This is a transciption of ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House: Abolitionist Feminist Futures’, a panel discussion with Gail Lewis, Miss Major, Zoé Samudzi and Hortense Spillers, with Akwugo Emejulu in the chair.
The event, held on 3 August 2020, was the first in Revolution is Not a One-Time Event, a programme organised by Che Gossett, Lola Olufemi and Sarah Shin in collaboration with Arika and hosted by Silver Press.
Listen to the audio at NTS.
Hi, I want to welcome everyone to the first panel in the Revolution Is Not A One-Time Event, a project organised by Lola Olufemi, Sarah Shin and myself, in collaboration with Arika, and generously hosted by Silver Press. I’d like to hand over to our esteemed moderator Akwugo Emejulu.
Esteemed, wow. I’m so fancy! Right, well, hello, welcome, good afternoon and good evening to the literally hundreds and I think perhaps a thousand people, who are on this call this evening. I am so delighted to welcome you guys. My name is Akwugo Emejulu, I am a Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and I am facilitating this conversation this afternoon/evening depending where in the world you are. Please know that this is the first of four events throughout the month of August so if you didn’t get a chance to go on holiday and are trapped at home, you have us here, every Monday in August.
To kick us off I just wanted to say a couple of things about Audre Lorde and my relationship to her. I don’t know if my relationship is at all that interesting, but I’ll just say very quickly what was really important about her to my coming to Black consciousness and to my understanding of Black feminism. She was able to articulate in her article [‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, in Your Silence Will Not Protect You] such a clear understanding of my alienation from what I thought feminism was. Because: I didn’t get it. Up until that point I was like yeah, I get it: women are unequal blah, blah, blah, but it wasn’t speaking to my interests, my needs and my life experience. What this essay did was very clearly articulate the nature of the problem that mainstream white feminism supports and enforces white supremacy, and I think this is so important and so crucial in terms of setting the tone of the conversation today. If you will permit me, I will just read a short passage from her essay, which I think is really important for our conversation about abolitionist feminism. Because for me, the main thing to take away from her essay is not just her searing indictment of white middle class feminism but also her envisioning of a future, another possible future which is grounded in community, care, and an idea of solidarity across difference. She says this:
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.
I think that leads us incredibly well to our conversation today about abolition and abolitionist feminism. Because what is so important about today and today’s conversation is that it gives us a staging ground to imagine the future. When thinking about abolitionist feminism you must put it into conversation, you must put it into context of broader radical Black feminist intellectual tradition. So if you only get to abolitionist feminism you’re forgetting about a whole other part of the tradition. Abolitionist feminism doesn’t quite make sense unless you have a conversation also about fugitivity and futurity, and so we are going to bind these ideas together to try to rethink the future. With that, let me introduce our panel today.
Gail Lewis is Reader Emerita of Psychosocial Studies, in the Department of Psychosocial studies, School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck College. She joined the department in 2013 and was Assistant Dean between 2015 and 2017. Her political subjectivity was fashioned in the generative culture of Black feminist and anti-imperialist activism. She was a member of Brixton Black Women’s Group and a founding member of OWAAD (Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent). She trained as a psychodynamic psychotherapist and as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portland clinic. She is a Visiting Senior Scholar at the Gender Department at the London School of Economics. She holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Essex Tavistock and Portland clinic. She has published on social policy, feminism and the psychodynamics of organization, always attending to the processes of racialised gendering.
Next we have a veteran of the infamous Stonewall riots, former sex worker and survivor of Attica Correctional Facility, transgender elder and activist Miss Major has fought for over forty years to create visibility and equity for trans women of colour. Miss Major has a global legacy of activism that is rooted in her own experiences. She continues to pave the way for transgender women of colour, particularly those who have survived incarceration and police brutality.
Zoé Samudzi is a writer and PhD Candidate in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research analyses German colonialism, colonial biomedicine and the genocide against the Ovaherero, the Nama and the San people in Namibia 1904-1908 and its scientific afterlife. Along with William Anderson she is co-author of As Black As Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation (2018).
Hortense Spillers is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor at the English department at Vanderbilt University, where she has been in the faculty since 2006. She co-edited Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition (1985) along with Marjorie Pryse, and edited Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text (1991). She also published a collection of essays Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (2003), which spans her breath of her professional interest in African American culture and literary history.
Folks you guys are in for a treat, this is the real deal. All these living legends in the room, we have to make sure we give them their flowers; that is one of the key lessons for all of us in this. I am going to ask questions in reverse order and start with Hortense Spillers. Please can you help us to try to make sense of the idea:
What does Black feminist futurity mean to you?
What does Black feminist futurity mean? Yeah, I have been thinking about that quite a lot. I think in certain ways it is not even the future, I think in some ways it is, it is where we are, and where we have always been. I suppose that raises interesting questions about time. But as I see future, it is always something that is never quite unknown though it is revealed in a way that might seem futuristic or something that one doesn't know. I think of the future as something that is always with us, because it is an ideal: it is something that we are always attempting to achieve. And I think from that point of view, Black feminism is probably the single most potential or most open project that I can think of, and I think that is true because so much of it is unknown in terms of the cultures, communities, grammars, languages, and in the post-colonial world, in the world that is still unfolding. From one point of view, I suppose you could say our future is closed if you think about the difficulties of say, climate change and whether or not life on the planet is still sustainable: and there is a great deal of pessimism about that possibility. On the other hand, if you think of the end of things, as we currently know them, as another kind of opening, or beginning, then we are somewhere that is full of potential and possibility. That is the way I read Black feminist future and possibility.
This idea that the future is always with us but we are always trying to make it and remake it, as well as, even though things might look bleak, that is also another kind of exit or opening in a way?
Yes. That's right because I think when we normally speak of ‘end,’ it is the West thinking about ‘end’ that it means ‘The End’ right? You know, THE, in caps. But that is not the only time as we know, and not the only human possibility: and in some ways that is what our conversations have been about the last many decades, different times, different spaces, different human possibilities so that ‘the end’ that we are always talking about as The End, need not be the end if that makes sense. I mean it could well be other worlds made possible because the one that has been ruined, has finally collapsed. We are in a state of emergence – no longer in the old world but the new one is not quite here – we are somewhere in an interstitial space, I think that might be where we are now. So much depends on whether or not the values that Black feminists hold dear can become the values of larger numbers of people and that would truly make the world safe for multiple populations and not just some populations, but multiple populations. So I think that is the feminist future that we are attempting to claim now: that is making the world safe for many populations many peoples, many possibilities.
Thank you so much. Zoé, can you talk about what Black feminist futurity means to you?
I really love what Dr Spillers just mentioned about the future is the present and that is something that I think about a lot, in kind of playing with time, this idea that we are already ancestors. We are already in the present, growing and expanding the knowledges that the people who come after us will be building upon. I think the beauty of speculating futurities is so rich and right to me because it feels like this meeting of Black feminist care ethics with this abolitionist impulse and effort to destroy, but abolition isn't just about the destruction of oppressive forms in the present. It is about, to rip off of the words of so many other abolitionists who said it better, it is about creating the conditions that would render these imprisoning systems obsolete and unnecessary in the future. It is about trying to imagine and trying to actualise a world that is safe for trans self-determination and sex worker autonomy and Black motherhood and transformative justice and all of these other ways of understanding land and rematriating land and restoring indigenous stewardship. Because there is no blueprint for the future, all of this feels like this scientific methodology where we are constantly speculating and experimenting and continuously refining our approach because abolition is not an end point. It is this continuous into-the-future, into forever, this ongoing praxis of care and destruction that takes time, and necessarily occurs in the plurality of time and spaces and in places, because the praxis has to be so particular and specific to the context. I think that futurity most importantly means a space for multiplicity, and the practice of tending to and growing these multiplicities is really exciting to think about.
That is really interesting. I love this idea of being in the future now and walking with our ancestors and bringing the past to the present, collapsing space-time. These very practical ways. It sounds esoteric, but then we realise that what we can do is learn from the past and imagine new futures, and that is a way of doing this process. Part of this radical Black feminist ethics is also thinking of ourselves as already ancestors, that is really interesting to think about it in those terms, securing the future in those ways for future generations.
Miss Major, can you talk to us a wee bit about what Black feminist futurity means to you?
You know, the thing is, when I think of Black feminist movement, it is – how is it going to be when we get into that space. You know, it will be a time when that sort of feeling that you get when you believe in something and you want to see it grow to something. Everybody will be given a chance to be as they are, or to expound on that. To grow. You know, it is not a point of view that is just given to a set of people. You know it will be inclusive of everybody: that is what is important. That everybody gets a chance to live according to what they want to live and to flourish in that. Yes. That's futurity to me.
I love that idea of having to kind of set the ground, you know, in order to imagine the future we have to imagine in these very practical terms: of who is included, who is excluded, how can people live freely in this new world, in this new space? Because that is such an important part of imagining the future, is being incredibly practical about how to make that happen. I love the idea of thinking about it as a harvest that the kind of work we do now will have this outcome: that we can reap the benefits – in many ways – in terms of this radical freedom.
You agree with that?
I agree wholeheartedly with that, that is what we are going for, trying to build a sacred world, a better place so that everybody, people like me, and some of the people that are listening, can have a chance to grow and to change this shit! You know, be who you are. That is important. It is important to be who you are.
That is fantastic. Thank you so much Miss Major.
Gail Lewis can you talk to us about what does Black feminist futurity mean to you?
Yes thank you. I think I would echo the sense that a Black feminist futurity is about another kind of temporality, because it is concurrently the past and the future, but layered in through a kind of commitment to a different ethical now, a different kind of space of an ethical sociality now. But we live it, as Black feminists, well we attempt to live it, and we hold each other to account to live and practice differently. In order that we can draw on the ancestral inheritance, and further it because we are also ancestors and we owe an obligation to the future.
There is something profound about a different way of thinking about now and what we aim for and what we can't even imagine but we sense can be different. The past that gives us that: the past is the stars through which we navigate our steerage towards the future, it seems to me, and that past is multiple, of course. All the different multiple struggles, the multiple ways in which we have recorded or not recorded those struggles, but also the visions of exactly what it would mean. I know that I am standing here in my sixty something years because of the steerage given to me by Black feminist (whether it was called that or not,) action all over the world. My responsibility is to try to garner that into a set of practices to leave for the younger generations to carry that forward.
So I guess I think of Black feminist future as a kind of assembly of steerage that has a different kind of temporal package within it. But most importantly, because it is about care, it says that our struggle is not trying to get into the normativities through which the social is currently arranged so we can be good gendered subjects in the image of white femininities or good class subjects in the image of a bourgeois white man, or even good sexual subjects with a kind of domesticated gay and lesbianness in the image of heteropatriarchy. All of those things I think are conjured by this assemblage called ‘Black feminist futurity’. It is rich and it is complex and it is demanding too, it requires of us to ethically live the practices of care that we feel Black feminism speaks to.
Wow. I will say briefly, that it is the one and only time that I have heard anybody use the word ‘assemblages’ that is not pretentious and not horrifying, so first of all thank you so much for that. I love what connects all of what you guys are saying in terms of what Black feminist futurity means, there is something important here about radical care, about ethics and about possibilities, which I think are so interesting about the way in which you can live the future now and can open up possibilities for yourself, for others, but also for those who will come after us. I love this idea that Gail said about this immense responsibility, which links to what Zoé was saying, if we think of ourselves as ancestors, this is a deeply huge responsibility that we carry in order to try to secure a different kind of future that doesn't re-inscribe the old social orders. Do you want to say more about that Gail?
Abolition is at one level a vast terrain, and it invites us to undo everything, as we re-imagine everything. I suppose there is this difference between a ‘politics of claim’ where on the one hand we might say we claim against the state for – I hate to use the word at this time particularly in the UK context – inclusion. We make a claim against the state, the state that has kept us out in all sorts of ways. There may be a moment when we need to do that, for example, for those not in the UK, people forgive me, there is something called the ‘Windrush Scandal’. Where the generation who mythically announced the Black presence in Britain, arrived in June 1948. They were Black people from the Caribbean who came to work. Now, many of those people as children travelled here on their mother's passports and now they are in their late fifties, sixties and seventies and are being denied access to all the joys of British social citizenship. So they can't get health care, they can't get social benefits. They don't have the right to work say, even though they have been doing all of that since they were six, seven, eight years old. That is an example of the ‘social death’ that Patterson talks about as a marker of the legacy of Atlantic enslavement. Our mothers cannot pass on to us something: any rights to citizenship for example. In relation to the Windrush we would make a claim against the state and say those people need to have the benefit of what they paid into. At one level. There is that type of claim.
But our claim as Black feminists who are thinking about learning from the past, and about a different kind of future sociality, is not about a claim for inclusions in the state under those terms of citizenship, because they are always about our positioning as minor, as not fully developed as full human, a diminishment of our full personhood. That is not the claim we want. We don't want to claim for the terms of gender normativity, that have excluded us anyway. We don't want inclusion in that. We don’t want to expand the current capacities is the point. We are visioning something different that we don't even necessarily know the shape of yet, but we gesture towards it because we sense it with all of our senses, with our very bodies’ capacities to sense things. We sense something is different. So it is in that sense I was really referring to it.
Fantastic. So that leads us very helpfully onwards to the next question, especially with the idea of moving into something, moving into a moment of ambivalence. Zoé can you talk to us a little bit about what the relationship is between Black feminism and fugitivity?
Yes, I can try my best. I think about fugitivity as this rejection of any kind of border that would enclose and govern Blackness. A recognition of these ideologies and conditions that shape and inform Black materiality, Black existence, while of course refusing to accept these forced and imposed limitations of what could or could never be. I guess to maybe give an example, a more concrete example because it feels like such a hard question to answer in the abstract. The framework I use and I think about most often is in Black visual practice. It was Tina Campt’s method of Listening To Images (2017) which was really transformative to me and it completely reframed the way I think about looking at photography, the way I think about approaching the archive and then obviously the way I think about just trying to conceptualise and consider Black life in general.
Specifically, she describes this method of archival engagement and I think for me the most striking example is when she is looking at these classically racist anthropological images of indigenous South African women and we might look and say, that is classic apartheid, that is classic visual landscaping of coloniality. But instead she zooms in on the muscular tension in the faces of the women who are in the photograph. She describes them as holding something back or keeping something in reserve: even though these are images that are used for racist classifications, there is still a quiet self-fashioning. There is still a quiet practice of Black indigeneity, of Black making that you can only really see if you pay very close attention to those images. What I have really learned from her and the way that I am thinking about fugitivity differently now is that it demands this attentiveness to quiet. This respect for the sovereignty of quiet. It really forces this shift and this slowness in how we observe, in how we read and write and communicate. Because moving slowly takes time and coordinating across geographies takes time, it becomes a powerful bridge to abolition because it becomes about the creating of sustainable networks, of new sustainable networks outside of these socialities that white supremacy says are the only ones we are allowed to occupy or allowed to gain eligibility through. Yes, fugitivity becomes both about the scene, and the opaque makings of Black life. That is what abolition is to me.
I think that is really interesting and important: this focus on silence and quietude. What I love about Campt’s work, and her focus on Black feminist futurity is future grammar: her focus on hesitation and ambivalence, in that quiet difficult reading of these images in ways that we can uncover and excavate another way of doing and being that can't be captured by apartheid or the gender binary and all these things and opens up different kinds of possibilities.
Miss Major, can I bring you in here? Can you talk to us about what you think the relationship is between Black feminism and fugitivity and abolition? (And if you don't use these terms, do tell me.)
What we should remember about this is that prisons should not exist at all. There is no reason for them to devastate families like they have for years. In a sense it kind of builds on this hierarchy they have, for instance with the President of the United States. That ignorance and that nonchalance comes at a cost that we paid and they don't recognise that. So, it becomes a matter of what is important to the people and they must survive. The best way to do that is to come up with another solution that will be easier and that is less autocratic we will say, and in order to have it be open and free because that is the only way that we can survive and make it you know, this system that they have is so detrimental to the existence of what we are. And who we are. And it doesn't take into account these varied number of people that are in there.
So, I would say that you know – the best way to go about this is you have to – you have to reduce the pressure that is – and then give us a chance to explode them and get them out of the way. Because, they are standing in the way. You know.
I think this is so important in keeping us grounded in the practical politics in terms of thinking about these ideas of this seemingly simple but radical idea that quite simply: prison should not exist. Because this idea that it [prison] is not just detrimental to the very existence of Black people, of queer folks and all the rest of it but also trying to think of the idea, trying to keep open this future of how can we live in a society in which prison does not exist? I think this is exactly right. I think this is incredibly helpful in keeping us grounded in the practical everyday of how do we translate these ideas of abolition into practical politics. I appreciate that, thank you very much Miss Major.
Hortense Spillers, can you talk to us about the relationship between Black femininity and fugitivity and that relationship to abolition?
I want to go back to something that I think Zoé was talking about earlier. I am interested in the title of Tina Campt’s book Listening to Images (2017) and the extent to which the title itself poses, figuratively speaking, an impossibility. I think the rhetoricians would call it an oxymoron or the poets would call it synaesthesia. We associate listening with hearing: we don’t associate it with the visual. So putting those two things together brings about an interesting conceptual clash, and I think that is what happens when we think: Black feminism and fugitivity. What Black feminism does with fugitivity is: turn it into something useful, or turn it into something that is full of paradox or possibility, or think about things that don't go together and bringing them together. I think that is what the notion of both fugitivity and the way that Black intellectuals use it and Black feminism as we think about it. That is what they do. They imagine a world that is a kind of impossibility from the official point of view, so that what they are trying to bring to stand is a world that certainly does not exist and has barely been imagined. I think that is the relationship between the fugitive or the unscripted or the text that is, that is not quite exhausted, perhaps it hasn't, perhaps it hasn't even been written – in relationship to a temporality that is open.
The thing about abolition, I wanted to ask a question about abolition because when I think abolition and I think formality, or something that is proffered on the other end of which is a passive receiver and I was wondering why not the word ‘emancipation’? In other words I was wondering if ‘abolition’ was doing some work that was particular to the kind of activity we want to imagine when we think about ‘the fugitive’ or when we think about the future or when we think about Black feminist ideals. So if somebody could address that, I would be happy to hear it. The difference between the abolitional and the emancipatory.
That is helpful Hortense, I will hold that question because I want to first get Gail Lewis to answer this question. I think Lola is on the call. I believe Lola identifies herself as an abolitionist feminist, maybe we can get her in to answer your question. Gail Lewis, please talk to us about the relationship between Black feminism, fugitivity and abolition
I would like to refer back to something that Zoé said first of all in referring to Tina Campt’s work and I think you said, Zoé ‘the attentiveness to quiet’. It made me think; it really struck a chord with me, it was beautiful. I calmed a moment. But it made me think about how part of what we put on the table throughout our discussion and through our visions is the need to abolish capital time. And all the ways in which the capturing of that, the slowness, the slowing down is also in some senses an act of at least pushing against the dictates of capitalist time and its mode of capture. I was thinking in a way, when you sent us these questions Akwugo, I was thinking there isn't a relationship between Black feminism and fugitivity because Black feminism is fugitive in the sense that it is a terrain of outlawness. Outlawness against all of the categorical nominations that classify personhood. Subjects. We refuse them all, because they don't have room for us. I go back to my point about claim. But we are not claiming a space, we don't want them to be more capacious: we want them abolished. But at the same time we work under the radar of them a lot of the time. Think of the work of all of the wonderful artists and curational work that is going on in Britain at the moment. That absolutely is at the cutting edge of declarations of forms of Black feminist imagination. And open up the space for us as we kind of come into contact with that work, a space for us to know ourselves differently.
When I think of the work that, I don't know, Barby Asante does, Rehana Zaman etc. I have a capacity to know myself differently as a Black queer woman in London, in the city, into which I was born where a certain set of expectations was supposed to determine the routes I took. Now I come up against this work and now I can know myself differently, that is because it is the space of Black feminist fugitivity, because, they offer us ways to at least get under the radar of the nominal categories through which we are supposed to know ourselves and direct our behaviour. That feels really, really important to me.
When I read this question, I thought about in the 1980s, yes, maybe late 70s, 80s, 90s all of that battle for the airwaves, all over London, especially in South London, we would see these aerials going up because it was the pirate radio stations, rejecting the BBC's control on who could play what. All of the Black music across the range of Black musical form that was illegal, unlicensed, but up on the aerials because people would run across and put the aerials up and declare Black presence, masculine, feminine, inbetween, none of those, those aerials would declare Black presence through the music. Through the sounds and call up where we came from, new forms and make a kind of Blackness in Britain, I am not going to call it Black British, it doesn't belong to the nation state called Britain. It was a Blackness in Britain through these musical forms. There was a fugitivity, it seems to me, that is echoed by the Black feminism that was arising in those moments as we were travelling the symbolic roof tops. Saying this feminist work, it doesn't belong to us, nothing to do with us. Say this antiracist work doesn't belong to us because it doesn't know about how to think about the lived experience of the women on the bus stop even though you’re always calling up about your mama. There was a way in which we travelled the roof-tops and streets, and meeting rooms and did this kind of work that was Black feminism, was both fugitive in the sense that it was working to a form of Blackness always, always reinventing itself. So that is why I think in a sense, Black feminisms, is a kind of fugitivity.
I was on the edge of my seat. Gail first of all, thank you so much, that is so interesting, I think people appreciated your highlights of the pirate radio as well. It is that idea of working on the margins and on the edges and in doing so you can become yourself, which I think is very interesting. I love this idea of thinking about Black feminist fugitivity as a form of Blackness that is never settled and always in dialogue and debate, there is no end point but a constant reinvention of things that I think is super interesting.
Miss Major, are the master’s house and tools the same as when Audre Lorde was writing in 1984? What is the same? What has changed? How might we dismantle the master's house?
Wow! Well I guess to start with, the master's house, he really is the master of who we are. The house gives him way too much power and the fact that he is in control. As per what he has got in there? He has the same thing that he always had: he has fear, he has trepidation, he has questioning. We can storm his place and take those things and squash them because he doesn't control who we are, what we want out of life. There have been years that we have had rallies and groups of people but it has always been Black people that were there in the rallies and standing up to whoever and whatever. This year it seems as if it has shifted because now they are white people in the groups rooting for us. If we are going to take over his house, and really turn it around for us, then we have to rely on the white people that are there with us, because they know what he is about. As much as I don't approve of that, it is an avenue that we must partake in, in order to see a change. And it is important that we see a change.
That's very interesting: I love the idea of really taking seriously that the master's house as one built by fear and terror but also one that always has agency. He doesn't control us or she doesn't control us. There is always a space for self-sovereignty that I think is actually really important. There has been this great debate within feminism for literally a hundred years of the question of coalition politics between Black, white and brown women. So yes, thank you, this is important to raise this because it is incredibly difficult to resolve, I think.
Yes, it is.
You want to talk about your experiences of trying to build coalitions across difference? How helpful and realistic is this coalition?
I started to have a place where the nonconforming girls meet and get a chance to relax and forget about the things that are problems with them and then in that way, when they go back to the situation, they are ready to fight for it. To stand up and to say, I am not taking it anymore. You know, and in that sense, you know, I thought that I am contributing to their doing this, so that it continues on and goes further than it has been. So with this pandemic that is now surging through the country, there is a chance to select a few of them and get them up and to learn to that and then charge ahead. So yes, I’m hoping.
Miss Major, that is brilliant. I often think about this model of having this space, having this house. I think it is so important in terms of where Black women and gender nonconforming folks and femmes can all get together outside of the ugly world of coalition building. Anyone who knows me, I talk a lot about Barbara Smith's essay on coalition politics. Smith argues that the coalition is not your home, the coalition is where you do politics, your home is somewhere else. The home is for nurturing and sustaining, you can't stay at home. You have to go out into the coalition and it is important to have both of those spaces. I think we often times forget about that, we think of the coalition as the home. But it sure isn't.
Hortense Spillers, can you talk to us a little bit about what has changed and what is the same in terms of the master’s house and master’s tools?
I wonder what has changed. I think everything has changed but in some ways, nothing has changed. You know, I have always sort of disagreed with that essay by Audre Lorde, whom I really honour and I have often thought it would have been wonderful to have had a conversation with her about that particular metaphor because I have always thought well, the master’s house, can they dismantle it with the master’s tools? In some ways, I thought that is the only tool that can dismantle the master’s house, that they are not his tools in particular: anyway in that they are no more the master’s tools than they are mine and that I must particularly go after the master’s house with his tools. And I think maybe, to go back to a point that somebody made earlier, about how difficult it is to talk about these things abstractly in some cases, I want us to think about the debate of the university, the last four decades, the university in Britain, the university in the United States, the university in Canada. I name those places in particular, because those universities would be associated with the master’s house or they would be thought of as elaborations of the master’s house – and what I would submit is that the university of the 21st Century is not the university that I entered as a graduate student in 1968 when Audre Lorde was alive and well and writing and Barbara Smith was alive and well and it was a few years before Combahee (The Combahee River Collection) and so forth maybe 15 years before Smith’s All The Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men, But Some Of Us Are Brave (1982) and the births of Black feminist theory and praxis. The university of those years is not the university today, and it is precisely because the population of those universities changed. The demographics changed about 1968. Somebody else went to the university and made it a different space! It became the university that is not the ideal that we all imagined: but it is a lot closer to the ideal that we imagine today than it was in 1968 I think that is because of the presence of Black people and people of colour.
And that happened because we were playing around with the master’s tools and discovering ways that the tools could be altered to fit our hands and our purposes. So that is why I both quarrel with that particular use of the metaphor at the same time that I understand precisely what Audre Lorde had in mind.
So from that point of view, we are still talking about ‘dismantlement’ and I think that is not a work that is going to be finished in another day or two. I think it is work that is going to go on for a while. But I think we are a lot closer than we were precisely because one of the grounds on which we chose to stand was the ground of the university, one of the places where the master said, "You have no business here anyway, this is not your space". I think we have made it our space, and increasingly so. That is one way I read that as an unintended paradox that Audre Lorde meant when she wrote that essay in the late 60's or early 70's: maybe it was meant to be paradoxical. In any case it is something I would have loved to have argued with her about, and she was a great arguer.
That is really interesting, I appreciate your counterintuitive interpretation of this essay, which I have not heard before. Zoé can I bring you in here, to talk about whether the master’s tools and house have changed and maybe also answer a little bit of Hortense Spillers’, "We should all use these tools at the table, to dismantle all the rest of it"?
I think what Dr Spillers was talking about in reflecting on the evolution of the university is actually something that I think about a lot you know, as a graduate student, as someone who is freshly on the job market and trying to think about exactly how I want to interact with the academy moving forward. I think that one of the newer tools that has been developed by not only the academy but by a number of institutions is this really brilliant way of absorbing and deploying critique. So I am thinking about the mainstreaming of abolition and the politics of representation and thinking about corporate activism and how companies that materially benefit from anti-Black oppression, which includes of course university institutions, are making these statements about how Black Lives Matters and really kind of enticing people to participate and to assimilate their protests into systems, which I don't think is the same as necessarily being in academia itself.
I am just thinking about the relationships between trying to exist and trying to make work in this neoliberal space, which often can require one to police themselves. I think about, at the same time, these campaigns of ‘listen to the Black women’. I worry and I often think that too much of the political push to amplify voices on the margins at least in the way that some of these campaigns go about it, becomes a capitalist currency in itself.
I actually very much agree with this idea of learning how to mould tools into the shape of our own hands so we can deploy them. And also I worry about what happens when abolition and some of these ideas, some of these fugitive practices are taken out of the realm of actual fugitive practices. I am trying to figure out how to navigate this as I try to grow these communities and be in good relations and develop these practices, but I often don't know how to work it without feeling that in order to exist in a space, there has to be this abandonment of certain kind of political commitments that would be held much more strongly outside of the space. So obviously there are other instances of where the master’s tools can be deployed much more militantly and much more loudly, but thinking about it from inside the academy, from inside the ivory tower? I am struggling with this.
That is very interesting, I appreciate the ambivalence of your positioning and in relation to this idea and also, yes, thinking about what it means to be an academic.
Gail Lewis, talk to us please about what has changed in terms of the master’s tools and house?
What has changed? I am not sure. I am not sure in the big picture of things, much has changed in the context in which I am living, at least in Britain I think, in terms of the big script, the big macro thing. On the other hand I think, in terms of the resources available to challenge the master’s tools, much has changed. Just by the very character of our presence. Not our present per se, but the character of our presence, it seems to me, referred a bit to earlier, we have a capacity to imagine ourselves differently in a way that is an outlaw in relation to the categories of inclusion that we are supposed to inhabit.
As ever Hortense gets me thinking. Interestingly, what came in my mind listening to Hortense talking about her response to Audre and the master’s tools was from psychoanalysis practice actually, and the distinction that we make between what we might think of as the reassuring interpretation, the one that kind of says to the person that we are working with, ‘Yes, I hear you, I feel you, let's explore this a little more’, and the mutative interpretation, the one that lands in a way that the client or the patient or whatever we want to call them, takes it, takes something, in that interrelation that you are in, in the consulting room, in a way that they feel can enable them to shift radically, shift fundamentally, and of course, you know, in that frame work it is the idea that the analyst has really understood. Well we will hold that bit as becoming the one who knows. Hold that for a moment.
There is something about a distinction between a kind of practice and relation and a dialogue in relation, and a presence that says: something has shifted because we are in the room together, differently. So we are in the university spaces, so something may have happened then. Certainly, the challenge. We are in the university spaces in the British context and we are shouting very loudly about what is called the ‘Black attainment gap’. The ways in which Black and other students of colour are coming in and not achieving the same level of degrees as their white counterparts even though they entered at the same level of achievement. We are shouting about that. The universities, they tell us, are attending to it. So something has happened, there is something that has happened. But that isn't a mutative interpretation. That isn't a kind of response and claim: it is the thing I was trying to make the point about before, it is the claim against the university to do something about the disadvantages that are evidently going on by us being here, whilst we are here. Even if there are some Black and of colour in the faculty, something is happening that is not right. So there is change in the sense that we are there, but not change in the sense of any degree of so called ‘equality’ of outcome because there isn't meant to be. That is not what the university is there for. It is about hitting the management of multiculturalism’s policy of saying: ‘You have entered, you have the opportunity, it is up to you to do with it as you will and if you fail, the problem lies with you’.
We make a claim about that. But if we distinguish between that and say, coming back to capturing the soundwaves and music, the declaration of ‘we will have our musical presence’: we did it because we were making a declaration of Blackness, that put upon the master’s house if you like, a demand that said: ‘we can't have you in the air waves like this’. We weren't trying to get their attention; we were trying to provide music for each other. That is what we were doing. It evokes a response of demand, but you can't be here, so what can we do? We will try and battle with you. But the demand is: deal with us, this is Blackness, this is Black life declaring itself. We are not really interested in what you are doing.
In that sense, there is a capture of the tools to slip around the side of the master’s house and say, we are not bothering with that. Our attention is with each other, making sound and presence and visibility and feeling and emotion and touch for each other. Not for the master’s house. We are sidelining the master’s house because in the master’s house as the university shows us, we can only go so far.
We can't dismantle anything, we can't even dismantle the categories of Blackness that are the ones that deem us as wanting in some way, as lacking or unable. If one or two of us do well: ‘Oh you have done well, where did you grow up? Did you really? Was that the white side of you? Did you go to a white school’? In other words if you achieve it is because you are not really Black.
Maybe this is British incarnation about this, maybe we need a distinction between the British and the US form, but I don't think our presence in universities here [in the UK] is an indication of us really taking hold of the master’s tools and using them to our advantage in the way that taking the airwaves did.
Wow. My God. Thank you. I think that really speaks to a real transnational divide, because there is no tradition of the Black radicals entering the university and creating Black studies and ethnic studies departments and courses and programmes in order to try to do some sort jiu-jitsu, in terms of using the master’s tools in the house, that tradition in the British case just does not exist. I think it is right to be a bit more sceptical. I myself am far more sceptical and I am genuinely surprised, but I haven't been in the American academic system for a very long time, but I am deeply – unconvinced, I will just say that.
I guess what is put on the table for us is the need, you know, we are talking about Black feminism as a need to take care, and pay attention to detail, and slow down. One of the things that was put on the table for us by Dr Spillers is the need to pay attention to the difference that may occur by our entering into places where it is deemed we are not supposed to enter. What is the difference? We need to pay attention to that to try and think it through. That is what I have been calling attention to.
That's great. I want to say thank you: that was a hardcore discussion. You folks have ploughed through that like champions.
Questions: we will kick off with Hortense asking about: Why abolition? What is the who, that abolition does? Why not use the term ‘emancipation’ or ‘emancipatory practices’?
This is an excellent question and I will try my best to answer it from what I know and can say. I think that the conversation around abolition in this specific moment is drawn from, or emerges from a kind of constant cycle of Black death that we are seeing at the hands of the state and at the hands of the police. I don't necessarily think that there is a friction between those two words or concepts. I think that abolition is a kind of strategy that we use in the on-going project of emancipation, I think emancipation perhaps in the way that Dr Spillers is talking about, is a questioning of what it means to be human, right?
Like a questioning of ontology, a questioning of what constitutes us as human beings, if we view abolition not as an all-encompassing thing but as one of the tools and strategies we are using to spark forward that conversation about emancipation and what freedom could look like, then I feel like abolition then becomes a questioning of this idea of the violence as inevitability. So if we are thinking about emancipation, about what constitutes us as human, we also, in the context of Black death, on-going violence, recognize that we need to get rid of, or dismantle these ideas of violence as an inevitability.
The idea that prisons and policing and the state need to exist in order to curtail our human tendencies. When I think of emancipation, I also think of no restraints, of freedom from racial capitalism, of freedom from the promises of modernity and the nation, from the boundaries that keep us subjugated.
I think what abolition is asking us at the very core is: how do we render the prison impossible? How do we make it unprofitable for the prison to continue, as one of the ways to ask wider conversations about how we want to live in the world? The way that abolition has moved into mainstream space in this moment, and we are seeing more conversations at a grass roots level about the ways we could live differently. That includes the feminist care-ethic that was spoken about in the beginning of this conversation. The idea that as a community we can hold each other accountable, that harm doesn't only need to be dealt with after the fact. I have been thinking a lot in terms of abolition: what it would mean to demand justice in life?
Because often when we see Black death, we are called to demand justice in the form of jailing somebody or calling for someone to lose their job. I think abolition asks us to understand that for justice in life, we need to be orientated towards a living principle. We need to ensure that people have the conditions to mean that they can live life. That is closely connected to the idea of the human, essentially, which I think is what maybe Dr Spillers was getting at.
Thank you Lola. Che?
It is such a provocative question – emancipation and its political grammar, abolition and its political grammar. Like Lola, I guess I would say that I think of abolition as an emancipatory project, and in the words of Mariame Kaba, as a ‘horizon.’ My political genealogy or coordinates, theoretical coordinates for abolition, are really informed by Ruth Wilson Gilmore's work. She often talks about abolition as a form of presence and presencing, which means that it is not only an emancipatory struggle that has an outcome in the future, but to return to this question of temporality; it is an imminent one that is happening always already in the present and that is about reconstructing our ways of being with each other. Finally I guess another major figure for me would be Angela Davis's work on extending the definition and concept of abolition democracy and thinking about what she calls abolitionist feminism.
I really appreciate those responses, because it is rare to see that word used in preference to the emancipatory or emancipation, I just wondered, you know, if there was something I was missing in my understanding of the term? I guess, when I think abolition, I usually am thinking of an official act of extending or proffering something to someone who is a passively waiting on the other end but, since you have introduced Ruth Gilmore to this discussion and Angela Davis, I will need to go back and see what they are also doing with the term and how that relates to the emancipatory. I have always seen the emancipatory, until this discussion, as very active people on the other end of an act, right?
I mean for instance, to my mind, there has never been among Black people, a time when they were not in resistance to slavery, colonisation, fascism, genocide, you name it – we have always been in resistance, always. There has never been, from that point of view the beginning of a movement. There has always been a movement, there has always been resistance. There has always been somebody running away or somebody responding or somebody acting, somebody actively involved in acts of freedom. That is what I think about emancipation: that it had to come through official legislated channels but at the same time that it was doing that, there were very active resisting, some of them fugitive people, on the other end of the process. So what that involves is to my mind a kind of active interlocution between historical actors. All of them acting in different spaces in different ways. Whereas before now, I thought of abolition as kind of unilateral. So that is why I put the question. So I really appreciate Lola and Che's response to that; that helps a lot.
Thank you so much; can I say quickly, this is a model of how to be a scholar: I am differently positioned in the Black radical position folks, these are not terms that I use. I am going to be humble and ask for clarification and then say, ‘I guess I need to go back and read Angela Davis,’ that is important. Not all of us who work in the tradition come from the tradition, I am also someone who uses the frame of emancipatory work and so I just think that kind of dance that needs to happen between different traditions, that are all pushing in the same direction but we are differently oriented to it I think it is just very, very important.
I want to pick up on Manishta’s question of transnationalism which I think is interesting:
We talk about Black feminism and abolition, we have mentioned the US and the UK but I was wondering if the speakers could expand on Black feminism and abolition in a transnational context for example Lebanon, India, Latin America?
Zoé, especially, because you are working on Namibia at the moment, can you talk about what this means perhaps for the broader African diaspora or in other contexts?
I have been thinking about what abolition means for the continent because all of these different police forces as they exist are evolutions of colonial forces. My family is from Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is going through some real pains around authoritarian violence, which makes me think about the Zimbabwean police and their origins in the paramilitary groups that Cecil Rhodes created to defend the British South Africa Company. I don't know what specifically the politic of abolition looks like in countries that are kind of fragile as they are, but I do know that if we are talking about Black life, we can't be enticed into believing that Black leadership means a valuing of Black life as we see it, with so many leaders on the continent and as we saw with President Obama in the United States.
I think we have to understand the relationships between coloniality, as we understood it formally and postcoloniality: we have to understand how anti-Blackness exists in all of these different forms. We have to have some difficult conversations about indigeneity, and African indigeneity. We often make reference to having been indigenous once, but indigeneity looks different before and after independence and colonisation. I don't have many answers other than the fact that it doesn't make sense to do Black feminism, to do emancipatory or abolitionist, whatever your grammar is, if we think about it purely locally, because you know, racial capitalism doesn't stop at American borders, in fact the United States is responsible for exporting so many kinds of violence and receiving so many other kinds of violence. We have to think about Francophone and Lusophone and Hispanophone and all these different parts of the Black world and be very methodical about how we are thinking about the internationalism of these violences.
Thank you so much Zoé. Miss Major, do you want to talk about experiences you have of working transnationally, with different folks in terms of prison abolition?
I work with girls who come to this country from Africa and from other places and I indoctrinate them into what is considered the American culture and I find that they are really receptive to that and they want to change it to make it better, so that is the hard part about it because of their ethnic value of how to go about it. But we can work it out and get together some sort of a cohesiveness to do it. In that sense we move forward. We move forward, and we accomplish what we want to do. That is the way we go about it.
Is that through the process of dialogue, bringing people from different history and background, how do negotiate and reach that consensus?
We do it at the – oasis that we have here – we sit and talk about that, it is a place where you can say your views. In this space we are able to discuss that, and it all matters to each other. We have different points of view and attitudes, but in a group spaces that we have here, we get it out and we work on it. We get to understand that it is easier to do it in a context of altogether rather than individual. You know, so that works for us. On occasion it is hard and in a sense, because we have to fight the straight people, we have to fight the world in general and so, I stress to them that we have to always remember that we must fight and it is not easy to fight – it depends on who your opposition is. You must do something that you feel it is safe to do, that you are able to do, and that also you can maintain and keep in mind that when you get too tired, you come here.
Thank you Miss Major. Can I just actually ask Gail Lewis to comment finally on this issue of transnationalism? Because I think of course, you know, the dominance of the Anglophone world in terms of thinking about Black feminism it is an on-going issue, I think as someone who worked in very smart ways to try to kind of think through transnationalism, can you kind of bring us on home with thinking?
Miss Major just did it. You know when you need to come in and restore yourself, come in, come home, restore and then go back out. That is so key. Where I stand now is trying to always be open to what I can learn from modes of resistance and opposition in other parts of the world. I am thinking of Lebanon last year, I am thinking when the Lebanese revolution was going on, the people were out in the streets in their thousands. They literally held hands from the southern end of the country down to the north, a human chain of connection right across the territory of Lebanon. It’s a small tiny country, a bit like holding hands across Jamaica. It was massive. What these people did, after a fifteen year civil war of killing each other, with the Israelis coming in and killing them and orchestrating killings, they are riven with sectarian divide, and yet the people were out in the streets saying: ‘No we no longer accept the terms of sectarian normativity. We don't accept it.’ Central to that revolution was the huge mobilisation of queer people, trans people, and women saying we don't accept the gender normativities either. They were centre. They were old trans people and young trans people: there was a queering, if you like, of the revolution. What that taught me was to always think about the need for our feminism to learn from other places, because don’t accept the nation state. We have to work within it, but that is also one of the things we need to abolish: we need to abolish it in order to know that my hand can reach across to yours, and girl you can teach me something, and boy you can teach me something, and make my capacity to work together with you.
In my local, that becomes a trans: a placeholder for the unexpected, for the unknown, for the possible. In that sense, trans. That is what happens, Lebanon taught me that last year.
Thank you. We are going to end on that note folks because that was absolutely incredible.
Transcript editor: Kitya Mark, August 2020
A list of references and resources compiled during the event is available here.