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Black Women/Black Nationalism – Feminist Discourses on Nation-building in American and British Literature and Visual Arts

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BWBN (Black Women/Black Nationalism – Feminist Discourses on Nation-building in American and British Literature and Visual Arts)

Reporting period: 2016-08-01 to 2018-07-31

The primary objective of this project was to compare two apparently unrelated phenomena: the Black Women Renaissance (BWR) in the US and the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in the UK, both of which gathered momentum in the 1980s. These two movements were sparked by a flowering of artistic talent of black women: writers in the US and artists in the UK. The project has demonstrated that these two constituencies of the black diaspora tackled similar issues: preoccupation with the political and cultural emancipation of black people in the West, engagement with their difficult history and focus on national, cultural and gender identities. The project investigated how the work of BWR writers and BAM female artists reflected the intersection of discourses of black cultural nationalism and black feminism. BWR and BAM female artists alike were concerned with the question of how to represent black and female diasporic identity in the context of national belonging, but this context was differently defined, as being a part of the postcolonial British nation (for Black British artists) or an ethnic minority group with a distinctive history and culture (in case of African American writers). The project used a nation-and-gender methodology to shed light on how black women associated with these two powerful movements engaged with black nationalist ideologies by embracing, adapting or disputing them. It demonstrated that, by comparison with BAM women artists’ treatment of gender, cultural and national identity, BWR treatment of these issues was far more conservative than many African American scholars tend to think. By juxtaposing American and British approaches to black cultural nationalism, it has added a European perspective to the field of American black studies and increased the competitiveness of the European Research Area in the field of transatlantic studies. The project has also called attention to the role of women in passing on national and cultural ideas.
The researcher presented papers at 2 conferences: The Interface Between British Contemporary Black and Jewish Cultures (University of Reading, 4 Nov. 2016) and Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe, University of Tampere, Finland. 6–8.07.2017 where she also and co-organised a panel: Making Black Histories Visible in Multiple British Cultural Contexts.

Two papers will be published in 2019: the article “Pitfalls of Memorialisation: ‘Culture Bearing Black Women’ and African American Cultural Nationalism” was accepted by Forecaast series (University of Liverpool)
and the chapter “The body as a Palimpsest. Stor(y)ing Memories in Michelle Cliff “Clare Savage novels” and Gayle Jones’s Corregidora” will appear in the monograph Cultural Palimpsests: Ethnic Watermarks, Surfacing Histories to be published by MESEA (The Society for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas). Third paper, “The ethics and rhetoric of empathy: narrativization of ‘postmemory’ in Caryl Phillips’s writing,” has been submitted to Jewish Culture and History journal.

In Oct.2017 the researcher organized the first Polish exhibition of Lubaina Himid’s work: Inside the invisible. Held in Mazovia Museum Plock, the exhibition was a part of the annual Festival SkArPa (dedicated to avant-garde artists).

On 21-23 June, the researcher organised a conference on feminism and nationalism: Women’s Spring: Feminism, Nationalism and Civil Disobedience in partnership with: U.S. Embassy London; Collegium for African American Research; British Association for American Studies; Goethe University, Frankfurt; International Development and Inclusive Innovation, Strategic Research Area (The Open University). A measurable outcome of the conference will be an edited volume to be published in 2019 in Open Access.

A measurable & documented effect the researcher’s fellowship tenure is a monograph under the tentative title “Black Women – Black Nationalism: Feminist Discourses on Nation Building” which will be published in 2019 in Open Access.
"The monograph adds a European perspective to American Black Studies and sheds light on how women engage with nationalist ideologies by embracing, adapting or disputing them. It analyses narratives and artifacts in which female artists manipulate/revise images of women, ethnic and national heritage, and historical myths to re-construct collective identities of their ethnic groups and/or nations in a way that privileges feminist viewpoints. The monograph expands the Black Atlantic research by introducing a new methodological framework from nation-and-gender studies, which highlights the role of women in the maintenance or reconstruction of national identity in nations and diasporas. This project is also the first to offer a comparative perspective on BWR and BAM feminist discourses on gender and nation in the 1980s. The research results have proven that the African American and Black British feminist writing and art in the 1980s realized different politico-cultural agendas. While the BWR agenda, shaped by the black cultural nationalism of the previous decades, was often ethnocentric and separatist, the BAM agenda was more concerned with the place of black people within the British nation, and it understood blackness and femaleness in a much more inclusive sense.

The monograph also argues that the nationalist surge in the 1980s' black feminist fiction in the United States reflected another much larger transition in American politics of the conservative era, a “shift from redistribution to recognition” (Nancy Frazer, ""Mapping the Feminist Imagination: From Redistribution to Recognition to Representation” 2005). According to Frazer, at the end of the 20th century, feminism in the United States, in general, was no longer interested in the problems of class distribution, and, instead, became preoccupied with culture. In effect “whereas the previous generation [of feminists] pursued an expanded ideal of social equality, this one [in the 1980s and 90s] invested the bulk of its energies in cultural change” (Frazer ). The new emphasis on the politics of recognition, whose aim was to acknowledge and appreciate previously devalued cultures, which was so prominent in the writings of BWR, coincided with the rolling back of the frontiers of the welfare state under the pressure from global neoliberalism. Therefore, the monograph contends that BWR fin-de-siècle culturalism was a “regressive” politics that played into the hands of the neo-liberal establishment in the United States. This “strategic essentialism,” to use Paul Gilroy's expression, had the positive effect of building black self-esteem, consolidating imagined communities and mobilizing black people to resist the fallacy of post-racial and colour-blind America. On the other hand, however, it inadvertently helped, in the words of Nacy Frazer, to “subordinate social struggles to cultural struggles, [and] the politics of redistribution to the politics of recognition.” The most important societal implication of the project is that the future of feminism lies in combining the goals of redistribution and recognition and forging trans-national and cross-cultural alliances that challenge the racially, nationally and ethnically segregated terrain of neo-liberal societies. The project has shown that this agenda has been partially realized by Black British artists and feminists."
Pragna Patel (Southall Black Sisters) delivering a keynote lecture at Women's Spring conference
Prof. Toby Miller delivering a keynote lecture at Women's Spring conference
First Polish exhibition by Lubaina Himid, October 2017
Prof. Alan Rice opening Lubaina's Himid exhibition in Poland
Prof. Nira Yuval Davis delivering a keynote lecture at Women's Spring conference