Surfacing: On Being Black and Feminist in South Africa is a radiant presentation of the diversity of being a black woman in South Africa.
The book is aglow with the radical possibilities of art, activism and critical theory – easily illuminating diverse intellectual spaces, from divinity and dance to photography and philosophy. Ainhehi Edoro accurately described Surfacing as an “immersive experience” and “feminist utopia”, but it is also so much more than that – offering groundbreaking work.
The editors – feminist theorist Desiree Lewis of the University of the Western Cape and poet and feminist scholar Gabeba Baderoon, who is based at Penn State University – have not only curated contributions by some of the brightest luminaries, they have also shared a shining example of what Zoë Wicomb describes as “a mode of narration that none of us have dreamt of”. While Surfacing is a must-read for anyone interested in feminism and representations of Blackness, it is also a gift for anyone interested in interdisciplinary modes of knowledge production.
From the book’s first pages, Baderoon and Lewis establish that the collection of voices in it is not definitive, acknowledging the depth of Black feminist thought while still recognising the limitations of surveying the terrain. Instead, they have curated with care, asking questions about the nature of African feminist traditions outside the canon.
Following Stuart Hall, the book defines blackness in terms of identification, “a dynamic recognition of oneself in the range of possibilities called blackness”, and the methodology for sourcing contributions was guided by an inclusive understanding of citizenship as participation.
As the question of who counts as South African has been troubled by exclusions, in Surfacing, they refuse ideas of residency and arrival and the simplistic route of legal citizenship. For Baderoon, “the collection conceives of belonging to a place as sharing in, bearing and contributing to its central debates”.
Lewis explains this challenges “nationalist logics involving ‘essentialism and purity’ that have been so destructive to feminist thought” around the world.
They set the scene well, first mapping out black feminism in the global imaginary then carefully but confidently they assert that Black South African feminisms have been subordinated to feminisms that are African-American and what they term “continental” – feminisms from other African countries.
One explanation for this is that “the meaning of blackness in South Africa is itself contested and fractured”; another is the ironic iconising of black South African women such as Winnie Mandela and Sara Baartman.
“They have been repeatedly invoked in North American-based black feminist artwork, scholarship and fiction,” they write, “yet few black southern African writers have achieved this status of universal visibility. It is as though black South African women are worthy of being invoked as icons by other black feminists, but rarely – even within post-colonial feminist canons – granted positions of centrality as intellectuals themselves.”
In an interview by email, Baderoon explains that even while black feminisms are recognised and valued in the Western academy, because of the enormous power wielded by the Western academy over intellectual work globally, “our students often cite African American theorists and, less often, Caribbean and West African scholars, but very rarely southern African ones. Our introduction argues that this neglect of Southern African writers is a serious weakness of global conceptions of black feminisms. Surfacing is an intervention in that erasure.”
Surfacing grapples with this strange and ambiguous visibility of southern African women in global Black feminisms, which Lewis points out is different from how white-centric feminism has historically dominated black feminism – often by drowning out voices and speaking for others.
In an interview, she explained that the domestic publishing and book marketing industries have played a large part in the neglect of South African feminism, but that “the global knowledge economy which – for historical and political reasons – celebrates ‘black’ knowledge and culture from certain geographical sites – often the US or West Africa – is largely to blame for the neglect of distinct feminist southern African histories, political struggles and knowledge-making traditions.
The book draws attention to this by archiving a distinct legacy and flagging patterns of dominance within the globally marginalised body of black feminist thought.”
This article was first published by New Frame. The full article is available at https://www.newframe.com/book-review-black-and-feminist-in-sa/