On Black Womanhood at the Intersection of Black Existentialism and Black Feminism

By: Reina Henderson

The criticism and vitriol swarming around Serena Williams after her  passionate reaction to the umpire of the finals match between her and Naomi Osaka is nothing new for black women. Right or wrong in her assertions and regardless of wherever one may lean on one side of the debate or the other, there nevertheless remains the familiar traces of specifically-worded critiques all too common when it comes to black women. Whether intended or not, the caricature image, a satire of the event for the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun, employs racial stereotypes in order to make fun of her. Exaggerated full lips, the exploitation of her anger (utilizing the image of the ABW or “Angry Black Woman”), even the whitewashing of Naomi, a biracial half-Haitian, half-Japanese woman, into someone blonde and white (emphasizing her complexion’s proximity to whiteness) demonstrates a subtle minstrel in all but name.

Black womanhood resides at the intersection of black existentialism and black feminism, and a key element of struggle that black women contend with is white standards of beauty and image. The experiences of black women in particular bear special note due to the understanding that black women are born with two strikes against them, their race and their gender, if living in much of the Western world. bell hooks and Toni Morrison explore this concept in-depth. bell hooks explores this in her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism where she discusses problems of racism, sexism, and the diminishing of black womanhood from white women in the feminist movement, from black men in the racial equality movement, and from Western society respectively.[1] Repudiation from black men and white women toward black women in these spaces exacerbates the fight of black women who already must contend with a white patriarchal world.

Black women, therefore, have also experienced oppression from white women and black men relegating them outside of the movements claiming to challenge the society with which they already contend. Without proper support being in such a unique position, hooks’ solution is to form a sisterhood of black women to take on the mantle of the fight. Not through self-segregation, but to become aware of the struggle and position and seek first fellow black women to relate to and promote each other. If none will wholly, or only marginally, take up the cause of advocating for equality with black women, then it is up to black women themselves to do so even if it must be alone.

Toni Morrison delves even deeper into the issue including when it comes to black female image and beauty. Although her novel The Bluest Eye is fictional, it is based on truths and experiences of black women in conflict with white standards of beauty.[2] Pecola, the main character, is a dark-skinned, full-lipped, and coarse-haired young woman. Throughout the novel, she is often teased and called “ugly” making her wish to have bright blue eyes like the white dolls with which she grew up playing. Eventually in the novel, after giving birth to a premature baby sired by her own father through rape, she develops a psychosis for which people around her take pity on her. However, due to her psychosis, she thinks her newfound attention is because she has finally obtained the blue eyes she always wanted.

Morrison’s fictionalized account exposes black women’s experiences of being constantly told that black womanhood and beauty is inferior to white women.[3] The farther one is from that white female standard of beauty of being blonde, thin, pale, and blue-eyed, the uglier she is considered to be. This affects both the psyche and the appearance as many black women have attempted in various ways to conform to the white female standard of beauty believing themselves inferior in reality. Although not explicitly stated, the implied solution from Morrison is for black women to love and embrace their natural features, and bond with other black women sharing the pain like Claudia and Frieda, Pecola’s friends, do for her. In other words, a black woman is beautiful with all her natural features. [4]

When an image like The Herald Sun’s satire begins to circulate, it is indicative of this underlying perception of black women. Serena is molded into the ABW while Naomi can be stripped of her black features and portrayed as the “proper” white contrast to Serena. This piece is in no way intended to make a statement on the racial beliefs of the artist who has denied, since publication of the image, any racial basis for his cartoon. Nevertheless, intended or not, the image is infused, perhaps absent-mindedly, with these stereotypes and aids in their perpetuation. Thus, it makes an understanding of the consequences of such portrayals all the more necessary.

About Reina Henderson

Reina was born and raised in Chattanooga, TN. She attended high school at Boyd-Buchanan School in Chattanooga, a co-educational private Christian School, from which she graduated in 2012. She studied a year at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before transferring to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. Here, she double majored in History and Philosophy, and graduated in 2017 earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in each major. In 2015, she became a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, and while in her undergraduate chapter she served terms as both president and secretary. She currently attends the University of Memphis as a graduate student studying for her Master of Arts in History, and is a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Upon graduation, she intends to pursue her PhD in History and eventually become a professor.


[1] hooks, bell. 1982. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto.

[2] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[3] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[4] Henderson, Reina. 2017. To Empower and Uplift the Race: A Historiography of Black Existentialism. Unpublished paper, The University of Memphis.

Photograph 1:Williams S. RG18 (17). 1 June 2018. Author: si.robi. https://flickr.com/photos/16732597@N07/41168711240

Photograph 2: Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart'”. The Town Hall, New York City, February 26th, 2008. Date 18 December 2008, 20:44 (UTC) Author Angela Radulescu

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