Dr. Joan Morgan – Writer, Scholar, Culture Critic
My process in becoming a feminist is very different from that for this generation of young girls, who are emphatically declaring that they are feminists at sixteen or who eagerly decide that they’re feminists during their first women’s studies course, when they’re eighteen. Part of this is because they’ve grown up with a new wave of feminism that’s being illuminated visually on social and digital media platforms. This allows them to feel like it is okay to have a feminist lens and license.
If you had told me eighteen years ago, when I first started my career as a black feminist writer, that we would have a moment when a black international pop star phenom would publicly— not privately—claim herself a feminist, write about it, publish it in the Shriver Report, and have feminist signage behind her on a world-tour stage, I would not have believed it.
When I say I couldn’t have imagined Beyoncé, the feminist pop icon who is captivating the world with her Black Girl Magic, I mean I truly couldn’t have fathomed her existence. Every time she opens her mouth, I want to cry. She is my feminist dream, literally the thing I would have gone to sleep and dreamed I could see one day. And now we’re in a moment when it absolutely has happened. Feminism has a pop-cultural platform.
When I say I couldn’t have imagined Beyoncé, the feminist pop icon who is captivating the world with her Black Girl Magic, I mean I truly couldn’t have fathomed her existence. Every time she opens her mouth, I want to cry. She is my feminist dream, literally the thing I would have gone to sleep and dreamed I could see one day.
I didn’t have that growing up. There was nothing in my South Bronx, working-class world that made feminism even a part of the conversation. I wasn’t really exposed to it until college. I went to an elite university, and there they produced some renowned feminist scholars, Judith Butler being one of them. But feminism still didn’t speak to me when I was there. I found feminism to be really white and drab.
Later, in my courses, I was introduced to black feminist writers and authors such as Hazel Carby, an incredible black feminist thought leader. Much of black feminist scholarship owes a huge debt to her. She was one of my professors, and I adored her, but I still couldn’t digest or embrace feminism as an ideology.Not until I had to.
As a young writer, without even having the proper feminist language, I knew I was really committed to writing for black women—young black women in particular. When I started writing about hip-hop feminism, I didn’t know that I was “bringing a gender analysis to my music criticism.” I didn’t have that language. I just had a lot of passion, a lot of fire, a big mouth, and a platform. Very quickly, because I had those things, I was labeled feminist, and I actually had to decide whether I was going to embrace that label.
I had to quickly figure out if I wanted to wear that title. And I did. I accepted the label, justified it to myself, and haven’t looked back.
Part of the reason it’s not difficult for me to claim feminism is because I don’t get caught up in the politics of words like that. There has always been an overindulgence in semantics, but that’s not where I’m rooted. I had to spend a lot of time answering people who asked why I wasn’t an Africana-centric feminist or a womanist. I don’t really care about any of that. I don’t care what you call yourself; the real question is: are we doing the work?
Today, our daughters are armed with language, theory, and actionable practices that I could not have imagined for myself at sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen years old. Part of that is because they’ve had the advantage of growing up and seeing a feminism that works for them. I think we are experiencing a new wave of feminism being led by black women’s voices. This is the next wave of feminism.
Part of the reason it’s not difficult for me to claim feminism is because I don’t get caught up in the politics of words like that. There has always been an overindulgence in semantics, but that’s not where I’m rooted.
In many ways, feminism has been mistakenly and inappropriately hijacked in the cultural imagination. It has been co-opted as this “thing” that belonged to white women in the seventies, but we know that feminism is more expansive than that. I decided long ago that white women don’t get to claim feminism as their own and that we, black women, don’t get to exempt ourselves from feminism just because we misunderstand it as something that “belongs” to white women. We have to eradicate this fictional image of a white bra-burning feminist and reclaim our history.
When I think about African American and Caribbean history, when I think about Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, and others — they are our history makers and they were all feministas fuck!
*Part of this article contains an excerpt from the book ‘BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Owning our Magic Rocking our Truth‘
Dr. Joan Morgan is the Program Director of the Center for Black Visual Culture at New York University. She is an award-winning cultural critic, feminist author, songwriter and a pioneering hip-hop journalist. Morgan coined the term “hip-hop feminism” in 1999, when she published the groundbreaking book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks it Down which is taught at universities globally. Regarded internationally as an expert on the topics of hip-hop, race and gender, Morgan has made numerous television, radio and film appearances. She has been a Visiting Scholar at The New School, Vanderbilt, Duke and Stanford Universities. She was a Visiting Assistant Professor at her alma mater, New York University, in the department of Social and Cultural Analysis. Her most recent book is She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Jamaican-born and South Bronx bred, Morgan is a proud Native New Yorker.
IG: @joanmorgan | TW: @milfinainteasy