Black feminism 101

Author and Penn alum Feminista Jones’ new book “Reclaiming Our Space” is a study of modern black feminists in the age of social media.

Feminista Jones and Tanji Gilliam seated in front of a small crowd at the Penn Book Center
Feminista Jones (left) and Tanji Gilliam of the Africana Studies department address the crowd at the Penn Book Center on Feb. 13.

A large majority of what we have adopted as tools of modern living and social movements have originated with black women. The very language and platform of Twitter mirrors black women’s voices. Third-wave feminism, the #MeToo movement, black liberation movements like Black Lives Matter—these all originated with black women, and, arguably, were co-opted. These theories are brought forth in Feminista Jones’ new book, “Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets,” and were the topic of her discussion with Tanji Gilliam, a lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies, at the Penn Book Center on Feb. 13.

The small space was comfortably packed with an attentive crowd. The author, a 2002 graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Social Policy & Practice in 2017, started the discussion with her intention for writing the book: Jones wants this book to be a seminal historical text of the early 21st century black feminist movement. As a scholar and a historian, her intention is for these words to carry through history. 

“The book is a living testament to the lives of black women right now and serve as a historical artifact. So, in 100 years people can reference the book when they ask about the lives of black women in the 21st century,” she said.

She began by reading the introduction to her book. 

“The first time someone accused me of being a CIA agent, I laughed… Then someone accused me of being an FBI agent charged with imprisoning Black men in an effort to further destroy the Black family. This time I did not laugh as hard.” Jones, who identifies as a pro-black liberation activist and feminist, explained that certain people don’t believe black feminism is a movement. Some go so far as to characterize black feminism as a tool of white supremacy.

Black women, she argued, are historical trendsetters. They have been focused on the same liberation issues as white women and black men for decades. Black feminism, said Jones, is the key to black liberation, and it is at the root of dismantling multi-layer oppression.

In her book, Jones links black women in history to one of the most powerful and ubiquitous tools of our modern day: Twitter. Twitter threads, she explained, are basically a modern call and response. 

Widely present in parts of the Americas touched by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the tradition of call and response, or antiphony, fosters dialogue, and is an important component of oral traditions, and the bedrock of soul, gospel, blues, and hip-hop music. “Call and response,” said Jones, “is the language of the diaspora, and the language of Twitter. It mimics the act of worship in a church, with a pulpit and congregants. Tweeters are the pulpit, repliers are the congregants.”

Feminista Jones
Author and Penn alum Feminista Jones with her book “Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets” at the Penn Book Center on Feb. 13

Long silenced, black women took to Twitter. In her book, Jones wrote, “It makes sense, then, that Black women are the prominent figures in the medium, as we are the primary conduits of antiphony.”

What officially was coined a “Twitter thread” by the platform in 2017 has long been attributed to venture capitalist Marc Andreesen in 2014. But, Jones wrote, black Twitter user and activist with the handle @thetrudz linked her tweets in 2013, arguably the first “threading” on Twitter.

The distinction between what is colloquially known as Black Twitter and (regular) Twitter highlights the problems that modern social justice and activist movements have: that of cooption and the misuse of the term, “intersectionality.” To identify as feminist, Jones argued, is to beg the question, “are you a white feminist, or a feminist?” Because, as Jones details in her book, feminism began with black women, and their labor has been exploited and taken for granted historically and currently. Just one example—a black woman named Tarana Burke coined #MeToo before Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan brought it to the mainstream. Complete equality for all women both erases racial disparity and recognizes that black women have been the originators of the fight.

Benevolent racism, Jones explained in her writing, is the concept that white women are fighting for their own liberation “on the backs of Black women.” Some white women have divested of their white privilege, but this does not make white women allies. “Allies,” Jones wrote, “cannot exist, because alliances are formed to the mutual benefit of the joining parties. Since there is no mutual benefit for oppressors and privileged people when the oppressed are liberated, there can be no such things as allies.” 

Columbia Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectional feminism” nearly 30 years ago. Crenshaw, explained Jones, understood that you can’t claim to have an intersectional feminist movement without black women. At its core, it must begin with black women, since their labor has been the blueprint for all liberation movements. 

“The most extraordinary thing happens when black women are invited to share in the production of a black woman’s work,” said Gilliam, after the discussion. “Our talk at the Penn Book Center meant that two black women got to speak at once. And breaking that silence encouraged other black women to attend, and ask questions and contribute feedback. This dialogue is always urgent because the marginalization of black female minds has left our entire world rotating on an invisible axis.”

a person in the audience asks a question during the Q&A portion of the event
A participant asks a question during the question-and-answer period.

Gilliam asked Jones: “We say things out loud in speeches and in books and on Twitter. But what do we do with what we say under our breath?”

Jones responded by evoking the times she stood clutching the kitchen sink, stifling screams. “This is why black women have high rates of heart disease. And depression, anxiety, obesity, and maternal death rates. No one asks us what we need,” she said. “We are expected to provide. The lives of black women have been regulated since we were brought to this country.” Black women fight racism in the feminist movement and sexism in the black liberation movement, and they are always looked at to be providers, servants, and nurturers—most notably, of other people’s kids, not their own. Their own children are taken away, their pregnant bodies policed, and instead of mothers, they are expected to be disciplinarians to their children while nurturing their bosses, their community members, their activist partners. “We are not seen as real women.”

Modern feminism is having a momentum period, whether it’s in the House of Representatives, on television, or listening to assault survivors tell their stories. But one of the key oversights of modern feminism is racial disparity. 

“Mainstream White Feminism centers the oppression of the privilege,” Jones wrote in her book, noting this underscores the importance of Twitter. “Employing hashtags as meeting rooms and Twitter threads as public gathering places [pushes] this long-standing fight to the forefront of the world’s collective consciousness with little obstruction or censorship.”