It is February, and to my mind the best thing about this month — a month my poetry professor once called the month with rue at its heart — is the fact that a spotlight is cast upon the history, culture, and achievements of Black Canadians.* And while I am compelled by arguments made by scholars like Cecil Foster, who has stated that in a truly multicultural nation there would not be a need to single out individual cultures (because all cultures would be equally valued and celebrated) I want to cast a spotlight on some of the amazing and brilliant Black feminist thinkers in Canada who have fundamentally shifted my own thinking and research. Think of this as an opening; it is by no means a comprehensive list.
Today I want to cast the faster feminist spotlight on Professor M. Jacqui Alexander. I was first introduced to Alexander’s work when I saw her speak at the Not Drowning But Waving: Women, Feminism, and the liberal arts conference at the University of Alberta. Of course, Alexander has been working much longer than I have been aware of her. Alexander is a foundational feminist researcher and writer in the field of transnational feminism. Her work brings together issues of race, gender, and class and thinks about how regulatory practices such as heteronormativity are brought to bear on marginalized communities. One of the things I find thrilling about her work is its ability to be positive and generative while simultaneously unflinching in its analysis of the functions and failures of the modern nation-state. Here is an example from her essay “Not Just Any (Body) Can Be a Citizen”:
Why has the state marked these sexual inscriptions on my body? Why has the state focussed such a repressive and regressive gaze on me and people like me? These are some of the questions I seek to understand in this paper. I wish to use this moment to look back at the state, to reverse, subvert, and ultimately demystify that gaze by taking apart these racialized legislative gestures that have naturalized heterosexuality by criminalizing lesbian and other forms of non-procreative sex. It is crucial for us as feminists to understand the ways in which the state deploys power in this domain and the kinds of symbolic boundaries it draws around sexual difference, for these are the very boundaries around which its power coheres (Hall, 1994).
This short excerpt exemplifies what I love about Alexander’s writing, and what was so formative for me as I began to read her work: it is that collective pronoun “us.” For, while I do not share Alexander’s experiences I am a feminist, and as such it is my responsibility to work with her to understand the forces that are brought to bear on her gendered, sexed, and racialized experience. And that — responsibility to witness, work with, in solidarity with, and in collaboration with other humans — is one of the responsibilities and privileges of working and living as a feminist, isn’t it? Thank you, Dr. Alexander.
*It is also Black History month in the United States and the United Kingdom. I’m simply narrowing the focus to my own national context.