The beautyful ones are here
“Unfortunately, Nelson Mandela lied to the rest of the world….”
These were words from South African activist, Wanelisa Xaba, that prompted a scandalised gasp (along with a few loud cheers) in the auditorium today at the inaugural Black Feminisms Forum in Bahia, Brazil. There are many things people can handle but challenging the sacrosanct myth of Nelson Mandela™ is about as close as you can get to anathema as anything in many an activist space.
The Black Feminisms Forum is a space unlike any I’ve ever been a part of.
There aren’t words to describe the feeling of sitting in a room full of Black women from across the world, all speaking different languages, all hailing from different contexts, all here and present in one space with the fire of our different feminisms and activisms in our bellies. To know that I can stand up in this room and say my piece, and not feel as though the women around me don’t get it. Even though we may have vastly different backgrounds, there is a certain consciousness we share, a song. I say ‘song’ deliberately because this is not just about a shared experience of barely-surviving in the face of the racist capitalist patriarchy – it’s a sense of resistance. Of rebellion in the face of that oppression. Of understanding that finding ways to re-imagine the world and vision a Black feminist alternative is a radical choice that we each make in our various lives and domains every single day.
Being together as Black women with a common purpose that is fighting colonialisms, capitalisms and patriarchies in a swanky conference room in Bahia at this moment – a moment where Brazil is currently undergoing a violent reassertion of white patriarchy and right-wing backlash against more than a decade of critical social reforms in the guise of a ‘legalised’ coup against Dilma Roussef – is not a small thing.
It is about reclaiming space, reclaiming community – or ‘territory’ as Charo Minas Rojas from Colombia says:
“I believe that we will look at the future in relation to the past and the present, you can’t look at the future without taking into consideration what we are historically and this comes from something way behind. In Colombia, we are Afro-descendent, we have roots in Africa, an umbilical cord that connects us to Africa and there is a historical process that brings us here and this process is [still happening]. It’s in this process that we think about the future. If you look at Candomblé in Brazil – a spiritual practice centred on women – women are the spinal cord of this history… the builders of cultures, the ones who keep and protect the tradition, who keep the family. I see this as a sense of belonging. It means building community, building territoriality, spaces where we can be, where we can develop and exercise being Black…. I am not [just] talking about land; I am talking about territories. [I am talking about] a future where we are building sisterhood as African and African-descendent people.”
Breaking a culture of silence, violence and erasure…
It is about reclaiming our identities, our stories, our myths, our legends, our bodies from a system that has found ways to alienate us from those very things. It is also about inventing new stories and myths. In Coumba Toure’s session on The Art of African Feminist Storytelling we grapple with the idea of storytelling as a political act. There is power in telling new stories that reaffirm and celebrate Blackness – this Black skin, this Black nose, this Black hair, this Black laughter, this Black strength. There is also power in reclaiming and re-appropriating our own myths and our legends that have been cannibalised, colonised or simply erased as though they never were by white supremacist cultural production. It’s these stories that become the cornerstone of how and whether we see ourselves in the universe, that enable us to dream and imagine possibilities, that give us license to create and construct a world in which we can be protagonists, heroes and sheroes without it being ‘weird’.
It is also about inhabiting “in-between” spaces as Kai Barrow puts it. Or, to paraphrase Amina Mama, recognising that the forces of oppression at play in our world today make up a complex terrain and we, in turn, need to recognise and reaffirm the fluidity of our identities (gender, sexuality, ability and more) and the multiple ways of being as a means to survive and carve out new, different and varied narratives.
These narratives can and must look different even as we work towards the same goal. Whether it is Mariama Sonko who is part of a 160,000-strong movement against big agri-business and corporate interests that tear families and communities apart. Or Agness Chindimba from Zimbabwe who speaks of the need for movements that are inclusive of all of us in our diversities and differences. Or Thenjiwe McHarris demanding that we stop giving false solutions to the problems we are facing today and begin naming and shaming the people who are extracting from Black lives and bodies every day. Or Sheena Magenya challenging us all to shift the conversation from merely ‘surviving’ and assimilating into oppression to transforming the very structures that are violating us.
“[I want us to think about] the richness of what we’re cultivating in this room. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. There’s a writer Ayi Kwei Armah who has a saying, the title of his first novel, that says ‘the beautyful ones are not yet born’. But he’s not a feminist, so of course the beautiful ones have not been born.” – Amina Mama
At the end of a long yet somehow revitalizing day, we sit together in a gazebo, trading tales, poetry and song to much laughter and applause. It’s a warm night for an open mic, and every few minutes the rain pours down like it’s clapping along with us, helping us to affirm and reaffirm one another.
This is just a glimpse of the world we all want to live in and it takes me back to the question we started with in the morning: what does a Black Feminist Future look like? It almost seemed alien and impossible to achieve at the time, too fantastical or far in the future. But it’s not.