Berkshire Conference 1: Who is Gail Lewis? Black British feminism in practice and theory

This spring I went for the first time ever I to the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History, which was being held at the University of Toronto. I ended up going to an interesting mix of premodern and modern papers, although this was partly because of timetabling issues. (One of the many problems with the conference organisation was their failure to put sessions into adequately sized rooms – I missed several panels because I physically could not get into the room). But I did manage to get to a couple of sessions on black British history, a topic I felt I didn’t know at all well and wanted to explore further.

The question in my title is slightly misleading. I do now know who Gail Lewis, and she was the moderator of the first of the sessions I attended (Panel 15 on “The Making of Black Britain). Despite its title, its actual focus was narrower, on post-war London. (There is some research that has been done on black people in early modern Britain and a new project on England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 might provide useful information on non-whites in medieval England).

The panel also crossed cultures in another interesting way: the four speakers were all African-Americans and thus talking about black British culture as outsiders to it themselves (although I think they had all studied/lived in the UK). The first speaker was Nicole Jackson, who was looking at (female) child immigrants to Britain, such as Doreen Lawrence. Nicole was trying to get beyond the narrative of immigrants as young black men, and asking whether child migrants had different experiences from British-born black people, especially in terms both of their lack of agency (they didn’t get to choose to migrate) and in their lack of knowledge of what to expect from Britain. By looking at these different expectations, we can get a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be black British.

The next two speakers were focussing on the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nydia Swaby was talking about “political blackness”, exploring the genealogies of two black British organisations: Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) and Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD). These groups included women from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, linked both negatively by discrimination, but also positively by a shared history of colonisation and anti-colonial struggles. Nydia pointed out that the solidarity from colonial backgrounds was more important than any US influence on the groups, and meant that the politically black could include Chinese and Asian and even Irish women. As well as concerns with reproductive rights and childcare, which male-dominated organisations weren’t taking seriously, they also campaigned on issues particularly affecting ethnic minority women and their families, such as “stop and search” laws targeting black men and the notorious virginity testing of female immigrants from South Asia.

Rashida Harrison followed up with a discussion of Outright newspaper, produced in 1982-1988 by a London-based collective. She was exploring how it tried to connect together the experiences of both UK-based and Third World women. For example on reproductive rights, as well as covering abortion, it also discussed female genital mutilation and controversies over the third-world testing of Depo-Provera contraceptive. There were differing viewpoints on such matters reported in the newspaper and Rashida was arguing that such difference was a necessary function of solidarity politics within multicultural feminist groups.

Finally, Tanisha Ford talked about de-centring Olive Morris, the black nationalist and feminist activist (even though the more ignorant among us, like myself, hadn’t centred her in the first place). Tanisha was putting Olive into a wider context of soul style and black power, looking at the distinctiveness of British soul and reconstructing its geography in Brixton. Olive’s story shows that black men weren’t the only victims of police brutality. Tanisha was also making the interesting points that we need to think of female as well as male contributions to soul style and of US culture as in conversation with other non-American ones.

This fed into wider discussions about both parallels between experiences in the UK and US (such as the effects of gentrification on urban life) and differences. In particular, it reminded me that the experience of immigrants to the UK is something that doesn’t necessarily fit within traditional categories of “race”. Gail Lewis started the session by talking about the EU elections taking place that day in Europe, and how UKIP was trying to play off the “settled community” (including British-born ethnic minorities) against the new immigrants from Eastern Europe, even as the descendants of immigrants are in turn demonised at other points. As Tanisha pointed out, the UK isn’t a post-racial society (although I’d argue that racial politics are a lot more complex in the UK than they used to be).

If this session showed some ways in which black British history could be done, a later one was worrying about how it was or was not being done. This was a roundtable (session 136) on the “feminist killjoy”, a title inspired by an article by Sara Ahmed on the role of internal critique within the feminist movement. There were five panellists started off the session: first up was Sirma Bilge asking whether black feminism could survive the academy, in the world of the neoliberal university. (Neoliberalism seems to be the current buzzword for contemporary Western forms of capitalism). She was arguing that universities absorb and neutralise progressive social knowledge projects and divest them of their transformational potential.

After Sirma, from a Canadian perspective, we had two British-based speakers, Gwyneth Lonergan and Terese Jonsson. They were criticizing white liberal British feminism for its appropriation or ignoring of black feminist thought. Specifically, Gwyneth argued that British liberal feminists tended to fetish a narrow range of early African American feminists (Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Angela Davis), while having only a superficial knowledge of them. In contrast, black British feminism and contemporary US black feminist thought is simply ignored. Terese was similarly pointing out how black feminist organisations (such as OWAAD) get erased or marginalised from histories of British feminism.

The next presentation was by Emily Rosser on the limitations of international projects dealing with sexual violence. She’d been studying truth-telling projects from the 1990s concerning sexual violence against women in Guatemala, especially indigenous women. Emily was struggling with the problems of such an approach (since the voices of indigenous women tend to get lost in the levels of analysis and they may find the repeated retelling of such stories of violence frustrated). These kinds of commissions are an imperfect tool, but women may nevertheless choose to use them as better than nothing.

Finally, Humaira Saeed talked about the complex subject of transnational feminism, focusing on how topless protests by the Tunisian atheist feminist Amina Sboui, were taken up by the Ukranian/French organisation FEMEN. Femen protested in response to Sboui’s arrest, but they also used it as an opportunity to legitimate their anti-Muslim stance. Meanwhile, critics of Femen align their nudity with neo-colonialism (a wish to save “brown women” from wicked “brown men”), but where does that leave Sboui herself? Categories of action don’t necessarily line up neatly and we have to be careful when critiquing actions not just to end up supporting their actions.

I ended up finding this session rather frustrating, because, as is often the case, there was more critique presented than alternatives. Sirma mentioned “listening to local knowledge” and “analysing citational and translational practices” as part of the answer, but I wasn’t sure that the end result was much more than creating what someone called the “critically reflexive killjoy”.

Part of the problem is that there’s a disconnect between academic life and practical experience: Emily said that solidarity felt awkward when the women she was studying suffered so much and could be killed for speaking out. So what can academics contribute as academics (rather than as activists)? Someone said we needed to deromanticise the work we do, but that hardly seems the most pressing problem.

Two approaches were suggested, but also seen as problematic. Sirma thought we needed intersectionality as a critical praxis but not as an analysis, since then it becomes aspiration to power. (I have to admit I didn’t entirely understand the distinction she was trying to make). But another point she made was important: she wanted sometimes not to be intersectional. She wanted to talk about “white privilege” and not have questions raised about how class and sexuality intersected with that. Intersectionality, she reckoned, could sometimes become a way of shutting people up about race.

There was also interest in the possibility of studies of whiteness (although there is already criticism of “Critical White Studies” by theorists such as Sara Ahmed. The obvious parallels here are with feminist studies of masculinity and the potential to show how supposedly eternal and natural categories such as “masculine behaviour” or “white people” are constructed.

There was also another aspect that occurred to me, especially after the “Making of Black Britain” session. Sirma mentioned how black British feminism focused far more on creating grassroots movements than African American feminism did. (This is one of the reasons that people tend to read Audre Lorde rather than black British feminists of the same generation – they were less likely to write academic articles). I suggested that one possible role for academics was therefore writing about black British feminist history, not at a purely academic level, but bridging the gap between the universities and popular history. Black feminist bloggers rightly point out that they’re not there to educate their ignorant white readers, but academics are. Coming from the standpoint of medieval history, where you expect your audience to be ill-informed, but potentially interested, that seemed to me to be an obvious role that academics working on the period could take on.

The response I got was that there had been an oral history project on the topic by the British Library. Afterwards I found this: Sisterhood and After, but although it includes a lot of interesting material, it’s quite hard to make sense of unless you already know something about the topic. I still think that there’s a role beyond the killjoy, in getting people interested in black British history, and the web now allows that to be done in ways that don’t require official support. Or to go back to my title: I now know of the existence of Gail Lewis, but why is no-one creating a Wikipedia entry about her?

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