Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Question 2. ‘While the patient, long-suffering victim of triple oppression may have some heroic appeal, she does not convey our collective experience. That our race, our class and our sex have combined to determine the quality of our lives, both in the Caribbean and in Britain, is undisputed…what matters to us is the way Black women have challenged this triple state of bondage. (Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe, 1985).
Explore the ways in which Black British women’s creative and/or theoretical writing serves to challenge ‘this triple state of bondage’.
In a world of burgeoning discussions of race and ethnicity, the idea of the triple state of bondage can be seen as an effect to the cause of discourse surrounding capital ‘I’ identity politics spurred by the 1989 introduction of intersectionality theory. Intersectionality theory is essentially the idea that different minority experiences are not independent of each other, but rather inform a larger cycle perpetuating hegemonic white heteronormativity. Intersectionality should be ideologically considered both in principle and through the work of those whose oppressed identities intersect –such is the triple state of bondage. Specifically considering the triple state of bondage as it affects Black women through queer, homosexual and mentally ill identities points out a need for intersectionality to be reified through the work of those Black writers at the intersection of multiple minority groups.
–Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectionality
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a distinguished Professor of Law at University of California, Los Angeles, coined the term intersectionality within Black feminist discourse in a work called Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. Her aim with this work was to explore “…the various ways in which race and gender intersect in shaping structural, political, and representational aspects of violence against women of color.” Crenshaw’s belief that racist and misogynist voices inform each other through the interpretation and prosecution of legal cases including Black women does two main things: highlights the ways in which the rules of hegemonic whiteness are subconsciously at play, and introduces an entirely new consideration of identity within the existing canon of identity politics.
1.2.1 –White, Richard Dyer and the concept of Whiteness
As for the former, Richard Dyer, a professor of Film Studies at King’s College London, makes a well-researched case of whiteness, or the raced metaphorical idea of purity, as functioning as a hegemony. Essentially, the idea that white heteronormativity is seen as so dominant that it, either consciously or subconsciously, is considered natural by all people is Dyer’s main point of White. Though written eight years after Crenshaw’s work was published, Dyer adds perspective to the understanding of intersectionality by defining how Blackness is seen through our understanding of whiteness, referencing the bias in the ways cases of violence against Black women are often trivialized in legal settings.
1.2.2 –Cultural Hegemony and its Influence on Intersectionality
The ways in which cultural hegemony influences other positive movements toward liberation such as feminism in the 1980s can be seen in the creation of 3rd wave feminism, which mainly plastered images of white middle class women as the leaders of liberation. As neoliberal economics established their reign in the Western world, its laissez-faire ideology of the freedom to consume became associated with the freedom to choose, which became the forefront of 3rd wave feminism that would last until the mid 2010s. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory does not oppose the ways in which this choice is applied to the feminist discourse, but wants to draw attention to how that choice manifests along racial lines.
1.2.3 –Intersectionality Theory as Shifting discourse of Identity Politics
Crenshaw’s intersectionality is able to shift perceptions of identity from the simple minority-non-minority binary to a spectrum of linked minorities that inform liberation movements, such as feminism. Simply, the fact the Black feminism has its own title references hegemonic whiteness prevalent in feminism –though it is designed under the moniker of freedom for all women, pervasive images of whiteness as natural implicitly place non-white women at a separate table, able to overhear the conversation yet not formally invited to the dinner party that is feminism. The prominence of white women in feminism points out the specific inequality of Black and white women, in which case being both Black and a woman is a double state of oppression. Thusly, the intersection of the Black and female minority statuses inform each other to create a unique state of oppression, versus a catch-all.
Black, Female and LGBT+
–Ship Shape, Dorothea Smartt
Ship Shape, a collection of poems by Dorothea Smartt, a Black Lesbian poet, literary activist and live artist, posthumously chronicles the 18th century slave trade through the mystery of Samboo, a slave picked from the Caribbean for the sea captain’s wife in Lancaster. Smartt’s work as a Black Lesbian woman not only reintroduces personhood into slave narratives, but also affirms her own personhood as an artist within the trope of the triple state of bondage. The self-titled poem within the collection Ship Shape represents this through the passage “Home, in Lancaster, did they relate stories to waiting wives and children, or were those ships tales remembered when sailors shared a drunken haze of rum pint after rum pint to soothe them into forgetting? Secrets kept to blunt this quiet, a convenient forgetfulness.” Here Smartt is pointing out the subjectivity of history in whose stories get told, and by whom. In the case of Ship Shape, as it falls into slave narrative poetry, this passage references the censorship of slavery from history by those in power, meaning the whites responsible for this diasporic slavery in the first place. Smartt poses the question, along with the rest of the poetry collection in terms of Samboo’s disappearance, of how the personhood of these slaves was completely erased? She then answers her own question with two potential modes of erasure “…did they relate stories to waiting wives and children” or were they “…remembered when sailors shared a drunken haze of rum pint after rum pint to soothe them into forgetting?” Essentially, were the stories of slaves who died in the slave trade like Samboo replaced with ship’s tales of victory told to waiting wives and children, or were they drowned out by alcohol? Smartt concludes this passage with suggesting how the personhood of slaves like Samboo aren’t forgotten but strategically and systematically kept secret. The same ideology expressed here can be applied to Smartt’s work within Black British art. As a Black British Lesbian, her perspective is different than that of Black British men and women whose identities do not intersect in the way her Blackness, femaleness and homosexuality do. Black British Lesbians do exist within Black British art, and their personhood is erased and systematically kept a secret in the same way Samboo’s death was.
1.3.2 –Ruby Lips, Dorothea Smartt
Ruby Lips, the opening poem of Ship Shape, operates similarly to Ship Shape in how the white dominion over history is questioned in a self-aware manner. The poem opens with “Dead men tell no tales, but dead white men document plenty,” which immediately references the historical and hegemonic dominance of white men. This bold statement declares that the pen writing history is automatically in the hand of the white man, much like the previous poem. Towards the end of the poem, Smartt introduces the self-aware aspect, encouraging her audience to “listen beyond the shows, there’s wisdom to be learned in other ways realized through fleeting words, instinctive feelings, thoughts and inspired dreams…Please stand beside those erudite publications that aid and abet corroborate and validate each other. Manuscripts I will vilify with my mother’s knowing sayings.” These last lines point out Smartt’s understanding of how the system of history isn’t only historically penned by white men, but that all historical stories will always be filtered through this white bias because there are systems in place to keep the white institution of history pure. In the very last line, Smartt promises that these historical manuscripts will be vilified by her “mother’s knowing sayings,” meaning that the individual experiences of the many lives of color lost in slavery will not perpetuate a cycle of erasure as long as there are contemporary artists like herself who continue to produce work based in emotion.
–Two Stories, Three Lovers, Consuelo Rivera Fuentes
Consuelo Rivera Fuentes’s Two Stories, three lovers, and the creation of meaning in a Black Lesbian autobiography serves as a literary diary of Black, female and Lesbian identities within the academic framework. In the introduction, Fuentes discusses changing discussions and interpretations of race and identity with excitement in how the integration of intersectionality theory is nurturing the growth of platforms for Black feminists. However, Fuentes still addresses how dominant feminist discourse still omits those affected by the triple state of bondage such as herself, identifying as Black-Chilean, female and homosexual. The point of Fuentes’ chapter in the larger text of Heidi Sofia Mirza’s Black British Feminism: a Reader is to remind the audience of the individuality behind the humans analyzed in sociological discourse, specifically within the discourse of Black British feminism. Fuentes’ aim is to address her triple state of bondage as a Black Lesbian woman within the canon of feminist sociology through diary-style narrative as to avoid generalizing all Black Lesbian women with a single experience.
Inspired by Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name, Fuentes applies her artistic voice through an analogy comparing the actualization of her Lesbian identity to growing up from childhood, which stylistically manifests itself in the personal commentary structure of Lorde, Zami and I: We, the second section of Fuentes’ chapter. Each heading in this section is a day of the week, each day beginning with an update on Fuentes’ progress with reading Lorde’s work, occasionally a quote from Lorde’s Zami, followed by her own extrapolation on the work’s relatability to her own experience in a diary-entry format. In the segment labeled ‘Friday’ in Lorde, Zami and I: We, Fuentes details her reactions to the chronicled Lesbian intimacy in Lorde’s Sister Outsider as well as the 18th chapter of Zami through a poem, “This ardent body of mine/ under-mines the soft sound of silence/ echoes of whispers in the cold/ sheets of routine/ wake up my senses/ once again/ I taste her lips/ in each page of this book/ booked by this table to slowly put her/ in my mouth/ no interruptions of is-this-table-busy? sort of speeches/ of passers-by/ pass by the dawn of edges/ stitched to my brown skin/ with white thread (I had written ‘threat’)/ that cuts/ splits, slits the fleshy mountains of my chest/ that part of me which fed her/ so many times/ the patchwork in this map of lust/ and agony/ rips me vertically, horizontally/ from north to south/ from east to west/ with my consent/ I lip the fresh lips/ of another name/ with no shame/ except for the revolutionary myth/ which carries blue deep waters/ to the bottom of my throat/ flooding feelings of thirst.” (Fuentes 223). Here, Fuentes discusses the confidence the eroticism in this chapter of Zami gives her, and how this eroticism compares to the supposed eroticism present in pornography, which she describes as leaving her feeling “cool, empty.” (Fuentes 223). Fuentes’ poem speaks to compare the erotic awakening and confidence in intimacy Lorde’s work inspires from her to the very way she consumes Lorde’s work –the word ‘consumes’ already a double-entendre. The sexual awakening brought forth in Fuentes is referenced in the way the physical book becomes female, being orally consumed much like the idiomatic “devouring a book.” Reading Lorde’s Zami is compared to sex for Fuentes, shown in the parallel language of “I taste her lips/ in each page of this book/ booked by this table to slowly put her/ in my mouth/” and “with my consent/ I lip the fresh lips/ of another name.” (Fuentes 223). Both phrases turn nouns into verbs; ‘book’ becomes ‘booked’ and ‘lips’ are lipped. The use of this parallel language shows to link both nouns, literally comparing the Lorde’s book to sex for Fuentes. ‘Friday’ is the last diary entry of Fuentes’ narrative, followed by her conclusion reaffirming her stress on intersectionality in how “This paper might seem unfinished to you, not academic enough, not theoretical enough but I am an ongoing process and enoughness does not fit me. This is why I have not attempted an academic conclusion because my feelings refuse to be concluded with the ending of this paper.” (Fuentes 224). This passage in tandem with ‘Friday’ place emphasis on the feelings often glazed over in discussions of Black feminism. Specifically for Consuelo Rivera Fuentes to detail her experiences as a Lesbian Black woman challenges her triple state of oppression by affirming her personhood amidst theoretical feminist conversation.
–Black, Female and Mentally Ill
–nut, debbie tucker green
debbie tucker green’s nut is a play detailing the inner struggle of Elayne, a mentally ill Black woman who hallucinates three imaginary characters, Aimee, Devon, and Trey, who are known by the audience yet unknown by a character named Ex-Wife, Elayne’s sister. The plot chronicles Elayne’s self-harm in such a way as to conduct empathy from the audience. Elayne’s elaborate conversations with Aimee, Devon and Trey take a schismatic leap to the seemingly unrelated quarrel between Ex-Wife and Ex-Husband over custody of their child, Maya. Elayne embodies the triple state of bondage through the intersection of her Blackness, femaleness and mental illness, and is used by green in nut as a personification of the struggle Black women with mental illnesses face.
1.4.2 –Stage Directions
Ironically, as the audience gains the realization that the Ex-Wife and Elayne storylines are actually related through both characters’ sisterhood, they also gain the realization that Aimee, Devon, and Trey are figments of Elayne’s imagination. Through stage directions, it becomes apparent that Aimee, Devon, and Trey are imaginary through how they are on stage during Ex-Wife’s visit at Elayne’s home, yet only interact with Elayne and go unseen by Ex-Wife. Essentially the audience is put in limbo between Elayne and Ex-Wife, and between Elayne and Aimee, Devon, and Trey; they are able to see how Elayne’s interactions with the unreal seem more emotional and endearing than the dialogue she has with her own sister. The point of these stage directions is to very physically place the audience in Elayne’s position, giving them an omniscient point of view as to how she duels with her own hallucinations and the real world.
1.4.3 –Ending Sequence
The ending sequence of debbie tucker green’s nut stands as a question specifically aimed at the accessibility of mental healthcare to Black women. After a long argument over Elayne’s self-harm begun at first by Ex-Wife trying to clean her wounds, Ex-Wife gives up her struggle and shuts down.
“EX-WIFE: Hurt your hands I ent gonna do / nuthin.
ELAYNE: Dare me to / do it?
EW: Bu’n up y’hands I ent gonna do / nuthin.
E: Do yer? Go on dare / me.
EW: I ent nuthin like / you.
E: Dare it –go on. Don’t hurt (it) don’t hurt –it don’t (hurt) watch. Watch.
Elayne ashes the cigarette into her hand, smiles, continues to smoke, watching EX-WIFE for a reaction. There is none.
I’ll show yer. It don’t (hurt), gimme your…
ELAYNE gestures for EX-WIFE’s hand, EX-WIFE doesn’t respond.
Go on, go on, gimme your…
ELAYNE reaches out for EX-WIFE’s hand. EX-WIFE doesn’t respond and doesn’t touch her. EX-WIFE
ELAYNE ashes out the cigarette slowly (not on her hand).
ELAYNE (quietly) …Can I hold your hand?
EX-WIFE doesn’t move.
…They are double A.
The size is double A. I know it. That’ll fit. I’ll write it down, I’ve written it down.
Wilco got better ones. Not for a pound though. More name brand if you’re goin there.
EX-WIFE says nothing.
ELAYNE gently rubs one of her arms, a bit nervous, it’s sore.
Slowly she starts picking at one of the scabs.
Here, Elayne self-harms by ashing a cigarette on her hand in front of her sister, who shows no signs of compassion or even gives Elayne any type of reaction. Out of context, Ex-Wife is seen as cold and uncaring toward her sister, however considering this dramatic ending as a commentary of mental healthcare for Black women gives new perspective to Ex-Wife’s lack of emotion. Considering this situation from Ex-Wife’s perspective, her lack of emotion towards her sister can be seen as a wall built up to deal with her versus cruel neglect. After Ex-Wife rejects all of Elayne’s requests, Elayne shifts back to reality –she doesn’t self-harm, she ashes her cigarette in the ashtray, remembers the conversation she shared with Ex-Wife about batteries and is able to feel the pain of the burn marks on her arms. Though seemingly cruel, Ex-Wife’s wall snapped Elayne back into reality and disturbed her hallucination. This is not an effective form of treatment for Elayne’s psychosis, and the fact that green writes this scene with Ex-Wife essentially ignoring Elayne until she talks herself back into reality is to prove not only that home remedies for psychosis are not effective, but to beg the audience to question how Elayne’s illness was able to progress to this severity into her adulthood in the first place. The scene is written so tender yet tenuous, representing both Elayne’s relationship with her sister and her relationship with her own untreated mental illness. As reported by the 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 29.3% of Black British women are likely to suffer from common mental illnesses, compared to 15.6% of non-British white women and 20.9% of British white women. Additionally, Black British adults have a mental illness treatment rate that is more than half of that of white British adults, a mere 6.2% compared to 13.3% of the white counterpart. Elayne is an artistic manifestation of these very real and statistically proven issues surrounding treatment and diagnosis of mental illness within the Black British community. She isn’t a vessel of apathy for those mentally ill Black women’s voices that are too commonly silenced as much as she is a mirror to causes of equal access for mental health treatment and a call to action. Elayne as a character with whom green introduces to the audience as someone meant to tug at the heart strings, represents a triple state of bondage –Black, female, and mentally ill– and creates a space for those intersectional identities of oppression that didn’t once exist.
The understanding of Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe’s idea of the triple state of bondage doesn’t serve to doom Black women with intersectional minority statuses to a life of oppression, nor does it limit their artwork to have to consistently prove itself as just as free as someone belonging to less minority groups; the triple state of bondage acknowledges the breadth of Black British experiences within the systematic oppression of racism. Being a Black British person is different than being a Black British woman, and being a Black British woman is different than being a Black British Lesbian, or a Black British woman with a mental illness. The works of Dorothea Smartt, Consuelo Rivera Fuentes and debbie tucker green each highlight this difference; each artist is a Black British woman and each artist has a different Black experience reflected across the artistic spectrum. This idea is foregrounded by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, which calls for the understanding of how members of multiple minority groups deserve representation within liberation movements using the example of Black women’s visibility within the 3rd wave feminist movement. Intersectionality applies to identities as well, in the sense that the triple state of bondage functions as the intersection of minority identities, in this case, within Black British feminism. Black British women affected by the triple state of bondage use their art along with this identity to create a space to facilitate discussions of Black British feminism based on the experiences of the myriad of Black British women versus the generalizations of the Black British experience as a catch-all dish. In her most recent interview with DAZED Magazine, Kelela said that “White people don’t understand that the reason black people are so good is not always that we’re necessarily more artistically inclined, it’s more because we don’t have the space to suck.” The key to intersectionality both within liberation movements such as Black British feminism and within Black British women themselves is to understand that the triple state of bondage isn’t an aspect of identity demanding success, but a means to create space for Black British women’s art.
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