In a divided continent, Black women and women of colour come together to undertake creative resistances and imagine radical new futures. To Exist is to Resist brings together activists, artists and scholars of colour to show how Black feminism and Afrofeminism are being practiced in Europe today. Find out more about the book in this extract from the introduction by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande.
We can trace Black feminism back to the earliest days of slavery and colonialism. Where the historical record survives, we find the narratives of displaced and enslaved Black women analysing the violence of their everyday lives and resisting those forces of dehumanisation to assert their belonging in humanity. From abolition to anti-colonial movements, Black women have been at the forefront of liberation struggles and have made clear that no emancipatory movement is to be taken seriously unless the specific oppression faced by Black women – based on race, class, gender and sexuality – are addressed. This enduring lesson from Sojourner Truth to Jeanne and Paulette Nardal to Claudia Jones to May Ayim has yet to be learned.
Feminism has always been an uncomfortable coalition between Black and white women. Because white women benefit from white supremacy, they can be, at best, unreliable actors for liberation and at worst, active and willing agents for Black women’s oppression. Black feminism is oftentimes positioned as a reaction to white-dominated feminism but this is a gross misreading of Black feminist history and theory. In fact, Black women have always been leaders of women’s liberation and have had to struggle against and defeat white women so that everyone – and not just white men and women – can be free. Any honest history of white women’s roles in abolition, for example, and how their experiences in this movement radicalised them to demand the vote – ahead of Black men and Black women – demonstrates the point. Black feminism is in no way an afterthought or a derivative of white feminism but rather a radical praxis for the liberation of everyone – starting with Black women. However, Black feminism is too often limited in how it conceives of itself and Black women. Black women in Europe must struggle for our humanity while simultaneously negotiating the dominant discourses of racial, gender and intersectional politics of North American Black feminists that make it difficult to name and take action on our particular racialised, gendered and classed experiences in a European context. Because the United States is the global hegemonic power, it imposes and transmits its values and culture across the world. Much of what we understand as American culture is actually Black American culture popularised through social movements and social media. Black American culture is a key way the United States exercises its soft power. In the Black diaspora, Black American culture looms large and has a tendency to crowd out and misunderstand other histories and understandings of Blackness and resistance. For example, pretty much everyone knows the basic story of the American Civil Rights Movement and some of its key players from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr. However, the same popular knowledge does not exist about liberation struggles outside (and against) the United States and from which American activists drew inspiration. So, there is a constant tension within the Black diaspora of having Black American politics and culture dominate, with little reciprocal knowledge about the long history of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles in Europe and against various European empires. Thus, we read Angela Davis and Kwame Turé but less so Aimé Césaire and Gail Lewis. This lacuna matters greatly to how we think about Blackness, solidarity and resistance. These dynamics are re-enforced by the domination of the English language, which further preferences American, and to a lesser extent, British texts.
Black feminism is also entangled in these power relations. Too often, when we think about Black feminist theory and activism, we look to the particular Black American experience and seek to universalise and apply it to Europe. This is a mistake on two levels. First, by trying to import American race politics to Europe, this signals that race and racialisation is somehow fundamentally foreign and outside the European experience. This is all too convenient and robs European Black feminists of a key analytical tool to name and act on our oppression. If racial injustice is understood on American terms and as an American export, there is no incentive to dismantle the distinct European racialised social order. Second, this importation of the American experience silences the actually existing experiences and histories of European Black feminists resisting racist and sexist domination. These dynamics also erase the long histories of anti-imperialist struggles of Black feminists located across various European empires.
Further, the linguistic divides between English-speaking Black feminists of Britain and North America drown out the perspectives and experiences of Black women in Continental Europe. In parallel to Black feminism, Afrofeminism – particularly in francophone Europe – has been the space for many Continental European Black women to collectively learn, organise and mobilise for their interests. There are many similarities between Black feminism and Afrofeminism but Afrofeminism insists on grounding analysis and action in the particular and specific histories of colonialism, racial formation and gender hierarchy of the various European nation-states in which Black women live. Thus, when we speak of European Black feminism, we must ensure that the lived experiences and theorising of Black women on the continent and across different countries and languages is at the forefront of our work. We are, of course, in no way devaluing or disrespecting Black American feminist theorists who have shaped our praxis such as bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and the Combahee River Collective. Rather, this book attempts to talk back against both American domination and European silence about Black feminism and create a space for a different kind of dialogue one that this is led by and for Black women in Europe.
Locating Black feminist and Afrofeminist politics in Europe is provocative because it is radical counter-storytelling about whose knowledge counts, whose politics matter and who gets to be part of the ‘European story’. European Black feminist and Afrofeminist politics are nothing new. Indeed, they refract the story of the Enlightenment, colonialism and modernity. The ‘Europe’ of secular liberalism is not possible without the subjugation of colonised people. European Black feminist and Afro- feminist politics has been at the heart of anti-slavery, anti-colonial and socialist politics on the continent. This book helps to correct the record and place Black feminism and Afrofeminism firmly within contemporary European politics.
Black feminism and Afrofeminism have been so influential that they have helped to inspire the thinking and politics of non-Black women of colour in Europe. For this edited volume, we wanted to bring together the best writing about Black feminism and Afrofeminism as a way to showcase the creativity of resistance and demonstrate the possibilities of intersectional solidarity across race, class, gender, legal status and language. To be clear, we do not use ‘women of colour’ as a synonym for Black women nor are we engaging in the politics of ‘political Blackness’ in this text. Rather, we are attempting to demonstrate that solidarity is possible despite anti-Blackness. We do not reify or fetishise the category of ‘women of colour’. Solidarity between different racialised women can never be taken for granted – it must be fought for and in this creative tension exists the possibilities for new insights. In this text we wanted to demonstrate that there are patterns of experiences and analyses that create the conditions for fruitful coalitions. These coalitions might falter but we think the struggle for solidarity across difference is central to any Black feminist politics. As such, this edited volume brings together activists, artists and scholars to explore how Black women and other women of colour from across Europe:
- theorise Black feminism and Afrofeminism from European perspectives
- build and sustain activist spaces for survival and resistance
- challenge, subvert and transform hegemonic socialist, feminist, populist and/or anarchist politics
- develop transnational alliances and intersectional and intergenerational coalitions for equality and social justice
- engage with creative practice as a means of activism and self-preservation.
Black women and women of colour in Europe have always maintained critical spaces of analysis and activism based on our race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, legal status and other categories of difference. This edited collection fills an important gap in knowledge about how Black women and women of colour, as active agents and authors of our lives, conceive our differing social positionings in various European countries, how we organise and mobilise for our shared interests and how we might collectively imagine a Black feminist Europe.
To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande is available from Pluto Press.
Akwugo Emejulu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Community Development as Micropolitics: Comparing Theories, Policies and Politics in America and Britain (Policy Press, 2015), and the co-author with Leah Bassel of Minority Women and Austerity: Survival and Resistance in France and Britain (Policy Press, 2017) and Fugitive Feminism (Silver Press, 2018). She is a contributor to The Violence of Austerity.
Francesca Sobande is a Digital Media Studies Lecturer at Cardiff University. Her work focuses on how racism and sexism manifest in media and the marketplace. She has published work in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Consumption Markets and Culture, and is the author of The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2020).