Florida Atlantic Women Rights During the Fourth Wave of Feminism Discussion
The two essays from this week pick up the ideas that Ryan explored in “Gender and Public Access,” and that Fraser raised in “Rethinking the Public Sphere.” McKee is interesting for a couple reasons. First, he begins by looking at women in the 18thcentury, particularly in France.Ryan, remember, began her essay by pointing out that she thinks women in America followed a different path than did women in Europe.
As you read what McKee writes about the “invention” of public and private in 18th century France and its development over time (especially pp. 34-42), think about how it compares with what Ryan had to say about American women in the 19thcentury. How were the experiences of women different in France and America, and how were they similar? How are the ideas of public and private similar and different? Look particularly at how Ryan and McKee talk about the “invention” of public and private.What do they mean by that?
McKee also talks about women’s health and the women’s health movement of the 1970s as a counterpublic. Tierney is talking about similar issues and a similar time period, though she doesn’t use the language of the public sphere. You might find it helpful to try to look at Tierney’s essay as documenting the formation of a counterpublic.
If you look back at Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” she talks about “the late 20th century US feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places.” She continues, “In this public sphere, feminist women have in vented new terms for describing social reality, including ‘sexism,’ ‘the double shift,’ ‘sexual harassment,’ ‘marital, date, and acquaintance rape’” (p. 67).
Which of the things that Fraser talks about as part of the feminist counterpublic does McKee look at? What about Tierney? What about the case of Francine Hughes and the two films about her?
Remember, you can discuss any or all of the questions posed in the module or you can discuss something else that you found interesting in the reading. Discussion posts should be your original ideas that identify important concepts from the readings. You shouldn’t quote or paraphrase extensively, except to point out what aspect of the articles you are commenting on. Discussion posts should deal with the course reading for each week, and not general observations on the public sphere or material you have read in other classes. Material quoted from the readings should total no more than 10% of a discussion post and should include an accurate reference to the source (author and page number). Original posts should explore an issue in some depth, so they should be at least 200 words.
You should also reply to at least one post by your colleagues. Replies can be shorter (50-75 words, minimum), but should indicate that you have read and thought about the material and the post to which you are replying. Replies can, of course, be longer if you have more to say to each other.
Catherine R. Squires
Rethinking the Black Public
Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary
for Multiple Public Spheres
Many theorists propose that there are multiple, coexisting “subaltern” counterpublic spheres. However, most discussions of these subaltern counterpublics
rely on group identity markers to differentiate between these spheres and do
not provide alternative means for distinguishing between subaltern public
spheres. This essay presents an alternative vocabulary for multiple public spheres
through an exploration of the history of the African American public sphere.
Three types of marginal publics, enclave, counterpublic, and satellite, are defined as examples of how we might incorporate considerations of the kinds of
resources different publics have available to them. This vocabulary facilitates
more flexible descriptions of publics that are normally defined by identity and
allows for more comprehensive comparisons across public spheres.
The language of public sphere theory is ambiguous. Inspired by Fraser’s
(1992) response to Habermas’s (1989) articulation of a single public
sphere, many contemporary theorists describe multiple publics, mainly
differentiated by group characteristics or group identities, such as
ethnicity, gender, sexuality, race, or nationality (see Calhoun, 1992;
Robbins, 1993). These theorists see multiple, coexisting counterpublics
composed mainly of “subaltern” or what I will refer to as “marginalized” groups.1 These writers agree that people of color, women, homosexuals, religious minorities, and immigrant groups have created coexisting counterpublics in reaction to the exclusionary politics of dominant public spheres and the state. The move away from the ideal of a
single public sphere is important in that it allows recognition of the public struggles and political innovations of marginalized groups outside
traditional or state-sanctioned public spaces and mainstream discourses
dominated by white bourgeois males. However, as Asen and Brouwer
(2001) observed, the question of what makes a counterpublic sphere
“counter” has been deferred in most discussions of public sphere theory,
noting that “scholars sometimes write about counterpublics with frustrating vagueness” (p. 8). The question arises, what makes a public
“counter?” Is a counterpublic based on a shared marginal identity, or is
Copyright © 2002 International Communication Association
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
an expression of counterideologies necessary? What if certain subgroups
within a “counterpublic” do not share the same counterideologies or
participate in the production of counterdiscourses? Does the label
“counterpublic,” in its multiple uses, help us understand the heterogeneity of marginalized groups?
Relatedly, Holt (1995) and Dawson (1995) have reservations as to
how well the rubric of public spheres or counterpublics can serve African American studies or, more importantly, reinvigorate Black politics
in the United States. Holt’s “Afterword” to the collection The Black
Public Sphere (1995) leaves open the question of whether public sphere
theory is adequate for describing and assisting the Black public and its
political aims. He states that envisioning the Black public as part of a
system of coexisting multiple publics may provide scholars with insight
and “more sophisticated approaches to matters previously and historically consigned to such inadequate and fragile rubrics as ‘the Negro
problem,’ ‘subcultures,’ . . . [etc.]” (Holt, p. 326). However, he concludes
that if the Black public sphere is not offering space for critique of the
dominant order and action to transform that order, “then all this is only
idle talk” (p. 328). Dawson’s contribution to the same volume concludes
that if a “counterpublic” is defined as a public sphere actively engaged
in progressive political action, then we have had no Black counterpublic
since the early 1970s (pp. 214–221). Two questions arise from these
scholars’ concerns. One, how do we examine a Black public sphere and
determine if it is engaged in mere idle talk, and two, is our vocabulary
for public spheres flexible enough to explain what constitutes constructive talk and action or to explain differences beyond identity markers?
Differentiating the “dominant” public sphere from “counterpublics”
solely on the basis of group identity tends to obscure other important
issues, such as how constituents of these publics interact and intersect,
or how politically successful certain publics are in relation to others.
Additionally, focusing on traditional political protest actions, such as
boycotts or marches, may cause us to overlook important developments
in inter- or intrapublic discourse as well as publicity. In this article, I
propose a different set of terms to describe multiple publics in the
multicultural society of the United States without reifying the boundaries between them or entirely dismissing group identity as a reasonable criterion for defining a public sphere. The vocabulary proposed
here is inspired by examples from Black public spheres and focuses on
how different public spheres, composed of members of marginalized
groups, respond to various political, social, and material constraints.
The main goal of the model is to provide a richer vocabulary for
public spheres in order to provide terms that can avoid the vagueness surrounding the deployment of the term “counterpublic,” and
to enable and inspire comparisons across public spheres as well as to
allow for more in-depth, nuanced investigations of the variations
within a particular public sphere.
The model consists of three types of responses a marginalized public
sphere might produce given existing political, economic, social, and cultural conditions. A public can enclave itself, hiding counterhegemonic
ideas and strategies in order to survive or avoid sanctions, while internally producing lively debate and planning. It is also possible to create a
counterpublic which can engage in debate with wider publics to test
ideas and perhaps utilize traditional social movement tactics (boycotts,
civil disobedience). Finally, a public that seeks separation from other
publics for reasons other than oppressive relations but is involved in
wider public discourses from time to time acts as a satellite public sphere.
These responses—enclave, counterpublic, and satellite—emerge not only
in reaction to oppression from the state or dominant public spheres, but
also in relation to the internal politics of that particular public sphere
and its material and cultural resources. Different public spheres will have
access to different resources and will forge different relationships to the
state and dominant publics. This diversity across marginal public spheres
then, may warrant the use of multiple responses by different publics at a
particular time. Utilizing these three responses to describe public spheres
in terms of participation in traditional political action,2 performances,
and speech, I hope to offer a more flexible and descriptive vocabulary to
describe the activities and political fortunes of the Black public sphere.
Public Sphere Theories: Synthesizing
Insights of Feminist and African
For the purposes of this article, the term “public sphere” refers to a set
of physical or mediated spaces where people can gather and share information, debate opinions, and tease out their political interests and social
needs with other participants.3 These interests and needs are articulated
in a public’s attempts, for example, to convince state actors that the
opinions of the public should be applied to relevant policy decisions, or
that dominant publics should reject pejorative definitions of a marginal
group’s identity, cultural practices, rights, and privileges. The spaces of a
public sphere can be formal or informal; conversations may occur spontaneously or be planned. For example, a neighborhood meeting is scheduled monthly so that people can discuss how city politics will affect their
area, or people meet up in a bar and strike up a conversation about the
election. Perhaps a women’s cooperative targets a national newsmagazine
with letters to the editor protesting the misogynistic representation of
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
women which, when printed, sparks conversations among other readers
in disparate parts of the nation and prompts further public response or
political action. All of these are examples of people utilizing public spaces
(physical and mediated) for discussion and information transmittal.
Unfortunately, participation in public discourse is not always so accessible or vibrant. Not every group or individual enjoys the same access to
public spaces, media resources, or other tools to participate in discursive
activities. Particular groups may be targeted by government officials for
censorship and have a harder time distributing their ideas. Furthermore,
prevailing social norms may instill fear in citizens of marginalized publics that their ideas would at best be met with indifference, and at worst
violence. Thus the ideal of an open public sphere is difficult to realize for
oppressed groups. Many scholars who have been inspired to rework
public sphere theory (to fit the needs and conditions of modern-day
multicultural democracies) have wrestled with the problems of access
and identity, problems that have impeded the quest for equality in democratic societies. In the next section, I review some of these contributions
and synthesize them into the basis for the model described above.
The English translation of Habermas’s “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” (1989) is credited with rejuvenating interest
in public sphere theory. Habermas’s work chronicles the emergence of
the bourgeois public sphere in England, France, and Germany in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Important to the development of
the bourgeois public sphere was the production of pamphlets, journals,
and newspapers that were widely read and discussed among the (mostly)
male bourgeoisie in coffeehouses, taverns, and salons. The main criticism of his work was that he did not spend enough energy investigating
the implications of the bourgeois public sphere’s exclusion of women
and working class people. Additionally, as Baker (1995) points out, the
rise of the bourgeois public sphere coincided with the rise of the African
slave trade and the dehumanization and conquest of peoples of color by
European and White American bourgeoisie. Slavery and new racial ideologies kept people of color from participating as citizens even as Enlightenment theories supported equality and democracy. Arguably,
women and people of color did achieve public voice—in Europe and the
Americas—by creating and utilizing separate means of publicizing their
interests and attacking the inequalities represented in the bourgeois public
sphere, where rich male members claimed to speak in the general interest of the entire citizenry. Just as these oppressed groups used the promise of equality to critique the exclusionary nature of the bourgeois public sphere, contemporary scholars have been inspired by Habermas’s work
to shape new thought and debates concerning the variety of public spheres
worldwide and the struggles they are engaged in for equality.
Feminist and African American scholars have taken the stance that
there are multiple public spheres, rather than just one, operating in
American society. Fraser (1992) points out that Habermas’s model of a
single public sphere does not accurately describe the patterns of public
activity in “actually existing” democracies where there are long histories of inequality between groups. Furthermore, she disagrees with
Habermas’s assertion that members of the public sphere can somehow
“bracket” or leave behind their own cultural or status backgrounds when
debating the public good. Instead of a single public sphere, she proposes
that there are two basic kinds of public spheres: (a) the dominant public
sphere, a province of white, middle and upper class males; and (b) “subaltern counterpublics” that are populated by historically oppressed—
what I refer to as “marginal”—groups, such as women and African
Americans, that have been excluded from the dominant public sphere
by legal or extralegal means.
Fraser explains why these subaltern counterpublics need safer, separate spaces in which to discuss their interests without the interference or
oppression of the dominant group. In societies structured by inequalities, members of dominant groups have many advantages because they
have set the spoken and unspoken rules for public speech. Even if access
to public arenas is theoretically guaranteed to all, all will not necessarily
be equal within those spaces. In response to Habermas’s assertion that
participants bracket or leave behind their particular identities when they
enter into public debate, Fraser demonstrated that bracketing identity
and status differences merely obscures the power operating in the public
sphere and makes it harder for subordinates to overcome inequalities
(Fraser, p. 120). A model of multiple publics, consisting of a dominant
public sphere and many subaltern counterpublics, allows for more contestation and more discourse, which better promotes “the ideal of participatory parity than a single . . . public” (p. 122). In a stratified society,
she notes, subaltern counterpublics will necessarily be formed by marginal groups in order to successfully critique the dominant society without having its own interests and identity compromised or silenced by the
exclusionary power exercised by members of the dominant public.
Felski (1989), whose term “counterpublic” inspired Fraser’s work,
provides a more complex picture of a marginal public sphere in her discussion of the feminist public sphere. She describes this sphere as “coalitions of overlapping subcommunities, which share common interest in
combating gender oppression but which are differentiated not only by
class and race positions but often by institutional locations” (p. 171).
Felski’s definition confronts the question of the internal diversity within
a particular public sphere. Felski, like Fraser, describes a feminist sphere
in relation to a dominant, patriarchal public sphere. Although Felski
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
does remark on the internal functions of the feminist sphere—to discuss
and explore women’s interests without patriarchal interference—she is
more focused on how it performs its external function: persuading the
larger society that feminist claims are valid (Felski, p. 167). She concentrates on the institutional mechanisms and sites, both within the feminist public sphere and the dominant public, which create avenues for the
dissemination of feminist thought. Felski’s work highlights the multiple
possibilities and spaces for resistance and discussions in the feminist public
sphere. For instance, feminists have established health clinics, political
action groups, bookstores, and filmmaking collectives to serve their interests. Furthermore, they have taken positions of power within the state’s
welfare agencies as well as in capitalist institutions such as corporations
and Hollywood media firms. In these varied spaces, feminist women can
deliver and debate feminist positions and women’s interests. Thus, Felski
provides a template of the functions, places, and mechanisms across institutions and wider publics that constituents of a marginal public sphere
might use or create for its aims. Furthermore, she acknowledges that
these spaces and institutions may be occupied by very different subgroups with different interests and opinions.
Dawson (1995) wrestles with the questions of institutions and internal diversity in the context of a Black public sphere. He describes the
importance of various Black institutions to the success of the past Black
public sphere, such as the Black press, popular music, and the church (p.
210). It is within these institutions that conversations about Black publicity, rights, and interests take place and are transformed into strategies
to counter the oppression of White supremacist rule. Dawson also notes
how the organizational bases of Black counterpublics have changed over
the past two centuries. In the antebellum period, the Negro Convention
Movement was a key organization for the Black public, but it was replaced by other organizations after the Civil War, when Reconstruction
changed the legal and social environment. Church-based organizations,
for example, were key in the 1950s movement, whereas radical student
and block organizations came to the forefront in the 1960s and 1970s.
Dawson (1995) also writes that many institutional bases have been
eroded by the repressive state and social backlash against the Black cultural and militant movements of the 1970s as well as by the devastating
impact of the shifting economy on many Black communities. In addition, Dawson cites the “death of political unity based on some common
Black identity” (p. 214) as part of the Black public’s decline. This lack of
unity is due in part to the removal of the “single common goal”—dismantling Jim Crow—which in turn “unmasked the political relevance
of already existing social cleavages” along class and gender lines (p.
214). To illustrate these cleavages, Dawson emphasizes the working
classes’ and Black feminists’ dissatisfaction with the middle-class, maledominated institutions of the civil rights movement that failed to address the needs of the working poor or to fight sexism within Black
organizations and communities (p. 215). The combination of repressive
state backlash, conservative social thought, a turn from protest-based to
electorally-based politics, and internal divisions based on conflicting identities, Dawson concludes, has led to the decline—if not disappearance—
of a Black subaltern counterpublic. Through this criticism, however, he
seems to yoke the term public sphere to the protest politics and face of
public unity of the civil rights movement. Indeed, he states at various
points that he questions whether there are sufficient institutional resources to form a Black subaltern counterpublic of any kind because
“no national and only weak local forces exist to provide the type of
organizational base necessary for a flourishing counterpublic or
multiple counterpublics” (p. 221).
Dawson’s (1995) remarks on state repression, fragmentation, and institutional decline are valuable to our understanding of the current state
of the Black public sphere, but not enough evidence to declare that a
Black public sphere no longer exists. While he is correct to be concerned
about the state of political action and organizational strength in the
Black public, he is conflating two separate phenomena: the discursive
actions of a public sphere, and the political success of that sphere. Political strategies and activities emerge from exchanges of ideas and inspiration, and the primary function of a public sphere is to support such
discourse. Whether or not these ideas foment successful political campaigns is another matter, albeit an important one. Second, while Dawson
acknowledges that the exclusion and disrespect felt by black women
and working class blacks is not new, he compares the present era of
fragmentation to one of seemingly greater cohesion: the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is more useful, perhaps, to compare
today’s period of relative fragmentation to earlier periods of more
visible internal heterogeneity.
Reviewing and comparing periods of “fragmentation” reveals that
multiple, simultaneous Black publics emerge in different historical periods. Instead of “the” black public sphere or counterpublic, one should
speak of multiple Black public spheres constituted by groups that share
a common racial makeup but perhaps do not share the same class, gender, ethnic, or ideological standpoints. During the first decades of the
twentieth century, for example, there were many ideological divisions
causing clashes among Black Americans. Many of these struggles, like
today’s, were also fought on the axes of gender, color, and class. Booker
T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, were long at loggerheads over what sort of direction black education and political action
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
should take, as were A. Philip Randolph and Du Bois later. Similarly, at
the turn of the nineteenth century, Black women did not always enjoy
the full support of men in their struggles for suffrage and educational
uplift (Giddings, 1984). However, despite these differences there were
great strides made by the subgroups and organizations within the Black
public sphere. Some of these achievements, such as Ida B. Wells’s antilynching campaign, enhanced the lives of all Blacks and advanced Black
political discourse and strategy.
That the current political actions of Black Americans are not as highly
coordinated as they were in the 1950s and 1960s Black counterpublic is
not a sign that it no longer exists. Rather, it is an indicator that the
various subgroups within the contemporary Black public sphere are no
longer acting in concert or from a common ideology. Despite the lack of
synchronicity, however, these subgroups are simultaneously debating the
Black condition and creating new vehicles for discourse and political
action. The question to ask, then, in the face of ideological fragmentation and institutional weaknesses, is what kinds of activities are
different Black publics engaged in, and what level of consensus (if any)
exists across Black collectives. By trying to understand and describe what
kinds of activities, discursive and otherwise, are generated by different
Black publics and whether these activities nurture or hinder particular
Black communities, it is possible to recognize the internal diversity of
the larger Black collective.
Asen (2000) and Young (1997) provide significant insight into the
question of diversity within racialized social groups and public spheres.
Asen suggests that we locate the “counter” in counterpublic in the examination of how publics articulate unjust exclusions from wider publics. He proposes that we view counterpublics as collectives that emerge
to articulate these exclusions and “imagine themselves explicitly as alternative collectives” (Asen, p. 440). These emergent collectives are not
necessarily homogeneous, but consist of all of those who recognize and
speak out concerning a specific set of social, legal, or political exclusions. Furthermore, these “emergent collectives are not necessarily composed of persons excluded from wider public spheres,” allowing for the
possibility of heterogeneous coalitions and the recognition of the simultaneous affinities individuals have with multiple social groups (p. 439).
Asen’s (2000) caution against restricting counterpublic membership
to persons who share an identity responds to Young’s (1997) call to
separate the question of identity from the question of social hierarchies.
Rather than view social groups as entities constituted by essentialist
notions of different group identities, Young believes that we should speak
of groups in terms of their different social relationships to one another.
Her focus turns away from identity to the hierarchical social structures
that affect groups’ position in society. “In a relational conception, what
constitutes the group is the relation in which it stands to others. . . .
Class, gender, and race are some of the most far reaching and enduring
structural relations of hierarchy and inequality in modern societies”
(Young, pp. 389–390). Thus, the racialized position of African Americans makes them different from, say, Latino Americans because of their
different places in the racialized social hierarchy. However, this does not
mean that all Latinos and Blacks will react to and deal with that position (or even acknowledge it as salient) in their life course. Each African
American will also make decisions about her or his relation to other
African Americans, the wider African diaspora, and elements of African
American cultural production and representation.
Reflecting on Asen’s “emergent collectives” and Young’s relational
conception of social groups, speaking of a single Black public sphere
seems inappropriate. And, in fact, even though scholars in the collection
The Black Public Sphere speak of “the” Black public sphere in the singular, their work does not presume a monolithic, global Black public.
The diversity of their essays clearly illustrates how there are multiple
emergent collectives of Black peoples in the diaspora, from Brazil to
Brooklyn to Belgium, all forming public spheres. These emergent black
collectives have generated social movements, new forms of publicity,
and other responses to the realities of Black life in a world structured by
race, class, ethnic, color, and gender hierarchies. To make this diversity
more visible and to recognize that not all people who are classified as
Black will participate in all or any Black publics, I propose we speak of
multiple Black publics. Thus a Black public is an emergent collective
composed of people who (a) engage in common discourses and negotiations of what it means to be Black, and (b) pursue particularly
defined Black interests. This definition, although still wedded to the
idea that there is a Black social group, does allow for heterogeneous
Black publics to emerge, and also for people who do not identify as
Black, but are concerned with similar issues, to be involved in a coalition with Black people.
Some have argued that merely placing the label Black on the term
public sphere excludes conservative Blacks, like Clarence Thomas, Ward
Connerly, or Shelby Steele, who believe race no longer matters. However, I would argue that my definition leaves much room for Blacks of
this opinion. Even as Steele and his colleagues argue that race is no longer
salient, they are still articulating a vision of what Black people should
and should not do with their personal, political, and economic lives.
Furthermore, although they distance their personal identity from group
identity and responsibilities, I highly doubt that Black conservatives would
deny their shared racial classification. This is perhaps best illustrated by
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
Clarence Thomas’s employment of the history of lynching in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.4 Another reason for retaining
the “Black” in Black public spheres is to ensure that we recognize the
continued effects of race on Black peoples’ lives, individually and collectively. Social scientific research and recent events show that race is still a
powerful factor in all of our lives and that even blatant, violent forms of
racism still exist. As long as our society’s notions and employment of
racial differences continues to structure and influence social hierarchies,
attitudes, and actions, there will be a need for black collectives—as well
as other collectives—to emerge to take on race matters, from whatever
Finally, I believe it is crucial to identify and recognize the workings of
Black public spheres because too often the struggles of Black public
spheres for liberation, to rearticulate identity, to engage with wider publics, and so forth have been misidentified, overlooked, and misrepresented in scholarly and lay texts. Perhaps the most recent visible example of this erasure of Black publics’ agency is revealed in Madison’s
(1999) analysis of late twentieth century films depicting civil rights movements in the United States and South Africa. In films like Mississippi
Burning, Amistad, and Cry Freedom, White male protagonists and their
contributions to equal rights campaigns are the focal point of the narrative, displacing the agency and crucial actions of Black individuals and
collectives. Madison states that this displacement of Black people from
their own freedom movements is the result of a crisis of White legitimacy that demands an appropriation of Black freedom struggles.
The incorporation and reinterpretation of movements for African peoples’ equality contained in the “anti-racist-white-hero” film construct collective memories that contribute
to the masking of white supremacy . . . allowing it to reproduce and maintain its hegemonic status by coopting and neutralizing the very movements that sought to abolish
white oppression. (Madison, p. 415)
I use this example not to dismiss or negate the involvement of Whites or
other racial groups in Black freedom movements, but as a reminder that
the social hierarchy of race encourages the erasure of Black resistance and
ingenuity. The existence of Black public spheres has been a bulwark against
the collective amnesia some would impose on historical consciousness.
Coming from the perspective that multiple Black public spheres emerge
from different Black collectives, we can see that, despite the weakening
of certain Black institutions by intrusions of the state, ideological discord, and economic decline, Black public spheres exist. Contemporary
incarnations of these Black publics may be relatively weaker in terms of
deployment of direct action strategies; however, they are still rich in
discourse, which takes place in many forums. We can reread Dawson’s
articulation of the “fragmentation” of the Black public sphere as a manifestation of multiple, perhaps less powerful, Black public spheres. A high
level of coordination and consensus across Black publics, as seen in the
civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, is yet another possible manifestation. So, in our studies of Black public spheres, one set of questions
we should ask is:
1. Who makes up the different collectives from which public spheres emerge?
2. What is the range of opinions and interests among these publics?
3. How much overlap is there between these publics in terms of
interests and opinions?
4. Are many of these publics currently working in concert, or are they
pursuing separate strategies to define and address their interests?
5. How does each public interact with other public spheres and the state?
The focus on diversity here does not dismiss Dawson’s concern that Black
communities need greater political activity and advances in social and
political equality. Rather, the high level of coordinated action displayed
in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was but one response for a Black public sphere, a “counterpublic” engaging in vigorous social protest actions, however we can also imagine other formations. As Baker (1995) puts it, the civil rights movement was a product
of the “active working imagination” of a Black public sphere (p. 16).
Today, such imaginative work, in concert with the political and economic action Dawson calls for, is still urgently needed. In the absence of
the obvious target of Jim Crow and in the midst of entrenched economic
problems and conservative backlash, Blacks are in the process of
reimagining their struggle, their relationship to shared aspects of Black
heritage and identities, and their future as a social group in the postcivil
rights movement era. To describe a Black public sphere is not to delineate a set of spaces populated by culturally homogeneous individuals.
Indeed, how the culture of a public sphere is defined is a crucial element
of both internal and cross-sphere discourses. Utilizing this perspective,
we can reread the gender, class, and ideological chasms described by
Dawson as a part of the continuous self-reformation process of Black
public spheres. The lack of institutional power or widespread coordinated political action becomes a challenge facing these collectives rather
than evidence that they do not exist.
In addition to addressing the question of heterogeneity, we need to
differentiate between public spheres using other criteria. Salient aspects
of public spheres might include the following: the history of their relationships to the state and dominant publics; how diverse is a particular
public sphere; what sorts of institutional resources are available to the
collective; what these institutions’ relationships are to the political, economic, and media institutions of the dominant society; and how their
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
modes of communicative and cultural expression are different from those
of other publics and the entities within political and economic society.
The political success of a marginal public sphere is impacted by the institutions a public is able to form, ties (or lack thereof) to political actors in
the state and dominant sphere, and the ability to construct effective vehicles of publicity. “Stronger” public spheres are those with ready access
to organized forms of association and publicity, such as independent
media production, political action committees, professional organizations, etc. The publics that have institutions—which may be blocking
other publics’ institutions—that are better able to affect the deliberations and decision making of legislatures, regulatory agencies, boards of
directors, and other powerful actors in political and economic organizations. In the case of a Black public sphere, we must describe a public that
has fought for over 300 years to gain the basic civil and legal rights that
facilitate speech, assembly, and action in the United States.5 A history of
Black public spheres must acknowledge the lack of civil rights as a foundational condition of Black publics, and then interrogate how this affects
the development of Black media, political institutions, and tactics.
Given that publics emerge out of various political and cultural contexts, I suggest one way of exploring and comparing public spheres is to
concentrate on how they respond to dominant social pressures, legal
restrictions, and other challenges from dominant publics and the state. I
differentiate three responses: enclave, counterpublic, and satellite. This
typology is not meant to be rigid; rather, each type represents a range of
discursive and political responses that will emerge from a public sphere
given the larger political context, internal concerns, available resources,
institutions, and cultural norms. These factors will prompt constituents
of a public sphere to utilize a particular response in its interactions with
dominant publics and the state. Different responses may be employed
simultaneously by various collectives, or in reaction to particular events.
At times, one response type may be utilized by the majority of institutions and subgroups of a public sphere. In the history of Black public
spheres, the pressures of living in a racist society, the ongoing fight for
equality, and the rich cultural reserves have necessitated that Black public spheres utilize all of these responses, some for long periods of time,
and some only for moments. These response types offer an alternative
way to “read” Black publics, past and present.
Enclaved Public Spheres: Producing
Discourses in Safe Spaces
Mansbridge (1996) writes that democracies need safe spaces for groups
who are disadvantaged, to be used for “gathering their forces and deciding in a more protected space in what way or whether to continue the
battle” for equality or just outcomes (p. 47). However, oppressed groups
in Jim Crow
often do not have the choice of picking safe spaces for themselves. Marginalized groups are commonly denied public voice or entrance into public
spaces by dominant groups and thus are forced into enclaves. At different times in history, African Americans have been forced into enclaves
by repressive state policies, and have used these enclave spaces to create
discursive strategies and gather oppositional resources. For example,
enslaved Africans were forced to live in poorly constructed slave quarters and had their movements heavily monitored by overseers, but they
used these restricted spaces to foster resistance. Likewise, free Blacks in
the antebellum North responded to social segregation by creating separate Black social institutions to foster their public speaking skills, create
campaigns, and facilitate resistance. The enclave is signified by the utilization of spaces and discourses that are hidden from the view of the
dominant public and the state. These clandestine places and communications are dedicated to Black interests and needs. Thus, the creation of
discourses and media by and for Blacks dominate the enclave response.
Even during periods of intense repression, though, “enclaved” publics will have some contact with dominant publics. However, the interactions are usually highly scripted, and members of marginal groups are
compelled to conform to a “public transcript” which reinforces unequal
social positions and frustrates natural impulses to perform reciprocal
actions on the oppressor. To alleviate some of this frustration and to
address their own interests, Blacks have created “hidden transcripts” in
safe spaces.6 Of course, there will be times when the hidden transcript is
revealed in wider public arenas, either when individuals or subgroups
publicly express previously enclaved ideas, or when surveillance by the
state or dominant publics reveals these clandestine discourses. In such
cases, the revelation of the Black hidden transcript, which often contradicted the ideologies of white supremacy held by the majority white
public sphere, elicited violent responses. Thus, an enclave public sphere
requires the maintenance of safe spaces, hidden communication networks,
and group memory to guard against unwanted publicity of the group’s
true opinions, ideas, and tactics for survival.
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
For Black public spheres, the antebellum era required an enclave response, particularly from enslaved Blacks but also for free Blacks. Slaves
created a number of ways to communicate without betraying their true
thoughts to slaveholders, and found the means to plan successful escapes and revolts unbeknownst to overseers, slave owners, and others.
Some free African Americans, on the other hand, were able to create
media and discursive institutions for their own use when blocked from
using those enjoyed by the White public. Through Black newspapers,
reading rooms, and debate societies, free African Americans provided
themselves with safe spaces to develop campaigns to protest against slavery, disfranchisement, and the racist treatment they faced daily from
Whites. However, these institutions of Black speech and action were not
immune from attacks by Whites. White mobs destroyed Black schools,
homes, and meeting places during race riots; Black newspaper salesmen
were beaten in the streets when selling subscriptions; and fugitive slave
laws that facilitated kidnapping of Blacks made public movement dangerous for all African Americans. Although the abolitionist movement
provided some spaces for interracial discourse and solidarity, the singlefocus on slavery often left other Black interests off the table, frustrating
Blacks who wished to improve the political and social status of free as
well as enslaved Blacks. Thus, maintaining separate, safe spaces for blacks
to meet and speak was an arduous task, but a necessary one for the
development of Black protest and ideologies of self-determination.
Black organizations provide places to work out issues and problems outside the view of potentially hostile publics and can be a source of history,
pride, or community connections. Enclave spaces and discourses remain
relevant even when other responses are more popular or prevalent. The
tasks of maintaining culture and group memory are two key enclave functions that support efforts to resist oppression. Without independent spaces
to retreat to in times of need or during negotiations with outsiders, marginal groups would not have as much freedom to innovate, draw upon
their own traditions, and speak freely without interference from the dominant group. Black publics have continued to foster organizations and expression designed to focus on the needs and possibilities of Black people
even as opportunities for wider participation emerged. The continued presence of independent Black media, Black artists’ collectives, Black fraternal
organizations, and other “Black-only” spaces and media fulfill functions for
Black collectives that mainstream public arenas, institutions, and media have
not. Enclave spaces, in a sense, provide a bedrock for marginal publics even
when they benefit from increased political rights or friendlier social relations.
As discussed above, the term “counterpublic” is used by many public
sphere theorists to describe varied phenomena. Because the term has
with the state;
strategic use of
in legal and
of organization among
test arguments and
disrespect, or 1955–1970
state; cooptation of
been used to describe a multitude of publics and actions, I believe the
term begins to lose its usefulness. The wide and varied usage hinders our
ability to distinguish amongst marginal publics and their activities. The
model presented here limits the definition of counterpublic to a particular response for a public sphere. If the enclave response is normally deployed in response to conditions of intense oppression, then
counterpublics usually emerge in response to a decrease in oppression or
an increase in resources. The counterpublic is signified by increased public
communication between the marginal and dominant public spheres, both
in face-to-face and mediated forms. Counterpublic discourses travel
outside of safe, enclave spaces to argue against dominant conceptions of
the group and to describe group interests. Counterpublics reject the performance of public transcripts and instead project the hidden transcripts,
previously spoken only in enclaves, to dominant publics. Counterpublics test the reactions of wider publics by stating previously hidden opinions, launching persuasive campaigns to change the minds of dominant
publics, or seeking solidarity with other marginal groups. The counterpublic is exemplified by the black public spheres that generated the civil
rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. In the 1950s and 1960s,
mass public protests—sit-ins, marches, boycotts, voter registration drives,
as well as the revaluation of African and Afrocentric arts, physical characteristics, and speech—were all central elements of daily life for a large
number of African Americans. This intense, widespread involvement set
the tone and agenda for Black politics and discourses.
The counterpublic response, one might say, seems to be the optimal
choice for a public sphere. However, it may not be prudent at all times
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
for all publics. In the case of enslaved Blacks, enclave spaces and hidden
transcripts were safer forms of organization and communication.7 Furthermore, even when relatively privileged free Blacks were able to speak,
those opportunities were often highly policed and constrained by the
dominant White public and the state. The end of slavery did not remove
the necessity for clandestine discourse either. For example, in the Deep
South, it was not safe for Black Americans to voice negative opinions
about their condition in public. Loss of livelihood, rape, psychological
trauma, and death were all very real threats constricting their voices.
Counterpublics emerged more easily in the cities that were home to tens
of thousands of Blacks after the “great migration.” The cities’ combination of better jobs, larger communities, and somewhat less acute legal
obstacles provided more opportunities for Blacks to amass resources
and create new institutions. Blacks could circulate and discuss more freely
the significant social, economic, or legal obstacles that remained, and
use their newfound resources to attack the problems. Part of this process was to challenge dominant stereotypes of Blacks and recreate the
group’s wider public image to challenge the historical degradation of
African American identities by the dominant White public. The new
Black newspapers, mass-produced and distributed to the growing Black
populations in large cities, spearheaded this charge alongside the explosion of musical, literary, and visual reinventions of Blackness created by
African American artists.
Counterpublicity is facilitated by greater independent media resources
and distribution channels. Mass production and dissemination of indigenous media not only means more exposure to wider publics, but also
allows and encourages participation in wider discussions. Hence, an
“imagined community” and participation in debates via shared information and opinions can be realized across space and time with the
mobility of mass media (Anderson, 1992). The counterpublic was a dominant response for African Americans during and after World War I, when
hundreds of new publications and political organizations spoke boldly
to wide audiences about Black interests and demands for equality. But
counterpublicity does not guarantee success: many of these discourses
of self-determination were answered by White mob violence. In 1919,
lynchings soared as Whites targeted returning Black soldiers who demanded respect. In the same period, the federal government used sedition laws to harass and shut down many Black newspapers that spoke
out against Jim Crow policies in the armed forces (Washburn, 1986).
Although counterpublics create more opportunities for intersphere
discussions, the members of dominant publics may monopolize these
opportunities. Members of marginal publics who test the waters in dominant publics or state forums may not be considered equals. As Warner
(1992) describes, even if marginal groups utilize the speech norms and
rules manufactured by dominant publics, they may not succeed because
of adverse reactions to their embodied speech:
The bourgeois public sphere claimed to have no relation to the body image at all. Public
issues were depersonalized so that, in theory, any person would have the ability to offer
an opinion about them and submit that opinion to the impersonal test of public debate
without personal hazard. Yet the bourgeois public continued to rely on features of certain bodies. Access to the public came in the whiteness and maleness that were then
denied forms of positivity, since the white male qua public person was only abstract
rather than white and male. . . . The rhetorical strategy of personal abstraction is both
the utopian moment of the public sphere and a major source of domination. . . . The
subject who could master this rhetoric in the bourgeois public sphere was implicitly,
even explicitly, white, male, literate, and propertied. (pp. 382–383)
For example, even when African Americans use the speech norms and
institutions of the dominant White public, White perceptions of racial
difference may derail Black attempts at negotiation. Or, Black spokespersons may be considered exceptional and not representative of the
skills and character of the masses.
Furthermore, counterpublics are affected by their interactions with
wider publics, often in ways not of their choosing. The state and dominant publics can undermine counterpublic discourses, performances, and
movements. In addition to censoring and attacking counterpublic discourses, dominant publics or the state often appropriate selected aspects
of counterpublics’ imagery, opinions, ideas, and performances in ways
that harm counterpublics. For example, the oft-cited passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech about judging the “content of our character” rather than skin color has also been retooled to fit the agenda of
antiaffirmative action advocates. Likewise, the discussion of the “antiracist-white-hero” films earlier in this essay provides another example
of dominant publics’ misappropriation of counterpublics’ history and
imagery. The dominant media are often a source of this appropriation.
Even when “positive” images of Blacks are manufactured, they are often used to undermine the position of other Black people who are defined as unworthy. As Jhally and Lewis (1992) demonstrated in their
analysis of audience reactions to the Cosby Show, the “good” Black
family represented by Cosby was used as a tool to argue against the need
for affirmative action and social welfare policies. These “positive”
portrayals, alongside the prevalent distortions of Black identity and
Black lives in dominant media have long existed without Black consent or control. This double-edged use of media texts has occurred
even when Black public spheres act in an enclave fashion, producing
a visibility/invisibility paradox.
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
American culture, popular and otherwise, treats blacks as though they are both
invisible and highly conspicuous at the same time. Blacks are ignored while their
status as inferior others dictates that their behavior is heavily and constantly scrutinized. (Jeffries, 1992, p. 160)
Thus, even when Blacks create their own media vehicles to redress stereotypes or present alternatives to dominant representations, they circulate simultaneously with presentations of Black deviance. At the same
time, Black and White-made representations of Black “cool,” Black celebrities, Black music, and Black style compete for audiences whose desire to consume these aspects of Blackness create complex and often
contradictory results, alternately reinforcing and challenging myths of
Black inferiority (Dates & Barlow, 1990; Dixon & Linz, 2000; Entman
& Rojecki, 2000; hooks, 1994; Jhally & Lewis, 1992). In such a scenario, we see how the enclave response and its related safe spaces remain important even when there are opportunities for counterpublic
formations. When rejections or distortions of counterdiscourses occur,
enclave spaces and discourses serve the group’s needs to regroup and
Satellite Publics: Deliberate Separatism
From, and Erratic Engagement With,
Satellite public spheres are those that desire to be separate from other
publics. In contrast to an enclaved public, where distance from wider
publics is the result of oppression, satellite public spheres are formed by
collectives that do not desire regular discourse or interdependency with
other publics. Satellite public spheres aim to maintain a solid group identity and build independent institutions. Satellite publics enter into wider
public debates when there is clear convergence of their interests with
those of other publics or when their particular institutions or practices
cause friction or controversies with wider publics. Satellite publics are,
of course, not wholly independent of other publics or the state, but by
design their paths only overlap intermittently with others’. Satellite publics can emerge from dominant or marginalized groups.
One example of a Black satellite public sphere is the Nation of Islam,
which aspires to institutional independence—some of its grander designs envision acquiring sufficient land to start a “nation within a nation.” Although the Nation and its spokespersons become involved, from
time to time, in wider public discussions and controversies, the goal is
not to eventually integrate itself amongst multiple publics, but to always
offer its constituents separate spaces and worldviews. Another example
of a satellite public sphere would be that of the radical White rightwing. Like the Nation of Islam, this satellite sphere does not envision
consolidation of group
be used by
broadening the constellation of publics to include itself in harmony. This
public desires separateness in order to remain pure. Despite their designs on White purity and fears of conspiracy that lead many in this
public to live “off the grid,” the radical right also periodically becomes
embroiled in wider public debates over moral issues, racial tensions, and
the limits of government power. For the most part, however, this public
stays in its own orbit usually crossing paths with wider publics only at
points of crisis. Of course, not all satellite publics will be composed of
radical groups; one can also imagine a privileged class becoming a satellite public when it is deposed or displaced. Such a public might selfsegregate to retain its sense of superiority over the publics that ended its
dominance, inserting itself into debates with the new regime only when
its interests were directly challenged or questioned.
I intend for this typology not to be a developmental model; rather, institutional, political, and social contexts may make the use of one of these
types of responses more prevalent at any given moment. At times, the
discourse and cultural expressions of a public may employ all of the
responses. For example, even in a period when the enclave response is
most often used, there may be some opportunities for constructive interaction with dominant publics, especially for particular individuals, but
these will not constitute the prevailing mode of interaction between dominant and marginal publics. Furthermore, enclave sites exist simultaneously
with all of the responses. The continued presence of enclave institutions
and separate spaces is not detrimental to the aims of wider participation
in debates with outsiders. Rather, nurturing the cultural strengths and
memory of a public in enclave sites is key to maintaining a storehouse of
knowledge, potential tactics, and strategies, to be used in counterpublic
moments. Without the enclave, there is no longer a “safe space” to develop and discuss ideas without interference from outsiders whose interests may stifle tactical innovations.
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
In addition, different sites within a public sphere may foster any of
the responses at a given time. Reflecting back on Felski’s (1989) depiction of the varied sites of the feminist public sphere (with the vocabulary
of this model) we can rethink the description of the diverse women and
institutions of her feminist public sphere. We can see that women lobbying and protesting the state and its agencies acting as a feminist
counterpublic, while a women-only commune would be acting as an
enclaved feminist public sphere. Both, however, help make up the diversity and vibrancy of feminist and women’s public spheres, and participants in both spheres could contribute to counterpublic actions together
when their interests converge, such as public protests for abortion rights
or wages for housework. Finally, discourses may begin as one type and
transform into another. For instance, a change in access to media technology or distribution can transform an internal, enclave discussion into
a counterpublic discussion. Louis Farrakhan’s controversial rhetoric and
demonstrations such as the Million Man March have drawn the satellite
public of the Nation of Islam into the public eye and transformed it into
a counterpublic directly engaged with outsiders. Therefore, members of
a public sphere may decide that it is time to transform the talk in the
enclave into expressions of political activism. The student sit-in movement, for example, was a physical, counterpublic strategy that grew out
of and performed the discourses of self-respect and self-determination
long fostered by Black communities and enclaved organizations.
If we are to take seriously the model of multiple public spheres made
up of groups who share some notion of group identity but are not ideologically monolithic, we need more mechanisms to describe how different institutions, strategies, and discourses can emerge from the same
social groups without endlessly fragmenting a public along identity lines.
By allowing for these response-types to exist simultaneously not only
across publics but within public spheres, we can retain the flexibility
necessary to describe the fluid nature of public spheres. For the case of
Black public spheres in particular, I believe this helps to describe many
more aspects of Black public life as opposed to the insistence on a single
Black public sphere. As the examples above have illustrated, the response
types help to describe a more complex system of coexisting Black public
spheres emerging from Black collectives with different gender, class, ethnic, and ideological standpoints. This system allows us to reexamine
Black public history without casting conflicts and other differences as
pathological or counterproductive. The popularity of Black conservative discourses in dominant media, for example, can be read as the emergence of a Black conservative counterpublic rather than the disintegration of Black solidarity on civil rights issues. This view that multiple
Black publics exist and have existed in the past also helps us recall the
popularity of the writings of Black conservative newsmen in the South
who opposed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s tactics
(Thompson, 1993). The appearance of conservative Blacks’ ideas on
segregation in White newspapers occurred simultaneously with and in
reaction to the counterpublic activity of Southern Christian Leadership
Conference. Similarly, the participation of White members of the Southern Conference Movement with Black counterpublics in the 1930s and
40s occurred when most of the White public believed in strict segregation (Reed, 1991). To note another example, Black women who oscillated between male-dominated black organizations and White-dominated
feminist organizations created their own enclave and counterpublics to
develop their own voices and criticisms of both groups.
As these examples show, this model and its terminology can further
develop our descriptions and theories concerning particular marginal
public spheres and our vision of multiple, coexisting public spheres. In
the future, I hope to deploy the model to investigate more thoroughly
the media institutions and texts produced by Black public spheres to
gauge their relationship to Black cultures, political institutions, public
opinion, and group identity formation. Today, Black public spheres exhibit many different kinds of responses, both due to internal and external changes that have occurred since the early 1970s. These changes
have led Blacks to a time of reevaluation and heavy discussion within
various Black institutions and enclave spaces in the hopes of generating
interests and strategies which will spark counterpublic-type activities in
the twenty-first century. Simultaneously, however, are continued efforts
at movement into the dominant sphere concerning public issues that
impact the Black populace, such as police brutality, economic injustice,
the backlash against affirmative action, public education, welfare, health
care, and the continued presence of institutional racism and social prejudices in American society. As I have argued elsewhere (Squires, 2000),
while some Black public spheres are not currently in counterpublic mode,
the types of institutional and discursive integration taking place at various local sites bode well for the emergence of future Black counterpublics.
Catherine Squires is an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Department and the
Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (CAAS) at the University of Michigan. This paper
represents the further development of ideas first presented in her dissertation (Northwestern
University, 1999). The author would like to thank the members of her dissertation committee for their support and feedback as well as the anonymous reviewers for their detailed and
insightful comments. She also thanks the Center for Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and CAAS for the generous intellectual and financial support during
her year as a doctoral fellow and postdoctoral fellow, respectively. Finally, she would like to
thank Daniel Brouwer of Arizona State University for many long and exciting discussions
concerning public sphere theories.
Rethinking the Black Public Sphere
Cohen (1999) describes marginalized groups as those with “a deficiency in the economic, political, and social resources used to guarantee rights and privileges assumed by dominant group members. . . . Marginal groups exist within a societal framework in which one or more of their primary
identities has come to signal inherent inferiority” (p. 38). Dominant groups then exploit these assumptions of inferiority to depict marginal peoples as unworthy of social capital and in need of
guidance or control by the dominant group. Thus, institutions and ideologies of the dominant
group support and perpetuate the exclusion of marginal groups.
I use the term “traditional political action” to mean voting, lobbying, boycotts, marches, and
other actions normally recognized as political. I use the adjective “traditional” only to set it apart
from other public activities that are certainly political but are not always recognized as such. Among
examples of these less traditional political acts are speech acts, performance of marginalized cultural practices in potentially hostile places, and guerrilla public art installations.
What follows is by no means a comprehensive, global review of the recent literature on public
spheres. Those who would like that sort of introduction should consult Goodnight and Hingtsman’s
(1997) thorough overview of current public sphere theory. Three other volumes are also very instructive: Calhoun’s 1992 collection, Habermas and the Public Sphere (1992), Robbins’s The Phantom Public Sphere (1993), and Asen and Brouwer’s Counterpublics and the State (2001). All contain many essays from different disciplines concerning the study of public spheres.
See essays in the edited collection Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill,
Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (Morrison, 1992) for insightful commentary on Thomas’s use of his Black identity during his confirmation hearings.
This article is based on research of the Black public sphere in the United States. However, in the
future I intend to investigate whether the model would be applicable throughout the Black diaspora.
I take the terms “public transcript” and “hidden transcript” from Scott’s (1990) work on dominant-subordinate relations. The oppressor demands certain behaviors from the subordinate group
to reinforce their power standing. One tactic of resistance available to the oppressed is to speak
differently in private spaces, giving voice to their frustrations and describing the oppressor class in
an unflattering light.
Of course, this threat did not stop many slaves from enacting resistance. From work stoppages
to poisoning livestock to abortions and armed rebellion, slaves in the Americas fought their captors. However, day-to-day survival was often dependent upon performing the public transcripts
expected by slaveholders to avoid sanctions.
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