Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on “Surviving Racial Terror: Lessons from Black Women’s Lives,” scheduled for September 1st, we are highlighting the scholarship of the three guests.
Keisha N. Blain, a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow and Class of 2022 Carnegie Fellow, is an award-winning historian of the 20th century United States with broad interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She completed a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University in 2014 and is now a Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. Professor Blain is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (UPenn Press, 2018). The book won the 2018 First Book Award from the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians and the 2019 Darlene Clark Hine Award from the Organization of American Historians. Her second book, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021), was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a finalist for the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.
Erica R. Edwards is Professor of African American Studies and English at Yale University. She is the author of The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of U.S. Empire (NYU Press, 2021), which was a finalist for the Prose Award from the Association of American Publishers and the annual book prize from the Association of African American Life and History. Her first book, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership, (University of Minnesota Press), was awarded the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize. Her work on African American literature, politics, and gender critique has appeared in journals such as differences, Callaloo, American Quarterly, and American Literary History, and her public-facing work has appeared in venues such as The Washington Post, Public Books, and A-Line: A Journal of Progressive Thought. Follow her on Twitter @EricaREdwards2.
Treva Lindsey is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University. She specializes in African American women’s history, Black popular and expressive culture, Black feminism(s), hip hop studies, critical race and gender theory, and sexual politics. Her first book is Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington D.C. (UI Press, 2017). She has published in The Journal of Pan-African Studies, Souls, African and Black Diaspora, the Journal of African American Studies, African American Review, The Journal of African American History, Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, Urban Education, The Black Scholar, Feminist Studies, and Signs. She recently published America, Goddam: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice (2022). Follow her on Twitter @DivaFeminist.
Conversations in Black Freedom Studies: What does Black feminism teach us about resisting racial terror?
Keisha N. Blain: Black women have always resisted racial terror—and they have always called attention to the overlapping systems of oppression Black women face in American society. During the Revolutionary War, for example, Elizabeth Freeman sued for her freedom in the state of Massachusetts. Early Black feminists such as Maria Stewart and Sojourner Truth passionately advocated for expanded Black rights—and boldly challenged racism and white supremacy. During the nineteenth century, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells launched a transnational campaign to end racial terror in the United States. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer would follow in their footsteps years later. Although Hamer resisted the label “feminist”—for a myriad of reasons, including her critique of how the women’s liberation movement sidelined Black women’s concerns during the 1960s and 1970s—she would ultimately shape Black feminist politics during the 20th century. And one of the ways Hamer left her mark was through her use of public testimony as a tool for resisting racial terror.
Hamer’s speeches were modes of resistance and revelation. To that end, she worked to expose racist violence—including her own painful experiences—and encouraged others to do the same. This was the essence of her famous phrase “tell it like it is”—a pledge to reveal what has been concealed; a pledge to call attention to the horrors of racial terror in the United States. She specifically confronted the acts of racial, sexual, and medical violence Black women endured on a daily basis, and she brought these concerns into the public sphere—speaking about racial terror, for example, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Fannie Lou Hamer’s actions offer a glimpse into how Black women in the United States—those who embraced the label ‘feminist’ as well as those who resisted the term—passionately resisted racial terror and applied a race and gender analysis to their personal and political experiences.
Erica R. Edwards: As I understand it, Black feminism is a wide-ranging and sometimes conflicting collection of theories of power and templates for social, political, and cultural change. What these theories and models have taught us about racial terror—which, as a term, names the way that racial categorization not only serves to produce what critical geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” but also to justify gratuitous violence, torture, and panic as acceptable means to premature death—is that racial terror is a gendered formation. As historian Sarah Haley points out, gendered racial terror provided the grammar through which threat and punishment could be imagined throughout US modernity, with Black women’s violability and incarcerability providing the necessary physical and ideological frameworks for US progress in industry, politics, and culture. But I’m also interested in how Black women have historically served as test cases for the techniques of surveillance and torture that are regularly considered “counterterrorist” tactics. I’m thinking, for example, of how women of color, and Black women specifically, weren’t generally understood to be the targets of the “war on terror,” but Black women were indeed increasingly hypervisible and criminalized, detained, searched, and murdered throughout the early aughts in the name of homeland security.
Treva Lindsey: Black feminism is a multitude of things—one of which is embodied and sustained collective resistance. Black feminism provides expansive and multi-dimensional lenses for confronting antiBlack terror and other forms of subjugation and racial violence. While Black feminist analytical frameworks provide incisive points of entry for identifying, describing, and contextualizing the numerous forms of violence and terrorizing Black people encounter, succumb to, and survive, it is the life-affirming strategizing, mobilizing, and organizing of Black feminists throughout our respective and interconnected histories in the African Diaspora that is the pulse of Black feminism. When June Jordan declared that “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” she offered a rallying cry for those invested in undoing death-dealing systems, institutions, and structures—it anchors in the dynamism of a tradition, of praxes of radically transforming the conditions of unfreedom and violence used to uphold white supremacist and patriarchal domination. Our duty to love and protect one another AND win, as articulated by Assata Shakur is foundational to all iterations of Black feminism. Abolitionist, revolutionary, armed, pan-African, transnational, grassroots, academic, queer, trans, socialist, Marxist, communist, and aesthetic Black feminist traditions co-exist and interdepend on each other in the struggle for liberation. Resisting the ubiquity of antiBlack racial terror demands an arsenal of resources and approaches committed to those on the margins and those on the margins of the margins. Upending racial terror, from a Black feminist standpoint, encompasses an acute understanding of how vulnerable communities are multiply marginalized. Racial terror has always been at the forefront of Black feminist struggles and will continue to be as long as we bear witness to the disparate wearing down, assailing, and killing of Black people.
CBFS: What is a common misconception about Black women and racial terror, and how does your research challenge it?
Edwards: I am a literary critic. I find that often when we read and study and teach Black women’s writing, we expect to find Black women who are the victims of, or the victorious survivors of, racial terror. That is, we expect to see Black women triumph over rape, beatings, joblessness, houselessness, and other forms of pain and torture. And we often do. But as much as Black feminist writers call our attention to racial terror as prohibitive and exclusionary, they also help us grasp power’s productive and affirmative modes. In my book, The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of US Empire, I center on Black feminist theories of power in my attempt to account for the domestic and foreign iterations of US imperialism; and I study literary culture as one important domain for the growth of post-World War II US imperialism. At the same time as literature served as a record of state violence and Black women’s resistance, Black women’s writing bore a self-conscious relationship to the state’s affirmative relationship to racial, gender, and sexual difference, that is, its celebration and affirmation of Black women’s contributions to a multicultural democracy. Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and so many other Black women writers were theorizing the crucial intimacy between anti-Black terror and the counterinsurgency tactics that increasingly depended on Black loyalty to country, Black statecraft, what Gwendolyn Brooks decades ago referred to sneeringly as the “government men” with pretty brown faces, to spread the fiction of multiracial democracy around the world.
Lindsey: I think one of the most common misconceptions about Black women and racial terror is that Black women, as well as gender expansive and gender nonbinary people, do not experience racial terror to the same extent that cisgender Black men and boys do. While it’s important to understand racial terror as gendered and to not engage in a “racial terror” Olympics, the erasure or limited visibility of racial terror’s impact on Black women and girls was one of the primary reasons I wrote America, Goddam: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice. I want readers to not only confront the pervasiveness of racial terror in the lives of Black women and girls, but I also want them to wrestle with widespread assumptions about who has been and is victimized by racial terror. How does misogyny, and more specifically misogynoir as coined by Moya Bailey, impact how Black girls and women experience racial terror as well as how we discuss and organize against it. Racial terror for Black women looks like dying in police custody under suspicious or neglectful circumstances, dying as a result of childbirth, disappearing without a trace, receiving a forced hysterectomy while in I.C.E. custody, or being sexually violated by a police officer.
Blain: One common misconception is that Black women and girls are somehow protected from racial terror. Mainstream discussions about racist violence—especially state-sanctioned violence—tend to focus on the experiences of Black men and boys. This is why #SayHerName is so important—to shed light on the vulnerability of Black women and girls to racist violence in the United States. The reality is that Black women and girls have always been vulnerable to racial terror—since the birth of the nation. And as a result, they have worked to confront racial terror for centuries.
CBFS: Please tell us about the life and work of a Black woman or group of Black women you write about.
Edwards: One of the central figures in my book is June Jordan, a writer and activist who dedicated her life to theorizing and resisting gendered racial terror. In one of my chapters, I write about Jordan’s unpublished 1979 play, The Issue, a play about police violence that Jordan revised after she herself was the victim of police terror when she marched in a protest against police violence in Brooklyn and the police rioted. I also write about the poetry and essays she published after her trip to Nicaragua in 1983, when she went to study and plan with Sandinista revolutionaries. Ultimately, I argue that that Jordan’s inquiry into what she calls the “perfect grammar” of US imperialism helps us understand Black literary feminism as a code for radical resistance to state violence in the era of the late Cold War.
Lindsey: In America, Goddam, I write about a number of Black women and Black feminist-led organizations focused on violence against Black women and girls. In the concluding chapter, I list several organizations, initiatives, and campaigns invested in ending the racial terrorizing of Black individuals and communities. In this particular chapter, I also highlight the work of Black feminist abolitionist, Mariame Kaba, whose conceptualization of “hope as a discipline” was and remains quite helpful in the struggle for justice. Her tremendous bodywork, which ranges from books to zines to campaigns to historical tours, reflects the breadth of ways Black feminists engage to make this world more just, more habitable, and more loving. Black feminism demands that we imagine worlds we’ve yet to see and to believe in the power of the people to transform, to abolish, and to build new worlds. Although systems, institutions, and structures war against marginalized communities, it is a Black feminist imperative to believe in and fight the worlds we want to see.
Blain: My latest book, Until I Am Free, centers on the life and legacy of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, a working-poor and disabled Black woman from Mississippi. Like her well-known contemporaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer deserves to be a household name—not the least because she helped to transform American society. Hamer played a vital role in expanding voting rights for Black Americans through her unsurpassed bravery and her skillful use of public testimony. A gifted orator and passionate organizer, Hamer worked tirelessly to advance civil and human rights. She believed that all Americans—regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability—should have full and equal rights and opportunities. Her life and liberatory vision can offer much inspiration—and guidance—during these dark timespermission.