Black, Brown and White Socialist Feminisms

By Sonita Sarker

Socialism is understood to have originated in 19th-century Western Europe. While DSA’s focus has been on our context in the United States, as an organization, DSA is also aware that the theories of socialism inspired diverse formulations across the world. In this post, I record how some formulations in the United States are transnational in nature. Many of these practices are under-represented, even in socialist discourse and activity. Perhaps remembering them may add a dimension to our world of democratic socialist practice.

The importance of intersectionality to DSA means that we look at the significance of our complex identities to the work we do, along with the inequalities in which we are embedded, even within our own ranks. So, I’m turning to the sisters in the struggle across the world whose presence in history might inspire us to look at ourselves as inheritors of their legacies and to shape, to some degree, the work we have undertaken.

One such inspiration is the late-1970s Combahee River Collective that sprang up and away from the National Black Feminist Organization. As Black lesbian feminists, members of the Collective (Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, Barbara Smith, Margo Okazawa Rey, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Akasha Hull, among others) bring attention in their statement to multiple interlocking oppressions such as capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy. They drew inspiration from the daring and unprecedented Combahee River Raid led by Harriet Tubman in 1863 in South Carolina that freed 750 slaves. That collective action announcing that one’s own freedom is linked to the fate of others is one aspect of a socialist history that DSA inherits. The Combahee River Collective disbanded in 1980 but left an imprint that has yet to become visible in DSA’s platform. Their statement bears testimony to the complexity of their position, which, in turn, illuminates our own present condition and counters some assumptions about socialism and feminism. As they state: “Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.”

Drawing upon this legacy in DSA, then, we could consider how rights are understood first as a collective platform and also how, more specifically, economic inequality is interwoven with our colonialist and (hetero)sexist histories.

While the next two examples are of individuals, their significance as representatives of collectives is important. Myesha Jenkins, who moved from the United States to South Africa in the early 1990s, brings awareness to these intertwined histories in her work as a socialist, feminist and internationalist. Her activism and her poetry, as in her writings with the Feela Sistah! Spoken Word Collective in the early 2000s, are drawn from her engagement with, and resistance to, multiple oppressions under neoliberalism and neocolonialism. Ms. Jenkins herself describes her intellectual heritage as international — in a January 2015 interview, she invokes the work of Dora Maria Tellez, a Nicaraguan resistance fighter as one of her own sources of inspiration. Some may also recognize the poets she names as her favorites, on her official website ( — Lucille Clifton, Kwame Dawes, Gabeba Baderoon, and Grace Nichols. Here are some words from her own poem  “At Sea” (written for Nelson Mandela on December 13, 2013):

…Searching for the brightness of the shore
Slowly we find each other
Bobbing up and down
Cold and wet
Finding our direction and
Gaining our freedom once again
As the brightness glows
From our many radiant souls
Turning the boats around
We start to row.

These words may well describe our own common project and link to other histories of struggle and resistance in other places in the world.

Returning to the United States, but keeping in mind the extended affiliations of our social and political identities, I offer the example of Emily Woo Yamasaki, an actor and member of the Comrades of Color Caucus, the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women. Her work draws its energy from the approaches of the Combahee River Collective, and continues on the path of a socialist feminism that keeps interlocking oppressions firmly in focus. It is important to note that indigenous (Native) rights are distinctly prominent in her caucus and party. For DSA, the consideration can be how our democratic socialism acknowledges the colonial roots of our own U.S. identities.

Consider the deeper roots that socialism has in formal politics in many other parts of the world, for example, Socialist Party member and president Michelle Bachelet in Chile. On a much smaller scale but with great impact, Kshama Sawant of the Seattle City Council ran on a socialist platform in 2014 — and won. I offer these examples to demonstrate the convergent and divergent histories of black, brown and white feminisms across the world, examples that are part of our larger contexts of socialist cultural and political practices.

In the title of this blog post, of course I mean “black,” “brown” and “white” feminisms as separate categories. On the other hand, I don’t. I’m caught between how we claim categories (black, brown, white) and how those categories are products of the histories that I refer to above. For example, I may say, “I am brown” and, at the same time, I am perceived, racialized as “brown”; the former is stated as a given fact and the latter recognizes that my brownness is part of a process of political, economic and sociocultural relations.

And then there is also the fact that these relations are shared — certainly, there is much meaning that emerges from a deep study and knowledge, separately, of black, brown and white socialist feminisms. My belief, as expressed in this post, may be evident by now: that black, brown and white are defined and formed by each other, because of the historical relations that bind us, and that their individual meanings emerge only in juxtaposition.

DSA member Sonita Sarker is professor of  women’s, gender and sexuality studies and English at Macalester College. She writes and teaches about feminist and literary theories; cultural globalization as it intersects with nationalism, democracy and imperialism; and “minoritarized” literatures, with a transnational comparative basis in Western Europe and South Asia.

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