Sojourner Truth speakers examine black feminism throughout history

Michelle Allen (left), assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education + LGBTQ Resources, moderates a talk with Robin Boylorn (center) and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (right) during the 2019 Sojourner Truth Lecture. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Sojourner Truth was both an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In her honor, the Women and Gender Studies and the African and African American Studies Programs at George Mason University invited two speakers to carry on her legacy of activism to speak on the meaning of black feminism. 

Keeanga-YamahttaTaylor, assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University, and Robin M. Boylorn, assistant professor of interpersonal and intercultural communication studies at the University of Alabama, spoke Tuesday at the Fairfax Campus. Both are activists and award-winning authors

Michelle Allen, assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education + LGBTQ Resources, moderated the discussion focusing on the meaning of black feminism in both a historical and contemporary context. 

The women spoke to the importance of studying and exploring the lives of black women in history. Taylor noted that the study of history through the various narratives of lives of black women is important to understanding the depths of oppression and inequality in society. 

"The experiences of black women can't be collapsed into a kind of nebulous black experience, and understanding and reading about slavery, I think, illuminates the point,” said Taylor. She emphasized the story of Harriet Jacobs, a African-American woman who escaped from slavery and later wrote an autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” in which she describes her experience as an enslaved black woman in comparison to black men who were enslaved.     ​

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor talks during the 2019 Sojourner Truth Lecture. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

"In order for us to have a full understanding of what this institution represented and how it was reproduced, we have to take, in particular, the experiences of black women," Taylor said.  

The conversation moved to contemporary black feminism, especially in the context of politics and popular culture. With the emergence of high-profile black women, such as presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and award-winning rapper Cardi B, black women are stepping into the national spotlight. 

Boylorn said being able to take a seat at the table is important and pointed out that it’s significant that there are many different representations of black women across the board in politics, popular culture and academia. 

“Previously we've been led to believe, because of respectability politics, that the only type of representation that's not negative is a positive representation, or an academic representation—a well put-together representation,” said Boylorn. “So, I celebrate Cardi B, I think there is room at the table for Kamala, Cardi B and Mo’Nique.” 

Taylor added that class matters and it’s not enough to only have, what she calls in her book, 

“black faces in high places.” Black women who hold political positions must also be accountable in helping to empower the working class and poor African-American people who vote for them, Taylor said.

You can watch the full event on the Women and Gender Studies Facebook page. 

The event also recognized work that is taking place in the local community with “The Sojourner Truth Award for Commitment to Social Justice.” This year’s recipients were Phyllis J. Randall, the elected chair at large of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, and the members of Free Minds Book Club, a D.C. nonprofit focused on awakening incarcerated youth to their own potential through books, creative writing and peer support.  

The event was sponsored by the Women and Gender Studies Program; the African and African American Studies Program; the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education + LGBTQ Resources; University Life; the Higher Education Program; the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative; and American Evolution.