Free space and inner space: a place for reconstructing self and other.

Author:Bernard, April


This paper seeks to answer the question: Who defines the space in which notions of self and other are constructed and reconstructed for women of African descent in the African Diaspora and globally? (1) Audrey Lorde's statement that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" (Lorde, 1984, p. 110), suggests that in the quest to challenge oppression and contest notions of freedom, Africana women must begin by assessing not only the tools but also the space in which they were created, by whom and in whose interest. The master's tools routinely deconstruct and reconstruct the master's house but almost always in the interest of the master, suggesting that it is not the tools that determine the outcome but the consciousness of the builders and the vested interests of those who contract them. For instance, the critique of Eurocentrism has relied almost exclusively on European languages for articulation, disarticulation and re-articulation while simultaneously constructing an independent paradigm and epistemology of Africana resistance, transcendence and triumph. Postmodern feminists have suggested that the use of language as a tool of oppression should be deconstructed as a means to free oppressed minority women from white supremacist male dominance (De Beauvoir, 1974; Tong, 1998; hooks, 1984).

Deconstruction as a method of confronting oppression is an African system of thought that Derrida claimed that he borrowed from African culture for the purpose of challenging Eurocentrism (Derrida, 2008). This paper argues that the dismantling of the white supremacist masculine view of reality must begin with a deconstruction of the space in which the language, the rituals, the religion, the institutions and other tools of the master are created and contested. For as Eric Williams (1997) emphatically stated, Massa Day Done! The day of the master is over and done with, thank God almighty; We are free at last! At least, we are freer than our enslaved ancestors, and we shall be freer still despite the vicious attempts to re-enthrone massa through subtle and overt means in personal, group, communal, national and international spaces, a few examples of which include evening news reports on the realities of reverse racism, Blackface incidents at institutions of higher education from Mississippi and Kansas City to Montreal, and reoccurring images of police brutality against Blacks.

The aim of this paper is to explore and discuss a type of "free space" that encompasses multidimensional aspects of existence. The concept of "free space" rather than being limited to two or three dimensional understandings of physical context, location, and environment, includes the notion of an intentionally created inner space from which new rituals and communities emerge. This concept of free space and the related rituals and communities would not necessarily be bound by physical proximity, but would exist and function to shape and transform constructions of self and other that are increasingly free from the oppressive masculinist worldview. Free space is conceptualized as an ongoing project of resistance to all forms of imperialist domination.

The paper argues that the shared and blended history of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism has functioned to define the space in which various understandings of African Diasporic womanhood have emerged while simultaneously igniting sparks of resistance through which Africana womanism has always exercised autonomy (Hudson-Weems, 2008). (2) This exploration of "free spaces" is conducted in recognition of the fact that western imperialism has never succeeded in completely eliding or erasing in entirety, the resilient Africana originality in social structuration.

The concept of "free spaces" and their potential for mobilizing individual and collective action for change will be explored and applied to the ability of African Diasporic women and women in the mother continent to re-define and address inherited or imposed gender ideologies that perpetuate social problems such as domestic violence, sex trafficking and the increasing criminalization of Black women mainly due to the war on drugs or seek to repress alternative democratic practices of personhood and community not defined by gender imperialism. This analysis concludes with a discussion of the limitations of the Eurocentric liberal feminist approach to social change and justice and encourages the further exploration of the application of the concept of "free spaces" as an African centered, or more specifically an Africana Woman-centered tool for the reconstruction of gender ideologies, relations, norms, policies and communities. The project of going beyond gender-centricity in discourse is also discussed based upon the perspective that gender-specific consciousness is a western European contraption foisted on the global discourse on gender issues (Nzegwu, 2006). Gender-centricity emanating from Eurocentric and masculinist ideology while using the rhetoric of empowerment contributes to persistent divisions and objectifications based upon false, constricting or limited definitions of Self and Other.

The Inherited Space of African Diasporic Women

The origins of an Africanist worldview can be traced to the diverse cultures and traditions of West African ethnic groups (Diop 1984). Through slavery and the partial adulteration of Africanist worldview in the Americas, two processes of acculturation emerged that simultaneously contributed to the evolution of a complex and at times contradictory worldviews for African-Americans. One process led by the colonizers involved the objectification of the African in the Americas toward Eurocentric ideals and away from basic human ideals by seeking to repress the global human tendency to organize in family units from which enslaved Africans were unsuccessfully alienated for centuries. The aim of this process was to sever the African's linkages to their African and human roots of familihood or what Nyerere (1968) called Ujamaa, and replace African traditions with hegemonic capitalist ideologies and structures that reinforced their subjugation and justified their political and economic exploitation. No other group of human beings went through centuries of being forcibly denied the right to familihood. The miracle is that Africans survived the holocaust of slavery with a strong sense of family intact! Another process involved the development of a resistance ideology based upon West African humanist traditions:

By retaining and reworking significant elements of these West African cultures, communities of enslaved Africans offered their members explanations for slavery alternative to those advanced by slave holders (Gutman 1976; Webber 1978; Sobel 1979; hooks, 1981). These Africana-derived ideas also laid the foundation for the rules of a distinctive Black American civil society.... While essential to the survival of U.S. Blacks as a group and expressed differently by individual African-Americans, these knowledges remained simultaneously hidden from and suppressed by Whites. Black oppositional knowledges existed to resist injustice, but they also remained subjugated. (Hill-Collins 2000:13).

These two processes merged to create the inherited space from which the identities of African Diasporic women have evolved. One aspect of this space is rooted in a blended history of patriarchy, capitalism and racism and the other the language, religious, family, and community traditions of Africa. The legacy of this inherited space and the necessity to revive resistance ideology toward a new vision of an evolved, developed or "free" society in the 21st century will be discussed with emphasis on the fact that the free space does not belong exclusively to African women but also benefits white women and poor men, contrary to western feminist ideologies of gender separatism.

During slavery, the concept of Black womanhood was strategically crafted to meet the capitalist, social and sexual objectives of the colonizers as Karl Marx emphasized in Volume 1 of Capital (Marx, 1887). The African woman, child and man was violently molded into an article of trade, a form of property with a value equal to that of any farm animal. Their terrorized existence was socially and legally sanctioned and consisted of abject physical violence, economic exploitation, social humiliation and sexual persecution (Beckles, 2003). Whether to justify their own pathologies or to implement a strategy deemed most effective in their pursuit of political, sexual, and economic objectives, the slave-holders treated Black women, men and children as less than white, less than woman, less than man, and less than human. The legacy of slavery has shaped all subsequent relationships that Black women, men and children had in their families and communities (Collins, 1990; Paterson, 1987).

Within this inherited space, African Diasporic women have worked to reconstruct their identities and reshape their notions of freedom. The African-based resistance ideology which led to the enslaved African's emancipation from the plantocracy evolved into post-emancipation resistance and rights movements across the African Diaspora and at home in Africa where the new slavery of imperialism reigned (Du Bois, 1935; Nkrumah, 1965; Rodney, 1972). Both the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the Women's Movement that rode on the back of the successes of the Black struggle internationally were necessary benchmarks that defined a period of reconstruction in which the definitions of freedom for Black women and the poor generally in the Americas were transformed to encompass the notions of anti-imperialism, equal opportunity and social justice.

All these movements were based on Eurocentric liberalist ideologies which sought to achieve social justice by increasing social, political economic and legal freedoms, combating discrimination, and insuring equal access...

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