- Sociol. The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.
An African American, a woman, and a poet walk into a bar. She enjoys her drink.
We are accustomed to putting people into categories–African American, woman, poet, and more–that we often don’t ask: What happens when all of those categories exist in a single experience?
So we’re asking you, reader, to think about your social identity categories. Your race, your gender, your sexuality, your class, and your disability or lack thereof.
Let’s say you label yourself “white” and “male.” We’re asking you to think of yourself not as one or the other but as a combination of the two: as a white male. Why? Well, can you identify with all of the experiences of white women, or with those of black men? Probably not. Identity categories always overlap and create understandings of the world that cannot be separated. If you identify as able-bodied, you will lead a different life than someone with a physical or mental disability, even if you are the same race, gender, class and more. We are shaped by each category society puts us in––and that is why we need the study of intersectionality.
What is it?
Intersectionality is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s multiple identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.
In other words, intersectional theory asserts that individuals are often simultaneously disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers. Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g. “female” or “black”) do not exist independently of each other, and that each informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression. For instance, a black man and a white woman make $0.74 and $0.78 to a white man’s dollar, respectively. Black women, faced with multiple forms of oppression, only make $0.64 (“The Wage Gap, by Gender and Race”). This wage difference highlights the double discrimination black women face because of their race and their gender. Intersectionality shows us that because identity and experience are complex nexuses of difference, so are oppression and discrimination. Understanding intersectionality is essential in identifying strategies to combat the interwoven prejudices people face in their daily lives.
Where does it come from?
Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor and social theorist, first coined the term intersectionality in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing The Intersection Of Race And Sex: A Black Feminist Critique Of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory And Antiracist Politics.” The theory emerged two decades earlier, however, when black feminists began to speak out about the white, middle-class nature of the mainstream feminist movement. Many black women found it difficult to identify with the issues of the mainstream (white) feminist movement, issues such as the pressure to be a homemaker. Black women, who often had to work in order to keep their family afloat and therefore did not have the luxury of being homemakers, did not feel as though these issues pertained to their experiences. At the same time, many black women experienced sexism while participating in the Civil Rights movement and were often shut out of leadership positions. This intersectional experience of facing racism in the feminist movement and sexism in civil rights encouraged black women to call for a feminist practice that centralized their lived experiences.
The Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian organization, released the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1978 to define and encourage black feminism. In the introduction these women state that “The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.” They fought not only for representation in both the Civil Rights and feminist movements, but also for recognition as black women, rather than just black or just female individuals.
Crenshaw expanded on the Collective’s theory, stating that “Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated” (140). In order to understand the oppression of black women, she said, it is necessary to look at the intersection of blackness and womanhood. While many who championed intersectionality early on were African American women, the success of the theory has proven its necessity to understand a wide range of oppressions due to sexual orientation, age, class, and disability, and has proven applicable to all areas of study––including literature.
How does it apply to Johnson?
Georgia Douglas Johnson, as a black, middle-class woman writing in the early twentieth century, cannot simply be viewed as a woman or as an African American. Her writing serves as a way to understand the intersectional experience of black women at the time, as well as how their voices have been silenced. By marginalizing the experiences of women and African Americans in literature—and certainly African American women—Johnson, and many of her fellow black women poets, have been almost forgotten from literary history. The literary canon is made of mostly white men who did not experience oppression from their intersectional identities—and are fortunate enough to be celebrated today for their artistic achievement alone (and often in spite of their prejudices). By understanding how Johnson––as well as other black female poets––have been regarded and discriminated against, we may begin to shift what we regard as enduring literature.
Johnson often writes about being a mother, and the experience of raising a black child. Black mothers faced challenges their white counterparts did not, from the fear of their children being lynched to an increased risk of their newborns dying from health complications.
To make things worse, many white authors wrote to uphold the notion that black women were unchaste and incapable of maintaining a functional family unit. William Smith wrote that “The offense of men is individual and limited while that of women is general and strikes mortally the existence of the family itself” (quoted in Stavney 535).
To counter white stereotypes of promiscuity, “Black male tribute to black womanhood was thus intended to foster a sense of black communal pride” and to praise black women as “a model of True Womanhood” (536). Due to the fact that black men desired to “counteract prevailing stereotypes” of black women, they ended up “exaggerating her positive qualities,” in order to help black women seek “some of the benefits of this elevated notion of womanhood: respect, relief from menial labor, and regard as morally and sexually pure human beings” (537-8). Anne Stavney, through her research into black motherhood, found that people felt “black women were primarily responsible for upholding the morality of the family and the race” meaning that “black woman had the categorical duty to teach her own children and those from the community their moral lessons” (535). This is an impossible task to ask of anyone, much less black women who experience a multitude of disadvantages. When black women found themselves “incapable of performing this crucial task,” it seemed as though “the Negro race was doomed” (535).
Countering one stereotype aids another, however, and sets up a rigid binary of viewing black women as either sexual, flawed mothers or as chaste, perfect mothers. Neither allows for an accurate representation of black womanhood. Instead, these representations set up a binary that assumes that if a woman does not live up to expectations of purity, she is automatically an immoral mother. Claudia Tate demonstrates the power of this binary by pointing out that critics often refused to comment on the eroticism in Johnson’s work, as “her contemporaries feared that any mention of sexuality would invite the racist stereotype of the essential licentiousness of black people,” and more specifically black women (xix). This way in which Johnson’s legacy has been warped by stereotypes is one example of why we need intersectionality in order to better understand Johnson, her work, and her legacy.
How do we fit in?
Intersectionality is a case for complexity: for taking more things into account, for excavating layers of identity, for undermining traditional categories. Giving Johnson’s work a more nuanced reading requires more nuanced methods. We’ve chosen to analyze The Crisis, the NAACP magazine that published dozens of Johnson’s poems over the years, to reconsider what we read as a text. Reading a poem published in a magazine involves much more than looking at the poem itself; it requires attention to covers, advertisements, typography, paper size, pagination, and arrangement. A deeper look into the characteristics of the magazine allows us to understand how our judgments affect the way we read the poetry within. By examining the bibliographic codes of The Crisis, we hope a more thorough reading of Johnson’s work will acknowledge the complexity of her personal and artistic experience, as well as the intersection of identity, oppression, and artistic achievement that black female poets at the turn of the century wrote despite, about, and against.
Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement.” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978. 362-373. Web.
Crenshaw, Kimberle Williams. “Demarginalizing The Intersection Of Race And Sex: A Black Feminist Critique Of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory And Antiracist Politics.” University Of Chicago Legal Forum 1989.1 (1989): 139-167. Web.
Crunch. “Legends of the Ball X: The Combahee River Collective.” Digital image. …Or Does it Explode? WordPress, 5 Sept. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Giavana, Margo. “Intersectionality Video.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.
“Georgia Douglas Johnson.” Braithwaite, William Stanley. The Crisis. 17.6 April 1919. 280.
Pancheri, Sam. “Interlocking Systems of Oppression.” Digital image. A Curious Orange. Blogspot, 28. Aug. 2o14. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Stavney, Anne. “‘Mothers of Tomorrow’: The New Negro Renaissance and the Politics of Maternal Representation.” African American Review 32.4 (1998): 533–561. JSTOR. Web.
Tate, Claudia. “Introduction.” Georgia Douglas Johnson: The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: G.K. Hall, 1997. xvii-lxix. Print.
“The Wage Gap, by Gender and Race.” Infoplease. © 2000–2015 Sandbox Networks, Inc., publishing as Infoplease. 29 Nov. 2015 <http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0882775.html>.