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Monica Michlin and Jean-Paul Rocchi (eds), Black Intersectionalities: A Critique for the 21st Century

Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, FORECAAST, (Forum for European Contributions to African American Studies) 1, 2013, 258 p. ISBN 978-1-84631-938-9. £70
Cécile COQUET-MOKOKO
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Monica Michlin and Jean-Paul Rocchi (eds). Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, FORECAAST, (Forum for European Contributions to African American Studies) 1, 2013, 258 p. ISBN 978-1-84631-938-9. £70.

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  • 1 Bim Adewunmi, “Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality: ‘I Wanted to Come Up With an Everyday Metaph (...)

1This collective work is informed by the project of keeping the political dimension at the core of the theory of intersectionality—a concept coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in two founding texts, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” (1989) and “Mapping the Margins” (1991) in which she critiqued the limitations of both feminist and antiracist activists and academics in pushing for equal rights and fair representation for Black women across racial, class, and gender lines. As Crenshaw pointed out in a recent interview, “obviously it takes a lot of work to consistently challenge ourselves to be attentive to aspects of power that we don’t ourselves experience.”1

2Keeping this goal in mind, the introduction and the thirteen contributions—proceeding from the 2011 conference of the Collegium for African American Research entitled “Black States of Desire: Dispossession, Circulation, Transformation”—aim at constantly engaging the readers in questioning their own position as well as the authors’, and the implications of using certain tools over others in exploring the empowerment or silencing of Black subjects in a holistic manner. While extremely diverse in their approaches and subjects of inquiry, the contributions are grouped by threes into four distinct chapters, offering theoretical tools which strive to “restore the complexity of what it means to be human” (4).

3Both Rozena Maart and Sabine Broeck, who respectively open and close the collection of essays, squarely confront the reader with the initial trauma of the brutal displacements imposed by colonial and enslavement practices, and the strategies relentlessly deployed by Black women to fathom and document the lived experiences of dislocation and abjection in an effort to reunite their past and present selves. Maart does so as an author of fiction, a Fanonian critic of her own work, and a postcolonial subject who “refuses to participate in her own coloniality” (28). Alternating between diarized fiction, critical analyses of and excerpts from her short story “No Rosa, No District Six” (which was awarded the Journey Prize for Short Fiction in 1992,) her text inscribes the psyche of a forcibly displaced eight-year-old girl from Cape Town’s District Six into the evolution of a scholar who insists on being heard as a Black feminist and writing her consciousness into the text, albeit in the former master’s language. Broeck’s piece seems to directly answer it from the position of a German feminist scholar, urging for a necessary acknowledgement by White Gender Studies academics of the centrality of the Middle Passage in the construction of Western modernity, and of the transformation of Black human beings into flesh and property as a means to secure the sovereignty of White male, but also female, subjects in their own right.

4In chapter 1, entitled “Challenging Hegemonic Gender Identities,” three contributions explore the antagonisms between propriety and agency in the way gender, class, disability, and nation-building narratives restrain a person’s right to interpret their own experience and claim to be represented in their own terms. Antje Schuhmann builds on the brutally heteronormative gendering policing imposed on athlete Caster Semenya and lesbian artist Zanele Muholi by the South African government, to demonstrate how these cases of publicly suppressing queer identities ultimately serve to reinforce patriarchy by clothing it in the mantle of African traditions and anti-Eurocentrism, even though the rigid dual-sex binary did not become worldwide until Enlightenment theories were spread by Transatlantic Trade and colonization. In her analysis of Rudolph Fisher’s 1928 novel The Walls of Jericho, Eva Boesenberg shows how the characters help even the presumably White reader deconstruct whiteness as property (thus signifying on the famous argument put forward by Homer Plessy in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896) and complicate the hegemonic, exclusive category of the middle class by suggesting heterosocial and homoerotic bonding among black males. Florian Bast’s reading of Octavia Butler’s dystopian short story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) puts to the fore the African-American tradition of the first-person narrative as “a tool to claim one’s humanity and instigate social change” (71). In showing how, by using the restorative power of oral storytelling, the heroine controls the self-destructive impulses of the patients she serves and identifies with, ultimately saving herself from despair, Bast identifies this narrative tradition as a locus of agency, bringing together body and mind, race, gender, and disability to construct a coherent self against all odds.

5Entitled “Nonconformity and Narrative Theorizing,” Chapter 2 further delves into the political implications of narrative choices. Carsten Junker reads as ethnic drag Benjamin Franklin’s satirical impersonation of an Algerian slaveholder in his 1790 fictitious captivity narrative “Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade,” which was sent under a pseudonym as a letter to the editor of the Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Evening Post, in reaction to a proslavery speech delivered by a Georgia congressman who had attacked Franklin for signing an abolitionist petition six weeks before. For Junker, the inversion process whereby White Christians appear as the victims of a presumably less “civilizing,” but equally profitable, system of enslavement, ambiguously shaped White American abolitionist consciousness by erasing the humanity and agency of the Black human beings enslaved in the US behind the priority of maintaining social peace and a stable government. Jarrett Brown also explores as drag performance Claude McKay’s celebration of maroon Jamaican subjectivity through the consciousness of the female protagonist of his 1933 novel Banana Bottom; her flight from the Christian mission and homecoming to the rural community represents a way for McKay to heal the loss of his father and homeland and reach a sense of completeness. In his discussion of Melvin Dixon’s 1991 novel Vanishing Rooms as queering DuBois’s representation of interracial homoerotic desire as the basis for redeeming the American nation, Charles Nero argues that the two male protagonists, respectively embodying the Black Arts Movement and the Nation of Islam, establish a more viable mode of nation-building via the circulation of a marriageable Black female than the interracial gay couple tainted by White supremacist fantasies.

6Chapter 3 is centered on the multi-layered inscriptions of desire in literary texts. Claudine Raynaud analyzes the erotic as power and “knowledge from which black women have been alienated and which they must recover” (129) in the combination between the first-person and the omniscient narrative, and in the invitation extended to the reader to inscribe her own eroticism into the text. Laura Sarnelli discusses Morrison and Dionne Brand as articulating a militant refusal to erase the scars of enslavement and colonization, while Rebecka Rutledge Fisher excavates the intersectional power of the metaphor in Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground (1944). She defines the poetic, transgressive order created underground by the hero as “a transformative aesthetics of anti-materialism” (172) in an analysis which could be compared with Baudrillard’s 1976 essay “KoolKiller.”

7Finally, chapter 4 presents “Epistemological Genealogies and Prospections”: Lewis Gordon reasserts the centrality of the Africana experience to modernity, and the necessity to liberate theory from the narcissism of dominant racial norms posing as “universal.” Jennifer Leath likewise restores the revolutionary legitimacy of the Biblical Jezebel as challenging and queering hegemonic norms of faith, politics, and sexuality, offering her as a model for all those forced to choose between their communities.

8This “critique for the 21st century” may sometimes appear baffling in its variety of disciplines and perspectives. But it is true to the essence of African American Studies as offering a uniquely transgressive quest for the universal political significance of the narratives which matter to Black lives.

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Notes

1 Bim Adewunmi, “Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality: ‘I Wanted to Come Up With an Everyday Metaphor That Anyone Could Use”, New Statesman, April 2, 2014 http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could Accessed April 24, 2015

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Cécile COQUET-MOKOKO, « Monica Michlin and Jean-Paul Rocchi (eds), Black Intersectionalities: A Critique for the 21st Century », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/4460

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Auteur

Cécile COQUET-MOKOKO

Université François-Rabelais, Tours

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