There is no such thing as an apolitical or neutral archive. In curating this syllabus, we have made very pointed choices; to specify Black women and femmes, to make sure that the works we include reflect the complex links and fractures of experience throughout the Black diaspora and to highlight works that are not likely to find room on college campuses and elite literary circles. The beauty of this project is in its potential to stage conversations between Black women and femmes from the African continent, Europe, the Caribbean and South America and the continental United States through their art.
In this naming and claiming space for ourselves, how do we stand to recreate the same kind of exclusion we have faced? Do we run the risk of acting as gatekeepers for (cisgender, heterosexual) Black womanhood, deciding whose voices and whose work should be celebrated in our project, and who is left out? Who will have difficulty gaining access to this digital archive and the text and visual materials we recommend? What about the Black women activists and academics whose work isn’t published and hasn’t been given the rubber-stamp of a (most probably) Western academic platform? Or the queer and trans women and femmes who are consistently erased from historical record and contemporary narratives?
My own research during my time in graduate school has led me from my mother’s childhood home in Ghana’s Volta Region, to the Caribbean via a friend’s kitchen in Queens and dorms rooms in DC, and to the American South by way of books, film and music and hopefully an in-person visit in the near future. In my writing, I am trying to trace how these places are connected through various themes, both tragic and triumphant, natural disasters in the form of hurricanes and earthquakes as well as the ocean’s persistent and merciless erosion. They also share ties to some deities in their different magnificent manifestations, many of whom can be read as gender fluid and or queer in the frames of understanding we have today. Yet, when digging through archives for accounts of queer people’s lives in these places, I’m consistently met with the denial, “No recorded evidence.” Says who? How can I write them into history with respect and love? How can I pay homage to these people across the Black diaspora without simply sampling their culture and using it for my work as it suits me? What difference is my work going to make in the lives of all these people about whom I claim to care deeply?
I have grown to understand that my personal responsibility as an artist also involves imagining a new world where we can all live peacefully and sustainably. As I sit at my desk imagining and making exciting findings in my research, around the world Black women and girls (and people in general) are trafficked and exploited, are being targeted by police and sexually assaulted by “peacekeeping” forces, are pushed into jails and other detention facilities rather than given care for their trauma, and are being killed because of their gender identity. Children are traumatized by the lack of safety of school buildings that threaten to collapse on them, women academics are arrested and detained by the state for daring to speak against corrupt leaders, and many other forms of violence that I fear I will render trivial if I continue to list in this way.
As a result of this complex, brutal matrix* in which we all live, I am afforded the safety and comfort to study and imagine, precisely because of the suffering of my sisters and millions of other people. The matrix continues to mock our attempts at dismantling, as it is fortified by the exploitation and sacrifice of human lives for the sustenance and relative comfort a privileged few. Even writing this feels disingenuous, like an attempt to use other people’s suffering as the backdrop for my own angst, or to absolve myself by pointing out how “conscious” I am of the capacity I have to harm others by virtue of my relative position of power and privilege. The point is lives are always at stake, and simply “calling out one’s own privilege” won’t suffice.
So what next? (Sign up for more volunteer hours, donate where I can, call or fax a senator, what else?) What to do when Ghana, the place I call home, doesn’t have these channels for “accountability,” as empty as some of these may be, to take government officials to task? What can I really do? I’m also contending with the expectation that as a Black, African woman writer, my words can only be valid once I can prove how they are of direct service and support to others. How much of this urgency I feel can I attribute to the fear of being self-indulgent?
Writing and creating are ways of “doing.” as is curating this archive, but they are never enough. I must also remember that I am not posing questions that thinkers like Ama Ata Aidoo and Dionne Brand have already tackled far more brilliantly than I may be able to do at this point, and other eager (and somewhat misguided) young artists have asked before me. Ultimately, my work will only form a tiny part of an immense collective effort to reach liberation.
Curating and writing about the work of Black women and femmes with intention is an exercise in testing the limits of our imaginations, and putting our minds and hands to work in a way that is moving towards peace and justice that we may not live to see, but in which we firmly believe.
*Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2000.
Zoë Gadegbeku is the Communications Manager for the Elma Lewis Center. She blogs at shewhowritesreality.com.
The full Hidden Figures Syllabus will be available soon. Watch this space!