In Browsing Black History, we celebrate Black History Month by exploring the origins of internet trends and icons popularized by Black cultural producers, too often left uncredited for their work.
Feminista Jones is not sure about Kamala Harris' run for president. It's 6 PM on a Monday night and we're scheduled to talk about her new book, Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, a 171-page read about the impact Black feminists have had on the world through the use of Twitter. But without prompt from me, the writer and prominent social media voice launches into a critique of the recently announced presidential campaign of the Californian senator. "I'm very happy that Kamala Harris is able to run for president," Feminista says. "I think that we have a political landscape in which a Black woman running for the highest office in the land has been seen as an impossible dream—and Kamala Harris actually has a relatively good shot at it." "At the same time," she adds, "I also find her record to be problematic. … People were talking about Hillary and this crime bill [the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, enacted by President Bill Clinton, Hillary's husband]. And I'm like, Hillary was not in office and had nothing to do with any of that. Yet, Kamala Harris has a record that actually is what I think people were projecting on Hillary Clinton, which I find to be really fascinating." Adding, "I think that if we are going to honor the fact that a Black woman is running for president, then we should be treating her as we would treat any political candidate in terms of how we look at their record and how we scrutinize their behaviors and things like that. That's only fair to her."
These kind of blunt yet thoughtful takes are what Feminista is known for, on and offline. For the past twenty years, she's worked as a social worker, public speaker, and community activist. Meanwhile, she's gained a devoted following online for being smart, witty, direct, and relentlessly considerate of the plight of women—specifically, Black women.
"Black women especially, we have built communities, global communities by way of social media," she says. "It would make no sense if we just totally passed up the opportunity that can come with this. There's power there. There is so much we can do with it. We are shifting the culture. We are changing politics. We are changing these things."
Ahead of her book launch, we spoke to Feminista about modern "Mammys," white allies versus advocates, activism fatigue, and what she hopes to impart to future feminists.
BROADLY: When you're using the term, Mammy 2.0 in the book [Chapter 10 is titled Mammy 2.0 Black Women Will Not Save You, So Stop Asking], who are you referring to?
FEMINISTA JONES: I think that Black women are being asked to fight for everyone, change everything, fix everything, solve everything, take care of everything, sooth people. Mammy was expected to be this wise person, right? I feel like we're still positioned in this place of everything that you've learned about modern-day posits, whatever you learn from Black women, we didn't have to teach you. We shouldn't have to be the ones responsible for teaching you these things. We should not be the ones who make you feel better about things when they don't go your way. We're not here to soothe you. We're not here to nurture you. We need our own soothing and our own nurturing, and yet we've been positioned in this place where people are kind of scurrying behind us and hiding behind us waiting to see what we'll do and how we're going to fix this mess, rather than them having to do the work themselves.
At the beginning of the book, you talk about allyship and how the word "ally" is a symbiotic relationship versus true giving. In my mind, I was like, maybe "advocacy" might be the better word for those who stand up for marginalized communities. How do you believe white people can advocate for POC in the most authentic way?
The first thing is amplifying the voices of people of color and women of color. Hit the retweet button. Something I've talked about is like, are you comfortable with having Black women's faces or Black people's faces on your timeline? Do you always feel the need to add something to it? Are you afraid that when people come and troll your Twitter timeline, all they're going to see is Black faces? Or do you feel the need to add something to that, even if it's something that's already been said? It's infantilizing. It's insulting.
The other thing can be, you know when I look at someone like Heather Heyer. Unfortunately, she was killed for being this advocate for Black liberation as a white woman. She happened to show up and be in a space where she was needed to…her presence was needed. Her voice was needed. Her body was needed, and unfortunately, her life was lost by some maniac out there. But, she was somebody who wasn't conveniently trying to extract herself when things got uncomfortable. I think that's why I challenge the issue of allies. What I would say on social media, is don't remain quiet when you see stuff going on. If you're calling someone out, you're calling them out because they're wrong, and you're risking also being attacked. So, while they're attacking you and calling you all kinds of names for being a white person, they're also calling me names. The fact that you're there with me because you think that I need to take on this person. That's part of it. An ally can easily, in my opinion, just be like, "Well, this ain't my fight. I ain't going to deal with it."
How do you feel like fatigue has affected activism on Twitter?
I…I am tired. I have to definitely say that I am tired. People are constantly scrutinizing every word that you type. They are waiting for that gotcha moment to try to just discredit everything that you have ever done just by one thing that they don't like that you've said. There are people that are just.. they will orchestrate, coordinate, like slander campaigns. The tiring part for me is just kind of like why are you so invested in trying to harm me? I'm not the enemy. Can you put all that energy towards fighting white supremacy?
How can activism work be passed on?
I do a lot of teaching and workshops. I always go with the focus of like Yo, I am really trying to teach the next generation. I'm trying to have an impact. I want somebody sitting in the audience at whatever college or university to hear the words that I am saying and be inspired to kind of take up the mantel.
This book is filled with Black feminist theory and resources to find out more about leaders. Throughout, you talk about the Combahee River Collective: Why do you think its so necessary to examine their work in our current social state?
When we were conceiving the idea for this book, I was like well how do I make this like relevant to right now? We were coming up to the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977). A lot of people don't know who was involved in it. They talk about Audre Lorde. They talk about Chirlane McCray. But, a lot of people don't know how they came together and put this revolutionary document together where they were like Black women deserve blank. They ain't talking about Black men. They ain't talking about white women. We are saying that Black women specifically deserve X, and they were a queer collective, which is already radical in itself. These were brilliant minds, academics coming together again, radical in itself, and they're coming together as Black women in one space, and they are bringing knowledge and gender.
The reason they are the most important to me, and what I hope that people get out of this book is this idea that knowledge is not anything for any one person or any one group to hold onto. It is something that is shared among us, and it is developed among us. Black women have a rather unique way of communicating with each other and sharing knowledge and creating knowledge. The Combahee River Collective kind of shows us what it's like, like literally what's it's like for us to come together and brainstorm and imagine a new world, and imagine a new society in which Black women are not facing these issues that we've been facing for centuries. They were imagining a world and a landscape in which Black women were free.
They created a blueprint?
When they put it in writing, they basically did. All we gotta do is just read it and go along with it, and build that world and create that world. I think that there's some of us who are doing that, and have been doing that and trying our best to create this world in which Black women are free. I keep referencing them because I feel like we don't have to start from the bottom. We don't have to reinvent the wheel.