Course Catalog

01:988:372 Contemporary Feminist Activism

Course Description and content

            Since World War II (1941-1945), the modern black freedom movement has generated an abundance of literature and literary expression. Poems, novels, short stories, speeches, sermons, songs, memoirs, histories, biographies, feature and documentary films tell canonical as well as suppressed stories of the struggle. While an “unbroken” legacy of black activism against racism endures, the freedom movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s is distinguished by a consistent use of “‘direct action’ techniques in villages, towns and cities throughout the South” (Lawson, 2003). And, for the most part, ordinary women and men – black and white, poor, middle class, rural and urban, gay and straight, Southern and Norther – formulated and carried out the movement’s strategies and goals. It was a time of charisma and danger: for the experienced “background” organizers and advisors, like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker; to the silver-tongued Martin Luther King, Jr. and the stinging brilliance of Malcolm X, who led the masses; to the collective spirit of SNCC, who followed the masses; to the plain courage Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, Unita Blackwell who changed the face of Mississippi politics.

            Women were central to the movement’s achievements – including the dismantling of legally mandated segregation, the political empowerment of black voters and office holders, and the partial achievement of justice in the work place. Women – black and white – worked at all levels. One of them, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), has become an icon of her refusal to give up her seat to a white bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Yet, black working class women made up the majority of the black passengers who in 1955-56 walked to work rather than ride segregated buses (Giddings, 1984). Women’s organizations were central as well; the Montgomery bus boycott was started and initially organized by the local Women’s Political Council under the leadership of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1912). Other women have begun to attain some recognition: for example, Ella Baker (1903-1987), Anne Braden (1924-2006), and Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (1941-1967).

            As the Southern Movement gave way to Northern cynicism, as the destruction of Jim Crow gave way to the production of Black Power, as the “beloved community” gave way to the Black nationalist community, writers, especially poets and playwrights, become central to the promotion of black consciousness. The cultural production was extremely gendered, as in Haki Madhubuti’s 1970 poem, “blackwoman,” in which the speaker asserts that the black woman’s femininity is a reflection of her man’s masculinity:


                        Is an

                        In and out



                        Of her man…

            Women activists were overshadowed at the time of male leaders and spokespersons as were working class and poor activists by students and ministers. Moreover, the language of the freedom struggle was sometimes gendered in a way that diminished women’s visibility and importance. Participants in the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in 1968, for example, carried placards that read, in bold capitals, “I AM A MAN.” Yet, even Martin Luther King, Jr., well-known for his preference for male (Christian) leadership, was even moved to cast that Sanitation Worker Strike in broader terms when he said “….We are saying we are determined to be men. We are famous 1968 poem, “The True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro,” where the “we” stands in for the male and female collectivity:

                        Can we learn to kill WHITE for BLACK

                        Learn to kill niggers

                                    Learn to be black men

            What was at stake? It will be our task to examine this question, to gauge women’s importance in the black freedom movement and to explore together how gender was implicated in the movement and in resistance to the movement and how writing was and is crucial to tutelage on black consciousness. The course will span the period from the end of World War II to the early 1980’s. We will use media such as video, music, and photography to open student’s experience to the breadth and impact of the movement. We will also make reference to the movement’s precedents and parallels, e.g., Gandhi’s anti-colonial struggles in South Africa and India, other anti-colonial movements, the anti-Apartheid and Black Consciousness movement’s in South Africa during the 1980’s, and the global Movement for women’s human rights. The course will call attention to the “heroic” narrative of the movement, which usually erases ordinary people’s and women’s leadership; and it will complicate that narrative by examining the movement’s male dominance, accommodationist tendencies, heterosexism, middle-class aspirations, the riots, and black power/black nationalism. Readings will be drawn from social/intellectual history, memoir, autobiography, biography, novels, poetry, and oral history.