Self-Naming and Self-Definition: An Agenda for Survival

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Chapter I

Nommo: Self-Naming and Self-Definition (A Revision of "Self-Naming and Self-Definition: An Agenda for Survival" in Sisterhood, Feminisms and Power (African World Press, 1998))

Women who are calling themselves black feminists need another word that describes what their concerns are. Black feminism in not a word that describes the plight of black women. The white race has a woman problem because the women were oppressed. Black people have a man and woman problem because Black men are as oppressed as their women. (Julia Hare, 15)

The above quotation by noted Black psychologist, Julia Hare, who unfortunately is unaware of the existence of Africana womanism, a terminology and paradigm which responds to her call, makes a profound commentary on the reality of the difference in the politics of Black life and that of white life, particularly in terms of how certain ideals have different meanings relative to the two groups. In other words, Hare's statement reflects the nuances of the relativity of a particular terminology and concept--feminism-- as issued forth by whites and its inapplicability to Black men and women who are trapped first and foremost by the race factor rather than by the gender factor so prevalently addressed today. Because of the critical race factor for Blacks, another scholar, Audrey Thomas McCluskey, concludes that "Black women must adopt a culturally specific term to describe their racialized experience , " as she is astutely cognizant of that for Black women, whether or not they pursue this issue to the point of independently naming themselves, "the debate over names reflects deeper issues of the right to self-validation and to claim intellectual traditions of their own"(McCluskey 2). Hence, the crucial need for self-naming and self-definition, an interconnecting phenomenon, becomes pin-ultimate as we must understand that when you give name to a particular thing, you simultaneously give it meaning. Nommo, then, an African term which cultural theorist, Molefi Asante, calls "the generative and productive power of the spoken word," means the proper naming of a thing which in turn gives it essence (Asante 17). Particularizing the concept,

Nommo, in the power of the word . . . activates all forces from their frozen state in a manner that establishes concreteness of experience . . . be they glad or sad, work or play, pleasure or pain, in a way that preserves [one's] humanity" (Harrison xx).

To be sure, Nommo, a powerful and empowering concept in African cosmology, evokes material existence. Since Africana people have long been denied the authority of not only naming self, but moreover, defining self, as inferred by the narrator of Beloved by Nobel prize-winning author, Toni Morrison-"Definitions belonged to the definers, not the defined"-it is now of utmost importance that we take control over this determining factors of our lives if we hope to avoid degradation, isolation and annihilation in a world of greed, violence and pandemonium.

Since the mid eighties, I have been seriously engaging in the process of properly naming and defining Africana women. This process has been effected by identifying and refining an African-centered paradigm for all women of African descent. In observing the traditional role, character, and activity of this group, whose affinity lies in their common African ancestry, I arrived at the conclusion that Africana womanism as a theoretical construct was more of a refinement of ideals rather than a creation of ideals. My role as theorist was to observe Africana women historically and culturally, document our reality, and then refine a paradigm relative to who we are, what we do, and what we believe in as a people. While this process seems to be a natural course of action, society, on the contrary, has not gone this route. Rather it has ignored the true operational existence of this long existing phenomenon and has elected to name and define Africana women outside of their cultural and historical context via the superimposition of an alien construct- Eurocentrism/feminism. In essence, the dominant culture has held the position of identifying who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things with no regard for our authentic reality. Rather than respect our lives as representative of self-authentication, the dominant culture obtrudes itself upon the Africana people. To stop this legacy of European domination, Africana people will have to actively reclaim their identity, beginning with self-naming and self-defining. As Bob Bender, Professor of English and Women Studies (University of Missouri-Columbia) asserts,

Naming is important, and one of the problems with being named by some other group is that you are not who you want to be. Until you have the right to give a naem to yourself and to what you are doing, you have no power whatsoever. Africana womanism is a fine idea (Bender 7).

An authentic agenda for Africana women, therefore, has to be designed with an endemic perspective, one that is shaped by the our own past and present cultural reality, molded by our own set of established priorities. In other words, Africana women must create our "own criteria for assessing [our] realities, both in thought and in action" (Hudson-Weems, Africana Womanism, 50).

To begin with the concept of Africana Womanism, unlike feminism/Black feminism, is a family centered, rather than female-centered concept, which is concerned first and foremost with race empowerment rather than female empowerment. To be sure, female centered/female empowerment as a priority for Black women could make no sense in a community where the very lives of not only the female sector, but of all its entire people--men, women, and children--are at risk and threatened daily by racist white domination. Ridding society first of racism, which pervades the total existence of Black life, then becomes the first step for human survival. A follow-up newspaper article, headlining "Beyond Bra-Burning," of the First International Conference on Women of African and the African Diaspora, held at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (July 1992) highlighted the impact of Africana Womanism on the conference. It was stated that [Africana}

Womanists do not believe in bra-burning. They believe in womanhood, the family, and society. Their struggle is to enhance these attributes, not repudiate them. . . . The Africana man and woman have always been complementary partners and if there is to be an Africana [a] economic empowerment and survival, both of them have to work together lie they've always done" (Agoawike, 1).

Clearly the notion of prioritizing race, class, and gender within the framework of the tripartite plight of Africana women is the defining differentiating factor between women of Africana descent and those of the dominant culture, whose primary issue for them is female empowerment.

Even before the Nigerian conference, I had been on the mission of insisting upon the cruciality of the proper naming and defining of Africana women and their struggle as an on-going collective activity in the Black world in an effort to combat the life-threatening issues to the existence of a collective Africana people.. And the key to this seminal issue is that when one buys a particular terminology, one also buys into its agenda, which in the case of Africana women discounts the inextricable connection of their identity to the destiny of theirs people . As Hudson-Weems proclaims in an interview with a Caribbean newspaper, "We (of the African Diaspora) are not playing with gender issues-we are dealing with real-life issues which don't exclude gender but deal [first] with securing and empowering our people" (Fuentez, 3).

It may be appropriate here to comment on the venomous beginnings of feminism. The true history of feminism, its origins and its participants, reveals a rather blatant racist background. Feminism and the Woman's Suffrage Movement had its beginnings with a group of liberal White women, who were concerned with abolishing slavery and granting equal rights for all people regardless of race, class and sex. However, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1870, granting Africana men voting rights, while denying that privilege for women, White women in particular, the attitudes of those white women toward Blacks shifted. Disappointed, having assumed that their benevolence toward securing full citizenship for Africana people would ultimately benefit them, their response was a racist reaction to both the Amendment and to Africanans. Hence, an organized movement among White women from the 1880s on shifted the pendulum from a liberal posture to a radically conservative.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was founded in 1890 by northern White women; however, "southern women were also vigorously courted by that group" (Giddings, 81), which demonstrated the growing race chauvinism of the late nineteenth century. Departing from the original women's suffrage posture of Susan B. Anthony, the organization brought together the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, protesting that middle-class white women's vote must aid their male counterparts in preserving the virtues of the Republic from the threat of Black men, unqualified and biological inferiors who, with the voting power could acquire political power within the American system. Carrie Chapman Catt, a staunch conservative suffragist leader and other women in her camp insisted upon strong Anglo Saxon values and White supremacy. They wanted to band with White men to secure the vote for pure Whites, excluding both Blacks and White immigrants. In Peter Carrol and David Noble's The Free and the Unfree Catt is quoted saying,

There is but one way to avert the danger. Cut off the vote of the slums and give it to [White] women. . . . [White men must realize] the usefulness of woman suffrage as a counterbalance to the foreign vote, and as a means of legally preserving White supremacy in the South" (Quoted in The Free and the Unfree, 296).

Embracing a firm belief in inherent Black inferiority, these women believed that Blacks should not be allowed the right to vote before them, which did not come until the 1920 Nineteenth Amendment. Thus, while it is understandable how White women felt regarding their exclusion from the voting rights agenda, their racist hostility and racist toward Africanans were unjustifiable and hence, cannot be overlooked.

In May 1995, I had the occasion to observe the consequence of subsuming our priorities as Africana women under those of the dominant culture. The Supreme Court was ruling on the issue of Affirmative Action set-asides and the question raised was how (white) feminists would respond to the increasing attacks upon Affirmative Action, since they as women had been the largest group of benefactors of this program, including Blacks, who were the originally intended beneficiaries. Putting this question into an historical perspective, I surmised that since they were, in fact, members of the dominant culture, their security would be protected. Predictably, in June, 1995, the Supreme Court returned the ruling that Affirmative Action set-asides that were racially determined were unconstitutional; those determined by gender equality were conversely constitutional. Therefore, for women of African descent, which is a racially defined category, the priority of gender, rather than race, is inapplicable in this case, since Africana women would be still burdened with the yoke of the race factor: "Even if she does overcome the battle of sexism through a collective struggle of all women, she will still be left with the battle of racism facing both her family and herself" (Africana Womanism, 59). In other words, when the white feminist has realized all of her needs and demands, thereby rendering her a proper place in the workplace, the Black woman will still be Black and on the bottom. Hence, the Black woman, who has surrendered her number one issue of racial parity to a gender specific priority, will find herself back to the vulnerable experience of Black degradation.

Having said all, the glaring revelation is that Africana people, particularly Africana women in this discourse, must decide for ourselves who we are and what our authentic agenda really is. We must necessarily engage in identifying for ourselves our individual needs as an Africana people, beginnning with self-naming and self-definition in order that we may better understand what it will take for us to bring total human parity to fruition for us. To be sure, this is the first step toward bringing about true harmony and real survival for all-Black, white, red and yellow; men, women and children.


Agoawike, Angela. "Beyon 'Bra-Burning': [Africana] Womanism as Alternative for the Africana Women." Nigeria Daily Times, July27, 1992.

Asante, Molefi Kete. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bender, Bob. "Reassessing Roles." Mizzou Weekly (Columbia, MO). October 27, 1993.

Carroll, Peter N. and David W. Nobel. The Free and the Unfree: A New History of the United

States. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Fuentez, Tania. "Africana Womanism: Ties to the Destiny of a People." Daily News (St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), June 2, 1994.

Hare, Julia. "Feminism in Black and White." Quoted in Mary-Christine Phillip. Black Issues in Higher Education, March 11, 1993, pp. 12-17.

Harrison, Paul Carter. The Drama of Nommo. New York: Grove Press, 1972.

Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. Third revised edition, second printing. Michigan: Bedford Publishers, 1995.

McCluskey, Audrey Thomas. "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?: Reflections on the Role of Black Women's Studies in the Academy." Feminist Teacher, Vol. 8, n. 3, 1994, 105-111.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

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