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Claiming Home: WOC in Europe

Notes on the 3rd Annual Black Feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Colour in Europe Symposium.

Last Saturday in Berlin, the #WoCEurope conference was held and brought together women from almost every country in western Europe and boasted three tracks of presentations and workshops. The abundance was a bit unfair because each topic seemed genuinely interesting. While I found myself rooted in the main track, I often flitted to the other tracks catching rays of brilliance wherever I went.

I’ll admit that I am biased. When I moved to Berlin in 2008, I felt like a pioneer. After the diverse cities I had lived in before, Berlin was a shock. I gathered the phone numbers of every black person I met on the street and this was possible because we were so few. I was yelled at almost daily by Berliners that wanted to announce my blackness to me and anyone within earshot. My daughter, who was a teen then, endured a crucible of verbal abuse. To think that years later that I would return to Berlin to witness a cornucopia of black feminist thought seemed unthinkable then.

It was fitting that the conference started with “Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Conversation with Katharina Oguntoye”. Katharina Oguntoye is an Afro-German writer, historian, activist, and poet. She co-edited the book Farbe Bekennen with May Ayim and Dagmar Schultz. She founded Joliba Intercultural Network and co-founded Adefra – Afro-Deutsche Frauen. Oguntoye was born in 1959 and gave some details about growing up in Germany after spending her early childhood in Nigeria. A generational divide was evident between her and her interviewer, Dominique Haensell around the somewhat esoteric question of “Can a woman have it all?”. Oguntoye expressed that a pause in her activism is what made her motherhood as a lesbian possible. Haensell responded that one can be both a mother and an activist. One idea from the audience that resonated was that motherhood is a form of activism. I felt that the divergence in how both mothers (Haensell & Oguntoye) viewed who could claim the label of activist reminiscent of my own shifts on the issue. Lately, I’ve been meditating on how feminized labor like mothering, is devalued even by feminists and how this has implications for feminists who are mothers who may not see mothering as a crucial part of their activism.

The conversation then shifted to the role of Audre Lorde in the Black German Feminist movement. Audre Lorde is often cited as a catalyst towards a Black German movement and formalized identity. As Oguntoye explained Lorde’s effect and impact, the question from the audience that resonated so much that it got applause was “Why do you think that white German women were more willing to listen to Audre Lorde than to Black German women?” This spoke to the frustrations of many WOC in Europe that find their voices ignored by their white countrymen who undercut their own expertise in their own experience. Katharina Oguntoye remains a vibrant force and reminder that present-day activists are part of a historical continuum of a marginalized population that has not always even been recorded. Our mothers, ourselves, our children.

Katherina Oguntoye talked about the different treatment between her and her brother being an early radicalizing influence. Her mother made sure that she had as much opportunity as possible and Oguntoye said “My mother was a feminist who denied it.” This focus on the importance of practice superseding the claiming of labels would prove to be a common theme throughout the symposium.

Its one thing to know these things in theory but another to make it real. – Katherina Oguntoye

The Politics of Home

I was particularly interested in staying with the track that explored the concept of home. As a transplant to Europe, I am often looking for strategies that allow me to be rooted here while allowing for all of my identities and history. For people of color born here, this desire is even more urgent. Non-white people in Europe are often assumed to be immigrants and not given the luxury and often birthright of belonging.

To be racialized as Black is to be excluded from the national narrative. – Gabriella Beckles-Raymond

In her talk, “Home as a Site of Freedom and Resistance”, Gabriella Beckles-Raymond laid out in painful detail how the home is often delegated to the realm of the feminine, hidden and marginalized. Yet that home as a site in modern democratic ideology as an intimate domain, broader but just as autonomous as the body. Like the body, the homes of People of Color in European contexts is denied and summarily infringed upon. These violations and others led to the recent Windrush scandal in England where long-time Carribean immigrants were stripped of their right to live in England as senior citizens who had been in England without due process. The unthinkable notion that a non-white body could also be a European one has seasonal violent expressions and constant if more benign effects for Women of Color in Europe. It leads to uncertainty whereby race can cost us nationhood and the protections therein.

Hoang Tran Hieu Hanh, Clemintine Ewokolo Burnley & AnouchK Ibacka Valiente (from left to right)
Hoang Tran Hieu Hanh, Clemintine Ewokolo Burnley & AnouchK Ibacka Valiente (from left to right)

Clementine Ewkolo Burnely came back to the tenuousness of nationhood in “The Future of Nonbinary, Trans and Cis Women* Identified Activism in Communities of Color: Transnational, Local, Different”. She remarked that at any time her passport could be taken away. She used this to stress the importance of a self-determined identity. One that refuses to let the dominant narrative control how we see ourselves. This was underscored by AnouchK Ibacka Valiente who does not use she/her/feminine pronouns to describe themself. When Burnely stumbled on their pronoun, it was openly discussed in front of the room as two people that care deeply for each other. This was a living blueprint for active learning and conflict resolution within our communities.

Burnely said, “Love is a good entry to talk about topics and go deeper.” They then expressed that if love is true it has to include accountability and action. It is not enough to just say you love someone if you can’t respect them, gender them properly or listen.

While dealing with differences within activist circles may be painful, they are not insurmountable. They necessitate the prioritization of people with more at stake and a willingness to act on a behalf of the collective instead of the individual alone. This was evident in how the group talked about their strategies for combating instances of colorism:

  1. Name what is happening
  2. Refuse to take the power that is given to you because you are higher on the color hierarchy
  3. Actively include those who are excluded

Art was infused throughout the symposium, most notably through how the attendees showed up beautiful and solidly owning their space. The visual art was also stunning and included a series of portraits on Black Feminist Activism & Black Sisterhood by Ife Akinroyeje.

Silex
Silex

I was fortunate enough to stand outside of a full room and catch glimpses of a mesmerizing poetic visual performance by Silex called All That you Touch. The delivery in French was synced with the English translation and accompanying visuals on video. The visceral collective memory of how our identities were weaponized against us so early in our lives, in school rooms, on playgrounds in casual passing left me near tears. How do we fit into systems not designed for us? Is fitting in the goal? What do we gain? What do we lose?

In “For Us, by Us:  Brown Girls and the Birth of a Women of Colour Movement in Finland”, Jasmin Kelekay deconstructed the implications of the myth of Nordic exceptionalism from racial issues. The historical, systemic and ongoing forgetting that is required to keep that myth alive. Erasure, not collecting race data is justified by Nordic color blindness. This method of post-racial policies to cover any instances of racial inequality is being deployed throughout Europe.  What does it mean when national identity is defined by whiteness and you are not?

“Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.” – Clementine Ewkolo Burnely

Even though that was acknowledged, there was so much focus placed on self-care from many of the presenters. We gain nothing by exhausting ourselves. Some presenters mentioned the importance of demanding compensation for our often invisiblized labor. Claiming happiness and love in the midst of our work even if that means embracing motherhood or claiming your sexuality or gender identity is seen as a betrayal by your peers or family. Our solidarity and focus must first be to ourselves. The personal is political, but, also, the personal is our home. Our own realm to curate and define in a way that sustains us beyond our daily survival into our calling. 

In her keynote, Noah Sow said: “We are taught to adapt before we learn to love ourselves.” The conference was a place where we returned to the center and got to view that position from different angles and possibilities.

“‘The taboo is not that we fight but that we refuse to harm ourselves in that fight. That we survive that fight.” – Noah Sow

Sow’s keynote address offered some levity, humor and a challenge for the community to not only examine the boundaries that shape our society, but also the boundaries that we create in order to form coalitions with each other. Is it still necessary to frame spaces as women* centered in 2018? How do we justify that and are we asking non-binary and trans people to leave some of themselves at the door in order to enter these spaces? Is it just tradition or is it based on an epistemology that can be defended within a Black feminist framework?

Sow also broached the need for protected spaces and discussions. With social media giving the world access to formerly closed discourses, the intellectual capital of Feminists of Color is often co-opted and misused. “Intersectionality” was offered as a prime example of this. People with little understanding of the term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw tend to use it to shore up their “radical” credentials or to even excuse themselves from critique. While Sow approached this with welcome humor the tension between the potential for an extended community and the potential for cultural or intellectual appropriation leave many with an ambivalent relationship with the exposure of social media. Our wealth of thought and experience is so rich that unfortunately it is often used by people without regard to our well-being. Sow gave some strategies that encouraged growth and new ideas while being intentional about who we give access and why.

The conference is too short. I wished desperately that I could be in all three tracks at the same time. I took furious notes trying to capture the magic of being surrounded by so much brilliance. In the end, nothing can capture the joy of being there and having some of my most uncomfortable or exhilarating moments articulated and deconstructed. I commend everyone who took part and I look forward to next year… wherever in Europe that may be.

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Vienna Queer Performance Festival – Interview with Veza Fernandez

Speaking with Veza is like an uninterrupted stream of consciousness with an artist that is committed to being intuitive as she is analytical. Denise had a chance to speak with her after her performance at the SPIT Vienna Queer Performance Festival.

Veza María Fernández Ramos is a choreographer and performance artist who lives in Vienna. Her work is a constant dialogue between dance, theatre, performance and text creation. She studied English and Spanish Philology in Spain, Scotland and Austria, and dance in various professional training courses, workshops and laboratories in Austria. After three years of teaching in a secondary school, she left her job to dedicate herself fully to her artistic career.

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Vienna Queer Performance Festival – Interview with Maurício Ianês

Denise sat with Maurício Ianês in a cafe in Vienna and spoke about a range of topics including evolving in queerness, the importance of language, examining one’s position and more. This discussion critiques the commodification of queerness and its implications for queer people throughout the world. Maurício Ianês performed as part of the S_P_I_T Queer Performance Festival Vienna.

Maurício Ianês (born in Santos, São Paulo – Brazil, in 1973), currently works and lives in São Paulo. Ianês graduated in Fine Arts at the Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado – FAAP – in 1998. Ianês’ works focuses on questioning the limits and possibilities of verbal and artistic languages, its social and political functions. By opening many of his works to the active participation of the public, thus creating situations of social exchange where language and its social developments come into play, Ianês tries to bring to surface the established functioning of the system of art and its ideological undercurrents. Through this open dialogue with the public proposed in his actions, Ianês proposes a dismantling of the hierarchic power relations that are at play in the relationship between artist, public and art institutions. This is a central issue in his recent work. Ianês has presented his works in important local and international exhibitions, such as “Il cotello nella carne”, PAC Milan (2018), “Terra Comunal”, SESC Pompéia, São Paulo (2015), “Des Choses en Moins, Des Choses en Plus”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2014), France; “Avante Brasil”, KIT – Kunst im Tunnel, Düsseldorf, Germany (2013); “O Nome”, Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil (2013), “Chambres Sourdes”, at the Parc Culturel de Rentilly, France (2011); the 28th and 29th International São Paulo Biennials (2008 and 2010), São Paulo, Brazil

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Vienna Queer Performance Festival – Interview with Gingehou Abrogoua

Gingehou Abrogoua aka Eric Abrogoua is an actor, dancer and community organizer who lives in Paris France. Gingehou was featured at The S_P_I_T Queer Performance Festival in Vienna, Austria to perform in a spellbinding piece that incorporated video, movement and music to create a tapestry of raw emotion. Denise got a chance to speak with Gingehou as part of our Special Edition series featuring artists from The Queer Festival

They discuss topics ranging from Gingehou’s ability to own their gender and sexuality, how to transform violence and how performance functions in queer spaces.

From The S_P_I_T Queer Performance Festival:

Eric Abrogoua (FR)
VBSS BLOOMS

“I am not your negro”, said James Baldwin
“Fuck all the things I have to do to please you”, may answer VBSS
“Cause actually … I am not your queer, your man or your woman: I am not your object.
I never wanted in your box. Who did create it? Something about this violence we endure, what it does, how we fall into each other’s representations. VBSS is the name of an ambivalence and a sex node. The very term expresses the lack of communication in our society. Sex is the place where everyone has the opportunity to free oneself. It’s a shout. A way to the universal. Everyone has something to address, a message for all sexuality, gender, race, class… Diva is many sould, voices, bodies.

You can learn more about Gingehou Abrogoua’s projects here:
VBSS
Evil Queens

Photos below are of Gingehou Abrogoua and were taken by Denise

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Spectacle: Theory as Bloodsport

spectacle by the queer truth

When people see my neighborhood, they are often surprised. People don’t often place me in Queens, mostly because I don’t even live in the United States anymore, but there is an obvious class assumption about me that betrays everything they think they know about people who come from my hood. If I am having a good day and speaking at a conference they don’t see me growing up down the corner from the nameless fried chicken place. They imagine that I should be harder and rougher somehow. The thing is, I am and I’m not. I’m not because I was more likely to cry on my pillow, after walking through the daily assaults of street harassment and found ways to make myself invisible when the violence would erupt. I’m not because I survived, developed silent strategies and avoided the worst that my environment had to offer.

I’m reminded of a particular trip to the McDonalds after school that was booby-trapped. After my day at Brooklyn Tech, I went to the corner with two girlfriends that I inherited from middle school. My job was to keep them because they were way cooler than me and I was determined. But as we jovially rounded the corner on Dekalb Avenue, we were set upon by a posse of about 10 kids that demanded our cash and jewelry. I had neither but stuck around corralling the belongings that were strewn on the street after they were rifled through. I memorized the faces of every robber and every customer in the McDonalds that watched us through the wall of windows. Doing nothing. I took a couple blows but none hurt me as much as all of the casually amused eyes upon me. I knew then that there was no inherent justice in having an audience.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates rose to prominence, I’ve watched proudly and horrified as challenges rolled out to meet him behind every accomplishment. He was honest about his background and process in his consistent writing and got attacked for not being fully formed. He went to buy his dream house and someone published the address so he retracted. Every grant or public appearance met with numerous think pieces of writers and activists trying to out-think him. His celebrity has been equal parts blessing and curse.

When one chooses to be a writer, there is hope that a diversity of thoughts are valued. The world of hot-takes has turned the art of theory into a competitive sport, however. Your book can be misrepresented and rebuffed in an article. Your off-hand statement can be turned into a cause to rally against you. The anxiety does not produce more nuanced ideas but more brand-able ones. This differs from the call to be politically correct which just implores you to treat marginalized people with respect. This is a call to develop theories that survive the various purity tests of gatekeepers, lest you be subjected to a take-down in the public sphere.

Make no mistake, Cornel West is a gatekeeper in this case. His Guardian article and previous call-outs of Coates in a Root interview are all attempts to create a show of the ways in which his analysis are superior to Coates’. The macho bravado and patronizing goading with which he calls Coates “brilliant” made me immediately tired. It reminded me of times at Howard when a professor would call me brilliant only to follow it up with “but naive”. West proposes an either / or world where ideas can’t co-exist or better yet compliment each other. He longs to bring Coates into the church of right-thinking where neo-liberalism trumps white-supremacy as the starting point for analysis. The idea that Coates would be loudly accused of not seeing the brutality inherent in the American project is a joke.

 

Cornel West is doing what he does. Picking an imaginary intellectual fight for theoretical stakes with someone who he thinks he can out-preach into rhetorical submission. But then this is 2017, so there is a worldwide audience who is much more interested in the possibility of blood than in the possibility of black liberation. My twitter feed has been filled with people salivating at the prospect of Coates/West match-up yet don’t have the range to engage with the theories of either. What West did by coming for someone who never sent for him was to volunteer to create a show for a public that just wants to see someone in pain.

Coates made a few statements and deleted his Twitter. I was relieved that he opted out of the performance. The ritual he was being asked to engage in was nothing more than posturing. A fruitless fight can be demanded of you but you don’t have to show up.

https://twitter.com/hausmuva/status/943125097501650945

I imagine Coates somewhere looking at the jeers, praises and memorizing the faces of the hungry onlookers. The demands of this audience say more about their needs than his.

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Special Edition: Afro Rainbow Austria Co-Founder (Full Interview)

Denise had the opportunity to talk with Jay of Afro Rainbow Austria about his life in Uganda, fleeing due to his sexuality and his activism in Austria. He elaborates on how criminalizing sexuality leads to dangerous conditions even within families and intimate relationships.  It is well worth the listen.

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Special Edition: We Reclaim Our Pride in The Netherlands (Full Interview)

Credit: We Reclaim Our Pride FB Page

Denise had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Amandla and Olave of We Reclaim Our Pride in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. They staged an intervention to protest the pinkwashing and corporatization of Gay Pride events in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and had to confront the right-wing “Gayservatives” (gay conservatives also known as the “GayKK”) in Rotterdam. They speak about the intersection of Queerness, Blackness, and Xenophobia in the Netherlands – a hidden truth that counters the Dutch narrative of tolerance.

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Podcast #29: #HandsoffCaster, the Nightly Show & Nate Parker

This week we talk about the complexities surrounding the intersections of gender, sexuality, and the loss of a piece of representation in pop culture. Gabby Douglas is still under pressure for being a black woman while being excellent at the Rio Olympics. How do we deal with gender non-conforming athletes? Caster Semenya was an opportunity to clarify that but instead her wins are still met with skepticism and a lack of LGBT discourse and solidarity. Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show was cancelled by Comedy Central. How tenuous is the future of controversial political satire when controlled by those that are not invested in it? The former rape case against Nate Parker and its current implications on community support of Birth Of A Nation in light of Nate’s role in a sexual assault. And we end with what’s making us happy.

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Podcast #24: Whitney Houston’s Queerness, #Prince BET Tribute, #StanfordRapist, Goldsmiths #feminist loss

In this podcast we talk about Bobby Brown’s new book, Every Little Step  where he confirms long-standing rumors of Whitney Houston’s bisexuality.  Express excitement about the initial lineup of BET’s Prince Tribute which includes D’Angelo, The Roots, Janelle Monae & Sheila E.  We investigate about what the #StanfordRapist reveals about rape culture and corruption in the justice system and the public resignation of Sara Ahmed, a professor of feminist studies at Goldsmiths University in protest of the culture of sexual harassment at the university.

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Podcast #23: Live from #AfroPunk Paris

This week we are live from AfroPunk Paris! In this week’s podcast we discuss Snoop Dog’s boycott of new Roots miniseries, Big Boi’s problems with mothers and kids today. We talk about how we can be in solidarity with Jasmine Richards, the Black Lives Matter activist who was convicted of Felony Lynching.