Jennifer Nash’s careful and high-stake book, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality unfolds along two, equally important trajectories, that of the nature of scholarship and that of the nature of the self. By nature, design, and the sediments of institutional and social violence, these two trajectories cross and re-cross each other and are fueled by an arc of affects that ranges from loss, anxiety, defensiveness, protectiveness, solidarity, and allegiance, to love, curiosity, and a deep yearning for freedom. Nash focuses particularly on the affect of “black feminist defensiveness” and its “proprietary attachments to intersectionality.” While she does at times discuss the affects driving white feminist attachment to intersectionality (including a white defensiveness to demonstrate allyship), her primary addressees are her black feminist peers; they are the “we” of her book.
She sets out her argument this way:
“I imagine black feminism as an affective project–a felt experience–as much as it is an intellectual, theoretical, creative, political, and spiritual tradition. …This book traces how defensiveness is largely articulated by rendering intersectionality black feminist property, as terrain that has been gentrified, colonized, and appropriated, and as territory that must be guarded and protected through the requisite black feminist vigilance, care, and ‘stewardship.'” (p. 3)
By keeping her primary focus on black feminist scholars and their relationship to intersectionality, Nash is able to keep steady pressure on the “affective traps” (p. 3) of property and commodification that continue to frame, capture, and exhaust black women scholars. These capitalist traps repeat on the level of scholarly conceptualization familiar historical conundrums that at once assert and deny personhood and citizenship to black women. Nash’s thorough articulation of the history of the term in the National Women’s Studies Association (Chapter 1) and in scholarly practices that she terms the impulse to tell and heed the “origin stories” of intersectionality (p. 39-45) and to commit to a hermeneutics of “originalism” (p. 61-76) point out the affective and structural resonances between the simultaneous promise/foreclosure of possessive individualism for black bodies in the academy and in our larger, white supremacist US society. Into this chiasm of visibility and invisibility, Nash inserts the claim that black feminist defensiveness over the proper (proprietary) use of intersectionality relegates black feminists–again–as service workers for women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, forever feeling the defensive and possessive obligation to correct and properly credit published accounts of intersectionality and to weigh in on what properly counts as intersectional scholarship. From page 4 to the last page of her text (p. 138), Nash refers to this obligation to perform affective service work (and its correlate in the academic expectation and obligation to perform “diversity” service work) eleven times.
Nash is clearly evoking the long history of black female domestic and other service workers in her nod to black feminist service work on behalf of intersectionality. As a religion scholar, this appeal to service work, along with her discussion of black feminists as “white feminism’s salvific figures” (p. 136) also evoke the labor of priestesses, of theological apologists, and of the service labor that black female bodies continually and voluntarily provide to many religious institutions. I am perhaps particularly attentive to Nash’s quoting Joan Morgan’s concern that intersectionality has become a kind of “dogma” (p. 112, 113), with the suggestion here of a reified apologetics that is no longer a “productive analytics” (p. 113). To be dogmatic is to defensively protect the scripture and practices of a community, to watch out for hints of heresy and other sinful infractions, and to marshal resources in order to amplify, reconfirm, and recommit to orthodoxy. I realize I am over-reading Nash a bit here, which I do in order to draw out the affective lineaments of dogma so that I can better hear and feel the stakes of Nash’s alternative. Nash sets out to resituate and reclaim the task of black feminists as scholars of care, love, and witness. She affirms that black feminists are invested in myriad “new debates about eroticism, reproduction, visual culture, maternity, and surveillance” (p. 137), and she urges black feminists to embrace and return to their long labor to theorize strong connections between U.S. feminisms and transnational feminisms. I also hear Nash reminding us about the art and rituals of pedagogy, since the grassroots and counter-hegemonic dynamics of black feminist pedagogy tend to embrace the pushback and change wrought by our students. Nash raises the question to me of what holding onto a “dogma” of intersectionality might be doing to our students, and to our pedagogical politics. Scholars may groan and resist the commodified pressures of publishing that, as Nash spells out, incentivize thin readings or even misreadings for the sake of clearing intellectual space for a young scholar to make her own intervention (p. 47), but I hear Nash asking about what might be gained if black feminists see this contortion of publishing as an unstoppable extension of the ongoing mutations (“travel”, p. 45) of concepts that always do occur in and through our teaching. Nash is imagining what would happen if black feminists refuse defensiveness and, instead, turn to other concepts and other intellectual urgencies.
Charles Peirce felt that William James had stolen and misused Peirce’s term, pragmatism, and so he suggested a new term, pragmaticism, which was, he hoped, “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (CP 5.414). It seems to me a point in Nash’s favor that Peirce’s term was so safe as to become inoperative; pragmaticism is barely known outside of the tiny circle of Peirce scholarship, whereas pragmatism means all sorts of things to all sorts of scholars, business owners, politicians.
I will end with Nash’s own final words, which are beautiful and poignant:
“Letting go untethers black feminism from the endless fighting over intersectionality, the elaborate choreography of rescuing the analytic from misuses, the endless corrections of the analytic’s usage. Letting go allows us to put the visionary genius of black feminism to work otherwise. It is, thus, a practice of freedom” (p. 138).