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.
Alpine Apprentice: A Memoir
By Sarah Gorham
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017, 208 pp., $24.95, hardcover
By their presence, mountains are the enormous proof of our ephemeral lives. They dash minor ambition and ridicule complacency. They pull us up short and force a high level of achievement, a promise of physical duress and spiritual euphoria.
A mountain feeling was planted in my subconscious at fifteen, and it served nicely to counterpoint the practical education I received at slightly lower elevations in manmade houses and huts.
In four sentences, the poet and essayist Sarah Gorham evokes one psychic condition she explores in her memoir, Alpine Apprentice. Two teenage years spent at an international, Swiss boarding school (1969 – 1971) occasion the book, a heady mixture of lyricism, research, and self-reflection. Gorham juxtaposes brief, flash-fiction-like passages (on potatoes, meringue, and "bound meat"—herbed, dried beef shoulder) with meditations on adolescent psychology, avalanches, cultural geography, language acquisition, and progressive education. "I’ve been dreaming Switzerland for more than forty years. The landscape has dominated my subconscious since 1971, when I took my last flight out of Zurich as a teenager." Gorham proves an excellent guide to memory’s mysteries and the ways a gifted writer shapes lived experience into emotionally resonant art.
A colloquial, informed voice belies complex craft decisions, and Gorham’s literary nonfiction includes formal surprises. She gives readers a teenager’s lengthy list of Swiss-German profanities; she recounts Sherlock Holmes’s death at Reichenbach Falls; paired essays ("How to Get There" and "How to Return") bookend the text with contrasts, lessons, and losses. Another pair of essays— "The Twin Cities: Heimweh" and "The Twin Cities: Sehnsucht" offer delightful meditations on untranslatable Swiss-German words for "homesickness" and "nostalgia." This variety in subject and tone mirrors the mind’s meanderings and sense-making. Below, Gorham reflects on learning Swiss-German as an adolescent, yoking past and present:
The experts might say it’s better to master one tongue at a time. Forget modern dance till you’ve mastered ballet. Don’t improvise until you can read music. But when you’re tugged in two directions, as any adolescent is—Am I child or adult? Follower or leader? Bad girl or good? —the choice is not so simple. The miracle of Swiss versus High German is that you can have it both ways. You can flip from one kind of person to another. You can hang with your homies and please your teachers.
Living together in school "families," teachers and students at Ecole d’Humanité cook, clean, design academics, arts, and athletics, and govern themselves. Here’s Gorham reflecting on teenage risk-taking: "Unfortunately, the management area of the brain—the prefrontal cortex, responsible for making decisions and solving problems—is notoriously underdeveloped in adolescents." Here’s Gorham on a beloved teacher: "Somewhere in every grown-up there’s a scintilla of frivolousness, even unsafe behavior. We’d seen her cruel and certainly a little drunk. What did she dream about? Did she ever fumble or stutter? Was she ever untrue, misguided, reckless?"
I particularly appreciate Gorham’s multidimensional approach to writing about a tragic accident that reshapes the community. She brings in the science of avalanche conditions and the elements of chance and human frailty. With compassion for all involved, Gorham offers a moving, nuanced account.
Visuals add to the book’s riches. Gorham seeds the text with reproductions of typed letters (the author’s and her mother’s); handwritten, German vocabulary words; and photographs of the school’s founders with students. Early on, Gorham describes Edith and Paul Geheeb who, in 1934, fled Germany, moving the school to Switzerland. Along with the school’s history and educational philosophy, she also tells her own (rebellious girl’s) story. To do so, Gorham must interweave individual and community, revealing strengths and fault lines in this semi-utopia.
While I generally reserve this column for reviewing books of poems, I found myself drawn to re-reading this book as I would a book of poems. Alpine Apprentice, transporting readers to a mountain community in Bernese-Oberland, will refresh a hot summer’s day.
Sarah Gorham—poet, essayist, and publisher— lives in Prospect, Kentucky. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Bad Daughter (2011); The Cure (2003); The Tension Zone (1996); and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (1989). Her essay collection A Study in Perfect won the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2013. With Jeffrey Skinner, she co-edited the anthology Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance (1997). In 1994, Gorham founded Sarabande Books and serves as its president and editor-in-chief.
Robin Becker’s Field Notes column is a regular feature of Women’s Review of Books, where she serves as poetry and contributing editor. Her most recent collection of poems is Tiger Heron (2014). Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Becker served as the Penn State Laureate in 2010 – 2011. Most recently, her poems appeared in the American Poetry Review and the New Yorker. Becker’s new collection of poems, WORDS with FRIENDS, is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018.
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 email@example.com, 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).
By Angela Ards
Using story in service of social justice is a founding principle of African American literature. The slave narratives, personal stories of servitude and escape that advocated for sisters and brothers yet in bonds, epitomize the tradition. That animating impulse still infuses much black cultural production. For instance, in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), Angela Davis writes that singers such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday riffed on love gone wrong as a metaphor for social struggle. After slavery, for those exploited as studs and breeders, the ability to choose a lover symbolized a collective sense of freedom as much as previously denied access to literacy and travel. Davis argues that the blues, the predominant postslavery black musical genre, are consequently replete with themes of romantic love “linked with possibilities of social freedom in the economic and political realms,” with black women often focusing on themes of “betrayal and abandonment; broken or failed love affairs; … infidelity” to articulate the civic disappointments and aspirations of an emerging nation within a nation.
However, as legacies of oppression morph from one historical period to the next—slavery, segregation, the historic election of the first president of (visible) African descent—some artists and scholars contend that contemporary black literature and cultural production need new narratives and new functions. In “The End of the Black American Narrative” (in American Scholar, Summer 2008), for instance, the novelist and philosopher Charles Johnson argues that future black writing should leave slavery in the past. And the scholar Kenneth Warren, in What Was Black American Literature (2011), declares that African American literature is simply no more, since it emerged to protest Jim Crow and thus was made obsolete by Jim Crow’s legal end, not to mention a black president in the White House. But now that Barack Obama has bid the nation farewell, and we brace for the return to an old order, or a new authoritarian one, those statements seem as premature as the triumphant declarations of a postracial America when Obama was first elected.
Recent offerings suggest that, indeed, in the age of Black Lives Matter, African American literature and cultural production carry on the tradition of story in service of social justice. In her introduction to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016), editor Jesmyn Ward reveals that the collection emerged from an impulse similar to that which launched African American literature, beginning with Phillis Wheatley’s eighteenth-century poetry: to validate the humanity of black life. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, Ward first took to social media for comfort and community but soon discovered she “needed words”—sustained narrative all in one place rather than “the ephemera of Twitter”—to “satisfy [the] need for kinship in this struggle.” She instinctively turned to James Baldwin, reading first “Notes of a Native Son” (in Notes of a Native Son ), then The Fire Next Time (1963). “Like a wise father, a kind, present uncle,” she writes, his frank, elegant words reminded her of her worth: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.”
At the time, Ward was a new mother who had just published a memoir about five black men she’d known and loved, all of whom had died violent deaths. Thinking of Trayvon Martin and her dead brother and her own young child, she envisioned a cadre of contemporary writers updating Baldwin’s classic text. The “your black life matters” message would be the same, but rather than a lone voice exhorting a namesake nephew, The Fire This Time would be a chorus of fictive kin speaking to a generation of African Americans who were raised to identify beyond race, only to find themselves judged yet again by—and, in recent high-profile cases, executed because of—the color of their skin. To a great extent, it was this rude awakening from a postracial fantasy to the reality of antiblackness remaining at the core the American national project that precipitated the transformation of #BlackLivesMatter, the social-media hashtag created in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal, to a social movement against state violence.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) reflects this zeitgeist. Much of the volume’s success was admittedly due to timing. As the poet and scholar Evie Shockley has noted (in “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric,’” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, January 6, 2016) Citizen hit bookstores
within the five-month period that saw Staten Island’s Eric Garner, Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Cleveland’s Tamir Rice all killed at the hands of police, Citizen entered a national conversation already politicized by the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the formation of Black Lives Matter a year earlier.
However, Rankine’s canny use of personal story played a part as well. In an interview with Lauren Berlant in Bomb magazine (Fall 2014), Rankine acknowledges that she consciously decided “to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book,” an award-winning, experimental work that describes the slips of tongue and sometimes intentional slights that characterize our daily interactions around race. Yet Citizen is not written in the first-person that we have come to associate with autobiography. The bulk of the book consists of second-person, lyric prose poems. And through that “lyric-You,” Shockley writes, Rankine “achieves a full-throated polyvocality…that thrusts every reader into the position of speaker and addressee simultaneously.”
In “Speaking in Tongues,” the theorist Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s essay in African Literary Theory: A Reader (2000), she famously argues that this kind of “discursive diversity,” which is also seen in Ward’s collection, structures black women’s cultural expression. The effect, as Audre Lorde describes in Sister Outsider (1984), is “to remind you of your me-ness as I discover you in myself.” Citizen’s polyvocal “lyric-You” challenges not only conventional ideas about the lyric subject’s singularity, as Shockley argues, but also popular notions of autobiography as “true” and “real”—transparent. For instance, Rankine’s ambiguous pronouns sometimes leave readers wondering where her “I” ends and the “you” begins, and whose story is whose, which forces them to inhabit unfamiliar perspectives and experience citizenship anew.
Sophisticated audiences appreciate that autobiography, which essentially constructs a fictive self on the page or screen, is, like all identities, a performance. Of course, each text is necessarily as unique and varied as its individual author. Yet cultural context matters, too, with place and time shaping personal circumstance and experience. In the nexus where autobiography intersects with shared cultural memories and metanarratives, which have embedded within them assumptions about agency and identity, one can see the political interventions of the personal story. A case in point is Lemonade (2016), Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s sixth studio and first audiovisual album. The hourlong avant-garde film addresses rumors of her husband’s infidelity, with the singer’s on-screen persona progressing through a Kübler-Ross-like parade of emotions as she works through the betrayal: intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, loss, reformation, hope, forgiveness. The opening song, “Pray You Catch Me,” gestures to autobiography’s performative nature. Beyoncé’s character sings of her gnawing suspicions—“Pray I catch you whispering,/ Pray you catch me listening”—while kneeling on stage, a dark-red curtain in the background, a front row of lights glimmering like candles. The scene suggests a private moment, either before or after a show, and appeals to the sense of transparency audiences associate with autobiography, even as the theatrical setting signals that the story being shared is itself a fiction.
What’s at stake in the telling becomes clearer as this personal story intersects with contemporary and historical narratives. Throughout this opening sequence, the visuals shift from the bare stage to the fields surrounding Fort Macomb, a decaying nineteenth-century fortress occupied by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War. In both scenes, the singer’s persona wears a hooded robe, conjuring not only the memory of Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement his death launched but also their inextricable relationship to the slave past. In Sites of Slavery (2012), Salamishah Tillet argues that contemporary artists incorporate the antebellum past to work through discourses of citizenship, democracy, and African American political identity. Like #SayHerName (http://www.aapf.org/sayhername/), the campaign launched to include “black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives and policy demands around policing,” Lemonade works to make space for black women’s lives in communal stories and agendas that too often exclude them. And despite its Kübler-Ross, pop-psychology frame, Lemonade is not a self-help manual about getting over betrayal, but rather a meditation and manifesto about black-female political formation.
In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011), Melissa Harris-Perry argues that legacies of oppression, from slavery and segregation to patriarchy, “have created a specific citizenship imperative for African American women—a role and image to which they are expected to conform. We can call this image the ‘strong black woman.’” (Harris-Perry’s critique joins a large body of black feminist thought, from Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman  to Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down  and Tamara Winfrey Harris’ The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narratives of Black Women in America ). As several critics have noted, Lemonade charts a different model of black female agency through the staging of groups of women in various “formations”: the marching band and dancers of Edna Karr High School; the women swaying in mourning on the bus; the little girls playing circle games in a parlor; the dance squad practicing a routine in an empty pool; the “mothers of the movement”—Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr—holding pictures of their slain sons Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, respectively.
The film’s signature hook and call to action—“Come on, ladies, let’s get in formation!”—comes in the final track, “Formation.” However, all that precedes it focuses on what it takes to achieve such alignment and empowerment: an embrace of vulnerability, the very opposite of the strong black woman, as a prerequisite for political action. The message correlates with the larger movement’s prevailing ethos. Whereas the Black Power era is known for its raised fist symbol, for #BLM, the central image is the raised, open hands of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” The former suggests militant defiance; the latter, an acknowledgment of human vulnerability.
Many wonder whether Beyoncé’s embrace of Black Lives Matter is just a savvy business move that exploits the renewed public interest in social movements, alongside a public obsession with personal narrative stoked by today’s reality-TV, selfie culture. Whether one trusts her motivations, or even likes her sound, as critics such as Greg Tate and Nalia Keleta-Mae have noted, it is undeniable that this modern-day blueswoman’s mastery of the cultural pop machine crafts Afro-Futuristic worlds where fantastic black bodies get free. Indeed, the mastery of the body that the film’s performers exhibit counters Afro-Pessimist notions seen, for instance, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), in which the black body is always in an antagonistic relationship to the state, whether coffled, lynched, incarcerated, or executed in the streets. As Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Rather, in Lemonade, the black body is adorned, nurtured, self-disciplined, and ultimately self-possessed, suggesting the possibility of future agency. One of the final scenes of the film has Beyoncé’s character atop a police car, sinking it with her body into Katrina flood waters. It is a moment as fabulist as that of the hoodie-clad boy, dancing as if Trayvon Martin incarnate, in front of a squad of officers who surrender in the face of his “choreography of freedom.” In this moment, Beyoncé’s brings her personal story to bear on the stakes of our current fight against state violence, recalling the almost-mythic story of free-speech activist Mario Savio defying officers during a Berkeley sit-in and (as quoted in Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives ) declaring, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious … you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus”—whether in an airport demonstration or highway shutdown—“and you've got to make it stop!”
Angela Ards is an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and author of Words of Witness: Black Women's Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (2016)