The fifth in a series of reports from the American Studies Association.
“The Roots and Routes of Black Feminist Criticism.”
Located in a smaller room, this panel was more densely packed, with all kinds of people of all generations, Angela Davis among ‘em: easily over eighty auditors in that tiny space, and that was just at the start of the panel. It was very much the kind of panel that would excite the WisCon people I know and connect with their interests. I was sad to see that I was the only white male in the audience for the whole event
Be aware that my attention to my notebook during the q & a, in a room where the crowd limited visibility, might have led to a couple of errors as to who said what. Also, all the scholars and audience members used first names during the q & a, but I tried writing it up that way and it looked as if I was being overfamiliar, so I redid it.
Moderator Leigh Raiford explained that we see black feminist criticism growing out of art and activism in the 1970s, then challenging various disciplines in the 1980s and 90s, confronting and transforming their assumptions. Each of the panelists was given a Key Word to discuss. Raiford was inspired to do this roundtable by the great black feminist panel at last year’s ASA and by the announcement of Ann duCille’s retirement. So we have three generations of scholars on the panel from all kinds of places, eras, and disciplines.
Koritha Mitchell was given the Key Word tradition. The dictionary definitions of the word remind us that the act of labeling something a “tradition” requires claiming a historical pattern and gestures toward the future. Mitchell traces her roots to the 2001 Claudia Tate symposium, for which she trekked from UMCP to Princeton. She still remembers the awe and excitement that ensued when Claudia Tate, accompanied by an oxygen machine, entered the room. She remembers Hazel Carby insisting that her generation of scholars must share with the next generation the truth of what they went through. She remembers the critical demeanor that Ann duCille calls for, and that is exemplified by Farah Jasmine Griffin’s “That the Mothers May Soar and the Daughters May Know Their Names,” and the experience of being in the same room with all her favorite scholars: she began piecing elements of their strategies together, creating a “composite mentor” to avoid overburdening any one of them, and working to promote community in person while using publication to mentor from afar.
Mitchell does recuperative work on activist community, showing that Ida B. Wells was far from a lone crusader, and revealing that women, who were denied authority in the NAACP, spoke out by writing many anti-lynching plays. Inspired by Farah Jasmine Griffin’s account of all the scholars influenced by Hortense Spillers, Mitchell builds on the work of earlier scholars. She has an essay coming up in American Quarterly on Baldwin’s performance theory, “Reconstituting the Dead in Blues for Mister Charlie.” Inspired by the “Black Women in the Ivory Tower” conference (ten talks from which are available on youtube), she has published an essay on the forces that sometimes make a retreat necessary. In these, in her piece on Toni Morrison, in her blog work, she uses the personal politically and hopes that others can find support in that. To the extent that she focuses on self, it’s about acknowledging her place in the tradition.
Ann duCille wants to consider one of the ruts, or sticking-points, in the world of black feminist criticism. It is not hard to track black feminists’ successes in the academy: there have been peaks and valleys between Barbara Smith’s germinal article and today, and at this point we’re well removed from the heady days of the 1990s. Still, the academy looks very different today than it did a generation ago. But duCille is haunted by the possibility that the change is largely, well, academic. The dominant mass media models of black women are still the same four; people still broadcast and write about “nappy-headed hos” and “Obama’s Babymamma.” Has black feminist criticism done better by historical and fictional people than it has by living people?
The job of the intellectual is to study, think, write, teach, and provide people with tools. What kind of president might George W. Bush have been if he’d gone to UCSC and studied with Angela Davis? Two of duCille’s students have already built a thriving school for girls and a community health center in Kabira, Kenya. Many scholars do hardcore active duty on the front lines and the mean streets. But what about the real world effects of our scholarship and teaching? We struggle with such questions as, not only does discourse matter, but do I matter? And we have to address them, lest black feminist criticism risks a point where the personal is only political. Black scholars today don’t have time to talk to each other: if Nellie McKay had no time to pee, of course there’s no time to talk about the personal issues that Carol Hamisch raised in “The Personal Is Political”: we don’t bring up the most intimate matters that relate to our needs.
The media and the academy have taken to approaching duCille as an authority on marriage, but her approach to the subject is purely academic. She’s so fiercely single that to her for decades, “a date” has only been a small fruit. If someone were to write her biography, it’d be called A None’s Story. She cracks wise, but as others have observed, if she were to talk seriously about this issue, it’d be dismissed as “private.” Looking at the new book Is Marriage for White People? and at the high rate of celibacy among college-educated black women, one sees that it’s no laughing matter; but humor can be a good approach — it’s silence that’s deadly. And the alarming rate at which we are analyzing in the academy, so often alone, is not about being married or single: it’s the peril of being alone in the lion’s den without the proper armor. We must realize, like the consciousness-raising groups of forty years ago, that isolation and aloneness are collective concerns. We may need the company of each other’s conversation to survive whole. The importance of language to this community lies in having a critical vocabulary to save us from our own silences.
Aliyyah Inaya Abdur-Rahman was given the Key Word motherhood. Hinton Als in The Women reproduces a newspaper article on the rape of a toddler, noticing coded references to the race of the family in which it occurred — the markers Als thinks indicate blackness. Als’s depiction of black familial ruins focuses on the mother’s mute bewilderment, expressing the muteness of “Negress” identity. With “she has rejected language,” he presents the mother as the quintessential black woman. It is her silence, according to Als, that makes her a symbol of black identity. The place of violence and familial ruin in black American life is emphasized by recent images of black women in the news: the woman who was arrested for enrolling her kid in a better school district; the outraged mothers who defended the men accused of the Cleveland, Texas rape; the woman who drove her van into the Hudson; the woman convicted in her child’s jaywalking death — all these inadequate mothers in the news show that publicity doesn’t have the redeeming power Harriet Jacobs hoped it would.
Abdur-Rahman became a mother between college and grad school in a truly horrible short marriage. Then she decided that only by Doing Something Grand could she redeem her situation. But she discovered the boundaries of what any person can do alone. Motherhood is an enriching but a limited identity — all of these horrific narratives attribute to black women a mute insufficiency as mothers. In a time when social good is no longer the province of the state but is left up to the private, black feminism holds us up, gives us the language we need, is as relevant an optic as it has been in the past 120 years: it helps us correct the narrative on behalf of the most vulnerable.
Regine Michelle Jean-Charles’s life was changed as a student when Farah Jasmine Griffin bought her a copy of Words of Fire. She wants to show us an excerpt from Congo: Une Cause Commune about the antirape movement in the Congo, which has extended through Europe. ON 17 October 2010 thousands of women in the DRC came out to protest mass rapes, with such slogans as SAY NO TO SEXUAL TERRORISM, demanding international attention and outcry, effecting a global feminist practice and strategically deploying such signs as “terrorism”, “freedom”, and “human rights” to indict the omissions in the War on Terror. The movement displays the shortcoming of U.S.-generated discourse, wherein even a slogan such as “women’s rights are human rights” can vitiate black bodies: this movement evoked the agency and subjectivity of black bodies, with an invocation of freedom that revised Nkrumah’s “total liberation.” Even when the armed conflict is over, the gender violence of peacetime must also come to an end. We see new types of African protest narrative in which women deploy traditional protest methods and recognized political language to reassert agency and challenge victim imagery as well as the victim/survivor binary. They have found numerous ways of resisting.
What use is focusing on this scene of global black feminist praxis? Guy-Sheftall calls movements against sexual violence Black Feminism 101. There’s been a transnational feel to black feminism for a long time: we move from Anna Julia Cooper’s Voice from the South to a voice from the Global South. And we see black feminism as a precursor to a lot of things. Thinking that way requires inviting international activists into the archive: these activities have been coursing through our criticism since it first began.
Farah Jasmine Griffin has learned so much from reading the papers for this panel. The Key Word she was assigned is imagination. Black feminists dared to imagine the world anew. In its early forms, black feminism was a Freedom Dream. The selections in The Black Woman (1970) reveal that it is not a unitary identity and shows ways to name different identities, as does Valerie Smith’s Not Just Race, Not Just Gender and all the work done by Crenshaw’s “intersectionality”: all see black feminism as a strategy of reading. We claim identities to resist the forces that oppress us even while challenging ahistorical and essentialist views of identity, as in Griffin’s own reclamation projects. The speakers have called attention to the presence of violence: how do we theorize and map that? Abdur-Rahman on motherhood reveals black feminism as a view that allows us to correct asymmetries, resisting stereotypes and uses of black mothers and address the legacies of Richard Wright, Ann Petry, the dozens, the mocha mama image — the language of the people. Jean-Charles writes about a new African Freedom Dream, synthesizing her intellectual and political concerns. Mitchell on tradition manifests a vibrant living tradition. Her pilgrimage to Princeton recalls to Griffin her own long-ago drive in a borrowed car with Saadiya Hartman to Princeton after Cornel West had promised to introduce them to Toni Morrison. We learn of Mitchell’s sense of community and of duCille’s of isolation, also duCille’s calling for space-clearing, time-making, community-building.
A question from the audience observed that in the Nafissatou Diallo/Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the mother issue was overlooked. Her having lied in Guinea was not understood as protecting her children. How could a global feminist perspective have helped? How could our recognition of the pathological black mother issue have helped? Jean-Charles is very gratified to see black feminist scholars talk to each other about this. She was disappointed by the organizing here around the Diallo/DSK case, but it unleashed a lot of organizing in France, among Caribbean/African women. The global narrative we were given turned on clichés: she fled the Primitive Land and only in the U.S. could she seek justice for her cause. We have to be able to think about how global black feminism can address the class and the globality here. A black feminist optic wasn’t articulated. Abdur-Rahman said it was a story that could not be easily scripted in terms of the dominant narratives. (Devastation or Uplift) that are available to us.
Erica Edwards of UC-Riverside remarked that black feminism has given us a language to readdress the category of “woman”: how can we use it to theorize beyond gender normativities. Griffin sees that as having been a problem from the very beginning, with the contested issue of Remaking Womanhood. One of the unspoken fights with Barbara Smith is that she was naming black lesbian women as the center. The remaking should have been enabling, but it hasn’t been. duCille asked, How do you talk about marriage from a feminist perspective? How do you even talk about marriage without recentering the male? Griffin said the Diallo/DSK case shows the continuing primacy of the discourse of respectability in our culture. Mitchell says that to create a space for others to speak is part of a person’s responsibility. Abdur-Rahman is so invested in moving away from a normative category, she cannot take black feminism’s “content” as a given, or take it as her own.
Joan Morgan is now an NYU grad student, in her second year in American Studies. She asked about using pop culture to give black women language to dissect and navigate things that reach us through that medium — such as the attempts to tell black women that they need to be fixed. Providing language to combat it is black feminist work. But she feels that work is not reaching vulnerable people. Jean-Charles finds that when you have conversations with people, it becomes easier than she imagined. But, Morgan asked, after we work one-on-one, where do we go? Griffin told Morgan, You have modeled that beautifully in your own work. Jean-Charles says she does thing it requires creative models, but then you end up seeing black kids marching through the streets of Chicago with t-shirts saying no means no and doing all kinds of activism.
Mitchell cautioned that what we’ve done to clear space doesn’t mean things are gonna radically change. What we’ve done doesn’t mean that the next generation won’t suffer and we won’t continue the lonely fight. Abdur-Rahman averred that there’s got to be a way to conceptualize the distinction between, say, individual difficult experiences without deferring automatically to issues of how we’re represented. Octavia Butler’s isolation ought to be discussed before we go on to talk about Nightline and the media presentation of black women. Discussing the battles we have to fight, an audience member named Randall said that lawyers take money. He remembers reading at fifteen or sixteen about the Joan Little case . . . and now, we’re dominated by the professionalization of the academy. So thanks for addressing the question of engagement, and thanks for facilitating discussion of black masculinity too.