Reflections on a Black Feminist Think Tank

I have always wanted to participate in a think tank, a gathering of people with shared purpose and focused minds. But think tanks, it seemed, were only for political strategists and well-funded centers outside of the academy. I have a sharp memory, in fact, of a faculty meeting years ago that brought this point home. A woman colleague who studies black gay writers shared her concern that university work was becoming more and more about management, committee meetings, and office tasks and less about research and writing. The sober response she received from someone in authority at that meeting: “This is no think tank.” He might as well have said “This no country club,” given the way his response shut down the dialogic possibilities opened by her comment. Some people reading this blog might wish to argue right about now that working at a university is indeed like working at a country club, but I won’t wade into those weeds here or try to sketch out the many kinds of extensive and indeed intensive labor that professors engage in. Maybe some other time. Suffice it to say: yes, there are many wonderful privileges endemic to an academic life for the lucky few who can find secure employment as universities move toward cost-saving, part-time labor schemes. But having the space and time to reflect deeply, to think creatively, to produce truly new knowledge – this is a privilege on the wane, even in the academy.

And yet thinking, and thinking with other people, is one of the major draws of an academic career. This is why I was so thrilled to see the formation of a think tank at the University of Michigan where I teach, and not just any think tank — a Black Feminist Think Tank geared toward scholars who study women and communities of color. Hosted in Ann Arbor by the Department of Afroamerican & African Studies at UM, and organized by historian Sherie Randolph, literary scholar Aliyah Khan, and literary scholar Erica Edwards, the March 2015 symposium drew participants from around the country. Speakers regularly called to mind many of the intellectual foremothers of black feminist and women of color feminist thought and activism. Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, the Combahee River Collective, and the editors of the journal Sage were just some of the women whose early work was heralded. The speakers made continual connections between the ideas expressed in black women’s writings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writings by women of color in the 1970s and 1980s, and the more recent works of a prolific generation of black women scholars, including Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Cathy Cohen, and Patricia J. Williams. The stunning growth of our field over several generations of thinkers and activists was apparent at the meeting, as was the continual need for black feminist and women of color scholars to reinterpret, build upon, and further develop foundational concepts. Among these concepts are the terms that have become key words in our field: double, triple and multiple jeopardy; the matrix of domination; and intersectionality.

Participants in the Black Feminist Think Tank demonstrated the wide range of subject areas in which these foundational concepts are being applied and their meanings tested and expanded. State violence, racial violence, and mass incarceration, along with sexuality, reproductive rights, and the politics of respectability, were important focuses of the rich analyses put forward in the presentations. Questions about the links between indigenous activism and black feminist thought, the intersection of creativity and methodology, and modes of collaboration and new notions of audience were also raised. An important, perhaps implicit point was interwoven through many of the presentations: black feminism is not just a topic of study; it is also an ethos and approach that has ramifications for the ways in which we imagine, plan, carry out, and share our intellectual and creative work.

My contribution to this vital discussion about the past and future of black feminist thought is to pose a new question: Where does the environment fit within our production of knowledge? Black women and women of color live within layered contexts shaped by the intersection of multiple factors. The natural world and human relationships to and through it is one of the most fundamental. Yet we have paid very little attention to environmental issues in our intersectional analyses. Given our commitment to a holistic social justice struggle, black feminist thinkers cannot afford to ignore the dramatic threat posed to human societies by climate change, as well as the critical environmental thresholds that we have crossed or are fast approaching. Environmental degradation and the social deterioration and economic crises that come along with it exacerbate many of the problems we grapple with, such as poverty, food scarcity, state violence, domestic violence, and forced migration. It is black and brown people, especially women and girls in the global South and in impoverished rural and urban places in the U.S., who will be hardest hit by raging storms, rising flood waters, decreased agricultural productivity, and diminishing access to fresh water over time.

We have only to remember the media images that appeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to grasp this reality. Young, stricken black women, often carrying babies, filled those photographic frames. Waiting too long for basic necessities, they struggled to care for themselves and their families amidst contaminated flood waters and in the inhospitable Superdome. When residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who had faced the worst of the storm were finally relocated to government-issued FEMA trailers, those “temporary” dwellings turned out to be toxic. Histories of residential segregation and poverty made black and brown people the most vulnerable to the storm, which then exacerbated their multiple vulnerabilities in ways that should arrest our attention. Building on the work of women of color intellectuals such as Alice Walker and Grace Lee Boggs, we can and must integrate environmental justice into our intersectional black feminist interpretive lens.

The organizers of this event are hoping to plan a second symposium and to produce an edited volume. Read a round robin summary of many of the stimulating presentations, titled “Black Feminism Is.”

A Special thank you to Sherie Randolph for her editing finesse on this piece.

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