To Exist is to Resist: Exploring Black feminist politics beyond national boundaries
- Lynsey May
- 13 May 2019
New essay collection reveals the particularities of experiences and understandings of Black feminism in Europe
To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe is a forceful and fascinating collection of essays collected and curated by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande. The editors have brought together activists, artists and scholars of colour to show how Black feminism and Afrofeminism are being explored in Europe today. We spoke to the pair to hear a little bit more about the project in their own words.
How did you come to work on the book together?
FS: I met Akwugo during the first few months of my PhD in 2015, when she was a keynote speaker at an event in Scotland on issues concerning intersectionality. We kept in touch and I was delighted when she reached out about the opportunity of being involved in the organising committee behind the inaugural Black Feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Colour in Europe symposium at the University of Edinburgh.
As a Black woman who grew up in Scotland, it was rare to come across events such as these so close to home, and where experiences of Black life can be both similar and significantly different to elsewhere in Britain. It wasn't long after the first conference that the book project began to develop.
AE: Francesca and I started working on this book after the Black Feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Colour in Europe conference we co-organised in Edinburgh in 2016. We really wanted to capture this moment of renewed Black feminist organising and activism to memorialise the present, learn from the past and take action in the future.
Did you have any particular North American works that served as inspiration?
AE: For me, the point of this work is not to mimic the amazing work of North American Black feminists. Too often, when we debate Black feminism in Europe, we pivot quickly to the United States instead of seeking to take seriously and learn from the history, knowledge and activism of European Black feminism. Thus, my inspiration was the British text The Heart of the Race by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe and the German text, Showing Our Colours: Afro-German Women Speak Out edited by May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz.
FS: As the book specifically focuses on the particularities of experiences and understandings of Black feminism in European settings, it led to our edited collection including a call for continued conversations about the connections and differences between Black feminist perspectives across continents, as well as within them.
What was the process of putting together the collection like?
FS: As an early career researcher who had not been involved in a project like this before, getting to work alongside Akwugo as an editor was a great experience. The best part of this process was learning about the lives and politics of Black women and women of colour activists, creatives and scholars in different European countries including Britain, Spain, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.
This was also a reminder of the importance of exploring Black feminist politics and praxis beyond national boundaries and the global powers that are the US and the UK. We are conscious that no one book can ever encompass Black feminism and the many experiences of Black women and women of colour in Europe.
That said, we hope that this collection captures related issues, ideas, differences, and forms of solidarity-building at particular moments in time. The book brings together different writing styles, topics, creative work, and individual and shared experiences, which connect to contemporary dialogue about race, gender, Blackness, anti-Blackness and the development of feminist politics.
What have you come to understand about the tension between being invisible and hyper-visible?
AE: Both invisibility and hyper-visibility are about the two ways of experiencing the white gaze. Both come at a great cost to Black women. To be invisible is to have your experiences and perspectives denied and for Black women to be rendered irrelevant. No solidarity is possible under these conditions.
In many European countries, we see Black women almost completely excluded from public space and debate and in turn, any solidarity is denied. To be hyper-visible is to be misrecognised and misunderstood through the fetishising white gaze. For Black women, this means that we are goods to be consumed but not political actors in our own right. Thus, for this book, we wanted to counter the white gaze and tell different stories about Black women in Europe.
FS: The tension between being invisible and hyper-visible is certainly one that Black women have reflected on and documented for centuries. When considering this in relation to Black feminism in Europe, I think about the fact that the experiences and politics of Black women in certain parts of Europe are particularly obscured and overlooked. While working on this collection we were aware of the potential for it to end up being solely based on the words of those in Britain.
There is definitely a need for more recognition of the work and lives of Black feminists in Britain, both past and present. As the focus of this book has always been on Black feminism across Europe, the editorial process involved trying to bring together a range of perspectives from several different countries. Featured chapters involve discussion of issues to do with invisibility and hyper-visibility beyond and within Black feminist spaces, including challenges that can be involved in attempting to forge inter-racial and inter-generational alliances.
Did you discover any artistic or social areas where visibility is better realised that others?
FS: I wouldn't say that it seems as though visibility is better realised in particular artistic or social areas, than in others. I think a number of the chapters highlight that visibility and surface-level representation is far from being a Black feminist objective. In fact, visibility can come at a real cost to the safety and well-being of Black feminists in Europe. Instead, what became clear during the process of editing this book is the broad spectrum of ways that Black feminism in Europe involves self-directed and 'do it together' (DIT) approaches to creative practice, self-expression, collective organising, and the use of media technology, along with different perceptions and experiences of what visibility can entail.
To Exist is to Resist is out now via Pluto Books.