Black Feminist Pen

Queering the African liberation agenda from a working-class and gendered perspective.

October 13, 2017

Presentation at the Walter Rodney Symposium hosted by the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI Mona, Friday, October 13, 2017 under the theme ‘Marcus Garvey and the Vision and Practice of Economic Emancipation’

Good evening everyone. Congratulations to the Institute of Caribbean Studies for keeping the name and legacy of Walter Rodney and Marcus Garvey alive.

For the next 15 minutes, I will be taking you on a journey with Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, African Economic Liberation, working class queer people, working class women, and the ‘oxymoron’ of feminist capitalism. This is not your typical academic journey because I am not an academic and I don’t write, work, or have groundings that serve to stroke the egos of academics – they have enough academics to do that; it’s a sport I enjoy watching, not playing.

This journey is for the benefit of working class women and working class queer people – that’s where my heart is. It is for this reason I have much admiration for the work and ideology of Rodney in whose honour this symposium is being held. Rodney has several accolades; you can imagine that the most significant one for me would be his groundings or what I call “revolutionary talks”, which were located in black power. I admire him too because he was a revolutionary, a rebel man, who recognized what many co-opted activists and advocates have failed to recognize – that for the people at the margins to be heard, they cannot speak to the establishment in polite tones. And in so doing as working class oppressed people we have to create a ‘new core at the periphery’ using our own tools and knowledge and methodology, if liberation grounded in justice is what we desire. So, for me, Rodney’s Groundings represent my ideal of transformative engagement.  In Rodney’s own words:

I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage, and some Black Brothers and I have grounded together. I was prepared to go anywhere that any group of Black people were prepared to sit down to talk and listen. Because, that is Black Power, that is one of the elements – a sitting down together to reason, to ‘ground’ as the Brothers say.  We have to ‘ground together.’

I also admire the work of Marcus Garvey – who is the primary focus of this symposium and my journey with you this evening. I like Garvey, but I have reservations about the application of his philosophy in promoting the interest of working class queer people. What I am proposing therefore is that ‘Queering and gendering Garvey’s African economic liberation must start with an adaptation and upgrading of the Walter Rodney Practice of revolutionary talk’. An upgrade is needed because Rodney also forgot his queer and gender lens, perhaps in the same way revolutionaries of our time may forget or miss some lenses that future generations won’t.

Garvey’s African liberation, and its ideas around the practice of economic emancipation is located in black capitalism. Garvey believed capitalism was the ground in which African liberation must be rooted. Capitalism was therefore necessary for Garvey’s African liberation. I agree with Garvey because capitalism offers two pillars that are central not only to African liberation in a nationalistic race-first ordering, but is also necessary for the economic liberation of black working class women and black queer people – the pillars of capitalism to which I refer here are profit and frugality.

Many of you, especially my anarchist comrades may disown me by the end of the journey this evening, but I do hope there will be a willingness to explore how capitalism can become a site of justice and liberation for black working class women and black working class queer people.

While Garvey and I agree with the centrality of capitalism to African liberation and the vision and practice of economic emancipation, I will explore some points of departure, chief among them being his nationalism and how it invisibilises minority populations and working class experiences. Garvey’s African liberation forgets almost every unit of analysis except race. And though Garvey was mildly progressive in respect of women’s ‘liberation’ his views of who women were in the political movement was steeped in white patriarchy and a mirroring of the ‘successful’ white woman of status.

The final lap in this journey will walk you through my working ideology of a feminist capitalist ordering of society towards an idea of African economic liberation that is not limited to men and women of ‘status’ but which includes working class women and queer people, through mastery of financial literacy and management, the pursuit of profit and the practice of frugality – all of which I believe must start with queered and gendered versions of Rodney’s groundings. Welcome to the journey:  “Queering  the African liberation agenda from a working class and gendered perspective”.

But just before I go any further, let me just say I am experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance with the term ‘queer’, because I do appreciate the ease with which it allows for conversations about people who do not fit dominant ideologies related to sex, sexuality and gender yet I hate the word. I probably have the same struggle with the term ‘working class’, but what other useful  terminology exists that describes a large category of people who have been robbed of our agency and denied access to wealth creation opportunities that enable us to live with dignity?

Now that I have cleared the air on those two terminologies, let us proceed.

Marcus Garvey’s vision and practice of emancipation suited his time. Garvey’s ideologies existed in a time in the United States when people of his race were being murdered, marginalized, discriminated against and generally regarded as less than human because of their race and colour. Garvey understood white power as located in economic liberation and independence – a liberation he believed needed to be capitalist in orientation. Garvey’s politic for African economic liberation was informed by the lived experiences and realities of his black brothers and sisters. He believed that the absence of economic liberation and economic power resulted in the disempowerment of his race by the white race. It was the absence of this economic liberation that gave rise to imperialism and what Rodney calls the underdevelopment of Africa by Europe.

History and present realities demonstrate that Europe is guilty of raping Africa of its humanity, wealth and resources. In his race-first teachings, Garvey therefore encouraged the black race to adapt and mirror the capitalism that made whites rich, economically independent and liberated; it gave them power and control. Garvey wanted the African race to believe that we too had the capacity to amass wealth and power in the economic emancipation project, which he accepted as the source of African liberation. But he perhaps didn’t realise that the white model was inherently an exploitative model.

In Garvey’s African economic politic, commerce and industry were sites of liberation; they would form the core of the economic life of the state as Africans would own and control the state through commerce and industry. In Garvey’s opinion “Without commerce and industry, a people perish economically. The negro [was] perishing because he [had] no economic system.” African people would be protected, in Garvey’s thought, from discrimination if we achieved financial independence and could sustain our own economic needs and cooperative ownership of the means of production.

Profit in Garvey’s African capitalism would be used for the benefit of the African community and protection of the race. Garvey understood the value of profit and frugality. It is my belief that the pursuit of profit and the practice of frugality can serve working class women and working class queer people. A gendered, queered, African adaptation of capitalism can result in a just community for the African race, which I will explore later.

I believe that the distrust many social justice activist-scholars may have for capitalism is rooted in the unethical/unjust practices of capitalists rather than capitalism itself. Patriarchal capitalism is problematic and as Rodney would say, should be overthrown. Racist capitalism is problematic and should be overthrown. Sexist capitalism is problematic and should be overthrown. And ‘queerphobic’ capitalism is problematic and should be overthrown. Capitalism without injustice is where profit for the working class is located. Garvey knew that the excesses (for the few) that often results from Capitalism was problematic. And I agree. It is this excess for the few that led to the historical and contemporary marginalization of the African race and the marginalization of working class African women and queer people by African capitalists. But Garvey missed it the latter. He only saw race – “negro producers, negro distributors, negro consumers”. And he saw one African nation, and we know that nationalism tends to dislocate and invisibilise the individual – in this case, the lived realities of the working class woman and the the working class queer person.

But profit in capitalism for Garvey was not an individual enterprise. This begs the question I am sure my favourite Anarchist Ajamu would ask: can Garvey’s ideology adequately respond to economic marginalization and poverty, or does  it have the potential to cause massive economic, social and political alienation for the working classes in the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere in the global African community? If I answered this question in the early 1900s I would probably say it was an adequate response. But over a century later, I would have to say it would cause massive alienation of the African working class. African working class people were not only vulnerable to being exploited by white capitalists they could also be exploited by the African capitalist class.

This brings me to the value and importance of Rodney’s groundings. If we were having revolutionary talks with our working class people using Rodney’s methodology, we wouldn’t, or Garvey (if Rodney existed in his time) wouldn’t miss the distinct realities of his African people who were affected by layers of discrimination – not just race. I must hasten to point out though, that while Rodney’s approach could, and should have uncovered intersectional forms of injustices that would serve as barriers to the economic liberation of working class Africans, including women and queer people, it didn’t, because those Rodney engaged in conversation were primarily his ‘black brothers’ in the struggle.

Understanding the alienation of the African working class man was not sufficient, and did not offer solutions to the unique realities of the African working class woman and the African working class queer person. But if we explored the queering and gendering  of Garvey’s African economic liberation by starting with an adaptation and upgrading of the Walter Rodney practice of groundings, we would then begin to validate and make visible the experiences of the working class; we could create knowledge sharing opportunities not just for, but within working class communities of women and queer people. Groundings can facilitate the economic emancipation and liberation of our vulnerabilised people, and offer opportunities for what is described as a “Collective Economic Development Project”.

Without a gendering and queering of Rodney’s groundings our conversations will miss the impact of patriarchy on the agency of working class women; we will miss the impact of African patriarchy on queer working class women; we will miss the impact of African sexism on the economic liberation of working class women; we will miss the impact of patriarchal, sexist, racist, queerphobic capitalisms on the alienation of working class women and working class queer people from a clean environment, alienation from employment and good working conditions, alienation from discriminatory-free healthcare, education and other social services, alienation from wealth creation, alienation from financial and economic empowerment, alienation from financial literacy and money market education, alienation from post-election political power, alienation from investment and enterprise loans, alienation from ownership of the means of production and innovation, and alienation from justice.

So, while Rodney’s groundings were revolutionary and effective, the agency and power of working class African women and queer people were not included in his groundings. They were also excluded from Garvey’s economic emancipation project for the African nation; Garvey’s economic emancipation project needed to do more work to be inclusive. It does not promote the economic liberation of all African people. I contend that Garvey did not sufficiently rethink white capitalism which was, and is both patriarchal and racist.

To replicate capitalism in the way Garvey proposed, would inadvertently result in the exploitation of women, the working class and queer people within the African community.  In this respect I agree with Ajamu’s criticism of Garvey’s African capitalism – it demonstrates how Garvey ignored the working class to the peril of the race. Garvey needed to significantly rethink who was included and who would benefit from it. I would say his perspective would have created a new oppressive class within the African community, but I won’t be unkind to a national hero. The reality is, Garvey and many Garveyites missed what feminists have long recognized – that ‘the personal is political’, therefore liberation of the individual self is as important as liberation of the community; it’s not one or the other.

What I would like to propose as I come to the end of this journey with you this evening is that in queering and gendering Garvey’s ideology around capitalism I would like to propose that we re-conceptualize profit in what would be my version of feminist capitalism. In re-conceptualizing profit, we wouldn’t see profit only in terms of its monetary value, but in terms of justice – justice for the environment, justice for women, justice for queer people, justice for children, profit as justice. In my feminist capitalist society, classist capitalism would not exist, and the working class would not exist – if working class is that category of people who have been robbed of agency and denied access to wealth creation opportunities that enable us to live with dignity.

If profit is re-conceptualized to include the cleanest possible environment, the best possible schools in all communities, the best working conditions in all places of work, the best possible care at hospitals – if those become the indicators of profit I think we can envision a feminist capitalist society that has profit and justice at the centre. It may sound impossible or unlikely or utopic to many of you, but another pillar of capitalism that I appreciate, can make it possible – frugality. Frugality is about being thrifty and avoiding waste (something our government needs to learn).

You may ask, how will this contribute to the economic liberation of African working class women and queer people? Let me use the example of a programme with which I am closely associated – the WE-Change & Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice Money Justice Live Series. Money Justice Live is grounded in the idea of Rodney’s groundings, a technological upgrade and a (diverse) audience upgrade. Money Justice Live is a 5-part conversation series with a working class father of three daughters who grew up in a working class household, who ensured that his parenting included the sociailizing of his daughters to value mastery of financial literacy and financial management as essential for financial independence.

From as early as primary school he taught them how to save and invest in the stock market; he taught them, through his own informal education and groundings, how to understand the money market and access it as working class women, and use that knowledge and access to improve their financial standing. Money Justice Live is conducted using the style of Rodney’s groundings, and targets young women and queer people, giving them advice on how to get on that journey of financial independence. The conversation targets working class women and queer people with humble earnings, and it promotes frugality as the starting point for profit. Profit as providing your children with the best possible education; profit as being able to save and invest for self and the future of your children; profit as using resources carefully and protecting the environment in doing so. And the feminist capitalist spirit of the conversation series is evidenced by the continuous sharing of that financial education and financial management skills with the people who have been robbed of agency and wealth creation opportunities – working class people, working class women, and  working class queer people.  The series will wrap up next week, and we already have evidence that it is changing people’s lives.

If we are able to create the kind of revolution that Rodney created through his groundings, if, with conversations like Money Justice Live we are able to create the kind of revolution that Garvey envisaged through capitalism (but guided by feminist justice), we can create a feminist capitalist society that offers wealth creation opportunities for the working class that does not require or demand exploitation of any group or category of people, and will eventually result in a profitable and just society for all people.

I believe therefore that upgrading Rodney’s work and Garvey’s ideology with feminist justice can change the circumstances for African working class women and queer people – feminist justice and feminist capitalism.


Thinking through Verene Shepherd’s ‘Petticoat Rebellion’ 

September 21, 2017

Petticoat Rebellion? Women and Emancipation in Colonial Jamaica is Verene Shepherd’s telling of the critical role women have played in every historical and contemporary emancipatory project in the creation of the Jamaican State. She extensively describes and  situates Black Jamaican women in the history of what she calls the pre-feminist and feminist eras. She notes that “one cannot speak about women in emancipation without detailing their activism and agency, which subverted and destabilized the slavery and colonial systems and eventually led to the granting of emancipation.”

The lecture is therefore a reclaiming of women’s role in activism and the unsilencing of women activists – activists during the slave trade, on the slave plantations, in post-slavery colonial Jamaica, and in contemporary Jamaica. Women were rebels, warriors, politicians, political activists, social justice activists, trade unionists, justified murderers, thieves, liars, and academics unafraid of using their bodies and clever thinking as sites of resistance, given the black woman’s bodiy was the chief site of contestation and oppression, (and continues to be). She re(presents) the black Jamaican woman as resilient, bold, wise, strategic, and facety towards their dream of ending the domination of enslavers (white men and women), and later by black men and the Jamaican state. She speaks freely about the violent access over black women’s bodies given to enslavers, and how many black Jamaican women had to live through the torture of habitual rape.

At every point in our experiences, black women were resisting oppression in what planters would call ‘Petticoat Rebellions’. But it was these everyday Petticoat Rebellions that demonstrated, in my mind, the resilience of our Black Women. Armed revolts and uprisings were few over the decades of enslaved oppression, it was the Petticoat Rebellions that would have, in a sustained manner aggravated enslavers. Verne was quick to point out that women also played a critical role in armed revolts through strategizing, marronage, and poisoning, even though in the original ‘ungendered’ telling of our history, black men were presented as the rebels in chief.

I appreciate Verene’s gendered telling of our history and the way she locates women in the resistance time and time again. She consistently reminds us that women have, and must actively participate in, lead, and support resistance movements in order to end their experiences of oppression.

One of the critical lessons I learnt from reading her lecture is that sometimes resistance must include the breaking of any law that is deemed unjust to humanity. Verene reminds us, for example, that during slavery, by law, black women were not allowed to resist the violent sexual demands of enslavers over their bodies, and would be punished if they did not acquiesce. She writes: “in addition to the abuse of their bodies through arduous physical field regime and severe whipping, enslaved women were open to sexploitation – to a far greater degree than enslaved men. Neither colonial statutes nor slave codes invested enslaved  women with any rights over their own bodies, but rather, transferred and consolidated such rights within the legal person of the enslavers.”

It took the consistent breaking of such laws for black women, to even momentarily claim rights over their own bodies. The cruelty of enslavers was also vocalized by black women who were sometimes successful in having the cruelest enslavers removed from the plantation. Unfortunately, the site of the black woman’s body today, in Jamaica, is still one for contestation. There is an investment in black Jamaican women’s bodies that is controlled by systems external to us. What seems to have happened in my opinion, is that the demographics of the oppressive class has changed. Black men and the state have replaced white enslavers, but the black woman’s body is still oppressed. It is for this reason that sexual harassment legislation has been on a long journey; it’s 2017, and Jamaica still does not have an Act of Parliament  that protects women from harassment, and laws that protect women from rape and other forms of sexual violence remain inadequate and dense. Further, when I look at the court system I can clearly see how it favours the perpetrators and the oppressive class of men who, data show, make up the large majority of perpetrators of sexual crimes against women and girls.

I am not sure whether it is our experiences with multiple forms of sexual violence that contributes to this, but I note that Verene’s lecture  demonstrated that women as a category of people – though individual in many respects – have a different way than men of resisting oppression.  On the plantation, women refused to “bear children who would themselves be enslaved”; used “dances as political meetings”, given political meetings were banned; and “fresh instance[s] of insubordination.” We are not always aggressive and front and centre, but like the petticoat under our dresses, we effect change by reshaping the society.

The degree of success is a matter for debate, given today we can still clearly see multiple examples of the oppression of black Jamaican women. Even in our history prior to the Lucille Mathurin Mair’s and the Verene Shepherd’s and the Hilary Beckles’ telling of it, women’s presence in the history and development of Jamaica was oppressed into omission and conveniently placed in realm of  the invisible. Even in our political leadership today we see the ‘invisibilising’ of women. At the grassroots, women are active, effective party workers that win elections for Members of Parliament (the majority of who are men), but we have never had a critical mass of women (at least 30%) in the Jamaican parliament or cabinet. And we know that this is largely because of the multiple intersectional forms of oppression that women are forced to live through, while black Jamaican men and the state (controlled and led by men) continue to be the protagonists in the oppression of women.

This leads me to the question I have continuously asked as a read Verene’s lecture: where are the Nannys of our time to uproot the oppression of women? And perhaps to a few questions Joan French recently asked: Have women given up? Are we weary and hopeless?  Is Caribbean feminism alive?Perhaps we need some Petticoat Rebels of our time who are unafraid of the angry woman, witch, demon labels cast upon rebel women by oppressors. We need women who are wiling to create a ‘new core at the periphery’ as they lead the resistance. We need, for example, for the Institute of Gender and Development Studies to resist its marginalization within the university community, to end the peripheralizing of women’s issues which, may have stared, in my opinion, when Lucille Mathurin Mair’s ‘Women and Development’ later became ‘Gender and Development’.

We should also explore how the different intersections of class, colour, and sexuality have resulted in groups and communities of women oppressing  women. Some conservative feminists in the region are guilty of this. And some intersectional feminists are also guilty of this. The issue of intra feminist oppression (oppression within the movement) was not explored in the reading. However, upon reflecting on the acute success of the feminist movement, and what seems to be a dying Caribbean feminism, I wonder if some of those failings are the result of women, who at the site of multiple intersections have taken on the role of oppressor. This is something  Andaiye explored in her Lucille Mathurin Mair 2002 lecture, when she critiqued the feminist movement within the region and our failure to acknowledge and engage the  power relations among women . So we now have to contend with oppression from the state, oppression from black Jamaican men,  and oppression from feminists who use their privilege as power over women.

Some glaring examples would be how some wealthy and middle class women oppress working class women or how some heterosexual women may oppress lesbians and bisexual women, or how some cisgender women may oppress women of trans experience.

This is a struggle that is internal to the contemporary feminist movement that was perhaps non-existent in the plantation society. While, as Verene noted, women had diverse experiences on the plantation, one thing was certain, the majority were not free and that cause, that fight, united them.

Which struggle will unite us today?

One of the lessons and critiques I would take away from Verene’s work is alignment in activism. She spoke about the need for women and men to align towards ending the domination of men over women. She writes: “There is now the need for women of the present to join with men and align themselves to a project of true emancipation; emancipation as a condition of human progress and not just as an event of 1838.” However, as we would have learnt from her and other Caribbean historians, it was the oppressed class of black women and men whose resistance led to the abolition of the slave trade and the ending of slavery. And while she acknowledges the role of some white radical women, it was the resistance from ‘below’ that led to emancipation.

My argument therefore is that while allies are important and can be useful, it is the standpoint of the oppressed class that must take on the mantle of leading the resistance to end their oppression. Black Jamaican women cannot align with their new oppressors – primarily black men and the state – as the chief strategy for empowerment. Any alignment must be subterfuge in type, in my opinion, or careful, strategic partnerships with feminist-thinking men. We must also be unafraid of leading resistance against women who abuse their power and privilege and oppress women.

It is no coincidence that for decades unemployment among women has been consistently higher than unemployment for men. It is no coincidence that while women more exponentially increase their registration into Tertiary Level Institutions than men, it is men who continue to occupy leadership of theses institutions. It is no coincidence that men make up the majority of public boards. It is no coincidence that men own and are CEOs for more private companies than women. It is certainly no coincidence that the majority of domestic workers (who are paid an undignified minimum wage) are women. This is caused largely by a status quo that facilitates the  domination of men over women, and income cases the domination of women with power and privilege over women without such fortunes. But it is largely the oppression of black men over black women.

Alignment in the way that Verene is recommending is not the answer, in my opinion. ‘What about the men?’ is not the answer, because it was always about the men. Black Jamaican women therefore need to commit to creating a ‘new core at the periphery’ through multiple modes of resistance. Black Jamaican women need to tell oppressive black Jamaican men and the state to ‘go to hell’ the same way an enslaved woman – Maria told enslavers who purchased her.

We cannot align with our oppressors when they are leading the trafficking and abuse of women’s bodies as enslavers did during slavery.