African Feminist Thought Essays

AfroCentricity, Sisterhood and African Feminisms: An African Woman’s Standpoint in Black Feminist Thought

*African Women: Women in Africa and the African Diaspora

Everyone that’s ever been to Africa writes about African women, but rarely do we see African women become storytellers of their own narratives (Mekgwe, 2008). A quick google search with the term ‘Africa and Women’ reveals the West’s obsession with stereotypical images of African women: destitute, dependent, and uneducated. What do we know of African women besides the conditions ascribed on to them ? It seems that the terms ‘African’ and ‘Feminist’ were often not concurrently used, until very recently when Nigerian writer Chimanda Ngozi Adiche popularized African Feminism in her famous TED Talk and essay “Why we should all be Feminists”.

African Feminisms and Black Feminist Thought

“African feminism is a tautology”

“African Women & Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood” ~ Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí

African women’s standpoint in feminism, as a whole, is further complicated by the nuanced divisions that exist in feminism; hence various scholars now distinguish between “white feminism, black feminism, Western feminism, third world feminism and African feminism” (Oyeumni, 2003). In “Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women & Critical Transformations” Ogundipe-Leslie writes about the methodological silencing of African women in literature, and feminist discourse, since Feminism as both an activist movement and a body of ideas that was initially engineered at a time where racial injustice was sidelined in the United States (Ogundipe-Leslie, 1994). Studying African women in a postcolonial framework requires us to analyze their unique standpoint in Black Feminist Thought, and other feminist discourse. Due to various approaches used by African Feminists, scholars have urged for “African Feminisms” as a better alternative to “African Feminism” (Mekgwe, 2008).

Exploring AfroCentricity / Afrocentric Paradigm

One approach to re-focus critical dialogue back to Africa is by theorizing “Afrocentricity” or the Afrocentric Paradigm. Ama Mazama writes in “The Afrocentric Paradigm Contours and Definitions” if Africans and African diaspora do not center ourselves in the knowledge making process “We thus find ourselves relegated to the periphery, the margin, of the European experience, spectators of a show that defines us from without” (Mazma, 2001). Mazma and a community of African Scholars write about the value in the work of centering — and re-centering narratives of African people in Africa and the Diaspora as the starting praxis to gaining equal representation in history, and in the knowledge making process.

“Our liberation and Afrocentricity contends and rests up on our ability to systematically displace European ways of thinking, being, feeling, and so forth and consciously replace them with ways that are germane to our own African cultural experience”

~Mazma, 2001

AfroCentricity has its own limitations of not recognizing specific African cultures, and narratives in its approach to Black Studies (OyeBade, 1990). This leaves room for distinctive African cultures to be erased and generalized. Hence, the epistemology behind African Feminisms needs to be explored through a reformed Afrocentric paradigm that expounds on ways to decolonize Feminist discourse and re-center African women in their full, complex narratives. This type of feminism reform is guided by an exploration of economic, political, and social liberation of African women and restoration of female agency in across different cultures in Africa (Ogundipe-Leslie, 1994).

Africa needs to be recognized & reintroduced into discourses of world affairs, history and culture. Africa is always that place which gets left out, forgotten and omitted in global discourses.

~ Ogundipe-Leslie, 1994

Afrocentricity’s critical role in ensuring the collective liberation of black folk rests on reestablishing key epidemiological centeredness of knowledge making. OyeBade writes that “This paradigm of studying Africa…is not an entirely new perspective in African intellectual thought. Africa-centered historiography, in fact, dates back to the closing years of colonial rule in Africa.” (OyeBade, 1990). Historically placing African women’s role both in postcolonial and pre-colonial Africa helps us understand the myriad ways African feminisms intersects with Black Feminist Thought while incorporating the cultural imprints of colonialism. African women live in the intersection of “Third World Feminism” and “Black Feminism” both Feminist discourses narrate a part of their stories, but do not fully exist in both. In ‘Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism’ Moharty questions the application of western feminist theories as espoused in the writings of the ‘Third World’ woman. Since such theories are written in the West, the authorship of the west ultimately perpetuates the “self/other divide” (Ogundipe-Leslie, 1994). Here, discourses written by developing nations are easily ignored or labeled as “politically immature” and “underdeveloped”. The writings, and contribution of African women has been minimized by this process. As Ogundipe-Leslie writes“The African person is that person who does not have a “self,” who gets represented or spoken for by others.” (Ogundipe-Leslie, 1994).

Focusing on African women’s writing is imperative to reverse the misrepresentation of African womanhood, and decolonizing feminism. Mekgwe writes about African women’s writing as it emerged in the 1970s, as setting out to dispel the misrepresentation of African womanhood that dominated African literature at the time. The fluid character of African feminisms, sets out to demonstrate the impact of “Africanity” and the effect of the decolonization project in shaping debates on African feminism first by highlighting the intricate relationship harbored by post-colonialism and feminism in African literature. Similar to Black Feminist thought, theories of African feminism have adopted over time resulting in a visual stasis when theorizing African Feminisms since (by default) any reference to ‘Africa’ ties it to the colonial experience. Over the past three decades, African feminisms has addressed the narratives of African people that have long been marginalized and unrepresented by mainstream feminism. Historically, such ‘feminisms’ have tended to be theorized against western feminism.

The black indigenous African is the international “dirty secret.” He/She is that person who cannot participate in world discourse or action on his/her own behalf.

“Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women & Critical Transformations” ~Ogundipe-Leslie, 1994

Sisterhood and African Feminisms

In “African Women & Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood”, with a reference to understanding “Sisterhood” Oyěwùmí asserts that it is a political ally ship operating under a “white feminist construct” (Oyěwùmí, 2003). Bell Hooks, a prominent black feminist scholar, also echoes this view asserting that “Women are enriched when we bond with one another but we cannot develop sustaining ties or political solidarity using the model of Sisterhood created by bourgeois women’s liberationists (Hooks, 1984). Incorporating an Afrocentric Paradigm into the analysis, Oyěwùmí explores “sisterhood” in African context, and asks “are all sisters equal ?” and asserts that some sisterhoods are in practice a “sisterarchy” [sister-patriarchy] (Oyěwùmí, 2003).

According to Mekgwe and Oyěwùmí, this trend in the“globalization of sisterhood” has the risk of “universalizing the feminist experience. Mekgwe echoes Oyěwùmí’s claim that “the notion of ‘sisterhood’ which she ascribes to ‘white culture’ is alien to other cultures, notably Chicano, African and African-American cultures” (Mekgwe, 2008). Similar to Patricia Hill Collins, a prominent Black Feminist Scholar, Oyěwùmí’s “emphasizes mothering over sisterhood.” (Mekgwe, 2008). Collins’s views feminism discourse as predominated by white westernized experience that often sidelines issues of racial difference (Mekgwe, 2008). This fueled Collins’s view to develop a Black feminist perspective “ that more accurately reflect the lived realities and culture of Black women” (Mekgwe, 2008). Within the African context, the notion of sisterhood is a very complex across the African kinship model, since it varies from one tribal group through interpersonal conditioning of one’s culture (Oyeumni, 2003). While there are African countries with significant “sisterhood” kinship ties in their cultural fabric, scholars in African feminisms urges us question certain political allyships that are Eurocentric in their origin.

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his father loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

Harlem writer Countee Cullen in his 1925 poem, “Heritage” ~Zachary, 2011

Sources Cited

Hooks, B. 1984. “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women”. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000.

Mazama, Ama. 2001. “The Afrocentric Paradigm: Contours and Definitions”. Journal of Black Studies 31 (4). Sage Publications, Inc.: 387–405.

Mekgwe, Pinkie. 2008. “Theorizing African Feminism(s)”. Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy/Revue Africaine de Philosophie — ISSN 1011–226, XX:11–22

Morikawa, Suzuko. 2001. “The Significance of Afrocentricity for Non-africans: Examination of the Relationship Between African Americans and the Japanese”. Journal of Black Studies 31 (4). Sage Publications, Inc.: 423–36.

Mweseli, Monica. 2007. “Africana Womanism or Feminism”. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, no. 71. [Agenda Feminist Media, Taylor & Francis, Ltd.]: 130–30.M

Ogundipe-Leslie, Molara 1994 . Re-creating Ourselves: African Women & Critical Transformations. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Oyebade, Bayo. 1990. “African Studies and the Afrocentric Paradigm: A Critique”. Journal of Black Studies 21 (2). Sage Publications, Inc.: 233–38.

Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. 2003.African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

West, C. M. 2008. Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and their homegirls: Developing an “oppositional gaze” toward the images of Black women. In J. Chrisler, C. Golden, & P. Rozee (Eds.), Lectures on the psychology of women (4th ed., pp. 286–299). New York: McGraw Hill.

Stephens, Ronald J., Maureen Keaveny, and Venetria K. Patton. 2002. “”come Colour My Rainbow”: Themes of Africana Womanism in the Poetic Vision of Audrey Kathryn Bullett”. Journal of Black Studies 32 (4). Sage Publications, Inc.: 464–79.


Zachary, G.P. 2011. “Just So Stories: Stories We Tell About Africa (And Those We Don’t)”. Online Archives

MS. AFROPOLITAN. 7 Key Issues in African Feminst Thought. August, 2012.

MS. AFROPOLITAN. Discovering African Feminism. August 2012.


Adiche, C. N. 2013. “We should all be feminists | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | TEDxEuston”.

You would think that after attending primary through secondary school with a 95% black student population, my black history education wouldn't have been so severely lacking. To be fair, my education regarding women in history and feminism was almost nonexistent. My freshman year English teacher was unmarried, owned her own home, and drove herself all over the country to see her favorite bands in concert. She was my epitome of cool. Not once did I think of her as a feminist. I mean, she wasn't angry all the time, nor did I believe she hated men. I'd never even heard of a black woman being referred to as a feminist. Like most first-generation college students, I didn't know how much I didn't know until someone made me read a book about the gaps in my learning.

I was hooked.

I devoured book after book about the history of my race and gender. Some books relied heavily on scholarly research, others weaved tales from personal experience, or were inspired by women they knew. It did not bother me that I needed to do reading outside of the classroom to truly understand how racism and sexism play a role in the subjugation of women like me, but it did upset me that my history had been rendered practically invisible in all my pre-university education. Who knew I came from such complexity?

My hope is that this list will reach a girl (or a teacher with the foresight to pass it on) long before these titles reached me. With stories like these in my head, I imagine I could have faced certain insecurities about myself with more confidence in my path and purpose. I would like to see that happen for more young black women who find blank spaces where their history should be. I hope they find power between these pages.

1.The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

2.Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

3.Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

4.Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black Women and White Women by Midge Wilson and Kathy Russell

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