I'm SaraMakeba. I am a Cultural History Interpreter driven to understand and shine light on the lives and stories of Africana women/femmes and Africana History and Culture. I am a Womanist. I am committed to personal and collective holistic healing and liberation. And I know this to be true: We cannot heal without claiming ourselves and claiming our stories. They are ours to tell.  

From educator, facilitator, presenter, mentor and tutor, to event coordinator and interpretive aide, I love finding creative ways to inspire and engage people of all ages.

Join me as I strive to survive, thrive and write myself whole. 

*image by artist, Natalie Daise

Our Existence is Resistance

This was submitted as my final term paper in completion of my first trimester at Union Institute & University where I am pursuing an M.A. in Public History.


Our Existence is Resistance: Examining the Resistance of Free Gullah Geechee women during Reconstruction through a Womanist Lens

Layli (Philips) Maparyan, the editor of Womanist Reader, attributes her womanist identity to having read “Michele Russell’s ‘Black-Eyed Blues Connections: Teaching Black Women’ in Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith’s All the Women Are White, All the blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies.”[1] I choose to begin this paper acknowledging this because Maparyan’s introduction to womanism is so similar to mine; and her recognition of other Black women scholars who amplify the voices of  Black women who are regularly silenced is an integral part of my own heart’s work. With this paper, I wish to recognize womanist application in the lives of historic Africana women. More specifically, I’ve searched for and analyzed examples of womanism in Gullah Geechee women in the South. I’ve lived in Gullah Geechee communities for most of my life. From Beaufort, to Charleston, to Pawley’s Island and Georgetown, SC, I became a woman in Southern communities that astound and attract tourists with their natural beauty, Southern charm, and manufactured nostalgia.  Beneath the shiny, gentile façade lies a web of oppression—centuries old. It is with this understanding, that I describe the motivation for this study.

Many conversations with my female Gullah Geechee contemporaries point to internalized misogyny, homophobia, and an acceptance of patriarchal norms and beliefs associated with toxic masculinity. This is evident in the homophobic, sexist and traditionally conservative remarks some of these women make in judgment of others within the the community.  In an attempt to explore historical causes for the internalization of such harmful and self-destructive ideals, I considered whether Womanism would be a liberatory alternative—providing clarity to others as it has done for me. I began identifying as a womanist after reading Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden in 2012. This book of womanist prose allowed Walker to define womanism. It changed the way I see myself. I began analyzing and shedding harmful ideologies I’d adopted growing up Black and female in South Carolina.  I realized that so much of what I thought of myself and other Black women was based on institutionalized racism, white supremacy and misogyny. This is not unique to natives of South Carolina, of course. And yet, an inclusive South Carolina history provides a nuanced and painful interpretation of the present. In fact, author and historian Kate Cote Gillins states, “South Carolina is an excellent source for new insights in the study of women, gender, and racial violence in the postwar era.”[2]  In her book, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900, Gillins examines how the unique conditions of South Carolina allowed inhabitants, Black and White, male and female, formerly enslaved and free, to shape gender roles and power structures that we are still actively engaging with and fighting to dismantle.

With this interdisciplinary study, I seek to identify examples of womanism as self-love and resistance in Gullah Geechee women during the Reconstruction Era. The time period and location provide a precise scope of research. I have divided the research into parts. In Part I: Theories for Our Survival, I begin with an analysis of both womanist and feminist theory. By comparing and contrasting the two seemingly similar philosophies, I argue why one may be more beneficial to Black women than the other. An examination of feminism and its white supremacist origins creates a smooth transition to the next point of study, Part II: Violence of the Times. Interpreting the violent racism and sexism that shaped the country, and more specifically, the South, provides an image of the harsh realities of freedom that Gullah Geechee women railed against. In Part III: Manifestations of Freedom, I look at freed women’s expectations and declarations of freedom, examples of resistance, and attempts to reclaim themselves and uplift their community. In Part IV: Our Existence is Resistance, I return to womanism, arguing that it is a method of survival for Black women. It is a method that’s been utilized and applied by Africana women from the past to the present, even before scholars gave it a name. And in building from the work of other Black women scholars, I question whether the name of the method of survival matters as much as surviving. By exploring womanist theory, the conditions that shaped Black women’s harmful and empowered self-images, and a legacy of resistance, we can point to positive solutions for the present and hopeful views of the future.

Part I: Theories for Our Survival

For those seeking an introduction to or a greater understanding of Womanism, Dr. Layli (Phillips) Maparyn’s Womanist Reader is an excellent place to begin. Maparyan is the Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and is renowned for her research and interpretation of womanism.  With the anthology, Womanist Reader, she depicts womanism as a practice deeply rooted in the lived experiences of Africana women.  Defined by Alice Walker, Womanism is most notably presented in her collection of womanist prose, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. However, Womanism is actually originally introduced by Walker in her 1979 short story, “Coming Apart.” Maparyan points to both references in the introduction of her anthology.  Quoting Walker in the latter publication, and analyzing her words, she states:

Walker writes, “The wife has never considered herself a feminist—though she is, of course, a ‘womanist.’ A ‘womanist’ is a feminist, only more common.” This act of joining the terms ‘woman’ and ‘common’ at the border of ‘feminist/not feminist’ situated a particular mode of women’s resistance activity squarely within the real of the ‘everyday,’ thereby defying both academic and ideological claims on the definition, labeling, and elaboration of women’s resistance activity under the exclusive and limited label ‘feminist.’ [3]

By analyzing this particular text, Maparyan makes two important acknowledgements. First, she presents womanism within the context of Africana women’s actual lives—past and present. Womanism is resistance. She suggests that the practice of womanism existed long before it was mentioned in literature among intellectuals and academics. Referencing the creators of womanism, African womanism and Africana womanism, Maparyan writes, “Significantly, none of these authors created something new; rather, each named something that had been in existence for some time, functioning below the academic and activist radar and outside dominant histories of consciousness.”[4] With a broad stroke, she paints womanism as something innately Black and female. It is something that has existed as long as we have. It is not to be discovered. It is to be remembered.

The second important point highlighted in Maparyan’s analysis of Walker’s words is an acknowledgement of the similarities, but more importantly, the distinct differences between womanism and feminism. In delineating feminism as “limited” and “exclusive.” Maparyan suggests that womanism is a more inclusive and superior form of resistance hand-tailored for and by Black women. 

Professor Dorothy Randall Tsuruta reinforces the idea that womanism is the sword in the stone for Black women in and out of the academy. In her article, “The Womanish Roots of Womanism: A culturally-Derived and African-Centered Ideal (Concept),” Tsuruta also references Walker’s work as she seeks to reclaim Womanist theory from those who might attempt to appropriate the philosophy, while lacking the cultural history—a cultural history unique to Africana women—to truly appreciate it. She claims “womanish,” an African American colloquialism Walker evokes in her definitions of womanism confirms the ideology is specifically and especially for Black women. “Womanish” carries images of Black girls with “wit, will, grit, smarts, empathy, curiosity, thoughtfulness, loyalty, risk-taking, trustworthiness, active not passive, pensiveness, and stubbornness as necessary to remain strong against attempts to undermine her intelligence or kill her spirit.”[5] These descriptors are positive and daring. They depict Black women of all ages learning who they are, how to love and advocate for themselves and others in the face of adversity, and acknowledging their significant, and sacred role as part of a larger whole. Tsuruta explains, “As a culturally-derived concept, womanish (‘mannish’ for boys) is rooted in the social practice of Black adults, especially Black women, setting boundaries for Black girls, but simultaneously recognizing their coming into their own as women…but it also affirms the value and validity of African culture and is in the emancipatory and creative interest of African women and African people as a whole.”[6] Struggle and resistance alone can’t define womanism. Womanism is self-determination. It is acknowledging your reflection in the faces of your sisters and brothers. It is a celebration of all the ingredients, identities, hopes and intentions that make up Black women.

Feminism, on the other hand, often requires Black women to carve out space for themselves within an ideology that claims to promote the equality of all women. In her book Feminist Theory: From the Margin to the Center, Black feminist scholar bell hooks acknowledges the exclusive and limited narrative that contextualizes feminism’s origins. She says it is useful to examine and critique Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, this book is still considered groundbreaking, “path paving” literature for the feminist movement. hooks states:

[Friedan] made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In so doing, she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women. In the context of her book, Friedan makes clear that the women she saw as victimized by sexism were college-educated white women who were compelled by sexist conditioning to remain in the home.”[7]

Although every feminist-identified person doesn’t share Friedan’s narrow perspective, hooks is aware that this perspective has shaped the contemporary interpretation of the movement.[8] She continues to discuss the naïve and superficial goals of those who believe whiteness is the default, and “women” and “white women” are synonymous. Pointing out dangerous racist stereotypes which are rooted in the history of slavery, hooks references the “Strong Black Women” trope as she states, “By projecting onto black women a mythical power and strength, white women both promote a false image of themselves as powerless, passive victims and deflect attention away from their aggressiveness, their power (however limited in a white supremacist, male-dominated state), their willingness to dominate and control others.”[9] hooks’s embrace of feminism obviously doesn’t come without critique. The past shapes the present—and feminism’s past failed to include or acknowledge the formerly enslaved.

Part II. Violence of the Times 

Feminism and womanism as resistance can be more readily understood when juxtaposed with the violent, intersectional forms of oppression that these ideologies sought to deconstruct. In Feminist Theory, hooks writes, “White women who dominate feminist discourse, who for the most part make and articulate feminist theory, have little or no understanding of white supremacy as a racial politic, of the psychological impact of class, of their political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist state.”[10]  As stated in my introduction, Gillins posits that exploring the history of violence and African American’s transition to freedom in South Carolina offers a map which directs interested or invested individuals to a more nuanced interpretation of gender roles and race relations of today. In Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900, and Bloody Terrain: Freedom, Sexuality and Violence During Reconstruction, authors Kate Côté Gillins and Catherine Clinton respectively, both painstakingly detail the strategic gendered violence that white supremacists terrorized African Americans with during the decades following the end of the Civil War.

As former Confederates lashed out in a violent effort to regain their status, so did their hyperbolic justifications for their actions. Clinton provides insight into the strategically crafted narratives—supposed evidence substantiating the violent murders of Black men, and the increasing number of “mulatto” babies. There was the lazy, incompetent “Sambo,” and the sexually ravenous “Jezebel,” among others. Southerners also touted the “black rapist” trope.  This concocted story claimed Black men were violent rapists, unwilling to rest until they’d ravaged any white woman in their wake.[11] Black men were lynched in alarming numbers--generally without trial or charge. These murders of course sent ripples of trauma throughout the African American community. As Gillins states, “But lynching was also a direct attack on black women. As a punishment for their strengths and their claims to the rights of womanhood, white men routinely assaulted black women. It was a message to the black community that they were helpless to guard against abuses of their women, and a message to the women themselves that they did not warrant the protections enjoyed by ideal womanhood.”[12] Collateral violence—if you could call it that—created a horrific enough reality for Black women. However, the atrocities freed women faced directly did not stop there.

Southern white women were portrayed as meek and helpless victims of violence—symbols of purity and femininity. Awareness that they were being used as pawns however didn’t stop these women from taking part in the game.  Gillins writes:

In the atmosphere of terror established by white lynch mobs, it is not surprising that women came to accept and even encourage extralegal violence. Many became as bloodthirsty as their men. In her famous 1897 speech, Rebecca Latimer Felton concluded that “if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts— then I say lynch, a thousand times a week, if necessary.”[13]  

White women were more than passive agents in the terrors African Americans faced. They were often active participants. Gillins also addresses what motivated southern white women’s actions. “In some cases white women fought black women—a battle not simply over labor, but over the right to call oneself a real woman and enjoy the privileges of womanhood. In the process, the definition of a southern woman acquired new dimensions.”[14] This not only details the domestic battles between slave mistress-turned-employer and enslaved domestic-turned-employee. It indicates the psychological, sociological and political battles white women declared against Black women. These battles served to soften the oppression white men placed on white women, and maintain white supremacy and ownership of this rigid and sexist version of womanhood—even when this role was used against them like a noose by their white male counterparts.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter, Clinton offers another chilling contrast to the celebratory connotations of emancipation:

Afforded little protection against unwanted sexual advances and exploitation of their reproductive capabilities, many black women who resisted were beaten, mutilated, sold, or killed. During the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers took advantage of their positions of power and authority to rape slave women, sometimes in the presence of the women’s parents, husbands, children, and grandchildren who were forced to stand by, helpless and horrified.[15]

These details, though horrific, are not surprising to those who have researched slavery. As Clinton points out, since their forced arrival to this continent, African and African American women were valued not only for their labor, skills and experience. Their value rested in their reproductive capabilities. With slavery no longer the law of the land, white men lashed out violently, attempting to blur the lines between slavery and freedom, and return to a racial and gender hierarchy that fed their cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the most surprising part of the text above is the claim that Confederate, as well as Union soldiers raped Black women during and after the Civil War. This challenges the notion that the North, or the Union, in its entirety, rested on its moral character and commitment to freedom and equality for African Americans. Black women faced horror from every angle, even from those who history calls Liberators.

Prior to 1861, Black women could not charge anyone with rape. They were considered property, not citizens, and therefore weren’t protected by the law. In fact, rape was defined as a crime a black man committed against a white woman.[16] Building on the abolitionist work that brought attention to “master/slave rape,” President Lincoln made remarks about the controversial 1857 Dred Scott case. He argued against the court’s stance that Scott, his wife and their two daughters were not citizens who had legal benefits. Crystal N. Feimster, Professor of African American Studies at Yale University states, “Making clear his opinion, Lincoln explained, ‘We desired the courts to have held that they were citizens…that they were in fact and in law really free.’…Moreover, he concluded, the ruling meant the girls would be ‘left subject to the forced concubinange of their masters, and liable to become the mothers of mulattoes in spite of themselves.’”[17] Lincoln seems to empathize with Black women. He stretches this consideration further, enacting the Lieber code of 1863. This military law gave legal protection to all southern black women. It defined rape as “a war crime without regard to race.”[18] Black women made use of these changes, utilizing military court to demand safety and protection.

Gillins uses Freedmen’s Bureau records to articulate the layers of oppression and violence freedwomen faced. She writes of Laney, a free Gullah Geechee woman in Orangeburg who complained to the Bureau of her husband’s abuse. Enraged by her refusal to complete some work to his satisfaction, her husband Cesar, “whipped her with a leather strap.” He claimed to have whipped her due to “laziness & being indifferent to his comfort and welfare, and not working.”[19] Here we see freedmen attempting to adopt the patriarchal gender roles of their former white owners. Cesar believes he should be able to control his wife Laney with the authority his gender supposedly gives him—and violence. The Freedman’s Bureau tried to both champion and support freed people, and maintain neutrality and peace in the birthplace of the secession.

It is clear Black women experienced violence and trauma from all fronts—even those ideologically meant to be their protectors.  This did not deter them from declaring that they were free, that they were women, and that they and their families mattered.

Part III. Manifestations of Freedom

Black women themselves were at the heart of the process of defining freedom and shaping labor relations in one of the most valuable regions of the state because they were the backbone of the South Carolina Lowcountry workforce. In turn these women and the malleability of gender roles in the postwar era were at the heart of the larger, more obviously dramatic political developments of the period.”[20]

With these words, Gillins places Black women’s resistance and their dedication to a freedom that rang true to them in the context of the larger reconstruction of Southern and U.S. society. Another great resource for the experiences of freedwomen following the Civil War is Leslie Schwalm’s article “’Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina.”

Schwalm begins with anecdotes from former slaveholder, Charles Manigault. His memoir about the “Civil War and Reconstruction” serves as a primary source and a unique perspective of plantation life following the war. He writes of a formerly enslaved woman named Peggy. Manigault, like many other Lowcountry planter families abandoned their plantations as Union General Sherman’s troop approached. Numerous plantations along the coast were virtually free of whites, as the formerly enslaved flexed their newly freed muscles for the first time. Planters have shared stories of Gullah Geechee people raiding the Big House in their absence.  Quoting Manigault, Schwalm writes:

“Peggy ‘seized as Her part of the spoils my wife’s Large & handsome Mahogany Bedstead & Mattrass & arranged it in her own Negro House on which she slept for some time’…Peggy also confiscated from the Manigault residence ‘some Pink Ribands, & tied in a dozen bows the woolly head of her Daughter, to the admiration of the other Negroes.’”[21]

Manigault’s account depicts an audacious woman. She feels entitled to property paid for by her labor. She also feels beautiful and chooses to share this celebration of femininity and choice with her daughter, who she gives a new hairstyle. Other freed people are also delighted by this image. The planter’s final description is of a woman declaring her autonomy. When Manigault, his son, a former overseer (and Confederate officer) returned to the plantation to collect their confiscated belongings, “Only Peggy…tried to intervene: ‘placing her arms *akimbo[22], said ‘She would go off to the Provost Marshal in town & stop our unlawful proceedings with their property in their own homes.’”[23] Tsuruta would likely describe Peggy as “womanish.”

Schwalm, a professor of race, gender and southern slavery at the University of Iowa, builds on the work of other Reconstruction scholars when she argues that this behavior was “typical for Lowcountry freedwomen.”[24] These women worked to shape their freedom both before and after the Civil War. At no time, were African American women the silent, passive characters in the transition to freedom as scholars previously claimed. For example, southern freedwomen refusing to return to the fields in order to align themselves with the femininity of white women was a commonly accepted narrative. Schwalm, however, offers a more nuanced interpretation. She writes, “In Lowcountry South Carolina, freedwomen escalated the battle to define black freedom when they sought autonomous control over plantation lands, when they negotiated and reconstructed plantation and domestic labor, and when they defended the new autonomy of their families and household economies from exploitation by planters and unwelcome intervention by northern agents of Reconstruction.”[25] Labor contracts brokered by the Freedman’s Bureau support the claim that freedwomen were strategic about the work they did, and when and how they did it. They preferred to be at home with their families, attend to their homes and their loved ones. They were concerned with reuniting lost family members, engaging in politics and access to education.[26] Former masters weren’t the only ones incensed by the audacity of freed women.

Now that they possessed the long-awaited responsibility of financially supporting their own families, freed women understood they would need more than one stream of income. For many, this meant returning to the Big House as maids for the women who used to own them. As freed women, though, their labor was for sale. [27] Whether in the field or in the house, freed women sought to shape their own schedules, and refused to do work they considered degrading or more taxing and time-consuming than they were being compensated for. The white women who employed them regularly described them as “saucy, insolent, intractable, disobedient, and dangerous.”[28] Gillin elaborates further:

The interests of white southern women, however, often clashed with those of black women, and their points of conflict led to violence as easily as did those between black and white men. In the postwar era, white women of the slave-owning classes were as disillusioned and angered by their slaves’ abandonment as their husbands were. In fact women were perhaps more surprised by desertions because they had worked closely with their household slaves, in particular, and assumed they knew them well.[29]

It is evident that Black women survived and attempted to thrive the best ways they knew how. Thanks to Lincoln and the Republican Party broadening the scope of rape to include violations of Black women, “U.S. military courts prosecuted at least 450 cases involving sexual crimes during the war, many of them brought by black women.”[30] Black women took advantage of the limited safety they had under the law before the federal government pulled the Bureau out. They would also take time off from work to participate in politics. Although Emancipation didn’t give freed women the right to vote, they’d travel to the polls to ensure their men casted the right votes.[31] In the case of an election riot in Macon, GA, a newspaper reported: “The Negro women, if possible, were wilder than the men. They were seen everywhere, talking in an excited manner, and urging the men on. Some of them were almost furious, showing it to be part of their religion to keep their husbands and brothers straight in politics.”[32] The freedwomen took advantaged of every opportunity freedom offered.

In two examples of freedwomen taking ownership of their bodies and relationships, Hunter writes of a freedwoman who lived with “each of her two husbands for a two-week trial before making a decisions…in one case, perhaps unique, a wife resumed her relationship with her first husband, while the second husband, a much older man, was brought into the family as a ‘poor relation.’”[33] The domestic slave-trade forced marital separation. In some cases, ex-slaves had more than one spouse, as marriages during slavery weren’t considered legal, and spouses who were sold were often presumed dead. With these stories, we see freed women taking the “awkward dilemmas” into their own hands and deciding for themselves whom they’d share their time and their homes with. [34]

Whether engaging in politics, feeding families on unfair wages, choosing their partners, or decorating their daughters’ hair, Freedwomen refused to be limited. With another convoluted tale of warped gender politics, infidelity and violence, Hunter continues to contextualize the freedwomen’s audacity and all that was at stake. Jane Twyman, a freedwoman, worked for a white man named Isaiah Perry in Prince Edwards County, Virginia. Twyman accused Perry’s wife and daughter of sleeping with other men. Upon hearing this, Perry shot Twyman. Later, Perry’s son pistol-whipped her and “stomped” her all over. Twyman died of injuries.[35] Twyman’s motivations for making these, ultimately fatal accusations are unknown. However, she didn’t deserve to die. Clinton writes, “It is difficult to fathom the fear created by a black woman fighting back—a force so strong that, in this particular case, it caused one white man to shoot at her and another to beat her to death. Such vocal and direct black female resistance, combined with the fear of male retaliation, fueled white hysteria during the postwar era.”[36]

And yet, they persisted.

Part IV. Our Existence is Resistance

Black women have had to resist in this country almost two centuries before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And in the 152 years since Emancipation, while the language and labels may have evolved—the forces that oppress Black women are as incensed and diabolical as ever. Schwalm, Hunt, Gillin and Clinton point to examples of resistance that predate feminist and womanist theory. However, this doesn’t negate the importance and usefulness of either. There are prolific Black female scholars making cases for the uses of womanism, feminism and none of the above

In “Contested Memories: a Critical Analysis of the Black Feminist Revisionists History Project,” Africana Studies Scholar, Valethia Watkins identifies and expounds on the negative complications of posthumously labeling historical Africana intellectuals and activists as feminists. Referring to the practice as the Black Feminist Revisionist History Project (BF-RHP), Watkins defines it as “indiscriminately and randomly labeling historically significant Black feminist, often posthumously.”[37] Watkins warns against feminist and non-feminist scholars who seek to label historic Africana women as feminists when these women did not self-identify that way. She suggests the desire to recruit younger Black women to the school of feminist thought is what motivates people to assign that label to ancestors. Watkins also points to racism in feminism and Black women’s history of intersectional identities as two reasons BF-RHP is problematic and inaccurate.  There is a goal, Watkins argues, “to incorporate Black women into the mainstream narratives on the struggle against gender oppression. It is seeking to challenge the standard accounts of the women’s movement by problematizing the accepted narratives of the history of feminism which often imply Black women were disinterested or less interested in comparison to white women in fighting for women’s rights.”[38] Ironically, this seems to be an accurate interpretation of the words of bell hooks. Anyone whose research focuses on the histories of gender and race, knows that feminism cannot be discussed without acknowledging its racist origins. Gillins provides evidence of this when she writes, “…Southern suffragists, for example, argued that the (white) female vote would secure the South against the black menace. By perpetuating the image of black man as aggressor and threat, they encouraged violent reactions to him. Finally, most white women simply acquiesced to the trend [of lynching], and this silent sanction was as damaging as outright complicity.”[39] No revisionist history can erase the lasting impacts caused by those self-serving women.

Womanism offers Black women the space to embrace all of their intersectional identities. It is a philosophy for us, by us—one that acts as a sanctuary and a fortress. In her anthology, Maparyan refers to an essay by Michele Russell. She writes, “Russell focuses on the education of everyday Black women and the validation of Black women’s everyday experiences by Black women themselves within academic settings. The concealed premise is that entry into academic settings for everyday Black women has been facilitated by a “teacher”—a Black woman who has, in all historical probability, “played the game” well enough and long enough to persuade the academy that she is nonthreatening and will not subvert its traditional objectives.”[40] This analysis sounds similar to the calculated enslaved woman who made her mistress believe she was eternally dedicated and grateful. Womanism exists within the African tradition, call and response. At its most useful, it acknowledges and holds space for all of Black women. It allows the every day black woman the platform to call out to those Black women intellectuals who will affirm them, contextualize their experiences, and respond with words and actions that uplift the whole.

Patricia Hill Collins argues that neither “womanist” nor “black feminist” are necessary labels for a woman committed to self-determination and autonomy. In “What’s in a Name? Womanism, black feminism, and beyond,” Collins critiques both philosophies. She claims the debate between the two theories generally occurs among privileged women.  She writes, “While these African American women physically resemble one another and may even occupy the same space, their worlds remain decidedly different. One might ask how closely the thematic content of newly emerging black women’s voices in the academy speak for and speak to the masses of African American women still denied literacy.”[41] This is a valid concern—a concern not unlike those voiced by hooks, Maparyan and McCaskill. It is the similarities in their diverse arguments and perspectives that I find most encouraging. Each of these women is committed to recognizing their own privilege and championing the every day black women. Each woman considers herself an intellectual and an every day woman. Following the legacy of enslaved and freedwomen before them, they work actively to shape freedom in their image.


What Gillins said is true. A closer look at South Carolina’s sordid history provides an excellent backdrop against which to analyze the layered forms of oppression Black women face today. Thankfully, due to the tireless work of countless scholars, there is no shortage of evidence pointing to Gullah Geechee women resisting every step of the way.

Delving deeper into the horrors of slavery and Reconstruction allows me to see contemporary Gullah Geechee women with new eyes. On the one hand, I find it remarkable that we manage to function at all, with past and present trauma acting as invisible nooses—threatening to silence and demoralize us. On the other hand, reflecting on the opinions of the above-mentioned intellectuals, I am confronted with my own privilege. I can readily recall my own toxic beliefs and ideologies—toxic beliefs I shed while I studied Communication and African American Studies in undergrad, and worked professionally in the field of Public History following college. I remember each “what about Black on Black crime?” and “women should dress the way they want to be addressed,” that I thought and verbalized in judgment of others. I join the women I’ve referenced in this study in their commitment to uplifting the most marginalized and amplifying the voices of all Black women—those inside and outside of the academy.

I am a womanist. I agree with McCaskill when she writes, “Womanist scholarship resists dogma, and it offers a vision of intellectual leadership in which reliance and responsibility are not approached as handicaps but as liberatory strategies. Joy James’s theory of black women autobiographers/activists as ‘living thinkers’ concretizes this philosophy and resists ‘the worldview that corporate academia sells: self-reliant isolation and competition.’”[42] With these words I feel seen.  I feel affirmed. However, I have to appreciate the logic in Collins’ earnest inquiry. When our mere existence is resistance, what’s in a name?


[1]             Layli Phillips, Womanist Reader (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2006).

[2]             Kate Côté Gillin, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013)

[3]             Phillips, Womanist Reader, xix.

[4]             Ibid.,

[5]             Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, “The Womanish Roots of Womanism: A Culturally-Derived and African-Centered Ideal (Concept),” Western Journal of Black Studies 36, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 4

[6]             Ibid.,

[7]             bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, (New York: Routledge, 2015): 3

[8]             Ibid., 4

[9]             Ibid., 15

[10]            Ibid., 4

[11]             Ibid., 323

[12]            Kate Côté Gillin, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900, (Columbia, US: University of South Carolina Press, 2013): 130

[13]             Ibid., 120

[14]             Ibid., 127

[15]             Catherine Clinton, “Bloody Terrain: Freedwomen, Sexuality and Violence During Reconstruction,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, no. 2 (Summer 1992):11-12

[16]             Crystal N. Feimster, “’What If I Am a Woman’: Black Women’s Campaigns for Sexual Justice and Citizenship in The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era Ser.: The World the Civil War Made, ed. by Gregory Downs, et al. (University of North Carolina Press, 2015): 250

[17]             Ibid., 256

[18]             Ibid.,

[19]             Gillin, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900.

[20]             Ibid.,

[21]            Leslie A. Schwalm, “’Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina,” Journal Of Women’s History 9, no. 1 (1997): 9

[22]             *Akimbo – Gullah phrase for “hands on her hips”

[23]             Schwalm, “’Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina,” 9

[24]             Ibid., 11

[25]             Ibid.,

[26]             Gillin, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900, 21

[27]             Ibid., 22

[28]             Ibid.,

[29]             Ibid., 30

[30]             Crystal N. Feimster, “The Impact of Racial and Sexual Politics on Women’s

History,” Journal of American History 99, no. 3 (December 2012):258

[31]             Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 1997): 32

[32]             Ibid., 33

[33]             Ibid., 39

[34]             Ibid.,

[35]             Catherine Clinton, “Bloody Terrain: Freedwomen, Sexuality and Violence During Reconstruction,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 323

[36]            Ibid.,

[37]             Valethia Watkins, “Contested Memories: A Critical Analysis of the Black Feminist Revisionist History Project,” Journal of Pan African Studies 9, no, 4 (2016) 271

[38]             Ibid., 278

[39]             Gillin, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900, 10

[40]             Phillips, Womanist Reader, 144.

[41]             Patricia Collins Hill. “What’s in a Name? Womanism, black feminism, and beyond,” Black Scholar 9, no. 1 (1996): 15

[42] Ibid., 149


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CAB: Resources for "Our Existence is Resistance"

CAB: Resources for "Our Existence is Resistance"