1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.– Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose” (1983)
By Stephanie Younger •
In 1983, Alice Walker, a Black feminist, poet, author and activist coined the term “womanist” in her book, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose.” Womanism offers a space for Black feminists who have been erased from our own labor for the mainstream feminist movement, which often centers white, cis women who are seeking to be equal to white, cis men. Being “outrageous, audacious and willful” and “responsible” embodies Black feminists who are reclaiming our power from folks who silence us by telling us to choose between fighting for intersectional Black liberation, or fighting for white cis women to be equal to white cis men. Having a desire to learn from each other people fights for our liberation in a way that doesn’t reflect systems what we are liberating ourselves from white supremacy and every issue that goes hand-in-hand with it, such as elitism, capitalism, and imperialism.
Walker’s focus on Black feminists, feminists of color, and “women who love other women, sexually and/or nonsexually,” and being “committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people” is to understand that the fight for Black liberation cannot exist without centering all Black life expresses, and that Black liberation cannot exist without liberating Black queer women and Black trans women. To pick and choose which Black lives are worthy of being liberated, is to reflect what we are liberating ourselves from in the first place. As for Black women who are cis, light-skinned, middle-class, abled, etc., we must constantly check ourselves for how we perpetuate violent systems such as cissexism, colorism, classism, elitism, and ableism. Black cis men, must stop assuming that the fight for Black lives centers themselves, when it is being led by Black women, Black queer people, Black trans people, and Black nonbinary people on the forefront. For example, the rallying cry, #SayHerName was co-opted to center Black cis men, but the African American Policy Forum (an organization co-founded by Kimberle Crenshaw, the Black feminist scholar who coined intersectionality in 1989) created it for and by Black women and girls. Walker’s analogy between the Black race and a flower garden is an expression that Black people do not have monolithic, single-issue experiences, but that Black people are multifaceted.
Like purple and lavender, feminism and womanism are similar, but they are not interchangeable. Walker specifically centers and promotes Black joy in a world that glorifies the idea of Black people being “strong” at the expense of vulnerability. Alice Walker’s emphasis on Black joy is especially significant in a world where our oppressors think Black people owe them “education” and “resources” on how to not oppress us. Black folks deserve better than being tone policed and gaslighted when we remind our oppressors that we are not their self-improvement space. We deserve better than nonprofits that tokenize us and exploit our labor in the name of “amplifying Black voices.” Black women, Black queer people and Black trans people deserve better than being given the empty support of being called “strong” for having to bite our tongues about the pain and trauma that comes from living in a world that hates us.
During the pandemic, and the current uprisings in defense of Black life, I not only learned that Black liberation isn’t about looking to anti-Black systems, such as the police state and the carceral state to hold itself accountable. Black liberation is not, and has not been about looking to white “allies,” nor is it asking white nonprofits to stop erasing Black people from our labor. The thing that I’ve personally learned from Alice Walker’s definition of womanism was to protect my peace, by divesting from the nonprofit industrial complex, and saying “no” to co-optation of Black liberationist spaces, and focus on building community by centering the liberation of all Black life. In a world where Black people are devalued and erased from our own work by spaces that claim to do the opposite, it’s important that we root ourselves in creating our own spaces that center the liberation of all Black lives.
Stephanie Younger is 18-year-old student who created Black Feminist Collective in 2017, and fights for a world abolished of prisons, police and systems of policing, and is passionate about its intersections with womanism.