Symposium Introduction

I’ve been reading Jennifer C. Nash’s work since I was a baby black feminist trying to make my own provocative claims about the roots and routes of black feminist theory in predominantly white US-based gender studies classrooms, intellectual spaces that, in my own experience, barely held a brief for black feminist theory and theorizing beyond the work of heavyweights Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and bell hooks. And even those selective engagements barely skimmed the surface. In that context, Nash’s work on black female sexuality and pornography posed necessary (and necessarily) unnerving questions about black feminisms’ preoccupation with reading black female representation through the frameworks of trauma and injury—with black feminist engagements with pornography serving as a paradigmatic case in point for her first book. In so doing, Nash eloquently and persuasively urged the field of black feminism to move beyond some of its most deeply entrenched epistemological and affective impulses. At the same time, by exposing the limits of black feminisms theoretical orientations toward injury and inviting us to embrace the varied and complex possibilities for black feminist pleasures, some might (and did) argue that Nash aired some of black feminism’s dirty laundry; others might (and did) suggest that she pushed the field to feel and move.

Nash’s second book and the centerpiece of this Syndicate forum, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality, is no less compelling, no less provocative, and certainly no less urgent. It asks readers to imagine, explore, and mine the felt life of black feminism(s), and, perhaps implicitly, the felt lives of black women. Nash invites black feminists to “let go” of “defensive” attachments to (the increasingly institutionalized analytic) intersectionality, attachments, which, she argues, both restrict theoretical travel and engender pernicious proprietary claims to intersectionality that constrain the black feminist imagination. As a kind of corrective to defensiveness, Nash proposes love and intimacy as more robust affective and critical frames through which to engage with intersectionality, black feminism(s), and black women.

The contributors to this forum take up much of what is productive and provocative about Nash’s book. They also exemplify the riskiness of defensiveness and love, of pleasure and danger, of intimacy and institutionalization. Collectively, the contributors demonstrate that this is a book that generates messy feelings, that forges counterintuitive intimacies, that asks and answers difficult questions about a field that is still too often denied a brief—at least in the US academy—as a crucial site of intellectual motility, critical inquiry, and capacious knowledge production. Feel and be felt, move and be moved, for this is a book that boldly, lovingly, and unapologetically “goes there.” Now, hold on (or not). And let(’s) go.

James Bliss

Response

Let Go

1

This story is several hands removed from my own. Early in Windows, J.-B. Pontalis thinks back on a pamphlet from the early sixties. It’s a story about the early-late structuralist days at the École Normale Supérieure. A graduate student bursts into a classroom, it doesn’t matter which student or which classroom, screaming, “They stole my concept!” For Pontalis, who “never invented the slightest concept” and “never discovered anything other than the malady of being human,” it’s a story about the ways desires ossify themselves into concepts. “The necessary condition for the formation of a concept,” he writes, “is forgetting: a forgetting of property, of singularity, of difference. I say ‘table’ and I forget this table. I say, ‘He’s obsessional,’ and I forget the one who is speaking to me.”1 A university champions “intersectionality” and so forgets to admit Black students. A department seeks candidates specializing in “intersectional frameworks,” and forgets why they don’t retain Black junior faculty.

I have, myself, coined a concept or two. I’m sure I’ll coin more. Not for any good reason. They’re useful for making a piece of writing legible for the folks who decide if academic writing is printed and bound. They’re section headings. They’re placeholders for more complicated ideas that can’t, or shouldn’t, be contained in a word or two. I’ve seen colleagues who are desperate for concepts. I’ve read drafts replete with desperate concepts. I’ve gossiped with friends about dreadful neologisms; casual cruelty to avoid the deep well of despair I hope my own concepts will save me from. I’ve felt electric with possibility when I find a new concept, one that feels like it will open that last locked door between me and whatever it is I’m looking for. I’ve run concepts into the ground, repeated them until they lost their meaning, and went looking for new words, new concepts—discovering nothing but the malady of being human. I’ve also been the graduate student stewing over seeing my words in someone else’s writing, without my name attached to them. Weeping, “I never should have sent them that draft!” In those moments I forget “property is theft.” Intellectual property is real and it is mine and it must be defended.

If there’s something all too human about the desire to live forever in a concept, there’s also a type of magical thinking particular to the industry of higher education and to our working conditions. As worker-students at research-intensive universities, doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities are sold the idea that producing concepts is one road to secure, meaningful employment. Junior faculty are sold the same bill of goods: bundle your concepts and move up a level. Don’t languish in associate limbo, bundle more concepts and you’re home free. The more your position in the university is structured and defined by permanent insecurity—as a function of your social identity or as a function of inhabiting an academic unit that “doesn’t pull its weight” according to some imaginary metric—the more you’re bludgeoned by an imperative to produce, claim, and defend intellectual property.

2

Black Feminism Reimagined is Jennifer Nash’s story about all the things forgotten and elided as the desires called Black feminism are identified with, and overdetermined by, the concept-name, “intersectionality.” It is both an intellectual history and an institutional history. It captures, more than most recent books, the degree to which intellectual histories are, necessarily, institutional histories. Like her previous book, The Black Body in Ecstasy, which sought to broaden the affective and political horizons of Black women in pornographic media, Black Feminism Reimagined is an invitation to explore the radical openness of Black feminism and the diversity of its potential expressions.

The Black Body in Ecstasy opened with Nash’s description of a ritual that evolved during (what pass in academic life for) social situations. A stranger inquires about her work, Nash says the words “Black women” and “pornography,” and her interlocutor knows everything they need or want to know about the project: Pornography is bad; Black women in pornography are victims.2 Instead, Nash explored, without moralizing, the ways Black people involved in the production of pornography related to, and experienced enjoyment within, the dynamics of negrophobia and negrophilia organized around their bodies. It was an argument against their constrained affective legibility, against Black women as simply passive or harmed objects of sexual performance.

In Black Feminism Reimagined, Nash contemplates her own status as a “vocal critic of intersectionality.”3 What types of political and conceptual work does that naming do for the writer doing the naming? And what is done to the person so named? The “vocal critic” is positioned against the object of criticism. In the case of “intersectionality,” which itself functions as a stand-in for the project of Black feminism, the vocal critic of intersectionality is against Black feminism. This sort of motivated misreading has a longer history within the academic reception of Black feminist theorizing. One might consider the case of Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory.” Resonant with Nash’s project, Christian’s essay is about the relationship between a set of conceptual interventions (call them post-structuralism) and an institutional politics (the degree to which hiring and promotion decisions in English departments were linked to one’s engagement with post-structuralism). In the main, that isn’t how Christian has been read. Instead, “The Race for Theory” has been read as arguing that Blackness is somehow, essentially, incompatible with a rather broad school of literary criticism.4 “Vocal critic” operates as a placeholder for an engagement with the many desires and anxieties that animate a body of writing. And so I say the author is a “vocal critic” and I forget her voice.

3

Of course, the problem is not the production of concepts or becoming attached to concepts. We could follow what Gayatri Spivak said about essence and say that the moment of the concept is irreducible.5The concept cannot be avoided and, thus, requires from us a certain amount of strategy. It’s always been the “strategy” in Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” that has generated the most anxious reactions to Spivak’s formulation. Strategy requires a decision, and a decision always passes through the undecidable.6 Strategy is a wager and a wager is always defined by risk, by the risk of having chosen the wrong strategy. Over the past couple decades, producers of academic writing in the various fields called cultural studies and/or critical theory have been especially allergic to being wrong. Except, of course, when we’re wrong in the right ways—i.e., we’re all complicit with power, we’re all undone in circumscribed ways, we’re all implicated in the death machine of the university, even if we’re “in it but not of it,” etc. . . . Or, in the idiom of James Baldwin, “people find it very difficult to act on what they know” because “to act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”7

What I admire most in Nash’s work is her willingness to act and to court the danger of the decision. At the same time, there are moments in the text where I wonder if her account of the institutional and conceptual life of Black feminism doesn’t trade one defensiveness for another. I find myself particularly drawn to the moments when Nash elaborates the relationship between territory, agency, and defensiveness.

Nash argues for letting go of what she sees as the territoriality, the property relations and forms of propriety, that characterize claims around intersectionality’s origins and the uses to which it might be put. In her chapter tracing the points of contact, within the field of women’s studies, between intersectionality and transnational feminism, there are moments I don’t recognize the world Nash is describing. Has transnational feminism been eclipsed since its heyday in the 1990s? Or is it one point of condensation on a continuum that would include terms like third world, post-colonial, transnational, diasporic, and (settler) decolonial? Is the issue with the ubiquity of “intersectionality”—in an academic workplace where Black women are not ubiquitous—reducible to the analytic being (perceived as) “appropriated” or “stolen”? Ultimately, what is the relationship between the rhetorical figure of “black woman,” which is seen as the “proper” territory of intersectionality, and Black women who work in the academy?

Put differently, what are Black women in the academy defending if and when they defend the figure of “black woman.” Nash describes “black feminist defensiveness” as “an attempt to exercise agency, as a willful form of territorial exertion in the service of autonomy, but one that is frustrating and frustrated” (28). Nash understands “defensiveness to be a space marked by feelings of ownership and territoriality, and by loss and grief” (32). But what can Black women own? If Blackness is understood not as a sociological or anthropological category, but as an imprecise name for the incapacity to claim—to claim territory, to claim property, to claim kin, to claim desire, to claim a self—then what are Black women in the academy claiming when they claim intersectionality besides their own (non)relation to claiming itself?

For Nash, “defensiveness is a form of obstructed agency, something that hinders black feminism’s theoretical and political imagination rather than unleashing it” (137). In these few lines, this defensive agency is obstructed, is marked by grief, is a hindrance and a frustration. This figure of an obstructed agency implies the figure of an unobstructed agency. For the Black woman-as-critic, an unobstructed agency is an unleashed imagination, a surrendered territory, a radical intimacy. It lets go of “what we think intersectionality must do . . . to tell a different story about what black feminist theory can do” (110).

4

But is this a false choice? I don’t mean in the sense of a “both/and” third-way alternative. I mean, is there ever such a thing as an unobstructed agency? Obstruction is internal to agency itself. This is the irreducible risk of the decision: one never decides from the position of an unobstructed agency. And it is the externally circumscribed or obstructed agency of Blackness that reveals, historically, the internal limit to any agency. An obstructed agency could not, then, be pathologized or collapsed into a “failed” agency. What I struggle with in Nash’s text, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to struggle with the text in this way, is to understand the theoretical and political labor performed by the figure of an obstructed agency.

To return to the relationship between transnational feminism and intersectionality, Nash advocates for “a conception of intersectionality expansive, broad, and deterritorialized enough to move with figures beyond ‘black woman.’” For Nash, this surrendering “eschews defensiveness and replaces it with a radical embrace of the political potentiality of intimacy” (104). But intimacy is also a risk. Intimacy is the risk of being known, certainly, but it is also the risk of violation. The intimacy of an embrace, the intimacy of a chokehold. The intimacy of letting down walls, the intimacy of overly familiar questions from colleagues, students, administrators, police, strangers. . . . Nash invites those who would defend intersectionality-as-Black-feminism to venture that risk, and it is a necessary invitation. What I find less often in the text, however, is an invitation to “women of color” to risk intimacy with Blackness, to risk losing the territories that make a category like “women of color” possible. The history of the last half century of Black feminism, in and out of the academy, is a history of just these sorts of invitations. It is also a dispiriting history of defeat. Against the backdrop of which Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier famously wrote, “It is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves.”8 Nash never relinquishes the possibility that maintains even within the most overdetermined context. But I wonder if the figure of an unobstructed agency actually disciplines the wildest desires of a Black feminism by reducing it to fit the agential claims of those who can claim.

But this leads into my last question: if all agency is obstructed, what can be done with an obstructed agency? To “limit” ourselves to the various histories of a Black feminist tradition, the answer is somewhere between anything and everything. There is within a feminist Black radical tradition an originary positivity, a radical generativity, that emerges from the nothing which is the only claim of a Black feminism. But one approach to the Black feminist tradition is to try to claim it, own it, as we imagine other traditions can be claimed and owned. We imagine that American literature, say, can be claimed and owned, but only because social structures—publishers, academic presses, journals, libraries, archives, academic units, curricula, professional organizations, funding agencies, etc.—exist to enable that fantasy. The question, then, is how to reproduce those structures to make Blackness, Black Study, Black Feminism, Black Radicalism, into something which might be claimed, might be possessed. But then, what social structures would be necessary for Black people to have the capacity to claim, particularly when everyone else—everyone else—relies on the prohibition of the Black capacity to enjoy (in the multiple registers of enjoyment, from property to pleasure) their own fitful and incomplete experiences of claiming? Nash is not interested in making Black feminism into something claimable, which returns to the courage at the core of her work.

5

Another approach to Black feminism is to embrace incapacity, to eschew possession, to let go of fantasies of ownership and agency—to find in an unclaimable Blackness the promise of a politics without possession. This, we might say, is all well and good, but it can also be an alibi for “Black Studies without Black People.” That is, it can evade the practical realities of navigating the academic workplace. A workplace where, if you aren’t claiming territory, you aren’t there at all. It can’t be the work of one book or one author to resolve these contradictions. And Nash never tries to resolve them. The letting go on which Nash ends Black Feminism Reimagined might be more radical than some moments in the book would suggest. It might be a willingness to let go of everything. To lose your home and lose your home country. To lose your mother and lose your mother tongue. To lose sovereignty and lose nativity. And for the subject of a Black feminism, occupying a subject position understood to be characterized by absence, by nothing, it is precisely that nothing which one must lose. But lose collectively. Let go of the nothing one is and find there the most radical generativity. This is precisely the invitation offered, an offer without agency, by the Blackness of a feminist Black radical tradition. That is the outstretched hand of Black Feminism Reimagined.


  1. J.-B. Pontalis, Windows (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 3.

  2. Jennifer C. Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 1.

  3. Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 33. Cited hereafter in text.

  4. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” in Gender & Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism, ed. Linda Kauffman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). For an exemplary misreading of Christian, see Michael Awkward, “Appropriative Gestures: Theory and Afro-American Literary Criticism,” in the same volume.

  5. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (New York: Routledge, 1989), 51.

  6. Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 13.

  7. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1993), 9.

  8. Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color, 1981), 212.

  • Jennifer Christine Nash

    Jennifer Christine Nash

    Reply

    Response to James Bliss

    Before I respond to James’s tremendously generative engagement with my work, I want to offer my deep appreciation of Shoniqua Roach’s generous labor in organizing this forum. All scholarly work takes time—more time than we anticipate—and certainly the labor of finding engaged interlocutors, and organizing a forum like this one takes time. I am deeply grateful to Shoniqua.

    In what follows, I will transgress the norms of academic writing by addressing my interlocutors by their first names. We are all colleagues, friends even. I wrote Black Feminism Reimagined in conversation with the scholars who are included in this forum. Some of us have had real disagreements on the page. These are disagreements that I cherish because, as I hope my book makes clear, I am deeply invested in black feminism as a site of intense debate. In fact, I believe black feminist theory is marked by a history of debates, and that the vibrancy of these debates reveals the real political and material stakes of black feminist theoretical work. I have always been interested in highlighting these debates as evidence of the vitality of black feminist theory, rather than paper them over as if they represent incoherence or instability. I see all of the participants in this forum as interlocutors whose ideas, insights, and critical projects have advanced my own thinking.

    Finally, I approach this forum as someone whose feelings, ideas, and commitments have continued to unfold in the period between the writing of Black Feminism Reimagined and the moment the reader encounters these words. The experience of thinking and rethinking has been perhaps more profound with this project than my earlier work because of intersectionality’s increasingly dramatic presence on a national and even global political stage, at least in part because of feminist organizing in the wake of Trump’s election. I continue to think and rethink what was in the book, and I see my responses here not as a defense of the project of the book, but as emblematic of a desire to continue to grapple with the felt life of black feminism in the US academy. My interest here, as always, is not certainty, but a black feminist theory that can perform capaciousness and risk.

     

     

    Response to James Bliss

     

    I am drawn to where James begins: the US academy’s preoccupation with coinage, with laying claim, with seizing ground, as the marker of intellectual mastery. If the trajectory of US graduate professional training consists of learning and even “mastering” the field, it often ends with carving out territory—naming, labeling, developing new terms. We ask again and again: what is your contribution? What have you made? Often the form of the contribution comes in the package of something “new,” intellectual space that is carved out. In many ways, James’s reflections on the desire for ownership animate my ongoing work with intersectionality, my desire to understand, theorize, and disrupt the preoccupation with territory, precisely because I envision black feminist theory as a tradition that has railed against capture and instead has envisioned other forms of relationality, knowledge-production, and world-making. And yet the task of thinking outside of—or beyond—logics of property is particularly challenging because of the allure of ownership, and it is this allure, this seduction, that Black Feminism Reimagined seeks to spend time with. I am deeply invested in thinking about how and why logics of property and ownership speak to practitioners of a theoretical tradition that have highlighted how logics of property and, for example, logics of whiteness intersect and bolster each other. How have we—with all of our investment in unsettling ownership—come to invest in it as our primary way of conducting scholarly inquiry around intersectionality?

    James asks, “What is the relationship between the rhetorical figure of ‘black woman,’ which is seen as the ‘proper’ territory of intersectionality, and Black women who work in the academy?” This is part of what my book seeks to explore—a fundamental disconnect in US women’s studies between the figure who I argue organizes academic feminism’s program-building and the materiality of black women’s lives, including the black women who are called upon—or volunteer—to teach, perform, and embody black feminist theory in and for women’s studies. To put a finer point on it, my interest is as much in how US women’s studies hails black women as the answer to its ills—cite black women, center black women, listen to black women—as in how black women academics get seduced by that very rhetoric, which makes black women into symbols of another kind rather than contending with black women’s lives, desires, and political needs. This is where I see intersectionality fitting into the story—it promises to attend to black women, and promises that if we (feminists) attend to black women, women’s studies will have gotten it right. Perhaps for the first time. In my telling of this story, though, my interest is in how this moment—one where black women are rhetorical currency in US women’s studies—feel, and in how black women who work in the academy come to adopt a defensive posture vis-à-vis intersectionality. In addition to thinking about black feminism as marked by a set of feelings produced by the experiences of navigating academic feminism, and its complicated and often treacherous racial politics, I want to think about black women’s emotional lives. This includes considering how the defensive posture speaks to black women. This also includes contending with how even as we describe how intersectionality has been “stolen,” “taken,” or “appropriated,” it has moved at least in part because of efforts by black women working in the university. While black feminist theory has often talked about black women in the academy as conscripted into diversity-service for the university, some of us have gone into this work willingly for a host of reasons: salary, a genuine interest in the transformative capacity of diversity and inclusion efforts, a desire to move from a primarily academic to a primarily administrative home.

    Part of where this book came from, in a personal way, was an interest in the exhaustion and fatigue that I felt defensiveness was inflicting on black female flesh—I saw the defensive posture and its attendant holding on as very much a part of what black feminism’s academic work so regularly critiques—the cannibalization of black women by the university generally, and by women’s studies. I see the defensive posture as taking a toll on black women intellectually and emotionally, politically and psychically, and even as foreclosing certain acts of critical imagination by insisting that we already know what intersectionality is, what it can do, and where it came from, and that the answer to all of these questions begins and ends with black women. The certainty inherent in the defensive posture felt the antithesis of the risky uncertainty that black feminist theory has always been willing to venture. So when James asks, “What are Black women in the academy defending if and when they defend the figure of ‘black woman,’” I am less interested in the what and more interested in the what does it feel like black women in the academy are defending, and what are the costs of the defensive posture. What becomes impossible when our critical endeavors become linked to guarding territory?

    The problematic James poses, “What can Black women own?” is in many ways the question I seek to push against, thinking about what it might mean for black feminism to be animated by ways of thinking and being that are about non-ownership. What might it mean for us to respond to the problematic racial politics of US women’s studies not with a claim for space and territory—centering, institutionalizing the margins, etc.—but with a different kind of plea, for what I call in the book “letting go,” which I see as also about uncertainty, about vulnerability, and about even surprise. I agree with you, James, that letting go is entirely about “risk,” including “the risk of being known” and “the risk of violation.” There are other risks as well—the risk of injury, of being misunderstood, of having one’s name written out of the history of a field. What might it mean for black feminism to argue for a vision of itself that is about black women ceding a desire for ownership in the name of a different way of relating to knowledge?

Tiffany King

Response

Defensiveness as Feminist Praxis

To say it plainly, Jenn, your book has me feeling “some kinda way.” I hope that we can discuss your book in person over coffee soon. I want to place my book on the table and show you my marked pages and margin notes. I want you to see the exclamations points bursting with praise, the hearts, the sad and mad faces, the “WTFs” written sideways in the margins and the places where I pulled too hard on the book and creased the spine. What I have said before and what I know is true when I read this book is that you care deeply about Black women and Black feminist futures (King, forthcoming 2019). I also felt your sense of urgency and even concern for Black women in the academy as I read the book. When I read the chapter title “Some of Us Are Tired,” it made me chuckle but it also made me quiet myself to better attune myself to what you were feeling and trying to share with Black feminists while also having to talk to white feminists and the field of women’s studies. Just writing the preceding sentence made me tired.

I’m tired, frustrated, and to tell the truth angry that you had to write to Black women in the academy about our affective states and feelings while also attending and writing to meet the demands of white feminists, an academic press, and violent institutional spaces that produce Black women as a problem. The academic book as a writing exercise can fuck up a kitchen or coffee table conversation where we desire to enact a different kind of care for one another. However, your sense of urgency, fatigue, and desire for things to be different than they are in a space that consistently closes in on some of us is where I connect with you and Black Feminism Reimagined. Your book demands a different kind of engagement and way of attending to each other. I hope that Black Feminism Reimagined inspires a number of sit down conversations between Black women, but particularly for white feminist readers. I hope that white feminists choose to sit down with this book and colleagues to discuss the ways that they are implicated in producing certain toxic (32) affects in the academy rather than read with a sense of vindication that Black women have finally been called to task.

Your book has created a moment in the academy that calls us to practice radical honesty. Your honesty about the affect and feelings that Black feminism—and particularly intersectionality—produce in the academy is a rare and refreshing break from the norms of bourgeois pretense and protocols of politesse. Your candor is a necessary break with the denial of the violence that surfaces in response to Black women’s very presence in the academy. One thing that made a home just below the surface of your conversation about Black feminist defensiveness in the academy was white women’s aggression. It was always there for me just lurking under the surface unexplored as the head of Black feminist defensiveness bobbed up and down in the water. The underside of the buoy of white women’s aggression remains face down in the water throughout the book. I want to talk about white women’s aggression in the field of women’s studies as an unspeakable form of violence that produces Black feminist defensiveness and has yet to be reckoned with.

Addressing this dynamic enables me to have a better relationship to your book. To be honest, I wondered why you did not address this particular violence in its own chapter. I speculated about a number of possible reasons. One possible rationale I thought about was that it was a reflex to protect yourself. For example, I know that I and many Black women choose to prioritize our own emotions, actions, and behavior in the face of violence. For instance, I have said to myself, “I cannot worry about white women acting out or the institutional violence because I/we can only control how I/we respond. They [white women] are going to do what they are going to do anyway.” However, in this response I want to look at the other end of the buoy that remains submerged. I intend to explore Black feminist defensiveness’s flip/underside and return to the work of mining the potential of a negative emotion. Throughout the rest of the response, I attend to the muck—white women’s aggression—that foments Black feminist defensiveness. Further, I make a case that defensiveness performs capacious work and creates openings for addressing institutional violence and making space for Black feminist futures.

While I initially wanted to deflect and denounce the book’s accusations of defensiveness; I have decided to claim it. Much like you claimed the position of the critic in your book (Nash, 33–34), I claim the negative affect of defensiveness following the practice of black and queer of color scholars like Ngai (2005), Carillo Rowe and Royster (2016), Musser (2016) and Judd (2019). Rejecting Black death, I embrace a project of mining defensiveness as an affect that has “productive and world making potential” (129). I am particularly attracted to defensive postures’ orientations toward protecting and securing a future for Black feminisms and Black people. I also want to consider the depth and possibility of defensiveness as an affect that tells us something about a shared ecology or what Christina Sharp calls the climate of anti-blackness (Sharpe 2016, 21). I would like to take up defensiveness or stretch it in a way that mimics Amber Musser’s empathetic method in Sensational Flesh for exploring masochism as a relational practice that takes on different meanings depending on the context (Musser 2014, 21). For Musser (2014), masochism as an object of inquiry reveals power differentials between bodies in a space (19). Ultimately, I argue that defensiveness is an affect that can be embraced and operationalized, albeit on different terms and with varying effects, by all feminists—beyond identitarian claims—in generative ways.

Defining Defensiveness

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “defensive” shares linguistic roots in Latin, English, and French. Initially, the word “defensive” emerges as a way of describing medicinal methods to protect and maintain the health of the body in the fifteenth century. Later in the sixteenth century it describes strategies to protect a party—or parties—under threat of military attack (). As an adjective, defensive describes actions taken to defend life or ward off death at the level of the individual and at the corporate level or the body politic. The very first definition of defensive reads, “that defends against attack, injury or harm, intended or used for defence, protective” (https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48808#eid7192600). In the early seventeenth century, more nuance is given to the discursive actions and practices related to defensive postures. The fifth definition of defensive reads, “that is spoken, written or made in defence of something or someone, that offers justification or support against criticism.” During the mid-eighteenth century the word and meaning begins to connote emotions, feelings, or affective states. By 1785, the word also encompasses the affective states “of a person, attitude, expression, etc.: motivated or characterized by a desire to defend or justify oneself (also) that rejects, challenges, or is oversensitive to real or perceived criticism. Now often somewhat depreciative.” This definition is Black Feminism Reimagined’s sweet spot. Finally, I draw attention to “defensive” as a noun to describe “something that acts as defence or protection.” Examples of defensive as a noun include its popular and contemporary use within the National Football League (NFL) to describe the defensive line. I would like for feminism to seriously consider assuming the position of a front or defensive line in this Trumpian era. I will return to this proposition later.

I make the case for defensiveness because the ecology of white feminine aggression persists and it is our present or “our shared now.” In 2018, two of my black queer/trans colleagues had white women colleagues (one an assumed feminist because of her departmental affiliation in a women’s and gender studies department) call the police/state on them. One colleague who is my friend had the experience of having her dean call the police on her after a meeting. Another colleague had a restraining order issued against them. They, like many Black people in the academy, have to be on alert—or be prepared to defend their lives—while existing in white women’s studies spaces and the academy writ large.

I begin with the first incident, which is also described on Dr. Jillian Ford’s blog post titled “BossLadyBecky.” In this post, Dr. Ford recounts the aggression of the nice (presumably feminist) white women dean of her college who called the police. Ford vividly recalls the swelling aggression of her dean (Boss Lady Becky) that preceded the incident of “Becky” calling the cops (the violence of the state). Ford writes, “You are no longer surprised by her condescension, but truly caught off guard by her level of aggression (towards you in particular) as demonstrated by her tone and body language. At one point, she literally holds up her hand as you try to interrupt her stream of consciousness—based on a story she created in her head—because her most basic facts and assumptions are straight up wrong.”1

After Dean “Becky’s” aggression, or rather an extension of “Becky’s” aggression, comes the violence of the state. Ford remembers that “at 10:45 [a.m.] you learn the cops are in the Dean’s suite. Slam. And then you learn that nice White lady had actually been the one who called for them to be present for the meeting you have just left. Clink. And then you join the ranks of Black folks on whom White folks call the cops for living.”2

Another colleague channeled some of their trauma resulting in part from white women’s aggression in a coauthored statement from the Damned Collective. The Damned Collective’s Statement that appears on The Feminist Wire’s site chronicles forms of white aggression and violence at Williams College directed toward Black students, staff, faculty and residents of the town.3 The statement makes an urgent plea for various forms of defense, protection, and “care work” in a system that lethally acts out against Black life. This colleague also authored Facebook posts about their experiences with the lethal antiblack violence perpetrated by white feminist colleagues at Williams. What I find notable about the Damned Collective’s posts featured on the Feminist Wire’s site is how important your work is in informing how their notion of a love politics calls for various forms of defense and defensiveness. In fact, a defensive posture is crucial to their ability to construe and practice a love politic outside of niceness, respectability politics, and affective structures that support domination (Damned Collective, 2018). They cite your radical notion of love to develop their own love ethic while under siege. The coauthors appreciate and heed the “caution” you give them about love. They quote your (2013) article, “Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics and Post Intersectionality,” where you state, “Love, of course, is not wholly unproblematic political terrain: it can be deployed to shore up heteronormativity, to reenergize dominant narratives of romance, and advance claims to power.”

A part of the power of your work is that it offers Black feminists a love politics that can be stretched along its own axes to use in loving defense of ourselves. An important strategy for a loving defense of Black queer and trans folks targeted by the state is often an explicitly anti-statist response precisely because white women in the academy align themselves with the state to protect their property—often women’s studies departments—in the academy. If Black feminists do make a return to intersectionality’s roots in the law as you suggest (129), one focus could scrutinize how white women turn to and weaponize the law as an extension of themselves and their personal property in the academy. For the past few years, white women have been captured on cellphone footage raging against Black and Brown people (#BarbequeBecky, etc.). White feminist aggression or perhaps offensive claiming of turf in the academy creates the ecology and conditions for Black feminist defensiveness as articulated by the Damned Collective and Dr. Ford. Women’s studies should study white feminist’s attachment to the academy (women’s studies) as their property and their position within it. I would argue that white feminists also need to practice “letting go” (Nash, 138). Black feminists like Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, and Miriam Kaba working in a tradition of Black feminist abolition have so much to teach women’s studies about letting go. Feminist abolitionist visions and politics are an imperative for women’s studies if it is to survive or have a liberatory horizon.

Rather than castigate white women as perpetual perpetrators of aggression, might it be possible to invite them to take up defensiveness or become a defensive line against anti-black violence? Defensiveness as a mode of hypersensitivity or attunement to racist aggression could create a space of shared sensation or affect that all bodies (even white women’s) bodies can take up or merge with to create an organism oriented toward protecting Black life. This affective organism makes me think of Black science fiction writer N. K. Jemisin’s orogenes who are sensitive to and have the capacity to shape and direct the tiniest motions and geological tremors in the atmosphere in her book The Fifth Season. This oversensitivity is survival skill and instinct developed over time that has world-making capacities. I argue that defensiveness is an affect and capacity that we all need to hone and learn how and when to use. You argued compellingly throughout the book that Black feminist thought needs to “refuse to perform service work for women’s studies” (138). A refusal to do this work would “compel the field to reckon with its own racially saturated fantasies and attachments” (138). A practice of critical defensiveness could bring about this sensitivity to and reckoning with white racial fantasies that engender white feminist aggression.

Thinking with you about the NWSA as a site of study, I wonder what it might mean to have the professional organization function as a defensive front? Could the NWSA take up defensiveness as a key word detached from a specific identity but oriented toward or as a response to specific kinds of aggression and forms of violence? Could the conference consider the questions: What can defensiveness do? What is the responsibility of the white person/feminist perceiving defensiveness? What can defensiveness as a collective orientation offer? I would like for defensiveness to take on a capaciousness that Sarah Ahmed’s killjoy disposition does. More recently, Ahmed has been trending on academic twitter under #complaintisfeministpedagogy. Black women’s defensiveness could also be seen as belonging to this larger tradition of ugly or negative feelings. Or might we see Sarah Ahmed’s brown body and her negative feelings as belonging to Black women’s traditions of defensiveness?

All the Rage of Montreal 2016

To conclude, I reflect on arriving in Montreal for the 2016 NWSA conference PISSED THE FUCK OFF. I was primarily pissed at the 53 percent of white women who went to the polls and voted for Trump. I was not alone. I remember seeing various posts on Black feminists’ Facebook pages leading up to the conference sending out warnings. “White Women, please don’t talk to me or look at me at NWSA!” The image of Black feminist activist Angela Peoples that you reference in the coda holding the sign “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump” (135) had not occurred yet but many Black feminists anticipated and embodied her sentiment that November at NWSA. Frankly, I and other Black feminists read the white women’s vote as an act of aggression. Rather than read Peoples’s sign as Black women’s “unrelenting political unhappiness,” I double down on it as a form of defensiveness that exposes the ways that 53 percent of white voting women called on the highest office of the state to act out lethal aggression against Black women and the non-white populace in the United States (153). For me, Peoples was announcing a state of emergency. And yes, “even in the context of a presumably feminist women’s march,” Peoples was urgently calling attention to the racist aggression of white women that “could fatally kill feminism” (153).

Like Peoples, I imagine, I argue that to continue to do nothing—be silent or polite—in response to white women’s aggression could also kill feminism. To this day, I still interpret NWSA’s white members’ collective and official inaction as an act of aggression toward Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Leaving NWSA in 2016, I wondered why white allies at NWSA did not call for an emergency meeting to form a committee to deal with white women’s racial aggression. Why hasn’t NWSA worked with the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) in order to organize campaigns—something akin to Freedom Summers—that supported white women organizers to travel to 53-percent-territory (at home or elsewhere) and conduct consciousness-raising sessions? I would gladly offer financial support. This could be one of white women’s acts of defensiveness, a defensive line that protected everyone. It is absolutely time to have an honest conversation about defensiveness. I think that we need to embrace its possibilities and world-making potential. I am a defensive Black feminist—for now—and I invite all feminists to help shape its power for change.

 

Works Cited

Carrillo Rowe, Aimee, and Francesca T. Royster. “Loving Transgressions: Queer of Color Bodies, Affective Ties, Transformative Community.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 21 (2017) 243–53.

The Damned Collective. “A Commitment to/with/for The Damned.” Feminist Wire, November 29, 2018. https://thefeministwire.com/2018/11/a-commitment-to-with-for-the-damned.

Ford, Jillian. “#BossLadyBecky.” Mixed Magic Maker Maddness (blog), October 10, 2018. https://mixedmagicmakermaddness.wordpress.com/2018/10/10/bossladybecky-continued.

Jemisin, Nora K. The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth. Book 1, Winner of the Hugo Award. Vol. 1. New York: Hachette, 2015.

Judd, Bettina. “Sapphire as Praxis: Toward a Methodology of Anger.” Feminist Studies 45 (2019) 178–208.

King, Tiffany Lethabo. Feminist Formations. Forthcoming, 2019.

———. Review of Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Musser, Amber Jamilla. Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

Nash, Jennifer. Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly feelings. Vol. 6. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.


  1. “#BossLadyBecky,” October 10, 2018.

  2. “#BossLadyBecky,” October 10, 2018.

  3. “A Commitment to/with/for The Damned,” Feminist Wife, November 29, 2018.

  • Jennifer Christine Nash

    Jennifer Christine Nash

    Reply

    Response to Tiffany King

    Tiffany, I read your thoughtful response as a call to think about the productive, generative, and even life-affirming capacities of defensiveness for black feminism (and thus I see your contributions as in conversation with Terrion’s as well). I see your provocation as twofold: first, you think generatively about defensiveness and thus invite me to return to my critique of defensiveness as a form of imagined agency, and second, you call attention to white women as crucial actors of violence in institutionalized feminist spaces, and thus as central to the production of black feminist defensiveness. Let me say a bit about each of these.

    You call for a feminism that affirmatively practices defensiveness as a strategy for protecting black life. In my book, I am quite interested in defensiveness’s organization around ideas of property, correct usage, territory. Too often I think defensiveness is a way of ensuring that vulnerability can be eradicated—that if we simply guard and fortify the perimeter, we can eliminate the conditions of our own vulnerability, rather than recognizing vulnerability as something that is shared. I see you inflecting defensiveness differently to ask how academic feminism might defend both black women’s thought and the materiality of black women’s lives. I read your call “for feminism to seriously consider assuming the position of a front or defensive line in this Trumpian era” to be one about calling on feminism generally, and academic feminism specifically, to recognize violence and name it as such, and to take seriously protecting—bodies, ideas, histories, concepts—from harm. Here, I am reminded of a moment, many years ago, when a colleague and I wrote to a professional organization—one that performs its work in the name of feminism—to ask if they would make a public statement in support of Ersula Ore. The response—which I cannot quote because it is lost in an institutional email long gone to me—was that there would be no response. Or, the organization’s non-response told us everything. I see your call for defensiveness as the antithesis of non-response as response. This call for seeing, recognizing, and responding to harm is very different than the defensiveness I name, and so I am appreciative of how you reflect the different potential valences and possibilities of labor that can unfold under the name of the defensive posture.

    I do, though, remain deeply curious about how your iteration of the possibilities of defensiveness can itself become a racialized performance delivered in the name of securing Left bona fides. I think here of “ally-ship” and the host of other neologisms that confer Left currency on particular rhetorical performances, often ones that gesture to a support of black women. But these performances are almost always rhetorical, rather than indexing any deep commitment to black women’s political needs and desires. How can this conception of defensiveness as a tool that protects and safeguards black life—and black women’s lives—avoid the trap of simply conferring currency on those who speak in the language of protection but refuse to actually perform that labor?

    There’s something else in your response that I want to sit with: the specter of white woman. I began writing my book before Trump’s election—before I could even imagine Trump’s election—and finished in the opening months of his nightmarish regime. I became deeply interested in how “intersectionality” was increasingly figured by feminists as the only thing that could “get us free” (to borrow Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s formulation) and as what was needed to save us from what was/is feminism’s downfall—white feminism and white women. (Samantha Pinto and I have written about this in one of our collaborative ventures thinking historically about how black feminism has imagined the “problem” of white woman.) I have become increasingly fascinated by the hailing of white woman as feminism’s central problem, the sense that white feminism is itself patriarchy, the description of a variety of white women as embodying “peak white feminism,” and the sense that white women are the impediment between the conditions of the present and freedom. You note, “I want to talk about white women’s aggression in the field of women’s studies as an unspeakable form of violence that produces Black feminist defensiveness and has yet to be reckoned with.” I am deeply interested in the racial ecology of women’s studies, one that right now obsessively positions either black women or white women as heroes or villains (though in different ways, with different stakes, and in different moments). My book views defensiveness as something that emerges from the complex dance around black women as both demanding and relentless disciplinarians and the figures that heal the field. My investment, in going back to your first point, is how we can imagine an academic feminist project that produces solidarity, that makes vulnerability shared, that thinks about intimacies across so-called difference, that refuses the rendering of either black as symbols. I see the current preoccupation with naming and renaming white women as the paradigmatic violent actors as also bolstering black women as heroes, as the political actors that we simply must follow, and I sit uneasily with this rhetoric. I say this not to discount the materiality of violence that black women experience in women’s studies—and in the university writ large—violence which, I think, comes at the hands of a host of actors including white women and white men, and also black men.

Amber Musser

Response

Time to Smell the Flowers

A Sensational, Transnational Trajectory in Black Feminism

Into my mind’s eye a hazy heliconia flower begins to take form; its stiff orange and red pointed petals alternately branching to the sides comes into focus and my fingertips prepare for its unyielding waxiness. The experience is brief, but leaves me relaxed, warm, and open to unexpected beauty. I think of a family friend and her flower farm in St. Vincent, my mother’s homeland. Where is the space within black feminism to dwell in this, this merging of sense and spirit?

I start here because Jennifer Nash’s Black Feminism Reimagined invites us to think about which sites of black feminism have been emphasized and which have been foreclosed in its multi-decade tarrying with the academy. As Nash argues, intersectionality has become the methodology most closely associated with black feminism with consequences for organizing and institutionalizing black feminist labor so that black women become interchangeable with this analytic. We can see this collapse in the various types of work (affective and physical) mandated by the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion as well as in the feeling of defensiveness from black feminists when the analytic of intersectionality threatens to become “diluted” or assumed to be passé. In framing this overtaxed and largely fraught relation between black feminism and the institution Nash is particularly concerned with the question: “What does it mean to feel that the symbols of one’s body and intellectual production have become the cornerstone of women’s studies programmatic ambitions and wills to institutionalism?” (32).

Given Nash’s desire to “treat black feminism as a felt experience . . . [and] honor[ing] the panoply of scholarship rooted in the intellectual tradition that has voiced the ecstasies, frustrations, longings, and fatigue of scholars who organize themselves around the sign of black feminism,” this essay is about the expansive possibilities of thinking with the felt experiences of black feminism, both institutional and otherwise (28). The heliconia is my entrée into this otherwise because it is in direct conversation with a linkage between the discourses of intersectionality and the transnational that Nash invites us to take up as we think robustly about black feminist analytics. In chapter 3, Nash narrates a set of clashes within women’s studies in the 1990s that led to a cleavage between the discourses of intersectionality and the transnational such that these “twin discourses” became divided into assumed particular personae and explicit agendas, which are often coopted for institutional labor rather than imagined as intellectually or politically robust. In working toward a felt black feminism that would be less toxic and stifling, Nash calls on us to think of ways of bringing together these analytics so as to focus on the intellectual contributions of women of color rather than to reduce these analytics solely to demands on the flesh for representation and various forms of labor.

Nash urges us to think about this through intimacy, which could work to undo the particular confines of the categories. Nash uses intimacy “precisely because of the ways it suggests the permeability between concepts and their imagined ‘origins,’ and between bodies including the possibility of being done and undone through relationality” (107). This is to say we can begin to think about the ways that the categories become undone by each other. In particular, Nash argues that focusing on intimacies between the terms might reawaken our understanding of the political investments of each. Nash writes, “Considering both analytics as ‘anti-subordination logics’ that stage their political work in distinctive and overlapping ways reveals the fundamental intimacy between the terms’ political aspirations, and between the gendered and raced bodies who are often re-presented as the subjects and embodiments of these analytics” (107). By way of an example, she cites June Jordan’s “Report from the Bahamas,” in which Jordan uses a trip she took to the Bahamas in order to analyze her position as a black woman from the United States in a global context.

The heliconia flower, which I came across often when I spent summers in St Vincent and as a young person growing up in Costa Rica and St. Lucia, brings me toward working with the intimacies of the transnational and intersectional that Nash invites. I highlight this tactile memory because it is not what is usually imagined when one conjures up ideas of black womanhood in the United States, but it indicates one way to think about the crossing of the transnational and intersectional. In this particular case, one of the things that is hailed is the black diaspora, which is often not explicitly put in relation to the transnational. This occurs for reasons already mentioned by Nash, but it is worth pausing on the ways that particular assumptions and analytics that surround blackness, especially as an institutional/academic category, are also part of this. The category of the black (or African) diaspora is more frequently sutured to the long shadow of the transatlantic slave trade, which has produced a legacy of dispossession and trauma that has led scholars toward a rich array of intimacies between people and places that ricochet through this shared past, but might find less air for other analytics including the transnational. Likewise, the gravitational pull of the United States as migratory end point works to erase the potential power of a transnational analysis—one that focuses on the geopolitical forces that undergird patterns of migration and settlement—in favor of one that would speak to these movements through the lens of nostalgia, assuming that the United States (or Global North) is not only inevitable, but totalizing in its reorganization of sensoria. Here, too, we see how the charge of pastness is disciplining. Neither metric has space for a blackness that might exist within the United States, but that is not entirely consumed by it and the intellectual work—not only critique but other orders of knowledge—that might emerge from this location. This is all to say that we need robust thinking about these intimacies to enlarge our abilities to think about the breadth of blackness, diaspora, and the transnational together. In particular, this broadening of blackness de-centers the United States and invites us to think about the transnational not as supplement but that which is already always there, that which in fact forms the basis for thinking about all categories of relation and being.

Taking up the vision of the heliconia flower also allows us to come toward many questions that are often left out of the frame. I’ve already discussed the ways that it might allow us to think about the category of blackness in more complex ways—ways that operate against the flattening operations produced by the institutionalization of intersectionality—but this vision also points us toward amplifications of the category of felt feminism. This vision speaks to a feeling of black feminism that is outside of the institutional, which I think, is how many people are coming to terms with the violence of the institutional. For me, the vision, or rather the practice that led to it—a guided meditation and reiki—are spiritual and energetic and alter our concepts of what the body and what intimacy might be. These practices are from orders of knowledge that are not tethered to rationality or product. They are rooted in sensuality that attends to patterns of organization that cannot be folded into the institution. I see them, in fact, as part of a larger praxis of decolonialization in their ability to grant access to these often foreclosed and derided knowledges and ways of being. These practices are important ways of thinking about the work of sensation and its relation to power. It is this same type of bodily work that allows me to call up the slightly scratchy royal blue convent uniform I wore in the 4th form in St. Lucia. I can feel linkages between the disciplining regimes of Catholicism in the Caribbean and theorize the ways that a loosened belt or scuffed shoe can speak to agency under constraint and pleasures not yet under watch. This vision, itself, is also a source of pleasure not because it speaks to a forgotten homeland but because it is a reminder of an interiority that remains opaque and cannot be coopted for labor. This is a form of self-preservation that I also see as being in line with the political work of black feminism. Even as we understand that the self is a functional fiction, it can still be subjected to violence and can still be cared for. This, too, is an important black feminist praxis, which we can trace in a lineage from Audre Lorde to adrienne maree brown.

Though slippery, this vision speaks to many ways of being a black feminist thinker in its hailing of multiple modes of intimacy and theorizing. It is, importantly, outside of the parameters of the institutional and that might be its most potent aspect. In Nash’s desire to “encourage and imagine other ways of feeling black feminism, other ways of being black feminist and doing black feminist labor in the academy that eschew defensiveness and its toxicity,” we especially see the importance of thinking about practices that can be produced a space apart, a space for care, and a space for thinking and working against many of the institution’s forms of discipline (32).

  • Jennifer Christine Nash

    Jennifer Christine Nash

    Reply

    Response to Amber Musser

    Amber’s beautiful rumination on the heliconia flower and the place of the transnational in US black feminism ends with mentioning “felt feminism.” I want to underscore my commitment to thinking about the felt experiences of feminist work, the felt experience of “living a feminist life” (to borrow Sara Ahmed’s formulation). For me, asking what feminist work feels like for its practitioners offers a rich window into the ecology of US women’s studies, particularly its complex racial politics, investments and divestments, commitments and detachments. I also want to amplify Amber’s sense that black feminism is so often described—and felt—as an institutional formation, at least in part because US black feminists have been so singularly preoccupied with the university as a site of violence and as a place of world-making, of pain and possibility. How do we remember the possibility of freedom-dreams beyond the university, or at least attend to the outsized place of the university in the black feminist theoretical imagination? Even as the university reigns supreme in black feminist thought, the call that Amber makes, to think about “orders of knowledge that are not tethered to rationality or product” resonates with so much of what circulates in black studies, including Christina Sharpe’s call for an “undisciplined” form of writing and knowing, for remembering what we feel, what we experience, what we desire, and writing from those places. Yet, in practice, the sensual, the corporeal, the sensed, the remembered still falls out of academic work, even in the interdisciplines that champion these forms of knowing—at least theoretically. Amber suggests that these forms of knowing might save us, and that they might be precisely what black feminism has long centered, even if we haven’t named it as such.

    I do though want to sit with the idea—increasingly popular in black feminist theory and black studies—of the existence of a singular space, the “black interior” (Elizabeth Alexander), the site of “quiet” (Kevin Quashie), the “loophole of retreat” that is a sanctuary, that cannot be touched, taken, held hostage, or put to work. This space becomes the site that black studies and black feminist theory increasingly want to hold sacred, to preserve, to champion. This is the space that can be tucked away from the relentless demands of labor, inside and outside the university. How might we think about the histories of black feminist attachments to this idea: that there is a space that cannot be touched, that is not touched? That this space—whether we call it pleasure (or ecstasy), memory, eroticism, quiet, privacy, mothering, relationality, creativity—is the site of freedom? Perhaps part of what black feminist theory has shown us in its attachment to the university is precisely that we are not, and perhaps can never be, untouched by the institutional. And that we have longed for institutional entanglement, even as we have critiqued the contours and nature of that attachment, even as we have performed our theoretical work as though we are conscripted into the institutional rather than seduced by it, and its offerings of resources, legitimacy, and even time and space to think and write. I am, then, interested in thinking of the untouched and untouchable space of sovereignty and freedom as a profound kind of political fantasy for black feminist theory and black feminists.

Jasbir Puar

Response

On Jennifer Nash’s ‘Black Feminism Reimagined’ and the Lure of Intersectionality

Jennifer Nash’s Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality is a luminous, generative invitation to rethink anew the relationships of intersectionality, black feminisms, women of color feminisms. Querying how conceptual frames transit across and through different institutional and geopolitical contexts, Nash notes that in the U.S., intersectionality has become the shortcut to “corrective ecological work in the context of women’s studies” (p. 2). As the “paradigmatic example of feminism’s progress,” (15), intersectionality increasingly accrues cultural capital in light of the ongoing historicization of feminism as a biopolitical project of whiteness.1 And yet Nash meticulously interrogates black feminist proprietary claims of intersectionality: challenging desires to establish “proper” origin stories; deconstructing the fear that intersectionality has been stolen or lost (32); dismantling the accusations of critical inquiry as traitorous (35); and interrogating the call for “care, love, and affection” which she asserts mask a pernicious possessiveness, a refusal to let intersectionality move and transform in unexpected and perhaps challenging ways.” (80). As the primary affect of the “intersectionality wars,” defensiveness is contextualized by Nash “as an attempt to exercise agency, as a willful form of territorial exertion in the service of autonomy, but one that is frustrating and frustrated.” (28). “Ultimately,” Nash concludes, with a careful tracing of the racist institutional politics that make defensiveness nearly impossible to avoid, “[it] is a dangerous form of agency, one that traps black feminism, and black feminists, rather than liberating [us] by locking black feminists into the intersectionality wars.” (27).  Gesturing towards an anti-capitalist critique, Nash illuminates how this territorial exertion produces intersectionality as a property form,  rehearsing capitalism’s possessive individualism embedded in property rights, inheritance, and the generational transmission of value. Her analysis nods to questions about legacies, foremothers, and feminism’s demands for dutiful daughters, allowing Nash to unmoor intersectionality from its primary referent, black women, to invite and envision a beautiful capacious realm of black feminism theorizing that is capacitated by “letting go” rather than holding on. The result is a read that performs what it argues: this is a liberating text.

In the spirit of Nash’s speculative vision of black feminist studies, in the spirit of “letting go,” then, I struggled with what it might mean not to defend my prior work examining the geopolitical and historical transversal movements of intersectionality.  As Nash notes in her deconstruction of “the critic,” I have never been a “for or against” kind of thinker. And yet, in the last 12 years since I penned initial thoughts on intersectionality, I have often found myself compelled, sometimes even pushed, to defend assemblages; equally so I have found myself vociferously defending intersectionality, often to a certain strand of orthodox Marxists. Rare is the forum where it is been possible to hold space for them both. Part of the letting go, for me then, is to do neither of these now, but instead acknowledge that I made a mistake. To be clear I do not think I made a mistake in the analyses I offered, which as an interdisciplinary scholar were about, and remain, the impossibility of one frame schematizing all forms of power throughout time and everywhere. But in that I did not, in Terrorist Assemblages, offer a clear, accountable genealogy of my use of intersectionality rooted in black feminist thought and women of color feminisms, I made a mistake. In failing to attend to a more nuanced examination of the uneven institutionalization and uses of intersectionality, I reified a decontextualized notion of intersectionality, a “citational gesture” precisely of the variety I was critiquing. In retrospect, I modulated too hastily between intersectionality and assemblage, thereby losing sight of my primary motivation: destabilizing the discipline-object-method trinity through the creative interplay between analytics across the segregating silos of knowledge.

The second invitation I want to take up from Nash is to think about “travelling theory,” a problematic debated in many fields for decades and not singular to intersectionality, one that foregrounds how theory travels through geopolitical spaces, historical contingencies and transformations, and intellectual forums. Nash’s synthetic discussion of transnationalism and intersectionality raises crucial questions about traveling theory, the imperial reach of US empire, and the formation of US settler subjectivities.  Here is Nash’s provocation in full: “What I am advocating is a conception of intersectionality expansive, broad, and deterritorialized enough to move with figures beyond ‘black woman’…Ultimately, surrendering the notion that intersectionality must be the terrain for speaking about black women, and that the deployment of the term beyond black women are violent acts of misuse, would be an act of radical anti-territoriality, a refusal of the proprietary relationships that mark black feminist engagement with intersectionality. This is an intellectual move that eschews defensiveness and replaces it with a radical embrace of the political potential of intimacy.” (104) Here Nash gives us a vision of intersectionality intrinsic to anti-colonial if not decolonial movement, a “radical anti-territoriality” that traces the geopolitics of knowledge production from within the belly of the beast of U.S. empire. The war metaphor is telling: concepts that are empowered to remain the same, reference the same—this is the province of empire.

Nash’s position intimates that the letting go of the property-relation requires intimate embrace of the numerous encounters that the varied lives of intersectionality now proliferate.  If we think of intersectionality as an event rather than a field of reference for an identity or position, and of travelling theory as a series of encounters, encounters that will certainly change the way intersectionality is interpreted and deployed–that is, if we can think of the travels of intersectionality as a process of assemblage–we can approach these many lives with curiosity, generosity, and the knowledge that how theory travels has always been complicated, messy, and full of surprises. These encounters illuminate intersectionality as a historically and geo-politically produced heuristic and not an irreducible ontological given [though its increasing use as an existential state of the body, as in the proclamation “I am intersectional’ is for sure manifesting the kind of epistemological thickening that grows ontological orientations.].

With this messiness in mind I turn to what Nash calls the “lure of intersectionality” (p. 137) evident from the prolific hailing, instrumentalizing, and denouncing of intersectionality across the political spectrum. How intersectionality is reorganizing publics of debate and dissent is ever more pertinent at a time when claims to vulnerability are no longer the preserve of the powerless. Majoritarian and supremacist forms of victimhood drive populist politics in the US, Western and Eastern Europe, Israel, Turkey, Brazil, and India. Intersectionality—both as a method and as a stance, indeed as a political demand–is what we could call intersectionality-as-antagonism. That movements now configure intersectionality as part of the lexicon of calling out privilege has provoked the ire of “liberal Zionists” who are increasingly at the crossroads of the limits of intersectional coalition building and who charge intersectionality with being anti-Semitic. Blaming intersectionality for the turn on college campuses to Palestinian solidarity and “against Israel” because Jews…”don’t rate very high on the intersectionality scale, ” Gabriel Noah Brahm claims that “Jewish women and queer Zionists…[are the] sacrificial victims of black feminists’ legitimate wish to assert themselves…A once progressive theory of race and gender has become a fascist-racist theory held disproportionately by those who study gender.”2 Here is a parsing of “progressive” black feminist thought from the “radical feminist politics,” that  “spawned the anti-Zionist and antisemitic uses/abuses of intersectionality”—never mind the anti-Zionist politics of Angela Davis, June Jordan, among other black feminists. The “deep and venerable” insights of “Intersectionality’s roots in black feminism…has lately spawned a new sect of victimology and cult of micro-aggressed martyrdom at large.” (p. 157)

This perceived movement—the spawning in fact–from the righteous examination of “black women’s predicament” to the inclusion of Palestinian liberation apparently occurs at the expense of excluded liberal feminist Zionists who suffer from the lack of the intersectionality of Jewishness. Nash might suggest that this narration does not so much warrant a reclaiming of black women’s centrality to intersectionality. Rather this lament illuminates the deeply racist structures enabling white victimhood that only grants recognition of Black women’s oppression as long as this concession does not lead to a political alignment with …in this case, Palestine. These weak attempts to pit black feminism against the Palestinian cause are unsurprising given the current unstoppable vitality of Black-Palestinian solidarity organizing. But it also confers the tremendous power of intersectionality’s life trajectory, what Nash calls its “elasticity.” It is more than inevitable that these multiplicities of intersectionality will refract the conceptual threshold of the frame [how do we account for Jewish identity as both white and yet something else?] and also be reduced to a version of oppression olympics, wherein the “Jews are in for it,” because “the more oppressed you are, the better…the more privileged you are, the worse.” These encounters,  what intersectionality does and is doing, are akin to but not driven by questions of method, lineage, and proper usage, thus transforming the intersectionality wars into the intimate embracing of intersectionality-as-political antagonism.


  1. See Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling for an astute historical analysis of feminism as biopolitical whiteness, or as Rey Chow would say, part of the “ascendancy of whiteness.”

  2. A recent issue of Israel Studies on “Word Crimes,” aims to demonstrate how words and concepts such as colonialism, occupation, apartheid, have been “misused” for anti-Israel agendas

  • Jennifer Christine Nash

    Jennifer Christine Nash

    Reply

    Response to Jasbir Puar

    I deeply appreciate Jasbir’s conception of intersectionality “as an event” both because it flags “surprise” as a constitutive element of intersectionality, and because it captures what I think she usefully flags in Terrorist Assemblages—intersectionality as an “encounter,” or what Kimberlé Crenshaw terms an “accident.” Indeed, in Crenshaw’s second intersectionality metaphor—the oft-cited traffic-clogged intersection—intersectionality’s critical necessity is brought into view through the motion-filled scene of the car crash. In her metaphor, intersectionality has a time and space that is often lost in conceptions of intersectionality as describing a particular position or singular location. This vision of an intersectionality that comes into view through an encounter and an event suggests the non-fixity of the analytic, the need to ask—perhaps each time we invoke the term—what it means, and what it offers us interpretatively. It also suggests that intersectionality may lend its meaning to different scenes differently, and that our intersectional interpretative work must be more agile, more attentive to context. More than anything, the notion of intersectionality as an event upends a sense of certainty and fixity that all too often attaches to the term and its imagined work.

    I also appreciate Jasbir’s call to think about intersectionality’s usage by actors on all sides of the political spectrum inside and outside of the United States, all of whom are mobilizing a collective sense of their dispossession and disenfranchisement as the root of their political projects. Indeed, Jasbir’s reflections reminded me how much intersectionality is thought to have reconfigured the very lexicon of politics—particularly on US college campuses which are often figured in the political imaginations as the crucial space when students are socialized into Left critical vocabularies and political desires. Intersectionality is thought to either have offered students a crucial tool for thinking about power in complex ways or a stifling demand to “attend to privilege” and to center the multiply-marginalized (there is far too little written about how “privilege”—a term that Crenshaw is not particularly invested in—comes to circulate around intersectionality, and too little written on how the term “privilege” has come to be the centerpiece of the “student affairs complex” to borrow Kyla Tompkins’s term). What fascinates me is how “black woman” and her imagined political power haunts these conversations. Indeed, there is a sense that black women’s particular and unyielding demands for a political project that reckons with their needs has had the capacity to fundamentally incapacitate political conversation. And even as I find myself groaning about the gross misconception that the academy has been remade by black feminism, I do find myself, as the book makes clear, deeply curious about a moment when I think intersectionality has, at least rhetorically, shifted the political and theoretical conversations that unfold on college campuses, at least in feminist and queer spaces. I find myself increasingly desirous of a feminist project that can map the topography of this new milieu, one marked by new student demands, by neologisms for describing forms of violence and desires for a different kind of future, and one steadfastly attached to intersectionality which, I think, has become a crucial term around which US college students have learned to articulate political desires differently.

Terrion Williamson

Response

In Defense of Ourselves

“Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”

These are the words that instigate the plot of Toni Morrison’s tenth novel, Home.1 In the first instance, Home is the story of a brother—Frank Money, an emotionally and psychologically scarred Korean War veteran—who travels to find and rescue his beloved younger sister Ycidra, known to most as “Cee,” after learning that she is at risk of death. While Frank does eventually rescue Cee, saving her from an almost certain death at the hands of a white eugenicist doctor, Dr. Beau, who was content to ravage her body in the name of medical experimentation, it is the community of black women in their hometown of Lotus, Georgia, with whom Frank entrusts Cee’s care that Cee is ultimately rehabilitated and provided a window into another way of being. The Lotus women

handled sickness as though it were an affront, an illegal, invading braggart who needed whipping. They didn’t waste their time or the patient’s with sympathy and they met the tears of the suffering with resigned contempt. . . . Once they knew she had been working for a doctor, the eye rolling and tooth sucking was enough to make clear their scorn. (121)

After spending weeks recuperating in the steady presence of these women who “loved mean,” and “took responsibility for whatever, whoever else needed them” (121–23), Cee was wholly changed. According to Frank,

This Cee was not the girl who trembled at the slightest touch of the real and vicious world. . . . Frank didn’t know what took place during those weeks at Miss Ethel’s house surrounded by those women with seen-it-all eyes. . . . They delivered unto him a Cee who would never again need his hand over her eyes or his arms to stop her murmuring bones. (128)

Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with Morrison’s oeuvre, the man-saves-woman narrative that opens Home ultimately cedes to a lifeworld in which black women are the saviors, the first and final line of defense. The Lotus women who tend to Cee, some of whom “had to have Bible verses read to them because they could not decipher print themselves” (128), alter young Cee in a way that none of the book learning she felt she’d been denied living in a “no-count, not-even-a-town place” (47) such as Lotus ever could have. It is only within the uncompromising abundance of the lay black women whose lives had never previously registered as remarkable to her that Cee not only mends physically, but develops into a woman who is determined, ever after, “to be the one who rescue[s] her own self” (129).

As someone who has written a book on black feminism that is grounded in the lifeworlds of black women like those who populate Home and most every other Morrison novel and which, at least partially as a consequence of this grounding, never actually discusses intersectionality, at least not directly or as a theoretical concept, I am intensely interested in the stakes of the debate Jennifer C. Nash so meticulously lays out in Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Nash is careful to situate her arguments in the context of “academic black feminist practice” (3) and the US university. She is most directly concerned with the field of women’s studies, noting that the “proprietary attachments” and “protective posture” (3) that she contends epitomize black feminists’ relationship to intersectionality are indicative of an institutional model that “has long constructed black feminism as a form of discipline inflicted on the field” (13). As the “primary program-building initiative” of women’s studies, intersectionality has become at once an organizing logic and the “legitimizing strategy that programs and departments can mobilize to secure resources and to make tenure-track and tenured hires” (18). Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a contemporary women’s studies program, department, center, or journal that doesn’t at least pay lip service to intersectionality or incorporate intersectional this-or-that into is infrastructure.

There is, however, a double-edge to the institutional legitimacy that has been conferred upon black feminism’s key term—which, as Nash notes, is but one of several terms that black feminists have used in theorizing experience across multiple axes of difference. According to Nash, the embrace of intersectionality as, essentially, the sole contribution of black feminism to women’s studies both disregards the rich intellectual tradition of black feminist thought and produces a proprietary relationship in which defense becomes black women’s primary form of agency. While she describes black feminist defensiveness as “deeply cathartic” (27), she goes on to argue that the persistent concern of black feminists about the extent to which intersectionality is being extended beyond black women and black feminism produces a form of “obstructed agency,” that “hinders black feminism’s theoretical and political imagination rather than unleashing it” (137). In insisting upon the “correct” recitation of the history and origins of intersectionality and the “accurate” deployment of the term, black feminists constrain their “visionary world-making capacities.” Nash proposes that “letting go” of these proprietary attachments will allow for “a vision of black feminist theory that is not invested in making property of knowledge” (3).

Nash spends much of chapter 1 discussing the ongoing debates around intersectionality and the terrain upon which those debates are waged, or what she terms the “intersectionality wars.” She names Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Frances Beale, Anna Julia Cooper, and the Combahee River Collective among the theorists who have been cited as originating intersectionality, even if those theorists used alternative terms in their formulations. Nash’s concern is that the various “origin stories” that invoke these theorists ultimately collapse a multidirectional intellectual genealogy into a “single voice” and that such narrativizing encourages just the sort of defensive posturing, or “holding on,” that she means to disrupt (41). What I want to consider, however, is how Nash’s own citational practice and discussion of origins might gesture toward a conceptualization of defensiveness that tethers care and claim in ways that confound the idea of defensiveness as (merely) “pernicious possessiveness” (80).

To my mind, one of the great strengths of black feminism is that it is a grassroots intellectual tradition grounded heavily, and unapologetically I might add, in the experiences of black people who, although they may be intellectuals, are not necessarily situated within the academy. Though obviously much of what counts as black feminist scholarship today is written by people who labor within academic institutions, many of us who call ourselves black feminist scholars arrived at feminism by way of people who either had little to no access to the university—and who may never have referred to themselves as feminists—or whose primary feminist engagements involved community-based activism and organizing. Whoever one throws down for in the “intersectionality wars,” it is beyond debate that figures like Frances Beale and the members of the Combahee River Collective, among many other thinkers we could name whose intellectual contributions took shape beyond the university, are as central to black feminist theorizing as are leading feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins. In making what might seem an obvious point, I mean to consider how thinkers who are not necessarily invested in “intersectionality’s lives in the US university” (2), or who may not be invested in the university at all for that matter, but who have always informed black feminist scholarship, might help to elaborate upon the terms of black feminist defensiveness both within and beyond the academy.

The community of black women who tend to Cee after she is rescued from the home of Dr. Beau articulate a form of defensiveness that is rooted, I would argue, in just the sort of “black feminist love-politics” that Nash elaborates upon in the final chapter of Black Feminism Reimagined. Building upon her previous work, Nash contends that love as articulated by black feminism is a “theory of justice” that is undergirded by a dual commitment to “mutual vulnerability” and “witnessing” and extends beyond the romantic and familial to “encourage us to ask about our deep responsibilities to each other, and our enduring connections to each other, by virtue of our collective inhabitation of the social world” (115–17). Without immediate recourse to the kinds of theoretical and actual juridical investments Nash expounds upon in her discussion, the Lotus women imbue Cee with a yearning for self-actualization that emerges out of their “demanding love” for her—a love that refuses to allow her to pity herself or to use her lack of formal education as an excuse for allowing herself to be mistreated. When they ask Cee, “Who told you you was trash?” the Lotus women not only stake a claim for Cee as one of theirs, they model a form of self-defense that enables Cee to eventually stake a claim for herself.2

Obviously, Morrison and Nash are navigating different terrain, and I don’t mean to suggest that Morrison’s fictional storytelling can be easily mapped onto the specific concerns Nash is investigating. Instead, I am suggesting that Morrison’s writing—staked as it is in the lifeworlds of black women who are prototypical of so many of the lay black women who inform black feminism, academic or otherwise—offers up a way of thinking about defensiveness as a critical posture toward “holding on” that refuses the pathologies of possession or possessiveness and mechanizes the radical possibilities of claim.3 To be clear, my point is not to argue that Nash hasn’t articulated very real tensions existing within the US academy, indeed, she provides a thorough and compelling exegesis of the various internecine debates riddling the relationship between academic black feminism and women’s studies, but is to query if or how those debates might be put into some relief by considering how else black feminism has rendered defensiveness.

Take, for example, the case of Nash herself. In chapter 1, she describes her own position as a black woman who is a so-called “vocal critic” of intersectionality and how differently she is treated than are other such critics who are non-black, in particular Jasbir Puar, who she argues is often positioned as a hostile outsider to black feminism in particular and to feminist theory in general. In contrast, Nash contends that her “critiques of intersectionality are imagined as practices of love and affection rather than hostility, and are thus treated with a kind of generosity” (54). Whatever one thinks of Puar’s relationship to black feminism, Nash’s own treatment as she describes it suggest that black feminists evince some nuance in their critiques of the critiques of intersectionality and that black feminist defensiveness is not simply an enactment of possessiveness but is instead (or in addition) an affective mode of critique that lays claim to black people whose realities are conditioned by, or at least thought to be conditioned by, physical, emotional, and intellectual plunder.

Take as another real-world example the statement penned by black feminist scholars Elsa Barkley Brown, Deborah King, and Barbara Ransby in the wake of Anita Hill’s Senate testimony during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991. The statement, titled “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” was supported by more than 1,600 black women within and beyond the academy who signed their names and provided financial contributions so that the statement could eventually be placed as an ad in eight newspapers across the country, including the New York Times. The closing lines of the statement read, “We pledge ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against all those who are hostile to social justice no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.” Here, as has happened in so many instances before and since, black feminists claimed defensiveness as their critical posture, refusing to allow the injustices committed against another black woman to be understood as singular.

In Black Feminism Reimagined, Nash compels a necessary engagement with intersectionality and its relationship to black feminism within the university setting. Her important work challenges us, especially those of us who identify as black feminists, to continuously negotiate the assumptions that undergird our work and encourages us not just to answer questions differently, but to formulate different kinds of questions altogether. My own questions and observations here expand outward from Nash’s concerns to consider how various articulations of black feminist defensiveness might further alter the terrain of black feminist theorizations within the academy and beyond.


  1. Toni Morrison, Home (London: Vintage, 2013).

  2. Morrison, Home, 122–25.

  3. I have used the term “critical posture” elsewhere to consider the relationship between black women and anger—a concept that is distinct from yet allied with defensiveness. See Scandalize My Name: Black Feminist Practice and the Making of Black Social Life (Fordham University Press, 2017), 23–36.

  • Jennifer Christine Nash

    Jennifer Christine Nash

    Reply

    Response to Terrion

    Terrion’s provocation draws our collective attention to the 1991 statement “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” and notes that “here, as has happened in so many instances before and since, black feminists claimed defensiveness as their critical posture, refusing to allow the injustices committed against another black woman to be understood as singular.” Terrion’s insight serves both to suggest how an expanded archive of black feminist theoretical and political work might alter our conception of the defensive posture, and suggests that my conception of defensiveness can be adapted to think about its affirmative possibilities, its capacity to safeguard black women. Black women, the statement suggests, have often needed to defend ourselves because, as the Combahee River Collective Statement argues, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.” Terrion also suggests that when we shift what counts as the archive of black feminist work, defensiveness takes on different valences and appearances. She writes, “Nash’s own treatment as she describes it suggest that black feminists evince some nuance in their critiques of the critiques of intersectionality and that black feminist defensiveness is not simply an enactment of possessiveness but is instead (or in addition) an affective mode of critique that lays claim to black people whose realities are conditioned by, or at least thought to be conditioned by, physical, emotional, and intellectual plunder.” It is absolutely the case that defensiveness is a mode of critique and a form of protection that responds to vulnerability and injury. It is also an embodied project, a political posture, that indexes conditions of violence and oppression, that responds to the felt experience of being attacked. The political posture of my book, holding in mind Terrion’s (and Tiffany’s) plea to think about what defensiveness can achieve, is to ask what defensiveness costs black women. How might we think about the fatigue, the exhaustion, the wearing down that the defensive posture can engender, and how might we name the ways that defensiveness can operate as a mode of certainty that presumes it already knows how and why every question is posed. My critical impulse—my risky provocation—is to as if there are other ways of responding to vulnerability that sit with it, rather than reject it or retreat from it.

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