Witches, Wives, Secretaries and Black Feminists

By Paschel, Tianna S. | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Witches, Wives, Secretaries and Black Feminists


Paschel, Tianna S., ReVista (Cambridge)


THE ISSUE OF GENDER HAS BEEN FRONT and center for me, both as a subject of my fieldwork on black politics in Latin America, and how I conducted that research, particularly in how I navigated largely male-dominated black organizations. I am, after all, a black woman, albeit one with certain outsider and sometimes privileged status. As an African American researcher from an elite U.S. university, I found that at times I was able to dodge some of the sexism that was so commonplace within the movements I was studying. Still, there were other times where my being a black women trumped any other identity and did not shield me from blatant sexism and sexual harassment. This was especially true because I was a relatively young black woman traveling alone. Because of this, I learned to schedule interviews with activists and bureaucrats early in the day so as to not spill into the evening hours. I also learned to deal with background noise on recordings because I insisted that we keep doors open while conducting interviews, especially with male leaders. Perhaps most interesting, I learned that only certain activists, under certain conditions, would talk to me about how gender, and patriarchy more specifically, figured into these movements.

When I began my first book, Becoming Black Political Subjects in Colombia and Brazil, I was seeking to explain the role of black movements in the rise of specific legislation for black populations beginning in the late 1980s. While I thought gender figured into this story, I did not know how central it would become. My time in the field made it increasingly clear that telling that story required telling another one about how gender figured into black organizing in the region. I became intrigued by how much the internal dynamics of these movements were shaped by gender, in both explicit and implicit ways. Gender was not only important for explaining the successes of black movements in the region, but also for understanding ideological and organizational differences, and was critical to mapping the organizational fields of black movements in each case.

Before going to the field, I knew from the work of Kia Caldwell and Sonia Alvarez that black women activists in Brazil had fought for years to make the case that the mainstream movement's political platform should pay more attention to the unique ways that racism and gender hierarchies differentially affected black women. They raised many issues, including violence against black women, state-led sterilization campaigns, the exploitation of domestic workers, and the negative portrayals of black women within popular culture. If male-dominated black organizations addressed these issues at all, they often relegated them to the margins. This marginalization mirrored the ways in which a Brazilian women's movement dominated by white, middle-class women treated issues affecting black women. Because of this double marginalization, a black women's movement in Brazil began to rise during the 1980s and 1990s. While the dozens of black women's organizations that arose during this period had varying degrees of relationships to both the black movement and the women's movement, they also sought to carve out their own space.

Knowing this, but not fully under-standing this history, I remember naively asking activists in Brazil's black women's organizations how they began their militancy in the "black movement." Many of them responded as Vilma Reis did, "The experience of the movement of black women, for me it isn't the experience of the black movement" (interview, Vilma Reis, June 2009). Other black feminists corrected me, saying, "Oh, you mean the black women's movement?" These activists wanted to make an important ideological and historical distinction. As Edna Roland, one of the founders of the black feminist organization Speak Black Woman! explained, organizations that we typically understand as "the black movement"-as well as state institutions like the Conselho do Negro in Säo Paulo- were in fact "fundamentally masculine" (interview, Edna Roland, May 2010). …

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