Sunday, April 29, 2007

Review: Back to the Drawing Board

[Njoki Nathani Wane, Katerina Deliovsky, and Erica Lawson, eds. Back to the Drawing Board: African-Canadian Feminisms. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2002.]

Back to the Drawing Board is a collection of essays in which the lives and struggles of African-Canadian women are at the centre, and the world is theorized from that starting point. According to the editors, although there has been a small but significant and growing body of work with such a focus for a long time, it has tended to be in scattered sources and not to come easily together into a single, simple starting point for learning about African-Canadian feminisms -- it has been easier to look to African America, an important source but still not quite a perfect fit. This book attempts to become such a starting point and to function as a stimulus for further discussion and writing by Black Canadian women about their lives and the world. As with the book I reviewed earlier this week, this is a rereading of a text I first read a number of years ago.

The book begins with several essays situating African-Canadian feminisms with respect to other feminisms and with respect to history. Then there are several pieces that look at education and pedagogy, followed by several more theorizing different aspects of the social -- Black women and the media, law and the "spirit-murder" that is everyday racism, the social construction of white women in relationships with Black men, and an argument for treating the experience of what are usually conceptualized as several different but simultaneous oppressions as multiplicative (1x1x1=1) rather than additive. The book closes with three short pieces linking African and indigenous North American traditions via spirituality.

These days, in the reviews I write on this site, even when I don't explicitly draw attention to it, I try to take a particular approach to writing. I try to be transparent about the fact that I cannot or will not attempt to create the pretense of some sort of pseudo-objective (that is, standpoint erasing) oppressively normative evaluation of the text as it exists with respect to a pseudo-objectively defined spectrum of other texts -- a field that I can "know" in a way that performs my expertise and that situates me in a superior position to the text in question, while managing to erase my embodiment. I mean, I'm sure I fall into that sometimes, because that is how privileged men are trained to think and write all our lives, and it permeates left writing just as it does the mainstream. But generally, and increasingly over the life of this blog, I have tried to approach these reviews as engagements with texts and ideas by someone, by me, an embodied individual who has a social location and is on a specific material and intellectual journey; who creates inter-textual connections not because I have privileged access to deciding Which Texts Matter but simply because I have happened to read what I have happened to read and experience what I have happened to experience; who attempts to take up and respond to the words I encounter in critical ways, but also respectfully and dialogically rather than through the sorts of monological, almost objectifying imposition that characterizes so much academic and political writing, particularly (but by no means limited to) those of us trained to do in locations shaped by white masculinity.

This approach, though I think it is important and it is the one that I choose, also makes me uneasy occasionaly, for a few reasons. For one thing, I am aware of how it runs counter to norms that are uncritically reproduced even in left spaces that I really like. For example, last year I did a review on this blog of Sociology for Changing the World, which at the request of the editors I reworked for inclusion in an issue of Upping the Anti, a publication I've found interesting since it began and whose advisory board I have since joined. (Unfortunately, I don't think the reworked version is available online so you can compare.) But in retrospect, I recognize that this reworking involved not only tightening and polishing, both of which were very necessary, but also a process, unnamed but actively embraced both by myself and by the editor that I was working with, to largely erase the presence of me, to make it less dialogical in how it engaged with the book and more declarative, and to adopt a less openly embodied standpoint for the writing. Looking back, these changes were not improvements.

Secondly, this approach sometimes makes me uneasy precisely due to one of the things that is politically important about it: it makes the author -- me -- more visible as embodied, messy, fallible, self-contradictory, incomplete, and engaged in the perpetual process of becoming that is life. I know it is foolish because this is true of all of us, but I often find it hard to admit these things, these vulnerabilities, in spaces far beyond just web-published book reviews. It is connected to training in privileged masculinity, I guess, and the associated unhealthy compulsion to avoid seeming vulnerable at all costs. It is probably this that is the biggest push I feel in any particular moment while writing on this site to pull away, moderate, restrain, and subvert my impulse to grounded writing.

The final source of my unease is a worry that such a strategy of engagement might, by making me more visible, decentre the standpoint, voices, and analysis at the centre of the book being reviewed, thereby reinscribing hierarchy and just plain disrespecting the authors. Not only can this involve silliness like a multi-paragraph aside on some white guy's writing practices in what is supposed to be a review of a book about African-Canadian feminisms, but more importantly it can be expressed through a disjuncture between the intentions of the authors and editors, and the nature of the points in the book that I latch onto as meriting active engagement in my response to it. Post-modern insight about the text taking on a life of its own once it is released into the world aside, straying too far from authorial intent does seem to me to be disrespectful of the authors, an imposition or overruling rather than a true engagement. That said, the choices seem to be not engaging at all, disembodied engagement from above, or engaging in the grounded way i have described but being careful to do so in a way that puts effort into speaking my reality while being attentive to how that relates to those of the authors and others. Obvious, I think.

All of that is a longwinded way of prefacing the admission that I don't feel that I have much of anything to say about the place of this text in the history of the development of African-Canadian feminisms and struggles by African-Canadian women, or about its utility as a tool for individuals directly engaged in those processes. (Btw, that is only partially a response to what I can't know -- or, more accurately, to how my particular profile of privilege and oppression shapes the space in which I can justifiably write -- and is also an admission of what I could know and say but don't and therefore won't.) There are a few things the text has inspired me to comment on, and I worry they are a bit peripheral to the significant substance of the book. But they reflect where I am at and where the book took me, so here they are.

The first has to do with what we can learn from the construction of the book itself about the creation of focused political space, and practices around boundaries. At least since the late '60s, when movements centred around the identity "woman" and the identity "Black" began to seize such space whether their supposed allies on the white-dominated and male-dominated New Left wanted to cede it or not, a group defined by shared experiences of oppression creating space just for themselves has been a crucial piece of anti-oppressive practice -- complete physical spaces, times and places within groups, targeted services, and more abstract spaces like publications and, more recently, web sites. It is often controversial (see "supposed allies" above, never mind massive resistance from the mainstream) and always complicated (because any slice of people will still be stratified along lines of power and privilege within itself) but is still a crucial tool. One way such spaces are often created is by the drawing of sharp boundaries between who is in and who is out. I won't explore the issues in detail, but suffice it to say that such sharp boundaries, in the face of the real-life complexities of human experience and its relationship to "identity", can at times function in ways that are oppressive even as they are anti-oppressive in other ways; yet because strategic or tactical separation can be such an important tool, I am not for a second saying they should be abandoned.

Drawing Board, however, provides a model that does not function by the drawing of such sharp lines, yet still succeeds in its aim of creating a space that is completely grounded in and organized around the experiences and theorizing of African-Canadian feminists. The editorial trio includes a white woman, and the contributors include several white and indigenous women, a Black Canadian man, and two reprints from prominent African-American women. I obviously have no insight into the editorial processes that shaped the book, but I take this evidence of success in creaing political focus despite selectively permeable boundaries as a nudge to keep thinking critically and creatively about how we can actually make political spaces of all sorts and purposes work. Again, this is not meant as a jab at those who decide to organize and produce text autonomously, but rather as encouragement to the rest of us to continue to critically explore approaches to organizing political doing of one sort or another that includes participation from those of us with privilege but that truly moves towards liberatory ends.

Another thing that struck me about this book was the relative lack of attention paid to issues of class -- race and gender were very much in view, but class less so. It was certainly mentioned, and I doubt any of the contributors would disagree that class relations are key in shaping our experiences and our society, but it was not as visible as I had expected. This was particularly true in contrast with Scratching the Surface, which I reread and reviewed a few days ago. A number of the contributors to that volume are quite openly Marxist in their politics, and not surprisingly that showed up in their writings. Drawing Board's contributors seem lest influenced by the Marxist tradition. I'm not sure why, but one speculation that has occurred to me is that there might be a generational component and that the difference reflects changes in the world betwteen when many of the Scratching the Surface authors were politicized versus many of those in Drawing Board, who seem to be younger.

So what to make of this? Well, for one thing, I have an ambivalent relationship to Marxist traditions myself, so failing to embrace them is hardly an automatic negative for me. However, though I am certainly open to other ways of conceptualizing and talking about class issues, I do have a gut-level sense that the projects of African-Canadian feminisms as a whole need to and in fact do treat issues of work, of poverty, of class relations, of relations of production, and what have you, more substantively than this book necessarily does. Which is fine, since no single book should have to bear the weight of anything and everything. Also, I can imagine, though I do not know for sure, that it might be a deliberate choice to invest effort in creating spaces that get away for awhile from issues that are traditionally grouped as "economic", and that this might be important for elaborating an overall politics that captures the full nuance and complexity of lives (living, celebrating, violence, learning, crying, oppression, resistance, struggle, loving) that get marginalized in their entirety and not just in relation to production.

On a related note, this also made me think about the ways in which white people who identify their politics as anti-capitalist of one sort or another might relate to a publication like this. I know that it is very easy to use the lack of markers that we can identify with our particular traditions of anti-capitalism as an excuse not to listen, not to engage, not to pick up the book in the first place. I have seen/heard things like this over the years from people I really like personally and otherwise admire politically. I can't think of any instances, but I would not be at all surprised to be told that I have done the same myself at times.

I can think of two different places I would take this observation. The first is that those of us who are privileged in multiple ways cannot afford to narrow too far the range of sources we will consider for political input. For practical reasons, we obviously have to set limits somewhere, but they should be broad, and they should be attentive to the biases we bring with us. Does it really make sense to admit, say, Marx or Bakunin into our personal canon despite the fact that we know they were pretty bad around gender, but to dismiss some report on instiutional anti-racism in Toronto because it fails to openly name global capitalism as part of the problem? Again, I'm not saying we should suspend our critical faculties as we engage with the world and texts around us, but even material that really is more "conservative" than we take ourselves to be along one or several axes can and must still teach us important things.

The other direction in which I would take this observation is that we must be critical of how we construct our markers of what "anti-capitalism" really is. For example, radical indigenous politics in North America do not necessarily come with language that we associate with explicitly anti-capitalist traditions derived form European or EuroAmerican sources, and they may not even use the word "capitalism". Yet I have trouble imagining how the visions they present could be realized without a radical transformation of class relations that extend far beyond indigenous nations themselves, and I suspect many authors and activists coming from this standpoint would agree but would consider it not their business to spell out the details because they are very conscious of not wanting to tell other nations how to live beyond how we need to get off their backs. Though it is not identical, I get a similar sense from at least some of the politics advanced in Drawing Board -- the ways of naming what needs to be changed and how things should be done instead are different from European and EuroAmerican anti-capitalist traditions, but at least in places they are de facto anti-capitalist because they could not be realized in the context of current class relations. The key, then, is learning to see and hear such realities even when the usual language markers that we expect to accompany politics we label as "anti-capitalist" are not present.

A final observation -- one that I suppose is somewhat connected to this last point but that deserves independent consideration -- is the sense of radical politics as a wholistic enterprise that I got from this book. That isn't particularly unique to this book -- it is something you get routinely from texts grounded in women of colour politics, indigenous politics, some white-dominated women's movement politics, and other places. Even so, it is easy for white-dominated progressive/centre-left approaches to professionalize politics, to treat them as only relevant to particular activities and/or particular institutions. It is just as easy for white-dominated radical/far-left approaches to fetishize the moment of collective confrontation, to formally acknowledge that all of life is political but to leave all but that moment drastically under-theorized and largely unconsidered. It is perhaps its ability to refocus my attention on the necessarily wholistic nature of any truly radical politics that I valued most about my second engagement with Drawing Board (and in particular its ability to do so with much less evidence of the grating taint of anglo-saxon protestant puritanism that often infests EuroAmerican, including some feminist, considerations of the politics of everyday life).

And that is, more or less, the end of my long and winding review. As I said, I cannot comment on how useful this text might or might not be to Black women in the course of their daily struggles and their efforts to theorize their lives and the world. But it is definitely an important text to include in our political self-education as white Canadians who wish to change the world in ways that are truly liberatory.

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