BLACK FEMINIST STUDIES: A WORLD-ALTERING PRAXIS
EDITED BY CANDICE LYONS
Black feminist studies is inextricably bound and, in some ways, foundational to the theme of this year’s Review, “Everyday Anarchy,” as the study of Black women’s lives, histories, and movement over time is always necessarily the study of insurgency, resilience, and resistance. Taking seriously the Combahee River Collective’s claim that “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression,” Black feminist studies maps the means by which Black women have worked to stage that freedom and continue to do so in our contemporary moment (1977).
The contributors to this section take up that same work. Their reviews highlight the ways the engaged texts address not only the oppressive systems Black women imperil and combat but also the ways Black women simultaneously shape and theorize their own experiences. After all, as Barbara Christian points out, “[her] folk…have always been a race for theory” (1987). These writings implore us to consider what it means for those rendered unmoored and ungeographic to take up space; to be thick, unwieldy; to give voice to the unnamable; and to dare to imagine themselves as subjects, rather than objects.
The section begins with Katie Field’s review of Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (2020), which considers the ways women of African descent across the diaspora used kinship and intimacy as means of enacting freedom. Johnson positions free status as a space of contestation, even for Black women who were not enslaved—one that compelled these women to imbue freedom with their own meanings and allow the persistent pursuit of it to inform their intimate realities. Field’s review of the work traces Johnson’s mapping of her interlocutors’ “geographies of pleasure” and agential acts of self-determination, which comprised a sort of “black femme freedom.” Sophie White’s Voices of the Enslaved: Love, Labor, and Longing in French Louisiana (2019) covers much of the same literal and symbolic ground, thinking through French-colonized space (including eighteenth century New Orleans) as a site of flux, marked by shifting power dynamics and tensile gender realities. Drawing from the extensive, meticulously documented French court records spanning the years between 1723 and 1769, White outlines the means by which enslaved people used their roles as witnesses, defendants, or even victims to provide on-the-record testimony about their lives and publicly detail their experiences in a way ordinarily unavailable to them. This testimony, as Gaila Sims points out in her review of the work, often highlighted the ways the enslaved conceived of themselves within the contexts of class, gender, status, and access. In her plumbing of these records, White offers a glimpse into what it might mean to allow the enslaved to speak for themselves within an archive so often characterized by their silence.
Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross write against these silences as well in their stunning A Black Women’s History of the United States (2020), which offers a compelling and comprehensive history of US Black women that moves from the epoch of North American colonization to the aftermath of the 2016 election. Sophia Monegro’s review traces Berry and Gross’s move to place diverse yet related narratives in conversation with one another, creating space for the stories of women long relegated to the margins of history, fixed in the archive as only partially named and less than fully human, to become visible. Positing seventeenth century enslaved women, nineteenth century medical test subjects, and twenty-first century activists as all bound together in the struggle against misogynoir, A Black Women’s History of the United States, as Monegro explains, pushes the reader to contend with Black women’s centuries-long fight with the forces of erasure and control, grounded in their relentless refusal to disappear.
This refusal forms the crux of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick: And Other Essays (2019), which centers on questions of space and, specifically, Black women’s reclamations of it. A rich and unflinching auto-ethnographic analysis of Black womanhood, this work evaluates the ways social structures shape and are shaped by those women always assumed to be a problem, as well as the means by which Black women might resist this categorization and instead “do what they are already doing but for better rewards.” Jessica S. Samuel’s review follows McMillan Cottom’s mediations on colorism, white supremacy, fatphobia, and desirability politics, which culminate by the end of the text into a cohesive narrative about the sanctions Black women face for refusing to shrink, and ultimately underscore that capitulation is not the only option. Katherine McKittrick charts alternate possibilities in her Dear Science and Other Stories (2021), offering a nuanced critique of the ways Black women’s narratives—and, more broadly, the field of Black studies itself—get (recon)figured in ways hyper-focused on the abject; she instead invites the reader to imagine otherwise. In her review, Lindsey Holmes plots McKittrick’s central claim that “storytelling signal[s] the fictive work of theory” through an expansive text which engages the endlessly generative work of Sylvia Wynter in its reflections on science, geography, and the ontology of Black life.
Rooting themselves in the pursuit and possibility of liberation, even as they attend to histories of subjection, the texts reviewed in this section compel us to envision other worlds—worlds in which Black women are valued, centered, and seen. They insist that the everyday holds within it the potential for change, and remind us that none of us gets free until we all do.