African women nowadays have taken a leadership role in surroundings new economic and political program of the inheritance of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on women is that African women are strong-minded to outline the course of action of their countries. They have been pressed for extra support for girls' education, as well as preparation for profession in trade fields, the sciences, agriculture and for better gender compassion in government and private-sector engaging policies. Progressively more, African women have led national
Conversation regarding the women's human rights, Here in East Africa and West, and as well a in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, females are marching up for their movement against sexism and exploitation. African feminists have discarded such norms as early marriage, women genital mutilation, women's exposure to
Obtain immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) through unsafe sex, and various forms of health check are abandoned. In northern Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire, as well as in South Africa and Kenya, Muslim women have argued that they can be good Muslim wives and mothers even as they pursue professional training, a role in community and regional dialogues, or public office. African feminists in the present day have encouraged a greater knowledge of the links connecting gender and the political economy of the state by honestly arguing that African women have confronted the unwillingness to utter about gender inconsistency, and they have impelled women to jointly address political actions that affect their lives.
In distinction to a great deal of the twentieth century, at present we can talk concerning African Feminism for the reason that African women themselves talk about it, and since they have quite obvious about what they mean when they use these expressions. This form of feminism in South Africa is but one of numerous feminisms in Africa. Feminism shows a discrepancy equally along with the diverse nations as well as amid different cultural subgroups on the continent. Yet, African women's appreciation of something they call "feminism" marks a new political complexity bear of their deep commitment with the complexity and face up to now facing their societies.
The appearance of African feminism indication women's craving to engage in recreation in shaping the means of progress. African feminism is extremely political, and it is a reaction to African communal and political growth rather than a result of Western feminism. African women recognize that women and offspring have bear the impact of the modern disaster, as calculated in
far above the ground child mortality rates, the ongoing imprisonment of women to undeveloped work, and their keeping out from contemporary, technological, and scientific fields.
Many women and some African men as well are devoted to permit these inconsistency and counterfeit new affairs between state and society, still though Western powers and universal institution still implement incredible persuade over the economic and political state of affairs of African states.
In its narration of woman, identity, and nation, this book navigates the contours of the category woman/mother as the Âªother° in past and current debates in the orature, literatures, and mother tongues of Africa. In its articulation of the many faces of Âª(m)other°Ðmotherland, mother tongue, motherwit, motherhood, motheringÐthe volume goes beyond ontological questions in order to address broader issues such as the use and abuse of gender in knowledge legitimation as well as the place of feminist theory in the study of African literature. As a sustained feminist analysis of African literature, the volume engages feminist theory itself by showing how issues in feminist voice, victimhood, agency, subjectivity, sisterhood, etc. recast in different, complex, and interesting ways in African literature, in general, and works by African women writers, in particular. By being very mindful of cultural imperatives and shifts, these essays emphasize the importance of cultural literacy to any valid feminist theorizing of African literature.
As a critique of the inventors and inventions of the margin, the volume urges the reader to rethink marginality by insisting that he/she listen carefully to Âªmarginal discourses° as manifested by the silences and other patterns of articulation of the marginalized. To see knowledge, power, and agency in the margins is to wrestle with contradictions, and some essays in this volume articulate the possibilities of contradictions by recognizing the dilemma inherent in the weaving of individual histories and collective allegories/ mythologies and casting it within the context of the nation as Âªimagined community° (in the Andersonian context).3 More importantly, the essays examine how these Âªimaginings° are located, gendered, and politicized and, in addition, assess the potency of linguistic identity in defining the contours of the Âªimagined community.° R.Radhakrishnan forcefully argues for a rethinking of the complex relationship between women's politics and nationalist politics, particularly the nature of Âªnationalist totality° and the legitimacy of its representation. Citing Partha Chatterjee, Radhakrishnan asserts that in Âªthe ideology of nationalist politicsÂ¼the women's questionÂ¼ is constrained to take on a nationalist expression as a prerequisite for being considered Âªpolitical° (78). But the truth of the matter is that most of the time (on the African continent, for example), nationalist politics depoliticizes women's politics, forcing the repoliticization of women's politics back on the national agenda only as an aftermath of nationalist struggles. Nonetheless, some of the essays in this volume echo the main arguments of Radhakrishnan's essay in their examination of the centrality of women to the dilemma of identity formation in nationalist struggles (Charles Sugnet, Celeste Fraser Delgado, Uzo Esonwanne, and Cynthia Ward). The essays focus on, among other issues, what Radhakrishnan calls the Âªschizophrenic vision° of the rhetoric of nationalism in which Âª[w]oman becomes the allegorical name for a specific historical failure: the failure to coordinate the political or the ontological with the epistemological within an undivided agency° (85). In an earlier work, Trinh Minh-ha identifies this Âªschizophrenia° as the Âªobsessive fear of losing connection° in the search for and assertion of Âªauthenticity° that relies on Âªundisputed origin° (Woman 94, emphasis in the original). Essays by Renée Larrier, Celeste Fraser Delgado, and Cynthia Ward locate this search for Âªundisputed origin° in identity formation in the mère-terre/Mother Africa/ Motherland/Mother Tongue tropes that pervade the literature, language question, and nationalist discourse in Africa.
Furthermore, the essays speak eloquently to the complexities and ambiguities of African literature, in general, and creative writing by African women, in particular, thereby calling into question some of the existing feminist studies of African literature that insist on straitjacketing the complex web of issues raised in the literary works into oppositional binaries, such as traditional/modern, male/ female, agent/victim, when the works themselves and the reality from which they evolve disrupt such binaries; when the central arguments of the works and their appeal (very instructive, I might add) rest on the authors' insistence on border crossings, gray areas and the ambiguous interstices of the binaries where woman is both benevolent and malevolent with powers that are healing and lethal (Trinh Minh-ha), both traditional and modern (Uzo Esonwanne), both victim and agent (Françoise Lionnet, Peter Hitchcock, Huma Ibrahim, Charles Sugnet, Renée Larrier, and Cynthia Ward), both goddess and whore (Juliana Nfah-Abbenyi and Celeste Fraser Delgado), Âªsoft but stern° (Morrison 11); in short, just human. In my view, what much of the existing feminist analyses of African literatures designate as irreconcilable, Âªunfeminist,° contradictions are actually the tensions of mutuality, not antagonism, (complementary not oppositional) that give life, vibrancy, and meaning to the African environment (Ousseynou Traoré).4 The fact that the essays in this volume engage in a feminist analysis of African literature underscores the complexities and heterogeneity of feminist scholarship itself and points to its possibilities. It seems to me that the paradox of feminist theorizing stems from its failure to articulate the ideals of fairness, power-sharing, etc., that gave impetus to feminism itself. Like new wine in old skin, feminist theorizing is sometimes paralyzed by its tortuous attempt to cast complementarity, relatedness, and, to some extent, relativism in the context of the absolutism, separatism, and the winner take all mentality of the patriarchal culture against which it argues. The paradox of some of the existing feminist analyses of African literature is that they ignore the elaboration of the feminist ideals in the African texts and choose instead to force them (the texts) into absolutist, either/or molds. African literature's engagement with feminist issues is very instructive. For example, the essays in this volume disrupt the oppressor/victim dichotomy to demonstrate that agency and victimhood are not mutually exclusive, to show that victims are also agents who can change their lives and affect other lives in radical ways. In many respects, this complexity is captured by the title of a seminal work in the study of women in African literatureÐNgambika (a Tshiluba phrase that means Âªhelp me balance this load°). Ngambika delinks victimhood and powerlessness. This forceful articulation of agency in victimhood asks for assistance, not the removal of the load. Ngambika reveals not the absence but the limitation of agency; it says in effect that ÂªI can carry this load only if you can balance it for me.° On the one hand, Ngambika speaks against debilitating excess and unevenness and, on the other hand, it argues for balance and fair share. I will discuss later the importance and centrality of Âªbalance° in African literature and cosmology.
I will focus on the ways in which these essays wrestle with African literature's reimag(in)ing of certain central issues in feminismÐvictimhood, motherhood, subjectivity, speech, silence, agency, power, gaze, knowledge, and nation. To a great extent, works by women of African descent underscore the ways in which space constructs gender identities, as evidenced in the feminization of restricted spacesÐDikeledi in ÂªThe Collectors of Treasures° (prison), Juletane in Juletane (hospital room), Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero (prison), Tanga in Tu t'appelleras Tanga (prison), Eva in Eva's Man (hotel room), Ramatoulaye in So Long a Letter (unidentified, restricted, cultural space). In their studies of female victims who act in resistance against their victimization, Lionnet, Ibrahim, and Nfah-Abbenyi bring to the discussion an interrogation of the victim/victimhood issue in feminist
discourse. They recast the victim status that is fundamental to feminist scholarship by foregrounding agents of insurrection and change operating within an oppressive situation. What is important is not whether these agents survive their insurrection or are crushed by it; what is crucial is the fact that they choose to act.
Feminist notions of agency draw the line between feminist interpretations of the situation of women in African novels and African women's perceptions of their own situations. For example, while some feminist analyses of the African novel conflate silence (the noun) and silence (the verb), the novels themselves make a distinction between Âªto be silenced° and Âªto be silent° (the former as imposition and the latter as choice). One exercises agency when one chooses not to speak; the refusal to speak is also an act of resistance that signals the unwillingness to participate. Juletane (Juletane), Eva (Eva's Man), Tanga (Tanga), Firdaus (Woman at Point Zero), Ramatoulaye (So Long a Letter), and many other female characters are silenced but at certain moments, they reclaim agency by choosing to remain silent and thereby gain the attention that initiates talk. Silence can, therefore, mean both a refusal to talk and an invitation for talk.
Through a reading of Linda Alcoff's essay, ÂªThe Problem of Speaking for Others,° Obioma Nnaemeka's chapter examines the intersection of the issues of choice and voice as they are argued in current feminist debates about involvement or non-involvement in speaking other people's problems. Nnaemeka sees the feminist dilemma as an issue of extremesÐto be involved or not to be involvedÐbut also argues for the possibility and necessity of devising ways in which Âªinvolvement (proximity) and withdrawal (distance) can evolve into a workable symbiosis that is fashioned in the crucible of mutually determined temperance° (163). Such a strategy will require that we focus our attention more on issues by speaking up against/for issues with others without necessarily speaking for them. On another level, Nnaemeka's paper looks at the specific dilemma that faces legitimized Âªauthentic° feminist voices from the so-called Third World in their attempt to produce a counterdiscourse to hegemonic Eurocentric discourse without monopolizing the discursive field of their own sisters. Above all, Nnaemeka argues that Western feminism's search and legitimation of Âªauthentic° voices from the ÂªThird World° sets such voices up for ridicule and resistance on two fronts: Âªif they accord their traditional culture some modicum of respect, they are dismissed by feminists as apologists for oppressive and outdated customs; if they critique their culture, they are faced with put-downs and ridicule from members of their own society as having sold out° (164). In inscribing the practice of polygamy in contemporary urban Africa as a sign of post-colonial dislocations and cultural hemorrhage in an environment where internal systems are undergoing self-induced and externally enforced rearticulation, Nnaemeka shows how simplistic analytical paradigms oversimplify and distort the complex issues in African literary texts and short-circuit any meaningful engagement with the central feminist issue of cho ce.
The other area of conflict is the different perceptions of motherhood. Two decades ago, Adrienne Rich's path-breaking book, Of Woman Born, made
an interesting distinction between motherhood as an institution and motherhood as experience, arguing that patriarchy constructs the institution of motherhood while women experience it. It seems to me that the strident feminist arguments of the 1970s and 1980s against motherhood are based on motherhood as institution:
Motherhood is dangerous to women because it continues the structure within which females must be women and mothers and, conversely, because it denies to females the creation of a subjectivity and world that is open and free. An active rejection of motherhood entails the development and enactment of a philosophy of evacuation. Identification and analysis of the multiple aspects of motherhood not only show what is wrong with motherhood, but also the way out. A philosophy of evacuation proposes women's collective removal of themselves from all forms of motherhood. Freedom is never achieved by the mere inversion of an oppressive construct, that is, by seeing motherhood in a Âªnew° light. Freedom is achieved when an oppressive construct, motherhood, is vacated by its members and thereby rendered null and void. (Allen 315, emphasis in the original)5
Although feminist theorizing of motherhood has shifted in the past decade in terms of articulating the affirming aspect of motherhood, the earlier stridency against motherhood has not quite subsided. The yoking of motherhood and victimhood continues to be a feature of feminist discourse on motherhood. On the contrary, African women writers attempt most of the time to delink motherhood and victimhood the way they separate wifehood and motherhood (Adaku in The Joys of Motherhood and AÃ¯ssatou in So Long a Letter reject wifehood not motherhood),6 although feminist readings of the African texts have a tendency to conflate wifehood pains and motherhood pains. The arguments that are made for motherhood in the African texts are based not on motherhood as a patriarchal institution but motherhood as an experience (Âªmothering°) with its pains and rewards. Consequently, motherhood is discussed in relative terms that reflect different personal histories. As it were, the African texts give a human face to motherhood. It is not surprising then that in spite of the pains of motherhood, most mothers in the texts are not prepared to evacuate it à la Allen because they know that they are also the beneficiaries of the rewards of mothering. In some of the literary texts under study, adoption is indicative of the women's eagerness to Âªmother° while rejecting the abuses (physical, sexual, emotional, etc.) of the institution of motherhood under patriarchy. As mother to four non-biological children, Mira Masi rejects exploitation by men while defining and participating in motherhood as mothering on her own term (Ibrahim). Renée Larrier notes that although Aoua Kéita did not have her own biological children, her choice of careerÐmidwiferyÐmade it possible for motherhood to provide the context for a fruitful professional life for her in the same way that it provided Andrée Blouin
a space for political activism. Tanga asserts her freedom by rejecting motherhood and abandoning prostitution, and embraces motherhood as mothering by adopting Mala, a disabled child (Nfah-Abbenyi).
Peter Hitchcock's chapter problematizes and reframes another central issue in feminist discourseÐthe gaze. Hitchcock's critique of Malek Alloula's The Colonial HaremÐÂª[it] places too much emphasis on the `eye of the beholder' rather than the looking of the seen°(70)Ðcan also be leveled against the feminist discourse on the gaze. Through a reading of Blanchot (The Gaze of Orpheus), Lacan (The Four Fundamentals of Psycho-Analysis), and Malek Alloula (The Colonial Harem),
Hitchcock also looks at the potential of the critic's complicity in Âªothering° women in other cultures or as he puts it Âªreobjectifying the voices of African womanhood.° Hitchcock's chapter and other contributions in the volume (Nfah-Abbenyi, Lionnet, Sugnet, Ibrahim, Esonwanne, Delgado, and Traoré) raise issues of subjugation and dominance in tandem with questions of complementarity, empowerment, and solidarity. These two visions are captured in the distinction that Hitchcock makes between the gaze (dominance) and the look (solidarity). His chapter opens with the story of daughters and mothers (look) and unfolds into the story of daughters and sons/lovers (gaze). The epigraph to his essay charts the look as an organizing principle in the mother-daughter relationship. In describing her relationship with her mother, Firdaus brings eyes (ÂªI°s) to her discussion of subjectivity and the subject-in-relation: ÂªThey were eyes that I watched. They were eyes that watched me. Even if disappeared from their view, they could see me, and follow me wherever I went, so that if I faltered while learning to walk they would hold me up° (69). In this instance, the eyes (ÂªI°s) that Âªhold me up° are the eyes that support me; the Âªeyes that watch me° are the eyes that watch over, protect and empower me; they are not the eyes that gaze at me in dominance. In addition to the reciprocity that the look connotes, it points to agency in the sense that looking is also a form of speech and a precondition for action. The look is a response in the sense of Âªlooking back,° challenge, response, and counterdiscourse. Ways of seeing/looking are also ways of knowing (Esonwanne) as is demonstrated in the connection Hitchcock makes between visual and cognitive questions.
To the feminist question ÂªIs the Gaze Male?° Hitchcock's chapter seems to respond Âªyes, but much more.° By framing his arguments in a broader context of orientalism and unequal power relations, the gender politics of gazing is placed in the context of the West and the Rest of Us (ÂªOther°) model that is embedded in imperial fictions. In this power game, Hitchcock takes an unusual perspectivist stance; he takes a look with the ÂªOther° eye. It is from the margins that his chapter speaks. For Egyptian women writers under study, the ÂªOrpheus' Gaze° is both patriarchal/cultural (internal) and Western/imperial (external), and like Eurydice, Egyptian women are Âªseen° in their distant nocturnal darkness (the margin), but unlike Eurydice, they speak from the dark thereby keeping ÂªOrpheus° alive to face his scopic dance of power. Hitchcock notes that Nawaal el Saadawi's work is a two-pronged attack on the Âªmasculinist gaze in Egyptian culture° and
the imperialist gaze in imperial mythologies. Saadawi's remark points feminist discourse to the complexity of the gaze and its own complicity in (imperialist) gazing. Furthermore, by placing the look in the field of the gaze, Hitchcock demystifies the omnipotent, omniscient status of the gaze in feminist and imperialist discourses.
This volume centers ontological and epistemological questions in its theorizing and analysis. Aware that gender construction is part of the processes of knowledge construction, many of the essays locate storytelling at the heart of knowledge construction while recognizing the gender politics that often banishes storytelling to the periphery of Âªreal knowledge.° To a great extent, critics as knowledge producers and disseminators are also storytellers who are capable of creating not only new meanings but also new mythologies as noted by Hitchcock with regard to Western (cross)cultural critics reappropriating and Âªreobjectifying the voices of African womanhood (or, in this case, the eyes of Egyptian womanhood)° (79). Furthermore, as Lionnet and Trinh argue, the storyteller's ability to refashion and shift social contexts by tinkering with the limits of our notions of what is Âªordinary° and Âªbelievable° resides in the nature and potential of storytelling itself: ÂªTalking therefore brings the impossible within reach° (Trinh 28). Above all, storytelling is about survival (to live beyond/after the event)-ÐÂªsurvivre° (sur/ over, above; vivre/to live); one must outlive/survive the event in order to engage in its telling. It is in this regard that I find most appropriate and compelling the metaphor, Âªanthills of the savannah,°7 chosen by Chinua Achebe, to describe storytellers:
If you look at the world in terms of storytelling, you have, first of all, the man who agitates, the man who drums up the peopleÐI call him the drummer. Then you have the warrior, who goes forward and fights. But you also have the storyteller who recounts the eventÐand this is one who survives, who outlives all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must haveÐotherwise their surviving would have no meaningÂ¼ [The anthill survives] so that the new grass will have memory of the fire that devastated the savannah in the previous dry season. (A World of Ideas 337)
Storytelling registers survival on two scoresÐthe survival of the storyteller and that of his/her listeners. The storyteller survives to tell the story and his/her listeners survive because they learned from the story; those that fail to learn do so at their own peril as demonstrated in the story of Mother Crocodile (Trinh), the story of the Snake-Lizard and that of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart (Traoré). Coincidentally but appropriately, this volume starts with storytelling and it is with storytelling that I proceed.
In summer 1992, I convened the first international conference on ÂªWomen in Africa and the African Diaspora: Bridges across Activism and the Academy° that was held in Nsukka, Nigeria. Early in the previous year, I commissioned a well-
known Nigerian artist, an Igboman, to design a logo that would capture the spirit, scope, and focus of the conference, and he produced nine beautiful logos for the organizing committee to select from. Many members of the organizing committee were impressed by the artist's extraordinary gift but reacted negatively to the four logos that depicted a woman carrying a load on her head or a baby on her back. Personally, I liked the baby but hated the load. To some extent, I saw the merit in my colleagues' position that we demand an image of the woman without the Âªencumbrances.° We sent the artist back to the drawing board with one request: Âªgive us the woman in all her elegance, take off the load.° The four logos that we rejected tell the artist's story of womanhood.
But in its search for the origin of the word nwanyi (woman), Igbo folklore tells the story of womanhood differently. Once upon a time, there lived a couple whose marriage would have been perfect if only they had been blessed with children. Fortunately, after many years of childlessness, they had a child. This child was remarkable; it had something dangling between its legs.8 The couple was very pleased because this baby was very malleable, and did as it was told. If it was told to sleep, it would sleep; if it was told to keep quiet, it acted accordingly. A couple of years later, the couple had another child that was different from the first; it did not have the dangling thing. Furthermore, the second baby was not as docile as the first; it had a mind of its own and acted independently. If it was told to sleep but did not want to do so, it would keep awake; if it was told to keep quiet but wanted to cry, it would scream for the whole village to hear. The couple got tired of the child and decided to give it away. Midway through a long journey, they arrived at a crossroads where they met a man to whom they gave the child because it was nwa nyiri anyi (a child that cannot be controlled)Ða phrase from which nwanyi (woman) derives. The man was named di (husband)Ða word that is derived from dibe (be patient or long-suffering) or ndidi (patience).
Living life as a woman is a necessary prerequisite for producing feminist thought because within Black women's communities thought is validated and produced with reference to a particular set of historical, material, and epistemological conditions. Women who adhere to the idea that claims about Black women must be substantiated by Black women's sense of our own experiences and who anchor our knowledge claims in an Afro centric feminist epistemology have produced a rich tradition of Black feminist thought.
Traditionally such women were blues singers, poets, autobiographers, storytellers, and orators validated by everyday Black women as experts on a Black women's standpoint. Only a few unusual African-American feminist scholars have been able to defy Eurocentric masculinity epistemologies and explicitly embrace an Afro centric feminist epistemology. Consider Alice Walker's description of Zora Neal Hurston:
An ongoing tension exists for Black women as agents of knowledge, a tension rooted in the sometimes conflicting demands of Afro centricity and feminism. Those Black women who are feminists are critical of how Black culture and many of its traditions oppress women. For example, the strong prenatal beliefs in African-American communities that foster early motherhood among adolescent girls, the lack of self-actualization that can accompany the double-day of paid employment and work in the home, and the emotional and physical abuse that many Black women experience from their fathers, lovers, and husbands all reflect practices opposed by African-American women who are feminists. But these same women may have a parallel desire as members of an oppressed racial group to affirm the value of that same culture and traditions.
The strong Black mothers appear in Black women's literature, Black women's economic contributions to families are lauded, and a curious silence exists concerning domestic abuse. As more African-American women earn advanced degrees, the range of Black feminist scholarship is expanding. Increasing numbers of African-American women scholars are explicitly choosing to ground their work in Black women's experiences, and, by doing so, they implicitly adhere to an Afro centric feminist epistemology. Rather than being restrained by their both and status of marginality, these women make creative use of their outsider-within status and produce innovative Afro centric feminist thought. The difficulties these women face lie less in demonstrating that they have mastered white male epistemologies than in resisting the hegemonic nature of these patterns of thought in order to see, value, and use existing alternative Afro centric feminist ways of knowing.
In establishing the legitimacy of their knowledge claims, Black women scholars who want to develop Afro centric feminist thought may encounter the often conflicting standards of three key groups. To be credible in the eyes of this group, scholars must be personal advocates for their material, be accountable for the consequences of their work, have lived or experienced their material in some fashion, and be willing to engage in dialogues about their findings with ordinary, everyday people. Second, Black feminist thought also must be accepted by the community of Black women scholars. These scholars place varying amounts of importance on rearticulating a Black women's standpoint using an Afro centric feminist epistemology. Third, Afro centric feminist thought within academia must be prepared to confront Eurocentric masculinitst political and epistemological requirements.
The dilemma facing Black women scholars engaged in creating Black feminist thought is that a knowledge claim that meets the criteria of adequacy for one group and thus is judged to be an acceptable knowledge claim may not be translatable into the terms of a different group. Using the example of Black English, June Jordan illustrates the difficulty of moving among epistemologies.
For Black women who are agents of knowledge, the marginality that accompanies outsider-within status can be the source of both frustration and creativity. In an attempt to minimize the differences between the cultural context of African-American communities and the expectations of social institutions, some women dichotomize their behavior and become two different people. Over time, the strain of doing this can be enormous. Others reject their cultural context and work against their own best interests by enforcing the dominant group's specialized thought. Still others manage to inhabit both contexts but do so critically, using their outsider-within perspectives as a source of insights and ideas. Once Black feminist scholars face the notion that, on certain dimensions of a Black women's standpoint, it may be fruitless to try and translate ideas from an Afro centric feminist epistemology into a Eurocentric masculinity framework, then other choices emerge. Rather than trying to uncover universal knowledge claims that can withstand the translation from one epistemology to another, Black women intellectuals might find efforts to rearticulate a Black women's standpoint especially fruitful. Rearticulating a Black women's standpoint refashions the concrete and reveals the more universal human dimensions of Black women's everyday lives. "I date all my work," notes Nikki Giovanni, "because I think poetry, or any writing, is but a reflection of the moment. The universal comes from the particular." Bell Hooks maintains, "my goal as a feminist thinker and theorist is to take that abstraction and articulate it in a language that renders it accessible--not less complex or rigorous--but simply more accessible." The complexity exists; interpreting it remains the unfulfilled challenge for Black women intellectuals.
Lorraine Hansberry expresses a similar idea: "I believe that one of the soundest ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from the truthful identity of what is." Jordan and Hansberry's insights that universal struggle and truth may wear a particularistic, intimate face suggest a new epistemological stance concerning how we negotiate competing knowledge claims and identify "truth."
Understanding the content and epistemology of Black women's ideas as specialized knowledge requires attending to the context from which those ideas emerge. While produced by individuals, Black feminist thought as situated knowledge is embedded in the communities in which African-American women find us.
A Black women's standpoint and those of other oppressed groups is not only embedded in a context but exists in a situation characterized by domination. Because Black women's ideas have been suppressed, this suppression has stimulated African-American women to create knowledge that empowers people to resist domination. The Afro centric feminist thought represents a subjugated knowledge. A Black women's standpoint may provide a preferred stance from which to view the matrix of domination because, in principle, Black feminist thought as specialized thought is less likely than the specialized knowledge produced by dominant groups to deny the connection between ideas and the vested interests of their creators. However, Black feminist thought as subjugated knowledge is not exempt from critical analysis, because subjugation is not grounds for an epistemology.
Despite African-American women's potential power to reveal new insights about the matrix of domination, a Black women's standpoint is only one angle of vision. Thus Black feminist thought represents a partial perspective. The overarching matrix of domination houses multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives, situated knowledge, and, for clearly identifiable subordinate groups, subjugated knowledge. No one group has a clear angle of vision. No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute "truth" or, worse yet, proclaim its theories and methodologies as the universal norm evaluating other groups' experiences.
Western social and political thought contains two alternative approaches to ascertaining "truth." The first, reflected in positivist science, has long claimed that absolute truths exist and that the task of scholarship is to develop objective, unbiased tools of science to measure these truths. Relativism, the second approach, has been forwarded as the antithesis of and inevitable outcome of rejecting a positivist science. From a relativist perspective all groups produce specialized thought and each group's thought is equally valid. No group can claim to have a better interpretation of the "truth" than another.
The existence of Black feminist thought suggests another alternative to the ostensibly objective norms of science and to relativism's claims that groups with competing knowledge claims are equal. This approach to Afro centric feminist thought allows African-American women to bring a Black women's standpoint to larger epistemological dialogues concerning the nature of the matrix of domination. Eventually such dialogues may get us to a point at which, claims Elsa Barkley Brown. All people can learn to center in another experience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards without need of comparison or need to adopt that framework as their own." In such dialogues, "one has no need to 'decanter' anyone in order to center someone else; one has only to constantly, appropriately, 'pivot the center.' "
Those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, thus become the most "objective" truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better able to consider other groups' standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own standpoint or suppressing other groups' partial perspectives. "What is always needed in the appreciation of art, or life," maintains Alice Walker "is the larger perspective. Connections made, or at least attempted, where none existed before, the straining to encompass in one's glance at the varied world the common thread, the unifying theme through immense diversity." Partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard; individuals and groups forwarding knowledge claims without owning their position are deemed less credible than those who do.