Beyond Saviors: Black Women, Black Feminism and Building Better Political Discourse

As the country continues to feel the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s election, Black women are increasingly celebrated as not just the Democratic Party’s reliable base, but as its most committed voters—as salvific figures who regularly show up to the save the country from itself.

Black women are imagined to be the Moses of the Left: If we simply follow Black women’s lead, we will all be free.  

Protestors at the March for Racial Justice. Participants held a kneel-in at the Trump Hotel. (Ann Meador / Creative Commons)

In 2018, scholar and public intellectual Brittney Cooper described Black women as “the saviors of this country.” The year before, when 98 percent of Black women voters in the Alabama special Senate election cast their votes for Doug Jones, journalist Molly Knight asked: “what if we just let Black women run everything?” Today, we hear this echoed in common refrains: Vote like a Black woman. Listen to Black women. Follow Black women. Thank Black women. Believe Black women. 

This seemingly compassionate vision of Black women is vastly different than how Black women were figured in earlier eras: as crack mothers, welfare queens and sexual deviants whose everyday lives threatened the fiscal viability of the nation. We are now the glue that binds a vision of freedom and democratic possibility. It is both a pleasure and a relief to be thanked rather than condemned. This new view of Black women as freedom-fighters and saviors, rather than as monsters and threats, encourages many Black feminists to reproduce this image. 

But all of this gratitude masks how Black women have, once again, become political symbols and metaphors. The persistent and troubling truth underneath these celebrations is that Black women are hailed for their commitment to democracy, yet are regularly ignored by the same political projects that celebrate us.

In the midst of this swell of appreciation, there are real Black women who not only cast their Democratic votes for myriad reasons, but who live their endlessly complex and varied lives in heterogeneous ways—marked by different desires, needs and interests. If political communities really aspire to listen to Black women, they should take seriously the multiple teachings of Black feminism—a tradition that centers Black women’s intellectual, political and creative work.

The call of Black feminism is not a plea for symbolically gesturing toward Black women in the service of shoring up the status quo.

Black feminists have taught us, through their enduring political labor, that a robust vision of justice must include love. Love reminds us that we are vulnerable to each other, that we are intimately and inextricably bound, that we should embrace rather than retreat from that fact. Black feminist scholar, poet and essayist June Jordan remarked “nobody mean[s] more to me than you,” a refrain that indicates then no one is a stranger to any political struggles. The promise and challenge of Black feminism’s love-politics is its demand that we embrace and honor each person’s tender, complex and utterly beautiful personhood, because this is precisely what we all share. 

Black feminists have also taught us that our politics can start from a shared sense that the conditions of the present are unbearable. When cruelty becomes state policy, when violence constitutes the fabric of everyday life, Black feminists have always insistently reminded us that another world is possible. They have taught us that our collective political task is to struggle—beautifully, intensely, lovingly—to imagine what that other world could look and feel like. The project of imagining another world—one where we relate to ourselves, to each other, to the state, to the natural world—is no small task. It demands our creative, spiritual, intellectual and political energy. But our freedom, Black feminists tell us, comes from our willingness to embrace utopian thinking, to continually hold on to the possibility of a more compassionate and equitable world.  

Black feminism teaches us not that Black women are saints, martyrs or symbols—but that Black women have developed various intellectual and political traditions that we have put to work for centuries, including a belief in love as a tool of freedom. Those on the left thanking Black women might do their most transformative work by halting both their denigration and elevation of Black women, opting instead to spend time carefully and thoughtfully learning from Black feminists’ long tradition of imagining a better world.  

“We reject pedestals, queenhood and walking ten paces behind,” the Combahee River Collective declared in their 1974 visionary statement on Black feminism. “To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” 


Jennifer C. Nash is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of "The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography" and "Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality." She is currently at work on a project on black motherhood in the age of Black Lives Matter.