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Doctor Patricia Hill Collins Works To Expand The Platform For Black Women's Voices

Feb 13, 2017

Dr. Patricia Hill Collins is professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park and a past president of the American Sociological Association Council. Collins was the one hundredth president of the ASA and the first African-American woman to hold this position.

Doctor Patricia Hill Collins

“I think it was very difficult for me to come to voice around the types of work that I do because there was no space for this work,” Collins says. “We had to create the space to write black feminist thought, to talk about race, class, gender, to talk about intersectionality. And that was all part of the process of being seen as legitimate, being listened to, being clear, being respected.”

Her seminal work titled Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment was originally published in 1990 and inspired by her mother.

Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins

“The specific purpose was to write the book that I wish my mother had been able to read. Because I thought that if she had an analysis that in which she could position her experiences, that would have helped her with the struggles that she had in her life,” Collins says. “I had to wait before I wrote that book. I had to go to school. I had to be really careful and get tenure before I wrote that book.”  

Dr. Collins' work focuses primarily on feminism and gender within the African-American community and the complexities of the intersections of those issues with race and class.

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Interview Highlights

On Black Women Finding And Using Their Voice

I can talk about the ways that black women historically have done that through poetry, through music. It's been through ways that have been considered just folk culture and been dismissed by the general culture. More recently those of us who've gotten advanced degrees, we can do this through books and through journal articles and through scholarship. But increasingly, black women are coming to voice in media settings, whether it's social media or the blogosphere, pop culture venues like Anna do Varnay through her films, or Shonda Rhimes her work on television. So this is all part of an ongoing coming to voice collectively on the part of black women, but that all starts with the individual, wherever that individual is situated.

On How Patience Effects Social Justice Movements

I think the really bad news is lasting change takes a lot of time, and that is a really, really discouraging thing for people to hear when they're 18, 20, 22 years old. But that is the most important thing to recognize if you commit to social justice struggles because if you think change is going to be tomorrow, and you don't get it tomorrow, you can walk away from the whole thing and say, "Well that just wasn't worth it. I'm a failure," as opposed to seeing every contribution as important in terms of something bigger. Now that's the big picture. The smaller picture would be, there are many, many, many, many things that people can do wherever they are. A lot of the ways that things continue on the way they are is that we ignore social injustices around us. We've learned to be blind to certain things, and when we decide we're not going to do that anymore, we actually let stuff in.

On How Black Feminism Differs From Feminism At Large

I think the issue is to really look at black feminism in relationship to African-American political activism rather than thinking of black feminism as derivative of a broader feminist movement. I look at black feminism as emerging from the lived experiences of African-American women with work, with family, with love, with body politics, with health. All of those things. And within a situation in the U.S. of racial segregation, that feminism developed in that context. It was not called feminism, therefore it was not recognized as feminism. But black women have always been very active in saying that if we look at anti-racist movements, we have to look at gender, sexuality, class as well. And the classic line will be, "I will only be free when all of those issues are attended to." I don't position black feminism in the context of other feminism. I position that as in coalition with feminisms that developed separately as did this one.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: I want to start our conversation by asking about what initially inspired you to think about and eventually write about black feminist thought. I know you have a book by this title, but even before you started writing and studying yourself, I wondered if there were some sort of catalyst for you in your own personal experience or something that sort of led you to this field of study.

PATRICIA HILL COLLINS: I noticed the absence of work on black women. It may seem odd to think about that as a catalyst today, because we're looking at 30 years of publications by and about African-American women specifically and black women in general. But when I was growing up there was nothing there. And what was there did not seem to match the experiences of the women who I knew. My mother, my aunts had experiences that were all very different than what I saw in the media. So for me, it's interesting to see absence and decide what does that mean. I was not the only one. There were a lot of black women who were also noticing that at the same time. So I think that would be the general context. The specific response would be my own mother's experiences. She was a working mother. She worked for the Department of Defense. She had to train her supervisors. She was a stenographer. She was one of the first ones that was hired in a situation of segregation. But I also drew from my father's experiences. He was a veteran in World War II in a segregated unit. And my parents when they went to buy a house could not buy a house because they were black. Now when I think about black feminism and I think about black women, I think about gender. So to me, black feminism is a gendered analysis that talks about my mother's experiences, my father's experiences but most specifically the absence of attention to black women's lives when I was growing up.

BELL: So, I wonder if you can spend a little time defining for us what black feminism is and how that differs from white feminism or even from feminism at large.

HILL COLLINS: I think the issue is to really look at black feminism in relationship to African-American political activism rather than thinking of black feminism as derivative of a broader feminist movement. I look at black feminism as emerging from the lived experiences of African-American women with work, with family, with love, with body politics, with health. All of those things. And within a situation in the U.S. of racial segregation, that feminism developed in that context. It was not called feminism, therefore it was not recognized as feminism. But black women have always been very active in saying that if we look at anti-racist movements, we have to look at gender, sexuality, class as well. And the classic line will be, "I will only be free when all of those issues are attended to." I don't position black feminism in the context of other feminism. I position that as in coalition with feminisms that developed separately as did this one.

BELL: So your book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment was first published back in 1990. What was your purpose in writing the book?

HILL COLLINS: My purpose in writing the book, the specific purpose was to write the book that I wish my mother had been able to read. Because I thought that if she had an analysis that in which she could position her experiences, that would have helped her with the struggles that she had in her life. I had to wait before I wrote that book. I had to go to school. I had to be really careful and get tenure before I wrote that book. But that was the immediate catalyst. It was something that I felt I needed to do even if no one ever read it because that really has been the history of a lot of black feminist thought as well. Black women writing and just not knowing where it's going to go. Like a gift to the future.

BELL: Was your mother able to read the book?

HILL COLLINS: No, my mother died when I was 22 years old. So all of my accomplishments she did not get to witness. She did not get to witness me getting my doctorate for example or writing a book. So it's not about her. It's not about me. It's about the gifts that we give to young people and to what's coming next. And I think that's part of the tradition of black feminism that is really very important to emphasize. It is not individualistic. It is very much a contribution to the communities in which you are situated, whether they are geographic communities of our neighborhoods, or whether it's an intellectual community, in this case.

BELL: Well, you say that it's not about you. But I was interested to read in your preface, and I want to sort of ask you a question about what I read in the book, which is that in the first edition in that preface you wrote that the book "reflects one stage of my ongoing struggle to regain my voice." But by the time the second edition of your book came out in the year 2000, I believe, you wrote that your "concern now lies in finding effective ways to use that voice that I have claimed while I have it." When you talk about claiming that voice that you speak of, when exactly did that happen? And how have you been able to use it?

HILL COLLINS: Well, it's fascinating when people actually read what I've written years ago. So let me just respond to them in terms of what I would imagine I was thinking, right? I think it was very difficult for me to come to voice around the types of work that I do because there was no space for this work. We had to create the space to write black feminist thought, to talk about race, class, gender, to talk about intersectionality. And that was all part of the process of being seen as legitimate, being listened to, being clear, being respected. So it wasn't just my argument is wonderful and people automatically agree with me. It was the struggle to find that space and that's how I would define coming to voice and finding one's own voice in that setting. In 1990, that was a difficult time for me. It was a difficult time for many black feminists as well. I think now when I look back on this whole process, I'm not worried about coming to voice anymore. I have a voice. I use voice. I call it the power of the podium, or the power of the microphone, or the power of whatever. If you're claiming a space where you can shape ideas and where your voice matters, that's where you need to be as difficult as that may be. So the issues are still the same in terms of struggling with issues of legitimation, but the structures now are very, very different. And I'm very different because I'm considerably older and I've seen a lot more.

BELL: What would be your advice to women who are struggling to find their own voice? And black women in particular.

HILL COLLINS: I think it's a common struggle for whatever. Whether it's women or men, or gay lesbian folk, or whatever the group may be, a young white man who's really progressive and he's living in a very conservative area. Whatever. The whole notion of trusting that there's something in you that is valuable and you have to figure out a way to craft it and say it. And I can talk about the ways that black women historically have done that through poetry, through music. It's been through ways that have been considered just folk culture and been dismissed by the general culture. More recently those of us who've gotten advanced degrees, we can do this through books and through journal articles and through scholarship. But increasingly, black women are coming to voice in media settings, whether it's social media or the blogosphere, pop culture venues like Anna do Varnay through her films, or Shonda Rhimes her work on television. So this is all part of an ongoing coming to voice collectively on the part of black women, but that all starts with the individual, wherever that individual is situated. Because the issues that I write about and that I talk about are really universal issues.

BELL: Let's talk for a minute about the idea of empowerment. What does empowerment mean to you? And has that definition changed since you first started writing about this?

HILL COLLINS: I think it's sharpened since I first started writing about it. For me empowerment has both an experiential level. So you are empowered in your everyday life, but that is impossible to fully actualize without structural changes in society. So you have to look at structures of power that you're located in. And I spend a fair amount of time writing about difficult topics. I write about racism, sexism, heterosexism, class exploitation as systems of power and how they intersect and how they produce certain opportunities. But I also write about how people empower themselves with in those settings sometimes just on the individual level, but very often collectively and aiming to bring about structural changes.

BELL: How do we go about doing that, collectively?

HILL COLLINS: We start working where we are, wherever that may be. It may be something very small in terms of how one raises one's children. Now that may seem small, but I think that's really the base of a lot of this. I've written a fair amount on motherhood specifically because I see motherhood not as a downtrodden role but actually a place where black women can empower themselves, because you are affecting change in the world. The way you raise your children is very important in how you affect change in the world. So I certainly see that among black women in terms of what they imagine for us going places where they could not go, taking on opportunities that they could not have, creating opportunities for people who came behind us. That's really what I see as part of the tradition of black motherhood and empowerment. But I also see that as available to men in terms of how they parent, or to many people who can view communities that way if it's not your own biological children.

BELL: It seems to me like what you're talking about is a very slow process. And I wonder if you have any advice for people whose patience, especially recently, has been tested and who feel like, you know... Well I don't have a child or I'm not in a position where I can even you know challenge these power structures in my job or at my academic institution or things like that, who are sort of impatient and wanting change now. How do we sort of address...?

HILL COLLINS: I think the really bad news is lasting change takes a lot of time, and that is a really, really discouraging thing for people to hear when they're 18, 20, 22 years old. But that is the most important thing to recognize if you commit to social justice struggles because if you think change is going to be tomorrow, and you don't get it tomorrow, you can walk away from the whole thing and say, "Well that just wasn't worth it. I'm a failure," as opposed to seeing every contribution as important in terms of something bigger. Now that's the big picture. The smaller picture would be, there are many, many, many, many things that people can do wherever they are. A lot of the ways that things continue on the way they are is that we ignore social injustices around us. We've learned to be blind to certain things, and when we decide we're not going to do that anymore, we actually let stuff in. If people could let in the pain and suffering of what it means, without having your own child, of what it means for somebody to lose their child, number one, and lose their child because that child was shot by a police officer and left in the street, then it becomes much easier to understand the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri because that is exactly what happened. So if we can learn how to empathize with what is around us, we don't actually have to have those experiences. It can make a tremendous difference in our ability to see those issues in our own communities, our own settings, and become much more proactive about what we can control and what we can do something about. So I think there just many, many opportunities if one is not too impatient. Now, fired up's one thing. You have to be fired up to have the energy to go out there and try. But I have been at this long enough that I realize you cannot sustain that kind of energy for decades. And that's the nature of what we're dealing with here. The intergenerational transfer of power and how that actually operates.

BELL: Since we're talking about social justice movements in the current situation with officer involved shootings, and since the Black Lives Matter movement was in part inspired by the killing of Trayvon Martin, I wonder what your take is on those current social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, which was founded by women.

HILL COLLINS: I think my take is that this is a continuation of something that's been going on for a long time. I think when you have injustice, it's not like violence is new. Violence against black youth is a new issue at all. But you have periods of quiescence where it's harder to see. But we're in a period of time now where it is much more difficult to look away in part because young people themselves realized how vulnerable they are. The whole notion of resonating with the experiences of Trayvon Martin and saying, "That could have been me," I think was really powerful for many youth who really thought fairness and equity had been achieved. And that was a surprise to them that he could have been killed and then that the person who killed him was not punished in any substantial way. That was a surprise for a lot of young people. So that was a catalyst that they needed. But I don't think they created social injustice. I don't think they created the issues. I don't think they created racism. I think what Black Lives Matter does is remind us that in this country, the struggle to make black lives matter has been long ongoing and protracted and has had women at the center of that struggle for a variety of reasons. Returning again to black feminism. I see what's happening in Black Lives Matter as very much influenced by the ideas of black feminism. So for me it's really very heartening to see that people are energized, engaged, organized and trying. But also I want to say you get a lot of victory but you get a lot of defeat and that's what political action is about.

BELL: What are those influences that you're speaking of? The influences of black feminism on a movement like Black Lives Matter.

HILL COLLINS: I think one important influence is the whole idea of intersectionality which is something I also work on. Let me just say two influences, I'm going to talk about them a little later on today, but one would be intersectionality and the other is everyday activism. So intersectionality is a form of analysis and action that looks at race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity as systems of power and not just as identity categories. And says all political action is going to have to engage these ideas in some way. What you see in black lives matter is a recognition of the type of leadership that black women have always had in black political struggles, and that is a clear premise that comes from black feminism. It also says that in exercising that leadership, black women have asked us to think bigger than just race. They've asked us to think about race and gender together saying that freedom is not going to come to black women without thinking about race and gender together. But not stopping there. Continuing on the path to see class and sexuality. Black queer women are quite central to this movement. Sexuality being a really important category, and arguing that adding in this intersectional analysis, or building on this intersectional framework that comes from black feminism is really much stimulated by that has been important for the potential success of this movement because it's allowed this movement to look at its own internal dynamics about how is... How are black men and black women for example dealing with one another within this particular movement? But it's also allowed for Black Lives Matter to look toward potential coalitions with other similar movements. What is happening with with Chicanos, what is happening with Latinos, what is happening with indigenous folk, what's happening with gay lesbian movements. There are a lot of places where people are engaging in similar struggles, not the same examples by any case, but similar struggles. And this framework of intersectionality that black women have long had within black politics bringing that into Black Lives Matter really has quite a bit of potential for where these movements can go.

BELL: That embrace of intersectionality and the everyday activism that you're talking about, does that reflect an overall sort of shift in thinking over time in black feminist thought? Or have you noticed any other shifts over time since the time that you originally published your book?

HILL COLLINS: I think I'm describing core principles that are longstanding principles that are differently expressed during different periods because the opportunities and the challenges are different. So for example if I took the question of violence, and I look at someone like Ida Wells Barnett, she wrote at the end of the 1800s, the early 1900s, she was known as a major... um, she was a journalist. And she had an anti-lynching platform. She basically was horrified by three of her friends who were lynched in Memphis, Tennessee and she didn't witness it but she heard about it and wrote about it. Right? Early on talking about questions of race and gender and sexuality in her journalism early on. Huge response to that. Negative response. She was told never to come back. That she would be killed if she did, that kind of thing. So if I look at the responses of Ida Wells Barnett, look at her analysis of intersectionality, and I look at her everyday activism. Her decision to use the tools that were available to her to engage in some response to this problem of violence against, in this case it was black men, there's an old history for that, you see. That's one moment in time, but that moment is really different than the moment we're in today. So we have similar challenges but different and the same tools of intersectionality and every day activism. But we have to use them differently.

BELL: And would you say that now we have additional tools too? The media, social media.

HILL COLLINS: Absolutely. I think that social media has really been a huge gift because what it's allowed people to do is to become citizen journalists, and I know that journalists will be really upset to hear me say this, but I see this as an expansion of journalism that enables many, many more eyes to watch, to connect with one another. What social media has allowed Black Lives Matter, for example, to do is to witness and to witness in a way that is believable and credible. You see in the past if you said, "Someone shot my child. My child is dead. Or shot my husband or whatever it is, people would say, "You're a black person. We simply don't believe you. We disbelieve you." But the video, the nature of having this camera or this smartphone in your hand and recording even while something is happening, recording and becoming a witness to it in real time is completely new. Now that's one thing. If I just did that, and I just went home and showed my relatives, that's one thing. In the past, that's what would have happened. But now we have the power of social media to enable us to network in some interesting ways. And this is where something like Black Twitter comes into play. And that is something that is growing that is being studied. It's really interesting how that's taking off from the academy not just people doing it. This is not just teenagers talking about their clothes and what happened last week. This is really a public forum that is a place to share experiences, almost to crowdsource, everyday activism. So I find these times really interesting. Same issues: intersectional frameworks in terms of connection, everyday activism, a social justice mission, but with a very different set of tools that allow people to no longer have to go through the major gatekeepers of society to organize or to make a point. Very interesting times that we're in. I'm just excited that I'm here to see it.

BELL: It is a very exciting time for us now. But I wonder what you think life will look like for black women in the United States in 10 years or even in 50 years.

HILL COLLINS: I think it's very much going to depend on what we do today. How we imagine the future, and that's the question you're asking me. I would very much like to see an imagined future for black women and all others. But I'm going to focus on black women. That is one of equity. That isn't just one of multicultural difference. We're in a difficult period now of multicultural difference where people are now seeing one another. There are a lot more people around, and we have to figure out what that means. I happen to think this is a very good period of time not just to social media but because we now are getting a much better sense of the nature of the problems that we have. They're not covered up anymore. What I would like to see 10, 15, 20 years from now is a new foundation that we're creating day where we can figure out a way to at least have a decent conversation with one another. That may take 10 years right there. That after we figure that out, we learn how to speak and listen to one another across multiple differences. That's going to be the place to really see a much more expansive view of individual uniqueness. We're not there yet. When I look at black women, let me start another place with this. When I look at black women, I see individuals with lots of talent. Talent, all kinds of talent. All kinds of creativity that we waste because we are telling people they've got to go into these prescribed boxes. Well we're at the point now where I think we've drawn attention to that. We know that's a problem but creating a space of freedom what really would be freedom for black women. It would be free to be the kind of black women you want to be regardless of whatever that is, whether that's a straight woman or a non-straight woman, whether that's a light skinned woman or a dark skinned woman if that's a, you know, I mean a big girl kind of woman. Whatever it is! The space to have that kind of freedom cannot exist unless we all collectively create that kind of space for each other. And that means black women, but that also means the society overall has to be accepting of that degree of heterogeneity and talent. And to see that as talent, and to see that as excellence, and to see that as a good thing and not to be afraid of that. So we're at a point now where I think we sort of, you know, torn off some bandages and the wounds and people are you know struggling with all of this. But I would like to think that down the road, that's the direction things will take on the long haul. I believe in the long arc like Martin Luther King. So I don't think if things next year don't look like this we've failed. It's always about moving in that direction. So that would be the vision. I don't know how I'd put it in 10 years or 15 years or just black women.