Review of Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice
Review of Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice
Peitho Volume 23 Issue 3, Spring 2021
Author(s): Margaret V. Williams
Margaret V. Williams is a PhD candidate at Texas Woman’s University, where she serves as the as the First-Year Composition program assistant, and where she has served as essay-contest chair and Digital Composition Lab coordinator. Her interests include rhetorical ecologies, cultural rhetorics, histories of rhetoric, multimodal reflection, and digital composition. Her current project explores the rhetorical circulation of “nasty woman” and “monster” in relation to Vice President Kamala Harris during the 2020 presidential campaign.Tags: Black feminism, book review, diasporic Black women, Intersectionality, policy, politics, rhetoric
Jordan-Zachery, Julia S., and Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd. (2018). Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice. SUNY P, 2018. 275 pages.
Introduction: Personal Intersections
Many years ago, I covered local politics for a progressive newspaper in a mid-sized, progressive Southern town. I reported the election of its first female mayor and, a few years later, its first Black mayor — Terry M. Bellamy, who was also the town’s youngest mayor ever. Soon after her election, a white, male reporter at the mainstream newspaper asked Bellamy how she was going to balance motherhood, a private-sector career, and the part-time job of mayor. She countered, “If I was a man, would I be asked this question?” The unspoken answer was, and still is, of course not. In my own later interview with the mayor, we laughed about the incident. We did not, however, talk about its racialized, class-based subtext. The town’s first female mayor came from modest privilege, a housewife-activist whose children were grown, her husband a prominent doctor. I am a white, queer woman with working-class roots. Our experiences with sexism and misogyny were by no means exchangeable. What, then, does it mean to call ourselves feminists in the 21st century?
My current research project, for example, explores the rhetorical ecology in which #nastywoman rhetorics wrangle with election-season representations of Kamala Harris, the first Black / South Asian woman to become vice president of the United States of America. For this project, I have visited such works as Deborah Atwater’s history-oriented overview, African American Women’s Rhetoric, and Gilyard and Banks’s On African-American Rhetoric. My search also steered me toward an anthology edited by two leaders in political science and gender studies: Julia S. Jordan-Zachery and Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd, editors of the interdisciplinary, activist tome, Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice. In this review, I offer intersectional reflections and summaries of the book. That is, rather than proceed chapter by chapter, I begin with an overview of the book’s scope and purpose; move on to discuss the book’s thematic yet topical structure; discuss several exemplary chapters; and finish with a short reflection.
Overview: Intersectionality as Activism
I say “activist” because Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd cast the collection with Black feminism’s explicit call for social justice, supported by intersectionality as a “generative” framework. In the co-written introductory chapter, “Black Women’s Political Labor,” they seed this ground with a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired metaphor of Black women tilling the soil not for others but for themselves. Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd describe how Hurston situates Janie, a fictional character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, at the intersection of race, class, and gender. As Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd briefly demonstrate, a Black feminist, intersectional analysis reveals how Janie deals with multiple, multidimensional oppressions and how she becomes a woman tilling the land for herself. They extend the metaphor to academia, asking:
“Black women academics and others have asked: For whom are Black women tilling? Is their labor for their liberation or solely to be used as part of the liberation efforts of others? And how do Black women [scholars as well as others] envision the manifestations of their political labor?” (xv)
Their answer is Black Women in Politics. From section to section and chapter to chapter, the editors present topics as wide-ranging as Black women’s health in the UK, Black nationalist women’s work in a World War II-era US newspaper, author Toni Morrison’s democratic-literary praxis, and former first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. Such topics are arranged by section, such as Black Feminist Policy Analysis (see Table 1). Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd also present a variety themes, including “Black Women’s Self-Actualization” and “Moving from Silence to Voice” (see Table 2). The women who explore such topics and themes come from diverse disciplines — historian Keisha N. Blain, scholar-activist K. Melchor Hall, health educator Jenny Douglas, political scientist Keesha M. Middlemass, and English professor Judylyn S. Ryan. Though I was mildly disappointed to find no works by rhetoric or composition scholars, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd’s collection opens new and fertile ground, giving us both a rich, interdisciplinary resource as well as a challenge for continued research.
To orient readers to these aspects of the book, in the co-written introduction, they remind us that intersectionality was defined by Black feminists in the 1960s and ’70s and later formulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as three-dimensional (structural, political, representational). As such, it has long been focused on “investigating the multiple dimensions of Black political women” (xix), from community activists to elected officials to women affected by (and affecting) public policies and practices. Reaffirming intersectionality’s Black feminist roots, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd cast the collection around citizenship, power, and justice. That is, they not only center the selected works on Black women’s political labor but also on the labor of Black scholars committed to tilling new academic fields. Such co-labor is needed, they argue, because most of the research related to Black women has been limited to descriptive, often one-dimensional work. Worse, say Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd, most of the Black women working in masculinized fields like political science have been invisibilized, their research inadequately supported, their findings omitted or tokenized.
In one of her two solo chapters, Jordan-Zachery declares, “Research is a political act” (30). It matters whose work gets published, what their research is about, and whether other scholars cite those works. Therefore, research should not only expand our knowledge but make a difference in the policies and practices that affect Black women as well as the representation of Black women in a variety of forums. Thus, Black Women in Politics is an academic anthology but also a political act.
That is, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd’s specific activist aim is to create a garrett, which they define as a productive space promoting “justice as the goal of academic inquiry” (xxxiii). Such a space allows allies and Black women scholars alike to examine the issues that Black women face and respond to, from crime and punishment in the US to the masculine geopolitics of the Caribbean (xxxiii). The garrett is also a place in the sense of a site for mentoring and fostering scholars at various levels in their career, for sharing knowledge across disciplines, and for inspiring new inter- / intra-disciplinary work. On the other hand, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd acknowledge that intersectionality has been critiqued as too focused on identity politics and its activist inclination somewhat diminished by popularity and misuse. They insist, nonetheless, that intersectionality “has always been aimed at assessing and challenging those forces that impeded full expression of political participation and facilitating personal, social, and communal well-being” (xviii). It is more than a multidimensional framework, in other words. Reconnected with its Black feminist roots, intersectionality is a social-justice project.
Structure: Sections, Chapters, and Themes
If readers drop into one chapter initially, as I did, they may miss an added element of the book as a whole: The editors arrange it as an intersectional matrix from the first chapter to the last. That is, the arrangement of sections, chapters, and themes supports their arguments about intersectionality, Black feminism, and interdisciplinarity. The arrangement is further supported by the variety of disciplines and perspectives represented by the authors of individual chapters. Thus, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd offer multiple entry points into the collection. First, they divide the book into four topic-based sections. These sections are intersected by four broad themes explored via various disciplines, for a total of 12 chapters. Sections converge and diverge, inviting readers to trace themes, delve into sections, or focus on specific areas (such as history, literature, politics, or public-health policy). Section titles group the featured works at a topical or content level: “Black Woman Doing Intersectionality Work,” “Black Feminist Policy Analysis,” “Diasporic Black Women and the Global Political Arena,” and “Discourses, Movements, and Representations” (see Table 1).
|Table 1: Sections in Black Women in Politics|
|Introduction (“Black Women’s Political Labor”)|
|Section I: Black Feminists Doing Intersectionality Work|
|Section II: Black Feminist Policy Analysis|
|Section III: Diasporic Black Women and the Global Political Arena|
|Section IV: Discourses, Movements, and Representation|
Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd describe these sections as “content areas” that deal with “various cases and a wide range of methods to analyze how Black women, nationally and globally, are working or ‘tilling’ in service of themselves’” (xxxiii). For example, cases include Jamaica’s first woman president in Section III (“Diaporic Black Women”) and US public policy regarding HIV/AIDS orphans of color in Section II (“Policy Analysis”). Methods vary from interviews to discourse analysis, examining measurable data as well as detailing the broader contexts not just in the US but in the UK, the Caribbean, and Central America. In the opening section, for example, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd explore a topic (“Black Feminists Doing Intersectional Work”) by quantifying the lack of published scholarship and sharing their own experiences.
Themes, on the other hand, weave through sections and chapters: “Moving from Silence to Voice,” “Invisibility and Unmasking Power Structures,” “Black Women’s Self-Actualization and Black Masculinist Politics,” and “Space Making and Self-Actualization” (see Table 2). For example, the “Voice” theme describes Middlemass’s chapter on post-incarceration Black women. As the second article of the second section, its overall theme concerns “locating and giving voice to diverse Black women,” say Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd, while its overall topic, content, and section “explore[s] policy boundaries and how Black women respond to such” (45). Black women are often silenced, individually and by group, overtly and covertly; this erasure affects how Black women deal with public policies, cultural stereotypes, and so forth. In terms of both section/topic and theme, therefore, Middlemass introduces readers to women like “Eve and Janaye … who poignantly articulate how policies consistently fail them and other previously incarcerated Black women” (xxv). Their powerful stories, which Middlemass delves into via phenomenological methods well suited to interviews, surface the failure of the policies and practices that these women encounter at the intersection(s) of being Black, female, and a felon navigating post-incarceration, everyday life.
|Table 2: Critical themes in Black Women in Politics|
|Moving from Silence to Voice|
|Invisibility and Unmasking Power Structures|
|Black Women’s Self-Actualization and Black Masculinist Politics|
|Space Making and Self-Actualization|
Content: A Chapter Sampling
The Middlemass chapter represents one entry into the book, but I was first drawn to Grace E. Howard’s Section IV chapter on former first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. The section includes Ryan’s analysis of author Toni Morrison’s oeuvre and Tonya M. Williams’s examination of activism and reproductive justice in three Southern states. Morrison, in her chapter, covers all major themes presented in the book. She undertakes a discourse analysis of Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign by exploring the intersection of Black stereotypes, media representations, masculinized political arenas, and the (quite white) cultural constraints of being a first lady. For example, Howard examines gendered, racialized characterizations of Michelle Obama in mainstream media; the characterizations stem from long-standing tropes about Black women as “the obese Mammy … [or] the sexually voracious Jezebel … [or] the Welfare Queen” (224). Howard argues that Michelle Obama “deracializes” or distances herself from such tropes, thus establishing her own space (self-actualization) but in many ways reifying white, elitist, masculine hierarchies. Howard’s work, as all the chapters do, demonstrates depth and complexity.
Another rich work comes in the “Diasporic” section from Thame, who looks into the political rise and fall of Jamaica’s first female president, Portia Simpson-Miller. Thame documents how Simpson-Miller, aka “Mama P,” rose through the ranks of a very masculinized political system in which she made space for herself as both nurturing mother and disciplinarian, ultimately failing to “shift the context of gender power” (155). While similar to the triple bind faced by Black US women running for public office, Simpson-Miller’s case is particular to Jamaican culture and socioeconomics — a point that reinforces the editors’ assertion that Black women’s actions and experiences are not monolithic.
The book hits its most powerful stride with chapters on public policy. I group four chapters in this vein, which Jordan-Zachery calls “intersectionality-based policy analysis” or IBPA: Jenny Douglas’s examination of Black women’s health policies in the UK, Jordan-Zachery’s own research on HIV/AIDS orphans in the US, Middlemass’s “Hiding in Plain Sight,” and Tanya Williams’s work on Black Women’s reproductive-justice activism. Three of these works are situated in the analysis-oriented Section III, while Williams’s work is in the final section (“Discourses, Movements, and Representation”).
Douglas, whose background encompasses women’s studies, virology, and sociological research, focuses on how Black Caribbean-born women in the UK are marginalized by racialized and gendered discrimination in the workplace, their communities, and the country’s healthcare system. For instance, both male and female Black Caribbeans are at high risk of hypertension, but males are more likely to receive treatment in the UK, while the women are not even included in studies that might inform a workable approach to their health concerns. A key strength to Douglas’s work is that she provides valuable background on Black Caribbean culture in the UK, historic migration patterns, the UK health system, and much more. In short, she demonstrates the interconnectedness and multiple dimensions of the topic.
Jordan-Zachery explores a similarly complex field in her solo “Lost Tribes” chapter, using intersectionality to critique policy and practice gaps. In particular, she points out that the US pays more attention to HIV/AIDS orphans in other countries than it does at home, and that non-positive Black children, found at the intersection of already marginalized, stigmatized, often poor Black women, are particularly invisibile in the system.
Williams’s chapter, on the other hand, takes an alternative approach to IBPA: She looks at the issue from the perspective of activists and nonprofits that “always resist” — Black women and Black women-led groups fighting for reproductive justice in the context of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., “Obamacare”). Williams draws on interviews with activists in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas but also provides an in-depth look at the ACA’s application in three Southern states. This approach allows Williams to dissect the mainstream, single-axis approach to health policies and practices that are overly focused on Black women’s limited access to health services while ignoring the entangled issues of poverty, environmental issues, and health literacy.
In another example of giving voice by way of interviews, Hall did extensive fieldwork in Honduras for her research about the Garifuna women who turn communal bread making into political action. An overarching theme of her findings is “Space Making,” set in the “Diasporic Black Women” section. The Garifuna women — whose people were dubbed “Black Carib” by British occupiers, classified as “Negro” by the state, yet recognized by the World Council of Indigenous People — practice “nontraditional political resistance” (118). That is, without engaging directly with the Honduran state, they make, sell, and market their ereba (cassava) bread. This communal practice enables them to push back against land-grabs of their ancestral homes, against masculine-feminine delineations within their own culture but also in government, and against a socioeconomic, political system that favors mestiza women at the expense of indigenous and/or Black women. Making bread also very much supports the transmission and preservation of their culture.
Another aspect of cultural transmission comes in Ryan’s chapter on author Toni Morrison’s work as political engagement. Ryan first situates Morrison’s body of work in the broader context. For example, she says that Morrison, like Ralph Ellison, demonstrates a “literary preoccupation with US democracy” (196) but, on the other hand, represents a cast of Black women connected in some way with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, for example). In particular, Morrison demonstrates a commitment to presenting characters “who would otherwise … be considered marginal” (198). In A Mercy, for example, Morrison’s portrayal of a Black woman character writing during the early colonial period in the US helps explore aspects of slavery, class, and trauma that we (Americans) tend to forget or whitewash.
Writers far less known are the subject of Blain’s chapter on the Black nationalist women who wrote for New Negro World from 1940-1944. These women supported “universal Black liberation” (165) but labored in a field dominated by men. Furthermore, where current scholarship tends to focus on the many mainstream Black-owned and Black-run publications of the day, Blain focuses attention on Black nationalist women who “articulated a vision of Black emancipation and endorsed Pan-Africanism.” That is, they aligned with John Garvey’s controversial version of “Black pride, African redemption, economic self-sufficiency, racial separatism, and political self determinism” (168, 170). Blain, in short, recovers a little-known history of Black women carving out a space for themselves in a masculinized movement.
Earlier in this review, I mentioned disappointment that no rhetoricians or compositionists were featured in Black Women in Politics. However, I took a cue from Alexander-Floyd’s quantification of political science research and scanned the past year’s issues of Rhetoric Society Quarterly: I found only one article title including the words “Black woman,” three that mention “women” or “woman,” and only one that includes the word “racist.” A more detailed review would likely show that scholarship about or by Black women in rhetoric is just as scarce as their scholarship in political science. As Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd argue, there’s work to be done. Rhetoricians, compositionists, graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and other researchers should be inspired by Black Women in Politics to till new fields or help expand the garrett. Like me, such readers and scholars will find Black Women in Politics very helpful for understanding the power and potential of intersectionality in the 21st century.