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‘Escape from the captivity of womanhood’: Akwugo Emejulu’s vision for fugitive feminism
By Megan Clement
Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:
- Sociologist Akwugo Emejulu has a radical idea for the future of Black feminism, and she sets it out in an extraordinary new book.
- In Fugitive Feminism, Emejulu explores the possibilities of doing feminist politics outside the idea of the human.
- You can win a copy of Fugitive Feminism! Read on to find out how.
Read on for more. And if you want to be up-to-date on feminism worldwide, follow us on Instagram and Twitter.
Novelist Min Jin Lee has said that the experience of reading bell hooks, who wrote more than one such text, “was as if someone had opened the door, the windows, and raised the roof in my mind.” I felt much the same way reading Fugitive Feminism by Akwugo Emejulu, a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick and a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
This “strange little book”, as Emejulu describes it, is based on a provocation: what if Black feminism abandoned the pursuit of arguing for Black women’s humanity? What if there was a better way of doing feminist politics that does not involve demanding entry into the category of “womanhood”? Emejulu poses these questions not to imply that Black women do not deserve care and freedom, but to open up new possibilities of feminist thought.
She draws on the work of Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter on the dehumanisation of Black people in the United States. Wynter famously analysed how police officers in LA came to use the phrase “No Humans Involved” to describe their often fatal encounters with Black men. In Fugitive Feminism, Emejulu departs from Wynter by asking: why keep vying for inclusion in this idea of humanity at all? If our understanding of what it means to be human was created under a form of racial capitalism based on the slave trade – the echoes of which are seen to this day in the disproportionate numbers of Black men and women who are killed by police and in the violent policing of national borders to expel Black and brown people – perhaps it is worth dispensing with this understanding entirely.
Emejulu draws on a deep bibliography – including James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde, and Marquis Bey – to build a case for a new type of politics based on the promise of taking flight. She takes on many of the most established tenets of feminist thinking, from the politics of care to the meaning of solidarity, the politics of refusal and the role of rage and joy in activist work, refracting them through a new intellectual prism to arrive at compelling and surprising conclusions. This is the kind of book where you start studiously underlining the important bits to remember later, only to realise you have underlined the entire thing.
Emejulu spoke to the Impact newsletter about her vision for fugitive feminism, and how it can be applied to the times we live in today. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Subscribers to the newsletter can win a copy of Fugitive Feminism (Silver Press) by replying directly to this email. Good luck!
Megan Clement For someone who has not yet read your book, how would you explain the concept of fugitive feminism?
Akwugo Emejulu Fugitive feminism is a speculation. It’s a wild experiment to figure out whether it’s possible to think about and do Black feminist politics without the category of the human.
Megan Clement What does that mean, “without the category of the human”? How has the category of the human held back Black feminism and Black women?
Akwugo Emejulu What I’ve been trying to think through in the book is how the concept of the human, which is a creation of the colonial encounter, is a justification for hoarding ideas of care, solidarity, life, equality, and freedom and encircling them within the boundaries of those who consider themselves as only white, as a justification for the brutalities and violences of imperialism, slavery, and dispossession.
The experiment in the book is trying to think through whether we can preserve Black feminist politics – I’m drawing on both American and British Black feminism – as a politics of liberation, as a politics of wild freedom. Is it possible to retain these concepts without getting entangled in the politics of the human?
Megan Clement What are the possibilities that are opened up by this concept of fugitive feminism, when you give up what you describe as “the futile struggle to be recognised as human?”
Akwugo Emejulu It’s the possibility of moving past ideas that are embedded within the human: of colonial dispossession, of capitalist relations, of accumulation and competition, of the gender binary and how hegemonic ideas of masculinity and femininity alienate us from ourselves because we’re trying to perform impossible ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. It allows us the space to breathe, and it allows us the possibility to think collectively about what we might be. In many ways, it’s about saying that we can do better, we deserve better than the category of the human. And here’s an opportunity for us to think differently, think expansively about different ideas about what liberation looks like, different ideas of what our social relations might be, different relations about how we think about ourselves in the social world.
It’s an opportunity, but it does come at a cost. Because a lot of our theories about how the world works, and also our actual politics, the way that we do things in the world, are bound in this idea of the human. So much of Black feminist politics is about trying to retain our humanity in the face of structures that constantly deny our humanity – for Black women, but really Black people more generally. My idea in the book is to say, “What if we didn’t do that? What kinds of possibilities are opened up if we go in a different direction?”
I want to emphasise that I’m not saying that Black people and Black women in particular are somehow things, that just because we are not human does not mean that we are objects. I want to be very clear about that. What I’m saying is: if we reject an idea of the human, we are still social beings who deserve love, care, affection, and a different kind of politics. But that can only happen through our interactions and conversations with others.
Megan Clement You write: “We might not be human beings – but we are social beings and our relations with others, communion through dialogue and collective action is what keeps the terror from destroying us.”
Akwugo Emejulu Exactly.
Megan Clement One thing that struck me about this book is the way you analyse the politics of care. In feminist circles, care work is often presented as a universal good that is undervalued. And the theory goes that if we just gave care work its proper worth, we could fix the inequality in society. But you write about how care has a darker side when it’s pegged to the idea of the human. You write, “We cannot separate care from distress,” and you explain how under this paradigm of human versus non-human Other, sometimes those who are classified as human express care for one another by ensuring harm comes to the non-human Other. How should the politics of care be reimagined so that it can be liberationist rather than reproducing these harms?
Akwugo Emejulu Care is interesting because it’s so fashionable to talk about at the moment, particularly in feminist circles. Everyone wants to “do care”. But I’m a little more sceptical, because I think this is something that people talk about, but the implications of the concept of care upend our feminist politics as usual. If we’re going to take care seriously, then we have to recognise that care is an incredibly dangerous and precarious field on which to do politics, because care is a power relation. Care is about identifying and naming those who are being harmed and naming what that harm is. That starts to unravel a lot of our assumptions about how people are supposed to operate, particularly in
Once you start having conversations about biological essentialism, about the “threat” of trans women, or the “threat” of sex workers, that is a deeply harmful, careless kind of politics, even though it’s smuggled in under a feminist politics. Once we start taking seriously these ideas of how harm is embedded into a lot of mainstream feminism, then we can start having other kinds of conversations. Before we can actually get to “How do we care for and protect others?”, we have to have more honest conversations about how violence and harm is mobilised in ostensibly radical politics.
This is what I’m particularly interested in: understanding that harm and care are inextricably linked. And so care cannot only be about how we might look after the wellbeing and needs of the people around us. It’s also about destroying those structures and practices that bring harm and violence to others, even those who do not look like you or do not share your politics. In the United Kingdom, we’re having a really distressing conversation about migrant detention at the moment. And if we’re serious about the politics of care, then our care starts with the most despised and disrespected Others, who are those migrants crossing the English Channel right now, in small boats, seeking safety from harm.
Megan Clement In the book there’s a clear parallel between how white feminists patrol the borders of womanhood to exclude women of colour and the way Europe patrols its own external borders to push out Black and brown migrants. You write, “The human is a reserved category encircled by high walls topped with barbed wire.” Literally, in the case of Europe. What does embracing fugitivity in feminism look like on a continent where the very act of being a fugitive is punished and criminalised in the harshest and most violent terms?
Akwugo Emejulu I talk about fugitivity as flight, which I think is really important. A fugitive is one who flees and fugitivity is all about escape: escape from the human but also escape from the captivity of womanhood, or in the case of Europe, escape from borders. Being in flight means that you always live with the threat of being captured and obliterated. The idea of being in constant flight is something that is actually really exciting: what can you do within this moment of pure freedom that is always shadowed by the very real threat of being captured? I think that offers a different kind of opportunity for thinking about Black feminism – that politics is not about forcing our way into the human and forcing people to recognise our humanity.
Megan Clement Let’s turn to the US, where the end of Roe v Wade has turned many women and gender minorities into fugitives in search of basic medical care. We know that those people who are most marginalised will be the worst affected by abortion bans, and also find them the hardest to get around. What would care informed by the principles of fugitive feminism look like in a post-Roe US?
Akwugo Emejulu What’s really interesting in thinking about America after Roe is changing our analysis of what “after” is. We need to change our understanding of time, which is
why this idea of fugitivity is so interesting, because when you look most closely at who is doing the interesting and important reproductive justice work, it’s Black women. Black women had been preparing for post-Roe America; Black women had already been living in post-Roe America. Basic access to healthcare is one of the key inequalities of American life that disproportionately affects Black women, because Black women are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have health insurance tied to their employment. And so these structures of trying to support basic access to health care, but also specialist healthcare in terms of providing abortion services, already exist.
Now is the time to start taking ideas of flight seriously. Because what Roe shows us is that anyone can be cast out, that your body is not your own. The experiences of trans folks demonstrate this – that folks can be attempted to be legislated out of existence. This is where the dividing line of solidarity really is: when you see state machinery seeking to invade your body, and seemingly your soul, who do you align with? Again and again, I will say that Black women have shown us what is possible in this moment of catastrophe.
Megan Clement We’re speaking the day after the midterm elections. When I read your reflections on Zora Neale Hurston‘s observation that “Black women are the mules of the world”, it brought to mind this trope we’ve heard a lot in the US in recent years that “Black women will save us” at election time – given the significant number of white women, for example, who voted for Donald Trump. Using Audra Simpson‘s “politics of refusal” which you draw on the book, does fugitive feminism refuse that role of Black woman as political saviour?
Akwugo Emejulu Of course. This is why the idea of fugitivity is so interesting to me, because one can refuse to be a saviour, but one is always going to save oneself. When you see Black women mobilising to get out the vote, when you see Black women driving folks to the polls, when you see this kind of work happen, it is in Black people’s self-interest. It is not for me to speak for all Black people, but it’s important to understand that this is a deeply self-interested act in order to stem the tide of the horror that is here, and to ensure it doesn’t get any worse. For many constituents, America has ceased to be and arguably never was a democracy. But there are strategic ways of participating within the system so that life does not get even worse.
To be honest, the more interesting question is not what Black women are doing, it’s what white people are doing. So even after four years of Trump, even after the insurrection on January sixth, we’re still seeing, if the exit polls are to be believed, the majority of white voters voting for Republicans: those who deny that Joe Biden won the election, those
who deny that January sixth was an insurrection. And so the question becomes: what kind of politics is being represented through the Republican Party? The more interesting question is about what people are voting for and what they actually believe in terms of who they consider human, who they consider worthy of care, respect and protection. The resounding re-election of Greg Abbott in my home state of Texas, and Ron DeSantis in Florida, these two incredibly important states that are the home of election-denying, but also these really ugly, xenophobic and racist politics, the fact that they were swept to victory yet again, I think we need to be asking better questions about what kinds of politics of the human are represented in white voters’ election choices.
Megan Clement These are candidates who run on explicitly dehumanising platforms: dehumanising migrants, dehumanising trans people, specifically trans children.
Akwugo Emejulu Right before the election, you had Abbott and DeSantis putting migrants onto aeroplanes and fly them to so-called “sanctuary cities” in Democratic states, throwing them off the planes and stranding them in these cities without any prior warning, lying to them about where they’re going and what they’re doing. They were essentially treating people like cargo, and I think this tells us something important. Abbott and DeSantis have also been legislating to criminalise the existence of trans people so that if children choose to transition, their parents can be charged with child abuse. This is the context that we’re in, and this tells us something important about the human. But more importantly, it tells us something important about white voters. And I would like for us, in this context, not to be so interested in what Black women are doing to protect themselves, and to protect others. The better question is: what does humanity mean in the context of the criminalisation of trans people and of migrants seeking safety?
Megan Clement You write that, as well as being dehumanised, Black women also have their womanhood refused, that they are ungendered: “Embracing this condition of being
ungendered offers possibilities for living beyond the death grip of the gender binary and the high-wire act of femininity.” I just love that sentence. What part does refusing gender binary play in fugitive feminism?
Akwugo Emejulu I borrow the idea of being “ungendered” from Hortense Spillers, and the refusal of the gender binary is a foundational practice of queer politics. We have much to learn from the queer and particularly trans politics of asking what is opened up to us if we are not always performing what is expected of us in
terms of what men and women should be. Black women are already halfway down the road, since we are not really considered real women anyway. And so again, I go back to this idea of what would we do if we do not seek to claw our way into a category of womanhood. It’s been several centuries since Sojourner Truth said, “Ain’t I a woman?” And my answer is “No, we can do better than that.” We should desire more and better for ourselves than this.
There’s this quite reductive idea of womanhood, and we see these politics playing out in real time, where you have trans-exclusionary so-called feminists arguing for the most reactionary ideas of what a woman actually is, as if a woman is only reduced to her biology. I’m here to tell you – that is a cage, it’s a trap, it’s a prison, and I want no part of that. If that is what a woman is, and if that is what femininity represents, then I’m very happy to be counted out of that and to want something different. This is where the idea of fugitivity comes from: one is already expelled from this category of womanhood, but then also one refuses, because the reduction of my sense of self to a biological function really does not capture the beauty and the glory and the possibility of what might be.
Megan Clement The UN climate talks are being held right now. In Fugitive Feminism, you write, “decentring the human is an urgent task if we are to find routes towards habitable life on Earth.” That struck a chord with me because at the time I was reading the UN Secretary-General was saying, ”We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the
accelerator.” What are the possibilities of decentring the human in the context of the catastrophic climate change that we’re not just facing, but that we’re currently experiencing?
Akwugo Emejulu Seeing these Gonzo tactics by climate activists, particularly in the industrialised North, is something very interesting. I’m not saying that they’re doing fugitive politics, I want to be clear about that. But they are questioning some sacred cows. When you see young climate activists pouring tomato soup on a Van Gogh, or glueing themselves to various masterpieces, they are saying: “What’s more important than us, than life on this planet?” They’re asking some interesting and fundamental questions, like what we are doing here? Because if we’re not here, then what is the point of the art on these walls in these institutions? That points us in really interesting directions.
But of course, I want us to go further. So when Vanessa Nakate talks about how the ongoing and pioneering climate justice activism that’s taking place across various island
communities and across the continent of Africa has been wholly erased and ignored because we expect climate justice to come in the form of middle-class white folks in Europe, this is a problem that reinscribes the human. The question then becomes, how is it possible for us to reframe our perceptions? But this is precisely my point – we cannot. Because I’m sorry to say we expect island nations to go underwater, and we expect people on the African continent to die for us. And this is the point.
Megan Clement I ask everybody I interview what keeps them going in the feminist work of trying to make a fairer and freer world, which can often be exhausting and discouraging. In Fugitive Feminism, you write a whole chapter on hope and its counterpart, refusal. What is it that gives you hope?
Akwugo Emejulu I recently had the privilege of working alongside a group of migrant activists here in Berlin who were marking the ten year anniversary of the Orienplatz occupation, which was an occupation led by migrant women in Kreuzberg all about highlighting the violences of the German state, particularly in terms of detention, destitution and deportation of migrants. Their occupation lasted from October 2012 to April 2014. And so if folks in far more precarious situations than I am are not giving up, then I have no right to. And there’s no reason for me to despair. Seeing them do this work and making a very modest contribution to it is why I can get up in the morning.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement, Rebecca Amsellem and Anna Pujol-Mazzini.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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