53: Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s African-American Women’s History

In her 1992 article “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of race,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham argues that feminist scholars need to bring race into their analysis of social power.  Race for Higginbotham is both a “decentered complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle” AND a “metalanguage” that has a “powerful, all-encompassing effect on the construction and representation of other social and power relations.”  Integrating race and gender into a study of social power de-homogenizes both sides of the equation: racializing gender challenges the assumption that all women are the same, and gendering race challenges the assumption that all people of a particular race are the same.  Destabilizing these two categories also helps make other social divisions, like class, visible within them.  And all of this destabilization gives us a more nuanced picture of the relations of power in American society.

In the course of challenging the homogeneity of race and class, Higginbotham draws on plenty of cultural theory to analyze speeches and writings by black intellectuals and white feminist scholars, court cases, and histories of mostly 19th-century black experiences as well as some 20th-century examples.  In the process, she historicizes the development of race as a tool of oppression that is rooted in slavery; because race thus signifies the master/slave relationship, it exists as ideology on top of class and property relations and conditions gender and sexuality.  However, because race develops out of material relations of oppression between groups, it also serves as what Bakhtin calls a “double-voiced discourse:” race is simultaneously the language of black oppression AND black liberation.  And, recognizing the liberatory possibilities of racial discourse, Higginbotham concludes with a call for black female historians to write race into gender by writing histories that open up spaces for agency; we will become fully human in and through discourse.

While I’m concerned about what feels like a cherrypicking approach in her choice of examples, and even more concerned that she seems to be more interested in discourse than in real, material actions and places, I think her call to look for the intersections and divisions in race and gender as categories can lead to very productive thinking about power in a more holistic way.

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