All posts by Yuanqiu Jiang

Two Sessions on Black Feminist Critique: Decoloniality Workshop Fall 2019 Programming

by Rafael Vizcaíno and Jeong Eun Annabel We

In fall of 2019, the Decoloniality Workshop entered its third academic year as an interdisciplinary space for junior scholars to share work in progress in a relaxed environment committed to the transformation of the academy. For the first time in its short history, this semester’s Workshop saw two thematically related sessions that speak to one of the research strengths of humanities research at Rutgers: the literary and critical production of Black women writers, in Africa and in the Caribbean.

 

On September 16th, Comparative Literature PhD Candidate Grabriel Bámgbóṣé presented a paper titled “In My Mother’s House: African Women, Poetic Literacy, and Radical Translations of Négritude Humanism,” which was loosely based on his dissertation project of the same title. Bámgbóṣé’s project makes an intervention into recent studies on the discourse of négritude by “investigating the active roles of African women in the radical translations of [negritude’s] humanist poetics.” According to Bámgbóṣé, African women have been traditionally excluded from historical and critical accounts negritude poetics. Their poetry, however, is “a powerful vehicle for critiquing the coloniality of life through radical translations of négritude that problematize its historical equivalence to a fixed geotemporality of thought.” In this sense, for Bámgbóṣé, African women’s contributions to negritude poetics enact several political, epistemological, and aesthetic shifts from what is conventionally taken to be the domain of négritude poetics. Engaging their literary and poetics works, Bámgbóṣé questions “the pervasive silencing of African women’s voices in the négritude debate.”

 

Alexandria Smith, Women’s and Gender Studies PhD Candidate, initiated the session’s conversation by acting as the official discussant. Smith encouraged Bámgbóṣé to make his own scholarly positionality explicit as he investigates the roles of African women in the advancement of negritude’s poetics. Smith also pressed Bámgbóṣé to further articulate how the suppression of these women’s voices happened: who did this and why? The remaining of the conversation with audience participants centered on the relationship between poetics and politics, the colonial production of racial and ethnic differences, as well as the very concrete ways in which women poets engage the silencing of their voice.

 

On October 7th, Bámgbóṣé and Smith switched their roles of presenter and discussant. This time, Smith presented her work, entitled “The Woman From Carriacou: Audre Lorde and Dionne Brand Respond to the 1983 US Invasion of Grenada,” and Bámgbóṣé served as the official discussant. Part of Smith’s dissertation, the paper engaged the writings of Audre Lorde and Dionne Brand on Grenada to articulate the relationship between body politic (diasporic, Black, lesbian, Caribbean women’s embodied experience) and geopolitics (the U.S. invasion of Grenada and  its imperialist and anti-Black violence). The paper considers how the strategies of writing from and on the human body effects diasporic reflections on the violence that Lorde and Brand witnessed, setting this writing apart from the dominant reportage on the invasion in news media. Smith suggests that their responses link “the Caribbean, Africa, Canada, and the United States as sites interlocked in a global, exploitative colonial and imperial network.”

 

Bámgbóṣé began the Q&A section by asking Smith on the literary dimensions of her paper’s analysis: for example, how does the authorial choice of the essay form shape Smith’s analysis of Lorde and Brand, considering the two authors’ prominent role as poets? And how might an allegorical approach to Brand’s text—“Nothing of Egypt”—lend itself to Smith’s analysis of the relations among individual and collective bodies? The ensuing discussion cohered around the question of allegory as a strategy of writing about collective trauma, clarifications on the relationship between body politics and geopolitics, and further avenues for engaging the Black feminist theories of the flesh through these texts.

 

Visit the Decoloniality Workshop’s website for news on its future programming, as well to catch up on any of its past events.

 

 

“Dante, Franciscan Poverty, and the Donation of Constantine” Professor Alessandro Vettori – Brown Bag Lunch, April 18, 19

by Milan Reynolds

Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre, non la tua conversion, ma quella dote che da te prese il primo ricco patre! (Inf. 19.115-17)

 Ah, Constantine, what wickedness was born— and not from your conversion—from the dower that you bestowed upon the first rich father!

Several students and faculty had the pleasure of hearing Professor Alessandro Vettori’s presentation on Dante’s Divina Commediaand its relation to Franciscan poverty and the Donation of Constantine. Beginning with a brief encounter in Canto 19 of Inferno, Vettori recounted how Dante locates Constantine with the simonists, members of the clergy who are corrupted by money. In order to understand Dante’s critique, we had to travel to the 3rdcentury. Constantine was the first “Christian” ruler of the Roman Empire though he was only baptized on the eve of his death. Along with unifying the Eastern and Western halves of the empire and moving the capital to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), he played an influential role in the Edict of Milan and the Council of Nicaea, which made Christianity legal and established a set of principles for the faith.

After sketching this history of Christianity’s first steps, Alessandro turned to a document known as the Donation of Constantine. This text recounts how the Emperor, after being infected with leprosy, was miraculously cured by Pope Sylvester I and, in thanks, donated the city of Rome and the western half of the Roman empire to the Church. For those of us unfamiliar with medieval studies, it came as a surprise when Alessandro promptly informed us that the document was a fake written more than 400 years after Constantine’s death. It was not until the 15thcentury that it was argued to be false however, and in the meantime had been used by the Papacy to consolidate and acquire power and wealth.

Dante, who was influenced by the newly formed mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, was critical of the Church’s wealth. He articulated this in many ways but also by calling into question the Donation of Constantine itself, arguing it was illegitimate because the Church was not entitled to receive property. Alessandro then drew some intriguing connections between Dante’s experience of exile from Florence and his affinity for Franciscan values of poverty. In particular, a coterminous text narrating the marriage of St. Francis with Lady Poverty as a spiritual allegory, shares similarities with Dante’s Divina Commedia. This literary journey was supplemented by several works of art Alessandro had chosen, representing the Donation of Constantine at different moments in time. The project, as Alessandro put it, is still in the early stages, but everyone attendant looked forward to hearing more about the topic.

 

 

 

Decoloniality Workshop: “Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions”

by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán with notes by Haruki Eda and Rafael Vizcaíno, and pictures by Rafael Vizcaíno

At the beginning of the Spring semester, on February 19th, 2019, Comparative Literature PhD student Thato Magano shared with the Decoloniality Workshop audience their soon-to-be published paper[i],“Fucking with [The] Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.”  In it, Thato highlighted the importance of Nervous Conditions as a critical feminist text that “negotiates the seemingly inescapable bind of inter- and intra- cultural patriarchal prescriptions,” and emphasized its significance within Black studies, African Literature and postcolonial studies.

Thato builds up on the work of Susan Andrade and Tendai Marima, and challenges previous readings that describe the main character and narrator of the novel, Tambu, as heterosexual and as representative of the nation. Thato instead argues that Tambu and her cousin Nyasha, with whom she holds an intimate relationship, exist as “queer subjects not synchronous with national reproductive time.” The article places them as figures that “rearticulate sexual politics” and radicalizes queer politics. Thato centers the queer subject within the often-restrictive political discourse of black experience, and analyses how lesbian desire within Nervous Conditions opposes the family as social norm. Through its exploration of Tambu and Nyasha’s relationship, “Fucking with [The] Family” proposes a reading of “incest as a queer emotion, affect and aesthetic that can be instrumental in destabilizing heteronormative nationalist desires in postcolonial literatures.”

In the Q&A section, audience members were interested in exploring with Thato the cultural limitations of incest, the distinction between queer identity and queer politics, and the relationship between queerness and spirituality. Students who work on Caribbean Literature asked about the relationship that Thato sees between African epistemologies and those of the Caribbean where literary queerness is usually analyzed through a spiritual lens. To this inquiry Thato answered that spirituality is often used as mediation (or mediating tool) for talking about queer intimacies, “my investment is to try to produce two subjects who can stand in their own terms… my resistance is against the premise that queer sexuality can only emerge in a cultural context (e.g. mythology, culture, spirituality), but that cultural context privileges heterosexual production and national time…so these sorts of mediations that queer subjectivity can only hinge upon is what I am resisting.”

The conversation continued outside of the meeting room, as Thato’s fascinating paper brought up more questions and conversation topics. Thato’s paper and the presentation successfully met its goal, to examine Nervous Conditionsas a text that “negotiates escaping heteronormative conventions of Black female subjectivity”, and “make[s] legible alternative modes of caring and belonging within the nation” outside the heteronormative construction of the family. This paper allowed a richer understanding of queerness and brought to light many of the assumptions that exist when reading about relationships among black women. Congratulations to Thato Magano on a wonderful presentation!

[i]It has been accepted for publication by the Research in African Literatures Journal (RiAL).

Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens: A Colloquium Presentation by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

by Phil Yakushev

Comparative Literature hosted its first colloquium on April 1, when María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán presented “Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens” and contextualized this talk within her dissertation-in-progress. María Elizabeth’s project seeks to challenge what she identifies as a common tendency in studies of African diasporas—a centering of Anglophone spaces which, in turn, leaves the Spanish Caribbean at the periphery of this field. Her presentation, structured around two 19thcentury Spanish Caribbean texts, not only directly resisted this dynamic of African diaspora studies but also showed how love practiced by black and mix-raced women, as agents, can challenge the constraints of the nation and establish community.

María Elizabeth used two works to build her case: Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La Cuarterona, and Cuban novelist Ciriollo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. These texts share several similarities, making them useful for a comparatist who traces how literary characters and black subjectivities in the Caribbean were shaped by their recognized relationship to slavery and how these recognitions effected social relations. Both works were written in the late 19thcentury by authors who were renowned in their spaces; their plots proceed around racially ambiguous female characters of African descent who fall in love with white men in times of slavery; both feature incest; and, perhaps curiously, both works are set in Habana. María Elizabeth used the latter similarity to illustrate the complex relationship between black subjectivities in the Spanish Caribbean, the family and the nation, and love and incest. Tapia most probably did not set his play in Cuba out of ignorance of how race operated on his own island, and María Elizabeth summarized the scholarly debates around question of setting. As she argued, Rivera places La Cuarterona in Cuba to present the “audience with a transnational perspective that allows for connections between isolated spaces and bring to light a pressing issue,” that of blackness and slavery.

For María Elizabeth, this transnational perspective is vital. Overall, she “seeks to study blackness as a way of being that centers relationships and community, instead of addressing the nation which has established modes of love that constrain black subjects.” Both nation and language act as constraints even in the study of African diasporas, with conventional approaches being less willing to engage with black experiences in the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, where myths of “racial democracy and mesizaje are foundational and place an impediment” to a conventional discourse on blackness in which slavery is critical. María Elizabeth’s work, then, seeks to push African diaspora studies in at least three ways: broadening scholarship beyond Anglophone spaces, exploring the role of the nation in constructing racial ideology within the Spanish Caribbean itself, and showing how black and mixed-race women characters can challenge the dominance of the nation and its foundational unit, the family, by building their own communities. While love, in the texts María Elizabeth is working with for her dissertation, often takes on forms often identified as perverse—such as incest—she was careful to stress that, for characters in these literatures, love often does not ultimately fail. Rather, love becomes a way to form relationships among colonized communities, with instances of unconventional love creating “cracks on the concrete of coloniality, as fissures that challenge to break the colonial version of the family unit.”

After discussing these texts and introducing her analytical frames, María Elizabeth previewed the rest of her dissertation, and its themes and structure. The project, as a whole, will juxtapose and compare the black subjectivities produced, and reproduced, in literatures of the Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbeans. Other chapters in her work will explore Michelle Cliff’s Abeng and the limits of creole solidarity in Jamaica, as well as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowningand how love and relationships in the Virgin Islands can function outside of the colonial-sexual matrix. María Elizabeth hopes that her comparatist approach will not only expand African diaspora studies beyond the Anglophone but, relatedly, disrupt a potentially paralyzing centrality of slavery within the field. As she said, “Despite the long-lasting damage that slavery has left on peoples of the Afro-Diaspora, our ability to love affirms our ways of thriving, our ways of moving forward, and beyond, trauma as framework.” As a whole, then, María Elizabeth’s work seeks to highlight how literature can unleash the ability of love to serve as praxis and “heal the wounds of enslavement.”  Her colloquium presentation provided a powerful and fascinating preview of this critical endeavor.

Global Africa, Migration, Literature, and the Arts

by Joseph Sepulveda

On March 28th, I attended “Global Africa, Migration, Literature, and the Arts”, a three-day symposium held at Rutgers University. I will focus in this blog post on two parts of the Global Africa conference that I witnessed. The first is a collective presentation led and written by Thato Magano entitled “Cacophonous Cognates: A Hybrid”, which he performed alongside Alexandria Smith and Paulina Barrios. The performance was also accompanied by the drumming of Roger Noguerol, with technical support from Gabriel Bámgbóṣé and Yuanqiu Jiang. The second part is the keynote lecture by the Glissantian Manthia Diawara, whose focus was a mediation on the importance of returning to the philosophy of Èdouard Glissant for our current moment.

I listened to the performance piece “Cacophonous Cognates” not in order to try to understand it but to feel it as poetry. The choral qualities of the pieces that Thato Magano assembled reflected on our cosmic being, blackness, colonialism, love and endurance. The work transmitted what it meant to attend to the suffering and love of black people. Magano cited Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, and in many ways the piece felt and communicated what it means to love blackness under conditions of its undoing. It spoke about a longing for the textures, beauty, and luminance of blackness; it honored the ancestors and black mothering; it limned in its multivocality the possibility of becoming, gesturing toward our collective and unbridled transformation.

After the performance, I listened to Manthia Diawara’s reflections on  Édouard Glissant and the poet-philosopher’s singularity— for Diawara Glissant is a philosopher who breaks from filiation, and he emphasized Glissant’s sans père(ness), his distance from Western philosophy of monotheism and root-identity (identité-racine), of an essential totalitarian Western understanding of being, in favor of a world in Relation. But beyond highlighting Glissant’s eminence, Diawara’s speech resonated with the earlier performance in a number of ways. For Diawara, Glissant is a poet whose poetic concepts touch on and illuminate a world not of self/other opposition but of an extension of the self in relation to the Other. This is the essence of Relation. Moreover, Diawara pointed to another key Glissantian concept that resonated with Thato Magano’s performance: the ethics of opacity. While opacity can be understood as a failure to reveal or make oneself transparent, for Glissant the right to opacity is crucial to identity and to resisting the will to dominate. It becomes crucial therefore, to paraphrase Diawara, to not only take note of one’s own opacity to oneself but to grant to others the impossibility of ever fully comprehending. This failure, however, should not be the cause of despair but should open the way to creating a different collective world beyond possessive drives to conquer and control what can be or exist.

Myth of White Genocide in South Africa

by Rafael Vizcaino

On March 25, 2019, the Decoloniality Workshop held its 7thmeeting, hosting Professor Nicky Falkof from Wits University in South Africa. Falkof presented a section of her current book project, an analysis of risk, anxiety, and moral panic in post-apartheid South Africa. Falkof’s presentation focused on how right-wing Afrikaner community organizations in South Africa have adopted the liberal language of civil and minority rights to position themselves as victims in the social and political atmosphere of post-Apartheid South Africa. Central to these movements’ rhetorical strategies of victimization is the development and propagation of the idea of “white genocide” to negotiate their decentered status in a post-apartheid South Africa where land restitution, affirmative action, and other policies of decolonization have been implemented at the national level.

Thato Magano, Rutgers PhD student in Comparative Literature from South Africa, opened the discussion session as Falkof’s discussant. Thato highlighted the importance of studying “white pathology” within the South African academy and questioned the overlaps and divergences between Afrikaner identity, on the one hand, and white identity, on the other. The subsequent dialogue with the audience members connected the South African context to the present U.S. context, where over the last decade there has been a quantifiable rise in the number of organized white supremacist organizations, many of which also mobilize the rhetoric of “white genocide” as a reaction to the ongoing demographic and cultural changes in the U.S. population. A crucial set of conversations also centered on the dynamics among white victimhood, white fear and white guilt. Another significant discussion questioned whether Falkof’s intervention could be conceived as being critical not just of racist “illiberal” discourse, but also of the very liberal framework that easily lends itself to a facile appropriation by reactionary fascistic agendas. Falkof closed the discussion with a reflection on the complexities of using her own institutional positionality as a white female academic to not reproduce whiteness.

The Decoloniality Workshop is currently preparing its fall of 2019 line up, which will include a pedagogy workshop for graduate students of color, as well as collaborations with other graduate-student-led spaces across the university. For more information and the most recent updates, please visit the workshop’s website at https://decolonialityworkshop.wordpress.com/