Octavia E. Butler By Gerry Canavan
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 224 pp., $22.00, paperback
Reviewed by Nisi Shawl
Octavia Estelle Butler walked the Earth. Gerry Canavan’s meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, and wrenchingly felt biography tells us how.
A legend in her own time, Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) remains notable more than a decade after her death. She was both the first African American woman to become a major force in the field of science fiction and, in 1995, the first science fiction author to receive one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships (colloquially known as Genius Grants). Though not prolific in terms of her published oeuvre, Butler won literary awards left and right, including, all in one year, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for her short story “Bloodchild” (1985). The MacArthur, as well as her 2000 PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award, bear witness to her importance outside the sometimes parochial speculative fiction community.
Canavan takes up the Octavia Butler legend and simultaneously interrogates and validates it. An assistant professor at Marquette University who teaches contemporary fiction and popular culture, he has long been a student of science fiction’s impact on society. He has read, and read deeply, the relevant texts: not only Butler’s fiction and essays but also works in conversation with her own, such as those by her Clarion Writers Workshop instructor, the Afrofuturist Samuel R. Delany; and classics such as Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954), with its set-up of non-negotiable limits to human survival. Canavan is thus fully prepared to disassemble, examine, polish, and reassemble the elements of Butler’s career and life as if they were the parts of a familiar firearm.
Approaching his subject chronologically, Canavan begins with a chapter covering the period from Butler’s birth in 1947 to the appearance of her story “Crossover,” in 1971. Here, he recounts Butler’s working-class origins, describes her juvenilia, and highlights her attendance at the 1970 Clarion workshop for writers of science fiction and fantasy, taught by Joanna Russ, Damon Knight, Samuel R. Delany, and Fritz Leiber.
This chapter, “Childfinder,” is named after a story Butler wrote in the early 1970s that was published only posthumously. Discovered in Butler’s archives at the Huntington Library, it was issued in the e-book Unexpected Stories (2014), together with another newly discovered work, “A Necessary Being.” Throughout the book, Canavan references pieces of information like this, the fruits of his research in the Butler archives, which deepen the book’s impact immeasurably in comparison with other Butler-focused work. It’s one thing to read essays and interviews mentioning that Butler entertained herself by imagining and writing stories of unaided human flight, animal communication, and mind control. It’s another to read about these fantasies together with notes on the personal events connected to them and analyses of how they relate to her more mature work.
Famously shy, the Butler revealed in this and subsequent chapters withdrew into her imagination to escape a world at odds with her on many fronts. Physically, she was larger than the accepted norm for females at almost every age; socially, she was the daughter of menial workers; intellectually, she struggled to keep up with classmates due to what she later self-diagnosed as dyslexia. Though her first stories were written for her own pleasure, she soon determined that they’d be her life’s work. In her teenage years she began submitting what she called “terrible pieces of fiction” to magazines she categorized as “innocent.” Canavan skillfully connects the lacks Butler saw in herself with compensatory attributes in her characters, via journal entries in which she exhorts herself to remember the lessons those characters have learned. He ties her fondness for self-affirmations such as “You will write a great book” with classes she took on self-hypnosis and her fascination with telepathy, telekinesis, and other pseudo-scientific powers of the mind.
Closing this first chapter with a detailed account of the Clarion workshop and two of the stories Butler wrote there, Canavan moves on to the years 1971 through 1976, the period in which Butler established her career as a professional writer. From letters to fellow Clarion graduates he gleans her concern with her lack of sales. From her correspondence with her publisher, Doubleday, he unearths a bargain she struck: accepting a smaller advance in exchange for the inclusion of some obscenity-laden dialogue. (Doubleday was concerned about being banned from libraries; Butler wanted authenticity and was willing to sacrifice immediate monetary gain for it.) Examining Butler’s original manuscripts, he charts the events that form the background for her five Patternist novels. Delving into her journals, he links her depression to her pessimistic take on humanity’s long-term viability, as revealed in specific stories and their characters’ attitudes and actions. He links her portrait of Utopia and the violent, anti-Utopian tendencies of the supermen of the Patternist books to her love for comics. (In one exchange, she waxes philosophical about the ultimate disposition of her beloved comics collection.)
The publication of one of Butler’s most popular novels, Kindred, in 1979, was a turning point. In a chapter spanning 1976 through 1980, Canavan examines the version of Kindred we know, plus manuscript fragments of explicitly science fictional versions of the book and alternative endings. Canavan shares the familiar anecdote about how the novel’s time-travel narrative derived from Butler’s dissatisfaction with contemporary African Americans who disparaged the courage their ancestors needed to survive chattel slavery. But he follows that up by describing an alternative, Patternist-oriented manuscript, which uses the impending return of Doro, the villain of Wildseed (1980), to the plantation where the heroine is trapped to ratchet up the story’s tension. In doing so he once again furnishes the bare attic of literary biography with possibilities that will excite both serious students of Butler and newer readers, passionate about what they’ve just discovered.
In an afterword-like conclusion, Canavan discusses Butler’s posthumous legacy. The Carl Brandon Society, an organization founded in 1997 to promote “the representation of people of color in fantastical genres,” established a scholarship fund in Butler’s name that sends writers of color to the annual Clarion workshops. Butler’s works have inspired many conferences and anthologies (one of which, Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler , I co-edited)—as well as individual authors (myself included). Despite the size of this inventory, though, the primary message of this section of the book is a wish for more. As many others have done, Canavan feelingly laments the sequels and stories Butler anticipated creating, which will now go unwritten. Referring to the home of Butler’s extensive archive, Canavan writes, “The Huntington Library makes possible an entirely new era in Butler scholarship,” and he calls for scholars and authors to make use of its materials. He also cherishes the hope that some of Butler’s unpublished stories and variant manuscripts, withheld from the public during her life due to “the spirit of brutal perfectionism that drove her,” will now be offered to the world at large. The majority of the manuscripts in the archive, he says, are “not discarded scraps or abandoned, embarrassing mistakes…just more.”
As a sample of the sorts of pieces he’d like to see become more widely available Canavan includes as an appendix Butler’s long out-of-circulation 1980 essay, “Lost Races of Science Fiction.” A manifesto about the erroneousness of excluding black characters from SF because of the “messiness” involved in depicting nonwhites, “Lost Races” ends with a half-jubilant, half-deploring assessment of science fiction’s attitudes toward inclusivity and prejudice. “Times have changed,” Butler decrees. In the next sentence, though, she admonishes the field that “it still has a long way to go.” That her pronouncements on this matter hold true nearly forty years after they were first published speaks volumes about the slow rate of social change and Butler’s continuing centrality to our understanding of the fantastic genres.
Canavan substantiates his insightful discussion of Butler with references to other scholarship and multiple primary sources. The book’s Introduction grounds his numerous citations of Butler’s papers in a brief but helpful note on the Huntington Library’s archive-retrieval system and 500-page finding aid.
In a way, that Introduction sums up Canavan’s hologrammatic approach to his subject. In addition to giving an overview of his book and methodology, it delves into the ethics of what he has done. His sense of a deeply personal relationship with Butler—which, he points out, is far from unusual for Butler fans—exacerbates his unease over the essentially voyeuristic nature of the biographer’s work. This uneasiness is in truth quite appropriate to Canavan’s subject: by all accounts, including his, Butler disturbed her audiences with the ambiguous dilemmas her stories posed and her courageous attacks on taboos as often as she entranced them with her plausible characters and her spare, evocative prose.
In his Introduction, Canavan also explores Butler’s consciousness of her effect on readers and her attempts to manipulate it. Her early drafts are consistently more pessimistic than their final, published versions. She frequently cut and revised scenes to transform her books, which fit the category she privately termed “NO-BOOKS,” into “YES-BOOKS”; she believed that only “YES-BOOKS” became bestsellers. However, her efforts to transform her writings were only partially successful: though the results of her revisions read more optimistically, Canavan notes that according to Butler’s reflections on the matter, “NO-BOOKS sold, alas, the way her actual books did.”
Canavan introduces his long list of acknowledgments by saying, “Like some supercharged Oankali mating ritual this book has many parents.” Oankali are the three-sexed alien saviors of the humans in Butler’s three Lilith’s Brood novels, and Canavan’s evocation of them alerts his readers to the primacy of Butler’s works in Canavan’s world. Butler told her story in two ways that sometimes became one: by writing and by living her life. Canavan leads readers gently through this story’s pertinent plot points, stopping occasionally to measure the depth of a footprint or the width of a stride. Octavia E. Butler is a walk well worth taking, with Canavan as an excellent and trustworthy guide.
Nisi Shawl is the James Tiptree Jr. Award-winning author of the collection Filter House (2008). Her steampunk alternative history of Leopold II’s Congo, Everfair, was published in September 2016. Shawl is a founder of the prodiversity nonprofit the Carl Brandon Society, and a graduate and board member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has spoken as a uest lecturer at Smith and Spelman Colleges, and at Princeton, Stanford, and Duke Universities.
Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left by Emily K. Hobson
Oakland: University of California Press, 2016, 309 pages. $29.95 paper 2,092 words
Reviewed by Margaret Cerullo
Emily Hobson’s compelling book recovers the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s and 1980s in a particularly iconic and dense site of activism: the San Francisco Bay Area. (Hobson uses the designation “lesbian and gay” as it was understood by radicals at the time, with a greater attunement to the intersections of race, class, gender, and nation than later critics of “essentialism” often assume. Radicals, she says, generally did not, however, incorporate bixexual and transgender identities; these were not claimed politically until later.)
More than a simply local story, Hobson’s reconstruction of this history sets out to challenge larger narratives that acknowledge only two really dramatic moments in the history of US gay politics: the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 and the emergence of the direct action/civil disobedience/street activism associated with ACT UP in the late 1980s and 1990s. In this scheme, the 1970s and 1980s were the doldrums: gay and lesbian politics supposedly divided into “separatism,” associated with lesbians, and “liberalism,” the assumed politics of gay men, which focused on rights and assimilation. However, among other things, this narrative erases the gay and lesbian left. Hobson asks why. Why are certain stories written out of history, and what are the cultural frameworks that make it almost impossible to write them in? Are we in a historical moment when the forgotten freedom dreams of the gay and lesbian left—dreams of a radical end to oppression of all kinds—might again become legible?
Hobson characterizes the gay and lesbian left provocatively, by the way it viewed sexual liberation and radical solidarity as interdependent. Leftists, she writes, “defined gay and lesbian identities not only as forms of desire, but as political affiliations that could create the conditions of possibility to set desire free.” If liberation was the theory, she proposes, solidarity was the practice. New York’s Gay Liberation Front, the first post-Stonewall gay organization, took its name from the National Liberation Fronts of Algeria and Vietnam, underlining the fact that early activists defined gay and lesbian politics through identification with other liberation struggles. These activists, from the Vietnam War generation, influenced by feminism, theorized that normative constructions of masculinity underlay violence and imperialism. Excluded from the draft, radical gay men proclaimed that homosexuality could be a means to resist the Vietnam War. One slogan advised “Suck cock to beat the draft”; another, in a riff on Muhammad Ali’s explanation for his draft resistance (“No Vietcong ever called me nigger”), proclaimed “No Vietnamese ever called me queer” (which became the title of a Gay Liberation Theater production).
Hobson’s book ends in the 1990s, at a moment when segments of the LGBT movement sought freedom by identifying with, not against, the state—embracing inclusion into the military and celebrating the inclusion of police contingents into annual LGBT pride celebrations (leaving older gay and lesbian liberationists to insist that “the military is not a jobs program for young people but the muscle behind US imperialism,” and to recall that Stonewall was a riot against police violence). Through such disruptive reminders, Hobson unsettles the progress narrative of gay and lesbian history—from Stonewall to marriage and the military.
She tells several important stories that capture the vibrance and diversity of actions, arts projects, alliances, and commitments—in short, the politics and counterculture—that characterized the apparent doldrums of the 1970s and the 1980s. The life and death of Harvey Milk; the fight against the 1977 Briggs Initiative that would have banned lesbians and gays, and possibly supporters of gay rights, from working in the California public schools; the Coors beer boycott in gay bars—these activist histories are barely known to younger LGBT people, except perhaps the story of Harvey Milk, because of the film Milk (2008).
In a major contribution, Hobson argues that framing 1970s lesbian activism as “separatist” has completely erased radical lesbian politics, which she characterizes as a politics of collective defense. Rooted in a critique of state violence and a belief in the right to self-defense learned from the Black Panthers, lesbian communities harbored political fugitives from the radical underground and refused to cooperate with grand juries in revealing their whereabouts, at considerable risk of police harassment and imprisonment. (The most famous case was that of Susan Saxe, accused of participating in a bank robbery in Boston to raise funds for the Black Panthers, in which a policeman was killed. On the run for five years, Saxe turned herself in in 1975 to stop attacks on the lesbian communities that sheltered her.)
Lesbian collectives also extended shelter to women accused of killing their rapists or abusers, which activists viewed as acts of self-defense. Feminists in the Bay area, many of them lesbians, organized support for Inez Garcia, who killed one of the two men who raped her. The Free Inez Garcia Committee and the Inez Garcia Defense Committee ultimately achieved Garcia’s release from prison. However, in a harbinger of things to come, conflict emerged between these committees and the newly formed San Francisco Women Against Rape, which did not join the campaign to free Garcia for fear of alienating the San Francisco Police Department, with which they were developing a working relationship.
In Hobson’s discussion of these developments her historical imagination is evident. She takes as her subject not an organization or a campaign but a particular kind of space—the lesbian collective household of the 1970s—whose importance she recovers from archives and interviews. These spaces functioned as shelters against state and male violence, political meeting places to plan actions and organize projects, and community centers, that might include an abortion clinic, a café, or a library.
In a central contribution, Hobson brings to the fore the significant lesbian and gay presence in the Central American solidarity movement. This was perhaps especially visible in San Francisco, for several reasons. Most important was the existence of “barrio transnationalism”—relationships and mutual influences among Latin American refugees, immigrants, and exiles, and the Latino/a and other marginalized and poor populations living in the Mission district. Gay and lesbian Latino/as and Latin Americans were a key part of this mix; they readily made the connections between their own local organizing around poverty and housing and revolutions happening in Latin America that were promising profound transformations in people’s material lives.
Moreover, while the straight left counselled lesbian and gay solidarity activists to tone it down in order to not offend Nicaraguan sensibilities, gays and lesbians in Nicaragua had been coming out in the militias and the literacy and health brigades, and were eager to make contact with gay and lesbian solidarity activists. In a chapter called “Talk about loving in the war years,” Hobson draws on activists’ memories to communicate the ways in which all kinds of desire circulated in these encounters. Together, these activists built transborder lesbian and gay community, queering barrio transnationalism and furthering radical sexual politics in both places. Overall, it would seem from Hobson’s account, that solidarity activists had greater success in appealing to lesbian and gay communities to stand in solidarity with Nicaragua and against US intervention than they did in convincing the straight left of the relevance of sexual politics to revolution.
Hobson demonstrates that by 1987, Central America solidarity work had begun to influence US AIDS activism. In 1986—eight months before the formation of ACT UP in New York—San Francisco activists organized the AIDS Action Pledge (AAP), modeled on the Pledge of Resistance, an emergency response network to resist US intervention in Central America. Opposing arms shipments to Central America from California military bases, AAP called for “Money for AIDS, not for war,” and “Condoms not contras.” Hobson argues that in making these connections, activists reframed AIDS. Rather than perversion, deviance, or even disease, the AIDS epidemic was about human needs. This framing may also have contributed to a more broadly based understanding of health care as a human right—something the activists had learned from their solidarity work with third-world revolutions, particularly Nicaragua’s.
Hobson’s book makes several important contributions. In interrogating the reasons why the story of the gay and lesbian left has not been told, she identifies several culprits. One is the loss of so many of a generation of radical activists to AIDS, and with them, the loss of their memories and histories. Another is the dominance of the liberal inclusion narrative described earlier. While she doesn’t say this explicitly, there is not only a white but a male centric bias in this narrative. Finally—and this is a critical contribution to US gay and lesbian history—Hobson indicts the narrow domestic, nation-state focus that has characterized US gay and lesbian histories, and that makes invisible the importance of Central American solidarity work to lesbian and gay activism in the 1980s—and, she reminds us, of Palestinian solidarity work to the queer movement today. However, what Hobson doesn’t emphasize is the responsibility of the wider left, whose histories (and memories) generally erase gay and lesbian contributions to left movements, often as part of a reductive critique and dismissal of “identity politics.” In any case, Hobson reveals how much had to be defeated, forgotten, and lost for there to emerge as dominant the idea of gay and lesbian identity as cut off from any wider commitments and imagination.
It is striking that Hobson does not pay much attention to questions of class, either in the movements she studies or in her analysis. I wondered about the class position of the activists she discusses, how they survived, what they did for work. What kind of economy supported a radical counterculture of collective households, whose members had the free time to devote to political and related creative pursuits? Are these spaces of collective possibility increasingly a casualty of gentrification, as Sarah Schulman has provocatively suggested in The Gentrification of the Mind (2012)—and in a larger sense, of the neoliberal reordering and fragmentation of our lives?
Lavender and Red surfaces the gay and lesbian left’s creative, intersectional analyses of US militarism, imperialism, capitalism, racism, and state violence, and its efforts to think about these systems through the lenses of gender and sexuality. Another of the book’s principal contributions is to provoke reflection on the politics of alliance and solidarity—and for this we need all the help we can get, in this historical moment when solidarity is ever more difficult and necessary. Her intricate and nuanced discussion of lesbian and gay solidarity with Nicaragua helps us to understand its specifics and its difficulties, missteps, miscommunications, risks, and occasional profound connections. Emphasizing the way Nicaraguans actively directed solidarity, Hobson points not only to the exchange of ideas, but to the silences and gaps in communication that structured their relationships with US activists. For example, gay and lesbian targets of a Sandinista crackdown in Nicaragua did not share that information with their US counterparts, since they didn’t want to jeopardize the Americans’ political and material support for the Nicaraguan revolution—or their joint projects of AIDS education.
I end this review with two reflections because these concerns point to future work that will reframe the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s by putting race and class at the center. The first is the whiteness of so much of the gay and lesbian left. Despite the movement’s deep critiques of racism and imperialism and its development of intersectional analyses of racist sexism—for example in its discussions of the case of Inez Garcia—the gay and lesbian left almost always remained overwhelmingly white. Hobson is tentative here; she doesn’t directly ask why this was so, though she does point out that the movement’s whiteness was challenged by lesbians and gays of color. The lesbian poet and activist Pat Parker, for example, criticized the Inez Garcia campaign, angrily protesting that white lesbians seemed to think this work “took care of racism,” while failing to bring women of color into the leadership of the campaign or to reach out to women of color networks or groups.
All this suggests how much we need a history of the third-world gay and lesbian left (to use the language of the time), including, in the Bay Area, such groupings as the Third World Gay Caucus, which split off from Bay Area Gay Liberation; the Latino Gay Alliance; and the women of color lesbian groups who show up in Hobson’s chapter on the Nicaragua solidarity brigades and elsewhere. How would the history of the US gay and lesbian left of the 1970s through the 1990s look if it began with the politics and activism of these people of color groups and others, such as the Combahee River Collective? That is the principal challenge with which this thought-provoking book leaves us.
Margaret Cerullo teaches feminist studies, Latin American studies, and political theory at Hampshire College. She was active in Boston’s gay and lesbian left from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Daring to Drive : A Saudi Woman’s Awakening By Manal al-Sharif
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017, 289 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Persis Karim
While the Arab Spring of 2011 is long behind us, and it delivered far less than many across the region hoped for, it is hard to forget the energy and courage of the individuals who sparked a movement that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In a manner of months, millions mobilized on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, and Sana’a to challenge some of the most repressive and long-standing dictatorships in the region. The images of people, especially young people, flooding the streets played nightly on television and social media. But the instrumental role that women played in many of those movements was often pushed aside by the revolutionary fervor that called for regime change.
However, one quiet revolt, initiated and led by women, fought for something more basic than a change of leadership: the right to drive a car. For Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman at the heart of the campaign to challenge the kingdom’s prohibition on women’s driving, the Arab Spring was fundamentally a struggle for women’s freedom.
Daring to Drive documents al-Sharif’s role in the 2011 women2drive campaign. Even more, it portrays the complexity of Saudi legal and cultural restrictions, which undermine women in everyday life through the institution of mahram: male guardianship. Part memoir and part manifesto, Daring to Drive provides a rare glimpse into a society about which most Americans know very little; our images are limited to two tropes: individual Saudis as the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks; and periodic news photos of male Saudi leaders in traditional dress standing next to US presidents and their (unveiled) wives. Rarely do these images include Saudi women. We do not hear them speak or understand their stories.
I had the opportunity to work with al-Sharif during the proposal phase of her book. Initially, she conceived of it as a way to bring international attention to Saudi women’s struggle to do something women elsewhere take for granted: drive a car. The book she has written, however, is far more developed and wide-ranging; it not only documents her daring act of driving, but also the abuses heaped on females, including being unable to do nearly anything without the consent of a male guardian. For Saudi women, driving represents far more than simply taking the wheel of a car. Women must obtain the permission of a male relative to go anywhere—school, work, shopping, whom to marry and any kind of travel. Because women are forbidden to drive, they must rely on either a male relative or a hired male driver to transport them. “It is an amazing contradiction,” writes al-Sharif:
A society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that males and females cannot sit together; that society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone.
Al-Sharif dispels the myth of Saudi Arabia as a land of wealthy sheiks and hidden women through her detailed narrative about her life and that of her atypical family. Her parents, both illiterate and poor, met during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Her mother was from Libya, and her father was a taxi driver who shuttled pilgrims from around the world to and from the holy sites of Mecca. They were far from stereotypical rich Saudis who have so much money they can travel and shop abroad in the most exclusive shopping malls of Europe and the US. On the contrary, her family struggled economically, and al-Sharif often went without the things her peers had—adequate food, books, and many everyday comforts such as adequate housing. The family was ostracized because her father had married outside his tribe and culture: in Saudi Arabia, even those from other Muslim and Arab countries are seen as outsiders, regardless of how long they have lived there. Al-Sharif describes a childhood that was full of depravity and hardship, including regular beatings at the hands of her parents and teachers, and a traumatic circumcision that left her with psychological and physical scars. (In an email to me after the book came out, she wrote that she hadn’t thought about the circumcision for many years, until she started writing.)
Perhaps because of her poverty and marginalization, al-Sharif as a young girl was determined not to be left out or left behind. She became a passionate lover of reading, full of curiosity about the world. Trips to visit her mother’s family in Egypt showed her an alternative to the strict Saudi-style Salafi Islam. But at the age of thirteen, as a result of her education and constant radical preaching on TV, she started to change, she writes, from a “moderately observant Muslim into a radical Islamist.” After the 1979 revolution in Iran and the attack, that same year, on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by insurgents who wanted to overthrow the House of Saud, Saudi religious restrictions and the trend toward fundamentalism throughout the region intensified. “Religious sermons and leaflets were distributed for free in common gathering places,” writes al-Sharif. She began to feel judgmental of women who did not follow the rules of veiling and fasting, and she participated in “disavowals,” in which she and her peers “express[ed] our hate and enmity” toward “infidels.”
As she grew more devout, she chose to wear the niqab (a full-body covering, including the face, with slits for the eyes). At the same time, however, she was performing well in school and wanted to attend university, but because she had witnessed her father’s protest at her sister Muna’s decision to attend the College of Medicine, a mixed university, she chose instead to attend King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah (a women’s university). There, she was exposed to a variety of behaviors, customs and cultures, but “nothing did more to change my ideas and convictions than the advent of the Internet, and later, social media,” al-Sharif writes. Ultimately, it was on the internet that she read articles that challenged her beliefs and her country’s “extremist” form of Islam.
After al-Sharif graduated with a degree in computer science, she found a job at ARAMCO, the Saudi oil company (formerly the Arabian American oil company, which had been a majority American-owned company until the 1980s). While working and living on the ARAMCO compound, which was a sort of American colony, she enjoyed the same freedoms as the American and international workers. Men and women worked together. And it was on the compound that she bought a car and learned to drive. Women could drive inside the compound, but not on Saudi roads: for errands or family visits offsite, she had to hire a male driver.
These contradictions—her freedoms as an ARAMCO employee, her ability to drive on company property but not in her own country—finally became too much. Al-Sharif became an “accidental activist” after an incident in which she found herself in Khobar City at dusk after a doctor’s appointment, without a driver to take her home. As she waited for a driver, men yelled at her, calling her “whore” and “prostitute.” The next day she told a male colleague about the harassment, and he informed her that, technically, there was no law prohibiting women from driving—it was simply culture and custom.
After the conversation with her co-worker, al-Sharif made an impulsive but important, life-changing decision: she would get behind the wheel of her car and “dare to drive.” Within days of her decision she saw a Facebook event called “We are driving May 17th,” organized by a young woman named Bahiya. She contacted the woman and asked if she could be added as an administrator. Because she had witnessed the use of social media, and Facebook in particular, in the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, al-Sharif decided that she too would use these platforms to organize a much larger driving protest. On the advice of a friend, she created a Twitter account (her handle was @Women2Drive) and almost immediately began to connect with some of the more than 2.4 million Twitter users.
“When social media began to flourish during the Arab Spring of 2011,” she writes, “I found myself in possession of a voice—a miraculous thing in a country where women are almost never heard.” In her Twitter profile, she wrote “We call on all Saudi women to drive on June 17.” After organizing day and night to get women to commit to driving on that day, she decided to make an informational video for Women2Drive in preparation for the June 17 action. Although she was careful not to call it a protest, on May 17, she got behind the wheel. She did not hide her face, and she spoke her entire name in the video. She filmed herself driving, calmly stating, “We are your sisters, your mothers, your daughters. We expect your support, and now we’re giving you the chance to show it.” Her final words were, “The whole story: that we will just drive.”
Al-Sharif’s daring first step of filming herself driving and posting it on YouTube got her more than 120,000 views on the first day. Many of the reactions to the video were positive, but many more were critical, harsh, angry, threatening, even, and many suggested that al-Sharif was under the influence of foreigners. Two days later, she was arrested and jailed. She quickly became known around the world through news coverage of the Arab Spring and the social media campaign to free her, which reached international news outlets. Finally, with immense international pressure, including from human rights organizations, after eleven days, al-Sharif was freed. The June 17 event, however, did not take place.
Like the other activists who risked so much during the Arab Spring, al-Sharif paid a high price. She was shunned at her job, and eventually told to keep quiet. But the final threat to her job at ARAMCO came when she was invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum, after she had been informed that she would receive the 2012 Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She was told that if she went to Oslo, she would lose her job. Yet, she felt she had to speak out. Her speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum went viral on YouTube, but within her own country, her success had turned her into an “enemy of Saudi Arabia and a traitor to Islam,” she explains. Due to the threats and fears for her safety, she soon realized she had no choice but to leave Saudi Arabia. She went to Dubai with the man she would eventually marry, a Brazilian consultant to ARAMCO, whom she had met just before she left her job. Today, al-Sharif lives in Australia, and because she married a non-Saudi, she cannot reside in her country and sees her Saudi-born son from her first marriage, Aboudi, only during short visits.
Al-Sharif showed bravery and resilience in speaking out about her country and its religious practices, which harm half the population. In Daring to Drive, she shares a powerful story of her awakening as a Saudi and an activist, advocating for women’s rights to tell their own stories and determine their own fates.
Persis Karim is a professor of Comparative & World Literature and the director of the newly established Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the editor of three anthologies of Iranian diaspora literature and a poet. More information at: www.persiskarim.com.
By Jan Clausen
I’m discovering that the reissue of an out-of-print book generates even more fodder for self-doubt than the initial publication—especially when your own life is the topic.
“It’s written as though there are only two genders!”
A trailblazing transgender rights advocate wasn’t thrilled with Apples and Oranges: My Journey through Sexual Identity, a memoir I initially published in 1999. Seven Stories Press, my publisher for the reissue, had forwarded the advocate a copy for comment, incurring this scathing verdict. “It might have been cutting edge back in the 90s, but in 2017, it comes off as reactionary!”
The activist was right about my binary blinders. Apples and Oranges, at its core a memoir of lesbian feminism in the 1970s and 80s, evokes the experience of “falling in love with a gender” and looks at what happens when lived experience—in my case, becoming romantically involved with a man—scrambles not only self-definition but also community connections. Because this is a political memoir as well as a personal one, I reflect on the folly of trying to shoehorn everyone into a binary definition of sexual selfhood (the gay/straight divide) as a frame for the remembered moments of my lesbian feminist life and my eventual “breakup” with my beloved women’s community.
By Rickie Solinger
>The Trump administration is creating an epic reproductive-health emergency. Playing to his base, ignoring public attitudes and people’s lived experience, the president promotes policies and political appointments favoring reduced access to contraceptives, recriminalized abortion, and the crippling of Planned Parenthood, the provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare—including hundreds of thousands of breast exams and Pap smears, education, information, and outreach—to nearly 2.5 million largely low-income women, men, and adolescents in the US every year.
By Heather Hewett
Writer, scholar, and professor Alison Piepmeier died on August 12, 2016. She was 43 years old. The National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) recently announced the Alison Piepmeier Book Prize for a “groundbreaking monograph in women, gender, and sexuality studies that makes significant contributions to feminist disability studies scholarship.” The deadline is April 12, 2017. In addition, The Alison Piepmeier Scholarship is awarded annually to a full-time Women’s and Gender Studies major or minor at the College of Charleston.
By Bettina Aptheker
A man who lost the popular vote for the presidency by 3 million votes now sits in the White House. It is shocking and instructive to think about the fact that so many mostly white men (and women) were willing to vote for a man who is clearly so emotionally unstable and volatile, rather than for a competent woman. Some on the white left, especially some white men, relentlessly attacked Hillary Clinton even after she won the nomination, and even after Trump’s character and platform were perfectly clear. This was unfortunate. In the end it discouraged some people from voting at all. We all need to learn from this. A united coalition of everyone based on progressive, antiracist, and democratic principles is imperative. There is no room for ego, and no room for misogyny.
As we looked at the organizing by Black Lives Matter against police violence and other forms of racist oppression, we at Women’s Review of Books began thinking about the intersectional politics of the new movement, and its similarities and differences, in politics and strategies, from previous organizing. We decided to bring together (virtually, through email) several older and younger black women activists to talk about their experiences and ideas. These are our panelists:
Demita Frazier, JD, is a lifelong political activist, beginning at age fourteen, when she became an avid anti-Vietnam War protester once she learned the impact of the war on black people and other people of color. She was a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, a radical black feminist organization that convened from 1975 - 1981. She has remained, through several decades of community organizing in coalition with other radical and progressive groups, an unrepentant black feminist. She teaches in the Bridges Program at Bunker Hill Community College, and has taught and lectured at colleges and universities around New England.
Stacey Patton, PhD, is an award-winning journalist,historian, and child advocate. She is the author of the memoir That Mean Old Yesterday (2008) and the study Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won't Save black America (2017).
Barbara Smith is a black feminist author and activist who has played a groundbreaking role in opening up a national cultural and political dialogue about the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender. She has been politically active in many movements for social justice since the 1960s.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is completing a manuscript, The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora, which explores gender, sexuality, and poetic form in global black women’s literary cultures. She is the author of the short story collection, Blue Talk and Love (2015). Her fiction and essays have been published widely.
WRB: How do you define yourself politically—feminist, black feminist, womanist, radical feminist, none of the above, all of the above?
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: I use the term “black queer feminism” to describe my political visions and alignments. I see black queer feminism as closely related—and at times encompassed—by each of the terms you mention. For me, the debates around feminist languages of identification that we see emerging from the 1970s through the current moment center on a drive toward both breadth and specificity. For me, “black queer feminist” comes close to achieving that broad political reach and theoretical precision.
There’s a lot in a name, for feminists. Each of the languages black feminists have developed over the past several decades—and, arguably, as long as women’s self-naming practices have existed—gets at a deeper nuance of black women’s experience. “Black feminism” insists on centering blackness in an anti-oppressive gender analysis, which is crucial. I also appreciate the ways in which womanism, in Alice Walker’s original conceptualization, highlights black women’s sensual experience and creative expression as part of its politics. I think each of these stances is, or can be, radical.
But for me, “black queer feminism” speaks to each of these priorities. It insists on a critique that is explicitly antiracist, antimisogynist, and antiheterosexist at once, and makes direct claims about sexual desire and subversive modes of voicing as part of its anti-oppressive politics. For me, black queer feminism articulates the range of identifications and political priorities we see in the many modes of political self-naming we see from black LGBTQ figures like Audre Lorde, the poetics of which are fascinating. When Lorde identifies, at different times, as “a black lesbian feminist warrior poet come to do [her] work,” “a forty-nine-year-old black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an interracial couple,” and as someone who has grown up “fat, black, nearly blind and ambidextrous in a West Indian household” (among many other self-descriptions), she gives us a vision of black feminist politics that refuses to subordinate or excise particular aspects of her difference, or to focus on what she calls single-issue politics. For me, this is what black queer feminism aims at—a vision of anti-oppressive thinking and action that centers race, sex, gender, sexuality, and class simultaneously, and also articulates a broadly queer and antinormative stance. I see black queer feminism as intersectional feminism with an explicit emphasis on antinormativity, difference, and the erotic.
I do think it’s important to say, though, that I see this work as black feminist work. As Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier, and their Combahee River Collective collaborators declare, black feminism is the work of any useful feminism—whether white feminists acknowledge that or not. The fight for black women’s freedom is crucial to any effective vision of anti-oppression. That’s just as true for younger feminists today—in this time of continued state-sanctioned murder and sexual violence against black women, rampant disregard for black women’s health and reproductive autonomy, and widespread cultural exploitation and policing of black women’s bodies, voices, cultures and ideas—as it was in the past. Any feminism—or any anti-oppressive stance more broadly—that does not acknowledge that is not doing its job.
Stacey Patton: I don’t subscribe to labels. I don’t feel that I need to be a self-proclaimed feminist to want to fight for girls and women’s rights and other intersectional movements. Abstaining from a label does not mean I am against the views of others that subscribe to various forms of feminism. But I am troubled by the historical roots of feminism, with its focus on middle-class white women and its dismissal of the concerns of women of color, the poor, and women with disabilities and of different sexual orientations. Although there’s the more inclusive “womanism,” a term adopted by many women of color, I’m concerned about helping to create a more just society for children, regardless of their sex. I’m also concerned about the erasure of women’s complicity in the violence against children.
My work is centered on how whiteness destroys children and people of color, as it categorizes black communities as “children” to export the violence to them. Then black communities import it in the perpetuation of violence against their own children. Except for bell hooks, few feminists have talked about how white supremacy and patriarchy have compelled black women to violence. If we are to understand the subordination of black women in our society, we must examine the connections between state and familial violence against children and how that violence against children perpetuates whiteness. We need to do something about the creation of racists, sexists, and homophobes during childhood. Because once created, they are rarely, if ever, converted.
Don’t get me wrong, black feminist work has, rightly so, become the cornerstone of thinking for a whole host of radical emancipatory work—yet these disciplines have inherited the structural erasure of violence against children. White feminists have tried to depict white women as victims who were never complicit in any kind of oppression, and many black feminists done something similar. So the rubric in a lot of black feminist scholarship is that women are innocent and not perpetrators of violence—which means that producing empirical studies of black women in relation to violence in their communities is out! black feminists often write and speak about the black woman’s body as the nexus point of oppression, a sort of intersectional convergence of everything whiteness desires to stand over and against. I agree with that view. Yet in order to make this case, black children, against whom whiteness also understands itself in violent opposition, are erased.
Some black feminists see a focus on female-perpetrated violence against children as detracting from the violence experienced by black women. The logic is that black women have to stand alone rather than in relation to black men and children, whose misogyny or violence or developmentally appropriate misbehaviors are described as “innate” dysfunctions or preludes to criminality. But if we study black women in relation, then they are not only victims, but also, sometimes, perpetrators. As such, things like intimate partner violence, homicide, and rape by women can’t be ignored, given their traumatic effects.
We have to make the very real case that black women are historically targeted by whiteness, and continue to be—but we should not erase our children and ignore the pain and trauma of black men to bring our own truths into focus. From an ideological standpoint, this is one of the core reasons why I don’t embrace the feminist label.
Mecca: I really appreciate this, Stacey. In some ways, what you’re saying gets to the heart of how feminism can end up undermining its own stated goals, perpetuating the very kinds of violence it claims to critique. I think this is especially dangerous when feminism is used as a label, rather than as a language for articulating a set of political and intellectual commitments that require constant practice and work. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the differences between labels and language. If we think of feminism (or womanism, or black feminism) as a language for describing how we do what we do—rather than who we are—it makes different demands of us, right? It requires us to take the throughlines of violence seriously enough to think of the violence we ourselves may be perpetuating. This is a logic that is all over foundational black feminist work, and yet it often gets lost in translation.
Barbara Smith: I define myself as a black feminist, by which I mean someone who is committed to black feminism as a political movement. When I say I am a black feminist, I am not saying that I am a feminist who is black. black is not an adjective modifying feminist in this phrase. Black feminist defines a particular political ideology that centers black women and at the same time is committed to eradicating all forms of oppression. I am anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, and a member of the left.
Mecca: Yes! It’s so important to think about how language works in this conversation—how “black feminist” may be a noun, but it signals a set of active verbs that involve working against multiple power structures at once. I’m concerned that our students sometimes miss this point in their eagerness to move past what they understand as limiting labels. It’s often not until they actually read black feminist literature deeply that this clicks for them.
Demita Frazier: I too continue to describe myself as a black feminist, with a radical perspective on late-stage capitalism—democratic socialist is currently the most useful description of my perspective on economic inequality. Embedded in my black feminist philosophy is an unalloyed commitment to the complete destruction of white supremacy.
WRB: What’s your experience of working and interacting across generations? What do you wish the younger generation would learn from the older generation? What do you wish the older generation would learn from the younger one?
Mecca: I’ve been fortunate to have had engaged, thoughtful, and generous, mentors at various stages of my intellectual and creative life. Those relationships have shown me the value of talking and thinking across generations. The phenomenal black feminist poet and scholar Cheryl Clarke and the iconic writer Ntozake Shange have been incredibly generous mentors for me. My conversations with each of them have energized, informed, and inspired me, and I hope that sense is mutual. I’m beyond grateful to have the chance to both think and work and collaborate with both of them. I grow each time I talk with them.
We are in a moment when there are rich and interesting conversations about feminism happening in several cultural spaces—including pop cultural and artistic spaces (perhaps most iconically in collaborations like those between Beyoncé and the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), as well as among undergraduates and young people not on college campuses. These conversations include important emerging critiques of black feminism, as well. This is the time to bring emerging dialogues on black feminism into contact with foundational black feminist voices, and to begin to collaborate on visions for the work we hope to do in the future.
As far as what I wish the generations would learn from each other, I think that remains to be seen, and that’s exciting. For now, I hope we co-conspire to create more opportunities to have intergenerational contact, culling our institutional, economic, intellectual, and other resources to create spaces to continue to engage in sustainable ways.
I think that heteropatriarchal definitions of the family shape how we understand who “elders” are, what they look like, and how that role fits into political life. This is what we see in the constant descriptions of black Lives Matter (BLM) as a “leaderless movement.” It’s a term that is invoked both critically and in celebration, but I think it’s a bit inaccurate on both counts. Characterizing BLM as a leaderless phenomenon that emerges organically out of an imagined democratic social media field allows us to ignore the fact that the movement was founded by three young black queer women—women who have both energy and wisdom, and who have been in deep conversation with black feminists before them.
Stacey: My experience of cross-generational work includes teaching at the undergraduate and graduate college levels, working in multigenerational professional environments, and being a speaker and consultant to groups of professionals who work with children and families.
What I wish the older generation would learn from the younger generation is tolerance of difference and empathy for young people coming of age. It seems that each generation, as it gets older, loses patience with and tolerance for some of the ways in which younger generations are unlike them, and the way that those differences shape the growth and evolution of those who are coming of age in a different era with new challenges and stresses on families.
Take the issue of sagging pants, for example. Each generation of teens seems guaranteed to come up with fashion choices that their elders find annoying or even intolerable. Many elders seem to focus on how unappealing and symbolically problematic the sagging pants are. Some have even expressed support for making sagging against the law.
Now, I find sagging irritating and unappealing too, but I also see the bigger picture—first, of youth individuating themselves from their elders by doing something they know will drive them crazy; and second, of young black and Latino men who started the trend against a backdrop of the looming threat of incarceration in a society that simultaneously ignores and demonizes them simply for existing. These young men know that there are fewer educational and professional opportunities for them than any other group. They know that simply living to adulthood is far too often a miracle, regardless of their economic status. And I believe they are trying to convey a message about the complexities and contradictions of finding their way as young men of color in this gauntlet of a society that seems stacked against them.
I’d like for older generations to look at them and rather than getting caught up in “tsk-tsking” the fashion statement, talk with and listen to some of the young men who are trying to get their attention.
More than anything, I would like to see the elders recognize and be open to learning from the wisdom of the young so that rather than seeing things only through the lens of nostalgia, and deeming anything different as bad and disrespectful, they would look for and emphasize commonalities, and forge paths towards solidarity and community so that the wisdom and energy could flow in both directions.
Barbara: I have had the experience of working across generations from both sides of the continuum. One of the original members of the Combahee River Collective, Sharon Bourke, was in her forties when most of us were in our twenties or early thirties. She played a key role in shaping the collective’s politics because of her extensive experience in black liberation movements and in anticapitalist and anti-imperialist organizing.
Audre Lorde participated in the political retreats that the Combahee River Collective organized and was a co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. I remember that on at least one occasion she told us we were ageist. I am not sure what prompted her comment, but I never forgot that she said it. I think at the time I was mystified by her criticism. I did not fully grasp how our attitudes and behavior might be oppressive to her as an older woman.
Now that I am an elder I have had many years of experience working with people younger than myself. I have always appreciated working with younger people and have the impression that they appreciate working across the generations as well. One of the things I like to share with younger people is that the majority of my age peers in the 1960s, ̓70s, and beyond were not politically active. Throughout history it often has been a relatively small number of committed activists who have been responsible for making profound political and social change.
I would like to have more opportunity to engage in dialogue about “respectability politics.” Once I saw a young man on Melissa Harris Perry’s show who said words to the effect that “This is not your mother’s civil rights movement,” unfavorably comparing the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter. That really bothered me. I wondered if he had any clue about what the civil rights movement actually entailed, and what it was like to do organizing during the pervasive terrorism of Jim Crow. I thought it was telling that he said “your mother’s” instead of “your father’s” civil rights movement. It felt like he was being especially dismissive of the unsung black women who held down the movement and who made the options he took for granted in his life possible.
Mecca: I agree! I’ve also had this thought about the popular message t-shirts we’ve seen lately that read “Dear Racism, I am not my grandparents. Sincerely, These Hands.” I appreciate and understand the sentiment—it’s a declaration of a kind of radicalism and a willingness to fight, which I think is a hugely important popular outgrowth of the blackLivesMatter movement. But it’s also troubling to think that some younger folks have misread earlier black political struggles as somehow passive and less radical. This is a failure of education, really.
Stacey: OMG, Mecca! Those tee shirts and the broader generational rifts over today’s activist movements have really irked me. On one side we’ve go folks in the elder generation spitting on Black Lives Matter, calling us “slaves,” and hating on us because they fail to do research to see what's being done at the national and grassroots levels. Then there’s the younger generation’s historical illiteracy and generalizing suggestion that our grandparents were all submissive. We’ve got black Panthers still in jail today.
The problem is that far too many of us have brought into the one-sided master narrative of nonviolent praying, singing, cheek-turning forgiveness in the face of racist evil. Many of us have no idea about the kinds of traumas that our elders endured. Our elders sometimes try to shield us from the atrocities they faced and the very hard decisions they had to make to stay alive and to keep their families alive. It breaks my heart when I see these generalizing statements. It is a sign that some younger folks have allowed television, music, film, toxic masculinity, and a lack of academic interest to weave into their subconscious a perpetual visual of black submission to white oppression.
Today’s activists and young people need to trace their generational steps carefully, investigate, research, and learn what their elders had to endure for the freedoms and self-awareness we enjoy today. Young and older folks who indulge this generational divide had better seal the breach because this is the kind of division that our oppressors crave.
Demita: Rather than answer the question as posed, here’s what I dream of: deep listening across the generations, both to what we find easy to say, and to that with which we struggle mightily. I’ve worked effectively with younger people on LGBTQIA issues, on issues of urban agriculture and food insecurity, and on domestic violence and its impact on all people. Organizing for political change is hard work, particularly in coalition, and core issues—the ability to deeply listen, to tolerate ambiguity and paradox, to demonstrate respect in the ways that are most meaningful when working across and through difference—takes a kind of discipline that takes leadership and time to develop.
Mecca: I agree. This kind of coalition building takes time and also resources, which are at such a premium, particularly for black women and black queer people. We need spaces where we can learn to listen across difference and examine the multiple workings of power, while also supporting ourselves economically and having our labor valued.
WRB: What issues are most important to you right now? Can you share an example of a success in making change around one of these issues?
Mecca: There are so many, of course. Too many to list. This past year, in particular, has brought conversations about state violence, the prison industrial complex, reproductive justice and sexual autonomy, and transphobic violence and transmisogyny to the center of many black feminist conversations. Part of the intellectual challenge of an effective black feminism is for us to see how each of these issues is connected, and how they link with other systems and structures that may not immediately register as “important.”
This has led to some interesting and useful critiques of black feminism, and has brought up important questions: how are we defining the subject(s) of black feminism? How do we think about difference and power in ways that call us to interrogate not only the structures that constrain us but also those we benefit from, participate in, and perpetuate, willingly and consciously—or not?
This is where a black queer feminist perspective is particularly helpful, in the sense that reading and thinking for queerness (not simply as same-sex desire, but also as a political orientation shaped around difference) requires us to focus on multiple forms of non-normativity and the many ways in which difference is mobilized to deny power. This throws issues of classism, xenophobia, transphobia, religious oppression, fatphobia, ableism, mental health, and more into relief, and places them at the center of our analysis.
It also requires that we look at the institutionalization of black feminism—particularly within academic programs and departments—and think about who and what is left out of black feminist discourses that are limited to academic spaces, journals, presses, etc. The emergence of vibrant conversations about black feminism in literary and pop culture suggests rich opportunities for collaboration between black feminists within the academy and outside of it. Yet I don’t know that we have seen those collaborations happen as frequently as we might hope.
And this year’s election throws these concerns into crisis. For me, the election highlights this need, as well as the need to take intersectionality seriously, in the academy and beyond. Seeing how effective rhetorics of domination and oppression have been in this election—and the sway they have had for so many people in this country—should signal how deep the mutual imbrications of racism, classism, heterosexism, and xenophobia are in this country, and how national narratives of whiteness, masculinity, and economic mobility both support and obfuscate those systems. For many of us, this is not at all new. And yet, this is still a level of crisis that we may not feel prepared for. We are shocked but not surprised.
Stacey: First and foremost, the issues that are most important to me are related to and revolve around creating a movement to recognize the humanity, bodily agency, and rights of black children to grow up without being subjected to violence against their persons. My main focus is grounded in building a movement to give the parents and caregivers of black children the information to consider positive, effective alternatives to corporal punishment. My work with Spare the Kids includes a website (www.sparethekids.com); a book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save black America (2017); and related speaking engagements, workshops, seminars, and media content and appearances.
I was adopted into a family that believed in beating children. That experience drove me to better understand why black families and communities have such a strong belief in and attachment to spanking as a pillar of good responsible parenting.
The other issues that are of high importance to me are related to my work with Spare the Kids: reducing child abuse cases in black families and communities; reducing the flow of black bodies into the foster care and juvenile and adult prison pipelines; and educating parents about the dynamics of early child development to encourage them to consider alternatives to physical punishment.
I am committed to working tirelessly for positive change and progress in these areas. Operating on the premise that “when we know better, we do better,” I am determined to move the needle on how black children are regarded and treated in their families, their communities, and the nation as a whole.
Mecca: This is so important, Stacey. Thank you for this work. I’m eager to read your thoughts on how experiences of corporal punishment become a mode of bonding and community for some black folks. It seems almost as if that shared experience of violence (and sometimes even trauma) is read not only an individual right of passage, but as a way of solidifying blackness and creating belonging. And what does black belonging mean when it’s inaugurated by pain?
Stacey: Mecca, such important questions! One way you see corporal punishment being deployed as a mode of bonding in black communities is through humor. I saw this play out recently on Twitter when thousands of people shared a hashtag called #ReasonsblackKidsGetWhoopins. Folks told heartbreaking stories about all the various petty reasons why they were hit by their parents. The humor becomes a way to normalize the violence and becomes part of an ecosystem that nurtures violence and devaluation of black children. Unfortunately, far too many of our people have unconsciously co-signed a longstanding racist narrative—that the only way to make us strong people, civilized people, law-abiding, and moral people is to process the black body through pain. Deep sigh.
Barbara: I am currently involved in several organizations: Albany for Educational Justice; the Parole Justice Committee of Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration; and the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia. From time to time I work with other groups including Planned Parenthood and the Fight for $15.
What is most important to me right now is the impact of the impending presidency. The election of a racist, xenophobic, misogynist demagogue promises to have unprecedented and frightening consequences for the majority of people in the United States and for people all over the world. The rights, policies, and practices that we have worked for in all of our movements for more than sixty years may be overturned in the first sixty days of his administration. Targeted communities are terrified, especially Muslims and immigrants. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to document a huge spike in hate crimes. Trump’s top advisor, Steve Bannon, is a white nationalist affiliated with a recognized hate group.
The Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia, founded in 2015, organized two large and spirited rallies on November 19 and December 3. The December rally focused upon the slogan, “No KKK Presidency,” because of Trump’s support from David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, and other far right hate groups. The rally was specifically planned to protest a Ku Klux Klan-sponsored Trump victory parade on December 3 in North Carolina. Our rally and march featured speakers from the Muslim community, the LGBTQ community, recent immigrants from Syria, a survivor of the Holocaust, a Japanese American who spoke about the internment camps during World War II, a peace activist, a representative from labor, and a member of the faith community. In my speech I spoke about the history of the Ku Klux Klan and domestic terrorism. I said that a Trump presidency is what we get in a nation that has never acknowledged, examined, or sought to eradicate white supremacy.
Hundreds of people came out on a cold December day, some of whom had never attended a demonstration before. Both the November and December rallies embodied solidarity, connected people to each other, and helped build hope and courage for the struggle ahead. We were excited to find out later in the day that there were also several anti-KKK rallies in North Carolina. I believe that we are working to build a higher level of unity among our movements which is so critical in this perilous time. We will not merely resist this regime, we will defy it.
WRB: Who or what are your influences and inspirations? How do you keep going?
Mecca: I’m inspired and sustained by many of the people I’ve mentioned—Cheryl Clarke and Ntozake Shange—as well as the brilliant participants in this roundtable. I count them among the black women writers and theorists who have transformed my work. These include June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and many others. I’m also fortunate enough to have a wide network of peers and friends who hold me down, challenge me, and push my thinking forward. My crew of black feminist thinkers is crucial for me: my good friend C. Riley Snorton, my collaborators at TheFeministWire.com, my UMass colleagues, and many others have been indispensible for me. I also have a close crew of writer friends, as well as those not involved in academic or writing spaces. They help me keep my perspective broad and keep me questioning, which, for me, is crucial to a full intellectual and political life.
Like many black women writers, my mother is also a major influence for me. She is a social worker who deeply values literature and the arts, which meant that she raised my brother and me to think carefully about social power and to read widely and deeply. It wasn’t until adolescence that I came to understand that not everyone was raised around black feminist literature and ideology. We lived in Harlem, which also meant very early access to the thinkers and spaces that have shaped my work. My mother took me to Audre Lorde’s memorial service when I was in the fifth grade. We lived on the same block Lorde grew up on, and attended the church where she went to Catholic school, which was where the memorial was held.
My mother also took me to birthday celebration for Gwendolyn Brooks held at Barnard College, which was not far from our home. Getting to talk with Ms. Brooks and announce myself to her as a poet was a profound moment for me, even then. My mother also took me to my first pride parade when I was eleven (well before I came out); we marched as allies with Black AIDS Mobilization (BAM!) and African American Women in Defense of Ourselves (AAWIDO). I remember her preparing me for that experience, explaining that people might throw things at us as we walked down the avenue, and making a plan for what we would do in the event of violence or separation.
As much as my mentors—formal and informal, older and younger—have shaped my work, these early, intimate experiences with black feminism gave me a vision of work I wanted to do in the world, and the language and courage to do it.
Stacey: I am guided and inspired by historical figures like Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois. Wells was a journalist and antilynching crusader who risked her safety to expose the truths about why black men and boys were lynched. I love her fearlessness even when her life was threatened.
I love how DuBois centered children in his activism and journalistic work, which revealed the mean-spirited treatment of black children. He understood how childhood was foundational to white supremacy but also critical for black liberation.
There are current journalists who I greatly admire, including Charles Blow, Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow, Pamela Newkirk and other truth tellers who use social media to call out and challenge racism and other isms. Their work reminds me that my goals are attainable, and that working for change is really not an option, but the imperative that drives my entire life.
How do I keep going? I remind myself that I am here because someone in my lineage survived the Middle Passage, the plantation, and the horrors of Jim Crow so that I could be here doing this work today. My spiritual advisor reminds me that I made a contract with the ancestors to do the work that I do. I take that contract very seriously, and remembering the ancestral connection helps to recharge my batteries when they are running low, and to lift my spirits when I become discouraged or frustrated. Understanding my spiritual mission in this lifetime is a powerful source of fuel for my soul.
The other things that keep me inspired when the way is hard and the hurdles high: meeting and hearing from black children of all ages when they share their stories of what being spanked and beaten by their parents feels like. Their stories break my heart, but I see myself in them, and I work hard so that they can view my life as an example of the possibilities that await them.
One of my greatest inspirations is when the parents of black children who have routinely relied upon corporal punishment as the main way of disciplining their child(ren) tell me that, as a result of what they’ve learned from my work, they have changed their minds about the value of spanking their children. They express profound remorse and regret for having spanked their children, and promise me that they will change their ways and stop using violence as a parenting tool. There is nothing that compares to the joy that I feel when I receive one of these messages—because I know that I am impacting people in a way that makes them feel empowered and able to make the very tough decision to move away form the crowd to find a better way.
Barbara: I am most influenced by my family. I am also inspired by them. Despite the fact that they came of age in an era when black people were universally dehumanized and lived with the constant threat of pervasive, state-sanctioned violence, they did not seem bitter and operated with a kind of optimism, especially in relationship to what they encouraged my sister and me to do. Whatever I may have accomplished, I owe directly to them. I am also inspired by African Americans’ centuries of defiance to oppression starting with chattel slavery, the worst system of enslavement the world has ever known.
I keep going because I find the alternative intolerable. I am not able to let injustice go unchallenged and fortunately over a lifetime I have found many others who feel the same way.
Demita: I am unwilling to give up this fight for freedom, for all people, especially black people, and I am inspired by the many humans I share this planet with who are committed to that struggle. So many quietly brave, unwavering people have shared the struggle for freedom. I am allied with that energy.
By Amy Hoffman
You may notice that this issue of Women’s Review of Books is a little different from usual. Although we usually publish reviews of books on a range of subjects, to give readers a sense of the cross-disciplinary nature of Women’s and Gender Studies, in this issue, all the articles focus on an aspect of the lives of black women and other women of color—their identities, histories, politics. We’re calling the issue “Race, Gender, Generations”—and we felt compelled to put it together after a year in which racism, woman-hatred, homophobia, xenophobia, and all sorts of other bigotry burst, often violently, into the open. At the same time, oppressed and marginalized people are asserting their power and claiming their central place in the American community through Black Lives Matter and other creative organizing.
The issue’s centerpiece is a roundtable conversation among women from different generations of African American feminists: Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier, two of the founders of the 1970s Combahee River Collective; and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Stacey Patton, two of today’s writer-activists. In their broad-ranging conversation, they talk about their various philosophies and political definitions, generational differences and similarities, activist successes (and missteps), and what keeps them going, day after day, and year after year. As a sidebar to the roundtable, we provide a reading list including books and articles by writers mentioned by the roundtable participants.
In harmony with our theme, the cartoonist Ajuan Mance imagines what classic black women writers such as Zora Neale Hurston or Audre Lorde might think of today’s feminist literary landscape.
And the scholar and journalist Angela Ards writes in her essay about how black women, in particular, use personal narrative to inspire political action—from the writers of slave narratives such as Harriet Jacobs, to blue singers such as Ma Rainey, to the contemporary poet Claudia Rankine and pop singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
After the worldwide women’s marches of January 20, Demita Frazier wrote to me, “Today, and every day, we engage in ordinary, and when possible, extraordinary acts of dissent, critical analysis, lawsuits, etc.—but really, it’s the small illuminating acts I am watching out for: people connecting, awkwardly, shyly, gently, lovingly, to build new relationships so we can get on with the project of dismantling the myths of white supremacy and male superiority and misogyny/misogynoir.” I hope that this issue will help you get on with your own projects, inspire you, challenge you. Please let us know what you think! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, read and comment on the WRB blog at www.wcwonline.org/womensreview, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
A list of selected works by the writers mentioned in the Race, Gender, and Generations roundtable.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Purple Hibiscus (2003); Half of a Yellow Sun (2006); Americanah (2013); We Should All Be Feminists (2014).
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter: Lemonade (2016) and other albums.
Charles Blow: Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2014); regular New York Times columns.
Sharon Bourke: see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/sharon-bourke
Gwendolyn Brooks: Annie Allen (1949); Maud Martha (1953); In the Mecca (1968); Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956).
Cheryl Clarke: Living as a Lesbian (1981); Humid Pitch (1989); After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (2005); The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry, 1980-2005 (2006); By My Precise Haircut (2016).
Cathy J. Cohen: Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (2013); Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (2015).
W.E.B. DuBois: The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Black Reconstruction in America (1935), The Autobiography of W.E. Burghardt DuBois (1968).
Melissa Harris-Perry: Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (2004); Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011).
bell hooks: Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984); Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989); Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1996); Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice (2013).
June Jordan: Fannie Lou Hamer (1972); Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poems, 1954-1977 (1977); Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood (2001); Directed By Desire: The Complete Poems of June Jordan (2005).
Audre Lorde: The Cancer Journals (1980); Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1983); Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches (1984); The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (1997); I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2009).
Rachel Maddow: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012); The Rachel Maddow Show, host.
Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (1970); Sula (1973); Song of Solomon (1977); Beloved (1987); Paradise (1997); God Help the Child (2015).
Stacey Patton: That Mean Old Yesterday (2008); Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America (2017).
Ntozake Shange: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1976); Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (1982); See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts 1976-1983 (1983); Some Sing, Some Cry (2010).
Barbara Smith: Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around (2014).
C. Riley Snorton: Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (2014).
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Blue Talk & Love: Stories (2015);
Alice Walker: The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970); In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973); Meridian (1976); The Color Purple (1982); In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983); The Temple of My Familiar (1989; Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992); Now Is the Time To Open Your Heart (2004).
Ida B. Wells: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases (1892); The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895); Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (reprint 1991); To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells, by Mia Bay (2009); Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, by Paula J. Giddings (2009).