Somewhere, sometime, in every work of fiction written by Paule Marshall, a black woman laughs. But the laughter is not always the same; there are multitudes of knowledge, skill, and feeling in her different types of laughter. There is laughter that derides others, of self-loathing, of survival, and of freedom.
Each novella in Marshall’s book Soul Clap Hands and Sing has a male protagonist. And yet each piece still manages to be about black women and how their appearance alters the way men feel about themselves. In “Brooklyn,” a white male professor consistently refers to the only black woman in his literature class as “girl” in his fantasies. At first, she is intimidated by him, and frightened when he solicits her, but later she approaches him to affirm her own sense of self – and “her sudden laugh [was] an infinitely cruel sound in the warm night.” This black woman’s laughter is mean and doesn’t fully endear us to her, but Marshall makes it clear that it took many years and a great deal of loneliness and pain for her to earn that laugh.
Some of the laughter in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People – a novel which showcases Marshall’s talent for writing about visceral emotion – is also painful. Merle, a black Caribbean woman, is deeply haunted by her past, and she holds her ex-lover, a white Englishwoman, responsible for much of her misery. Yet Merle manages to empathize with the white wife of a man she has an affair with, until the woman tries to pay Merle to leave. The bribe is so close to how that other white woman treated her that after the offer, Merle’s “head went back and the earsplitting laugh erupted once again. And this time it was more a laugh and less the anguished scream that had sought to rid her of the dead weight. She might have been delivered.” Merle’s own laughter delivers her; she finds within herself the route from pain and guilt towards freedom and self-acceptance.
In Marshall’s fiction, black women’s laughter is hardly ever at something funny. Instead, it’s a response to the absurdity of life, and especially of racism and poverty. It’s what in some places we call laugh for not to cry.
The novella Reena describes this kind of laughter. As the title character and an old friend mourn being aging black women who are both alone and lonely, “again our laughter – that loud, searing burst which we used to cauterize our hurt mounted into the unaccepting silence of the room.”
Not all of the laughter in Marshall’s work is painful. Despite her mother’s warnings, Selina, protagonist of Marshall’s first and probably most-taught novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, seeks out Suggie – a single, “loose” woman – for information and advice about sex. Suggie happily complies, and at the end of the chapter (in what some describe as a homoerotic scene), "Together, laughing, their arms circling each other’s waists, they crossed the room and opened the door. A wide bar of light from the hall made a path for them, and the rich colors of their laughter painted the darkness.”
In an essay published in Women’s Studies Quarterly that appears later in different form as “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” Marshall praises the working-class black, Caribbean women who talked around the kitchen table when she was a child. Crediting these women as her first literary inspiration, Marshall focuses on their intelligence and their creativity with language – not on the many isms that threatened them at every turn. According to Marshall, these black women’s “laughter which often swept the kitchen was, at its deepest level, an affirmation of their own worth; it said they could not be. defeated by demeaning jobs...”
Black women’s laughter, on the page and in life is often loud and unabashed: what some might call vulgar or uncouth; what some of us call home. Take a moment and listen…if you’re a black woman, if you know black women intimately, then you can hear the shades of these different laughters percolating now. But if you don’t know black women, or if you want a reminder, look to the pages of Paule Marshall for black women’s laughter.
8/22/2019 0 Comments
The beginning of the new academic year is a crucial time. It’s the time to write new syllabi and revise old ones, make semester plans and embrace new possibilities. Here are some easy and steps you can take to #CiteBlackWomen.
1) Read our work.
Read Black women’s scholarship. Don’t know of any? Ask and do some research. Once you’ve found Black women’s work, deepen your understanding of it and seriously engage the ideas. Black women literally publish in every areas imaginable. All you have to do is find us.
2) Integrate our work in a serious way.
Don’t just slap us onto your bibliography—critically engage us. For example, if you are teaching a class on urban landscapes, don’t just add a Black women’s book on cities to your class. Ask students to think about how Black feminist geographies change our perspectives of space. We aren’t just sources of information: we are also theorizers and innovators.
3) Acknowledge our work.
Once you’ve incorporated us into the structure of your class/bibliography, acknowledge our work. How have we uniquely changed/impacted the field? Say our names out loud. Don’t just paraphrase what we’ve taught you and pass it off as your own intervention. Like that idea, let us know who inspired it.
4) Let us speak.
Give us the space and time to speak. Assign a Black women’s work? Invite her to speak on your campus. Invite her to speak in your class (*and PAY her!). Support her by inviting her by attending her conference papers and/or talks. Make space in your daily practices to ensure that Black women’s ideas are heard. Cite us in your lectures, your talks, meetings, even casual conversations. It makes a difference.
5) Let us breathe.
Finally, let us breathe. We do a whole lot. Most of us work 3-4 shifts not just 2 (a la the 2nd shift). Don’t overwork us. Give us break. Give us the space to be quiet, write, reflect, laugh, cry, be. And don’t take it personally when we need time away.
If you do these five things you are on a path to change. Just keep them in mind and you can make real progress this semester and beyond. Good luck.
P.S. - Thoughts for Black Women
And p.s. thoughts for Black women particularly: most of us were deliberately taught NOT to value Black women’s work in graduate school. We were literally instructed to cite white men and we were/are often punished for not doing so in school and beyond. It is not easy unlearning this. It is often triggering as we have been shamed and disciplined into thinking that our own knowledge production is unworthy of citation. Be gentle with yourselves as you unlearn erasing Black women. Seek allies and sister-friends that can support you in your journey to value yourself and your fellow Black women. Take the courageous step to deconstruct your own habits and recognize this is a PROCESS not zero sum game. You can do it. And support your sisters as they go through this process as well. The last thing we need is more hate and negativity. Be kind and patient with yourself and others.
4/8/2019 0 Comments
Elizabeth Eckford. The photograph of her walking through a mob of hateful white people trying to keep her out of their school comes to mind. My struggle in the academy does not compare to that of Elizabeth Eckford, but this image evokes the common narrative of black students enduring hostility to enter a white academic space. That “colored woman living in a white world”  reflects back to me my experience as a black woman in the white-dominated, hostile, engineering academic space where my legitimacy as a scientist is continually challenged.
My first encounter with the politics of research involved the politics of the “valid” research question. Surviving in my PhD program became dependent upon me defining research questions that satisfied my desire to do environmental equity- and justice-focused research while being deemed “scholarly-enough” (read: novel-, rigorous-, and technical-enough) for environmental engineering by my professors. Throughout this process, I have carried the words of Dr. Carolyn Finney. In a speech given during my second year, she said, “What is your vision…it’s the commitment to that. Not commitment to the degree, not commitment to the dissertation, not commitment to someone else’s idea of who you need to be and what your work is supposed to look like. You get clear about what you are committed to.” Her praxis of “doing the work on your own terms” inspired me to remain committed to making space for interdisciplinary, environmental justice work in engineering. Three years later, it is Dr. Charisma Acey who is helping me develop my final dissertation chapter and serves as a committee member. The mentorship of these two black women faculty, both in outside departments, helped me navigate and broaden colonial notions of “valid, technical” science and persist in academia.
The technical validity of my work is recurrently interrogated until a chapter is accepted to a conference or peer-reviewed journal. Before I became aware of citational politics, I was made to understand that publication is equated with merit. It was when I came across a retweet of a Cite Black Women post about a year ago that I began to think of citation as a practice. In the sciences, we are encouraged to look at an author’s h-index, a metric based on number of papers and citations. The h-index is indicative of science’s false claim of apolitical knowledge production. Using this value to select article citations reproduces the exclusion of black scientific scholarship due to limited access to and visibility in science fields. Seeing the words “Cite Black Women” reified the need to seek, read, and cite black women in environmental engineering and related fields. Since publication and citation are the institutional metrics of legitimate scientific research, the practice of citing black women is critical for our collective survival in white-dominated, hostile, engineering academic spaces.
 Terrell, Mary Church (1940). A Colored Woman in a White World. GK Hall.
Regan F. Patterson is a PhD Candidate in Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation research focuses on the environmental justice and equity outcomes of diesel truck emission control regulations and truck routing policies in freight-impacted communities. In addition to research, she enjoys teaching and tutoring K-12 students, always finding ways to incorporate environmental themes and student experiences. Regan holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from UCLA and an M.S. in Environmental Engineering from UC Berkeley.
4/8/2019 0 Comments
Black women bookend all of my educational endeavors. Though I had no black professors as an undergraduate student, sociologists Margaret L. Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins edited the book that introduced me to feminist studies during my first semester. Though I had no training in psychology, social psychologist Dr. Onnie Rogers trained me how use my black feminist inspired sociological imagination to assist her in researching adolescent racial and gender identity development. And though I questioned how much of my formal undergraduate studies was miseducating, bell hooks could (new) school me via Youtube about the spiritual foundations and impetus of black liberation.
When I arrived at UC Berkeley, black women had already occupied places of influence and been ensuring that I could live and move and breathe more freely. Dean Prudence Carter recognized our exceptionalism, and outgoing Vice President of Equity and Inclusion Na'ilah Nasir applauded how our greatness was about what we could do for others. Tiffani Johnson encouraged us to play the game of doctoral studies on the turf of our interests rather than measuring ourselves according to our professor's expertise. Derrika Hunt reminded us to not lose why we came to Berkeley when we got to and move through Berkeley. These were my first 24 hours of visiting campus. These were only the initial greetings. Many of these and many more black women have constructed and led the various formal and informal sites that hold, protect, refresh, and prepare me to live and love my blackness in an antiblack society. There is no manner for us to adequately comprehend what suffering is being mitigated or who we are becoming apart from centering the legacies of black women.
I was not impressed that there were impactful black women at Berkeley. I was reminded and humbled by how devoted and generous black women have been to ensure that incomers across the board would be affirmed, encouraged, oriented, and connected to a sense of place and purpose bigger than any institution. But I have also reflected on how rare it is for any institution to honor the lives and labor of black women. Most of us actually benefit from and do not mind black women doing too much of the much needed work. And too few of us other than black women care whether black women get credit or survive the work of ensuring our collective survival.
I believe that black men like myself can and should make space for black women to speak (CBW Praxis #4). I recognize that black women have been more than capable, resourceful, and efficacious at making room for themselves, but I want people to set up black women as generously as we as a society have been set up by black women. I want black women to have moments when they can just show up and simply benefit from others' care and commitment to them just as the rest of the world does with black women. I firmly believe that if we are to give black women the space and time to breathe (CBW Praxis #5), other folk like myself need to step up and share the workload of sustaining our freedom dreams, especially those of black women. I hope that when my book ends, so too will the exploitation of black women's labor. May we build other paths toward freedom than the bridge called her back.
Caleb Dawson studies how antiblackness is reproduced in "progressive" educational institutions and how black folk sustain themselves in those sites. In his current work, he seeks to make sense of black struggles in historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs). He is using interview methods to learn about the desires that black students and staff bring to HWCUs, their perception of institutional commitments to black people, and the gendered configuration of sources and practices of support on which black folk rely. He is committed to advancing black life beyond the possibilities of educational institutions as we know them. Caleb is a PhD student in the Critical Studies of Race, Class, and Gender cluster at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.
4/2/2019 1 Comment
In the field of archaeology less than 1 percent of professionals are people of African descent (Odewale et.al. 2018). I felt this immensely during my first conference experience at the Society for Historical Archaeology in January of 2010. As a Black queer woman in the field, I did not see myself reflected in the faces of my predominately White male colleagues. While the number of Black archaeologists has not risen over one percent, the interest in historical research pertaining to African Diaspora sites has been on the rise since Charles Fairbanks first broke ground at Kingsley Plantation in the late 1960s (Flewellen 2017). However, this interest has not come with a renewed desire by archaeologists in the intellectual production of African Diaspora folks, particularly how we theorize our past, present, and future.
In walks, Maria Franklin who in 2001 asked for an Black Feminist Inspired archaeology, a decade after Crenshaw’s call for intersectional scholarship (Franklin 2001). After being introduced to her work in early 2009, I later devouring Whitney Battle-Baptist work Black Feminist Archaeology in 2011 (Battle-Baptist 2011). I come from this legacy of Black women archeologists, who have fought to theoretically advance the field of archaeology. Within this rich legacy I’ve found that my epistemological scope centers material culture while demanding that it be placed in conversation with the words and experiences of Black women from the past (See Wheatley 1773; Truth 1850; Jacobs 1861; Copper 1892, 1925; Wells 1895, 1892a, 1892b; Terrell 1940; Guy-Sheftall 1995) and those who theorize our lives in the present (Crenshaw 1991, 1989; Hill-Collins, 1990, 1991, 2002, 2004; Gross 2006; McKittrick 2000, 2006; Hine 1989, 1994, 1998; Terborg-Penn 1998; Giddings 1984, 2008; Bettye Collier-Thomas 1998; and Deborah Gray White 1999). My epistemology stretches to include Black women narrative forms both fiction and non-fiction, into reimaginings of the archival record, oral history, and historical photographs; all of which provide a variety of ways to unearth and interpret the past lived experiences of African Diasporic peoples.
The largest challenge I’ve faced in my citation practice is validating my need for sources, particularly the use of Black women both within and outside of the ivory tower. I’m constantly having to answer at conferences, in reviewers’ comments, at lectures, how my work is in fact archaeological. A prime example of this was while I was at a job talk I was asked by a faculty member “if I dug.” Beyond the fact that my talk outlined how I co-direct an award winning archaeology field school in the Caribbean, the question is literally akin to asking a historian if they ever have been in the archives. Another example of this, are the very real concerns I have regarding whether my first book project is “archaeological enough” for archaeology audiences and how that might affect my tenure. All of these concerns are real and reflect the ways our citation practices can have real impacts on our jobs security. Yet it is work that needs to be done as a practice is validating not only my expertise but the expertise of my intellectual foremothers.
2011 Black Feminist Archaeology. Left Coast Press
1991 Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law review, 1241-1299.
1989 Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. U. Chi. Legal F., 139.
1998 Bettye. Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons 1850-1979.
Cooper, A. J.
1892 The higher education of women. MH Washington (Ed.), A voice from the south. Chicago
1998 Equality of Races and the Democratic Movement." 1925. Lemert and Bhan, 291-98.
Flewellen, A. O.
2017 Locating Marginalized Historical Narratives at Kingsley Plantation. Historical Archaeology, 51(1), 71-87.
2001 A Black feminist-inspired archaeology?. Journal of Social Archaeology, 1(1), 108-125
1984 When and where I enter: The impact of black women on race and sex in America. New York: William Morrow and Company.
2008 Ida: A sword among lions: Ida B. Wells and the campaign against lynching. Harper Collins.
Gross, K. N.
2006 Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880–1910. duke university press.
1995 Words of fire: An anthology of African-American feminist thought. The New Press.
1990 Toward an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. Turning Points in Qualitative Research, 47.
1991 The politics of Black feminist thought. Cleveland State University, Graduation and Assembly Committee.
2002 Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.
2004 Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. Routledge.
Hine, D. C..
1989 Black women in white: Racial conflict and cooperation in the nursing profession, 1890-1950.
1994 Hine sight: Black women and the re-construction of American history. Indiana University Press.
1998 A shining thread of hope: The history of Black women in America. Broadway.
1861 Linda Brent. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.
2006 Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. U of Minnesota Press.
2000 'Who do you talk to, when a body's in trouble?: M. Nourbese Philip's (un) silencing of black bodies in the diaspora. Social & Cultural Geography, 1(2), 223-236.
Odewale, Alicia, Justin Dunnavant, Ayana Flewellen, and Alexandra Jones.
2018 "Archaeology for the Next Generation." Anthropology News 59, no. 1: e210-e215.
1998 African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press.
Terrell, M. C.
1940 The history of the club women's movement. Aframerican Woman’s Journal, 1, 2-3.
Wells, I. B.,
1892a On lynchings. Courier Corporation.
1892b Southern horrors: Lynch law in all its phases. The Floating Press.
1895 Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States. Chicago: 1892-1893-1894.
1773 On being brought from Africa to America. The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, 435.
White, D. G.
1999 Too heavy a load: Black women in defense of themselves, 1894-1994. WW Norton & Company.
Dr. Ayana Omilade Flewellen is a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California Berkeley and a 2019 Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies Fellow working with the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery. Her research and teaching interests are shaped by and speak to Black Feminist Theory, historical archaeology, public and community-engaged archaeology, processes of identity formations, and representations of slavery.The bulk of her research interests span geographically across the archaeology of the African Diaspora. She has conducted archaeological excavations and oral historical research related to slavery and freedom in the U.S. South as well as the Caribbean. Her current book project, tentatively titled A Black Feminist Archaeology of Adornment, builds off her dissertation research that examined sartorial practices of self-making among African American tenant, sharecropping and landowning farmers in post-emancipated Texas.
Dr. Flewellen is also the co-founder of Society of Black Archaeologists, a non-profit organization launched in 2011 to create a strong network of archaeologists that advocate for proper treatment of African and African diaspora material culture, promote more people of African descent to enter the field of archaeology, ensure community collaborative research, and highlight the past and present achievements and contributions people of African descent have made to the field of archaeology.Flewellen is currently the Co-PI of the Estate Little Princess Archaeology Project, an award-winning collaborative community engaged archaeological project on St. Croix, USVI. The Estate Little Princess Archaeology Project is in collaboration with The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) - a global change program comprised of an international network of institutions and individual associates that investigate the global history and enduring legacies of the African Slave Trade, administered by George Washington University and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture – as well as the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), and Diving with a Purpose (DWP), an underwater archaeology advocacy group. The Estate Little Princess Archaeology Project is also part of a larger University of California Historically Black College and University Grant – providing archaeological field school training to students attending HBCUs around the country.
In light of the excitement about Black Panther’s Oscar nominations, Screen Actor’s Guild Award wins, and theatrical re-release for Black History Month, it’s time to revisit Black Panther as an example of the problems of the academic “hot take,” particularly when those takes promote discourse about male characters and elide a focus on Black women as film subjects or as scholarly voices. Public intellectuals must be more mindful of the ways that their work can unwittingly reinforce the marginalization of Black women’s perspectives and overshadow the celebration of Black heroines onscreen.
The day after Black Panther’s North American premiere, Christopher Lebron published “Black Panther Is Not the Movie We Deserve”in the Boston Review. Lebron’s essay focused extensively on the figure of Killmonger. “You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women,” he admitted near the end of his essay. Lebron’s take on Black Pantherwas deeply influential turning early critiques of the film into a referendum about Killmonger. By March 8, 2018, the L.A. Times published "Pantherpedia: A Guide to the Cottage Industry of Essays about Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther'". Lebron’s essay headed the “Killmonger” section, and women were far down on the list. Meanwhile, early examinations of the female characters, such as Arica L. Coleman’s examination of the True Story Behind Black Panther's Strong Womenin Time on February 22, 2018, went largely overlooked in the rush to discuss Killmonger. To that end, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post, complainedabout the “category-4 flood of man-takes, with mostly male critics responding to each other about Black Panther And What It All Means For Black People” rather than focusing on “the collective power of Wakanda’s women who offer the real vision of what black, radical internationalism could look like.” Feminist critiques became framed only as a backlash to the focus on Killmonger typified by Lebron’s hot take.
We need to slow down. We need to examine whether the rush to produce public intellectualism replicates a default interest in male perspectives. Along those lines, I noticed that Salamishah Tillet’s first Black Panther article, published a week before the film’s release, began by quoting T'Challaand included a comparison to nostalgia for President Obama. Then, a week after the film’s release, she penned "Black Panther: Why Not Queen Shuri?"and celebrated the diverse representation of Black womanhood in all of director Ryan Coogler’s films.
What if we slowed our roll until we could imagine beginning the public discourse with Shuri instead?
I am firmly in favor of public intellectual work that topples the stereotypes of disengaged Ivory Tower snobbery, and I champion practices that challenge traditional scholarly publication models. But while the glacial pace of many academic journals risks irrelevance in cultural commentary, hot takes risk inaccurate scholarship and a narrow focus that then dominates the trending responses to a work.
A call for a moratorium on Black Panther critiques—which is, essentially, a call to slow down the production of hot takes—brings to mind the arguments promoted in Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.Berg and Seeber express concern that “the fast models of mechanization have taken over how we think about scholarship and ourselves. Slowing down is a matter of ethical import” (58). An ethics of slowing down results in stronger work: work that notices more nuance, particularly where the Black heroines are concerned. Slowing down creates room to celebrate Black cinematic achievement before turning to a more surgical approach for public intellectualism.
Susana M. Morris of the Crunk Feminist Collective spoke outagainst the early oversaturation of Black Panther reactions, especially about Killmonger, and urged readers to pause for simple enjoyment or celebration: “Seeing my Blackness represented on screen has been a powerful healer. It was nothing short of glorious.” As Morris so poignantly wrote, “Black Joy Matters.” Experiencing this film as a celebration of Blackness—particularly in the current political climate—seems more urgent than any critique, no matter how intellectually generative.
With watershed films like Black Panther, I, too, worry about the diminishment of joy; of failing to celebrate films as revolutionary and inspirational for audiences that have so often been marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood. We should pause to create space for joy. Then we should use that space to make sure we amplify and center Black women’s perspectives.
Berg, Maggie and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, University of Toronto Press, 2016.
2/22/2019 1 Comment
we must establish authority over our own definition (…) It means that I affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival, in my own self and in the self of other Black women. (…)
Claiming some power over who we choose to be, and knowing that such power is relative within the realities of our lives. Yet knowing that only through the use of that power can we effectively change those realities.
Entertainment is the conditio sine qua non of telenovelas; and this is all that accomplishes Always a Witch (Siempre bruja), the Colombian production on Netflix since February 1st.
What is the trouble with the series, then?
Great expectations preceded its première, arisen by the trailer shown months before, in which the mere appearance of its protagonist was a rare occurrence: the splendid Afro-Colombian Angely Gaviria would play the role of Carmen Eguiluz, a slave accused of witchcraft and burnt alive by the Inquisition in 1646, miraculously reappearing on the beach of Cartagena in 2019. Weary of the invisibility of blacks and blackness in most Latin American TV productions, we hoped that Always a Witch would at least start quenching the thirst to watch our stories receiving global recognition. We’ve been anxiously waiting for the series, which proves the capitalization of Gaviria’s dark body and face as a promotional lure to be an effective marketing strategy. However, the team behind this idea appears to be ignorant of one incontestable, basic truth: nowhere in the Americas it is possible to resort to a Black enslaved character while avoiding all discussion on race.
Through ten episodes, Carmen Eguiluz is taken back and forth from slavery to the present, without evoking her blackness. Watching her knocking at the doors of a colonial mansion where she easily finds a place to live and being received with openness and kindness everywhere she goes, one could assume that contemporary Colombia has become a post-racial paradise. Anti-black discrimination seems to be buried in the past, along with slavery. Yet, it is difficult to believe that anti-racist Colombian activists would actually agree with the series’ writers.
Equally suspicious is the absence of black characters in the spaces frequented by Carmen. Except for her friend Daniel (Dubán Andrés Prado), none of the university students and professors, neither the police inspectors or the owners of the colonial mansion are black. They haven’t been completely erased, however. Carmen encounters black Colombians when she visits the neighborhood where she was born. There, 21-century blacks remain confined; dancing, drinking and celebrating a dark-faced saint (Virgen de la Candelaria). Out of this enclave, the only black characters are magical Carmen and the always-smiling Daniel.
Immediately after being launched, Always a Witch has been slammed through social media for its failure to accurately depict the black experience in Latin America -a fact aggravated by the coincidence of the première with the beginning of the Black History Month. The most recurrent criticism was Carmen’s unconditional devotion for Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa), her master’s son. But we all know that love is the strangest thing... Besides, Always a Witch is a telenovela asking the audience to believe in such improbabilities. (Members of the production team previously worked on a famous telenovela whose awkwardness was already announced in its title, La esclava blanca (The White Slave). I then followed the odd romance between the master and the slave, wearing the sarcastic half-smile of someone accustomed to watch this sort of fantasies. In my opinion, the real problem with the series is that its creators never managed to fulfill the promise implied in their promotional campaign. This is not the tale of an Afro-Colombian woman but the story of the white characters dictating her actions. Always a Witch does nothing but follow a tradition, long before deconstructed by Toni Morrison, of the fabrication of black characters by white artists as a means to talk about themselves.
To save her white lover, Carmen Eguiluz travels to the future, sent by a white witch, Aldemar the Immortal (Luis Fernando Hoyos) -who made me jump from my seat when he started reciting a Yoruba prayer (“omi tutu, ana tutu, laroye ilé”) without referring to any African religion. Were the writers aware of their invocation of Elegguá, the orisha mischievously opening and closing our paths in Afro-Cuban santería?
As the story advances, the black girl is either escaping from or searching for one white witch or another, one white lover or the other. She appears to be perfectly happy of devoting her extraordinary powers to their service. In this sense, Carmen Eguiluz becomes the latest addition to the pool of "good" black servants, eager to solve the problems created by their masters.
Towards the end of the season, an array of explicit feminist speeches is voiced by the female characters, which could be related to the high female composition of the creative team. Inspired by the novel Yo, Bruja, by Costa-Rican writer Isidora Chacón and adapted by Ana María Parra, the series was produced by Dago García, María Cervera and Juliana Barrera and directed by Liliana Bocanegra and Mateo Stivelberg.
But Carmen Eguiluz is not only a woman. She is black. She was a slave. Though these conditions are never addressed in the series’ feminist claims. Intersectionality, for its creators, stops at the choice of an attractive black actress as the main character.
Always a Witch is a painful reminder of the media’s inability to recognize the work of Black female writers. That’s why, when struggling to reach the last episode, I couldn’t help but ask myself if the presence of an Afro-Latina writer, producer or director in the creative process would have made it possible for Carmen Eguiluz to shine as the self-determined, truly powerful heroine she was supposed to be.
Cuban born writer and scholar, Dr. Odette Casamayor-Cisneros is currently a professor at the University of Connecticut.
1/3/2019 0 Comments
2018 came to a close with the inevitable lists of scholars and books that had shed light on critical questions in the past year and had provided us with tools to look towards the future. End-of-year lists are a helpful way to take stock. But they also say a lot about the practice of citation as an act of recognition. They speak volumes about who academic and journalistic institutions consider to be contributors to the landscape of intellectual ideas. In that landscape, black women are rarely present. Or rather to be more precise, black women are erased even as their ideas and scholarship provide crucial linguistic and conceptual tools for understanding our world.
If the many misreadings of such critical theories such as intersectionality and misogynoir are now more the norm than the exception, it is because of citational practices that sever black women from the knowledge they create and deform that knowledge into words that come to mean whatever the user wants to project in a given moment. Severing is an act of violence. Resisting that violence therefore means something more robust than uniquely aiming for a quota of black women included in parenthetical citations or year-end lists. It demands a radical praxis of citation.
The Cite Black Women movement uses social media to show what that radical praxis of citation could look like. This is not to say that the movement imagines the digital sphere as the only viable space where black women can obtain citational recognition. Rather, the possibilities for building communities in the digital sphere—fraught as that medium may be—inform the movement’s vision of citation. How specifically, does Cite Black Women’s use of social media invite us to rethink what it would mean to recognize black women’s intellectual work? I will outline here two crucial ways.
First, although the Twitter account of the movement encourages followers to use #CiteBlackWomen, it also issues a special weekly invitation to #CiteBlackWomenSunday. The invitation is usually accompanied by the opening lines of Audre Lorde’s poem “Recreation”: “Coming together/It is easier to work/After our bodies meet/paper and pen.” Akin to black feminist practices of congregation and commemoration, #CiteBlackWomenSunday emphasizes community in the recognition of black women’s intellectual work. This highlighting of community is in turn crucial for putting forward a collective response to a collective problem. Community allows us to imagine what Jenn M. Jackson defines as the “structural inclusion” of black women rather than isolated efforts at citation that begin and end in the digital sphere.
Second, because one of the movement’s guiding principles is to “integrate black women into the CORE of your syllabus,” Cite Black Women provides a blueprint for this integration through its crowdsourced syllabi on Twitter. Here, scholars share the courses they are teaching, the readings by black women that they assign and, crucially, the ways that these texts fit into the overall structure of their courses. These syllabi often go beyond envisioning black women’s texts as an add-on to be taught separately in a small contained module, but rather weave their works throughout the course structure and offer students a sustained engagement with the range of black women’s ideas. Here too the effort is collective. The result is an array of courses that attests to the central presence and contributions of black women in history, economics, literature, politics, art and science, and that ask us to go beyond thinking about black women’s scholarship as token mentions in our research and pedagogical practice.
In 2019, as the conversation (ideally) moves beyond the question of the need to cite black women to a critical discussion of how doing so can disrupt the exclusionary politics of academic citation, the Cite Black Women movement’s use of digital media provides us with the tools to engage in this productive disruption.
Citation ethics and the politics of co-authorships in the academy have both gendered and racialized components. According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, For men and women, solo authored articles have the same likelihood of earning them tenure. But, for co-authored articles, women earn less credit toward tenure than men do. Not only is there a gender gap in credit given for group work, women with children are also less likely to earn tenure than men with children and, across social sciences and natural sciences alike, women are less likely to be cited by their peers. These data show that, from the most visible vantage points of the outside world, women remain under-acknowledged, underrepresented, and systematically overlooked in the Academy. These realities only worsen when one considers race, class, ability, and other personal characteristics.
As a Black woman academic, I believe that citing Black women is necessary not just to overcome the norms and obstacles I have outlined above but to also reorient our myriad disciplines toward structural inclusion. This is a form of inclusion that isn’t just performative, trendy, and taken up when convenient for institutions. Rather, structural inclusion requires that Black women’s work and contributions be considered as foundational to our various fields and formative to the scholarship in our ranks. It requires that all scholars, not just women of color, practice introspection and deliberateness in the creation of their syllabi, course content, articles, and book manuscripts to account for the generations of work that Black women have labored, pushing Academia forward. This is not just about being seeing and heard. It is about making space and holding it for the many Black women scholars who are coming after us.I decided to support this collective because I have a moral commitment to the ideals of supporting those most marginalized within the systems and institutions I encounter everyday.
Following in the theoretical and philosophical precepts of foremothers like the members of the Combahee River Collective, Kimberle Crenshaw, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Y. Davis, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Cathy J. Cohen, Barbara Ransby, and so many others, my work is animated by the belief that none of us are free until all of us are free. In my work, I seek to center the voices and experiences of Black women so as to move us toward freedom. In the end, each of us is but an archive of our experiences, our choices, and our chances. Through the Cite Black Women Collective, I hope to contribute to amplifying the archive of Black women’s experiences, highlighting how our scholarly choices have shaped our disciplines, and recognizing that this movement is a chance for us to disrupt the status quo which seeks to quiet us all.