Collins, Patricia Hill. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota; 1998.

 

Introduction, "The Politics of Critical Social Theory"

In her introduction, Collins outlines one of her central theses: that ideas and knowledge are intrinsically connected to power. She sees the educational system and the curriculum both as fundamental to transmission of hierarchical power relations by the elite; and as potential spaces for participatory democracy and oppositional knowledge. She draws a parallel between the educational system and the role of "theory" in the academy, which she also views as having a dual role. Her interest is primarily in the emancipatory role that "doing" theory, particularly social theory can have. Social theory, for Collins, is theory based on the real concerns and issues of specifically located groups of people at a certain historical points, and takes as its starting point an interest in social, political, and economic justice. Questions of how this theory is produced are always relevant in this context, and epistemology is always connected to power. This is theory born from struggle.

Collins' two main questions which shape the book are: "What epistemological criteria best evaluate critical social theories that aim to oppose oppression?" and "[W]hat standards might be used to determine how effectively a critical social theory confronts injustice?" (p.xvi)

One challenge to Black women's critical social theory in the 1990s, as identified by Collins, involves questioning Black women's claims to a political collectivity. This concern of how to develop a unified political subject while also addressing diversity, has been taken up by several authors, including Weedon and Braidotti.

Collins divides the book into three sections, each one engaging with a particular question. "First, what issues does Black feminist thought confront as critical social theory?" (p.xvii) In other words, what are the epistemological issues (particularly those in traditional epistemology or social theory) which Black feminist thought engages or challenges? "Second, what issues does Black feminist thought raise for critical social theory?" (p.xvii) And, third, "what contributions can Black feminist thought make to social theory?" (p.xviii) As part of this project, Collins has carefully re-evaluated her methodology and writing style in five ways: first, she has taken care to be interdisciplinary in her choice of "dialogues with many intellectual communities". Second, she situates all ideas within their social, economic, and political context to show how knowledge is produced and legitimated (or not). Third, she gives little attention to so-called great names within the social theory canon, since she is conscious of the process by which knowledge is classified by power relations into "primary", "secondary", and so forth. Fourth, she locates her own subject position, and identifies the tension between being an academic theorist, conversant in "high theory" and possessing a legitimated voice, as well as a member of a margninalized group, whose knowledge has been labeled "folk wisdom", and has traditionally been permitted to say little. Fifth, in what she terms both an intellectual and political decision, she deliberately chooses language which is designed to include, not exclude. She is somewhat ambivalent about this choice, since she understands that writing is inherently connected to relations of power, and that academic language is often designed to be a discursive gatekeeper for the intellectual elites. By choosing to write in a certain style, she recognizes that in some circles she is perhaps compromising her chance to be "taken seriously"; however for Collins, the educational and political benefits of addressing a wide readership drawn from multiple audiences outweigh the consequences of not playing the knowledge-power game properly. Furthermore, Collins sees the struggle to develop a language which would reach multiple audiences to be part of the process of making social theory. In other words, she is as concerned with structure and process as she is with the actual content of her writings; thus she is able to doubly engage with both the how and what of social theory.

 

Part One, Black Women's Knowledge and Changing Power Relations"

"Learning from the Outsider Within Revisited"

In this section, Collins develops her trope of "outsider-within". Notably, similar concepts, such as "migration", "border crossing", "diaspora", and Braidotti's "nomadic consciousness" are proposed by a number of postcolonial and feminist theorists. All share some sense of a dual (or plural) identity developed through engagement with positioning within some kind of community, as well as being excluded from a community. Collins uses the term to describe "the location of people who no longer belong to any one group," (p.5) as well as "social locations or border spaces occupied by groups of unequal power." (p.5) Thus in her formulation, outsider-within refers not to mere duality/plurality but to the power relations which are implicated therein. Outsiders within are able to gain access to the knowledge of the group/community which they inhabit (or visit), but are unable to either authoritatively claim that knowledge or possess the full power given to members of that group. Collins sees Black women as ideal outsiders-within, in that they were both dually marginalized (as women and as Blacks) yet able to move among a variety of communities; she perceives the result of this boundary crossing to be a particular collective viewpoint known as the Black feminist standpoint. This kind of multiplicity is a fruitful theoretical location for Collins, because unlike elite knowledges or oppositional knowledge derived from resisting only one kind of oppression, outsider-within positions "can produce distinctive oppositional knowledges that embrace multiplicity yet remain cognizant of power."(p.8) In addition, when developed in this way, Black feminist thought remains a dynamic practice which is responsive to change and current social, historical, and political conditions.

Collins then lays out her project for the next two chapters: examining the difficulty of developing a consistently oppositional Black feminist thought, and identifying specific challenges to Black feminist thought within the current social context.

 

Chapter One, "The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: African-American Women and the New Politics of Containment"

In this chapter, Collins traces the history and current incarnation of racial segregation in the United States, arguing that the interrelated practices of segregation and surveillance operated in a variety of ways to ensure Black women's oppression. Segregation was aimed at marginalized groups to keep them outside the centres of power, while surveillance was used on individuals who moved within centres of power.

In the present context, this system of surveillance and segregation "produces remarkably consistent Black female disadvantage while claiming to do the opposite."(p.14) Collins points out the disjuncture between mainstream discourse about equality and opportunity, and real-life practices which exclude and systemically discourage Black women from obtaining positions of power and authority.

Historically, as a response to segregation and surveillance, Black women in the U.S. developed their own politics of resistance which positioned them uniquely at the intersection of race, class, and gender. Collins identifies three themes which informed Black women's activism: racial solidarity; structural analyses of Black economic disadvantage; and the centrality of moral and ethical principles to Black political struggles. Unfortunately, this choice of political stance also resulted in costs to Black women: namely, the sacrifice of their interests as women, and the sacrifice of their interests as individuals. Thus, argues Collins, given also present historical conditions of social and geographical mobility among U.S. Blacks which generate new "politics of containment", traditional models of Black women's activism may not be adequate within the current context.

Collins explores the notion of public and private, noting that historically, to be able to move into the White-dominated public sphere signified political and social freedom. As slaves, Blacks had existed as private property, not public citizens. As a result of these historical conditions, activism was centred around the ability for Blacks to participate in the public sphere (voting, making social policy, etc.). However, paradoxically, in the current social context of the neoliberal state, the public sphere has become devalued, and the White-defined civic ideal has moved to "freedom from": a move not into the public sphere but out of it, to private ownership of homes, services, and communities. Blacks have been thrust into the now-unfriendly glare of the reconfigured public sphere, "a curiously confined yet visible location" where the lives of marginalized people are "increasingly subject to public scrutiny."(p.35)

Having identified these new challenges, Collins turns to asking what strategies for Black feminist praxis are useful under present social conditions, particularly given the new invisibility/hypervisibility of Black feminist theorists.

 

Chapter Two, "Coming to Voice, Coming to Power: Black Feminist Thought as Critical Social Theory"

Far from being a frivolous project, the production of knowledge by Black feminists in the current social context of the U.S. is fundamental to their social activism. Collins identifies two interrelated goals which are significant for Black women as a political collectivity as they develop oppositional knowledge: self-definition and self-determination. Furthermore, she asks, what are the implications of "coming to voice" as a trope for Black women's praxis?

The first stage of "coming to voice" identified by Collins is "breaking silence", usually in the context of an individual speaking out against some kind of institutional knowledge, with a view to advancing the cause of a collective group. This can be seen as "experience speaking out against authority". Thus speaking out in this sense is not a discovery of inequality which is then verbalized, but rather a public testimonial about unequal power relations which have long been understood by marginalized groups. However, notes Collins, though breaking silence is a powerful tactic for individuals, it is ultimately limited as the basis for a group politic. With the diffuse and dynamic nature of power relations, identity-based individual voices are easily subsumed into a larger system. For example, the distributive paradigm of social justice which is operative in the U.S. treats justice like currency, such that some groups own more than others, and that acquiring justice is a zero-sum game. Marginalized groups compete amongst themselves and police their boundaries to discourage dissent, developing criteria of "authenticity" for who may speak. Thus, argues Collins, while in some situations breaking silence can be a useful tool of resistance, in "conditions of hegemony, even the righteous anger of the oppressed can be incorporated into a toothless identity politics in which difference becomes a hot commodity."(p.57)

Given these concerns, how then to develop a place from which Black feminists may speak? Collins notes that in recent years, Black feminist scholarship has turned inwards, to examining questions of identity and subjectivity. For example, the development of the term womanist reflects both a specific idiomatic expression within southern Black communities, as well as a larger, more universal notion of active Black womanhood that transcends individual histories, both of which are developed in contrast to White ideals of femininity. Collins notes that this model utilizes three rather contradictory themes: the moral and epistemological superiority of Black women derived from Black nationalism; pluralism, integration and assimilation; and the possibility of a moral/ethical standpoint derived from experiences of oppression. In addition, Collins is careful to point out that womanism as a potential ideal is much different from womanism as a historic fact.

The second kind of epistemological standpoint which Collins identifies is Black feminism. Black feminism is distinguished both by its recognition of the relationship between struggles in the U.S. as well as globally; and by its challenge to feminism as a Whites-only movement. There are problems, of course, with this model as well. The first problem is the difficulty of articulating Black women's concerns while experiencing pressure to subsume their interests within White feminist paradigms. Second, Black feminism can come into conflict with some U.S. Black religious traditions, which have historically been fundamental to shaping Black civil society. Third, as noted in earlier material on racial solidarity and activism, Black feminism (not to mention lesbianism) can been seen as conflicting with Black women's commitment to Black men. Finally, the perceived separatism of Black feminism can be threatening to a community which has previously survived by maintaining group solidarity.

Collins also identifies a significant new challenge raised by both womanism and Black feminism: "how can Black feminist thought foster group unity while recognizing Black women's heterogeneous experiences?" (p.71) In Collins' view, while recognizing differences among women is important, if such an analysis lacks engagement with social structures, it is doomed to fail politically, and reduces Black women's ability to operate positively as a collectivity. Furthermore, Black intellectual production must also engage with other critical social theories. Collins feels that the theory of Black feminists is in danger of becoming commodified within the academic marketplace, and as such loses its power as oppositional knowledge.

 

Part Two, "Black Feminist Thought and Critical Social Theory"

"On Fighting Words with 'Fighting Words'"

In this section Collins outlines a brief history of "racial etiquette", arguing that current rhetoric of "colour blindness" in fact sets the stage for occurrences of hate speech, and asks how examinations of the process of dealing with hate speech on campuses might illuminate the role of critical social theory in dealing with hierarchical power relations.

Collins outlines a few problems with using what she terms a "fighting words" approach, noting that this approach "ignores both the interconnectedness of knowledges and the accompanying difficulty of remaining oppositional in a context of multiplicity."(p.87) No discourse or practice is inherently oppositional, but rather becomes so only when put in relation to others. Thus, for those concerned with justice through oppositional practices, oppositionality "is less an achieved state of being than a state of becoming."(p.89)

Collins turns to investigating Black feminist engagement with three particular discourses in order to learn about how Black feminism might retain its oppositional character in a variety of intellectual and political contexts. She selects American sociology, postmodernism, and Afrocentrism as her three discursive partners, and asks: "what is the actual and potential utility of each discourse for Black feminist praxis?"(p.89) In the process of asking this question, several issues come to the fore: how to determine the boundaries of each discourse; which types of discourse analysis to use; how each discourse participates in contemporary power relations; the difficulties of remaining oppositional; and finally, how to engage with useful elements of each discourse while rejecting their problematic aspects.

 

Chapter Three, "On Race, Gender, and Science: Black Women as Objects and Agents of Sociological Knowledge"

In this chapter, Collins traces a history of Black women's participation in American academic sociology, both as objects of dominant knowledge and as agents in constructing knowledge. She notes that Black women's emergence into the discipline paralleled theoretical developments in which sociology as a positivist discipline was being called into question through the tenets of postmodernity.

In classical positivist science, mutually reinforcing popular and "scientific" discourses about race intersected with discourses about gender to produce an exclusionary practice which viewed women and Blacks (not to mention Black women) as mere objects of study, who could be easily classified into appropriate social hierarchies. Interestingly for current feminist scholarship, Collins points out that present concerns around "difference" take on a different meaning in the context of the history of a discipline which sought to institutionalize racial and gender differences. In this context, difference is assumed to be a quality inherent in groups themselves, and the conditions and processes which construct "difference" are left unquestioned. As Code has noted in the context of philosophy, the discipline of sociology was entirely constructed around the absence of Black women as agents of knowledge. Thus, when Black women entered the discipline, they confronted not only the concrete problems of being outsiders in an institution, but also the epistemological problems of working within a discipline predicated on their absence.

Collins identifies three particular historical periods in the history of Black women's participation: "contested participation" from 1895-1960; "heightened visibility" from 1960-70, and "critical mass" from 1970 to 1990. She also identifies four possible responses to historical exclusions: "surrender", or uncritical acceptance of prevailing wisdom; "seeming acceptance", or overt agreement with covert disagreement; "critique", or a more visible rejection of commonsense assumptions; and "constructing new knowledge", in which critique is developed and new material produced. Although Collins argues that all three periods presented some level of the four responses, it was only during the period of critical mass that all four were actualized.

Collins then turns to two questions which now present themselves for Black feminist scholars in the current context. First, how American sociology as science can be reorganized, given the challenges presented in terms of content and process of scientific knowledge? And second, how can Black women use the legitimation process of science to challenge its exclusionary practices?

 

Chapter Four, "What's Going On? Black Feminist Thought and the Politics of Postmodernism"

In this chapter, Collins explores Black feminist engagement with the discipline of postmodernism, outlining some of the central tenets of postmodernism, while assessing their usefulness for Black feminist thought. Postmodernism is a contradictory project for Black feminists: on one hand, it calls into question notions of universal truth and hierarchical power relations which are useful for critiquing systems of institutional power; on the other, it presents a radical decentering of the subject and avoidance of social policy recommendations, which make it difficult to develop a coherent political identity.  Instead of assessing the "truth" of various postmodernist claims, Collins examines postmodernism as "a series of organizing strategies that make theorizing possible." (p.125) Thus she is more concerned with postmodernism as an epistemological or ideological climate or process than evaluating the correctness of the paradigm.

Collins chooses to engage with three main aspects of postmodernist strategy: decentering, deconstruction, and difference.

The first theme which Collins identifies is decentering, or "unseating those who occupy centers of power as well as the knowledge which defends their power." (p.127) This is a position which ostensibly valorizes speaking from the margins, positing outsider or oppressed status as a source of resistance. On one level, this kind of reversal of authority is a useful place from which Black women can speak. However, in practice, marginality tended to become distanced from its roots in actual struggle and structural critique. Marginal status has been assumed by elites who are in fact implicated in hierarchical power relations, as in Memmi's "colonizer who refuses"; a discourse of marginality allows them to critique certain things without actually having to concede power or acknowledge their role in practicing injustice. Furthermore, the "crisis of identity" which decentering precipitates is often more about declaring the death of the humanist subject in the face of critique by marginalized voices, rather than examining the operations of actual power relations. As many theorists have pointed out, it is interesting that decentering of the subject is proposed as a strategy at exactly the time when marginalized groups have begun to speak. Real struggles are thus reduced to discursive games by knowledge elites.

The second theme which Collins takes up is deconstruction, or a variety of methodologies which are applied to "dismantling truths". (p.137) Deconstruction aims to generate skepticism about taken-for-granted beliefs which form the foundations of formal disciplines; refuting "not just the context of scientific knowledge but the very rules used to justify knowledge."(p.138) Deconstruction, then, is both about content and process. Collins outlines three steps which are part of the deconstructive process: identifying binaries/oppositions which structure an argument; reversing or displacing negative terms in order to re-valorize them; and creating a less rigid, more dynamic and fluid conceptual arrangement of terms. Collins identifies three areas of concern for Black feminist scholars around the issue of deconstruction. First, are deconstructive methodologies sufficient on their own for producing alternative explanatory frameworks? Deconstructive methodology is always in danger of collapsing in upon itself, since the development of alternative truth claims violates the rules of deconstruction. Second, how is deconstruction able to claim validity, authority, or credibility for itself? Collins notes that "the answer lies in old ways of legitimating knowledge… in the power of an interpretive community to legitimate what counts as knowledge."(p.141) The exclusionary language of postmodernism serves as a gatekeeper to prevent many marginalized readers from accessing it. Third, "[b]y challenging the notion of a self-defined Black women's standpoint, deconstructive methodologies undermine African-American women's group authority." (p.143) This third point leads Collins (and other theorists such as Hartsock) to ask: "[W]ho benefits from a methodology that… dismantles notions of subjectivity, tradition, and authority just when Black women are gaining recognition for these attributes"? (p.145)

The third theme of postmodernism which Collins examines is that of difference. She feels that "difference" in the postmodern context is not new, but reflects the Western positivist tradition of categorizing normativity and deviance. As Code has discussed, evaluative reversals of binaries are not always successful as a political strategy; a strategy located in valorizing a previously negative connotation of difference reifies the very binary it critiques. Collins points out two additional political implications of the rubric of "difference" under postmodernism. The first is the problem of commodification of "difference" under advanced capitalism, particularly within the academy. The second is the relationship between "difference" and relations of power. Collins situates postmodernist theories on a continuum: on one end, the extreme deconstructivism which collapses untheorized differences into endless play; on the other, a position which "appears unwilling to relinquish the possibility of a politically effective postmodernism organized around difference." (p.151) Thus, Collins finds most postmodernist theories unsatisfactory for developing a theory of oppositional difference which serves as a form of political resistance for Black feminism. Collins locates the solution to problems of "difference" in what she terms "intersectionality". Intersectionality, for Collins, "may shed light on the mutually constructing nature of systems of oppression, as well as social locations created by such mutual constructions." (p.153) The problem with postmodernism, Collins argues, is that it appropriates strategies of political struggle and transforms them into politically sterile, elite discourses which are accessible only to a few. This is not to say that postmodernism is to be jettisoned by Black feminist scholars; rather, Collins believes that it "provides powerful analytic tools and a much-needed legitimation function for those Black women and similarly situated intellectuals whose struggles take place in academic arenas."(p.154)

 

Chapter Five, "When Fighting Words Are Not Enough: The Gendered Content of Afrocentrism"

Afrocentrism is defined loosely as a commitment to centring scholarship on people of African descent (with a view to Black nationalist projects). In this chapter, Collins examines some practices of Afrocentrism as critical social theory, and in particular its relationship to gender (given that gender is a fruitful lens through which to examine nationalist projects).

According to Collins, Black cultural nationalism "concerns itself with both evaluating Western treatment of Black culture as deviant… and constructing new analyses of the Black experience."(p.159) Collins identifies four principles of the Black Aesthetic of Black cultural nationalism. First, in response to mainstream discourse which constructed Black culture as "primitive" and "deviant", the Black Aesthetic attempted to produce an alternative, positive, philosophically discrete Black culture predicated on an "essential Blackness". As Collins notes, how "culture" was defined changed according to actual and imagined freedom struggles; notions of "culture" grounded in concrete praxis tended to emphasize the dynamic, fluid character of culture, while concepts of "culture" grounded in contemporary Afrocentric constructions utilize a set of cultural norms developed from elements of various African societies. Second, the Black Aesthetic served as a vehicle for the reclamation of Black identity. The search for a singular Black identity grounded in normative models of essential Blackness presents obvious problems with defining norms and deviance, not the least of which is reifying the models of positivist science which had previously been used to oppress Blacks. Third, racial solidarity was maintained and grounded in a particular notion of Black community. Fourth, "when nurtured by this unified Black community relating as family, this newfound Black identity would stimulate a new politics for African-Americans." (p.161) Unfortunately, as Collins notes, within present politics of segregation and surveillance, culture has become separated from praxis, with the result being that problems for the Black community are defined as being internal to the community, not political, economic, or structural. This is not to say that "strategic essentialism" is not sometimes a useful political tool, but, as Collins asks, "who benefits from Black essentialist positions that appear unable to generate theoretically compelling arguments for political practice?"(p.167)

Applying the question of gender to Afrocentrist and Black nationalist projects generates some interesting problems. Collins notes four significant issues: the importance given to control of Black women's reproduction/sexuality; the role of Black mothers as transmitters of Black culture; Black masculinity and femininity conceived as complementary; and the metaphoric relationship of Black women to the nation. All four areas illustrate how nationalist projects in general, and Black nationalism in this case, construct a particular version of idealized Black femaleness which rests on notions of essential or authentic Black woman/motherhood. Exceptional women are permitted only if they do not challenge the fundamental structure of Afrocentric assumptions. Furthermore, Collins points out that "Black women's absence and invisibility structure the very terms of the argument advanced." (p.175)

Thus, significant difficulties with Afrocentrism/Black nationalism exist for Black feminists. First, it reifies the very binary that it aims to challenge. Second, it operates using rigid and problematic notions of gender.

 

Part Three, "Toward Justice"

"Moving Beyond Critique"

In this section, Collins uses the model of "visionary pragmatism" espoused by the Black women of her childhood as a point of entry into discussing models for Black feminist activism. She chooses "visionary pragmatism" as a fruitful model because it successfully "approximates a creative tension symbolized by an ongoing journey… at the same time, by stressing the pragmatic, it reveals how current actions are part of some larger, more meaningful struggle."(p.189-190) This leads her to ask questions about how to evaluate critical social theories. For example, "[h]ow will we determine whether a critical social theory increasingly supports social injustice rather than challenging it?"(p.193) In her view, critical social theory must remain conscious both of its content and process, always attentive to its participation in relations of power.

Collins suggests three questions for epistemologically evaluating critical social theory. First, "does this social theory speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?" (p.198) "Truth" seems like an unlikely word for her to use, given her skepticism about knowledge and power, but in this sense she seems to mean questions of how truth (or knowledge) is produced. Second, what is the stance of each critical social theory toward freedom; what is its emancipatory vision? This not only requires that theory provide some tools for people to struggle, but that it declares itself engaged in such a project, and takes a particular position. Third, "does this critical social theory move people to struggle?"(p.199) Collins concludes by proposing an "ethical framework grounded in notions of justice as specific cultural material for exploring this more general question of moral authority for struggle."(p.199)

Chapter Six, "Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought"

In this chapter, Collins takes up the paradigm of standpoint theory, which she feels is fruitful for Black feminists because it locates a theoretical stance within lived experience as well as a shared notion of community.

Collins sets the framework of standpoint theory against the concept of intersectionality, noting that "[i]ntersectionality thus highlights how African-American women and other social groups are positioned within unjust power relations, but it does so in a way that introduces added complexity to formerly race-, class-, and gender-only approaches to social phenomena."(p.205) She is careful to state that while intersectionality works better when developing individual analyses of experience, it is important not to elevate individual analyses over structural analyses. Individualism can be theoretically insidious, and can remove much of the structural bite of a more systemic analysis. Thus, Collins aims to work with both the notion of a shared standpoint and the notion of intersectionality to develop a highly nuanced and specific model for Black feminist theory. In this context, intersectionality "provides an interpretive framework for thinking through how intersections of race and class, or race and gender, or sexuality and class, for example, shape any group's experience across specific social contexts",(p.208) without necessarily forming unvaried guidelines for social structure. It is also important, as Collins notes, to develop a contextual and specific analysis of each group with a view to theorizing hierarchies of intersectionality, such that various oppressions are not deemed to be equivalent (to understand Collins' theoretical concerns, it is useful to consider Mohanty's earlier critique on the subject of theorizing "Third World women")

Collins then turns to Marx for an example of theorizing about mutually reinforcing relations of race and economic class. She identifies four aspects of economic class analysis which she feels are relevant: theorizing class categories from "actual cultural material of historically specific societies"(p.213); the necessity of historical specificity in examining any class relations and/or standpoints derived from them; conceiving of class (race, gender, etc.) not as a static or ontological category but rather as a relationship among groups; and "the centrality of group culture and consciousness in developing self-defined group standpoints."(p.217) Additionally, Collins notes the importance of theorizing hierarchies within groups as well as between groups.

What is the significance of these theoretical concerns for standpoint theory and Black feminist thought? For one thing, the discussion of layers of complexity indicates the need for more sophisticated tools and language for thinking through the dynamic of power relations and groups/individuals (Sandoval suggests some tools in her article "Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of the Oppressed"). Collins re-visits the language of sociology to excavate the terms "micro, meso and macro", and reworks them to show how they can be theorized through the framework of embedded power relations. In particular, she notes the usefulness of a mesolevel analysis, in that it can take account both of individual Black women's histories, as well as access to a historically created and shared "Black feminist wisdom". Thus, Collins is interested in analyses which develop and emerge from, rather than simplify and/or suppress the complexities of Black women's experiences as both individuals and members of a group. As she notes: "Such a standpoint would identify the ways in which being situated in intersections of [various structural and personal characteristics]… constructs relationships among African-American women as a group. At the same time, a situated standpoint would reflect how these intersections frame African-American women's distinctive history as a collectivity in the United States."(p.228)

 

Chapter Seven, "Searching for Sojourner Truth: Toward an Epistemology of Empowerment"

In this chapter, Collins explores the life and work of Sojourner Truth both as an example of lived Black feminist praxis and a metaphor for Black feminist "thinking through" as "outsiders-within". She notes Truth's "mobility as a 'sojourner' among multiple outsider-within locations highlights the importance of social contexts in determining truth." (p.231) In one way, this echoes Braidotti's "nomadic consciousness", although with more of a view towards participation in unequal power relations. It can also be related to Sandoval's various "methodologies of the oppressed". In this model, truth is conceptualized as a process of exploring knowledge/power relations in a variety of contexts, rather than a thing or quality which can be possessed or known in a static way. Collins points out that one need not be economically marginalized to have access to this kind of methodology; intellectuals in the academy can make a conscious effort to take part in this "migration" "to the borderlands, boundaries, or outsider-within locations linking communities of differential power." (p.233) While individual migration involves border crossing and positive transformation of previously segregated spaces, Collins cautions that "neither the relationships among people in outsider-within locations nor the knowledges produced in these spaces are inherently progressive." (p.234) In this she echoes hooks' call for continual self-reflexivity. Additionally, perhaps mindful of the adage, "Where you stand is determined by where you sit", Collins is optimistic about the possibility of creating new ways of theorizing as well as new kinds of theory if intellectuals are critical and clear about their social locations.

Collins then turns to the theme of naming/testifying and power. Other feminists have remarked on the importance of the power to name one's experiences and identities. Collins, while noting the importance of naming, is clear that it must not be reduced to an individual act, but rather an eventual public proclamation. This is a personal act of coming to voice, a political act of testifying, and an epistemological act of engaging in dialogue. Collins also mentions the trope of "speaking in tongues", as "a metaphor for the interaction of logic, creativity, and accessibility, a metaphor for producing contextualized truth that is actively named and proclaimed in multiple voices." (p.239) This is reminscent of Braidotti's "translation" trope.

Collins attempts to break down the theory-praxis divide by arguing that while Black feminist thought should be firmly contextualized in Black women's experiences, it must also engage with other knowledges and theories, particularly those theories committed to critical knowledge and social justice. She indicates a lack of theorizing about social theories which are developed from an interest in collective justice (likely a theoretical chauvinism finding particular expression in individualist North America, and developed from the model of the cognitively autonomous post-Enlightenment ethical subject elucidated by Code). One term which she finds useful is "critical mass", which has a threefold meaning: "a catalyst for change, a threshold or necessary turning point at which action can occur, and an action taken by an organized minority".(p.242)

Finally, Collins touches on the significance of the element of feelings/faith in Black women's praxis. Similar to Code's "second persons" model for ethical object relations, and Braidotti's "affective", this dimension to political action emphasizes a level of moral "rightness". This final section is the one which I find most problematic in Collins' work. Although Collins notes that these feelings should be infused with "self-reflexive truths as well as some sort of moral authority", I am uncomfortable with the form that such a moral authority might take. For example, how can certain forms of conservative Christian moral authority, which historically have been significant in some Black communities, be reconciled with activism around gay and lesbian issues (or, for that matter, feminist issues such as reproductive choice)? At any rate, Collins' call for an affective dimension to social criticism is instructive, since some level of personal commitment to social justice is necessary for a sustained effort in freedom struggles. In addition, adding a level of emotional investment to theory making and praxis is a welcome departure from the detached ethical subject. However, more careful examination of this process should be undertaken.