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The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 7.2: Spring 2009
Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies

Christine Cynn and Kim F. Hall

For well over a decade, "diaspora" has been a remarkably productive arena of scholarship. The founding of the journal diaspora in 1991; the appearance of works such as Avtar Brah's Cartographies of Diaspora, Braziel and Mannur's Theorizing Diaspora, and Brent Hayes Edwards' The Practice of Diaspora; and special issues of journals (African Studies Review, Feminist Review, Gender and History) devoted to African diaspora have produced diaspora as a formulation that, along with transnational, Atlantic, and black Atlantic studies, enables scholars to see past national boundaries and understand subjects as situated within a range of sometimes overlapping communities and connections. This broader interest in the study of diasporas occurs in conjunction with a salutary rethinking of the past and future of African diaspora studies. Initially referring to Greek and Jewish dispersals, "the African diaspora" emerged as an important framework of analysis in mid-1950s Paris (Edwards, "Langston Hughes" 690-91; Shepperson 41). In a much-cited quote from their essay "Unfinished Migrations," Tiffany Ruby Patterson and Robin D. G. Kelley define African diaspora as "both a process and a condition," producing subjects and communities through often-coerced dispersals, while also producing varying identifications with and desires to return to a "homeland" (see also Brah, 196; Clifford 304-5; Patterson and Kelley 20; Safran 83-4; Tölölyan 654). As Kim D. Butler argues, these identities and identifications constantly shift: "Conceptualizations of diaspora must be able to accommodate the reality of multiple identities and phases of diasporaization over time" (193).

But while, as Brent Edwards notes, articulations of diaspora always rely on and reproduce both existing racial hierarchies and "the ideological uses and abuses of gender," they also engender new subjectivities, identifications, and communities that reconstitute conceptions of race and of gender (Practice 133). For this issue, we sought essays that address how contemporary African diasporas generate new forms of gendering. We asked, "How are new forms of gendering in African diasporas being articulated, and in what contexts? To what extent do these new forms rely on, depart from, intersect with, and/or efface older forms? What are the consequences of these new gendered subjectivities? What questions do they provoke or elide?"

We wanted to think through the effects of such studies on methodology and discipline formation. Recent scholarship examines how late twentieth-century flows of migration, peoples, labor, technology, and capital have produced new African diasporas, as well as local, regional, and global identities and cultures, that may not be adequately captured when situating the middle passage as the site of origin for the study of the African diaspora. Emergent fields, such as postcolonial, migration, globalization, human rights, and queer studies have been preoccupied with analyzing flows of goods, people, ideas, and capital in postcolonial, transnational, cosmopolitan, and globalized contexts. How do these fields engage with diaspora studies? How might diaspora studies intervene in how these fields address diaspora? Similarly, what would a feminist and/or queer study of the African diaspora look like? How would it draw from or respond to feminist and queer studies in other disciplines?

Along with the efforts to develop more dynamic and nuanced understandings of diaspora, as discussed above, most contemporary theorizations of African diaspora have noted the need for a consideration of gender, class, sexuality, and nation in the context of diaspora (e.g., Campt and Thomas; Gunning, et al 1-12; Sheftall 27-28; Steady). Yet, despite these interventions, women, gender, and sexuality still seem to be conceptualized as ancillary or additive to a basic understanding of processes of diaspora. This is particularly true with understanding the roles of women. In Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora, Michelle Wright notes that in some early formulations of black subjectivity in founding texts of diaspora, "black women, as agents, disappear altogether" (124). More forcefully, Asale Angel-Ajani contends that "African diaspora studies fail women miserably, or at least much of the published works do" (296).

It seems that we still have not reached a point where the study of gender and women of the black diaspora fundamentally re-organizes our conceptions of diaspora. While the essays in this volume certainly point in exciting directions, much more work remains to understand "African diaspora" and " gender" as mutually imbricated. The formation of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD) and its meetings in a range of locations have the potential to produce the multi-disciplinary collaborations across the diaspora we need for this kind of fundamental re-thinking. However, the overwork and limited resources of so many female scholars and activists means that we need to find more time and increasingly innovative ways to work together across space and discipline.

We found in these essays important themes or concerns that speak to broader developments in African diaspora studies. Several of the contributors to this issue demonstrate how considerations of gender impel reconceptualizations of diaspora, as well as of race, resistance, and historiography itself, particularly through a focus on sites often neglected by African diaspora studies scholarship: Indian Ocean slavery, enslaved peoples in Indian territory, the Dutch Caribbean, Latin America, and East and West Africa. Many of these pieces remind us that we need to consider the specificities of the local and regional, to think not only about large-scale dispersals but also about "internal" diasporas (such as within Africa) and "overlapping diasporas" (Lewis; see also Byfield 5ff). Most of the writers insist on the usefulness of the terms feminism and diaspora both within and outside the academy; they also foreground the conflicts and tensions the terms provoke, especially around presumptions of shared histories, political agendas, strategies, community, identities, and imaginings of Africa as "homeland." They remind us that race is still a site of analysis for diaspora studies in a way not true for transnational or migration studies, while still questioning the terms by which African diaspora studies can make sure that the social justice commitment at its heart is as anti-sexist as it is anti-racist and anti-colonialist.

The first section of this special issue, "The Art of History," addresses the production of history and institutional memory, along with the effacements and elisions enabling it. Important recent archival work has focused on compiling demographic and economic information about slavery and enslaved persons, particularly through the compilation of data from ships' records. In "'Heartsore': The Melancholy Archive of Cape Colony Slavery," Yvette Christiansë foregrounds the politics of the archive and the foundational ambivalence of its structure. As she notes, records of the Cape Town Archive, where she conducted her research, constitute national, official memory and history that "appear as truths or facts" but were "conceived in anticipation of the future's arrival." Christiansë traces the tangled, inconsistent, and often contradictory record of Sila van de Kaap, an enslaved woman convicted of the December 24, 1822 murder of her nine-year-old son in the Cape Colony (which would later become part of South Africa). Through a focus on the gendered subaltern, Christiansë's account supplements and shows the limitations of the demographic approach to slavery studies, while contesting the privileging of the male subject of black diaspora. It simultaneously draws attention to Indian Ocean slave traffic and to slavery in settlement colonies in Africa, under-analyzed sites of both diaspora studies and of studies on slavery. However, the singular female black subject visible in the historical record only through forms of silencing and negation cannot be recuperated, "for the cause of resistance and the history of Western subjects-in-the-making" or "runaway triumphalism of late twentieth-century readerly practice." Christiansë concludes with a reminder against the dangers of archival research as recovery or affirmation of presence or individual agency and resistance.

In contrast, in "'She Better Off Dead than Jest Livin' for the Whip': Enslaved Women's Resistance in the Nineteenth-Century Cherokee Nation," Celia Naylor examines the possibilities for reconceptualizing resistance, through her study of another often neglected aspect of the black diaspora: people of African descent enslaved by Native Americans in nineteenth-century United States Indian Territory (now northeastern Oklahoma). For Naylor, accounts of enslaved women's resistance to the conditions of their enslavement in the Cherokee Nation provide important correctives to dominant narratives of black-Indian relations that figure Indian enslavement as a more benign form of bondage, or that emphasize collusion between enslaved people and the Cherokee nation. They might also compel a "reconceptualization of slave resistance that speaks to the dynamic power relations between enslaved and enslaver that are informed and problematized by notions of race, gender, place, and nation."

The next two authors foreground gendering in diaspora through their creative work. In the videos Quarantine and Savoneta, shot in Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, choreographer/filmmaker Gabri Christa renders what she describes as "the complexity that comes from being a member of a crossroads culture." The pieces formally and thematically enact the creolization that Christa traces in the history of Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean trade center and former slave depot; her videos incorporate music and dance performances blending black U.S. American, Euro-American, West African, and Caribbean influences "to create an interpretation of place and history." Christa's work attends to the gender, sexual, color, and linguistic fractures in colonial history that inform the present, even as it seeks to transform cultural identity, history, and memory.

Through their literary production, the Ugandan Women Writers' Association, a women's writing cooperative known as FEMRITE, effectively redefine Ugandan literature. As Kathryn Tobin notes, "Simultaneously, the organization has addressed and redressed the historic absence of women from literary production, by prioritizing women as writers, advocating and supporting a reading culture, and continually emphasizing a national setting and focus." The editors of this issue offered a prize to the member of FEMRITE whose work was selected for publication in S&F Online. Jackee Budesta Batanda's winning entry, "Holding on to the Memories," frames questions of nation building and nationalism in postcoloniality from the perspective of Naboro, the young female protagonist and narrator. Nelson Mandela's status as "African hero," triumphant emblem of black resistance, contrasts with the narrator's account of her own father's complicity with Idi Amin. Batanda's story concludes on a note of suggestive ambiguity: it is unclear whether or how Naboro will reconcile with her father and the legacies of violent repression that she must confront.

In "Alma Latina: The American Hemisphere's Racial Melodramas," Hiram Perez focuses on the circulation of media across the Americas. He interrogates the melodrama, defined as the dominant mode of U.S. cinema, but which Perez argues is "also a hemispheric—regional, transnational, extranational—mode or symbolic structure that in the excesses and peregrinations of its performances may indeed reinforce nation-state racial formations but also subverts (or at least recodes) those formations." Perez tracks the many iterations of Imitation of Life in the United States and Latin America, particularly the staging of the black maternal body and of the tragic mulatta. As he argues, the ideological contradictions generated by these melodramatic female figures complicate accounts of Latin American telenovela spectatorship in relation to North American media and economic imperialism as either passive or resistant. Instead, melodrama constitutes a "complex site of mediations" productive for an American studies attentive to the constantly shifting, multilayered hemispheric myths of racial origin.

The pieces in the second section, "The Politics of Citizenship/The Performance of Politics," suggest reconsiderations of notions of affinity and belonging, not in terms of home and nation but in terms of political alliance. Unexpectedly, conceptions of motherhood become important in several of the pieces, the majority of which reflect the voices of noted political thinkers, writers, and artists in the U.S. and West Africa. This volume was produced during the academic year 2008-2009, in an historic election cycle that potentially ushers in a new phase of U.S. politics but certainly tapped long standing pressure points regarding race and culture in the U.S., even as popular commentary seemed to forget that race and gender have long been primal to conceptions of citizenship and nativity.

The contest in the presidential primaries of the Democratic Party between the first viable female candidate and the most successful African-American presidential candidate in history at times threatened to reduce American political options to a choice between "race" and "gender." Given that commentary on the election (falsely) pitted race against gender in ways not discussed so widely since the conflicts over white women's suffrage and black male suffrage after abolition, we were compelled to offer some analysis of this political moment, even though it is yet early to appreciate the many ways this contest and Obama himself might impact conceptions of race and diaspora. The election of the first African-American president in the United States raised several questions about the politics of race and the nature of diaspora. The Barnard Center for Research on Women was fortunate to host two leading black feminists during the election year; this section leads with lectures by Lani Guinier and Angela Davis that address U.S. politics, along with an essay by Tavia Nyong'o on Obama himself.

The Davis and Guinier lectures insist that one always remains vigilant for the power of narrative to occlude concerns of class, sexuality, and gender, as well as the histories and experiences of women in the diaspora. Drawing from her mother's question, "Who designed the game?" at a family gathering, Lani Guinier's lecture "Race, Gender and Votes," given on the Barnard campus in March 2008 in the midst of the presidential primary season, argues for a reconceptualization of power that would reorganize electoral politics. She highlights how performance in Theater of the Oppressed in Brazil and the Montgomery Bus Boycott allowed activists to motivate and set the agenda for designated political leaders. However, she also points out that narratives of leadership mislead and efface collective action, arguing, for example, that popular narratives of Martin Luther King, Jr., as leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and Rosa Parks, whose famous refusal to sit in the back of the bus sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, "miss the important role that women activists played in the Montgomery Bus Boycott." Like the Latin American feminist activists in Keisha-Khan Perry's essay (Section III), who continually place themselves in relation to anti racist, anti-sexist activism throughout the diaspora, Guinier argues strongly for global connections between social movements, as well as a horizontal conceptualization of power between leaders and members/masses.

In his reading of Obama's autobiography, Dreams of My Father, Tavia Nyong'o offers to think through what it means to understand Obama as our first "post-colonial" president. Using a psychoanalytic framework, Nyong'o interrogates the roles of family both in Obama's performance of black male subjectivity and in American notions of citizenship and nation. Nyong'o notes that "Obama's text seeks to interpret the non-relation between symbolic fathers who order American discourse of race and inheritance, and his imaginary father, the fatherly Imago, whose absence from his American (and Indonesian) upbringing indexes instead a mythic, exteriorized, Kenyan concern." Nyong'o, however, dwells more on the paradox that "the parent Obama consistently seeks to understand is his mother"; using Hortense J. Spiller's landmark "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" and Harriet Jacob's Our Nig, he queries where the white mother fits into "the cut and augmented hermeneutic circle of blackness." This question of the white woman's role is unexpectedly foundational in a discussion of the African diaspora. Critic Michelle Wright highlights the prominent use of white women to represent the nation in coming-to-black-consciousness anecdotes by Cesaire, Dubois, Fanon, and Senghor; such narratives of personal encounter feature a rejection by white women and girls as "emblematic of the Black man's position in the West" (127). Nyong'o's reading suggests how the Obama narrative upends this script, offering instead key moments of acceptance (and creation) of African otherness by white women; he also notes the problematic erasure of black women in this narrative.

Angela Davis's lecture, "Abolition, Democracy and Global Politics," given the week before the general election, both captures the excitement of possibility in an Obama win and warns that consideration of gendered/raced issues (such as prison policy and civil rights for transgendered people) are likely to be buried under the focus on the "triumph" of the election. She argues that we should claim Obama's candidacy as a "victory of masses of people," and she stirringly evokes Dubois's calling the moment of emancipation "the coming of the Lord" to characterize the emotion that would accompany Obama's election. Nonetheless, Davis reminds listeners that the focus on Obama's importance in American history occludes the social movements and individual black women whose political activities laid the foundation for an Obama win. Both Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm entered electoral politics insisting on the inseparability of class, race, gender, and citizenship concerns. Davis contends that the obscuring of these issues during Obama's campaign merely amplified popular misapprehensions of citizenship and belonging: there was "little or no public discourse on some of the most important issues affecting us. . . . When issues of race emerge, they produce a sense of chaos, of tumbling into a black hole of history from which we will never emerge." Similarly, fetishizing "Civil Rights as producing freedom," with Obama as the movement's apotheosis, rests on a "troubled" notion of citizenship that considers some (undocumented immigrants, ex-felons, and many racialized communities and sexual minorities) as beyond the reach of citizenship.

A key issue for the study of gender in the African diaspora is the privileging of the male subject of diaspora: so too, as Paul Zeleza observes, "there is an analytic tendency to privilege understanding of African diaspora as defined through the Anglophone Atlantic, American African diaspora" (36). To counter such tendencies, we chose to highlight contrasting perspectives from two of West Africa's most prominent writers and artists, Ama Ata Aidoo and Werewere Liking. In her interview with Nafeesah Allen, author Ama Aidoo declines to rehash the old controversies between "Western Feminism" and "Third World Feminism" but reiterates that Western models cannot be simply mapped onto Africa: "Well, I'm too tired to speak to that controversy, because it's something that I'm interested in, that I've been confronted with, but it takes too much to explain. I don't believe in Western Feminism in Africa. It's like saying, what's the difference between African Christians and Western Christians, there is no difference." Nevertheless, Aidoo identifies strongly as a feminist and insists that feminism must not rely on maternalism: "I believe, as a feminist, that motherhood is important, very important. But that a woman's worth, a woman's life, can still be valid, productive, interesting outside of motherhood. What I don't believe is that if a woman doesn't have children then it's like she might as well not have been born. That's mad. I repudiate it completely." As Aidoo observes, Europeans transported a large proportion of enslaved people from slave sites along the so-called Gold Coast, and, as a result, Ghana retains particular importance for the African diaspora. Even still, Aidoo pointedly rejects as "patronizing" the conception of Africa as "homeland" and insists on the specificity of her location within "the State of Ghana": "If you ask where home is I can point to a specific area in south central Ghana where I was born and where I spent my formative years."

In contrast to Aidoo, artist/author Werewere Liking, in her interview with Christine Cynn, centers motherhood as the source of female authority and rejects what she describes as a certain Western protest feminism of the late 1960s and 70s. As Liking states, African women as mothers and creators play a central role in imparting counterhistories and educating African youth about the history and culture of the continent. Through her wide-ranging aesthetic productions and Ki-Yi village, the pan-African cultural center that she co-founded in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she seeks to enable and enact such revisionings of Africa. Her definition of "Pan-African," a term that she notes Africans living in the diaspora formulated at the turn of the twentieth century, encompasses both Africa and its diasporas in a reciprocal relation that traverses national borders. However, as she insists, pan-Africanism "does not negate cultural specificities. Indeed, Pan-Africanism relies on these specificities to enrich itself. Therefore, for me, to be Pan-African means to take a wider view." Liking draws attention to an underanalyzed aspect of the diaspora, extensive intra-African migration, in this case to Côte d'Ivoire. She dismisses as "temporary," and "epiphenomenon" the ethno-nationalism articulated as "Ivoirite" that emerged after the death of president Felix Houpouet-Boigny in 1993 and that she considers a legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism.

Makini Boothe's "A Reunion of 'Sisters': Personal Reflections on Diaspora and Women in Activist Discourse," provides a seldom seen perspective: that of a young U.S. black American woman who strongly identifies as a diasporic subject. As she comes to term with her experiences attending an NGO-sponsored training institute for young, mostly women, activists across the African diaspora—and with her own status as an outsider living within and benefiting from citizenship in a powerful nation—she assesses the unforeseen limits of organizing around the terms "diaspora" and "woman." Addressing the collision of theory and activism, she finds that "diaspora" has "an ambiguous definition in activist discourse": the working idea of African diaspora arising from both the conference and institutions such as the African Union and the World Bank carries different assumptions, relationships, and responsibilities than definitions she learned and accepted as an African-American shaped by a Middle Passage framework. From the Institute emerged an independent diaspora activist network, Sauti Yeti (Our Voices). With unprecedented access to new technologies that help keep these women working together across the globe, they face ongoing questions: How do we collaborate transnationally around local needs/efforts? How do we make diasporic differences and disagreement a source of strength?

The final section, "The Black Diaspora and the Academy," features essays driven by the relation between gender, feminism, and the academy. In her essay based on a lecture delivered at Barnard College on April 22, 2008, Amina Mama considers the role of African universities in shaping postcolonial gender and gender relations. She discusses the Gender and Institutional Culture in African Universities (GICAU) project at the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town, which collected both qualitative and quantitative data on gender relations between 2004 and 2006 at University of Chiekh Anta Diop in Senegal, University of Ghana, University of Ibadan Nigeria, University of Zimbabwe, and University of Addis Ababa. Mama notes continuing gender disparities in enrollment and employment at these universities and argues that universities both explicitly and through a "hidden curriculum" produce and reinforce gender norms. Struggles for gender equity in the university reflect the growing feminist consciousness throughout the "developing world," but, as Mama argues, the imposition of structural adjustment policies and the effects of globalization as reinforced through General Agreements on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) stipulations related to higher education have compromised these efforts. "Gender justice" remains central to efforts to revitalize African universities to "advance the democratic and social justice agendas that the African people are once again embracing as they move beyond the legacies of our difficult history and struggle to become peaceful, democratic, and just societies."

Keisha-Khan Perry's "Groundings with my Sisters: Towards a Black Diasporic Feminist Agenda in the Americas" understands the history of women's activism in the African diaspora as a necessary adjunct to political action. Perry's reflective piece suggests how black women in Latin America "understand their experiences, identities, and social activism in relationship to other black women throughout the Americas." She opens by discussing the disappearance of black women from histories of liberation struggle. Despite this invisibility in academic and popular realms, Perry argues for and wishes to make visible a global consciousness among black feminists in Latin America that is distinctly different from more closely studied movements like Pan-Africanism. The black feminists she examines consciously adopt the African diaspora to frame the connection between their local struggles and those of other black women and as a basis for forming transnational communities around anti-sexist and anti racist struggle. Perry insists that experience and identity remain key for developing successful social movements and for counteracting the invisibility of women of the Africa diaspora, this despite the groundswell of condemnation of "identity politics," primarily from feminist/gender and cultural studies.

Amina Mama notes that many of the gender studies units and gender initiatives draw "on international networks and external support to develop courses, training programs, and new research." These two essays (Mama and Perry) are tangible reminders of the importance—and difficulty—of building and sustaining alternative and diasporic networks in scholarly, activist, and policy arenas. Along with Makini Boothe's essay, they serve as reminders that while the academy and international conferences are important arenas for formulating and enacting feminist activism, they are neither the only nor even the primary sites for such interventions.

"Rewriting Dispersal" is very much tied to its conditions of production: it originated from conversations between the Africana Studies Program at Barnard College and the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). Despite claims of inclusivity within and beyond the academy, all too frequently women of color, particularly women of the African diaspora, disappear in discussions of "women" or evocations of "sisterhood." Many Africana studies and black studies programs have thus struggled over issues of gender, even as they evolve to reflect scholarly growth in African diaspora studies. As Noliwe Rooks noted in the 1990s, a number of African-American and black studies programs transformed into Africana or black diaspora (160-61), a change that reflects an increased focus on diaspora as process and an acknowledgement of the differences between peoples within the black diaspora, even while maintaining a commitment to social change advanced by the study of race, black lives, and black culture. It is a welcome mark of our progress that we were invited by BCRW to develop this volume as one way to make visible the necessary institutional and intellectual links between women's/gender studies and African diaspora studies. The Ford Foundation's Difficult Dialogues Initiative also provided crucial funding for the effort. We hope that electronic fora committed to transnational dialogue, such as The Scholar & Feminist Online, can become important venues for the "global" rethinking of the relation between gender, sexuality, and African diaspora.

Works Cited

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——. The Practice of Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Gunning, Sandra, Tera W. Hunter and Michele Mitchell, eds. Dialogues of Dispersal: Gender, Sexuality and African Diasporas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Lewis, Earl with Jeanne Theoharis. "Teaching Race in a World of Overlapping Diasporas." Teaching History in Higher Education. Eds. Alan Booth and Paul Hyland. London: Blackwell, 1996: 39-54.

Patterson, Tiffany Ruby and Robin D. G. Kelley. "Unfinished Migrations: Reflections on the African Diaspora and the Making of the Modern World." African Studies Review (April 2000): 11-45.

Rooks, Noliwe. White Money/Black Power. New York: Beacon Press, 2006.

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Sheftall, Beverly Guy. "Speaking for Ourselves: Feminisms in the African Diaspora." Decolonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies. Eds. Carole Boyce Davies, Meredith Gadsby, Charles F. Peterson, Henrietta Williams. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2003.

Shepperson, George. "African Diaspora: Concept and Context." Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. Ed. Joseph E. Harris. 41-49.

Steady, Filomena Chioma. "Women of Africa and the African Diaspora: Linkages and Influences." Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. Ed. Joseph E. Harris. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1982.

Tölölyan, Khachig. "The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27.3 (2007): 647-655.

Wright, Michelle. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe. "Rewriting the African Diaspora: Beyond the Black Atlantic." African Affairs 104:414 (2005): 35-68.

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