- Black Women and Black Power: A Review Essay on New Directions in Black Power Studies
I n these outstanding and nuanced organizational studies, Ashley D. Farmer and Ula Yvette Taylor add a crucial dimension to what historian Peniel E. Joseph has called the new "Black Power Studies" scholarship. 1Both books reveal how African American women remade black womanhood and redefined black identity within Black Power organizations and "outside white, Eurocentric norms and values," even if their reimaginings of gender roles were sometimes "contradictory, problematic, and essentialist" (Farmer, pp. 3, 19). Although both works focus largely on Black Power organizations outside the South, many of their founders and the members were themselves black southern migrants or the children of migrants; and groups like the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam (NOI) established a number of southern branches and mosques.
In The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam, Taylor explores black women's experiences from the 1930s to the 1970s in the [End Page 653]avowedly male-dominated Nation of Islam. In Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, Farmer highlights women's 1960s and 1970s activism in the Black Panther Party, the Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN), and the Congress of African Peoples (CAP); she also provides a brief sketch of women in Us Organization. In all of these mixed-sex groups, Farmer argues, women negotiated and defied patriarchy when possible and acquiesced to it when necessary. But Farmer also investigates Black Power women's organizations, including the Black Women's United Front and the Third World Women's Alliance (TWWA). Unlike the Black Women's United Front, which was formed by women in CAP and remained linked to its parent organization, the TWWA emerged from a black women's caucus of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Created by SNCC member Frances Beal, the caucus quickly became a separate black women's group and then expanded to include other women of color, becoming the TWWA. It also was clearly the most undeniably feminist of all the groups showcased by Farmer. By the 1980s, the West Coast TWWA branch had become the Alliance Against Women's Oppression and also addressed the concerns of poor whites. In the 1990s, TWWA member Linda Burnham, whose parents were active in the black Left of the 1940s, reasserted the emphasis on women of color by establishing the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland, California, which is still in operation. 2
This is not simply contributionist history. Instead, by recentering black women Taylor and Farmer convincingly disrupt conventional interpretations of Black Power. Both authors unpack singular conceptions of Black Power as hypermasculine, separatist, and violent. "Perhaps more so than any other black nation-building movement," Taylor asserts, "the NOI provided a space for women who had been disrespected, abused, and who had struggled to find a 'home' in racial America" (Taylor, p. 5). Farmer persuasively argues that black women's intellectual work helped develop "a vibrant genealogy of black thought" (Farmer, p. 15). Whether in mixed-gender or single-sex organizations, "black women have adopted and transformed Black Power principles to fit their lived experiences" (Farmer, p. 11), and their stories depict women's "resilience and resistance" (Taylor, p. 6). "Far from being marginal … or male dominated," Black Power in these years, Farmer contends, "was widespread and multifaceted in scope" (Farmer, p. 9). [End Page 654]
Remaking Black Poweris organized thematically and chronologically. Chapters focus on distinctive if somewhat overlapping iterations of women's Black Power politics: the "Black Revolutionary Woman" (1966–1975); the "African Woman" (1965–1975); the "Pan-African Woman" (1972–1976...