‘Contemporary Womanist Research Post George Floyd…’: Conference Review
by: Kelly Parker , June 25, 2022
by: Kelly Parker , June 25, 2022
‘Contemporary Womanist Research Post George Floyd: Compelling Developments in Black Feminist Theory’ was held jointly online and on-campus, at Birkbeck, University of London’s Bloomsbury site. It hosted esteemed scholars, academics, and performers with a shared interest in the ‘resurgence of collective anti-racist struggle,’ seeking to examine how ‘[w]omanist research can promote social justice and actively include research participants in knowledge production’. The relevance and timeliness of the conference was underpinned by the new urgency to confront structural racism and patriarchal forces in education, which continue to marginalise the contribution of black women as activist researchers, reinvigorated following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 (BBC News 2021). The overarching aim of the conference was to bring together those interested in using black feminist theory as a reflective lens to ultimately improve black lives’.
The event was chaired by Dr Jan Etienne and Elizabeth Charles, both of whom are affiliated with Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Etienne is a Birkbeck Fellow and Associate Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, as well as a Womanist researcher, Chair of the Womanism, Activism and Higher Education Research Network, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Geography. Notably, Dr Etienne has authored Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of First-generation African Caribbean Women, (2016) which challenges preconceptions of Black women who arrived in the UK during the 1950s and 60s, and for whom lifelong learning has proven to be instrumental in circumventing socio-economic obstacles, amplifying their voices and reasserting the necessity of their positions within their communities. Dr Etienne is also the editor of Communities of Activism: Black Women, Higher Education, and the Politics of Representation (2020).
Elizabeth Charles serves as the Assistant Director of Library Services Birkbeck, University of London. Her most recent publication, ‘Decolonizing the Curriculum’ (2019) provides a ‘brief history and context for why this is fundamental for academic institutions and what role libraries and the scholarly communication sector can play in this movement.’
The conference began with an introduction to the current global issues of conflict, and how this platform was a point from which to begin the work of truly understanding this through research, in order to improve responses and compassion to the concomitant violence and trauma. Key themes of community, art and creative response, motherhood and migration recurred throughout the morning’s video presentations, while the keynote talk and ensuing panel differently addressed some of the widespread issues and debates about gender, race, and their intersections that arise from the contention attached to Black feminism and its associated inhibitive misconceptions.
The event’s first post-introductory session was a short, emotive speech followed by a performance from protest poet and activist Poppyseed (Angela Harvey). Poppyseed began by articulating the necessity of understanding history in order to overcome ideological constructions such as sexism and racism, noting the relevant incumbency on those with white privilege to educate themselves about the reality of oppression, rather than hiding behind the protective frame of implicit bias. Poppyseed paid homage to the final minutes of the life of African American George Floyd, his desperate plea being the ‘call to action’ for women of colour to pick up the ‘Matriarchal Mantle’ and join the perpetual struggle for equality and an end to oppression and racially motivated violence. Poppyseed then performed her mediative song ‘Inside of Who You Are.’
Following this, Birkbeck PhD Student Nandita Sirker presented ‘Black Feminist Theory and Practise and the ‘Refugee Crisis’—Revisiting Theory and Struggle on the Margins’. Sirker’s academic interests, following extensive work with children and families, cover race and gender, social policy, and Black feminist theory. Additionally, she is a member of the Chase decolonising network.
Sirker astutely touched on the impact of the Covid crisis on the African and Caribbean diaspora (Haque, Becares & Treloar, 2020), and the consequences of this for the UK’s current refugee crisis, ‘throwing into sharp focus the deep inequalities and violence, both actual and symbolic.’ Dubbed a ‘vehicle for one of the worst exercises of power in humanity by neoliberal imperialism, and global capitalism,’ Nandita focused on the experience of refugee mothers in the UK’s social care system—those who remain almost invisible, on the margins. Attention was paid to the relevance of now-subjugated learning about being on the margins—dismissed as unscientific by those in the academic ‘ivory tower’—and the critical importance of this experiential learning as that which binds communities together and supports collective progression within them. The introduction to Sirker’s ongoing research proved a succinct oversight of this powerful and important, often overlooked, topic.
Poet, artist, and author of the closing chapter of The Handbook of Postcolonial Politics (2018) among other works, Iesha Denize LeDeatte shared a video presentation of her ‘Windrush Women’s Wisdom—Visual Narratives as Tools for Womanist Research.’ LeDeatte’s visual narrative art practice explores social issues related to the legacy of colonisation, capturing the effect of care in contemporary womanist research, and speaking of lived experience.
LeDeatte discussed how her work translates the experience of Windrush, a tangible and creative representation of centuries of colonialism and enslavement. The triangulation of gender, race, and class as a complete form of disadvantage, LeDeatte observed, failed to dissuade these women of Windrush from their battles against systemic racism, displaying tenacity and resilience in adapting existing knowledge to their new circumstances and isolation. Within this often-bleak period, important spaces formed to offer hope and reinforce community and intimacy among the ostracised and persecuted, and to honour long standing Caribbean traditions. LeDeatte touched on the performative nature of storytelling in its many forms, the reclamation of identity through the creation of art, and the imperative nature of oral narratives in the experience of Black women in the UK.
Dr Joao Tinoco’s ‘Researching “Self” and the Voice of the Black Woman in the Research Process: Acts of Decolonization: A Discursive Theory Study from the Borderland/La Frontera’ predominantly focused on the late Gloria Anzaldúa. The work of Anzaldúa, a notable feminist, queer, and cultural theorist, is considered precursory to ‘Latinx’ philosophy. (Urbanski, 2021)
Dr Tinoco observed the impact of being a ‘border woman’ upon Gloria Anzaldúa, who grew up at the border between both Indian-influenced and Anglo colonies in Mexico, synchronously exposed to two vastly different cultures, while herself being a chicana and a lesbian. Dr Tinoco cited ‘Decolonial thinking’ as not a static or linear condition, rather a beginning, middle and/or end, which served him to ‘open up possibilities of existence, analysis and knowledge’ so that he may ‘exhume hidden memories, archives…waiting to be brought into view’. This method puts into practice decolonial theorisation alongside the writing of the self, to create a critical space in which the self-reflection of ‘the woman of colour is faced with her incompleteness, desiring transformations.’ He posited that the effects upon this space through contemporary political issues invite the reader to reconceptualise concepts via criticism of the borderline as an open wound.
The morning session’s final offering was a short film prepared by New York-based Modern Languages and Linguistic Studies PhD candidate Carla Bascombe. ‘In Her Shoes: Interrogations of Intersectional Colourism in Évelyne Trouillot’s Short Fiction.’ An Honorary Associate Lecturer and Research Fellow, Carla Bascombe’s research and teaching on the lives of marginalised young people spans nearly twenty years. Her special interest is the intersection of age, class, gender, and race.
Bascombe’s referencing of the use of colourism in the media foregrounds the treatment of colourism in the prose of Haitian writer Évelyne Trouillot. A member of one of the most renowned families in Haiti, Trouillot’s work has suggested that the taboo of colourism as a social problem is obscured within Haitian literature. Bascombe noted the importance of acknowledging an idea which arises sporadically, and always negatively, as important in the narrative experience of Black women. Through her PhD focus on a fictional protagonist within Trouillot’s literature, Bascombe identified the fictional character’s shared experiences with many real Black women in Haiti, and observed Trouillot’s commentary on the intersectional and transgenerational experience of colourism in that country, challenging the notion of colourism as beneficial. The lack of explicit narration of biracialism, and limited written detail beyond cursory mention of hair and skin-tone, underpins the authorial observations of women of colour in Haitian prose, other than as a tool to assert racial superiority through colourism. The protagonist’s familial desires to affirm European heritage, synchronously disavowing their African one, serves as a critique of the experiences of those many Haitian women mentioned earlier, who—despite efforts to alter their appearance and conform to Eurocentric ideals—simply cannot be racially categorised as white. Underscoring the conspicuous absence of articulation of the protagonist’s ethnicity, the mentions of her husband’s ethnicity and inferior education both speak to the disavowal of heritage within prose in general, inferring to the reader that a darker skin tone equals reduced ability, character, or outcome. The protagonist, a wealthy, light skinned woman finds herself both physically entrapped by her gender and psychologically entrapped by her social class. These ‘superficial indicators of wealth’ Bascombe surmised, compound ideas that space and nobility are marked by gender, class, race, and economic mobilisation.
Bascombe’s presentation ended the morning’s session of video submissions. Dr Etienne summarised with a thought-provoking speech addressing the key practicalities of conducting contemporary womanist research, noting the challenges this can pose to many early-career researchers undertaking this unique form of qualitative study, drawing on the experiential learning of participants and researchers.
The afternoon’s Q&A proceedings were chaired by Elizabeth Charles. The event recommenced with a welcome address from Professor Karen Wells, Director for the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR). Professor Wells observed that while BISR has a rich history of gender and sexuality studies, and though they are currently expanding on Black scholarship, there has historically been a deficit of Black-centric research undertaken in their department. With attention paid to the necessity of Black scholarship, the welcome concluded, and the contributors’ succinct and compelling introductions began. The collective was comprised of a variety of scholars with a vast scope of relevant research. Parmela Witter’s research focussed on a womanist approach to combatting racial injustices in the Voluntary Community Sector, while Dr Clare Choak examined the degree awarding gap between Black and non-Black students and deploying a culturally responsive pedagogy. Mel Green scrutinised the experience of Black mothers raising autistic children. Carmelita Kadeena Whyte evaluated the significance of Black women in artistic communities, and the socio-political awareness they bring to the space they occupy. Iesha Denize LeDeatte explored transmission of wisdom bought by women during the Windrush migration. Professor Uvanney Maylor proposed Black feminism as a tool for Black women’s survival and the experiences of Covid restrictions by a group of Black women, who faced strong opposition to Black feminism during the national lockdowns. Doctoral candidate Nandita Sirker’s work is centred around refugee women, and what Black feminist research means to her. Professor Phillis Sheppard, a scholar from Nashville, explored Womanist Ethnography during what she terms ‘the double pandemic of racism and medical apartheid’ and its effects on Black women scholars and research, as well as creative responses to the current situation. Dr Joao Tinoco discussed writing of the self, transcending the colonial space of writing. Finally, Professor Marcia Wilson spoke about the saving of Black lives through Black women’s research and leadership in Higher Education.
Next, Dr Jan Etienne returned to the stage to assert her rule of womanist research. The focus on the diverse participants’ lived experience within womanist research considers their interests, struggles, and within the UK, often focusses on mothers and dealing with issues related to motherhood. Contemplating 1980s incidents, Dr Etienne recalled the abhorrent deaths of Joy Gardner, Cynthia Jarrett, and Cherry Groce, and explored the ways art, language, and music involve activism within research, and expand the research spaces to appreciate context. Fundamental to this is the ethos of working with others, specifically with other Black women, the better to share intergenerational learning and skills.
Keynote speaker Dr Tanja Burkhard, Assistant Professor of Human Development at Washington State University, introduced her current research project ‘Black Feminism and Qualitative Research.’ Dr Burkhard’s work applies qualitative methodology at the intersections of race, language, (im)migration and gender and family studies. Recalling the beginning of her research interests, Dr Burkhard paid homage to the transnationality of Afro-Germanic women—a heritage she shares—and the ground-breaking feminism movement pioneered within this community throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a movement that created multinational bonds between the diaspora, simultaneously challenging the discrimination faced by the Black diaspora across the globe.
Dr Burkhard spoke of the benefits she had found in travelling abroad, specifically to the United States of America, in focusing on the purpose of education. This journey had opened her eyes to similarities between Germany’s historical Neo-Nazism and similar racist factions in America, and of the sundown towns located across the southern states, wherein it was unsafe for Black people to be present after sunset due to the perpetual fear of lynching, which remained commonplace.
This has led to Dr Burkhard’s research focusing on the migration experiences of Black women, self-value, and the positioning of their identities via those they possessed in their countries of origin. When living abroad, Dr Burkhard noted, thoughts of home can become idealised and a place for abstracted thoughts, a type of amplified affection for the people and traditions ‘back home.’ The importance of collective efforts was extolled, particularly in stepping away from traditional commentators. To this end, Dr Burkhard described her inspirational role models and their work. Among them, her mother, who developed initiatives around the school, to keep local children engaged with education and their community outside of school, and to create lasting memories. Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins were two examples of other commentators whose work placed significant value in such communities.
The difficulties an international student faces were discussed—for example, feelings of inauthenticity surrounding research, and the likelihood of departments being unequipped to support specific research interests, with Dr Burkhard recalling how she had to build her methodological framework alone, as there were no colleagues with similar interests or transposable examples.
Dr Etienne added that academia remains predominantly a White Male-dominated space, meaning that Black womanist scholars often must reach out to colleagues at other universities—domestic or international—to develop support and space for their voices to be heard. Dr Etienne observed that while time has been consumed on other debates, significantly more work is needed to decolonise education, an imperative which has only just begun. Her considerations included the awarding gap, and the amount of work typically needed to get funding for research. Consequently, many black women who want to share, be heard, and participate in academia, feel unable to, that these barriers are insurmountable.
After this excellent Keynote session, Poppyseed again took the stage to revisit her earlier poem. The shared learning throughout the conference helped the listener to re-contextualise her words, adding another layer of gravitas to her oratory.
The final offering of the day was via structured breakout room sessions. I was fortunate enough to be part of an inter-institutional discursive about the Black woman’s experience in academia with Professor Marcia Wilson, The Open University’s Dean of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion. This was a unique and organic discussion that contemplated taking learning to create roles from USA, anecdotal experiential learning and contemporary difficulties, and relatable response strategies, and which delivered tangible benefits and learning.
The conference was well-paced and organised, complete with an array of highly relevant papers and video presentations from a diverse collective of scholars and academics. The poignant closing summary encapsulated the breadth of the work still required to decolonise education, a crucial measure required to enhance inclusivity and close the awarding gap between Black and non-Black students. A timely acknowledgement was made of how the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown measures, while ravaging communities and increasing the divide between wealth and poverty and associated outcomes, have also birthed positives, specifically in the forms of relevant and needed research, and the emergency creative responses from Black women as artists, mothers, and bastions of their communities. It will be interesting to revisit this theme in the future to draw a comparison of the progress. The chairs were exceptional throughout, adept at maintaining a discursive flow, while a personal highlight was the Keynote speaker’s reflections on being an international student, circumventing the inhibitive issues encountered on that journey, which interestingly led back to the very beginning of her own journey, in both location and time, demonstrative of how close to home important research and activism typically is.
Angela Harvey, ‘Poppyseed’ https://badilishapoetry.com/poppy-seed/ (last accessed 30 April 2022).
BBC News (2021), ‘Who was George Floyd and what happened to Derek Chauvin?’ 24 May 2021, BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56270334 (last accessed 3 May, 2022).
Charles, Elizabeth (2019), ‘Decolonizing the Curriculum’, Insights, Vol. 32, No. 1, p.24. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.475 (last accessed 30 April 2022).
Contemporary Womanist Research Post George Floyd: Compelling Developments in Black Feminist Theory Conference, (2022), Birkbeck University, https://www.bbk.ac.uk/events/remote_event_view?id=27751 (last accessed 30 April 2022).
Etienne, Jan (2016), ‘Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of First-generation African Caribbean Women,’ IOE/UCL Press, Trentham Books.
Etienne, Jan (2020), ‘Communities of Activism: Black Women, Higher Education and the Politics of Representation, Etienne, Jan (ed), IOE/UCL Press, Trentham Books.
LeDeatte, Iesha Denize (2018), ‘African Violet’, in Olivia U. Rutazibwa, Robbie Shilliam (eds), The Handbook of Postcolonial Politics (2018), Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 441-463.
Trouillot, Évelyne (1996), La Chambre Interdite: Nouvelles, L’Harmattan Edition
Urbanski, Claire (2021), ‘Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0: Gloria Anzaldúa,’ Political Theology Network, June 29, 2021, https://politicaltheology.com/gloria-anzaldua/ (last accessed 30 April 2022).
Zubaida Haque, Laia Becares & Nick Treloar (2020), ‘Over-Exposed and Under-Protected: The Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in Great Britain’, August 2020, Runnymede Trust, https://assets-global.website-files.com/61488f992b58e687f1108c7c/61c31c9d268b932bd064524c_Runnymede%20Covid19%20Survey%20report%20v3.pdf (last accessed 30 April 2022).
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