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Protofeminists and Liberation Limbos

  • Joy James

Abstract

Limbos entail vulnerable backbreaking postures as well as isolated states. Rarely ladylike, limbos repudiate the gentleness of the cult of “true” womanhood, a bourgeois construct for civility that can weigh heavily on the outspoken and independent to censor black female militancy. Those who advocate civility as a precondition for transcending antiblack female stereotypes can depict the combativeness of rebels in “rude” opposition to racism, homophobia and sexism, corporate capitalism, and environmental pollution as a personal failing in deportment. In limbos, shadow boxers, particularly historical women or “protofeminists,” who preshadowed contemporary black feminist radicalism, provided models and strategies for resistance that rejected strict black female adherence to middle-class norms.

Keywords

White Woman Black Woman African American Woman Sexual Violence Black Male 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, ed., Marilyn Richardson, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Miriam Decosta-Willis, ed., The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    For a critical review of black feminist revisionist accounts of Ida B. Wells, see Joy James, “Sexual Politics” in Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals (New York: Routledge, 1997), 61–82.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Reprinted in Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crusade for Justice, ed. Alfreda Duster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Quoted in Gerder Lerner, Black Women in White America (New York: Vintage, 1974), 207.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), documents that between 1889 and 1940, at least 3,800 men and women were lynched in the South and the bordering states, with an average of 200 lynchings per year during the 1890s. In his preface to On Lynchings a collection of Wells’s three pamphlets—Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892); A Red Record: Lynchings in the U.S., 1892, 1893, 1894 (1895); and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900), August Meier notes that the numbers of African Americans reported lynched averaged over 100 a year during the 1880s and the 1890s, with lynching “peaking” in 1892 when 161 women and men were murdered.Google Scholar
  8. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings: Southern Horrors, A Red Record, Mob Rule in New Orleans (New York: Arno Press, 1969). Meier refers only to African Americans lynched; D’Emilio includes whites as well. Lynching has become identified with African Americans, yet prior to the Civil War, the majority of lynching victims were white. Similarly, in the early eighteenth century, slavery came to represent the African American condition, although Europeans and Native Americans had been enslaved along with Africans prior to and during that era.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Wells routinely contested antiblack racism in the white press such as that found in the Memphis Daily Commercial article of May 17, 1892, entitled “More Rapes, More Lynchings”: In response to the article’s statement that “The generation of Negroes which have grown up since the war have lost in large measure the traditional and wholesome awe of the white race which kept the Negroes in subjection…. There is no longer a restraint upon the brute passion of the Negro,” Wells responds: “The thinking public will not easily believe freedom and education more brutalizing than slavery, and the world knows that the crime of rape was unknown during four years of Civil War, when the white women of the South were at the mercy of the race which is all at once charged with being a bestial one.” Wells, A Red Record 5. Her claim that no rapes of white females by black males were reported during the Civil War is contested by Martha Hodes’s “The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War,” in John C. Fout and Maura Shaw Tantillo, eds., American Sexual Politics: Sex, Gender, and Race Since the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 19.Google Scholar
  10. 23.
    According to Amnesty International, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) discussed a treaty to abolish the death penalty in 1987. That same year the European Parliament condemned the continuing use of the death penalty in the United States, noting that although an increasing “number of countries are abolishing or no longer applying the death penalty, states in the U.S. are committed to it.” In many states, persons under eighteen can be executed; the race of victim and defendant is a factor in death sentencing. Between 1977 and 1986, nearly 90 percent of prisoners executed had been convicted of killing whites, although the number of black victims was approximately equal to that of white victims. See Enid Harlow, David Matas, and Jane Rocamora, eds., The Machinery of Death: A Shocking Indictment of Capital Punishment in the US (New York: Amnesty International U.S.A, 1995).Google Scholar
  11. For additional documentation of human rights abuses of the incarcerated, see Elihu Rosenblatt, ed., Criminal Injustice (Boston: South End Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  12. 25.
    See Joanne Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within Tradition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 2.Google Scholar
  13. 30.
    According to Gerda Lerner, “The myth of the black rapist of white women is the twin of the myth of the bad black woman—both designed to apologize for and facilitate the continued exploitation of black men and women. Black women perceived this connection very clearly and were early in the forefront of the fight against lynching. Their approach was to prove the falseness of the accusation, the disproportion between punishment and crime, the absence of equality, and lastly, to point to the different scales of justice meted out to the white and the black rapist. An often neglected aspect of this problem is the judicial indifference to sexual crimes committed by black men upon black women.” See Gerda Lerner, “Black Women Attack the Lynching System,” in Lerner, Black Women in White America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 193–194.Google Scholar
  14. 34.
    Excerpts from this section on Ella Baker first appeared in Joy James, “Ella Baker, ‘Black Women’s Work’ and Activist Intellectuals,” The Black Scholar Vol. 24, No. 4, (Fall 1994), 8–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 35.
    Joanne Grant, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker, New Day Films, 1981; Ella Baker: Freedom Bound (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998)Google Scholar
  16. 36.
    See Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Markets,” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races Vol. 42, (November 1935), 330–31, 340.Google Scholar
  17. 37.
    Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 161.Google Scholar
  18. 39.
    Joanne Grant, Black Protest: History, Documents and Analyses 1619 to Present (New York: Ballantine, 1968), 213.Google Scholar
  19. 50.
    Gloria Hull and Barbara Smith maintain that: “Only a feminist, pro-woman perspective that acknowledges the reality of sexual oppression in the lives of black women, as well as the oppression of race and class, will make black women’s studies the transformer of consciousness it needs to be.” See Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982), xxi. Other black feminists writing on black women’s studies include Barbara Christian, Deborah King, and bell hooks.Google Scholar
  20. 52.
    Judith Rollins, Between Women: Domestics and Their Employers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 212–213.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© James Joy 1999

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  • Joy James

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