Christen A. Smith and Lorraine Leu, editors

Black Feminist Constellations: Dialogue and Translation across the Americas

University of Texas Press, 2023

374 pages


Reviewed by Laura Rose Brylowski

In Black Feminist Constellations: Dialogue and Translation across the Americas, editors Christen Smith and Lorraine Leu offer Anglophone readers the opportunity to listen, learn, and engage in conversations with Black women intellectuals, activists, and artists of Latin America and the Caribbean. I purposefully use the term “listen” to describe engagement with the text, because, as the editors suggest, the book is situated in “the intellectual zone of ‘the kitchen table’—the physical and virtual spaces where Black women come together to think about and theorize the world.” We as readers are invited into the kitchen—a space of intimacy, connection, and provocation. We lean against the counter, sipping a cup of tea while listening to intellectual giants unhinge and recenter our world. The anthology’s authors converse in real time, as every other chapter is a translation of a two-way interview between Black Latin American and Caribbean women scholars, artists, and activists, and Black women interlocutors based in the United States. These conversations are paired with traditional scholarly essays, which also converse amongst themselves by engaging in common themes and questions. Conversation, or dialogue, as the editors explain, is a medium and a methodology for “anti-imperialist, transnational Black feminism.”

Black Feminist Constellations grew out of the 2020 Lozano Long Conference at the University of Texas at Austin, “Black Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Americas: Perspectives from the Global South,” and subsequent interviews conducted on the Cite Black Women podcast. The anthology, like the conference, makes an important intervention into English-dominated understandings of Black Feminism and Black women’s political thought, by investing in and prioritizing the translation of Spanish and Portuguese language works. The goal is to fight against the epistemicide that the hegemonic Anglophone global academy perpetuates. Ultimately, it is a gift to English-speaking activists and academics alike who yearn to make transnational connections and are prohibited by the language barrier.

The book is divided into two main conceptual parts and bookended by the poems of contemporary Brazilian writer Elizandra Souza. Part One, “Radical Movements: Caring for Life,” delves into contemporary political struggles and community organizing among Black women in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico and trans women across Latin America. Part Two: “Radical Roots: Genealogies of Thought” traces the lineages of critical Black women thinkers, whose ideas have been germinating since the 1940s.

Part I opens with an essay and conversation with the often-named godmother of Brazilian Black feminism, Sueli Carneiro. She calls attention to the political strategies and actions Black feminists in Brazil have used since the 1980s to enegrecer (Blacken) feminism in the country. “Blackening feminism pointed out the impact that race has on every dimension of the women’s movement: the disadvantages and inequalities that race provokes and produces for Black women.” Over the past twenty-plus years, Black feminists in Brazil have taken leadership of the feminist agenda. Carneiro, for example, recognizes Black women’s participation in the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism, the re-definition and expansion of the feminist platform at the National Conference of Brazilian Women in 2002, and the inclusion of a specific chapter on Black women in the 2008 National Policy Plan for Women as three significant moments of Black feminist victories in Brazil.

Part II is framed by Carol Boyce Davis’s chapter, “A Genealogy of Left Feminist Claims.” In it, the Trinidad-born scholar, who has spent her life tending to “the explicit feminist component that often remains unaccounted for” in the Caribbean Left and the Black radical traditions, calls attention to the intellectual productions and political struggles of Andaiye, Claudia Jones, and Charlene Mitchell. As the work and activism of these women come into focus, Davis outlines a tentative shape of a Black radical feminist tradition. In the chapters that follow, we learn more about the work of Guyanese Black feminist Andaiye and even have access to a never-before-reprinted conversation between Andaiye and Audre Lorde for the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) from 1988.

Nevertheless, while Carneiro explains how she and others have strategically made use of the feminist movement in Brazil to further the demands and necessities of Black Brazilian women, and Davis maps out an “explicit feminist component” to the Black radical tradition, other contributors to the anthology don’t all identify with or see use in the term “feminist” for political struggle. For example, Florencia Gomes, a Black Argentinian woman, titles her essay “Is it Time to Say Goodbye to ‘Feminism’?” noting how often racism appears in feminist circles in Argentina. This racism often makes it untenable for Gomes to see a productive future in those spaces. Additionally, Bedour Alagraa brings Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter’s proposal of ‘womanist’ to the table. Alagraa explains it as the conceptual position Black women occupy in society. It is the “absented presence” of Caliban’s woman in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Alagraa emphasizes it is not an outsider position, but a liminal one beyond our Western conception of the idea of ‘woman.’ As such, it is a unique and important space to explore and build from, as it is “the foundation upon which episteme rests.” Given these conceptual differences among the authors and interlocutors, I wonder if the editors could have considered a different word rather than ‘feminist’ for the anthology’s title; one that captures this diversity of thought.

Another important theme of the book is history, specifically how bringing Black women’s stories and histories to the forefront shifts our normative understanding of the past, causing rippling effects in the present. In “Black Women’s Struggles in Mexico: Anti-racism, Community Organization, and Reparation Politics,”Rosa María Castro Salinas, Itza Amanda Varela Huerta, and Metz Yoalli Rodríguez converse on Mexico’s national project of mestizaje (spearheaded by the educational efforts of former Education minister José Vasconcelos) and how it has historically and visually erased (and continues to erase) Mexico’s Black population. The work of Afro-Mexican women, like the interlocutors Huerta works with in Mexico’s Costa Chica region, counter this narrative by excavating this erasure and questioning the elitist model of education and history proposed and enacted by José Vasconcelos. This work, as Huerta points out, “modif[ies] many understandings about Afro-Mexican subjectivities in general, and specifically what it means to be a Black woman in contemporary Mexico.”

Whereas Afro-Mexican women struggle against their historical erasure, Brazilian visual artist Rosana Paulino, along with other contemporary Black woman artists, work to reconfigure the hegemonic representation of Black women in Brazil’s national imaginary. In her seminal work, Assentamento, Paulino takes up Louis Agissiz’s photographs of enslaved women on the auction block (1865-1866). As Lorraine Leu explains, “Paulino sutures back together the body and its exposed, bleeding heart after its violation by the white supremacist gaze of the Harvard biologist.” By reappropriating this image, Paulino reveals the violence embedded in the photograph and “unpack[s] colonial constructions of race, gender, and sexuality that continue to support power structures in the diaspora today.” Assentamento not only works to repair and reconfigure the historical violence perpetuated against Black women, but also exposes the current power imbalances Black women face in Brazilian society today.

This juxtaposition of past and present is a common thread throughout Black Feminist Constellations, as the collection both embraces the legacy and history of Black women’s radical thought and showcases the work of young contemporaries. Overall, editors Smith and Leu gather together a radical group of Black women activists, intellectuals, and artists, not with the intention, as they note, to create a comprehensive list of Black women figures of Latin America and the Caribbean, but rather, to map out the strains of thought that when seen together, form constellations. On their own, the authors and interlocutors of this volume shine brightly, but when acknowledged together, they guide us to ways of thinking, fighting, and living in radically just ways.