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Radical Acts: An interview with Caron Gugssa-Howard and Camira Powell

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 event, This is Africa will be publishing a series of interviews, features and articles about Black Feminisms. In this instalment, Amina Doherty speaks to activists, Caron Gugssa-Howard and Camira Powell about the importance of creating safe spaces for Black feminists, among other things.

Amina Doherty: What does it mean to identify as a Black Feminist?

Camira Powell: To me, identifying as a Black feminist is akin to identifying as a Black woman — to be one is to be the other. It’s the recognition of how my full self and varied experiences contributes to the pursuit of what we all (should) want: equal opportunity. To put it simply, it’s loving myself and my own so shamelessly that others realise it’s okay to do the same

Caron Gugssa-Howard: Despite having worked in the women’s human rights space for almost four years, I do not feel comfortable identifying as a feminist. Growing up as an African American woman, neither the term nor title “feminist” was used. Not even occasionally. I never heard anyone in my family, circle of friends, or neighbourhood identify themselves as such.

It was not until college that I became familiar with words like “feminism” and those I knew who self-identified as feminists were white women advocating for things that I did not have the luxury of being concerned with. While they were fighting to be seen as equal to their male counterparts, I was unconsciously fighting for my acceptance at a predominantly white institution. Our struggles were intrinsically different. Thus, the feminist narrative, its roots, and the movement as I have seen it has never truly been inclusive of my experience. So, identifying as a feminist, or even as a Black feminist, has never appealed to me.

I believe this stems from being plagued with the daily issues of simply being Black in America. I don’t doubt that Black women in America perform everyday acts that are examples of feminism, but because these are rarely celebrated or acknowledged, I am unaware of how feminism may be playing out in my day-to-day life.

Moreover, searching for ways to see how experiences from my life (or other Black women) align with feminism is tiresome and pulls me further away from what really matters here in America—race. My first line of discrimination has and will always be race. On most days, I feel as if I am too busy being Black to stand up for, discuss, be, or deal with anything else.

AD: Why do you feel it is important to have spaces for Black feminists to come together?

CP: Many Black women are so conditioned to the struggles of living in a world where simply being one’s self is a radical act that they don’t always recognise how important a safe space is for their own wellbeing. This is particularly true for Black women who identify as feminist and are actively working within any kind of rights space.

To me, a safe space is a place (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.) where a Black woman can retreat to in order to recharge and find restoration. This is a space where she doesn’t have to do anything more than be her authentic self. One of the most important aspects of a safe space is that there is no need to argue for its validity.

CGH: When like-minded people with a common background (i.e. a group of Black women) gather, the possibilities of empowerment and inspiration are endless. This alone can create greater understanding among Black women, particularly those like myself who have yet to identify as a feminist (or even a Black feminist) or those who are not familiar with the concept. This can be a great space to show those who may be unaware that our sheer existence in America is a movement all of its own.

"On most days, I feel as if I am too busy being Black to stand up for, discuss, be, or deal with anything else," says Caron Gugssa-Howard (pictured above).
“On most days, I feel as if I am too busy being Black to stand up for, discuss, be, or deal with anything else,” says Caron Gugssa-Howard (pictured above).

AD: Reflecting on your work in the Women’s Human Rights space, what are your current places of challenge, growth and excitement?

CP: As someone new to working in this space, it’s been amazing to deepen my understanding of the global women’s human rights movement and see how the work of women in India and Brazil is similar to that of women in Oakland and Memphis. While this new knowledge is exciting, I’ve also become more aware of the challenges we face in making this movement more inclusive so that it will succeed. One of those difficulties comes in ensuring that diverse voices aren’t just heard but listened to as well. That means paying real attention to what is said by a person with a differing perspective so their experiences are validated and influence how we move forward together.

CGH: I find it challenging that despite the image of Black women being used within the feminist movement to garner support or sympathy for a cause, (i.e. company holiday cards, brochures, etc.) our thoughts and/or unique issues are not addressed within this same space. This act reinforces the toxic idea that the bodies of Black women are only valuable when in service to others. But our stories of resilience and influence are real and worth being told.

Therefore, I hope to see more of an understanding of how the struggles that women face around the globe are not that different from the oppression Black women face here in the United States.

Although there is still much to be done, it is exciting to think of a potential future where the experiences and needs of Black women are fully incorporated into the women’s human rights space and not just treated as an afterthought.

AD: As a Black woman, why does it matter to you?

CP: In the words of the incomparable Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” To live in a world where people truly have equal rights and opportunities, I have to be willing to not only break free from the chains tying me to multiple oppressions, I have to help others do the same. I don’t know about you, but I want to be free.

CGH: While Black women around the globe – from the continent to Latin America, to Europe and North America – share an intrinsic connection, our stories are still different. Telling my story as a Black woman in America is imperative to eradicating the notion that Black people are a monolith. Black people may sing the same song of hope despite unrelenting oppression, but we each do it to our own tune. Our challenge of surviving and thriving is daily and real.

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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