I’d never thought much about Barthes method until I read Sara Ahmed’s book Queer Phenomenology in which she draws attention to the labour that enables Husserl to sit and think at his table; the work of childcare and table clearing performed, probably, by women. Ahmed has inspired me to ask what Barthes is doing here, and Barthes has helpfully told me; he is forthright; perhaps that is why I find his writing appealing; I am engaged by honesty and directness. He looks at photographs; he thinks about photographs, and he writes whatever occurs to him that seems worthy of sharing. Strange to think that this text, famous, influential as it is, has such a personal origin, that a single standpoint can be taken as universal. I was awake to this when I read Barthes’ reflections on being photographed ‘I play the social game… [preserve my] essence of individuality’. I felt the contrast with images of fashion models, who are anonymous matter, utile bodies. And female celebrities: their ‘essence of individuality’, for the public, is built through repetition, the ubiquity of their images eventually persuades us of their reality beyond the image. The more beautiful the woman is judged to be, I think, the less individual she is, the more anodyne her image, her expressionless face… He says, parenthetically, discontinuously ‘it is my political right to be a subject that I must protect’. I want to follow this thought – but he drops the trail, leaves it to others (feminists?) to pick up and consider the costs, the consequences…
Barthes considers what constitutes his interest in, his feelings about photographs, and distinguishes two classes of effect (or affect) they produce – a ‘slippery, irresponsible’ sort of general interest produced by the image’s relation to fields of knowledge, culture, experience, curiosity, which he calls studium, and a piercing, emotional jolt that he calls punctum, a kind of realisation that there is life beyond the frame, but more than this, maybe even ‘Pity’ because the photograph speaks always of death (but for other reasons, because Barthes chooses photographs like Richard Avedon’s devastating photo of William Casby ‘Born a Slave’, and one of a Black family whose trappings of ‘respectability’ induce ‘Pity’ in Barthes because he reads, reductively, a hopeless aspiration to Whiteness. Race thus becomes a painful emotion felt and mediated by the White viewer – Barthes describes it variously as wound, madness, ecstasy – he remembers Nietszche’s ‘pity’ for a horse.)
After reflecting at length on a photograph of his mother as a child, he reflects at length on photography’s defining feature, the ‘this-has-been’ it offers that is incontrovertible. He predicts that the astonishment at this will vanish, and I think he is right, but for more reasons than he anticipates, because hasn’t the cultural status or the location of the photograph changed with the advent of social media? In this context great numbers of people quite habitually make photographs, and while we perhaps still mainly look at photographs while alone, we do not do so in the same kind of privacy as Barthes speaks of, and we very often look at photographs that are not our own. Perhaps all this belongs to the sociological fluff that Barthes is not interested in (the assertion he makes that there are few books on photography is no longer true!), but it seems to me that updates are in order. The transition from private to public, the arrival of celebrity culture, that the photograph attended, have passed into new stages in the digital age. Nonetheless, I think Barthes makes an enduring point about the photograph as a document impinging on time, on the sense of time, as the photograph as measurement and memento mori. ‘Death must be somewhere in a society’, Barthes insists, and yes, I think it is still in our personal photographs, little piping voices telling us life is precious…
I imagined this would bear some similarity to Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s Some Day I Will Write About This Place, but there is nothing parallel here to Wainaina’s sardonic critique of neo-colonial representations of his country and continent. There isn’t time for it! I fear that this, the white ‘liberal’ clamour to be educated by the ‘Other’, was what prevented me from connecting with Saro-Wiwa quickly; it took me about 200 pages to warm up to her, more or less as she started to write appreciatively about pre-colonial art and artefacts. The Africa of my barely half-decolonised imaginary is so fraught and exciting that the casual treatment of Nigeria as an actual place threatened to fall flat.
Saro-Wiwa’s journey, while highly personal and freighted with various loads of emotional baggage, is narrated in factual, linear, unembellished style. She avoids overloading the text with excessive incidental detail, seems not to be prone to digression, keeps the structure simple and rarely segues into extended reflections. For long stretches I wasn’t able to latch onto her emotionally. She tends to tell rather than show her own character, giving an impression of fearlessness, mild cynicism, and not much else! The occasional failure of her enthusiasm, her sense of a less-than-delightful job to be got through on the journey occasionally clouded my enjoyment of the transparency of the window she opens on incredible places, but I should have empathised rather than feeling impatient as I was oppressed by the same nihilistic Baudelairian boredom at times on my travels in Brazil.
For most of the way she is a judgemental observer, constantly complaining about the havoc and inconvenience wrought by ‘inefficiency’ and corruption, comparing places she visits unfavourably with London and the ‘developed’ world generally. What I read as an uncritical, wholehearted acceptance of capitalism and enthusiasm for what I see as (neo)colonial notions of ‘development’ kept pulling me up short. But I had to pull myself up – is it actually necessary to précis Decolonising the Mind as a preface to a politically acceptable demand for running water and electricity? What could be more characteristic of the coloniser mindset than my belief that I know better? I finally accepted that while Noo and I might not be on the same page at times, I would simply have to calm down and enjoy the ride, even if I couldn’t enjoy a barside discussion on such topics as community:
For all its benefits, the social fabric of extended family doesn’t wash well in a free-market economy; it hinders it badly, I think. Corruption and nepotism increase when pressure is placed on successful individuals to look after dozens of clinging family members. Many a Nigerian office is staffed with unqualified uncles and cousins who bring little innovation and creativity
Stuff ‘em then, relations = (
The book succeeds in conveying just how diverse Nigeria is in every sense. Saro-Wiwa, born in Nigeria but mainly raised and resident in the UK, is constantly identified as a foreigner, but this seems extraordinarily perceptive of those she meets, considering the plethora of ethnic and linguistic identities cohabiting the clearly artificially bounded state. Even more striking to me is the contrast between the characters of the various cities she visits and attendant disparities in lifestyle. That Saro-Wiwa feels able to make a few generalisations about Nigerian national character at all is quite surprising, but it’s less so that she frequently admires the population’s ability to make Nigeria’s unlikely nation statehood work, at least on the interpersonal/intercultural level (if not the political) where easygoing, good humoured attitudes to cultural difference and religious tolerance generally set the tone, aided rather than hindered, it seems, by the national trait of frankness and love of argument.
Geographical diversity is beautifully rendered and I gained a richly layered sense of place in each of her calling points. Saro-Wiwa’s sketches of people she encounters, I feel, are sometimes shallow and unanimated, but occasionally humorous quotations made me wish for more, more people, more personality, more feeling. Perhaps it’s apt to find myself wishing for more passion from a text that opens with a lament over Nigerian people’s propensity for exaggerated public emoting; Saro-Wiwa as a writer seems to rather to err on the side of English reserve. Or perhaps I suffered a massive failure of empathy. As an intermediary between me and one of her homes, Saro-Wiwa was more negative and ambivalent than I wanted to be myself, and while this uncomfortable tension gave me a kind of fascinated traction, it made me irritable and impatient. I was a bad companion. Every traveller has her ghosts, and the reader should patiently accept her particular habit of carrying them.
Philosophy! The foundation pit of all the sciences and all the arts and all the humanities, no? Philosophy! A praxis… of thinking about stuff more than usual, of following the trail of ideas, seeing where we can go with them… something like that? It’s how I would describe Sara Ahmed’s writing. An image for it might be going for a walk on a beach and examining the shells, turning them over, listening to them, seeing what colour they are on the inside. Except that sounds a bit floaty and whimsical, which this emphatically isn’t, it’s just that it’s an investigation of the often overlooked, a hearing of the seldom heard.
For example, thinking about Husserl thinking about tables, Ahmed thinks about the labour involved in keeping the table and the space around it clear and available for Husserl to sit and think and write at, labour performed by others, presumably women. Ahmed asks: what’s going on behind Husserl while he’s thinking and writing at his writing table? She asks and suggests lots of other things too related to the way people are facing, what they are able, thereby, to notice, what effect spaces and objects and work have on bodies, how these effects depend on those bodies, whether they are read as bodies of colour, female bodies, queer bodies.
Thinking about orientations around things and toward things shows how things get missed, how barriers that stop some can be invisible to those they let pass. Racism isn’t much of a problem these days, say my class of white students…
I was taught, as a student of philosophy, not to value the personal, but to admire the ‘objective’. Yet, philosophers have spoken as if their own thoughts were universal. By investigating the personal, (queer) feminists of colour like Ahmed have rehabilitated the specificity of experiences, opening paths and windows onto nodes of commonality, meeting points, communal tables as well as places of tension and friction.
I’m sure I’ll read this again and keep making connections, keep following paths I’d never noticed. One point of affinity I felt was with Elizabeth Grosz’s essay ‘Refiguring Lesbian Desire’ in which she elaborates on the preposition that desire, rather than being a painful lack, is creative and productive. For Ahmed desire, specifically lesbian desire, certainly is that: it creates paths, reshapes the world. I love reading Ahmed, not just because I recognise and learn to recognise the world spoken differently to the way I have been trained to hear it, but because of this pathbrea/making world shifting potential she points to.
Hurrah for diverse books, before I say another word. I loved how this book drew on Pakistani/Muslim stories and imagery, and I enjoyed the company of its young protagonist. I’m sure younger readers will too. I was interested to see how Rushdie would adapt his style, and it seems he did so by indulging his taste for cliché and word play as much and as fantastically as possible. The magic in this fantasy yarn is all rooted in language; figures of speech come to life and behave unpredictably, metaphors become literal, and the whole lot gets an embroidery of tasty colloquialisms. I think that’s why I found it a bit overcooked, a little bit too self conscious.
Another reason it seems self conscious is perhaps its transparent agenda; it’s a parable in defense of freedom of speech. The righteous army argue about their orders extensively. The General loves a good debate, he’s delighted to listen to the discussion. Finally they all proceed with commitment. Ace! Orwell wrote about the same thing happening in real life in Homage to Catalonia – no discipline problems. As well as the right of citizens to dissent and challenge authority, Rushdie wants the rights of storytellers to tell it their way to be sacrosanct, severely rebuking attempts at political interference. And quite right too!
But when the story is so openly didactic, the writer ought, I feel, to be careful about other things too. I’ve written about Rushdie’s male-oriented but creative writing of gender before, but here it strikes me as simply sloppy. I waited over 100 pages for an interesting female character, and I liked her when she arrived, but she had heavy work against the sexism of her culture and even against her author to make up for the barely-written faithless wife, the damsel in distress used for light relief (although Haroun challenged it rather weakly and ambiguously – but what is with this purity-of-fairytales angle? Seriously needed work!) and the mockery of Princess Batcheet for her physical attributes.
I don’t always agree with Angela Carter, but I adore her (similarly, I am very glad that the contemporary fiction by other women that Carter made more publishable exists, though I do not always want to read it). I wish I’d known her! She is like the friend who rescues you from the abyss of loneliness. She always writes with the distinctive combination of generosity to her audience, scintillating wit and uncompromising forthrightness that makes her fiction such a feast, like a dinner party with a charismatic and considerate host.
This fat volume took me two weeks to read. I’m a soup-to-nuts person and I struggle not to eat everything on my plate whether I want it or not; other readers (like my mother) might find this book fun to dip into, or read one piece a day – there are about 145. The book is equipped with a helpful index, so certainly amenable to browsing.
Carter’s analysis is sometimes so mercilessly acute it makes your eyes water. She cuts through any and all stuff and nonsense like a hot machete through a block of margarine, and she squashes snobbery underfoot, along with the agents of patriarchy. D H Lawrence, so often lauded for ‘understanding women’ (my eye! His contemporary and close acquaintance Katherine Mansfield saw through the ruse), gets no quarter; especially in ‘Lorenzo the Closet Queen’ in which his fascination with women’s clothing is ridiculed (and exposed as a device mistaken for insight). Her piece on Gone with the Wind ‘The Belle as Businessperson’ offers razor sharp critique, deep understanding of the appeal, and consoling feminist wish-fulfilment.
Her insight is often strikingly original and thought-provoking. Her essay on Playgirl style male pornography is very funny, but goes much further then laughing at absurdly nude sky-divers. Carter points out the contrast between female and male nudes in European-Christian art history – while a woman has only to take off her clothes to step into a time honoured (though obviously problematic) role, the male nude is historically a tormented dead or dying martyr, and to avoid evoking such imagery naked men must look alive even at the cost of looking kitsch. Of course, we can go right back to the ancient Greeks, but with them the male nude is unacceptably homoerotic. So, while women wield such influence and control as they have unveiled, men’s power is in their clothes, in their status; without them they are ridiculous, like the emperor in the story. Carter points out that this tale would have a wholly different meaning were the empress to walk out naked: her appearance would be read as an audacious flaunting of erotic power.
Carter disliked the idea that her writing had a ‘mythic quality’ because ‘[myths are] extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree’. ‘I’m in the demythologising business’ she asserts, and she describes The Passion of New Eve as an anti-mythic novel. The unwriting and rewriting of myth is, I guess, her speciality as a feminist writer. In contrast, she seems to savour vernacular and folk culture everywhere, not ‘eating the other’ as a coloniser (she is too aware generally to fall into that mode – she is in that minority of white writers who own their privilege and think critically about whiteness) but deconstructing, reweaving, reflecting. ‘Folklore is a much more straightforward set of devices for making real life more exciting and is much easier to infiltrate with different kinds of conciousness’ This sensibility gives bite and clarity to writing on Japan, where she lived for a while. She is at once richly appreciative of, fascinated by, some aspects of her experience in Japan, such as irezumi tattooing, and resistant to the mythologyzing exotification of Japan that Westerners normally indulge in. She writes about Yukio Mishima as a fascist – she is not seduced. Her travel writing on all places is amusing, illuminating, idiosyncratic.
In the omnivorousness of her interests, and especially her folklore fancies, Carter reminds me of Cerys Matthews, who, I feel, is gentle and generous, and sometimes gleefully ascerbic in her lyrics. Matthews also seems to manage the difficult act of avoiding being contained in a gendered box as a public figure. If you love Angela, I advise you to look up Cerys’ radio show.
My favourite piece of the collection is, I think, ‘Alison’s Giggle’. I have never made the effort to read Chaucer, though I once heartily enjoyed observing (and participating in – the teacher allowed me the indulgence of reading the final product in a USian accent, to the kids’ delight) a year 8 lesson in which we translated a comic excerpt into modern English and then a south USian dialect, so reading this was an illumination. Carter uses The Miller’s Tale as a jumping off point to discuss the changing representations of women’s sexualities in literature. In many ways, it was largely downhill from Alison for several hundred years, but thanks to Carter and a clutch of others, not entirely without exception.
To make the reasons for an act of violence felt by me is one thing. To do so in a book that takes the part of the victim is… testament to Morrison’s genius and to the compelling quality of the reasons. Slavery, to those who know, is worse than death, and more.
But reasons don’t make an unassailable right; their value depends on what you can know in your bones, and what you can know depends… depends on the heart, the bones, what happens to you, on the shape of your days. So this is a story that challenges the binary ethical foundations and the epistemologies of white supremacist (christian) heteropatriarchy. It is a story of both/and, one of ambiguous (un)forgiveness.
Kindness: a young man buys the freedom of his mother with years of future Sundays. The woman learns she might work now, hears women are wanted at the slaughterhouse. What are women wanted for? She wonders. Work unwanted by men, surely. But there is money for the work, the cold hard metal of freedom, so the work is welcome. Because unfreedom is worse than death, than murder, than the blood and horror of the slaughterhouse, worse than the miserable work women might earn a few coins for, to those who know.
The spirit world, real and immediate, horror, folklore, fairytale. The limits, the trammels and traps that hamper love, hold back, hold down (Patricia Hill Collins talks about this too, in
Black Feminist Thought
). Morrison writes, and the unspeakable is spoken. Form breaking, heart shaking literature
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Not really a review, more a butterfly-view.
I had a rare flash of brilliance and decided to read the glossary first. This kind of sensible idea rarely occurs to me. I was immediately struck by Collins’ definition of
intersectionality: analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation and age form mutually constructing features of social organisation, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black women
In other words, intersectional analysis, first articulated by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1991, is explicitly and inseparably about Black women. Re-reading ‘Mapping the Margins’, Crenshaw’s original article, I see Collins’ framing there, except the centred specificity of Blackness is extended to all women of colour. Anyway, let it not be forgot.
The first chapter, The Politics of Black Feminist Thought explains in detail how Black women’s ideas and existence have been suppressed, erased and excluded from the academy, and why much Black feminist work has sought to excavate and reclaim the work of earlier Black women intellectuals. It’s important to note that Collins defines such intellectuals not by education or academic output: Sojourner Truth is one example who could not read or write, yet contributed to Black feminist oppositional knowledges. She identifies two historical factors that helped foster the critical social theory of Black US women: ghettoisation, which was designed for political control, but had the effect of enabling community structures and spaces for Black people to use African-derived ideas to craft resistance to racial oppression, and Black women’s positions in the labour market as domestic workers, in close proximity to Whites, giving them a perspective that Collins terms outsider-within, also applicable to Black women in many institutions.
She asks how do Black women in the academy ‘find ways of doing intellectual work that challenge injustice’? Collins shares her own experience of being tokenised and suppressed by her very scarcity. Her work must involve disrupting academic norms that are hostile to emotion and subjectivity: the subject position is precisely what has been denied to Black women. The concept here that most provoked my own thought and self-reflection was the orientation of both/and, reflecting Black feminists’ rejection of or resistance to the binarism of Eurocentric tradition. One aspect is a BOTH scholar AND activist tradition, another manifests in Collins’ approach to fellow intellectuals. She mentions that Sister Souljah is often dismissed as antifeminist for her acceptance of patriarchal masculinity, but her work has still contributed to Black feminist thought. Both/and reading makes space for celebration, solidarity, critique, acceptance and complexity.
Distinguishing Features of Black Feminist Thought firmly asserts that this thought exists because the oppression of Black women remains, and thus requires an activist response. Since this oppression is intersectional, Black feminists have always recognised that their liberation requires the dismantling of multiple structures of domination, and thus their work ‘supports broad principles of social justice that transcend US Black women’s particular needs’ Collins uses a technique throughout the book of quoting ordinary African-American woman of varying ages and social positions, here to note how daily experience stimulates the creation of oppositional knowledge. She also constantly refers to Black women intellectuals and studies; the book is superbly, lovingly researched. What emerges is a contrast with White feminist’s ‘consciousness raising’ – Black feminism publicly articulates already developed, taken for granted knowledges.
Collins explains why Black women must lead and be in charge of Black feminism:
Black women intellectuals from all walks of life must aggressively push the theme of self-definition because speaking for oneself and crafting one’s own agenda is essential for empowerment
but its work resonates widely: ‘if you write from a black experience, you’re writing from a universal experience as well… you don’t have to whitewash yourself to be universal’ says Sonia Sanchez. Other groups engaged in social justice projects can identify points of connection that forward Black feminist as well as their own agendas. Collins notes that such people may become ‘traitors’, to their own privilege, for example whiteness. Another key point here is the dynamism of Black feminist thought; it responds directly to changing social conditions, for example to changing relationships between African Americans as they have moved through the labour market and social classes since WWII.
In her discussion of Work, Family and Black Women’s Oppression, Collins reminds us that the heterosexual nuclear family ideal is not natural as is made to appear, but a creation of the state. For African American women it has never applied: slavery allowed no such structures, and later, most Black men never had sufficiently secure income to allow female partners, who found it easier to get jobs but were much less well paid, to work full time at home. US gender norms based on work roles thus rendered black women ‘unfeminine’. Kinship structures beyond immediate family developed. While White communities increasingly followed ‘market-driven, exchange-based models’, Black communities had a high degree of solidarity and collective effort. She also notes that parenting passes on internalised oppression or oppositional knowledges.
In the post WWII period, Black Usians experienced both upward and downward social mobility. The introduction of cocaine and other drugs created an informal economy and enabled the rapid expansion of the criminal justice system. Housing remained segregated, but community began to erode. Black women generally moved from domestic work (immigrant women largely replaced them) into industry and clerical work (forming a working class often ignored by Black feminism and conflated with the working poor) and low paid insecure service jobs (becoming working poor) which resemble domestic service. Collins notes a contrast between a 1972 study of adolescent Black girls, who were hopeful despite living in harsh conditions, and a 1984 replication, in which girls and young women complained about unmet emotional needs as the extended family network that once supported Black girls had become overstretched due to economic shifts.
Upwardly mobile Black women who made it into the middle class have had to endure a kind of ‘mammification'; they are expected to be nuturing and are disproportionately employed in caring roles:
Black women are expected to fix systems which are in crisis due to underfunding, infrastructure deterioration, and demoralized staffs
or as Barbara Omolade puts it:
Black professional women are often in high-visibility positions which require them to serve white superiors while quieting the natives
. Collins emphasises the need for Black feminist thought to work through these modern class relations to prevent Black women from becoming oppressors of each other.
considers how binary thinking and objectification result in the construction of Black women as the Other. Social theorist Dona Richards is referenced: she posits that the White tradition requires objectification in positing a knowing self distinct from a known object. Feminist scholarship has articulated the construction of women in proximity to nature as integral to their conquest by men, while Black scholarship has traced the parallel situation of Black (and other non-White) people are more ‘natural’ or ‘instinctive’, supporting the political economy of domination in slavery and (neo)colonialism.
As the “Others” of society who can never really belong, strangers threaten the moral and social order. But they are simultaneously essential for its survival because those individuals who stand at the margins of society clarify its boundaries. African-American women, by not belonging, emphasize the significance of belonging.
The ‘mammy’ image of the faithful and obedient domestic servant who cares for everyone and makes no demands is the oldest image, while the ‘bad black mother’, the matriarch is contrasted with her. This aggressive, unfeminine woman is the counter-ideal on which the cult of true womanhood stands in all its Whiteness. This image means that assertiveness is penalised in various ways in all women, but especially Black women. The ‘absence of a Black patriarchy’ has been said to indicate cultural inferiority, so this image feeds White supremacy and pressures Black men to be more dominating. Collins explains and thoroughly exposes the oppressive functioning of other controlling images: ‘welfare mother’ ‘black lady’ ‘hoochie’. All of these images, in different ways pathologise the sexuality and fertililty of Black women. Collins discusses the hoochie’s deviant behaviour as both hyper-heterosexual and lesbian, ‘freaky’ in either case, in the words of 2 Live Crew. I would like to go back to Mapping the Margins briefly here:
Crenshaw compares the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial to the permissiveness granted to Madonna, who portrayed masturbation & insinuated group sex onstage, without interference. The court denied that 2 Live Crew’s music had cultural specificity or artistic merit, which Crenshaw shows to be disingenuous and simultaneously a dismissal of the value of rap music made by Black people and a move to universalise and whitewash Black cultural expression. Obviously, like Collins, Crenshaw decries the violently misogynistic content of the work in question and mounts a strong feminist+antiracist critique of the arguments of its defenders, but she also challenges the court decisions’ implication that it has no political value as a discourse of resistance. Furthermore, she points out that obscenity trials and critiques by Whites did nothing to protect the Black women objectified by the lyrics they targeted, instead furthering racial subjugation of Black men and devaluing of Black women by ignoring their specificity and viewing them as stand ins for White women, always the implicit victims of Black male sexual violence.
Collins discusses beauty standards, colorism and the feelings of inferiority that affect Black girls and women living in the midst of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She gives attention to the ways Black women fiction writers have worked against controlling images, by presenting oppositional images of Black women as emergent, as well as tracing the causes of their individual subjugation. Such portraits return full humanity and subjectivity to objectified women.
This leads in to (this book has flow) The Power of Self Definition which is about the myriad creative ways that African-American resist and have resisted controlling images, subordinate roles and white supremacist hegemony, in every day ways, through blues music, literature, self-reliance, activism, academic and intellectual work and research. I became very frustrated on behalf of women of colour attempting to organise safe spaces. These are often misdescribed and criticised as ‘separatist’ and ‘essentialist’, but spaces free from surveillance by more powerful groups are obviously deeply needed to develop the ‘self-definitions [that] become politicised Black feminist standpoints’.
One of the striking aspects of the chapter is the idea of self that emerges: one based on accountability and rooted in connectedness in difference and individuality in community. This is one of the hardest aspects of the book for me to get a handle on, and one I want to understand much better: ‘identity is not the goal but rather the point of departure in self-definition’
When it comes to The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood ‘everyone has spoken for Black women, making it difficult to speak for ourselves’. Women’s studies, for instance, has tended to fit Black women into frameworks developed around White women to point out how Black women ‘have it worse’. But the silence around sexual politics among Black women, an important subject here, also relates to racism and the pressure to choose between gender and race, when speaking out against rape and misogyny might harm Black men. Black feminism, by treating race, gender and class as intersecting structures of domination rather than individual attributes, has made work in this area possible. One example is reproductive justice discourse, a wider framework for reproductive autonomy than the pro-choice focus often taken White feminists, (but now being claimed by them as a new discovery) that grew as a response to the various suppressions and forms of population control enacted against African-Americans, from forced sterilizations to ‘welfare-queen’ controlling images.
Sexism (and heterosexism) are only possible in a binary system of thought. The devalued jezebel/hoochie makes pure White womanhood possible. Collins reminds us that ideas about what is natural and normal are state sanctioned and promoted in schools, the media, religious institutions and government policies. I love this quote from Toni Cade Bambara on Eurocentric gender: “I have always, I think, opposed the stereotypical definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’… because I always found the either/or implicit in those definitions antithetical to what I was all about; and what revolution for the self is all about, the whole person”. For me this relates to Julia Serano’s critique of oppositional sexism in Whipping Girl. (I think Serano is very inaccurately portrayed as a defender of stereotypical femininity and I find her thought on this very helpful, but Bambara’s/Collins’ framing highlights that Serano is working, albeit critically, within a White, Eurocentric epistemology)
The exploitation and regulation of Black women’s bodies under slavery, Collins argues, form the foundation of pornography today. Alice Walker pointed out that White women are objects in pornography, while Black women are ‘animals’. Collins suggests that this puts White women in an intermediate position between culture and nature (an object is the work of man), while Black women, uncultured, remain available for the untrammeled exploitation meted out to the rest of nature.
The next topic is Black Women’s Love Relationships which heart-hurtingly tells subjugation leaves so little space for love to flourish. One obstacle is that
White men have exploited, objectified, and refused to marry African-American women and have held out the trappings of power to their poorer brothers who endorse this ideology
Another obstacle is White women, those institutionally desirable creatures painted as ‘racial innocents’ yet often seeming to rub salt in the wound by boasting to Black acquaintances about their relationships with Black men, from whom Black women so often experience rejection. Briefly mentioned here is a thread of Black Feminist thought towards redefining beauty in, for example, contrast and action, making use of African-derived ideas – not replacing one ideal with another, binary style, but creating space for erotic autonomy. Love between Black women, erotic or otherwise, is also important here.
Black Women and Motherhood and Rethinking Black Women’s Activism deal with the problems US Black women have faced as mothers and the strategies they have used for survival and empowerment of themselves, their communities and their children. It’s really disgusting to read how ‘maternal politics’ has been dismissed as ‘immature’ or inferior to feminism because it is not focussed on ‘personal rights’ by Julia Wells and others. A couple of key points are the whiteness of higher education and the whiteness (and maleness) of trade unions and other workers’ organisations. If Black women have rarely participated strongly in these areas and other forms of organized liberation struggle, that reflects their opportunities more than their interests. Black feminists have thought about power and leadership in terms of social reproduction and decentralisation – there are acute critiques here of civil rights/black power leaders who did not teach others to lead, accepting their status as figureheads.
US Black Feminism in Transnational Context looks at issues of global solidarity, oppression by nation, commonalities and differences between African-Americans, other diasporas and women in Africa. The style of collaboration fostered by US Black feminist groups provides a good foundation for ‘transversal politics’ that enables different groups to learn from each other. There is a sharp observation that police are the ‘foreign’ occupiers for US Black women.
In Black Feminist Epistemology. Collins compares positivist ways of knowing generally used by white men and institutions , where emotion and personality must be removed, ethics are considered an encumbrance to ‘objectivity’, and quality is checked by testing the work against robust attack, as an example of a contrast with a set of alternative metrics used by African American women – an ethics of care, personal accountability, lived experience as creating meaning, and the use of dialogue to test and develop ideas. This chapter explains the obstacles to Black feminist ideas being heard, and the pressures on Black women in academia to support dominant ideologies
She lays to rest the binarist version of standpoint theory that leads to ‘oppression olympics’, where added layers of oppression somehow gift clearer vision. Collins contends that truths are validated by the fact that people speaking and knowing from many standpoints agree on them or find commonality in them
Each group perceives its own knowledge as… unfinished [and] becomes better able to consider other group’s standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own or suppressing other groups’ partial perspectives
bell hooks calls this dialogic method humanising speech ‘one that challenges and resists domination’. I will continue to struggle away from binary thinking, positivist ways of deciding who is right and that everyone else must be wrong, away from domination and epistemic violence, towards both/and.
Finally in Towards a Politics of Empowerment she suggests social justice movements need a new common vocabulary to help foster a politics of empowerment. She describes four ‘domains of power’ that contextualise Black feminist thought. The structural domain is made up of institutions reproducing Black women’s subordination over time. Legal victories have continually improved conditions, but this has led to the rhetoric of colorblindness The disciplinary domain backs up the structural domain with bureaucratic hierarchies and techniques of surveillance. I was reminded of Neil McGregor’s discussion of the stability of a solid bureaucracy. It is easy to hire Black women to watch and regulate each other or force their complicity in these activities. Neither structural nor disciplinary domination could operate without the hegemonic domain, which produces and perpetuates ‘common sense’ white supremacist patriarchy in the form of controlling images. The interpersonal domain is the micro-level where these interlocking power relationships play out. As Collins reminds us many times, Black feminism is concerned with improving the lives of African-American women and others. Key to this is her remark that working within the epistemology of US Black women is far more powerful than creating new knowledge with the master’s tools.