Hey all...this is the talk I gave this past Friday at the "Theorizing Blackness" conference at CUNY Grad Center...like a self-fulfilling prophecy...the sound of me whispering my talk into the microphone was almost drowned out by a tech system gone mad. Read this quietly.
Black Feminism in Translation
When we come into the master’s house we want to whisper. We want to steal everything. We want to steal each other, we want to steal ourselves away home. When we come into the master’s house we shudder less and less, a biometric loss in each doorway we make ourselves into. These words are dedicated to black women who survive in unlikely spaces. This voice is borrowed from warriors who could have been gone but are still here waiting. I dedicate these words to all warriors who have laid down their bodies here in the master’s house. This paper is dedicated specifically to three former employees of the City University of New York. Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan and Audre Lorde, we will not forget the work you did here, and we will not forget what it cost you. May our chosen words and our open listening build us warmer, more nourishing hopeful places to live.
In 1983 a U.S. born Grenadian/Barbadian poet/teacher/lesbian/warrior mother everything who traced herself back to the small island of Carricou had some questions for the readers of Essence Magazine. In her essay “Black Women, Hatred and Anger” before suggesting “We can learn to mother ourselves” she asked:
“Am I not reaching out for you in the only language I know? Are you reaching for me in your only salvaged tongue? If I try to hear yours across our differences does/will that mean you can hear mine?”
In 1989 a poet/lawyer/linguist from Tobago by way of Toronto had some questions in a book of poems dedicated “to all the mothers.” In her poem “Meditations on the Declension of Beauty by the Girl with the Flying Cheek-bones she asked:
In whose language
Am I not
Am I I am yours
Am I not I am yours
Am I I am
If not in yours
In whose language
If not in yours
In 1986, in a review of a British poetry collection called Black Women’s Writing a black british feminist poet, historian, visual artist and reproductive justice advocate from Scotland had some questions. In the Black women’s literary supplement of Gen Magazine she asked
“What do they mean by black? Do they mean women of African descent? If so why is the collection edited by two Asian women. Do they mean African and Asian women with a shared experience of colonization and immigration? If so, then why are all the included writers of African descent?”
Because, but not only because, Audre Lorde, Marlene Nourbese Philip and Maud Sulter say so, black feminist diaspora is not a statement. It is a question. More specifically the possibility that black women will be able to relate to each other across boundaries as multiple and simultaneous as the nation state, as multiple and simultaneous as the skin we wear, as multiple and simultaneous as our conscripted engendered performances towards love, the question about how and if we are related is a question of language. Not least of all because it is a question that must be spoken. Again and again. Am I yours?
A small, queer, Afro-Anguillan Jamaican grand-daughter in a room at the City University of New York, in a black blazer has a question. If I learn my own name, who will hear me when I say it? What poem should I dress myself in so you recognize me? How will you ever find me under these overspoken undermeant words that turn paper into blood money on contact? What is the word I can say that does not buy me into an exchange I cannot afford? Okay, so the small girl in the blazer has a lot of questions, but let’s try to condense one. What happens if we understand the word “black” to be a term in translation as it is spoken by and written by “black” diasporic feminists in the English language?
At points in this project it may seem that the word “feminist” is doing strange and awkward under-rewarded work. It may seem that I have borrowed the term “feminist” from a discourse that often excludes black women, and imposed the word “feminist” on a multiplicity of women who may not own the word “feminist”. This is true. I cannot own the word feminist. But I am not the only one borrowing, I am not the one in debt. An earlier poet warrior everything woman taught me, with a speech that she gave in this very place that feminist is not a loan that I have to pay off as though it belongs to white women. But feminism is a borrowed word to the same extent that borrowed does not explain the relation. The energy that haunts the word feminism is borrowed from the traces of fighters, creators and healers whose erasure precedes and constitutes the privileged iteration of the word “feminist”. The word borrowed does not sound as violent as what I mean. When I say that the word “feminist” was already a borrowed word before I audaciously reclaimed it for my uses. I mean borrowed in the sense that the land we are on right now is “borrowed”. This language is inadequate. But the fact is that the word “feminist” was in circulation among black women transnationally in English in the 1980’s much more frequently than the less violent, homegrown and embracing term “womanism.” I want you to know that I chose the word “feminist”, not because I have no choice, but because my choice is shaped by and accountable to the language relation that my elders, the subjects of this paper, attempted to break through.
At this point in the conversation on black diaspora we must recognize that the term is as over-employed and as underfed as many of the women the term “diasporic” would seek to describe. To think that using the term “diaspora” means we know who we are talking about is mistake. Especially if we are using the term diaspora as irrevocably modified by the term “black”. Black diaspora is not about knowing where we are from, who we are related to or who the “we” I am invoking is. Diaspora cannot mean anything It is just a sound that tries to hold the fullness of how profound our not knowing feels. It mean not only do we not know the answer to the existential question of origin, population genetics not withstanding, we can never know. Diaspora is a name for a loss that we cannot account for so when I talk about black diasporic feminism, it may seem that I am talking about feminism as practiced by a particular set of people...as in the people in the “black diaspora”. This is only a biproduct of our loss for words. What I mean when I say “diasporic” is that this feminism, this writing, this reaching struggles across despite and because of impossibility. I mean that reaching, that desire, sustained and repeated like trauma. I mean love in the temporality of flashbacks. I mean all of us who stand at the shoreline, crucial and alone.
I am seeking to clarify and make visible the reproduction and reclamation of blackness across national contexts in one colonizing language...not because this is only happening in one language at a time, not because English is a more interesting colonizing language than the other languages of forced death, but simply because it is the shoreline I happen to be drowning on.
Of course, I am not the first one to suggest that translation can occur within one langauge. In “The Task of the Translator” Walter Benjamin suggests that translation is really about a desired relationship to a zone of communication that is not reducible to any of the languages that people actually speak and write across. In her long introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Gayatri Spivak suggests that the translation does not reproduce but engages the tracing, the play and the differance that troubles our hold on language to begin with. And these suggestions, though they might be saying opposite things, are helpful. “Black” as a translational term in one language is understandable through some of Derrida’s insights on writing, where the written is possible and multiple because it is inevitably deviant. “Black” as a term invented to mark and hold the absence of meaning, (at least as Fanon tells us) may be the ultimate translational term, or the term that reveals the everpresent haunting of translation everywhere. “Black” what is it? It is not a crystallized object that can be exchanged, but yet it is how we know that people can be bought and sold. It is not the same as death, but the overlap is persistent. Black is not a known, but it is not an unknown, is it visible even while it challenges the very possibility of enlightenment. Black might be a reminder that we don’t know what anything means. It may be the first thing that we don’t know, but as Fred Moten reminds me it is also not original. It is somehow befor and without origin. Nobody knows what black means. People convene conferences to think about it, but even more funding goes towards gathering people in a way that tries NOT to think about it.
Brent Edwards has very helpfully taught us to think about black diaspora as something manifest in print across oceans, across language, a perpetual gap in what we mean when we say “black” or “negre” when write the words used against us towards each other in different languages. Even more helpfully, I think, Michelle Wright, in her very important book Becoming Black, explains that blackness is a dialogic question, not a dialectical position. She rejects the figure of the “mask/veil” through which DuBois and Fanon have responded to the positioning of “blackness” in an antithetical relationship to whiteness, by pointing out the bankruptcy of this one to one relationship, when actually blackness is something that does not exist, it is in production discursively, even now. Wright suggests that the figure of the black mother (so misused in pan-africanist proclamations that women are land) is actually the most useful figure for thinking about blackness as a dialogically produced ontology, never pure, always contingent, already discursive.
It is the black mother, Wright’s argument seems to suggest, that poets like Audre Lorde and Carolyn Rodgers are writing towards as audience and as contested mode of production. I would add that black feminist writers are answering for the charge through which the social reproduction of abjection in society is continually ascribed to the reproductivity of black women. (As Hortense Spillers teaches us) The term mother is a borrowed one. Black feminist literary production takes up the task of how blackness gets created over and over. Maybe we are throwing disruptions to meaning towards each other like lifelines across an abyss. But the life saving sentences fall into the darkness, they never quite make it across. Maybe we are reading the drowning, the sound of that falling now.
I have been telling you that I think “black” might be a translational term manifest in the practice of diasporic feminism, in production in literary distance. And I have been telling you this in my one voice, made multiple by the ancestors that inhabit this space. But of course you also inhabit this space, literal and discursive with me, and the translation of the term black is only relevant because it happens in multiple voices. And here I am with you. Let’s practice. Diaspora happens across time and distance and I think black happens that way too, in writing. So since the time of the talk is over I want you to use these hand outs to more deeply inhabit the context of what I want. A translational black feminist diasporicity in print..
(pictured...the other audience)
For "Black Motha" the hand out that I handed out see: http://brokenbeautifuldowloads.wordpress.com/worksheets/