SaraEllen Strongman is an assistant professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and a 2018 LSA Collegiate Fellow. She examines the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality, specifically Black feminism in the context of Black women’s political and cultural history.
Through her work, Strongman sheds light on how inclusivity and the voices of underrepresented groups have shaped the U.S. political landscape, as well as academia. Strongman spoke with LSA about her research, what intersectionality means, how the longstanding tradition of Black feminism played a major role in last month’s historic presidential election results and what she hopes students take away from her research and work as a scholar of Black feminist thought.
LSA: Can you explain what ‘intersectionality’ means and how it relates to Black women creating and navigating spaces for themselves, and as it relates to your research?
SaraEllen Strongman: Intersectionality is a theory that accounts for how power works. When critical race theory scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term, she sought to make visible how Black women’s lives were shaped by multiple, simultaneous, “intersecting” oppressions. In Black feminist thought, intersectionality allows us to accurately describe how systemic oppressions like racism and sexism combine to create Black women’s unique experiences. This concept has always been central to Black feminist thought and has taken different forms such as “interlocking oppressions” and “double jeopardy.” Intersectionality helps us to understand why Black women’s needs and concerns may not be met by movements or organizations that only address one aspect of their multifaceted identities.
For example, when the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) was founded in 1977, members hoped it would be an inclusive space for all involved in the field of women’s studies and feminist activism more broadly. Instead, the first annual NWSA conference held in 1979 was marred by a series of awkward incidents and outright racism. In response to the general climate at the conference, Black feminist thought scholar and activist Barbara Smith re-wrote her comments for the closing plenary with a new topic: “Racism & Women’s Studies.” Ultimately, by drawing attention to how their “interlocking oppressions” uniquely shaped their experiences within the association, Black women were able to pressure the organization to change its operations so that events better addressed their professional and scholarly concerns.
When it comes to creating their own spaces, Black women realize that their unique position in society gives them insight into other groups’ experiences, which has allowed them to advocate for social and political change that would benefit not just themselves but also many others. The Combahee River Collective was a group of Black lesbian feminists who built a space where they could discuss their lives and their politics, but they realized that their political goals would result in fighting the oppressions of many other groups. As members of the Combahee River Collective wrote in “A Black Feminist Statement” in 1977, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” We can see this today in places like Black Lives Matter’s broad and inclusive political platform.
LSA: With your current project, The Sisterhood: Black Women, Black Feminism, and Women’s Liberation Movement, you're exploring the second wave of Black feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, and Black women's role in the Women's Liberation Movement. How did Black feminists shape/impact their own movement, along with the mainstream feminist movement?
SS: Black feminists both took part in and critiqued mainstream, white feminists and their organizing. For example, one of the early “Take Back the Night” marches was held in Boston in 1978. The predominantly white marchers chanted “Stop rape” as they marched through Black neighborhoods. Many felt that this was inappropriate. Was rape more prevalent in Black communities? Did these communities not know about the issues that affected them? Criticism from Black feminists, including members of the Combahee River Collective, resulted in the march’s route being changed the next year. Tragically, the 1979 march took place in the midst of a series of sexual assaults and murders of eleven Black women, primarily in the mostly Black Roxbury area of the city. Due in large part to the work of Black feminists, the 1979 march was planned to be more inclusive and to center the concerns of Black and other Third World women.
At the same time, Black women, including members of the Combahee River Collective, worked to raise awareness of the murders and push an indifferent Boston police department to investigate the crimes. Part of their work was compiling and publishing a pamphlet about the series of crimes. This pamphlet, which went through multiple printings, alerted the public to the murders, raised awareness of gendered and sexual violence, gave advice and strategies for self-defense, and provided resources for support including a list of community organizations that provided services for violence against women and information about the organizing in response to the recent violence.
Over and over again and in many different contexts Black feminists pushed the mainstream feminist movement to be more inclusive. Simultaneously, they were building their own autonomous organizations that focused on their concerns and where they could further develop their own Black feminist theorizing.
LSA: Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris made history on so many fronts — the first woman, first Black person, first South Asian person to be elected VP. How do you connect her accomplishments with the history and role of Black feminism in the United States?
SS: Other than embodying so many “firsts,” Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’s campaign had demonstrated the political organizing power of Black women’s institutions. During the early twentieth century groups like the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) advocated for African American’s rights, raised funds for social programs, and fought for the right to vote. Leaders of NACW, like Mary Church Terrell, are today recognized as early Black feminist thinkers and activists. Today organizations founded and led by Black women, like Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and Fair Fight, continue this tradition of advocacy and political organizing.
In regards to Harris, the mobilization of traditional African American sororities and fraternities to support the Democratic presidential ticket was powerful. Harris joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (AKA) as an undergraduate at Howard University. Historically Black Greek-Lettered Organizations (BGLOs) continue to be primarily philanthropic organizations that are deeply involved in community service and politics.
For the 2020 election, the AKAs along with members of the three other historically Black sororities—Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho—created a “Stroll to the Polls” campaign to encourage voter turnout in support of the Biden-Harris ticket. The political support marshalled by Black women for Harris is part of a long history of Black feminist political organizing in the United States.
LSA: What do you hope students will take away from your research, especially given this historic election?
SS: On the one hand, it seems as though everything that’s old is new again. Everything that is happening today is the result of a long, complicated history. In many ways, we’ve been having some of these same conversations about equity, voter rights, sexism, racism, etc., for decades. I know that some of my students have found that realization deflating. Instead of losing any optimism they might have about the political climate in the United States, I hope that my students can see how creating a just society is an ongoing project. If they know some of the history of the incredible work done by activists in previous generations, they can learn from their strategies and successes and continue to fight the good fight.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most unique and innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching and/or engagement.