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Of ‘Broken Backs’ and Mighty Pens: How Radical Black Women’s Writings Shaped Social Movements

From the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, powerful Black women writers have created a ripple effect, inspiring future generations of Black women to pen their own powerful narratives.

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Morrison (2nd from left) alongside June Jordan, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Lore Sharpe and Audrey Edwards in 1971.,

“It was November 1988,” Betty Winston Baye, recollected. “I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, being invited to be in the company of 27 other black writing women.”

Baye, who is an editorial writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, was describing the scene at the first-ever Black women writers’ retreat in a 2007 interview with NPR. The event was organized in the fall of 1988 by Essence Magazine, the first mainstream magazine catering to African-Americans. 

“That retreat almost 20 years ago still is a highlight of my writing life. If I tried to tell even a tenth of what went on that weekend and who all was there, I'd be accused of name dropping, of showing off. So I won't tell it all. You just had to be there,” Baye told the NPR. “I still get chills recalling the great poet, Sonia Sanchez, chanting a prayer for all of us at the retreat and for black people everywhere. Before it was over, Sister Sonia had dissolved into no words, just guttural grunts and groans.”

Women have always been at the helm of leading intense debates around the issues of race, class, gender, and identity.

Authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen and Bessie Smith helped shape the Harlem Renaissance as an artistic and cultural movement in the 1920s. Later generations saw authors such as Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Toni Morrison pave the way for critical theorists and scholars to align with the larger Black social movements of the time.

This army of inspirational Black women has also shaped and defined the architecture of Black literature as we see it is today.

From the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, these powerful women writers have created a ripple effect, creating a regenerative role as they have inspired the future generations of Black women to pen their own powerful narratives. And decade after decade,  emanating from Black women’s personal or collectively-shared experiences, there came a strong, resilient movement. 

Formation: They Wrote Themselves in the Story   

For many Black women writers, it wasn’t uncommon to write themselves into the narratives as an act of personal freedom and defiance. Because their stories more than the stories of any other group often go unwritten and untold. 

“I would especially lift up the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God as a young woman was formative for me and it taught me something I needed to know about the intergenerational power of writing as communication and ceremony that could reach beyond death and give life again and again,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a Ph.D. scholar, author of ‘Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity,’ told teleSUR. Gumbs' 'Spill' focuses on the radical works of Hortense Spillers, another Black American scholar, and professor in the English Department at Vanderbilt University. 

“I would also say that my mother introduced me to the work of Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Angela Davis at a relatively young age because they were major influences on her and that had a major impact on me.”

In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, she describes the precarious plight of “strong Black women” as the “mules of the world.” In the book which came at the tail-end of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston narrates a tale of a young Black woman who is on a quest for love, spiritual and physical liberation and is ever ready to bend normative gender and racial laws.  

"De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." She (Black woman) is “worked tuh death,” “ruint wid mistreatment,” yet strong enough to carry impossible “loads” nobody else wants to “tote.”

Another powerful writer at the time, June Jordan, left no stone unturned, to reflect on Black women's experiences at the time. In her all-powerful protest poem, titled, "Poem about My Rights,” Jordan wrote: 

“I am the history of rape

I am the history of the rejection of who I am

I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of

myself

I am the history of battery assault and limitless

armies against whatever I want to do with my mind

and my body and my soul and

whether it’s about walking out at night

or whether it’s about the love that I feel or

whether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or

the sanctity of my national boundaries

or the sanctity of my leaders...

In a discussion at the Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center, in 2017, both Spillers and Gumbs talked about their concerns over the ideological disconnect found in iconic white philosophers' ideas on Black and Brown people and their issues. They then remarked, that they use white philosophers' ideas to support and assert their own beliefs.

"My idea has always been to make Hegel speak my language, that's what I like to do. I'm like come on in here, dude, sit down. Yeah, I'm gonna put you right here, not over there, right here. That's the game, that's cool,” Spillers told Gumbs during the interview. “It is like you take anybody (philosopher) who is breathing or not, and subject them to your fire, your heat, your imagination, your tongue." 

Organizing around Black women's issues started as early as 1896 when the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was formed to address the issues. It went on to become the largest federation of local Black womens' clubs.   

“There have always been Black women activists—some known, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, and thousands upon thousands unknown—who have had a shared awareness of how their sexual identity combined with their racial identity to make their whole life situation and the focus of their political struggles unique," the Combahee River Collective’s 1974 statement pointed out.

"Contemporary Black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters."  

"The Sisterhood”

The 1960s and 70s, Black feminist scholarship, among other things, emanates from the preceding powerful works of Black women writers.

“The archival papers of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton and Toni Cade Bambara show their correspondence with each other and other writers consistently across their careers,” Gumbs said. “They collaborated on events, read each other's writing, gave each other feedback and thanked each other explicitly for their mutual impact.”

Sometimes, writing and reading each other’s work proved to be a cathartic, surreal experience for Black women writers.  

"The evidence is clear, not only in the shared themes of so much of their work, but in their communication with each other. June Jordan, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison specifically were part of a group called "The Sisterhood" that met regularly in their homes and the home of the other writers who were involved. They brainstormed ways to support each other and dreamt of creating their own press," Gumbs noted.

Gumbs cited Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and Cherrie Moraga among those who collaborated with other writers, especially members of the Combahee River Collective to create Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in the early 1980s.  

“These writers not only drew inspiration from each other's works, they made their lives out of life together.  For me, this is an important example for those of us writing today. I know that my work and life have been supported by other Black women writers and thinkers, and other women of color and queer black folks,” Gumbs explained.

In Bell Hooks’ 1981 text, Aint I A Woman, Hooks devoted much of her efforts critiquing the limited, even negative impact of the feminist practices that failed to acknowledge the impact of sexual violence on Black women. Hooks also worked on minimizing the ideological legacy of this devaluation.

“No other group in America," Hooks wrote, “has had their identity socialized out of context as Black women.”

Formed by Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith, in Boston in 1974, 'The Combahee River Collective,' had a broad range of issues they wanted to focus on, but one of the ideas was to not only correct the wrongs of white feminism at the time but to also be a guiding force to fight racial, classist, sexist oppression at the time, and aid the larger civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party.

Although the collective had been meeting since 1974, they published a formal statement outlining their emergence and goals, three years after their formation. The collective’s “Genesis” was rooted in “Black womens' extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of the white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes.”

"Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloging the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere.  

"We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work," the statement read.

The Combahee River Collective made the role of 'identity politics' very apparent.

"We believe the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working for somebody else’s oppression," they wrote in the statement.

Another radical and quintessential matter which stemmed from the Combahee River Collective was its power to mobilize the "third world" women writers as the Black lesbian collective also talked about the liberation of "third world" women, the criticality of which white feminism at the time failed to address as well.   

In an essay, 'Speaking in Tongues: The Third World Woman Writer," Gloria E. Anzaldua, a U.S. scholar of Chicana cultural theory, a feminist and queer scholar, wrote scathingly, "As first-generation writers, we defy the myth that the color of our skins prevents us from using the pen to create."   

"We are Third World women writers, so similar yet so different, similar in the issues we confront, different in approach and style. What we have in common is our love of writing and a love of the literature of women of color. In our common struggle and in our writing we reclaim our tongues. We wield a pen as a tool, a weapon, a means of survival, a magic wand that will attract power, that will draw self-love into our bodies," Anzaldua wrote in the piece speaking to the plight of the oppression faced by women. 

"It was certainly part of the multi-faceted Black Feminist intellectual movement that was being created around the country but specifically in Boston at the same time that the Combahee River Collective was growing.

Barbara Smith talks about living room conversations where Black feminists strategized about how to do their intellectual and political work in their communities, in solidarity with other people of color around the world, in the academic institutions where some of them worked, in their conceptual fields and in national academic organizations like the National Women's Studies Association, NWSA," Gumbs stated. 

"So while it would seem that the essays and public speeches that Hortense Spillers was giving at the time was about Black literature (she wrote about Alice Walker's work, Zora Neale Hurston's work, Ralph Ellison's work and more) it is also the case that she was part of conversations that would shape the creation and interpretation of Black women's writing for many years to come.  It certainly has had a formative impact on my work," Gumbs told teleSUR.   

The writings also shaped the ideologies of the prominent Black movements at the time, for instance, the Black Panther Party, BPP. Even though men in the group were often portrayed as the vanguard, women in the Black Panther Party were at the helm of most activities.  

By the early 1970s, women formed nearly two-thirds of the Black Panther Party. Not only did they serve important leadership roles alongside the men, such as state and national secretaries, chair positions and editors, but they were also carrying out essential duties, such as feeding children, ensuring that they remained in schools and strategizing to protect the neighborhood.

"There were women in the party like Barbara Susan, who could shoot better than men, and there were women who were key philosophers, thinkers, and strategists in the party," Mary Phillips, one of the founding members of the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project, IPHP, told teleSUR. 

"When you look at the larger movements, like the civil rights movement, you see these deep discussions around gender politics within these movements, at one level, everyone coming to the organization brought in their own biases, in many ways, the organization was struggling with what the country at large was struggling with," Phillips pointed out.

In July of 2016, marking 50 years of the Black Panther Party's inception, some of the known Black intersectional feminist scholars such as Mary Phillips, and Black woman historians such as Robyn C. Spencer, Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest and Tracye A. Matthews, came together to discuss the status of women in the Black Panther Party.  

Some of the recent collaborative processes have been discussed in detail by these writers in an essay called, "Ode to Our Feminist Foremothers: The Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project on Collaborative Praxis and Fifty Years of Panther History." 

"Although we lived hundreds of miles apart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and New Orleans, we all relied on Black feminism to be our compass through those times. Reconnecting in the shadow of the #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName movements, we acknowledged that a commitment to Black feminist politics continues to inform and inspire our work," the authors wrote. 

"Our work process circumvents communication barriers and expands modes of knowledge production. Through sharing computer screens, administrative work, expenses, and labor, we have created over a dozen essays and short videos since October 2016. 

"At our kitchen table, we riff off each other in a polyrhythmic discourse akin to jazz and write with one editorial voice. Our collaborative writing projects begin as a blank Google document and develop through periodic meetings...and the blank page fills with freewriting, brainstorming, and ideas that blend as we jot down parts of our conversation in real time.

"Through this process, sentences grow and expand into paragraphs. We are empowered to build and rebuild each other’s sentences and finish each other’s thoughts because we have made the conscious choice to relinquish individual proprietary ownership and prioritize collectivity and trust."

Gumbs believes that all the powerful writing is sourced from "love."

"I think that no matter what we are going through, and even if we are not in a so-called “empowered” or “positive” space, mood, or situation, love is there. My study of Black women as a Black woman has taught me that. Love is always there. Always. Even when it seems completely impossible that it would be. In the instances of violence and freedom-seeking, love is always somewhere, even if the people in the scene are not expressing love," she concluded.

"I think that without the love of Black women and other women of color most of what currently exists on this planet in human form would not exist."