Frankly, when posed with questions about how I came to Black Feminism, I am often at a loss for a response. While I can easily recall a genealogy of articles, books, lectures and critiques, there simply has never been a come-to-Jesus moment or traumatic family experience that forced me to view the world from a feministic lens. The fact is thinking about gender has always been less of an emotional investment for me and more of an intellectual endeavor and yet, that does not mean that feminism has ever solely existed as a thing I found in books, but rather the thing that has always existed in my life, even if it was never explicitly named.
It starts with my mother, all four-foot-eleven of her, who was always the smallest and loudest adult in any room. Copies of Angela Davis’s Women, Race & Class and The Black Woman Anthology (edited by Toni Cade Bambara) that now adorn my bookshelves were first discovered on hers. The first words I ever read from Audre Lorde and Alexis De Veaux were glimpsed on the pages of one of my mother’s magazines and yet she never uttered the word “feminism” in her life. She didn’t have to. Everything that she embodied including the pursuit of her own education outside of being a mother and wife (eventually earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees just as I became an adult) spoke to the tenets of feminism. She modeled for me what a self-assured Black woman was without ever uttering the phrase “I am a feminist.” Every one of the choices she made for herself and her family was born out of the belief that she simply had that right and never needed to ask permission beforehand.
As a young mother, my mom sought out older women mentors— fine middle-class-colored women, as they might have been thought of in 1950s— including Muriel Bolding, who owned a beauty parlor in the South Bronx where I spent many afternoons as a kid. Miss Bo, as I referred to her, was the first Black entrepreneur that I knew; almost two decades prior to hearing the name Madame CJ Walker. Ms. Bolding’s legitimate side hustle was selling Avon out of her shop— products that my family used exclusively. Though I mostly remember the strong smell of hot combs in that beauty shop, I also recall witnessing this unforgettable example of a Black woman. Despite many challenges (she was a widow), Ms. Bolding created financial stability for herself in an era when women, Black women in particular, didn’t wield that kind of financial autonomy.
My mother started working just as I matriculated from half-day kindergarten to first grade. She did so in part to pay for the private school education that she sought for her son. She chose the only Black Seventh-Day Adventist school in the Bronx, R.T. Hudson, which I attended from grades one through eight. Even that decision had feminist implications that I wouldn’t fully understand until much later in life. Many of the practices of Seventh Day Adventists are based on the teachings and writings of its co-founder, Ellen G. White, whose work we read throughout my time at R.T. Hudson.
These lessons were dispensed by Black women who were my teachers at the school. I can still recall their names: Miss Miller, Miss Goodine, Miss Riley, Mrs. Armstrong, Mrs. Phipps, and Mrs. Nixon, who was our music teacher. The presence of these women, including that of Ellen G. White, became significant in my life from a very early age because it allowed me to understand that women were capable of producing knowledge. It meant that my first scholarly interlocutors were Black women. Consequently, four decades later, I now count some of the fiercest feminist scholars in the game as my mentors and colleagues including Alexis De Veaux, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Karla FC Holloway.
Then there is Joan Morgan who I regularly sat next to on a stoop only a few doors from Miss Bo’s beauty shop when we were small children engaged in Afro-futuristic games like pretending we were train conductors. What our friendship generated was a lifelong desire to seek Black women as collaborators. My closest collaborator in fact became the woman who I have been married to for almost 25 years. It is in this spirit that we’ve built a stable life for ourselves and our two daughters. While my wife, Gloria Taylor-Neal has never called herself a feminist, and only grudgingly accepts whatever relative hype there is about her husband’s pseudo pro-feminist sensibilities, her regular quips that a “male feminist” should take the trash out or mop the floor on occasion is a reminder that feminist ideals do indeed live in the real world, particularly with regard to the shared labor of maintaining the domestic space.
Our daughters Misha and Camille have had front seats to their parents balancing of gender expectations. To them it has meant living in a world where they both expect and demand to have a voice, often to the frustration of various teachers and administrators who are quite befuddled by Black girls who speak their minds with passion and precision. The administrators often say that our daughters are defiant, exhibiting skills that are usually encouraged in their male peers. And yet, it is the tradition of Black feminism that has produced generations of defiant Black women like the Combahee River Collective, Sojourner Truth, Ella Jo Baker and Bree Newsome.
My 17-year-old daughter has never imagined a future in which she needed a man or any partner to realize her life’s dreams and goals. My 13-year-old daughter has never had a problem putting a few of her male peers, who may have crossed a line, back on their asses. My girls are examples of young, self-actualized, Black women. It speaks volumes of the kind of environment that my wife and I have tried to create for them. No doubt one day, they will both call themselves feminists, they’ll do so as an afterthought to the behaviors that they have been cultivated in them since their births.
What these amazing, formidable women in my life have shown me without uttering a word or prescribing a phrase is that feminism has contributed mighty to my life— one that is rich with the joys of family, community, achievement, and faith.
About Mark Anthony Neal
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African American Studies and English at Duke University. He resides in Durham, North Carolina with his wife, two daughters, and two dogs, Luther II and Bingo.
About the Ms. Foundation for Women
The mission of the Ms. Foundation for Women is to build women's collective power to realize a nation of justice for all. Their annual Gloria Awards: Women of Vision is on April 27 in New York. Follow the foundation on Twitter: @MsFoundation