Beyond the boundary of nations: An Interview with Gay J McDougall | This is Africa

African identities

Beyond the boundary of nations: An Interview with Gay J McDougall

The Black Feminisms Forum (BFF) is scheduled to take place in early September this year in Salvador, Brazil, ahead of the 2016 Association for Women’s Rights in Development forum. It will bring together Black feminists from different communities and contexts across the globe to celebrate the contribution of Black feminisms to knowledge, practice and struggles for self-determination and justice, while building solidarity across the boundaries of nation-states. In the lead up to this historic event, This is Africa will be publishing a series of interviews, features and articles about Black Feminisms. First up, Maggie Mapondera sits down with renowned activist, scholar and thinker Gay J McDougall, a member of the BFF’s Working Group, to talk about the struggles faced by women of African descent the world over.



Maggie Mapondera (MM): We’re so excited about the BFF and the unprecedented opportunity the space offers women of African descent from across the world. What potential do you see in a gathering like this?

Gay J McDougall (GJM): What excites me the most is getting together with Black women from around the globe. The way that we come together is with a purpose and an attitude of sharing – sharing experiences, sharing struggles, sharing defeats and triumphs, sharing methodologies for sustaining ourselves. To me it will be a moment of not only excitement but one that will give us substance, so that we can proceed from that space and be even better at doing the organising we do in our different contexts and communities.

MM: We’re at the start of the second year of the International Decade for People of African Descent. This decade’s theme is ‘People of African descent: recognition, justice and development’. What do those words mean to you?

GJM: Recognition is very important. There are lots of places around the world where I’m surprised when I see people of African descent walk into a room. But then I hear, “Oh yeah, you didn’t know, we’ve been here for generations.” Sometimes the stories are entertaining; some are of long-term struggle. You walk away saying, “Huh, why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t I have the chance to reach out to these brothers and sisters and extend the feeling of solidarity?” So that’s the recognition aspect for me. Our recognising each other is the first and most important thing, then we can be in continuing dialogue about the extent to which being recognised by a larger community is important.


Justice has a real link to recognition. We cannot get justice if we aren’t recognised. Also, there is justice in being recognised and having your story recognised.

Development is closely tied to recognition and justice. African descendant communities in the Diaspora are typically in need of development assistance. In the US, the economic deprivation of our communities is a direct consequence of slavery and the active underdevelopment that has been the tactics of oppression since the end of slavery. Poverty is not only a legacy; it is being actively generated every day by the structural obstacles to equality that exist. We have been talking about how there must be new investment in African descendent communities. So development is the future and the ability to manage the future.

Poverty is not only a legacy; it is being actively generated every day by the structural obstacles to equality that exist

MM: What would you say are some of the key issues affecting People of African Descent globally, specifically women?

GJM: The key issue for People of African Descent, in my view, is to secure their economic and social rights. The link between discrimination and poverty is undeniable in every country that I have visited under the auspices of the United Nations. And minority/African descendant women most often live at a brutal intersection of race, gender and poverty. That brutality is evident in poor African-American women being trapped in slavery-like, abusive working conditions in industries such as the cat-fish farming operations in Mississippi. It is there in the lives of Afro-Colombian women who have fed their families for generations by mining gold – digging each rock out of the Colombian mountains by hand – but who now have their land rights being stolen by multi-national gold mines. It is the experience of the Afro-Brazilian women in the favelas of Rio and Sao Paolo, as well as the Batwa (the so-called Pygmies) in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

MM: You’ve been doing this work for over 30 years and witnessed great victories and triumphs, as well as setbacks, in social justice struggles for people and women of African descent. In all that time, what has disappointed you? And on the upside, what inspires and excites you?


GJM: What disappoints me is that there is so little progress. What disappoints me is that when we take a close review of countries and their policies, the same issues keep coming up. I have a student assistant who helped me prepare for this last session of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. She said to me, “I’ve been looking at this material and it looks like these were the same issues that were raised four or five years ago with this country. How do we know we’re making progress? Are we going around in circles?”

On the flipside is what I said to her: I grew up in an era where I could not go to a movie; I could not try on the same clothes in stores as white people; I couldn’t go to the same schools — a strict apartheid society. And now I’ve graduated from Yale Law School and I’m working with the UN. In my lifetime, there’s been this dramatic, dramatic change. Yes, there hasn’t been enough change, but given what my expectations were for my life when I was a little girl, it’s very hard for me to say that nothing has changed. However, we have to get more savvy about making change happen faster and I think it does happen at a faster pace now.

I remember when the international LGBT movement started in earnest —that was just a few years ago. Now, in some countries, we have same-sex marital laws; we’re talking about transgender equality, etc., so change is happening on a much more rapid scale but we have to keep at it and learn how to do it better.

The link between discrimination and poverty is undeniable

The one thing that is clear to me is that one cannot look to a UN body to make significant change rapidly. The most profound change comes from the ground up. There has to be strategic pressure coming from the grassroots inside countries that forces change at the governmental level. That pressure can be leveraged by coordinated pronouncements by international bodies, but it has to be bottom up.

The international women’s movement developed some effective tactics in local and international arenas. What I would like to see are those women who were pivotal in the Beijing Conference on Women (and I include myself in that) lending some of that strategic knowledge to the movement for changing the lives of Black and other minority women. While I am painfully aware that the movement for all women has reaped only partial victories so far, it is an additional example of the axiom that a rising tide does not necessarily raise all boats.


Another thing that we need to do — hopefully at the Black Feminisms Forum in Brazil — is to articulate in some detail our image of a world beyond racism, where respect for human rights is a reality and where unity and fairness rule. Using the language and the framework of human rights in articulating our vision will give it resonance with activists around the world.

The Black Feminisms Forum will be held on 5 and 6 September 2016 in Salvador, Brazil, ahead of the 2016 AWID Forum. Check here for updates, information and activities of the BFF.

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