In honor of Black History Month or BHM as it’s sometimes stylized, I decided that for the rest of this month I’d write pieces to highlight prominent Black figures and their contributions – both for the diaspora and society at large. This month and topic are near and dear to my heart, not only as a Black womxn but also as an academic, deeply invested in theories or ideologies relating to the pertinent issues plaguing the Black community. I’m equally interested in historical theoretical practices and contemporary interpretations of racially charged injustices. So, for my first article in this series I want to illuminate a few theories created by Black womxn which have been influential in the academic sphere through the development of theories and ideologies that think beyond the surface by considering the nuances of race, gender, and sexuality, among many other issues. In this article, I’ll be focusing on two theories that I’ve come across between my free time and academic career. It’s my hope that you’ll learn something new and will be able to appreciate Black feminist theories as viable, relevant, and important. Through Black feminist theory and Black feminism more holistically, we are able to envision new ways of seeing Black womxnhood.
1. Intersectionality: First proposed by lawyer, civil rights advocate and philosopher Kimberlé Crenshaw back in 1989. Intersectionality is a term coined by Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender and other social signifiers overlap. Most often, intersectionality is used to describe the ways in which these characteristics ‘intersect’ by working simultaneously to oppress an individual or group of people on the basis of two or more factors. This term was created as a way to describe how people of marginalized groups experience the world and how the world experiences them. For example, when Crenshaw first introduced this concept in a scholastic journal in which she explained her reasoning for developing a Black feminist criticism, stating, “[there is] a problematic consequence of the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis”. This tendency she spoke of was a key motivation for her analysis because “this tendency is perpetuated by a single-axis framework that is dominant in antidiscrimination law and that is also reflected in feminist theory and antiracist politics” (Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139). Intersectionality is an important framework for analyzing the complex facets of oppression, privilege, and power that often serves to disempower minorities. This is done as a way to categorize people into sociopolitical groups and maintain social hierarchies or caste-style systems. Since the 1989 publication, the term has gained popularity over the past decade as it is thrown around frequently in political discussion, college classrooms, and social justice seminars; Crenshaw’s TEDtalk on The Urgency of Intersectionality can be viewed here.
2. Illicit eroticism: A concept created by assistant professor Mireille Miller-Young of feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara that came from her article in the 2010 publication of Sexualites journal about “labor marginalization of black female performers within the pornography industry” (Young 2010, Abstract). In the analysis, Young examines the experiences of Black sex workers, largely shaped by a racialized and gendered sexual commerce “where stereotypes, structural inequalities, and social biases are the norm” (Young 2010, Abstract). Young’s argument in the article is to show while Black womxn are faced with multiple axes of discriminatior or intersectionality, they also engage hypersexuality and illicit eroticism as a means to achieve upward mobility, prurient erotic agency, and self-care. What Young reviews is how in the adult industry, Black women’s bodies are devalued, exotified and marginalized when it comes to the industry’s sex marketplace hierarchy. However she counters that by including examples of how Black womxn sex workers have been gratified by pornography when it was created/produced/directed by other Black womxn. Actually when this happens, the content tends to showcase more of an erotic expression rooted in creativity and pleasure in contrast to pornography that is usually racist and misogynistic in its treatment of Black adult performers. Illicit eroticism is a term used to theorize “(1) the historical representation of black bodies as sites for a vast array of forbidden sexual desires, fantasies, and practices and (2) how black subjects symbolically and strategically labor within the prohibited terrain of sex” (Young 2010, pp. 13(2)). Ultimately illicit eroticism is a framework created as a way to understand how Black sex workers have labored in the sexual economy. For more on Young’s work on Black womxn’s histories, you can read her interview with Ms. Magazine here.
This is the conclusion of my first article in the BHM series. Next I’ll be looking into the work of Claudia Jones and Kristie Dotson as a continuation of my appreciation for the scholarship of powerful Black womxn thinkers. Thanks for reading!