According to Robin G. Kelley (2003), his mother loved dreaming out loud. She regularly engaged in some sort of morning meditation, which allowed expressing her secret desires and laying out a vision of the new, non-racist world (Kelley, 2003). For decades, members of numerous Black movements sought to transform their dreams into actions, thus creating a strong foundation for equality and freedom. Black feminists were no exception to this rule, but their struggles had more than one goal: beyond fighting against the racial oppression, Black feminists also fought against gender discrimination and sexism on the side of both Black and White counterparts. Kelley (2003) devotes a whole chapter to the analysis of black feminism but, unfortunately, fails to consider one of the most essential political and cultural moments in the evolution of the anti-racist movement. It is the Black Woman’s Manifesto published in 1970 and signed by Gayle Lynch and a group of women opposing racism and sexism. The Manifesto set the stage for the evolution of the gender equality ideas within and beyond the liberation movement and, at the same time, sent an explicit message that women wanted to be openly recognized as fair participants of the Black nationalism movement and as solid contributors to the development of the new freedom thought.
Kelley’s (2003) book is a compilation of thoughts, ideas, and dreams that the participants of the Black Nationalism movement wanted to make a reality. However, beyond these things, Kelley (2003) is looking for a comprehensive and universal dream of freedom, which could encompass and explain the most essential elements of the freedom ideals pursued by African Americans in the developed world. Definitely, one of the most difficult tasks in any social and cultural movement is to set a clear goal, which also means that the features and boundaries of the social dream need to be clearly defined. Kelley (2003) writes that “my purpose in writing this book is simply to reopen a very old conversation about what kind of world we want to struggle for” (p.7). However, in Kelley’s book, these freedom dreams come in many forms, depending on the movement that was responsible for their creation. In this context, black feminists occupy one of the central points in the evolution of the Black freedom dream in society’s racial consciousness.
The Black Woman’s Manifesto is a crucial political and cultural happening that took place in 1970. The Manifesto was published in The Black Scholar and signed by Gayle Lynch, Linda La Rue, and a group of other black feminists. The Manifesto claimed: “The black woman is demanding a new set of female definitions and a recognition of herself as a citizen, companion and confidant, not a matriarchal villain or a step stool baby-maker. Role integration advocates the complementary recognition of man and woman, not the competitive recognition of the same” (Lynch, 1970, p.42). The Manifesto is believed to be a turning point in the development of the Black feminist movement. At the same time, the document reflects the most serious complexities confronting women when the civil rights movement had already reached its culmination.
The Black Woman’s Manifesto reflects the complex problems and struggles that African American women face within and beyond the civil rights movement. On the one hand, the civil rights movement had to reestablish African American men in their rights and ability to protect their women from the threats of violence and the legacy of slavery and rape (Kelley, 2003). For decades and centuries, black men had been deprived of an ability to defend their homes, and it was not surprising that they applied to violence as a convenient means to liberate themselves from oppression and defend their manhood rights (Kelley, 2003). Yet, that emphasis on men’s willingness to defend their homes and women from oppression only further expanded the existing gender divisions (Kelley, 2003). Certainly, men wanted to protect their women from physical and social violence, but they kept viewing their women as merely nursing mothers of their children (Kelley, 2003). They kept viewing their women as mothers, whose primary roles were that of a caregiver and domestic builder (Kelley, 2003). Like many years ago, women had to focus on their home responsibilities and household chores, while men were building a new dream of freedom and fighting to make it real.
Still, that was not the dream of freedom women wanted to make real. Apparently, black men and women had different views on what a freedom dream really was. The Black Woman’s Manifesto stated explicitly that women did not want to give up their traditional roles, but they also sought to become full members of their community. Based on the Manifesto, the freedom dream expressed by women was that the definition of womanhood would be redefined. For the black women writing the Manifesto, freedom meant being a companion of men and not a matriarchal villain sitting at home and bringing up children. The woman had to become a friend and a supporter of the man in all major endeavors. Eventually, the black woman wanted to find the best balance of maternal and social roles. The black woman had to become a real participant of the liberation endeavors initiated by Black men. In their Manifesto, black women claimed that they were looking for role integration which, in turn, would further encourage their intellectual and emotional growth (Lynch, 1970). The freedom dream of black women at that time was to share the responsibility for liberation with their men (Lynch, 1970). In a broader sense, Black women no longer wanted to be limited in their life opportunities and experiences. They wanted to release themselves from the social bondage and, as a result, work against the limitations of the capitalist and racist system that had dominated their world for years (Lynch, 1970).
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Needless to say, racial segregation placed severe constraints on Black women’s equality strivings. Being a black woman in the 1970s was a challenging mission. On the one hand, the rights and freedoms of black women were limited due to their racial belonging. In other words, like African American men, African American women experienced similar pressures and could not realize their strivings, simply because they were black. On the other hand, black women faced misunderstanding and even rejection on the side of white women. White women consistently failed to recognize the sexist problems confronting Black women (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d.). Their rejection was based on the premise that those who were oppressed (meaning, the Black community) could not oppress each other or anyone else (meaning, Black men against Black women) (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d.). Consequently, racial segregation limited black women in their opportunities to join broader social movements and unite with white women in their common fight against gender oppression. Even though many white feminists did not acknowledge their racist attitudes towards women of color, most anti-oppression and anti-sexism movements grew on the basis of racism: white women united to promote the ideology of white equality; white women fought to promote white women’s suffrage; white women sought to make the society of white women more ethical and moral, etc. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d.). In that atmosphere, black women had few resources to expand their participation in the major social processes.
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Racial segregation gave rise to numerous civil rights movements, but even then black women could not secure themselves from the tragic impacts of sexism and gender discrimination. Kelley (2003) describes how the UNIA treated women and what position most black women were bound to occupy when the civil rights movement was flourishing. At the same time, the dream black women held and expressed in their manifesto was to become visible, because the freedom dream of the black men was that of women’s invisibility. In other words, the relative invisibility of women in the radical dreams about black men’s freedom has long historical roots and was closely related to the concept of woman in the African American culture (Kelley, 2003). Additionally, for decades prior to the Black Woman’s Manifesto, the concept of black community had been gender-neutral (Kelley, 2003). Thus, it was generally assumed that, once the black community won its right for freedom, the negative legacy of sexism and gender discrimination would automatically vanish (Kelley, 2003). Apparently, in the atmosphere of racial segregation, where women were either invisible to the rest of the black community or were openly discriminated by the male members of the black rights movement, the Black Woman’s Manifesto sounded like the last call for the equality and visibility of women in the black and, with time, the white community.
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One of the key questions is how the Manifesto happening could help women liberate themselves from the chains of discrimination and oppression. There seems to be no definite answer to this question. It is difficult to make parallels with Kelley’s description of black feminism because, in Kelley’s view, black feminists looked beyond gender oppression and sought to eliminate all sorts of unfairness and discrimination. Black feminists challenged the established beliefs about woman as a universal category (Kelley, 2003). In this context, the Black Woman’s Manifesto looks like the first step in an enduring fight for racial and gender equality. It is a message intended to make black women visible to their African American compatriots and the rest of the white community. At that stage of the black community’s evolution, women attempted to integrate their social and gender roles which, in turn, would cause a broader social and mental shift towards recognizing women as full participants of society. They used their manifesto to articulate their dream, and dream, according to Kelley (2003), is the catalyst for political engagement.
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The 20th century was overfilled with historical happenings, and the black community’s fight for equality was, probably, the brightest and most difficult aspect of historical development at that time. The Black Woman’s Manifesto became a turning point in the evolution of the Black movement; unfortunately, its significance is persistently disregarded. The Manifesto set the stage for the evolution of the gender equality ideas within and beyond the liberation movement and, at the same time, sent an explicit message that women wanted to be openly recognized as fair participants of the Black nationalism movement and as solid contributors to the development of the new freedom thought. Black women revealed the controversies surrounding gender roles within the Black community. They used their Manifesto to verbalize a dream, which had to become a catalyst for their political, social, and cultural engagement.