Womanism and Modernity
by layli Phillips
Given its vernacular loyalties and grassroots sensibilities, it might not be obvious that womanism is uniquely well studied to social and environmental problem solving under conditions of postmodernity. Academic wisdom has it that this honor rests with poststructuralism, a philosophical approach that can claim particularly compelling expectations for how postmodern societies function (and dysfunction).
A close reading of both womanist and poststructuralist texts, a full explication of which is beyond the scope of this chapter reveals that the two perspectives are remarkably similar in two respects: first, how they unpack complex oppressive processes and forms of violence, concentrating on the circulation of power; and second, how they promote equality and democracy while respecting difference and freedom.
These perspectives differ in three key ways, however: (1) their use of language--womanism is accessible, poststructural theory is not (and this fact has implications for the degree to which each is able to engage and mobilize various segments of humanity for change on a mass scale); (2) their perspectives on identity and community--womanism favors holistic models, while post-structuralism has a particular affinity for perspectives that emphasize fragmentation and dislocation; and (3) spirituality--womanism is explicitly spiritual, poststructuralism is not (which, like accessibility of language, has implications for the degree to which each perspective can engage and mobilize various segments of humanity).
In my opinion, womanism and post-structuralism are compatible and mutually enhancing, but post-structuralism would have more impact if its insights were more frequently delivered in plain language. Its failure to use plain language implicates it in processes that reinforce the very relations of domination it theoretically opposes, inside and outside the academy, allowing it to reinscribe white supremacy, patriarchy, class disparity, and a host of other oppressive systems.
The convergence of womanism and poststructuralism at a locale characterized by new forms of community built around lines of affinity rather than identity and a radical respect for responsible freedom would represent the longed-for reconciliation of poor Black women, representing the historical and symbolic bottom of the global social hierarchy, and rich white men, who represent the top, under the current dehumanizing system, thus bringing people of all races, ethnicities, and genders into a new system of relations. Indeed, such a convergence might precipitate the collapse of the very oppressive binary system that drives the relations of domination and oppression together.
As the Combahee River Collective wrote in 1977, "If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression."
While such a reconciliation is almost unthinkable at this point in time, it will ultimately be the issue that determines the success or failure of social-justice activism in the twenty-first century. Social forces that will force a resolution of this issue are rapidly gathering momentum. Part of why now is the time to clearly articulate the womanist idea is that womanism can contribute greatly to a successful reconciliation of parties opposed under the current system.
In its theory and praxis womanism envisions and enacts a world freed from the oppressive and dehumanizing effects of this binary. Without presenting womanism against the backdrop of postmodernity--a task that could scarcely have been accomplished twenty-five years ago--it is nearly impossible to convey womanism's liberatory potential vis-a-vis other perspectives. Womanism is postmodernism at street level.