Whether they’re demanding that #FeesMustFall in South Africa, contesting white settler colonialism in Canada, or defending the right of Afrofeminists in France to self-organize and decolonize, Black Feminists around the world are fighting interconnected (yet unique) struggles.
The Black Feminisms Forum (BFF) was held ahead of the 13th AWID International Forum in acknowledgement of the long history of Black feminist organizing in Brazil and particularly in Bahia.
Do you recall the sounds, rhythms, and voices of Bahia?
The first Black Feminisms Forum (BFF) was such a sensory experience! I remember Afro-Brazilian fam speaking Portuguese and using body language to communicate with long-lost kin from Africa and folks from the diaspora. I remember land rights activists from Colombia connecting with activists from the Movement for Black Lives in the U.S.A and U.K. I can still remember my emotional reaction to the photography of Sabriya Simon and Sokari Ekine's depiction of women in traditional Haitian spirituality practice. I remember the crushes, the laughter, the tears, and the late-night gatherings of the Black feminist family. These intangibles were just as, if not more essential to the historical and first Black Feminisms Forum (BFF), as was the formal agenda.
These elements constitute what June Jordan called the "Living Room", or what Alexis DeVeaux coined “home space”, an element of Black Feminist praxis. They are autonomous, self-organized, and sometimes fleeting spaces that Black feminists create wherever we gather. The home space defies institutionalization and administrative violence that comes with structures that have traditionally been used to surveil, control, and destroy Black communities.
The BFF was a global gathering of healers, students, sex workers, artists, grassroots workers, and other feminists from various movements and social locations. This event took place just as the Zika outbreak disproportionately affected Afrodescendant folks in the northeast region of Brazil, as violence against Black trans women continues to proliferate, and only a few months before the US elected the Orange Menace, among other manifestations of capitalism, misogynoir, and white supremacist violence.
Debunking the myth of “sameness”
I remember a conversation that took place between three Black feminists in a smaller room inside the figurative room: Fania Noel, one of the co-founders of Collectif Mwasi, an anti-colonial and anti-racist intersectional feminist group based in France; Wanelisa Xaba, a gender justice activist from South Africa who has been involved in the push for free and decolonial education in South Africa within the context of the #FeesMustFall movement; and Kimalee Phillip, a member of the BFF working group, AWID staff, and a previous organizer with Decolonize Now, an anti-colonial and anti-racist group based in Canada.
It was their first time meeting, but they compared notes and came up with striking (though unsurprising) parallels between their experiences of oppressive systems, including misogynoir, colonialism, and white supremacist violence, as well as organizing strategies and the quest to create joy and liberation for themselves and their communities.
Wanelisa evoked a dynamic within her movement that Black women and non binary people experience as they push back against violence at the hands of the State, white people, and their own communities in South Africa.
“As Black women and non-binary people, you are doing multiple things at the same time. You are fighting the government, you are fighting white people, you are fighting Black cis men in the movement who are raping women and non-binary people, who are absolutely patriarchal, who literally want to erase you,” said Wanelisa.
Fania, who was at the time planning collectif Mwasi’s decolonial summer camp, a popular education programme designed for and by Black folks and people of colour living in France, shared her analysis on marginalization and anti-Black racism in France:
“Though we are French citizens, we are living in the margins. It is not the same as living in a country in the Global South or a country where the majority of the population is Black. It’s a different context. The State uses violence—community violence between Black men and Black women to its advantage. It doesn’t use it to protect us, but to attack our community.”
It’s relevant to mention that two months ago, and for the second time in two years, collectif Mwasi would be at the center of a media storm in France, and experience what can only be described as ‘political bullying’ from politicians who objected to the decolonial summer camps and their Afrofeminist gathering, Nyansapo Festival, spaces that were exclusively created for people of color and Black folks.
Fania spoke about the complexity of organizing, as well as recognizing the experiences of her community in other regions:
“We have to approach systemic racism and patriarchy by working in a different way, in order to save ourselves and our community at the same time. We cannot give the State weapons to use against our community in the form of more law enforcement. It’s really tricky. And we see that we have some common points with Black Feminists in West Africa, for example, but we are also have more points in common with Black Feminists from the UK and from the United States. We are living in a place where we are minorities, in all senses of the word.”
Even so, Wanelisa affirmed that their experiences of oppression, though similar, were all unique, and called for self-awareness and self-criticism to avoid embodying oppression.
“It’s amazing to find commonalities (between struggles), but I also think that it is a space for me to reflect about power, inequality, and how visibility is navigated. We are in a space but we are not all really equal there. There are people who are hyper-visible in this space and there are also people who do not understand other people's contexts and want to dictate certain things. I have been really thinking about the ways in which I embody power. What are the ways in which I am hyper-visible in South Africa and maybe also invisibilize other people?“
As these activists continued in dialogue, Kimalee returned to the point of creating spaces, raising the importance of being in the room and connecting with others for a purpose other than violence.
“I think we are always responding to violence. Like, violence in our workplaces, within relationships, in our families. And I think what was beautiful about the BFF was that we recognize that violence, but we were not necessarily meeting because of it. It’s nice to be in a space where we are not just responding to something. We were actually just listening to each other and existing for the moment.“
As the one year anniversary of the BFF approaches, I wonder about the energy, lessons, and connections that folks took home with them. I picture a sort of house, in which there are many rooms, in which there are interconnected hallways, bookcases, doors, and secret passageways, and I hope that we continue to build on that house, this Black Feminist home space.
About the author
Valérie Bah, a Black feminist from the Haitian diaspora and AWID coordinator, reflects on the BFF and talks to Black feminists from South Africa, Grenada, Canada and France about their interconnected yet unique struggles.