By Eileen Boris for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on June 28, 2010
Location counts, I found myself asserting in the May/June 2010 issue of WRB, when reviewing three powerful books on Black women’s political resistance against segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa.
Not wanting to de-center their authors, I kept myself out of the review. But, of course, the writer always is present even without the use of the pronoun “I.” My own standpoint as a White left feminist, with a history of anti-racist struggle, could not but shape my interpretation, even if I wrote the review from the perch of all-knowing expert.
I’d certainly thought about whether I should even take this assignment. I had to answer the same question that haunted me a quarter of a century ago when I accepted a job at Howard University: Why me? Shouldn’t a Black woman be chosen?
The politics of book reviewing aren’t exactly the same, however, as the politics of hiring. Departments go on to the next candidate. But editors go on to the next book. Rejecting an offer to review often consigns a book to purgatory—that is, published but unacknowledged.
As an author, I know that not being recognized hurts more than being criticized. And I thought that the authors of these memoirs and histories not only deserved better but that their insights offered tactics as well as inspiration for those who continue to fight for social justice.
Still, as someone who now teaches in the Department of Feminist Studies, I continue to wrestle with the issue of identity and the fallout from identity politics. It affects our students’ and our own expectations. As in Black and Ethnic Studies, the reigning assumption is that you have to be who you teach—women on women, women of color on women of color, lesbians on lesbians, and queer women of color on queer women of color.
Should racial or cultural identity take precedence over other political or interpretative identities in the academy or the larger world of scholarship? Should identity analysis trump structural, discursive, or other modes of thought?
As an historian, I don’t write about myself, even if I identify, or dis-identify more often, with the protagonists of my books. I am no more the same as a Jewish tenement-house garment sewer in 1900, a Communist striker in 1936, or the head of the U.S. Women’s Bureau in 1952 as I am a Southern Black migrant to World-War-Two aircraft production or a Caribbean immigrant home-health aide in 1978. But how I interpret the past—or analyze the present—has everything to do with my own past, training, and ability to listen to and learn from those I study and those I work with.
In the end, I choose not to label myself directly. But I’m there, not only in paying homage to rank-and-file leaders like Mary Robinson and to the progressive White teacher of Dovey Johnson Roundtree but also by emphasizing the power of caring labors to sustain communities and the necessity, if difficulty, of coalition politics that span our differences.
Eileen Boris is the Hull Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, where she directs the Center for Research on Women and Social Justice. For more information, click here. Over the years, she’s been involved in the struggle against apartheid and other forms of racism and for welfare justice, domestic worker rights, and women’s economic justice, and currently is on the board of directors of CAUSE, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. Her latest book is Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care, edited with Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (Stanford University Press, 2010). For a preview of her forthcoming book with Jennifer Klein, see “Organizing Home Care,” S & F Online, Issue 8.1: Fall 2009.
Read Eileen Boris’s review of Justice Older Than the Law, Moisture of the Earth, and Boycotts, Buses, and Passes in the May/June 2010 issue of WRB.