Black Studies: Bending the Revolution & Claiming Lesbian Feminist Politics
A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about the second day of Black Studies lectures taking place in Edinburgh. You can read the first here. Since there is no formal coursework, I decided to direct the thought and energy leftover into writing about each session.
There are few things in this world capable of enticing me out of my bed at 6am on a Saturday morning, but the Black Studies course running in Edinburgh is one of them. I spend the train journeys reading Kwame Nkrumah’s paper on African socialism and crocheting a headwrap, feeling only the faintest hint of longing for my electric blanket. The morning session consists of a lecture from Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, and I am very much looking forward to hearing him speak about Black radical politics. Last year FiLiA’s Lisa-Marie attended one of Kehinde’s lectures as part of the effort to make Britain’s leading feminist conference an actively anti-racist space, and her enthusiasm has made me especially keen to learn from him first-hand.
We are late to begin – Kehinde jokes that this is only to be expected when most of the group is operating on Black People Time. Though we arrive in a steady trickle, every person in the room is keen to be here. One woman has travelled from Birmingham. A young man has come all the way from Cornwall. The length of these journeys speaks of how significant this Black Studies course really is. And yet it is not immune to BPT. So we get to talking about his book. Kehinde is surprised by the lack of backlash directed towards Back to Black. While he is glad that Black audiences have been supportive, Kehinde had hoped for more critical engagement. True to form, I am happy to oblige.
Back to Black
Back to Black offers a comprehensive guide to movements such as Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Black Marxism – it’s an incredible learning resource for anyone curious about the histories of Black liberation politics. Yet it is very much history, and rarely a herstory: of the 523 references made in Back to Black, by my count fewer than 10% are the work of Black women. Our contributions as organisers, activists, scholars, and writers are consistently missing from this narrative of Black radical politics. There is a wealth of information on Malcolm and Martin, which is fitting given the extent to which they shaped Black politics in the 20th century, but revolutionary women like Audre and Assata – who have influenced Black radical theory and practice over multiple generations – get only a passing mention. Erasing the contributions Black women creates the impression that we are not an essential part of Black liberation politics.
Similarly, Back to Black falls down around LGBT politics. Kehinde writes that “It would be wrong to assume that because Black radicalism has not explicitly centred on LGBTQ issues it excludes those who are not heterosexual.” He does not engage with the lived reality of Black LGBT people, which is this: the intersection of racism and homophobia is swept under the carpet unless it’s made explicit and challenged. When our political needs are not actively centred by this movement, they are quickly forgotten. We are pushed to the margins in Black liberation movement, just as we are pushed to the margins of society. Kehinde writes that “as police killing in America demonstrate, being gay or transgender is no protection from police bullets.” If anything, being Black and falling under the LGBT umbrella is the opposite of a protection; we face further structural disadvantage, and increased vulnerability.
Accounts from She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak outline the combined risk of being Black and gay, including: corrective rape, employment and housing discrimination, arrest, violence, and isolation. Isabella Katjiparatijivi, a lesbian seeking asylum in Scotland, is currently facing the threat of deportation. If the British government sends her back to Namibia, Isabella’s at risk of forced marriage and corrective rape. Having exported homophobia through imperial expansion, the UK continually fails the people of colour who suffer as a result. Sista!, an anthology of writing by les/bi women of African/Caribbean descent, highlights how the triple threat of racism, misogyny, and homophobia mean that we are often in a precarious political position; the very movements claiming to liberate us often end up complicit in our oppression.
Social movements are forever asking us to privilege one aspect of our identity over all others – whether it’s race or class, sex or sexuality. I agree with Kehinde that Blackness is a vital point of connection, and consider anti-racist struggle essential to my survival. Yet I resent being asked to prioritise it over challenging the negative consequences attached to being female and lesbian in this society – white supremacy cannot be neatly separated from heteropatriarchy. Black men and white women both have a habit of expecting Black women to choose either our commitment to anti-racism or our feminism, often failing to grasp that those politics are interlocking and interdependent. This framing makes me think of that classic Black feminist text All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, still sadly relevant some forty years after publication.
The further a person deviates from the white, straight, wealthy, able-bodied man, the less their humanity is recognised. A politics treating straight and male as the default way to be Black – as Kehinde veers close to doing – is fundamentally incapable of liberating all Black people.
When I voice some of these thoughts, Kehinde is open to hearing them. To his credit, he doesn’t double down or get defensive. I’m interested to see what Kehinde will write about Black liberation politics in the future, and glad to be present for what he says next.
Kehinde works specifically around the politics of Black radicalism. He avoids saying ‘the Black radical tradition’, because there are many radical traditions within Black politics – plural histories and perspectives. Kehinde is conscious that there’s a lot of confusion over what Black radicalism actually is. Radicalism is often conflated with extremism when, to Kehinde’s thinking, the two are in opposition. The pursuit of freedom is a natural response to being oppressed, not an extreme one. As the word is analysed, I think of the times my mother has called my writing and politics extreme – when she says this, I can’t help but feel that she’s looking at her idea of me rather than the person in front of her. It is deeply frustrating when radical politics are collapsed into the word extreme, which does not allow for their complexity or consider the socio-economic reality necessitating them in the first place. And yet the media works hard to prop up this narrative.
Black Panther offered so many firsts in terms of Black representation on-screen, and yet – according to Kehinde – it too fell into the trap of positioning radicalism as ‘too far’, the ultimate evil to be overcome. Erik Killmonger argued that Black should unite across the African diaspora, pooling resources to rise up and overthrow the order of white supremacist imperialism. He advocated this as a solution to issues from police brutality to crushing poverty. Yet Killmonger was depicted as being bloodthirsty, war-hungry, and violent towards women – echoing the media messaging used to discredit and demonise the real life Black Panthers.
While Kehinde acknowledges the manifestations of misogyny and chauvinism within the Panthers, most notably enabled by figures like Eldridge Cleaver, he rejects the idea that Black radicalism is inherently misogynistic. I am of the view that in a patriarchal society, misogyny is the default setting unless it’s actively challenged. Given that male violence against women and girls is a pandemic phenomenon, I do not think it’s enough to simply disown men like Cleaver – those of us engaging in Black radical politics have a responsibility to consider the context that enabled gendered violence to find a place within our movement. Unless we are actively challenging men’s violence, Black women and girls will continue to be victims of it.
Although we have diverging views about Black radicalism, Kehinde’s analysis is interesting. That he weaves X-Men analogies into his lecture has great appeal to my nerd sensibilities and his critique of Marvel is on point. Like Erik Killmonger, Erik Lehnsherr – better known as Magneto – is portrayed as the threatening extreme within the world of the X-Men. In the comics, cartoons, and films, Magneto’s vision of mutant liberation is always contrasted with Professor Charles Xavier’s moderate, reasonable advocacy of mutant-human co-operation.
On numerous occasions, the X-Men fight against Magneto’s Brotherhood – their fellow mutants – to protect the very people who ostracise and threaten them. There is a striking parallel between how Malcolm and Martin are understood, and how Magneto and Professor X are depicted. The X-Men, like the Civil Rights movement, push for equality within the current system. The Brotherhood, like the Panthers, wanted to dismantle it and build a new world free from racial hierarchies.
Kehinde talks about the importance of a global solidarity between Black people, and his words resonate deeply. Black radical politics can’t afford to stop at borders. If we frame any of the issues facing Black British people as problems that can be solved independently of other Black people – separate from their socio-political realities – then we have lost our way from liberation politics. Our struggles across the African Diaspora are a collective experience to which there are no individual solutions.
As Kehinde points out, all politics are identity politics. But white identity politics are so normalised as to be invisible. The West is united by a shared whiteness, separate nation states all invested in the same politics of white supremacy. The white curricula of modern day universities are a hangover from the Enlightenment, echoing the belief that the world was in darkness before the white, European man’s genius. “None of those great thinkers,” Kehinde reminds us, “thought that we were human.” Dead white European men are credited with inventing science, philosophy, art, and culture. But Arab, African, and Indian scholars knew the earth was round long before Galileo looked up at the stars.
Whiteness as we know it exists to justify Europe’s colonisation and exploitation of the world. And we cannot end Whiteness without ending the political economy of whiteness. Kehinde is concerned that contemporary activism focuses more on changing ourselves than changing the socioeconomic context we find ourselves in. While spiritual transformation is not without value, Kehinde worries that personal journeys are given disproportionately the focus. Radical politics are, after all, collective in focus.
Don’t Straighten the Revolution
The afternoon session answers my questions about how to avoid the trap of a male-centric Black politics, and then some. Titled Don’t Straighten the Revolution: Re-centring Black Queers in Liberation Movements, it is Jessica Brough’s first solo workshop that’s not about psychology. Yet it quickly becomes clear that she has a knack for creating radical learning spaces. When I get back from lunch, the seats are clustered around tables, Solange is playing in the background, and people are eating snacks. Jessica is running this session with the same safe space policy as Resisting Whiteness. In short:
- Don’t assume people’s identities
- No tone policing
- Respect people’s boundaries
- Be mindful of your own privilege
- No violence will be tolerated
Not everyone has stuck around for this explicitly LGBT session, which is a pity but also predictable. Still, Jessica thanks those of us in the room and confirms my immediate impression: we’re going in a “slightly different direction” from Kehinde’s lecture. To Jessica, Black feminism gives us a sound idea of where to go after achieving the Black unity he described.
It [The Black Imagination] lives in our ability to create alternatives, whether these are alternative economies, alternative family structures, or something else entirely. – Charlene Carruthers
Historically, Black feminists have challenged multiple axes of oppression. Yet, in spite of having politics capable of bringing about meaningful change, Black feminists have traditionally been accused of distracting from the ‘real’ issues. When people aren’t ready to let go of their stake in structural inequalities, they accuse Black feminists of dividing the movement – be it anti-racist, feminist, or LGBT. To Jessica, Black feminism is about crafting liberatory strategies for all. It’s about learning from the people who came before us, not cherry-picking solutions that only work for some.
With her session, Jessica aims not to add women and LGBT people into a male-centric narrative of Black radicalism, but to centre the voices of those Black people who are most marginalised – and in greatest need of liberation.
Jessica uses the example of activism during Apartheid to highlight the difference between what is achieved with a single-issue approach to politics and what is achieved through collective struggle. She tells us about the Law Reform Group, which was led by white and middle-class gay men from 1968. They sought to have their rights recognised the government, actively distancing themselves from the Black-led movement against racialised homophobia. Only when gay rights activism moved away from white, professional, male control did lasting change begin to happen. In 1983 Beverley Palesa Ditsie and Simon Nkoli founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). Theyo rganised the first pride parade in South Africa, held in 1990, and lobbied governing bodies., always in solidarity with the anti-Apartheid movement. South Africa legalised same-sex marriage on the 1st of December, 2006, becoming the first African nation to do so.
Having caught our imaginations, Jessica sets each group the task of discussing a movement that started advocating for the liberation of only one group – with the hint of 1918. We talk about the classism and imperialist leanings of the British suffrage movement; how white women were prepared to weaponise racism by presenting themselves as a civilising influence so that white men would approve them having the vote. And we get onto the racism of the modern day feminist movement, expressing our frustrations over how the gender pay gap and the BAME pay gap are rarely treated as overlapping issues. In mainstream discussions of the gender pay gap, there is often no distinction drawn between the income of white women and women of colour. There is too little focus, we think, on how class politics determine which types of work are valued or adequately waged.
Next, Jessica talks to us about British LGBT movements. She highlights the work of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, which called for feminists to “get rid of men from your heads and beds.” Their pamphlet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism sparked vital discussions about sexual politics, desire, and power. Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, re-opened this subject in a 2009 op-ed:
We live in a culture in which rape is still an everyday reality, and yet women are blamed for it, as it is viewed as an inevitable feature of heterosexual sex. Domestic violence is still a chronic problem for countless women in relationships with men. Women are told we must love our oppressors, while, as feminists, we fight to end the power afforded them as a birthright. Come on sisters, you know it makes sense. Stop pretending you think lesbianism is an exclusive members’ club, and join the ranks. I promise that you will not regret it.
It was reading Julie’s book Straight Expectations that opened my mind to lesbian feminism – beforehand, I had insisted that I was a feminist who happened to be lesbian. While I do not advocate political lesbianism, I learned a lot from Julie’s take on the subject. Her writing about feminism and sexuality forced me to question why I had been thinking of being lesbian as something with no power to enrich my politics and perspective. The answer was linked to internalised misogyny and homophobia.
Political lesbian recently attracted a surprising supporter – Chidera Eggerue, aka the Slumflower:
So if you want to dismantle patriarchy, wouldn’t it be effective to direct your energy to the reasons WHY women have to negotiate so highly when sharing ourselves with people who murder us?
I’d never feel the need to create all these insurance barriers if I was dating a woman.
It is striking that two women from different backgrounds, with often contrasting politics, reached a very similar point of conclusion.
Jessica guides a thoughtful discussion about racism in LGBT spaces, citing the memoir of “our Lorde and saviour, Audre.” In Zami, she recounts her experiences of gay bars’ racist door policies of and the pitfalls of conditional solidarity. We talk about how Lorde was instructed that she and her siblings were encouraged to “be sisters in the presence of strangers”, unpacking the complicated politics of belonging. Jessica invites us to think about who our sisters and our strangers are; for whom we show up in solidarity, and which people hold us accountable.
Sameness is not easily found when you’re a Black lesbian living in the west coast of Scotland. Learning to successfully negotiate difference has been nothing short of a survival skill, and learning when to let go even more so. I think about how belonging is often contextual – there are times when it feels like I fit with white lesbians, and there are times when it feels like I fit with straight women of colour, but there is always a precarious element to those relationships. Increasingly it seems as though the straight feminists in my life – with boyfriends, husbands, and heteronuclear families – are unwilling to engage with the texture of my lesbian feminist politics. And while white lesbians will always be a dear part of my tribe, I can’t let go of my kinship with straight women or even men of colour – as separatists tend to expect. The Combahee River Collective hit upon this problem decades ago:
Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.
In many ways, as Jessica points out, the CRC were the beginning of what we now call intersectional feminism. We talk about the problems the Collective faced as Black lesbians – with many different groups invested in their oppression. Traditional structures of family and community can often leave vocal feminists – especially lesbian feminists – isolated.
Paradoxically, the feminist movement isn’t always there for those of us who are actively trying to live outside of heteropatriarchal structures. With this in mind, we re-write a selection of quotes from Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. It almost feels sacrilegious to tamper with Chimamanda’s writing – but, as Jessica says, it is “a useful tool for critiquing.” It’s also a very engaging exercise. Jessica does this with her books “when it feels like they’re missing something”, and in future I will join her.
We finish with group discussions about the transformative power of Black feminism. My table talks about how Black feminism challenges Black capitalism, particularly through influencer culture. We talk about the phenomenon of Blackfishing – white women doing their hair and make-up to look as Black as possible, profiting from the very same aesthetics Black women and girls are punished for. At the heart of the Blackfishing phenomenon is the Kardashian-Jenner family. Kris Jenner’s daughters seem to acquire Black partners and children like they are the latest fashion accessory.
As Yomi Adegoke writes, “the Kardashians’ babies, besties and boyfriends continue to be human shields against accusations of racism laid at the door of this ever-ignorant family. They devour Black culture and spit out the bits that don’t sit well with them.” Earlier in the week, I read a Tweet claiming “Kris Jenner has more black grandkids than Diana Ross.” Although it was funny, it had some sad implications too – proximity to Blackness offers white people social capital, but only through distancing ourselves from Blackness can Black people find a prestige that’s even close to being equivalent.
The second day of Black Studies was packed full of revelations, big and small. Though a lot of the themes we covered were painful, it was perhaps the most enjoyable learning environment I have every participated in. Safe spaces are often criticised as getting in the way of critical thought, but having that respectful atmosphere and sense of kinship that comes with being in a room filled by people of colour enabled me to think in directions I wouldn’t have otherwise have dared to. In the Black Studies classroom, I asked difficult questions of myself and the world around me – and felt enriched by pursuing those lines of critical thought.