Dr. Barbara T. Christian

December 12, 1943  – June 25, 2000 

Clip from Ann Harris-Williams, Professor of English, Lincoln University interviewing Dr. Barbara Christian, Professor of African American studies, University of California at Berkeley and Clenora Hudson-Weems, Associate Professor of English, University of Missouri Columbia in 1993.  A production of JCTV-3 Community Access Television, Jefferson City, MO.

African Womanism vs. Black Feminism

Ann Harris-Williams: Do you feel there have been reactions among women of color to the designation black feminist?

Dr. Christian: Oh definitely. I think when we began using that term – I mean this is a relatively new term in the early 70s, just as feminist as a term was really not used very much until the Second Wave – that it was extremely shocking, and I think that was part of its value. Part of its value was to indicate not that we were women only, but that we had certain political stances.

Now it may very well be that the term may need to change, but for a very long time it put us in a debate not only with white women – who I don’t want to be focused on only – but in terms of women in the world. And also, in terms of men within our own communities. I guess part of my sense of what needs to happen, and I know we will be getting to that as well, in order for our communities to be strong we need to recuperate some sense of what it means to be in those communities as women and men. And to some extent those definitions were very much weakened from my readings in the 1960s when there was a tremendous emphasis on Manhood in Black movements. I was certainly a part of that.

And that’s what needed to happen. We see writers like Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and so on being published right after that period, was to react. Very often when we were talking about the term race in the 1960s we all thought it meant women and men. And what we discovered for a large extent within the movements, was that it meant maleness.

In order to deal with that we needed to come up with some kind of a critique, because we knew that would destroy our communities as much as racism – that they are related. It is one of the ways in which racism operates is through sexist terms. I saw for example in the 1960s and I lived through this period where black women were told to walk four or five steps behind black men. I saw it through the [Maulana Ndabezith] Karenga movement. I saw it myself.

I saw the way in which black women were supposed to imitate (without black men knowing they were really doing this) white women and becoming “Black Madonna’s” who were quiet. I remember Baraka issuing a statement in which [he included] the Ten Commandments for the Black Woman and the first one was that in the presence of a black man she should not speak, so …there is that intent.

And the term black feminism to indicate also within our communities that we will not become like white women in terms of the way white women have been or have been seen to be in their attempt to get out of that. Very often within our movement we are told we should be like them. So that’s a very important point. Another also too…that I want to stress again, is that I think it’s important for us to think about the international construct.

And that in many ways black women, African-American women, Caribbean women – I’m from the Caribbean – have been very much at the center of being concerned about women moving all over the world. Coming from the Caribbean, where race is constructed somewhat differently from the way it is in this country, I know that we have had influences. The construct of an African Caribbean woman on the way in which many other groups – and I do not mean just white people – they have their own minority in the world. But other groups have been thinking about the way in which they define womanhood.

So for me it is the process that we’re involved in now in looking at a traditional construct of African womanhood from which we come, along with a new world construct of womenhood –  what Toni Morrison calls the new world African-American. We need to fuse those in our movement into the 21st century and we need to move towards new definitions of womanhood that are based on our tradition and are very much involved with the world as it now is.