. Yet, for every petty dictator there is a revolutionary. For every Banda there is a Cheikh Anta Diop, for every Mobutu a Ken Saro Wiwa. For every bandit chief in a suit there is a civil servant who curses her corrupt bosses, laments her department's lack of money, and goes out to the rural areas yet again to make all the difference she can make.
For every example of conspicuous consumption we seem to produce a middle-class professional lambasting the neo-colonial elite. The many great works of African fiction which add such richness to the African tradition of plain speaking were mainly written by middle-class people. In the academic world, the critique of the neo-colonial elite by members of that same elite is a fount of creativity in its invective. The African middle-class seems to produce reckless idealism as often as corrupt tyranny. Kwesi Prah maintains that:
Fortunately this structure creates its own contradictions. For every neo-colonialist who rises to the top of the heap, there is a middle-class professional who finds him- or herself just as intelligent, qualified and hardworking (if not more) and yet is passed over in the hierarchy. The nature of the heap demands that only a few can rise to the top. It stands to reason that the ones who remain in the middle vastly outnumber, and may well out-think, the ones at the top. In this contradiction there is hope, provided that the middle class can nurture an ideology and organizational practice which turns dissatisfaction into constructive activity for structural change. It seems to me that the challenge of the future lies less in convincing portions of the middle class to commit class suicide - this has often been done on their behalf - than in ensuring that the African revolution contains more women. Sexism within the struggle alienates women and turns them against the struggle as much as the threat of death, prison or dishonour. Yet there was not a movement of the seventies and eighties which did not depend on women for stability and organizational strength.
Both in the America's and in Africa, white supremacy has meant in practice that race and class are often coterminous. They are not the same thing, but they manifest themselves in similar deprivations. In Africa, colonialism itself proved to be a fundamental leveler of classes. As Captain Witbooi observed over a century ago:
I am going to define gender in the same way as I do race: as a social construct grounded in a biological reality. Unlike race, however, gender is by definition not heritable. Race unites, gender divides. A family or community can share a racial identity, giving rise to a common culture. It cannot share a gender identity. As long as women marry men and give birth to sons, the African extended family will consist of at least two genders. Thus one can talk of Black cultures, or Black values, but not of a female culture or a set of female values. These only exist within a racial or ethnic subset, as in Black women's cultures or Khoekhoe women's values.
Our culture defines women as productive people: in living memory, there has not been a single woman in my direct maternal line who has not worked productively. The dispossession of our land and cattle which took place under colonialism was an attack against the material basis of this gender role. The concept of African women as non-productive beings, confined to a sometimes glorified, sometimes despised, reproductive role, was one introduced to this continent under colonialism. Some Black men on this continent have internalized these colonial values, and the eradication of such sexism is an important part the decolonization of the mind. In this limited sense, the gender struggle assumes an independent significance. In the main, however, gender is a constituent of identity which has been fundamentally redefined by colonialism. Certainly, amongst the khoekhoe the concept of 'home', and linked concepts such as 'family', 'hearth' and 'morality' were considered to be part of a woman's domain, but the meaning of those concepts was different when gathering grounds were part of home, when cattle bloodlines were considered family, when the hearth was the site of soap and medicine manufacture as well as food, and morality a matter of centering the intimate, interlocking web of values which taught a people to value expansionism and conquest as negative achievements. Gender segregation had a different meaning when the domain of men was the hunting grounds and that of women, almost everything else.
The struggle against white sexism which I wage is precisely in order to fulfill this African construct of womanhood. My gender activism, by definition, has to be waged against a male-dominated colonialism and a white male supremacy. My gender theory stems from the specificity of African social constructs of womanhood. As part of a dispossessed collective, African women are not gender traitors in deciding that the struggle over gender cannot be the primary one. On the contrary, even the possibility of thinking along those lines is a luxury reserved for those who are not oppressed by their race. The destruction of African women's historical gender role was the result of colonialism, not the result of choice. I would infinitely prefer to get back what was mine - our land, my cattle, our culture, our history, our language - and then, if I find I don't like it, I will be that much more empowered to change it. I need the power to choose an African social construction of womanhood, and only then can I decide whether it is necessary to oppose the practice of social construction itself.
This is not a matter of either\or. Clearly I cannot conceive of my Blackness without my womanhood. I would lack any experiential referent for this, since I have never been Black without at the same time being a woman. The point is that this is not by choice. Colonialism, and its child capitalism, are what creates the objective conditions under which our gendered understandings become overdetermined by race. Dolores Williams puts it as follows: "Black women cannot disjoin race and gender as they describe their oppression resulting from their relation to white-controlled American institutions." The luxury of disjoining race and gender is reserved for those who are part of the ruling race.
Which guidelines for activism does this theoretical position imply ? Williams sums it up:
Sexism in Africa weakens the anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggle. African men must come right not only because they oppress us but because they hold our struggle back. Feminists who decry the percieved subservience of African women seem to forget that we have had a good few problems to confront lately. Let us return to the concept of the material realities which interact with the world of ideas for a moment. What gives me the means to sit here and prioritize race? The struggles of millions of Black men and women. As Bience Gawanas has put it : " We were prepared to sacrifice our lives in the struggle to free ourselves from colonial oppression. We did not have the leisure to sit and worry about who washed the dishes." If I now have the leisure to worry about the sexist division of labour in our homes and in our struggle it is due to the victories of those who went before us. The best way to thank them is by keeping the dream alive. Now, as then, these debates must occur with a very clear sense of priorities. One, survival. Two, revolution. I rest my case.
If the racial oppression of Black women is the thesis, and a womanist insistence on the simultaneity of race and gender oppression the anti-thesis, where then is the positive, self-generated impulse which enlightens our struggle? It is the dream of freedom for all. Not just for us as women, but for us as people who celebrate individuality in the context of a collective. For to be African is to understand oneself as fully whole only in the context of a collectivity. To be African is to love our children, male and female, and to dream for them a future in which our vision for their full potential is fulfilled. 'Humanism' is the best word to describe this element of an African womanist vision. Humanism is the recognition of the inhumanity of oppression, the understanding that oppression forecloses our ability to reach our full human potential, and the detailed envisioning of that potential in the midst of some of the most vicious systems of oppression the world has known. This vision is not only theoretical, but practical: it is the sum of observations made by African women throughout the long years of our struggle. We have tilled fields, prepared sour milk, changed nappies, washed dishes, cooked wholesome meals, nursed the sick, laid down the law, kept the peace, told the stories, stood on the barricades, dished out pamphlets, organized conferences, endured solitary confinement and waged the armed struggle; we have expounded on strategies for liberation; we have prayed for the living and the dead. We have survived oppression and dreamt of freedom, if not for ourselves, then for our children. The lesson we have learnt is, I suppose, ultimately an idealist one: that we cannot work, fight and struggle to change the material realities of oppression unless we are guided by a vision of freedom. To envision freedom in the midst of oppression is the hardest thing to do - and yet it continues to be done, generation after generation, and shall continue to be done until we are free. For we know where we are heading, and lest we forget, Vanessa Ludwig reminds us:
Womanism is a theory which finds the categorization of class, race and gender less interesting than their relationship with one another. As can be seen by this introductory discussion of definitions, the minute we begin to talk about real people, or history in real time, it becomes impossible to discuss any one category in isolation. A woman is never simply a woman, she has a racial and class identity which determine the set of gender norms by which she lives and resists. It is this which is meant by 'mutually constitutive. 'Poor Black woman' is a distinct identity. A poor Black woman's experience of white supremacy, and of a lack of means of production, is going to be constituted by her womanness. She is at the bottom of three interlocking systems of oppression. She will relate neither to poverty nor to racism in the same way as a poor Black man will. A theoretical stance which defines her as a woman with a colour or a Black person with a womb will not be able to do justice to the human being whose deprivation of her full potential is experienced as complete. The interlocking categories of class, race and gender offer an opportunity to understand and analyze the totality of her experience. Womanism understands this experience as the mutual constitution of identities in their relationship to one another. Identities become tools of analysis rather than reductionist categories. However, an analytical understanding of identity alone is not sufficient. Each individual or collectivity has a specific history, and the mutual constitution of aspects of identity can only be studied in the context of this history. Womanism refrains from providing a theoretical answer as to which aspect of this triple identity will express itself most powerfully in an individual's life. This has to be discovered in practice. And activist practice, to be successful, needs to deal with whole people.
The origins of womanism are diverse. In its dialogue with the great theoretical frameworks which have shaped much of the history of the twentieth century, namely marxism, feminism and Pan-Africanism/Black Consciousness, womanism has inherited both their search for theoretical rigor and their activist tradition. What distinguishes womanism from these frameworks is the insistence on placing the reality and experience of Black women at the center. In this, womanists do not make a sharp distinction between themselves and Black feminists. The exposition which follows makes no systematic distinction between womanists and Black feminists, and indeed from a theoretical point of view there is little to distinguish them. Black feminism first advocated a more holistic view of oppression:
In African cultures, a name is of central importance. The experience of colonialism and slavery can be defined as the acquisition of the power of other people to name us, and in so doing, to re-define our symbolic world. Mary Kulawole draws our attention to the power implicit in the act of naming:
Owo ara eni l'a fi ntun iwa ara eni se
You have to establish your dignity yourself and not leave it to others.
Self-naming is very central to the African world-view. In many African cultures, naming assumes an almost sacred status. ... This is at the heart of the search for new terminologies of self-definition."
The classic definition is that of Alice Walker:
From the black womanish... Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or wilful behaviour. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered 'good' for one.
A woman who loves other women... Appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility ... and women's strength...
Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health."
The name remains crucial, it would seem, to both womanists and non-womanists. Gqola points out that womanism is still a theory under attack in South Africa:
The importance of names is clear in a fundamental debate which has been spurred on by womanist's insistence on the centrality of Black multi-gendered institutions to their struggle. Sisi Magaqi has raised this issue in her critique of Ogunyemi. She cites Ogunyemi to the effect that " ... an intelligent black woman writer uses ..." strategies to present positive Black role models in her fiction." Maqagi, ever tactful, goes on to argue that:
The issue of whose well-being we are prioritizing is at the center of the debate between womanism and Black feminism on alliances with white feminism. This debate is as much organizational as it is theoretical. Black feminists have become as strong advocates of a co-operative policy vis-a-vis white feminists, as they are sharp critics of white feminism. Their organizational efforts in the nineties have become directed towards re-defining this feminism in theory and practice, so that it may provide a place for Black women. I would suggest that these debates are of less strategic importance in the continental African context. In all but the former settler colonies, the number of white feminists is simply too small to be a major cause of difference amongst Black women. In the majority of African countries, the question rears its head only in the limited context of white feminists forming a part of international capitalist institutions. Thus the question of separatism may be relevant to critical discussions of development aid, the extent to whether it has at all helped, or whether it has rendered us more dependent. The role which white feminists in donor organizations and non-governmental organizations have played in this process is no doubt of fundamental importance. But for most African women the chances of ever meeting a white feminist socially, much less working with one in the same organization, are remote.
In South Africa itself, Black women would do well to consider what it means when a cause of their theoretical and activist disagreement is over co-operation with white women. At this point it may be well worth raising an issue discussed many times in the struggle of the eighties, but seldom heard today, when it is equally hard to find a white person who ever voted for the National Party, or a black person who did not participate in the liberation struggle. Yet it is a fact, and one of which we were painfully aware of at the time, that the vast majority of Black people were not organizationally active during the struggle. At any given time, the majority of Black people were far more involved in the struggle to get by than in the liberation struggle. Today, it is worth remembering that as long as concious, organized, activists are busy arguing with one another, they are not out there in the community helping to support the many, many grassroots initiatives towards the empowerment of Black women which are in fact taking place. I would suggest that the answers to this critical question may well be found while working with those African women who are busy trying to help themselves.
Indeed, any debate takes up mental space, and in so doing may well crowd out other debates of greater material importance. I find it significant that Black feminists, womanists and the many Black women who reject any form of -ism are so divided on the issue of uniting with white women, while in the meantime we are not addressing the issue of uniting amongst ourselves. Here are some key questions which are not recieving attention: do we treat ourselves and each other with respect? Do we expect respect from those, men and women, who claim to be aiding our cause? And do we carry ourselves so as to earn the respect which is undoubtedly our due as African women? The question of respect for an African woman looms large in this paper. It is fundamental to any Africanist project which purports to liberate Africans, for in speaking of respect, we speak an African language.
In the preceding discussion, I have addressed a complex theoretical and strategic issue through my experience in activist struggle. This is a womanist praxis. Womanism arises out of a long tradition of activism and has retained a close relationship with activist concerns. It privileges personal experience, and emphasizes organizational practice as a truth-test for knowledge. Phillips and McCaskill argue that the very exclusion of Black women from spheres of power make this a fundamental necessity:
Womanism, following Black feminism, defines racism and sexism as not just the overt expression of denigratory ideas which have no foundation in fact, but also as the theoretical and practical exclusion of Black women's experience. The origins of womanism lay in Black women's dissatisfaction with a white-dominated feminist movement which persisted in treating the category 'woman' as an undifferentiated category. In practice this meant that Black women's concerns were subjugated by the default race, white women. This left Black women having to fight on two fronts: against sexism in Black movements, and against racism in the feminist movement. The white domination of the feminist movement also placed Black feminist activists at a disadvantage within their own communities. One of the most powerful motive forces behind womanism has been the deep suspicion of the feminist movement amongst Black women at large. As an organizational obstacle, this suspicion has proved insuperable. Dolores Williams relates how, during a community college course on feminism, she was confronted with the following questions:
In this political context, the retelling of personal experience is an act of power. It stems both from the recognition that the personal is political, as well as the understanding that the political is always about race. Patricia Hill Collins, in her critique of objectivist positivism, points out the dilemma in which this methodology has placed Black academic women:
Research, like revolution, costs money. To attempt to take on a body of theory developed mainly by middle-class white males by trying to compete on equal terms would be foolhardy. Personal experience of racism, sexism and material dispossession is something I have which they do not. It should be put to good use.
Personal experience as a historical datum poses a peculiar epistemological challenge. From my point of view, it offers certainty. My personal experience is a datum I can be absolutely sure of. My historical experience is such that I yield to none a better claim to expertise on sexism and racism. If I say an event in Sarah Bartmann's life, or my own, is racist, it is so because I know it. It does require some effort from my audience to function as historians. You have to make the decisions a historian normally makes about evidence: Am I qualified to testify about racism and sexism? Am I a witness whose experience is apposite to the story being told? Am I a credible witness? Is my story logically consistent, or filled with holes? Does it confirm or contradict other people's stories, and if so, who is likely to have better knowledge about the event? Do I repeat myself at times so mechanically that you feel I am presenting a prepared picture, rather than the truth? Does my story sound like the recitation of stereotypes I am too blind to see beyond? Personal experience does not function as a substitute for the empirical method. It does require the reader to read responsibly.
When a graduate student sits down to decide what area to research, an important factor in that choice is the search for new knowledge. It is hard to find an area of research about which less is known than the study of African women from the viewpoint of an African woman. The retelling of my personal and collective experience is important from a professional point of view. It opens up hitherto publicly unknown knowledge, broadens the sphere of history and serves as a useful corrective in redefining 'public'.
It is not suggested that the retelling of personal experience should replace other forms of historical knowledge. For Black women it is a culturally comfortable form of knowledge: 'testifying', or beginning a problem analysis by a statement of one's own experience, is an African methodology. It may not be unique to Africa, but it is certainly part of African and diaspora culture. It is also not completely new to white academe. C.S. Lewis provided a method for reading this kind of evidence:
A warning is in order for those scholars who may be inspired by the womanist approach. Objectivist history has many virtues for the historian which womanism battles to provide. Using the third person helps to focus attention on the subject, rather than the historian. This denotes a proper respect for the subject which, though objectivist history has sometimes failed to provide it, is nonetheless a worthy aspiration. Here, it has helped to keep a firm grasp of essentials: Sarah Bartmann is part of my history, not I of hers. I am part of her historiography. This implies a relationship of power that a narrative of the self may help to lessen, but can never abolish. Unfortunately, the sacrifice is not rewarded by the complete abolition of unequal power relationships.
The sacrifice is very real. The comfortable distance of the third person plural offers the practioner some protection from the criticism of peers which has been a fundamental part of the discipline's ability to develop. A narrative of the self removes this comfort. This has profound implications for the treatment of the subject. Though it is by now a truism that we invest emotionally in all we write, in womanism this emotional involvement must be made clear and yet remain analytically distinct from our subject matter. Objectivism, though flawed, does offer the a distance from the subject which eases analytical work. There are two possible replacements for this analytical distance. The one is critical subjectivity, that is, to achieve some analytical distance from the writing self. It is a method almost impossible to balance. Between excessive self-criticism and excessive subjectivity there is a narrow path which I have seen, if not always followed, in my work.
The second approach is what I have posited as the 'sane self'. The writing of history is an emotionally exhausting pursuit, particularly when it comes to history of colonialism. Again, the comfort zone of objectivity offered a modicum of protection from these emotional realities. Critical subjectivity, on the other hand, has to acknowledge the reality of emotional pain in writing of traumatic events. Sanity is the only hope in this context. There is a difference between wallowing in emotions and seeing them as evidence of a particular historical process. There is a difference between acknowledging the reality of colonial oppression in the emotional life of an individual, and perpetuating it. Here, with as contradictory success as with critical subjectivity, I have used what may be considered counter-emotions as well as autonomously generated emotions. Black pride, feminine empathy and Brown 'asprisgeit' have proved valuable aids to achieving some form of emotional resistance to the traumatic impact of the historiography, as have an intellectual and organizational commitment to love, respect and hope in the effort to turn the historiography around. This approach is the best I have to offer. It shall take many workers to resolve the complexities of emotionally analytical thinking.
The concept of the sane self raises as many questions as it answers. Having considered the emotional life as important evidence, as important as the material realities which drive colonial exploitation, I am immediately forced to conclude that colonialism drives us all crazy. Elsewhere, I have used rock art as a symbol of normality which defines this madness, and the values of holism, mutual respect and understanding which I find in this art pinpoints sharply the skewness of the values we today accept as normative. This approach, therefore, is as much a process as it is a method. The critical subject, writing, has to ceaselessly strive towards some measure of sanity and balance which cannot be sustained for long in the midst of a contradictory colonial economy of things and knowledge which speaks ill of all which Khoekhoe rock art represents. To expect sanity to last would be to deny the material reality of the forces which keep me in subjection. However, in history it is not always the right answers which help us to revolute, but the practice of asking the right questions. If I have framed the debate in a manner which shall be found liberatory to its readers, there shall be enough achieved for one paper.
The narrative of the self makes for a devastating literary style. The best literary examples of a narrative of the self which I can think of: Tsitsi Dangarembga's Tambudzai, Alice Walker's Celie, both display an innocence which in its unselfconsciousness successfully avoids the danger of narcissism implicit in this genre. This unselfconsciousness is an impossible narrative stance for the historian who is required to track her walking as she goes. The first-person narrative form in academic prose is doomed by its footnotes to be an inherently unsatisfactory genre.
It may sound strange that I speak of Celie, a woman who was sexually abused both as a child and an adult, as innocent. I think here primarily of her spiritual innocence : she speaks to her Craetor as a child would. Celie's approach to life throws into sharp relief the striking anomalies of the historiography of Sarah Bartman. Viewed as literary texts, as emanations of a culture, the historiography of Sarah Bartman presents some odd features. From the viewpoint of African culture, none are more odd then this historiography's relationship to the abuse of the human body on the one hand and religion, on the other. These texts discuss female private parts almost without exception. Yet in this whole literature, the Divine is mentioned only once. The only children to appear in this literature are either dead or sexual objects. It is a literature which concentrates on Sarah Bartmann's weaknesses, on her inability to resist oppression, but very rarely considers her strengths. No text has asked the question: where did she find the strength to survive, to resist and to overcome the circumstances of her life? In this sense, the historiography is not a revolutionary literature. It does not ask the questions which are fundamental to African women's struggle today. Yet this is the question which immediately occurs to an African woman such as myself.
The separation between church and university is centuries old in the academic world. This separation is being challenged by womanist theory, which is at its strongest in the field of theology. This should not be surprising, since womanism is rooted in Black liberation theology. As Karen Baker-Fletcher points out, Black women have strongly espoused the tenets of liberation theology from its inception as a written body of knowledge. Discussing the women preachers, teachers and orators of nineteenth and early twentieth century America, she remarks:
Though womanist theologians are overwhelmingly Christian, theirs is a faith which recognizes the worldly origins of this religion in history, which acknowledges authenticity in varying conceptions of the Spirit and seeks to embrace them in a common vision which goes beyond humanity to include all of creation. Karen Baker-Fletcher writes:
Womanism does not require anyone to prove the existence of the Divine. Indeed, the separation between church and university was probably a wise one in the historical context of a colonizing religion aiming to dominate the world (not that it stopped either institution from attempting the colonizing mission). Still, one cannot be part of the problem and part of the solution. The only answer to the problem of evil is good. In its search for a holistic vision, womanism affirms and embraces the spiritual side of Black women's self. Womanist theology has devoted systematic attention to the analysis of sexual abuse, and to the practicalities of healing from abuse. Sarah Bartmann's place in world history, along with many other Khoekhoe women and men, is based on her struggle as an unwilling subject upon which the foundation of a sexually exploitative scientific racism and a racist sexism were laid. These systems of knowledge functioned separately in the case of Black men and white women, but simultaneously in the case of Black women. These oppressive systems of knowledge cannot be analyzed fruitfully while perpetuating a disciplinary division which buttresses the racism and sexism which is a fundamental part of their construction.
So far, womanism is the only body of theory which offers an analysis of sexuality, race and gender which is neither racist or sexist. Sexuality, whether as in the development of full human potential, or, as is the case here, as in a weapon the distortion of which deprives Black women of their full human potential, needs to deal with whole people. While a biography of Sarah Bartmann, the individual human being, may out of respect have little to say about sexuality, certainly her place in history must be centered upon an analysis of European ideas of sexuality as a tool in constructing scientific racism and sexism. Womanism systematically addresses those questions without either excluding the experiences of othered groups or perpetuating offensive stereotypes of its own. In fact, Black women's studies in America, because of its academic roots in slave studies, have yielded insights which are fruitful in a study of the historiography of a Khoekhoe woman whose sexuality was exploited. It offers a theoretical space where Sarah Bartmann can be seen as whole, and it provides her with a sisterhood.
The theme of sexuality has proved to be so fundamental to histories of Black women that Evelyn Higginbotham includes it in her programmatic statement for the next millennium:
At the heart of Black women's collective experience of racism and sexism is a degradation of the individual, for as much as the Black female body under colonialism has come to symbolize the epitome of sexual exploitation, from the viewpoint of Black women themselves this body designates a personal space: the boundaries of the self. In her definition of slavery, Hortense Spillers discusses the Black body as follows:
In searching for a body of theory which would take Sarah Bartmann seriously,
womanism provided a natural home. Racism, sexism and classism are systems
of deprivation. They deprived Sarah Bartmann during her lifetime. They
have deprived me-as-specimen during my lifetime. They have also deprived
analyses of her history of their full theoretical potential. In my struggle
to gain the voice to tell this story of the treatment an African woman
has been accorded, I have been much comforted by the womanist sisterhood.
In person and in writing, womanism has offered a space for me as well as
for Sarah Bartmann to be whole. Although we know few facts about her life,
one thing we do know is that Sarah Bartmann had faith. Her baptism in 1811
testifies to her faith in good, in the midst of much evil. A body of theory
which welcomes the witness of Black women is the logical place in which
to pursue an analysis of the histories which have been told about her.
African womanism is our home.
Conference Home | Programme | Accommodation & Transport | Guidelines to Presenters | Papers