Arts & Culture / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 1-2

Black Feminist Regard – as Ethics, as Aesthetics

Alexandria Smith, portrait of a Love Supreme

Image Credit: Alexandria Smith, portrait of a Love Supreme, 21 x 32 in. / 1.75 x 2.6 ft., graphite, acrylic, oil and enamel on canvas, 2018, Courtesy of the artist

A preoccupation, if not obsession, that guides my work is how to define black feminism, how to stretch it to reach and to suit black women everywhere, how to evacuate it of unnecessarily prescriptive dogma, how to characterize its ethical commitments, how to theorize the shapes it gives to black expressive culture. I am struck so often by how its invocation seems to engender skepticism among black women from the Diaspora, how often I hear that its precepts and aspirations do not suitably name the ways that black women strive and struggle and survive. But I cling to it because to my mind black feminism is a radical ethic of being and relating, the shaping content of black women’s collective wisdom (across the globe and the ages), and the blueprint for a just world.

As we all know, to be disappeared is a harrowing experience. To feel oneself fail to register or resonate in the domain of social relations is a violent undoing. To encounter one’s person as: distinctly and wholly made, shaped by the accretion of discrete lived moments, the unique summary of aversions and preferences, and reflected in a particular disposition or affective universe are central to feelings of wholeness. The essential harms of containment, of bodily expropriation, of curtailed movement, of inadequate sustenance, of debilitated and weary living—the violences, in other words—that define living in the afterlives of slavery’s proscriptive social death haunt every relational instance in which a black person finds herself invalidated and rendered invisible. What follows proceeds, therefore, from the presumption that the rallying cry of the Global Movement for Black Lives—that is, that Black Lives Matter—is (or must be) both an outward and intramural address. I argue, moreover, that black life mattering both within and without is a black feminist commitment that shows up in 21st century Diasporic expressive practice as something we might think of as an aesthetics of regard. Merriam-Webster defines “regard” in the following ways: due consideration, protective interest, the granting or estimation of worth, a feeling of respect and affection.

In her essay, “The Source of Self-Regard,” the Nobel Laureate and First Lady of American Letters, Toni Morrison, describes her creative process in the writing of two historical novels, Beloved and Jazz. Most of the essay focuses on Beloved and, particularly, on Morrison’s effort to make intimate the world-historical and centuries-long crime of transatlantic slavery while at the same time defamiliarizing it. She begins with the story of Margaret Garner and, to capture the wretchedness of enslavement, fictionalizes the story of the escaped enslaved black woman who, fearing capture and return to slavery, grabbed a saw and cut her child’s throat.

It is nearly impossible to represent infanticide discursively. The agonies of enslavement are unavailable from this historical vantage. In juridical terms, infanticide amounted merely to theft of property; it didn’t rise to the level of taking life, of taking the life that one had carried and nurtured and loved and needed. To move in the direction of this terrible act, Morrison had to enter imaginatively the psychic and social world of the one who had done it. Morrison describes gaining access to Margaret Garner via the grammar and the exercise of self-regard. She writes:

I’m really looking at self-regard in both racial and gendered terms, and how that self-regard evolves or flourishes or collapses and under what circumstances. In Beloved, I was interested in what contributed most significantly to a slave woman’s self-regard. What was her self-esteem? What value did she place on herself? And I became convinced, and research supported my hunch, my intuition, that it was her identity as a mother, her ability to be and remain exactly what the institution said she was not, that was important to her.

It is noteworthy that Morrison defines self-regard for the enslaved black woman in two ways: 1) in terms of her claiming a human identity and capacity that had been nullified by the prior claims of property and commerce and 2) in terms of her positioning herself in powerful and meaningful relation to another, who is also her own. In other words, Morrison surmises that for enslaved black women and for their daughter descendants, regard (even for the self) is an inherently relational exercise and expression.

We, who live now, find ourselves in an increasingly awful present in which climate crisis, fascistic rule, borders and border walls, protracted war, voracious capitalism, and the mass warehousing of disposable populations have become commonplace. Racialized and gendered systems of captivity and control (from the antebellum plantation to contemporary checkpoint to the modern-day prison) operate through technologies of ubiquitous surveillance and capture that isolate and terrorize those who are most marginalized and vulnerable. Building on bell hooks’s insistence on love as radical politics and Brittney Cooper’s principal definition of black feminism as black girl friendship, the remainder of this piece studies and celebrates the work of African American visual artist Alexandria Smith to theorize what I am calling an aesthetics of regard. I do so to emphasize how the emancipatory strategies of communion, of going deep and under in good company, of ecstatic relation, of exuberant black feminist solidarity give rise to artistic innovation in new millennial black women’s visual art, and establish black feminism’s relevance and resonance in our painful  present.

This past November, Alexandria Smith’s first solo exhibition opened at Boston University’s Stone Gallery. Whether presented in collage or as cartoons, the principal figures in Smith’s work are little black girls. Typically depicted in oversized fragments—a finger pointing, a braid sticking out, an arm reaching—the black girl body in Smith’s work is mainly hidden, frequently rearranged, and bound within tight symmetrical spaces. She hides or is crammed into corners and closets, half-hides or is submerged in water. Like the garretted enslaved girl in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Smith’s little black girls also peek and poke and point. They are painted solitary figures, seemingly seeking recognition or rescue. The enmeshed materialities of flesh and container in Smith’s renderings of broken-up black girls rework the relation of fright and relief through the mechanism of anticipated looking. In other words, underlying the artist’s isolated, fragmented black girls comments on the general need of black female subjects for someone’s protective interest – or, in other words, their need for regard.

Smith’s recent exhibit in Boston, “A Litany for Survival,” expands her exploration of black female subjects in search of recognition and rescue. The individual artworks that comprise the installation simultaneously investigate Du Boisian double-consciousness in black women’s subjective development and celebrate the relational practices of black feminine and black feminist communion. Smith’s figural abstractions mirror and double and shadow one another. Oversized and bound together in reflexive poses, their bodies angle toward each other and subtly touch. Against blue and black and brown and purple canvases, the female blacks of artist’s surreal, cartoonish world are never isolated or alone as in her earlier works; in fact, their togetherness seems to be the point.

Alexandria Smith, The Skin We Speak

Image Credit: Alexandria Smith, The Skin We Speak, 60 x 84 in acrylic, oil and enamel on canvas 2017, Courtesy of the artist

The title of the exhibit comes from Audre Lorde’s famous poem, “A Litany for Survival.” The poem, as the title indicates, denotes communal prayer. It is addressed to “we” whose lives are marked by precarity, instability, and unexpected brevity; “we” who are afraid and have internalized fear as a feature of our formation—“with our mother’s milk,” Lorde writes; “we” who disavow our desires and mute our own mention. Gathering strength and sustenance from the collective, the poem is told from “we” to “we.” And it concludes with a prescription and a mandate for our living: “it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive.”

Alexandria Smith’s “The Skin We Speak” visualizes survival as a black feminine pairing. Staging Lacanian mirroring that promises selfhood (or exterior completeness and interior coherence), it depicts two blackened, seemingly female figures under an umbrella or other protective cover. Held within the other’s permanent gaze and yet with one eye visibly askance, the figures look at each other while simultaneously looking out for one another. The water that rises to the waists of both figures intimates transatlantic crossings or displacements, and their mirroring suggests having been found. The figures’ intimate touch registers an embrace. This embrace is not, however, a grasping or folding into of arms, which in their notable absence insinuates the expropriation of the body’s labor—the dispossession of arms and hands. Instead, these figures touch at the breasts—at the site of feminine beauty and other-nurturance. In this piece, the emergence of the black female self depends upon a togetherness that recognizes and nurtures and that speaks in quiet tones of browns and oranges and blacks and blues.

I have chosen to analyze “The Skin We Speak” because it captures, to my mind, the promises and the pleasures of black women’s friendship, which Brittney Cooper argues is the foundation of black feminism. In her recent book, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Cooper offers this potent and globally applicable definition of black feminism, notably evacuating it of prescriptive ideologies or predetermined political commitments. “Friendship with black women is the core essence of what feminism is about,” Cooper argues. Her emphasis on the affective and affiliative dimensions of black feminism highlights its relational capacities and concerns. And it underscores the importance of black girl friendship for black women in the face of all mode and manner of relational failure. She writes:

When my patriarchal nuclear fantasy didn’t happen and the privileges of straightness eluded me and a whole generation of overachieving black women, it is my girls who have celebrated my successes, showered me with complements, taken me out on dates, traveled the world with me, supported me through big life decisions, showed up when disasters struck. One of the feminism’s biggest failures is its failure to insist that feminism is, first and foremost, about truly, deeply, and unapologetically loving women.

The promise of nuclear normative romance is not guaranteed, and when it comes is not necessarily salvific for black women. Crucial sustenance is to be found in friendship, particularly in black feminist friendship, which manifests as exuberant solidarity with another, who is also one’s own.

Alexandria Smith, The Incognegroes

Image Credit: Alexandria Smith, The Incognegroes, 60 x 72 in acrylic, oil and enamel on canvas, 2018, Courtesy of the artist

bell hooks argues that love is the key to radical black politics. She describes love “as the practice of freedom” and reminds us that “when choosing love we also choose to live in community.” Smith’s piece, “The Incognegroes,” dramatizes community – in glorious, choreographed black female movement. Modeled after Marcel Duchamp’s modernist classic, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, the work depicts four female figures in graded shades of blues, blacks, and greys. The gradient color palette differentiates the figures—perhaps by region, by class, by epoch, by complexion. “Incognegroes” most famously refers to racially ambiguous black subjects or those who do not signify blackness in publically legible ways. The background geometry of brick and steel conveys urban dwelling. The painting visualizes black women becoming themselves in the good company of one another. These women of color perch and step, embodying the rhythm of jazz, the exuberant chatter of the beauty salon. One large eye conveys the work of looking, whether in a mirror or at the world, and thus of consciousness on behalf of the collective. Their bellies slightly protrude; their breasts subtly extend. For blackened female subjects, this bodily excess insinuates reproductive labor that implies both amplitude and exhaustion. Even as the figures move synchronously across a graphic visual field, their movements suggest both merger and emergence.

The harm of disregard is lack of recognition and the inability to resonate within the social domain. “The Incognegroes” has visual, gestural, and aural components that echo—and, in such resonance, captures black feminine and black feminist solidarity. Of resonance, Imani Perry writes:

Both technically and metaphorically, resonance is how reverberation moves something or someone else; it is how guitar strings on one guitar respond to the plucking on another as the air between them moves, and trembles, too. Resonance is not the same as the acquisition of knowledge or the repetition or recounting of a shared experience. It is the testimony that makes another tremble, as well; that moves you and therefore shapes both feeling and thought.

For Perry, resonance creates harmonious stirring. It moves on lower and higher frequencies. It is the barely discernible beat that conjoins and choreographs. In it, affect is transmitted below the surface and skin. It is sensation that finds its way to inner things. Resonance is the gathering of testimony and the promise of witness. It is also the definition of black feminism with which I am experimenting. Its expressive flows and forms might be understood as the aesthetic praxis of regard.

Works Cited
Cooper, C. Britnney, Eloquent Rage: a Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. 2018.
hooks, bell, “Love as the Practice of Freedom.”
Lorde, Audre, “A Litany for Survival”
Perry, Imani, Vexy Thing: on Gender and Liberation. 2018.
Morrison, Toni, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. 2019

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