Black Feminism and Other Forms of Activism in the 1960’s and 1970’s (by Sarenna Cech)

Title:

Black Feminism and Other Forms of Activism in the 1960’s and 1970’s

 

Standards:

Key Ideas and Details for Grade 11-12, #3:

Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

 

Overview:

This lesson will provide students the opportunity to learn about Black feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, specifically as their ideology relates to mainstream white feminism and Black Power activism. The statements posed in the activity strike at the heart of these relationships and encourage the students to form individual opinions on these highly debatable questions.

 

Framework:

The students will be provided with a general background on Black feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Specifically, the way that Black feminism developed alongside and from white mainstream feminism and the Black Freedom Struggle. Once they have read a primary document written by a group of Black feminists, an analysis of another Black feminist group, and heard a short lecture about Black feminism, they will be asked to form their own opinions on the matter. These opinions will not be static though as they will be given the opportunity to change their minds depending on what their classmates have to say. Ultimately, they will be encouraged to see the complexities surrounding Black feminism and the way that their positionality informed their views on oppression.

 

Essential Understanding:

Through their exclusion from the white feminist movement and male-led Black activism, Black feminists from the Combahee River Collective empowered themselves by creating a unique space that not only acknowledged the existence of multiple forms of oppression, but also the ways that these forms of oppression work in concert with one another.

 

Essential Questions:

  • How does the Combahee River Collective analyze oppression? How do different forms of oppression relate to one another? How does this affect their political activism?
  • What is the Combahee River Collective’s connection to second wave feminist groups and Black liberation movements?
  • How do their focus on economic oppression relate to the rest of their goals?
  • Why was activism around their own identity so important to them? How does it relate the marginalization they have faced in activist spaces?

Glossary:

Patriarchy—A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it

Black Feminism—Progressive, race-informed women’s rights movement

Feminism—The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality

Intersectionality: Ideology that argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are bound together

Black Power—Movement aimed at achieving self-determination for Black people

Civil Rights Movement—Typically considered a movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s that wanted to end racial segregation and gain legitimate benefits of citizenship for African Americans within the United States

Introduction:

The United States is a society that exists within a system of patriarchy and white supremacy both in the 1960’s and 1970’s and in many ways, in the present day. As a patriarchy, the United States as a social system encourages men to hold primary power in multiple fronts: households, the workplace, and politics. To combat this, second-wave feminism, which began in the 1960’s specifically, focused on inequality between men and women, specifically through issues in the family such as domestic violence and marital rape, the workplace such as unequal pay, and reproductive rights such as abortion and birth control. One of its major efforts was to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, but this ultimately failed.

As a system of white supremacy, United States society has overall believed in the natural superiority of the “white race” however that has been defined at its historical moment. This has driven power relations so that people’s access to power, rights, and social capital has been determined in large part by their race. This power structure creates a set of racial assumptions that are powerful not only in relation to white people, but also to anyone who does not qualify as “white.” In the 1960’s and 1970’s specifically, Black people in the United States lived in a racist society that constantly undermined their right to vote and inflicted physical violence upon them regularly. Within the Black Freedom Struggle there are two main fronts that tackled this injustice: the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power. Most students are familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, especially Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as its leader. Key characteristics of the Civil Rights Movement are nonviolence, interracial organizing, and the integration of Black people into white America. Black Power on the other hand utilized self-defense and violence when necessary, called for racial unity among black people and the strengthening of Black culture.

Black feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s was unique in the just described era of activism because it examined multiple forms of oppression: sexism, racism, and class oppression. This form of intersectionality was not apparent in the mainstream feminist movement of the time that ignored racism or the Black Freedom Struggle that often times ignored sexism.

The Combahee River Collective, the Black feminist lesbian organization that we will be discussing today started in Boston in 1974. Although they disbanded in 1980, lasting less than a decade, they created the Combahee River Collective Statement that has been an important document in the creation of identity in many of the following Black feminist organizations. They originally began as a part of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in New York. When they attempted to start a chapter in Boston, they began the Combahee River Collective because the NBFO was not progressive enough, especially because they were not socialist. They named themselves the Combahee River Collective after a historical event in which Harriet Tubman led a military campaign that helped free more than 750 slaves at the Combahee River. This was meant to show their connection to previous Black struggles, and honor the Black women who participated in them.

 

Materials:

“The Third World Women’s Alliance: Black Feminist Radicalism and Black Power Politics.” In The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. New York, New York: Routledge, 2006.

 

Activity:

Have the students read “The Combahee River Collective” and write a response to the text. Then instruct them to read The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights Movement-Black Power Era and write a paragraph or two about how it applies or does not apply to The Combahee River Collective. Have them reflect on whether their two responses contradict or agree with each other.

 

In class, the teacher will make four posters. Each has one of the following: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree. The teacher will then reach the following list of statements:

  • The Combahee River Collective and other Black feminists had mostly different goals from mainstream feminism.
  • Mainstream feminism had a mostly positive effect on The Combahee River Collective and other Black feminists.
  • The Combahee River Collective and other Black feminists had mostly different goals from mainstream Black male activists.
  • Black power activism had a mostly positive effect on The Combahee River Collective and other Black feminists.
  • The Combahee River Collective is equally concerned about racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic exploitation.

After each statement is read, students need to stand in the corner with the poster that corresponds to their opinion. The teacher should then allow students to explain why they chose their specific corner. Once discussion is over, students should be given the opportunity to move to a different corner if they have been persuaded by any of their classmate’s comments.

Additional Sources:

Breines, Wini. “What’s Love Got to Do with It? White Women, Black Women, and Feminism in the Movement Years.” Signs 27, no. 4 (2002): 1095-133. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1086/339634.pdf?acceptTC=true&jpdConfirm=true.

Breines, Winifred. The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lynnell Harris, Miriam. “From Kennedy to Combahee: Black Feminist Activism from 1960 to 1980.” Claremont Illiad. May 1, 1997. Accessed March 12, 2015. https://claremont.illiad.oclc.org/illiad/pdf/303189.pdf.

Springer, Kimberly. “‘Our Politics Was Black Women’: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980.” Claremont Illiad. August 6, 1999. Accessed March 12, 2015. https://claremont.illiad.oclc.org/illiad/pdf/303191.pdf

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