What if Black Women Were Free?

The transnational struggles of Black women throughout history are different experiments in the practice of freedom.

In her essay “The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde has a message for white women who fear the anger of Black women: “Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”1 In other words, anger is a response and a solution to the ways that women can misunderstand one another. Lorde urges women to use their anger as a tool to acknowledge differences among us, and also to address the uneven privileges that have historically blocked solidarity between different racial and ethnic groups within the women’s movement. Lorde’s essay, when it was originally presented as the keynote at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 1981, achieved its intended purpose of bridge building, at least with one woman. White German feminist Dagmar Schultz was so moved by the talk that she began a lifelong allyship with Lorde, which resulted in a documentary, German translations of Lorde’s work, and a visiting professorship at Freie Universität Berlin for Lorde.

This historical incident is detailed by Tiffany N. Florvil in Mobilizing Black Germany, but Florvil does not dwell on the relationship between Black and white feminists. Rather, she dwells on the painstaking (and sometimes painful) bridge building that happens between Black women. In a letter to Lorde, Afro-German activist Katharina Oguntoye asks, after experiencing conflict with other Afro-German women: “Dose [sic] that mean growing up, to stand through the fights with people one loves?”

Lorde was the right person to ask. Throughout her work, she was just as focused on how Black women “reenact these crucifixions upon each other” as she was on antiracism.2 And it is these crucifixions, which we enact on each other, that run through Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh and Laurie Lambert’s Comrade Sister, in addition to Florvil’s Mobilizing Black Germany.

Moreover, these texts resist the urge to represent Black women as a monolithic group; indeed, within the category of “Black,” they include a complex multitude—from slaveholding Senegambian hostesses to conservative Christian politicians; color-conscious Creole landowners to Germans of Asian and Arab descent—all within the category of “Black.” When taken together, all these examples form a genealogy of the fracturing choices and elusive freedoms that Black women have forged for themselves since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.

These three books, like the words of Lorde, challenge us to see the way freedom eddies in unexpected corners, uplifting some while evading others. It is not useful to think of the transnational struggles of Black women throughout history simply in terms of differing levels of privilege. Rather, it is important to think of those struggles as different experiments in the practice of freedom. An acknowledgment of a shared struggle is the balm to many distortions, as Lorde realized when she asked, rhetorically, “What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another’s face?”3


Wicked Flesh focuses on a practice that has defined Black womanhood for centuries: the way that Black women have created alternative forms of kinship and structured intimacy as a practice of freedom, in opposition to white-supremacist narratives about our inherent wickedness.

Johnson’s work is an archival tour de force. The book incorporates the French and Spanish colonial paper trail of Louisiana’s tumultuous 18th century (first under French rule, then Spanish, then French again). The book ends with the dawn of US rule.

One of Johnson’s innovative approaches is to tie Black women’s freedom practices in 18th-century Louisiana back to Black women’s lifeways in Senegambia, the provenance of the majority of enslaved people of African descent in New Orleans. In Senegambia’s Wolof society, Johnson argues, “Slaveownership distinguished propertied women from unpropertied women of African descent in critical ways”; these key forms of social and class differentiation were undone on the journey across the Atlantic.

Johnson makes clear that Wicked Flesh is “neither a biography nor a microhistory.” Indeed, the flood of stories and archival examples that makes up the book mirrors the maelstrom of early settler colonialism in Louisiana. The stories of fugitivity and freedom shift as constantly as the political landscape of a colony in the throes of constant rebellion.

Even so, the book takes time to linger lovingly on a few women’s stories that “seem extraordinary because they appear in an archive structured to erase them.” There was Marie Baude, for instance, a free woman of color of French and African heritage who moved to New Orleans from Senegal in 1728. She arrived with her white French husband, who was deported to Louisiana for killing a mixed-race man (whose corpse he dismissed as “just a mulâtre,” stating, “I’m not very bothered by it”).

Together these texts form a genealogy of the fracturing choices and elusive freedoms that Black women have forged for themselves since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.

There was Suzanne, whose husband was offered freedom in exchange for agreeing to serve as the New Orleans executioner in 1725. But, instead of freeing Suzanne as well, the Superior Council of Louisiana simply gave her husband the “full use of his wife” as an enslaved person.

And then there was the unforgettable 1789 inheritance dispute between two free women of color, María Teresa and her sister-in-law Perine Dauphine, who wrested the inheritance from María Teresa’s children. Perine did so by successfully arguing in court that María Theresa’s children were too phenotypically African to be her brother’s biological children. These different examples illustrate some of the ways that Black women’s kinship and intimacy could be used to both manipulate and be manipulated by the vagaries of the colonial legal apparatus.

These women’s lives also make clear the way that “free status did not define freedom” for Black women on the shores of the transatlantic slave trade. Johnson’s intervention is to read against the grain of the archive to reveal how Black women were fully cognizant that freedom could not, and should not, be defined for them through manumission or property ownership. These violent colonial policies, laid down by many of the same violent men who recorded the only written traces of Black women’s lives, constituted a structure to be questioned rather than a truth to be accepted.

In this viewpoint, Johnson follows in the footsteps of scholars like Marisa J. Fuentes and Saidiya Hartman. Hartman, in particular, has argued for an archival praxis that strains “against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, [that enacts] the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration.”4

Another push “against the limits of the archive” can be found in Laurie Lambert’s Comrade Sister. The book centers on the Grenada Revolution, during which the New Jewel Movement took control of the government from 1979 to 1983. Many of the available archival documents on the Grenadian Revolution, according to Lambert, were destroyed and dispersed during the US invasion of Grenada following the collapse of the People’s Revolutionary Government.

For Lambert, this destruction of the formal archive makes literature one of the only available resources we have for examining the impact of the revolution on those who lived through it. “This literature is not only a response to the archive,” argues Lambert. “It is an invitation to reevaluate the methods by which we think through Caribbean history.”

Lambert records an alternative literary tradition to that of the male Caribbean writers who have fetishized revolution (especially in Haiti and Cuba) as the single-handed work of charismatic male leaders. In contrast, works by Merle Collins and Dionne Brand, both of whom experienced the revolution firsthand, offer nonlinear histories that show us something an archive cannot: the revolution’s fragmentary effects upon the psyche of women who dare to hope in its progressive values, while also recognizing a continuation of the “assumed relationship between Caribbean masculine authority and revolution.”

Doubly erased by traumatic amnesia and by masculinist historical narratives, Black women writers of the Grenadian Revolution, as Lambert reveals, have etched out a place for themselves, as holders of “a complex series of multigenerational experiences among women, the working class, and the peasantry.” This knowledge seeks to hold the progressive values of the Grenadian revolution (and all those that would follow) accountable to the unnamed and unremembered people whose hands, backs, and blood made it possible.

Alongside the texts one might expect to encounter when thinking about Caribbean feminist revisions of the Grenadian Revolution, Lambert includes some surprising yet fruitful perspectives on the revolution from writers who could hardly be called feminist. It was strangely moving, for example, to read about Derek Walcott’s struggle between disgust at the Grenadian revolutionary government’s suppression of free speech and criticism of the American invasion of Grenada—which, ironically, was questioned by an editor at the New York Review of Books who wondered, “Are people being killed etc?” Equally moving was the work of Joan Purcell, a Grenadian MP who, despite being anti-revolutionary, was responsible for the decision to commute the sentences of the 14 revolutionary leaders who had been sentenced to death—an act of mercy she attributed to her Christian faith.

In this fashion, the book represents the psychic dilemmas of people who were no allies to revolution, yet found themselves caught in the web of US imperialism. Comrade Sister allows us to see feminist points of solidarity between people whose perspectives might otherwise have been obscured by a hard line between progressive and conservative, a line that does not always map neatly onto Caribbean politics.

It is important to think of black women’s struggles as different experiments in the practice of freedom.

Indeed, if these challenges to the archives offer any lessons, it may be that such hard lines are rarely useful, and rarely accurate. The Black German movement, for example, while in conversation with other Black intellectual and political traditions across the diaspora, has many fascinating nuances, as outlined by Florvil in Mobilizing Black Germany. For instance, most Afro-Germans did not trace their presence in the country to the Middle Passage or to German colonial activity, and many grew up in predominantly white families or communities.

As such, Florvil reveals, Black Germans did not always experience their Blackness as a shared history with other diasporic Black people. Consequently, they created lateral connections across local, national, and racial boundaries, through membership organizations like the Initiative of Black Germans (ISD) and Afro-German Women (ADEFRA). Women were instrumental in the founding and running of both organizations. Black German women had a unique coalition-building approach to organizing, necessitated by their need to create a Black German culture in real time.

And so—although there is a longer history of migration from Germany’s short-lived attempts at colonization in Africa prior to 1919—there were two watershed events that contributed to the political and cultural mobilization of Black people in late postwar Germany. First, there was Lorde’s position as a visiting professor at Freie Universität Berlin in 1984, which inspired a number of Afro-German women to articulate their own Blackness and sometimes queerness; second, there was the reunification of Germany in 1990, which led to an upswing in racist violence throughout the country.

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When Black Humanity Is Denied

By Edna Bonhomme

According to Florvil, the budding community of Black German activists who came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s were what she calls “quotidian intellectuals.” Florvil highlights the work of organizers and cultural workers who may not be widely known in a US context, but whose lived examples ultimately illustrate that intellectual production can and should occur in public spaces.

Some of Florvil’s subjects made careers as artists or academics. Even so, theirs was a remarkably community-centered approach, including such activities as protesting racial violence and racist citizenship laws, publishing journals and edited collections, and organizing cultural events like the German Black History Months.

A wonderful example of their uniqueness in both community organizing and coalition building was the 1991 Fifth Cross-Cultural Black Women’s Studies Summer Institute, organized by Black German women and hosted in Berlin, which provided scholarship support for women traveling from the Third World. It was a gathering of over one hundred Black women from all over the world, including Maori women from Aotearoa / New Zealand and German women of South Asian descent. All these women were united, as Florvil explains, in “a gendered political Blackness.”

It may be easy to look back with some dismissiveness on the heyday of Women of Color solidarity—those days when “Third World” was still an operative term within feminist organizing—as essentializing and ahistorical. And yet, there is something beautiful about this capacious form of Blackness.5 Though we do need cultural and historical specificity when discussing the African diaspora, we are just as keenly in need of a rallying point like the one proposed in the Institute’s “1991 Resolutions”: consolidating the shared struggle of “First Nation, Third World, refugee, immigrant, and ethnic and national minority women.”


There is much at stake in these three texts’ exploration of Black women’s difference across centuries and nations. Each, in different ways, offers tantalizing glimpses of what solidarities are possible today, what has caused them to break down, and how we can define freedom in a way that gives access to the most people.

The answers to these questions are of crucial importance. And, as these three texts together make clear, they are more complex—and yet, more universal —than commonly supposed. After all, the Combahee River Collective teaches us that Black womanhood is a laboratory for liberation: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”6

 

This essay is sponsored by the UVA Institute of the Humanities and Global Culturesicon

  1. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Crossing, 2007), p. 129.
  2. Ibid., p. 164.
  3. Ibid., p. 133.
  4. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, vol. 12, no. 2 (2008), p. 11.
  5. For more on the waning popularity of the term “Third World” in a feminist context, see Ranjoo Seodu Herr, “Reclaiming Third World Feminism: or Why Transnational Feminism Needs Third World Feminism,” Meridians, vol. 12, no. 1 (2014). Many Black American feminists of the 1970s and 1980s also valued the coalition-building impulse of Third World feminism, such that they used the term in their own writing and organizing. Frances Beal, Barbara Smith, and Toni Cade Bambara were among some of its best-known proponents.
  6. Combahee River Collective, This Bridge Called My Back (SUNY Press, 2015), p. 215.
Featured image: From Powerful and Dangerous: The Words and Images of Audre Lorde exhibition at the Alice Austen House (March 22, 2020–February 15, 2021)