While making clear that black femininity exists and is located in multiple spaces, this essay brings out the intellectual and cultural presence and voices of black women in both national and international feminist communities. We engage black feminist thought (BFT) by offering the example of our community—the Ekwe Collective—a sisterhood of six feminist scholar–activists and their daughters. This essay offers insights on how BFT translates to the lived experience of communities of color in the twenty-first century. In particular, we draw upon and extend three dimensions of the theory: experience, generation, and space.
To illuminate the voices, experiences, and complex lives of black women, Patricia Hill Collins is attentive to “specialized thought produced by African-American women intellectuals designed to express a Black woman's standpoint.”1 Underscoring the diversity among black women, Collins brings forth our intellectual and cultural presence in both national and international feminist communities. In doing so, black feminist thought (BFT) has opened up epistemological, methodological, and activist spaces for black women as well as other women of color.2 Central to BFT is the idea that black women cultivate safe communities in oppressive contexts.3 Although Collins discusses these communities theoretically,4 little is known about how such communities emerge and are sustained via black women's praxis.
This essay explores the formation of a community of black women and girls by way of the Ekwe Collective—a sisterhood of six feminist scholar–activists and their daughters. Ife Amadiume explains that “Ekwe” is an honorific title conferred upon particularly industrious women in pre-colonial Igbo societies in West Africa: “Whatever such a woman touched yielded multiple profits: all of her crops increased, her domestic animals reproduced prolifically and were not killed by diseases, her chicks were not carried off by hawks.”5 Like Ekwe, and as scholar–activists, we wish for our ideas to proliferate and generate social change. We came together to carve out spaces for reflection and rich discussions on identity politics in this transitional time, when the world—amid its intense global connectivity—is fragmented by varying historical legacies, contemporary realities, and existential crises. Although our creative engagement is privileged by our work in the academy, it is also informed by membership in marginalized communities at the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and nationality.
NyAshia is the daughter of Amoaba and the youngest member of the collective at ten years old. This picture symbolizes how NyAshia sees our collective—as strong, firmly planted, and hard to destroy. In her words: “Even if the tree sometimes loses leaves or a branch breaks, the tree still lives on.” Inspired by NyAshia's understanding of our black feminist collective as a strong and growing tree, we draw upon and extend—akin to branching out—three dimensions of black feminism, including experience, generation, and space. In line with Kimberlé Crenshaw's terminology, we use the concept of “intersections” to map multiplicative identities, which span across experiences, generations, and space.6
In the spirit of BFT and third world feminist thought, we are not making value-laden distinctions between “proper academic prose,” creative writing, and artistic expression.7 As Joëlle M. Cruz states, “Poetic prose in particular can be useful in grasping the circular and sensorial nature of silencing experiences, by seizing fragmentary images and impressions.”8 Our approach to narrating ourselves individually and collectively resists “reifying hierarchies and divisions between those who think, those who do, and those who live the problem.”9 We are also always alternating and overlapping among thinking, doing, and living; thus, we draw upon different voices to reflect on being women of color across the United States, Canada, Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean. Akin to constructing a multivocal collage, we employ several theoretical lenses, including US American black feminist thought, African feminisms, and third world feminisms.10 Methodologically, we autoethnographically blend poetry, dialogue, and a multitude of personal examples with more conventional academic writing.
Blending these lenses with our black feminist autoethnographic approach allows us to consider global, transnational, and diasporic elements of our complex world. In the process, we expand BFT by bringing international communities of black feminists and other feminists of color into meaningful conversation with the framework. Being inclusive in these ways is key to extending BFT, which has often overlooked experiences of black womanhood beyond US contexts.11
We also display the complexities of blackness, because blackness—like feminism—means different things to different people in different geopolitical contexts. Therefore, the Ekwe Collective's reflections labor to democratize “blackness” and “feminism” by diversifying their meanings, which are too often essentialized. We are curious about a variety of questions: What particular intersections shape our experiences of black womanhood? How do we navigate oppression as black women in the academy? How do black mothers teach their daughters to navigate a global world more commonly hostile than respectful toward black women? In response to these questions, we bring together experiential, generational, and spatial dimensions of our lives to exemplify and advocate for an embodied praxis of black feminist thought.
BLACK FEMINIST AUTOETHNOGRAPHY
We use black feminist autoethnography (BFA) in accordance with Rachel Alicia Griffin's assertion that “the formal conceptualization of BFA renders Black women more visible in the realm of autoethnography, which in the academy is more often associated with and published by White women.”12 Generally, the characteristics of autoethnography include the affirmation of subjectivity and self-reflexive storytelling coupled with critical, cultural commentary.13 Utilizing this foundation, BFA centers black women to work against the erasure of our bodies, voices, and rationalities by fostering voice and empowerment at the intersections of multiple identities.14 In this sense, BFA “highlight[s] struggles common to Black womanhood without erasing the diversity among Black women coupled with strategically ‘talking back’… to systems of oppression (e.g., sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, classism).”15 Ekwe embraces the political commitments of BFA and extends its use to black girlhood. We find this method particularly useful to narrate our marginalization in Western and US-centric academia.
We deploy BFA at a collective level by embracing a collaborative approach to autoethnographic storytelling,16 which considers the autoethnographic self in situ—that is, inserted in the group: “[C]ollaborative autoethnographers work together, building on each others’ stories, gaining insight from group sharing, and providing various levels of support as they interrogate topics of interest for a common purpose.”17 There is a dual dynamic at play in collaborative autoethnography because each contributor provides distinct insight; yet individual perspectives merge to create a whole that generates “unique synergy and harmony that autoethnographers cannot attain in isolation.”18
Our collaborative process unfolded through constant interplay between our individual selves and the collective, which allowed us to shape our black feminist collaborative autoethnography. For instance, to write the “Our Identity/ies” section group members individually composed a short positionality statement. We then wove our statements together to craft the flow and structure of the poem. Similarly, we liberally interspersed our individual voices throughout the essay. This multivocal, rhythmic interspersion was inspired by Ntozake Shange's choreopoems.19 This juxtaposition of voices and formats likens this manuscript to a tapestry with a successive layering of threads in colorful, organic fashion. Such a collaborative approach to BFA informs how we conceptualize and narrate three intersectional dimensions of our lives: experience, generation, and space. Experience emerged as an aspect steeped in the embodied nature of the Ekwe Collective. Generations were relevant based upon the different age categories in our collective and our grounding in multiple feminist generations. Space was significant through an evocation of our various homes, the colors of our interiors, and feelings of safety in these locales. Figure 2 illustrates our vision of Ekwe's insight into our lives as black women. The middle of the framework signals the overlapping nature of these dimensions, which are inextricable from one another and are also affected by intersectional identity politics. In the following sections, we autoethnographically narrate how the dimensions of experience, generation, and space impact our lives as black women.
OUR IDENTITY/IES: THE EXPERIENTIAL DIMENSION
As Collins points out, lived experience is a key dimension of black feminist epistemology. She states that “an experiential, material base underlies a Black feminist epistemology, namely, collective experiences and accompanying worldviews that US Black women sustained based on our particular history.”20 In this section, we showcase how Ekwe gatherings are grounded in black women's lived experiences. We also flesh out who we are individually and how we breathe, live, and embody BFT.
Opening up this segment as the narrator, I am an Ivorian-French woman. Having grown up in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, I have a deep connection to my West African heritage. I am also attached to my French roots and identify as an “Afrop,” my abbreviation for “Afro-European.” I completed my graduate education in the United States and like to say that I straddle three continents: Africa, Europe, and North America. My academic work is shaped by these multiple and sometimes contradictory positionalities. As a communication studies scholar, my research interests focus on African feminisms, empowerment, and grassroots organizing in post-conflict African societies. I am aware that my brown body, tall height, and curly afro frame me as threatening in the white academy. However, my experience of black womanhood is also shaped by my foreign status. Upon encountering me, some white colleagues and students feel relieved to hear my French accent, which they find “cute.” They construe me as someone other than an African American woman.
And so the story begins in the fall
Somewhere in Ohio
A piece of Midwest
Clinical bearings of a place
Where blackness is displaced
I am a black woman born in US America whose life began at the tail end of US American Apartheid and at the beginning of what many, such as Angela Y. Davis, refer to as the Prison Industrial Complex.21,My academic work in sociology focuses on silenced issues and groups, including mental health and suicide amongst black women. I consciously seek to combat the pathological vantage point frequently used to explain, describe, and predict behaviors of systemically underserved groups. More often than not, the teachers who teach us, the scientists who study us, and the authors who write about us pull their perceptions from an ill-informed body of literature.22
And so we come together
Six women, two girls
Weaving strands of black and brown
Spanning the United States, Canada, Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean
So different yet similar
For we bear blackness in our bones (exhale)
I am an African Canadian woman who is a feminist and mother. I was born in Jamaica, raised in Canada, and now live in the United States. I am housed in a Panafrican Studies department. I ground myself in feminist frameworks to expose how social and cultural categories impact myself and my daughters. As a mother, I try to create a space for my girls to take and feel their freedom, a space where they can dance and bring the joy they feel dancing into the world.
And so the cooking starts
Coconut rice, chicken curry, mac and cheese
And so laughter gushes
Roaring like our mamas before us
And so we drop our guards
At least until tomorrow (exhale)
I am a biracial Nigerian-US American woman with Nordic heritage. My roots in the Niger Delta and identities inform my intellectual and activist work on minority citizenship in the Nigerian Delta region; questions of belonging, diaspora identity-formation, and gender. As a historian, I am drawn to broad linkages between communities over time and how they come to be. I also look at social problems in this way. For example, the Nigeria of the late 1970s and early 1980s no longer exists, but when I return to the places of my childhood, the people I grew up with are part of my transnational community of support, and our connection feeds my work. In addition, my physical appearance as a biracial woman in the academy complexly shapes how my research participants, colleagues, and students perceive my work and contributions to the field of history. My femaleness, fair skin, and junior status are commonly construed as threats within both the largely male Eurocentric and Afrocentric academic establishments.
And so we are teachers
And so we are scholars
Some of us mothers or mothers-to-be
Etched in our circle
Are other sacred circles
I am an African American woman of Nigerian descent in my early thirties. Although I have lived in the United States all of my life, I was raised in a bicultural household, which has greatly impacted my worldview as a scholar and as a woman of color. I am a product of an educational system heavily laden with oppressive practices that should have hindered my educational trajectory. However, I have persisted to receive my doctoral degree in educational leadership and am currently an Assistant Professor in Education Administration. My academic work is reflexive in nature; it aims to render the narratives of people who live on the margins audible and to illuminate the inequitable practices that labor to keep us living in isolation.
And so we are Ekwe
Memories of sister friends
West African women
Pounding yam in the shade
Memories of parched up hands
In cottony fields
I was born in the deeply segregated South Side of Chicago, IL's infamous Black Belt; educated on the ostentatiously exclusive North Shore of Chicago; and raised in the multi-faceted and heavily restricted West Side of Chicago. As part of the last generation to come of age without millennial technologies at their fingertips, I remember actually going outside to play, riding a bike, spending every waking hour on the beach, and the gorgeous gift of naïveté. The blissful ignorance of my childhood was shattered early by poverty, racism, and the harshness of city living. Gifted and black, I was quite young when I realized my position in our world. My realization was utterly painful, difficult, and has informed my work as a sociologist.
And so this is the place where we make meaning
Of our past, present for our future
We invite fear, pain and celebration
We care… for ourselves and others
We are African Canadian girls who were born in Toronto, Ontario, and moved to Ohio nine years ago when our mother (Amoaba) accepted a position as an assistant professor. I (Niarra) am fourteen years old and I am a dancer. Sometimes I have a hard time at school because I am younger than people in my classes. My life is largely shaped by my family, friends, and dance. I miss my family in Toronto. Sometimes I feel like I stand out at school because I am quieter than everyone else. I also get very anxious about what others think about me, and how they see me, which lowers my confidence level. I love music and exercising, and these two things, along with dance, are my go-to activities when I am feeling badly about something. I (NyAshia) am ten years old and I love to dance. I am Canadian with Jamaican parents. It has been hard growing up because I am different. I developed faster during puberty than most girls, and I am also taller. Sometimes I am treated differently at school because of the way I look. I also feel different because I am brown and most of my friends are white. When I am at dance, I find it hard to express myself because I am scared of making mistakes.
As six women and their daughters from varied locations in Africa and the African diaspora, Ohio is the crossroads where we met. It is an unexpected but necessary space to find each other and create Ekwe, which serves as our organic space for collecting and exchanging ideas, working through problems in our lives, and supporting our personal and professional growth. Our group was organically formed in fall 2014 after Amoaba and Joëlle—working for the same university—met for lunch and decided to host a gathering of other black women faculty at Joëlle's home. Since then, we have been meeting regularly, on average every four to six weeks. This has varied depending on how busy we are with work, family, and personal obligations. We have made it a point to have food at every single gathering.
I never expected Ohio to be a place where I would meet other black and brown women like myself. Until Ekwe, this place to me was cold, quiet, and eerily empty—the vacant aisles of a superstore with bare shelves.
Less present in Collins’s work is the importance of food in creating and sustaining humanizing lived experiences.23 In our case, breaking bread regularly strengthens our ties to each other as we laugh, cry, and chat. The recipes we have cooked include fried plantains, beans and rice, chole masala (curried chickpeas), jerk chicken, chili, mac and cheese with spinach, meatballs, fried chicken, and Nigerian rice and stew. Ultimately, we create a sense of belonging and home together.
OUR HOMEPLACE: THE SPATIAL DIMENSION
Homeplace is a reference to bell hooks's description of a refuge for black women, a political space where resistance takes place. Describing the arrival to her grandmother's home, hooks says:
In our young minds houses belonged to women, were their special domain, not as property, but as places where all that truly mattered in life took place—the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, integrity of being; there we learned to have faith.24
Black women have been able to survive oppressive circumstances by creating and participating in homeplaces as safe and nourishing spaces. Collins identifies three types of safe spaces: relationships amongst women, churches, and black women's organizations.25 Despite this theoretical discussion, little is known about how black women from different geographical places and positionalities relate to one another and organize in real life. Ekwe provides a practical case in point.
We come from different places: Atlanta, GA, Nigeria, Minneapolis, MN, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, Lille, France, Jamaica, Toronto, Ontario, Chicago, IL, and Rockford, IL. We exemplify “transversal politics,” or how “participants bring with them a ‘rooting’ in their own particular group histories, but at the same time realize that in order to engage in dialogue across multiple markers of difference, they must ‘shift’ from their own centers.”26 Creating spaces of homeplace warmed by breaking bread together allows us to redefine intellectualism and decrease the isolation we feel in the academy, which continues to be dominated by a Western, white, and phallocentric paradigm.27
As I write this today, I come to you as the first black woman ever to have earned tenure in my department, a fairly well-ranked doctoral program at a research institution. I am also only the second black person. While those statistics are tragic and offer an abysmal outlook, I am encouraged by my abilities to break through barriers and demand our places at the center as opposed to the margins. I see myself following the path cleared for me and clearing a path for those who follow me, and that is an incredibly empowering position to be in, with all the agency and strength it implies.
Ekwe is a necessary cultural space, not only for our academic selves, but also for our souls. Our desire to thrive in spite of our struggles is the glue that holds us together. Interactions with Ekwe women and girls keep us sane as no one can understand the stressors of being black, female, and faculty like another black, female faculty member. Mirroring our experiences, Kirsten T. Edwards speaks of being astonished by how well another black woman could so accurately and eloquently communicate her experiences despite them never having met in person.28 Kamesha recalls the relief she felt when she learned from other Ekwe women that she was not the first to be referred to as a “racist” in her course evaluations. Of course, being labeled “racist” was devastating. However, liberation emerged from connecting with others who not only recognized what she was going through, but also shared their own coping strategies.
As I fight for a humanizing place inside the ivory colored walls of the academy, I know that I must go the proverbial extra mile to succeed. Yet, ironically, the need to go the extra mile often feels as if I'm planting my feet on foreign land.
Three dimensions of space are particularly salient in Ekwe: physical, geographical, and metaphorical spaces. At a basic level, spaces are connected to physicality. Here we refer specifically to the experience of home, as most Ekwe meetings take place at the homes of our members. Home and “homeplace” have been central to our bonding moments. For us, it is synonymous with a variety of sensorial experiences, including sight, smells, sounds, and touch.
The Ekwe Collective is a home, kitchen table, tribunal, library, platform, spirit, and voice. The Ekwe Collective facilitates my strength, my liberty, my empowerment, my agency, and my defiance.
When we consider space, our six homes offer a kaleidoscope of styles and colors. Although eclectic, they generally express our Afro-centered worldviews and depart from the stark and monochronic nature of academic spaces. For instance, we collectively tend to favor a warm palette, including oranges, reds, and yellows. Far from being innocuous, color and artifacts are connected to systems of domination. David Batchelor uses the term “chromophobia” to explain how color has been devalued in the West; this absence of color is related to a cultural bias of rationality.29 In contrast, the warm colors and cultural artifacts in our homes contribute to a safe atmosphere. Other elements shaping our physical homeplaces include the smells of the spices with which we cook—curry, allspice, chili powder, paprika—and our voices and laughter. Members of the collective understand the importance of preserving at least half of our meeting time for happenstance, during which we have shared personal and professional tribulations. We have also decolonized and repurposed conventional spaces in the academy by occasionally meeting in conference rooms. Six brown female bodies occupying these spaces is, in itself, a subversive act.
We also embody multiple geographical regions—the United States, Canada, Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean—with threads of blackness and womanhood running through them. These ties to different geographic spaces account for our diverse connections to blackness. Given our cultural roots, we decenter the black US female experience by putting it in conversation with global embodiments of blackness. For each of us, interlocking systems of imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy have created unique realities and conundrums that are oftentimes unaccounted for and ignored by US-centric approaches to feminism.
For instance, Joëlle does not identify as “black” or “African American” as defined in the United States. These labels do not capture her French colonial history. Prior to moving to the United States, she identified as a “métisse,” a term used in French-speaking countries to refer to individuals of mixed descent. Now, she has claimed the term “brown,” which aligns her with other immigrant women who face struggles connected to their citizenship status. Toja, like Joëlle, identifies first as métisse, or mixed race. However, coming of age in the United States, her identity has been shaped by racial politics, meaning that “mixed race” tends to be collapsed with “black.” Publicly and formally, she identifies as black, regardless of how she is perceived. In intimate spaces where diverse cultural landscapes and international sensibilities are welcome, she inhabits her mixed identity. Thus, blackness for Toja is contextual. Chinasa identifies as a Nigerian-American, having been born in the United States but raised in a bicultural household by immigrant parents from Nigeria. Highlighting the relationships among space, fluidity, and identity/ies to which Ekwe members speak, she says:
When I walk into a room, I am conscious of the many dimensions of my identity that inform how others perceive, react to, and interact with me. How I'm treated may simply be predicated by the color of my skin and not by the many facets of my character, abilities, and skills as a human being.
Chinasa's identity is situated in the sociopolitical context in which she was raised and currently lives. However, having been born and raised in the United States, Kamesha and Nicole more easily identify as “black.” Narrating the painful consequences of blackness, white privilege, and racism, Nicole says:
My lens was profoundly shaped when I was introduced to my own blackness at five years old, by being called a nigger, while simply out riding bikes with friends; by being forced to travel alone for four hours per day on Chicago public transportation, at only eight years old, in order to access a top notch North-side prep-school education; and by being surrounded by wealthy, desirable, white children, all the while feeling like an interloper. The negative social rhetoric that shaped how I was viewed by the world around me kept me constantly aware of my so-called shortcomings. I was too tall, too fat, too dark, too poor, too loud, and too smart for my own good. I had to learn the hard way to stand up in the face of the sharp, harsh reality that existed for little black girls like me.
Amoaba, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Canada, identifies as African Caribbean Canadian, which captures varied notions of blackness, Caribbeanness, and Canadianness simultaneously. Her identity is heterogeneous, encompassing national, transnational, and diasporic components. Interpreted individually and collectively, our narratives reveal that geographic space deeply shapes our different intersectional experiences.
The actual physical space of Ekwe is also a metaphor for other visionary spaces, where we reinvent what it means to be teachers, mothers, mothers-to-be, and scholars. Understanding space metaphorically aligns with postmodern and post-structural feminist orientations.30 Doreen Massey suggests a break in linear conceptualizations of space by discussing fragmentation and dislocation in an era of globalization.31 Engaging with this notion of fragmentation allows us to consider Ekwe as a window to other spaces, which illuminates the potential for black women to come together to foster radical freedom, reinvention, and resistance. As suggested by Joëlle and Amoaba below, Ekwe contains several worlds as it is reminiscent of gatherings of women in other places like West Africa. In this sense, the collective allows us to think differently about space, boundaries, and distance.
And so we inhabit multiple intersectional spaces. Meeting in Ohio, I sometimes feel that I travel back to my home in Abidjan—my home where women often gather with children of all ages, chatting about a gamut of issues: men (he did what again?), opening a new business, and family matters. I am reminded of other worlds like mine where women hold the world in the pulse of their palms.
I think what Ekwe has done for me is to allow me to shape how I interact with the space that I am in—because the space doesn't change but what changes is how I interact with the space. I think it fills me up.
THE GENERATIONAL DIMENSION
My Womb is full,
My baby girl joins the Ekwe
Kicking and basting in the joy her mama feels
From being in the presence of the Ekwe Collective
In Ekwe, we consider the generational dimension of our work as inclusive of the voices and ethos of those who came before us. Ancestral women's voices and knowledges are present as we forge our own “self-defined analyses” of what it means to be black and brown women.32 Purposefully, we build on what our mothers and othermothers established for us and prepare new pathways for future generations, including our daughters.33 In our commitment to each other, we are cognizant of our age differences as well as of the roles of NyAshia and Niarra. Both girls participate by joining our conversations on their own terms. They also assist with food preparation by helping to decide what foods to offer, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleanup. As adults, we are mindful of the words we choose in describing our experiences; while we do not shy away from or shield them from our frustrations and anger, we are careful not to use profanity. Our interactions are fluid and reinforce for Niarra and NyAshia the need to build and sustain strong relationships in community with black girls and women.
Teaching across age differences by example, we draw on Collins's idea of “bloodmothers” (i.e., biological mothers) and “othermothers” as women who share child-rearing in the extended family or the surrounding community.34 All six women and two girls descend from direct lines of African-American, Afro-European, African, Caribbean, and Afro-Latina experience and knowledge. We are enriched by engaging with women who may not share our specific ancestry or traditions of knowledge but who nonetheless are willing to impart important lessons from parallel historical and existential experiences of enslavement, colonialism, and patriarchy that have spanned multiple generations.
We also consider ourselves the inheritors of centuries of feminist thought and activism—often described as first, second, and third wave feminisms. While we recognize that first and second wave feminisms are problematic because of the exclusion of women of color despite their contributions to feminist activism, we find the “waves” useful to theorize about generations.35 Like the waves of feminisms, Ekwe captures a progressive development of ideas and extends what came before. However, unlike Western-centric framing of intellectual development and action, our Ekwe ethos is not linear, nor is it concerned with periodization. Rather, it carries forward a sense of accumulated knowledge and action, inherited and extended by each successive generation.
As feminists who live and work in the West, we are aware of and have benefited from disagreement, critique, and debate within the feminist paradigm.36 Such discourses have been anchored in differences pertaining to race, class, sexuality, and nationalities beyond the West/North, alongside arguments about who can legitimately claim to be a feminist, articulate feminist thought, and/or embody feminism. For instance, African feminists narrate diverse cultural dynamics and current existential concerns: Female genital mutilation is a central concern for East African women; North African women are advocating for increased political participation; and in Southern Africa rape and HIV/AIDS are immediate concerns.37
Such fragmentation—reflecting a broad range of voices and positionalities—is also evidenced in globally recognized US popular culture. Beyoncé Knowles's hit-making appropriation of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk, “We Should All be Feminists” for her song “Flawless” or the statements made by Taylor Swift, whose ambivalence around the word “feminism” has gone viral, trigger debates about who the term applies to and how it can be interpreted.38 Additionally, Tina Fey's Bossypants, Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman, and Roxanne Gay's Bad Feminist mix satire and humor with profane sensibilities to engage what it means to be a feminist in the twenty-first century.39 In our fast-paced, web-connected world, popular articulations of what feminism is or should be do effectively depart from the more staid feminist discourses. Yet, to us, the abovementioned smattering of recent feminist articulations threatens to co-opt more substantive feminist engagement. For example, hooks critiques Beyoncé's Lemonade by arguing that it commodifies black female bodies in service of capitalism.40 Although Beyoncé's music is likely more appealing to younger generations, it is equally important to engage with both Beyoncé and hooks. In sum, we assert that feminisms must be not only more accessible and democratic in who can speak, but also reflexive and generative of action.41
Alongside addressing popular culture, we are also committed to paying attention to the conditions and movements taking place globally.42 We do this because the conditions of women and girls in one location are linked to how women and girls are valued elsewhere. In Ekwe, across multiple generations, we situate ourselves as part of an interconnected global world as opposed to being tied to one place. The pervasive “feminization of poverty” illustrates such interconnectedness under global capitalism.43 A subsequent question that emerged organically in the collective is, How do we link the struggles of working Bangladeshi, Filipino, and Senegalese women with those of working US American, French, or Dutch women?
In the classroom, I make it clear that the struggles of women in Africa may seem on the surface remote and very different from those of Western women, but as we explore more, we realize that often the fundamental concerns (e.g., access to employment, safety from violence) are similar. It is important to glean lessons from each other across racial, spatial, and class divides to see how we might find solutions and apply them to unique, local contexts. For example, approaching women's rights in a manner that includes men, or the whole community, is critically important in many contexts in Africa. At the same time, engaging more formal legal and legislative tools (typically conceived of as a Western approach) can ensure the durability of the rights women can achieve in these local contexts.
Another question that emerged in Ekwe is how is #BlackLivesMatter—a movement created by black, queer women in the United States44—connected to global struggles against repressive state structures of violence?
Recently, I wept over the black lives in Charleston, NC, that were brutally murdered in their place of worship as a result of the color of their skin. Black blood is flooding this land as well as other places. My West Africa, where Boko Haram executes children, women, and men, and the Western world does nothing… .
These connections are not casual. If our husbands, sons, brothers, and nephews are being murdered by the state, it is an attack on the entire community. However, this tragic phenomenon is far more complex than being limited only to men—black cisgender women and girls, as well as transgender, queer, and/or immigrant individuals of all ages are also being systematically brutalized and killed by the state. However, from our perspective, these cases do not garner the same level of attention or action within Western black communities.
The context in which we currently find ourselves as black feminist intellectuals and activists, informed by the generations before and those who follow us, is multi-layered and often fragmented. Via Ekwe, we discuss generational differences alongside the emergence of new media as a means to feminist activism. An integral part of the contemporary mediascape, social media is a potentially effective feminist tool to mobilize, if used strategically and grounded in deep thought and substantive action.45 For example, a major criticism of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls following terrorist group Boko Haram's abduction of over 200 girls in Northern Nigeria was that it did not actually work to restore the girls to their families.46 Long after the international media and commentators moved on to other crises, the families and communities of these girls, as well as local activist groups, continued to pressure the Nigerian government to find the girls, ensuring that it would be part of the agenda in the recent elections.47 The hashtag drew important attention to the crisis, forcing the government to acknowledge the kidnapping and take action. However, people—as opposed to social media—maintained continuous effort to sustain the movement that led to the eventual ousting of an ineffective government regime and the rapid recovery of many of the abducted girls thereafter.
As I carry twin boys in my womb, I watch the news and witness the daily killing of black and brown people. My thoughts travel to #BlackLivesMatter, and I wonder how my children will grow up. I want to protect them from a world that will seek to strip them of their humanity. My work as a mother is clear: to arm them with self-knowledge and self-love coupled with compassion and courage, so that they can meet this world with strength. I want my children not only to survive in our world, but also to thrive in it as whole human beings worthy of respect, dignity, and humanization.
We must mobilize to counter the oppressive effects of global capitalism, one of which is the commodification of girls and women. In our collective, we build positive self-image by including as many of us at the table as possible. Our daughters (and future sons) are part of our meetings, discussions, and meals. As black feminists, we ask our questions in front of them, expose them to our daily shared struggles, and model activism and thoughtfulness for them to foster an intergenerational community through which black feminist work can be continued. Two of us (Toja and Kamesha) are becoming new mothers, and we learn from the experienced mothers in the group while othermothering their children as members of the collective. We share meals to nourish ourselves, our children, and our connections as we strive to engage each other earnestly with a global sensibility.
As a single woman without children and an only child who lives alone, Ekwe has served as a space where I can mother and support and love my fellow members as well as their children and developing babies. Quite differently from the oppressive nature of the academy and our global world, Ekwe offers a space to be an othermother, big sister, mentor, and student.
As the Ekwe Collective, we model the theory, language, and actions of a feminist community of women who are actively engaged in the world as scholar–activists and community members. As Amoaba notes, our reflexive outlook toward self and community challenges us to listen critically. Moreover, reflexivity informs not only what questions we ask but also what aspects of our experience we need to explore more carefully.
CONCLUSION: EKWE AS EVOLVING BLACK FEMINIST PRAXIS
As articulated here, the organic link between BFT and Ekwe is engendered in our creation of a group for black women from diverse geographic locations, including the United States, Canada, Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean. In this sense, the collective has helped us understand the nuanced realities and complexities of being black women in our global world. Through the dimensions of experience, space, and generation, we model and extend black feminism by offering a more inclusive means to theorize and embody black womanhood. In particular, Ekwe addresses and embodies the following themes: interlocking structures of oppression, empowerment and voice, support, othermothering, linking intellectual thought and political activism, and acknowledging diversity among black women and girls.48
The Ekwe Collective models a black feminist method for those who wish to build community. Our approach is reminiscent of Audre Lorde, who discusses the sacredness of the bond between women.49 We are challenging traditional modes of being in the academy and Ekwe by fusing our respective academic work with the personal in a holistic way, much like African feminist scholars.50 We open up our homes to each other, offer food and support, and share resources and personal stories of trials and resilience. Importantly, we create pockets of love to remind ourselves to safeguard our artistic and creative talents (e.g., rollerblading, cooking, knitting, photography, painting, daydreaming, etc.). Such reminders prompt healing and ensure that our personal is indeed political. An “aide-mémoire” (agreement or negotiating text), Ekwe allows us to remember and cherish that our lives extend beyond the academy. Ekwe also reinforces our belief that feminist collectives for black women academics must employ the principles of black feminism. Collins reminds us that the humanist vision in BFT is embedded in the political activism of black women.51 Ekwe as a framework and ethos embodies the nature of how we understand black womanhood—industrious, glorious, and worthy of reverence. Like the Ekwe women we were named for, we wish for our ideas to proliferate and sustain social change.
Many universities invest a great deal of time and resources to recruit and retain scholars from diverse backgrounds. While their intentions may be good, they often bring women faculty of color into hostile environments. These faculty members are then encouraged to seek out support and mentorship. Yet this, too can be detrimental, because we are often marginalized and silenced in spaces such as institutionalized mentoring programs that are intended to be “inclusive.” Efforts that mirror Ekwe can draw upon holistic, feminist approaches to valuing and supporting marginalized faculty in the areas of recruitment, retention, professional development, and overall wellbeing. It is important that similar groups develop organically (as ours did) to ensure that all members feel safe, supported, and secure in communicating and connecting with others. Transparency and authenticity are also critical to the maintenance and survival of groups akin to Ekwe. These principles contribute to an open and honest environment that fosters conflict resolution when needed.
We recognize that female faculty of color will need more than the traditional forms of support offered at the university to navigate their teaching, scholarship, and service. We present the following initial recommendations:
Offer physical safe spaces for female faculty of color to convene and engage in dialogue about their experiences at the institution.
Create a working environment that is family-friendly; intentionally craft messaging that welcomes pregnant women, women with small children, etc. into physical spaces designed for communal bonding across generations.
Offer additional funding and support to attend professional development workshops that provide tools to navigate systemic oppressions. Some examples could come from organizations such as the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity and The Compact for Faculty Diversity's Institute for Teaching and Mentoring.52
Provide opportunities for female faculty of color to engage in collaborative research and scholarly presentations.
For those interested in replicating what we have been able to create, questions to consider include: How can we establish a network with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and be respectful of idiosyncratic differences? How can we carve out safe spaces where participants feel they can be their transparent and authentic selves?
In closing, we offer Niarra's image of the Ekwe Collective to convey the collective knowledge embodied through our Ekwe praxis.