When and Where We Enter: Ms. Writers Reflect on a Feminist Legacies Symposium

On October 14, Smith College and the journal Meridians: feminism, race transnationalism hosted a symposium “When and Where I Enter: Celebrating Legacies, Envisioning Futures.” The symposium brought together a multigenerational group of scholars and activists to celebrate women of color feminist scholarship, art, and activism of the 1980s and 1990s “to inspire and embolden us in precarious times.” The symposium, honoring Paula Giddings and her 1984 groundbreaking book, When and Where I Enter, culminated in a conversation with Black Lives Matters founders Opel Tometi and Janaya Khan moderated by scholar-activist Barbara Ransby. The energy was electric, the brilliance blinding, and the moment felt historic.

What follows is a conversation between Ms. writers Carrie Baker and Janell Hobson reflecting on symposium highlights. 

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CB: What was the most memorable moment for you at the symposium?

JH: I was really moved by the Black Lives Matter conversation. Co-founder Opal Tometi and Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Toronto, give me so much hope for the millennials who are embodying the resistance spirit of the Black women who came before them. Women like Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Janaya was giving me Angela Davis vibes, what with their poise and their super intellectualism. No wonder their nickname is “Future!” Their abilities to make connections concerning the struggle of Black life—both historically and across the globe—are truly inspiring. And I must say, this is the first time I’ve really heard from Opal Tometi. Of the three Black women who are credited with creating #BLM, she seems to be the quietest one, but she is so astute, and I’m in awe of her global travels and her willingness to make transnational connections and to place immigration struggles as a key issue in the movement. So, although the symposium focused on scholarship, these activists put our theories into sound and radical practice. What was the most memorable moment for you?

CB: Rather than one moment, what was most memorable about the symposium were the expressions throughout the day of love, admiration and respect that women shared with each other. The symposium was nourishing, energizing, inspiring, and connecting. We laughed, we cried, we learned, we loved. The experience was a gift.

JH: As one of the organizers, what was the thinking in highlighting the three texts: Paula Giddings’ When and Where I Enter, Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, and Anzaldua and Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back? Why those texts versus, say, Sister Outsider or All the Women Are White 

CB: We chose these texts because they brought so many of us into critical conversations about women of color in history, visual culture and transnationalism, three areas central to the mission of the journal Meridians. We are at a turning point with the journal Meridians, founded at Smith College in 2000 under the leadership of then-president Ruth Simmons. The longtime editor-in-chief Paula Giddings is retiring in the spring of 2017, so we are in a process of reflection about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. Our hope for this symposium was to bring together an intergenerational group of scholars to “reflect on the rich legacy of women of color feminist cultural work of the 1980s and 1990s, celebrate our own point of entry into these conversations, and imagine new directions for Meridians and for scholarship, art and activism at the intersections of feminisms, race and transnationalism.” We also wanted to celebrate the 25th anniversary re-release of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

JH: I was struck by that organization, and these key works from the latter part of the 20th century are slowly fading from memory. Memory is another site of resistance, and this event is so important to herald and name and remind so many of us in academic spaces that the work of Black women and women of color in general matters.  History, Film, and Political Writing—these are the genres in which women of color have made significant and critical interventions.  It’s up to us who are educators and public scholars to keep these works alive and maintain their relevance. Because all these works provide a blueprint for intersectional analysis. As a Women’s Studies PhD teaching in the discipline, how do you keep these texts alive? Have these works achieved canonical status yet, and should that even be a goal? 

CB: The Women’s Studies classroom is one critical location within higher education for passing on these important texts, and for providing students of color a place where they can see their own lives reflected in the curriculum. Another way is through scholarly reflection on these texts. The Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies programs at Smith created the journal Meridians to provide a welcome place for scholarship about these and many other important texts written by women of color in U.S. and international contexts. With Paula Giddings’ retirement, the Meridians board is seeking support and direction to carry the journal forward for the next generation of scholars and activists. As a feminist, I resist canons, but we should definitely hold up and honor these important texts, while remaining open to the important work of new generations of activists and scholars.

JH: I agree. When and Where I Enter is the historical blueprint for chronicling Black feminist resistance.  It is so comprehensive, from slave trade to the late twentieth century. We are so indebted to the resistance strategies of these Black feminists and especially to the Black feminist methodology that scholars like Giddings outlined for us. And, she’s such a wonderful and encouraging mentor. She was unhesitating in supporting me when I approached her to do two special issues for Meridians. One on hip-hop and the other on Harriet Tubman during her centennial anniversary. It was truly moving to hear a historian like Liz Pryor say how much the Tubman issue changed her consciousness and her teaching. I mean, that’s’ what the scholarship is about.

CB: How does Black Lives Matter connect to these early Black feminist texts?

JH: Black Lives Matter activists are Black feminists who understand the intersections. I listen to these young activists and realize how they have been fed by statements from the Combahee River Collective and the histories of women like Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer. They are truly following the historical guidebook that Black feminist pioneers have laid out for them. They know, as Janaya said, that they have “inherited the struggle,” while more privileged people simply inherit wealth and privilege. I’m curious, what were your thoughts as a white feminist on the “allyship” that the Black Lives Matter activists talked about? 

CB: In response to Barbara Ransby’s question about the role of white people in the BLM movement, Janaya Khan said that the movement cannot grow unless white people grow with it and that “not activating whites—and white people not activating themselves on the issue of economic equality—is dangerous.” I agree. Anti-Black racism obviously harms Black people, but it also harms white people. In his brilliant book Dog Whistle Politics, scholar Ian Haney López convincingly argues that “conservatives have used racial pandering to win support from white voters for policies that principally favor the very wealthy and wreck the middle class.” One example (among many) is the build-up of the costly prison industrial complex that has starved our public schools. As my colleague here at Smith, Lisa Armstrong, has said, “allyship suggests the fight against racism isn’t one that whites have a direct interest in; but the inhumanity of racism makes us all less human.”

JH: How do you enact allyship in activism, scholarship, or the classroom?

CB: We need to research and teach about how race is used to pass policies that harm us all, like welfare reform, the war on drugs, and the rise of the prison industrial complex. There are so many engaging scholars and activists speaking out on these issues, like Haney López on economic inequality and Michelle Alexander on the prison industrial complex. If you want to know how welfare reform devastated the poor and contributed toward deteriorating working conditions for all workers, read Jane Collins and Victoria Mayer’s book Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom in the Low-Wage Labor Market. We need to support this kind of scholarship and teach it!

JH: Absolutely! Intersectionality is key to addressing these issues and an important theoretical framework that women of color scholars and activists contributed to the field of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

CB: The theme of the symposium was “celebrating legacies, envisioning futures.” What futures were envisioned at the symposium?

JH: I’m really excited about the up-and-coming scholars. Just from the panel that I was on—in which we addressed the impact of Dash’s Daughters of the Dust—I’m looking forward to the book that Jennifer DeClue is working on. Her approach links her experiences as a scholar and filmmaker, and I would love to see more scholarly treatments of this film. The same with Lokeilani Kamana, who shared some of her research methods and what she found in the archives.  The focus on Daughters of the Dust as a Black feminist ensemble collaboration and not just the work of a sole author is critically important and part of a feminist model of praxis. This was also something conveyed by Andrea Hairston who is part of the Black feminist theater group and Afrofuturism, and noticing that Dash’s film contributes to this larger community of Black feminists.  Just knowing that we’re all working in collaboration is the legacy we need to celebrate and the future we need to envision.

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Carrie Baker is associate professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College. 

slo_5505-150x150-1-1-2Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, and a frequent contributor to Ms.

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