What we’re reading: The Handmaid’s Tale, Black feminism, and gender

“reflections on writing ‘self’…while free-falling through words and memories” by @MaraiLarasi

 … I write all the time, but rarely in this way. I write constantly in my work. I write because it’s what I do. I do Black-Feminist ending violence work…and it requires that I write…and my activism, my work, my job…all rest within a space of navigating, challenging and dismantling intersecting oppressive systems. I ‘speak truth to power’ while not wanting to be implicated in those power systems. I walk a tightrope between revolution and reform. I use words to expose inequities and to build bridges. I weigh each moment’s pragmatism against the next moment’s reImagining. It’s a messy space. It’s one where creativity and ‘voice’ are curtailed and managed in the interest of effective advocacy. It’s one where acts of speaking and writing can be powerful in themselves (and in a context of censorship and silencing they are not to be taken for granted or diminished); but they can equally feel like conversations in an echo chamber. I write and speak into a reImagined future, a lifetime of numerous generations, one that allows my ancestors to be as present as those that will be born into my tribe in the years to come. I write and speak words that become lines, paragraphs, references and footnotes in policy papers and briefing notes. My thoughts become sound bites in articles and tweets. I have ‘voice’ yet it is splintered and reconstructed, often in patterns that are not of my own design. This is not a ‘waaaah…poor me’. This is merely a reflection of how ‘di ting set’…

Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future by Naomi Alderman

Margaret Atwood’s evergreen dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is about to become a television drama. Published in 1985, it couldn’t feel more fresh or more timely, dealing as it does with reproductive rights, with the sudden accession to power of a theocracy in the United States, with the demonisation of imagined, pantomime villain “Islamic fanatics”. But then, feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.

Where does the story of feminist science fiction begin? There are so many possible starting points: Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing World, about an empress of a utopian kingdom; one could point convincingly to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exploration of how men could “give birth” and what might happen if they did; one could recall the 1905 story “Sultana’s Dream” by Begum Rokeya, about a gender-reversed India in which it’s the men who are kept in purdah. …

The Radical Feminist Aesthetic Of “The Handmaid’s Tale” via @annehelen

The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which debuts next week on Hulu, is filled with small, barbed revelations. Even if you’ve read the book, and you know what you’re in for, there’s so much to startle you: there’s Elisabeth Moss’s face, which, through roles in Mad Men and Top of the Lake, has become an emblem of women persevering in the face of sexual violence and abject sexism. There are jarring moments of presentness — the way the characters offhandedly reference Craigslist, or Tinder — that make it impossible to pretend this is a scenario of the distant past or future. There’s the quiet profanity of Offred’s internal monologue — her use of “fuck” and “cum” in particular — which is so dissonant with the sunny, shining world that surrounds her.

And then there’s the way the world is rendered: Gilead, as it’s called, is a startlingly exquisite Eden, with dark, claustrophobic corners — a place where the individual has no power, save the small, essential spaces she carves for herself within her mind. So many dystopic narratives are filmed as fantasy spaces: worlds we can observe briefly and from a careful distance, or in which we are positioned to identify with a bloodied, vanquishing hero. The Handmaid’s Tale quietly forces the audience into the position of the handmaid herself: To watch is to feel the daily realities, the sensations and smells, the invisible constrictions and silent aggressions of living under patriarchy. In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale is both a beauty to behold and a slap in the face, employing a vibrant film language that not only proves itself the equal to, but expands upon its canonical source text. …

If ‘inclusivity’ is a priority, let men make their washrooms ‘gender-neutral’  via @FeministCurrent

In the liberal rush to make anything and everything “gender-inclusive,” who is getting the short end of the stick? I bet you know the answer to this one… We are only too aware, as feminists, that it is always women and girls whose interests seem to be considered non-urgent, unimportant, and irrelevant. It is always girls and women who are politely supposed to step aside for everyone else. With a smile, at that.

When journalist and BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed attended a screening of I Am Not Your Negro at the Barbican Centre in London she found the women’s washroom had disappeared. Now, in place of the “women’s” sign was one that read, “gender-neutral with cubicles,” and in place of the “men’s” was “gender-neutral with urinals.” How convenient for men to have two different washrooms to choose from! How inclusive.

Ahmed wasn’t the only one who complained about this change. When she spoke to staff at the Centre, they told Ahmed they had already argued, internally, that the transformation was a mistake. On Twitter, one woman wrote, “Gender neutral toilets !!! Never seen so many confused and desperate people!! Whose bright idea?!!” Another tweeted: “Barbican now have gender neutral toilets. They just changed the signs, formerly male ones state they have urinals. Guess what happens?” …

Hysteria, Witches, and The Wandering Uterus: A Brief History by Terri Kapsalis via @lithub

I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper” because I believe it can save people. That is one reason. There are more. I have taught Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1891 story for nearly two decades and this past fall was no different. Then again, this past fall was entirely different.

In our undergraduate seminar at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we discussed “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the context of the nearly 4,000-year history of the medical diagnosis of hysteria. Hysteria, from the Greek hystera or womb. We explored this wastebasket diagnosis that has been a dump-site for all that could be imagined to be wrong with women from around 1900 BCE until the 1950s. The diagnosis was not only prevalent in the West among mainly white women but had its pre-history in Ancient Egypt, and was found in the Far East and Middle East too.

The course is titled “The Wandering Uterus: Journeys through Gender, Race, and Medicine” and gets its name from one of the ancient “causes” of hysteria. The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen. If it wandered the wrong direction and made its way to the throat there would be choking, coughing or loss of voice, if it got stuck in the the rib cage, there would be chest pain or shortness of breath, and so on. Most any symptom that belonged to a female body could be attributed to that wandering uterus. “Treatments,” including vaginal fumigations, bitter potions, balms, and pessaries made of wool, were used to bring that uterus back to its proper place. “Genital massage,” performed by a skilled physician or midwife, was often mentioned in medical writings. The triad of marriage, intercourse, and pregnancy was the ultimate treatment for the semen-hungry womb. The uterus was a troublemaker and was best sated when pregnant. …

What we’re reading: on the women’s march and Buchi Emecheta

Our cynicism will not build a movement. Collaboration will. by Alicia Garza

… On Saturday, I joined more than a million women in Washington, D.C., to register my opposition to the new regime. Participating in the Women’s March — if you count satellite protests around the country, the largest one-day mobilization in the history of the United States — was both symbolic and challenging.

Like many other black women, I was conflicted about participating. That a group of white women had drawn clear inspiration from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet failed to acknowledge the historical precedent, rubbed me the wrong way. Here they go again, I thought, adopting the work of black people while erasing us.

I’d had enough before it even began. 53% of white women who voted in the 2016 presidential election did so for a man who aims to move society backward. Were white women now having buyer’s remorse? Where were all of these white people while our people are being killed in the streets, jobless, homeless, over incarcerated, under educated? Are you committed to freedom for everyone, or just yourselves? …

The Black Woman’s “Women’s March” Problem: It Ain’t Just White Folks by Ree Walker

There are some great perks to living on the West Coast. I never thought, as a die hard New Yorker, that I would ever find myself uttering those words. Most would think it’s the weather but for me, it’s because of the time zone set up. Yes one could argue that you aren’t getting everything on television first, like you do in New York, which does kind of suck. But sometimes that time zone thing works out pretty well. One such instance was during the Women’s March this past Saturday. It was great because I was able to watch the march on television, that was well underway in D.C., before leaving to go to the one here in Cali. It was, overall, an extraordinary showing of solidarity and sorely needed at such a crucial time in our history. In fact, it’s long past due. Speaking as a black woman who has been an organizer around black feminism and black women’s issues for the last couple of decades however, unfortunately what I saw in D.C. was disappointing. As the march unfolded, I began to realize that it had been hijacked by male centered forces from the black patriarchy.

As I watched speaker after speaker emerge, I began to see a pattern unfold. The white women were mainly centered on feminist issues, while the black women were centered on the plight of black males and with, what the Oppressive Black Patriarchy (or what I call the OBP), had deemed as a priority and agenda for black women. I became more and more frustrated as I saw these women who represent the OBP’s agenda in black grassroots circles, gradually take over and push their way, center stage into this march. The vast majority of the black women who spoke didn’t utter a word about the rampant amount of victimization that black women suffer, as a result of black male violence against them, which happens on an hourly basis. They conveniently left out issues of rape, sexual molestation, sexual violence, child molestation, child support, familial neglect, abuse, domestic violence, neighborhood shootings, physical, emotional and psychological harm in relationships, female genital mutilation and rape in war torn areas of Africa as well as the abuse which occurs within male centered political and religious structures, grassroots and otherwise. All of these areas were omitted, along with all of the other oppressive types of situations that black women face as a result of the ongoing patriarchal oppression that exists within black communities around the world and on line. …

Women’s march and the selective memory of mainstream feminism by Paula Akpan

… And therein lies the problem for many people of colour: how does a black woman reconcile getting behind a women’s protest when 94 percent of black women went down to the polling stations and cast their lot with Clinton only to be thrown under the bus by a majority of white voters who could not see beyond their own interests to think, for one second, of the fear that a Trump presidency might invoke in people of colour, queer and LGBTQIA+ people, trans people and immigrants? What do you do when you’re expected to swallow your bitter disappointment and stand shoulder to shoulder with many feminists who only seem to stand up and make noise when they have a vested interest in the matter at hand? Like Mbakwe says, where were all these women when we lost Sandra Bland?

Some of the fundamental problems with the Washington march date back to months before it took place. Brittany T. Oliver, a women’s rights activist from Baltimore, voiced frustration with the Women’s March on Washington co-opting messaging from two prominent events of civil disobedience in black history: One Million Women, led by black women in response to feminists ignoring the experiences of people of colour in 1997, and the well-known March on Washington in 1963. Oliver states “politically co-opting efforts with “ALL WOMEN” and “ALL VOICES” is merely an attempt to erase the specific needs of people of African descent.” …

 

Buchi Emecheta, pioneering Nigerian novelist, dies aged 72

… Born in Lagos in 1944, Emecheta moved to England in 1960 with her husband Sylvester Onwordi, to whom she had been engaged from the age of 11. Her 1974 autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen described their unhappy and sometimes violent marriage, which included his burning manuscripts of her work. At the age of 22, Emecheta left her husband and worked to support herself and five children. During this time, she completed a sociology degree at the University of London and contributed a column to the New Statesman about black British life. The columns formed the basis of her 1972 book Into the Ditch.

Until 1978, she wrote while working as a community worker in Camden, north London, using her experience to inform her fiction. Her third novel, The Bride Price, was the first of many where she focused on the role of women in Nigerian society. Among her most famous works was The Joys of Motherhood, an account of bringing up children in the face of changing values in traditional Igbo communities. In 1976, her first play, A Kind of Marriage, was widely praised when it was screened on BBC TV. Ten years later, she adapted the play into a novel, in the same year in which she published her autobiography Head Above Water. …

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On repetition and power

Cross-posted from: Neocolonial Thoughts
Originally published: 06.03.16

I just finished an article on intersectionality and its critiques by Vivian May. Among other points, she addresses the critique that intersectionality didn’t bring anything new to the table and that it is just Black feminism recycled. Aside from the point that this is arguably false, she points to the important question of whycertain things have to be repeated again and again. Should we be focusing on repetition as necessarily bad, or should we be asking why certain things, in certain fields, need to be repeated over and over?

Of course the field of gender studies and feminism are the quintessential example here. Debates about universal sisterhood, about structure versus agency, about the biological versus the constructed, and so on have been happening for decades upon decades. But the point here is that certain points – which should by now have been accepted – must be constantly made and defended. The most prominent example is the idea of multiple structural intersections that de-center gender as the most important axis of oppression or identity. In other words: race, sexuality, nation and a whole range of other social categories matter just as much as gender. Significantly, they can’t really be neatly separated from one another – I am racialized and gendered, and I can’t exactly separate my racialization from my gendering. Intersectionality is the most recent reiteration of this basic point, but it has been made before, by Black feminists, by Third World feminists, and by feminists during the era of decolonization. Hence the idea of repetition.
Read more On repetition and power

Sorry – can I just interrupt you? Your not Black. by Petals fall from my afro like autumn

(Cross-posted from Petals fall from my afro like Autumn)

It’s funny after all these months that I have come back to race. But I suppose it is somewhat unavoidable as a thinking point when you goes to a talk entitled: Black Feminism 101: Reclaiming Space in Mainstream Feminism, facilitated, by a young woman who was one of the founders of Black Feminists, a London-based group. If you look back at my first dozen posts, their ALL about race, as was my creative enquiry of the time, but looking at it now, I have perhaps  made somewhat of a subconscious point of not mentioning it since. Moving from London, back to Scotland had the wonderful effect of liberatingly (if very slightly disappointingly) reminding me that I am not an exotic one-off representative of all women/artists/people of colour in the world. I am only me, one of many types, as well as completely unique. But no more unique than anyone else.

The conclusion, to put it simply, of my three-month-long (or arguably life-long) study of my own racial, or perhaps ‘raced’ self was that I can identify however I want to, and that these labels are not only allowed to, but really should be flexible, fluid, morphing and evolving just as I am. Yet last week, at this talk, I found myself confronted with this question once again, quietly, in my own mind:Am I Black enough to be here? I didn’t even know I was asking this question, although I knew I was aware of the clipped well-spoken qualities of my accent, African-print earrings, the bohemian assumptions flowing from the hem of my black, empress-line dress, and battered, second-hand cowboy boots. All of which marking me out as not only potentially ‘Superficially Black’, but also a potential ‘Wannabe White’. Simplified, exaggerated, un-politically correct terms, clumsy in the mouth and awkward on the tongue like a dirty word no-one wants to hear, but that everyone whispers behind their hands in the dark. Terms I shun, look down on, frown into submission, but never-the-less acknowledge as living breathing, potentially powerful images in their own right, images with connotations that can divide, can ridicule, can hurt, can isolate.

So whilst my subconscious was reluctantly sidling through this dangerous territory of chasms, curses and calamities, I got distracted. The talk had ended and I was trying to give my card to a girl who had asked for it, but was now engaged in another conversation. Eventually, wanting to leave I involved myself in their conversation – hoping to avoid interrupting, but still leave my details and make a quick escape. One white and small, one black and tall, and me standing there in the middle. Somehow they drew me in, and, the talk being over, I let my guard down, stopped worrying so much about how I portrayed myself, or the language I used and professed my truths: I, personally felt uncomfortable with this exclusive grouping of women, who identified as ‘Black’ and ‘Feminist’ both things that at times I identified with. Yet they put together two expansively diverse and multi-faceted words and came out with what felt to me to be a very single minded definition, and one that I didn’t associate with. I had no problem at all with the group, of course I didn’t, and I was very happy that women met and found solidarity and comfort and a voice there, it just wasn’t for me,

At which point she interrupted with a beautifully careless, “Sorry – can I just interrupt you? Your not Black.”

And you know what? I was crushed. I felt utterly obliterated and unqualified to speak. I felt like a phoney. A white sheep running with the black flock, desperately hoping they wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t one of them. I laughed nervously, buying myself time, trying to find the words, to sound confident, sure of myself, calm, collected. “Well, I stumbled, I identify differently depending on the circles I’m in, and actually claiming the word ‘Black’ has been a very important part of my own journey of identification” “But,” She interrupts again, “You shouldn’t feel like you have to identify as black, when, you know, your not, your Mixed Race.” “Of course not!” I laughed, falsely trying to play her at her own game, to reject the slightly pitying motherly eye she had now turned towards me, looking down at me. I tried to make the very notion of such a thing seem ridiculous, and her ridiculous in mentioning it. The she looked away, her interest faltering.

Or so it seemed to me, in my flustered defensive state, she was every Black woman who had ever laughed in my face, or told me I wanted to be white, or wished I was white, or said I wasn’t Black enough, or called me ‘coconut’, or even ‘Bounty’.

I excused myself fairly rapidly after that, in fact I don’t even remember much of the latter conversation, my mind was reeling. It was only afterwards, walking home that I begun to get angry. Who was she after all to say who was and wasn’t whatever they chose to define themselves as? I berated myself for being so pathetic in my response. I should have said, ‘I identify as Black because I see it as a political statement. A statement of solidarity, recognition, of acknowledgement, and of positioning’ – my whole dissertation concluded with ‘positioning’ – i.e that we are all positioned somewhere in the social and political conversation, and our job as conscious individually-minded human beings is to chooses where that is, and then stand by that position – ‘but I would be really interested to hear what your definition is (as you seem to think you can universally decide who does and who doesn’t deserve the grand title of Black!). Well – perhaps not the last bit…

Hours later, on the phone to my friend Cristian, who is Colombian I was still going on about it, and relaying how shaken and cowed I had been. ‘Ama, he said calmly. There will always be people who want to tell you who you are and who you are not allowed to be. If they feel they have a definition of Blackness that you do not conform to then forget it, their not worth bothering with – just let it go. You have to live by your own definitions.’ And of course he is right, and of course, I know this. If it had happened to someone else, I could easily have dished out the same calmly uttered wisdom. But somehow it had still gotten to me, after all these years, and a whole dissertation on the subject-later, I was still completely out of my comfort zone, feeling a complete outsider. And you know what, other than going on, of course going on (always on!), I have no solution..not yet, not tonight. But tomorrow, I guess, maybe.

 

Ama Budge: A performance artist turned freelance writer commenting on gender inequalities, reflecting on my own challenges and experiences as a mixed-race Londoner and most importantly taking note, in awe, of the extraordinary resilience of human kinds striving for be better, and to love.