As part of AGITATE! Journal’s Feminist Knowledge Production Series, we invited Ruth Nicole Brown—scholar, artist, and member of AGITATE! Editorial Board— to conduct a workshop titled Black Feminism and Hip Hop Pedagogy on March 23, 2023. In the workshop, whose recording we present here, Professor Brown draws on her research on Black girls’ lived experiences to challenge our understandings of home, freedom, creativity and collaboration. Her offering centers Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), which she founded in 2006 as a collective space to celebrate Black girlhood in its many complexities. In this poetic presentation, loosely organized around Letters, Land, and Listening, she weaves reflections from SOLHOT and radical Black feminist traditions while reinstating “Black girl genius” as an expansive and radical political imaginary. As a theoretical concept, Black Girl Genius underscores questions of justice, history, memory, land, collectivity, survival, celebration, and love in the face of historic and ongoing violence, reduction of humanity, and epistemic erasure. She reflects on loving and forgiving oneself and other Black girls, refusing academic institutionalization and its attempts to commodify black girlhood, and the importance of trust and letting go as core practices of SOLHOT. For SOLHOT, music is an essential praxis that refuses commodification of Black girlhood. Brown invites us to feel this power by listening radically to the resounding celebration of Black girlhood by her band, We Levitate.
- Quashie, Kevin. 2021. Introduction & Chapter 1, in Black Aliveness, Or a Poetics of Being, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 1-29.
- Bowen, Sesali. 2021. Introduction & Chapter 1, Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist, New York: Harper Collins, pp. 1-49
- Alexander, M. Jacqui. 2005. Chapter 7, in Pedagogies of Crossing Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 287-332.
This event was organized by AGITATE! in collaboration with a graduate seminar on “Feminist Knowledge Production” taught by Professor Richa Nagar in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Below we present a few excerpts from the reflections of seminar participants.
Engaging with the readings, video, and music from this week was a truly powerful and moving experience. Quashie’s (2021) call and directive to “imagine a black world” as “not the inverse of antiblackness but one in which blackness is totality” (2), and his central interest in “black aliveness,” is rooted in the world of Black texts and the “worldmaking aesthetics of poems and essays” (2) and Hartman’s mode of close narration to embark on such a journey. It is the world created by such texts – and the connection that they foster – that is a driving force of SOLHOT. In the PBS video, Nikky Finney explicates how she comes from “a continuum of Black writers” and sees her work as a product of and a contribution to that tradition and ancestry. Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown describes the work of SOLHOT as a way to “create the conditions of freedom” via a collective act, “working in togetherness.” This aim is clearly felt in the music produced by We Levitate, where the reclamation of sound by “using digital wrongly to reimagine the collective [and] resound complex Black girlhood” provides a stunning example of what a response to Quashie’s call to action can be. Finally, Sesali Bowen’s book, Bad Fat Black Girl (2021), articulates a “trap feminism,” which “acknowledges the ways in which Black girls might benefit from and enjoy performing racialized gender in ways that have been deemed inappropriate, reductive, and unproductive” (15). In incorporating her own experiences and documenting her process of building trap feminism as a “guiding principle” (14), as well as further expanding on its relation to body presentation and fatness in Chapter 1, Bowen demonstrates and practices another potential response to Quashie’s invitation.
Quashie’s central ask here particularly resonates with me as an act of imagining and engaging in alternative processes of worldmaking. This act, which acknowledges white supremacy and its violences but does not base its conceptualization on Black death, is at odds with much of the disciplining present across academia. This political labor invites a question: how is it possible to subvert and resist academic norms that demand justification for research and inquiry on the basis of its proximity to whiteness and white violence? While central to this question, race is not the only such structure this question can apply to. As previously discussed in this class, gender, caste, and other articulations of being are also at stake and included in imaginations of blackness as totality and black worldmaking.
There’s a claim in Chapter 2 of Pedagogies of Crossing that I find myself returning to whenever I consider the cultural conditions of Blackness: “Capitalism is able to position itself as being more progressive than the ‘‘mainstream,’’ progressive enough to […] hold out the promise of befriending them…” (Alexander 2005, 75). Capitalism’s ability to position itself as a “natural” ally to Blackness and tie moves towards liberation to consumption is troubling, and especially evident as corporate forces converge upon Black feminisms and radical belief systems. Consider the role that corporations like Nike play in ingraining themselves into Black culture and aesthetic, then co-opting Black struggle as a means to sell a shoe. Nike’s signing of Colin Kaepernick comes to mind. This seems, on first glance, to be a detached concern, tied more to a disdain for capital than anything else. However, many of the poetics of Quashie (2021) call us to imagine, which is exactly where this analysis draws its conclusions.
What happens when we imagine a Blackness untethered to capital? What does an aesthetic of Black living-ness/alive-ness look like, sound like, and feel like in a world where those aesthetics are not filtered through the aggressive market capitalization of, say, Lizzo. Or Allen Iverson. Or the Black pop star in general, the Black basketball player, the Black poet, the Black activist, or the Black radical. This ends up reflected in the ways that Black folks (and especially Black women) have to relate to their aesthetics, to the very way they engage with their own bodies. To quote Bowen (2021): “white supremacist capitalist sexism isn’t invested just in how women look but in how they relate to their own beauty” (44). Black women are pressured (both by capital, and the men/women it captures) to relate to an aesthetic that reinforce the terms of “failure” regarding their own bodies. Bowen points to the silk wrap, the sew-in, the acrylic nails, and designer bags, all as options made available culturally to women who “needed” to hide the alleged failure of a fat body, or a Black body, or both. The principles by which a fat Black femme aesthetic is judged is incoherent, constantly contradictory, and almost impossible to escape. Dress well, and you are vain. Flaunt your size, and you are simply “the BBWs that like me.” Get surgery, and you’re basically a shallow handmaiden to the patriarchy. But accept your body, and you must engage with a brand of body positivity that leaves the onus on women to accept their bodies while men mock them.
The PBS video about SOLHOT (saving our lives, hear our truths) was especially illuminating when discussing the fellowship of black girls and how black girlhood could be considered as a site for freedom. Pairing this statement with the readings from Bad Fat Black Girl (2021) by Sesali Bowen, Black girlhood as freedom works to counter the prescribed white patriarchal heteronormativity that is supported by capitalism. Bowen writes, “beauty is a politicized concept precisely because it maintains what bell hooks calls ‘imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy,’ a system of oppression that gives all of us something to aspire to” (25). Another moment in the SOLHOT video that resonated with me was the idea of loudness and volume as colonizing tools used to oppress black girls and women in particular. The interviewees in the video discuss how volume control is often associated with black girls being “too loud”, which additionally insinuates that they shouldn’t be occupying a specific space. Later, one of the women continues with this idea, saying, “loudness in terms of ‘I’m coming as I am and we are already seen as too much'” (19:10 mins). Not only is volume considered in this “loudness” but the physical space taken up by black women is also considered as loud.
The other events in the AGITATE! Feminist Knowledge Production event series, Poetry, Academia, And Feminist Knowledge-Making: A Workshop With Celina Su and Feminisms, Translations, Solidarities: A Conversation with the Translators and Editors of ‘The Purple Color Of Kurdish Politics’ are available on AGITATE Now!