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Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga

"To be a feminist while black and female in Zimbabwe is to live at the epicentre of structural racism and a brutal militarised patriarchy that has co-opted significant state institutions either in part or in their entirety. Certain women are elevated to privilege in our patriarchal societies. These are the ones who conform to their subordination. The mechanism works at all levels of society. Elite women are often used as examples for the rest of female society as to how women should acquiesce to gendered constructions of power, the argument being that a woman can still be successful from a position of subordination to men.” (page 96-97)

I’ve held on to this review for about three weeks and I shared  my initial thoughts with two of my friends who just like me did not instantly have the right/enough words to describe the experience. A few days later one said, “something is shifting.” So, I’ll start there, something(s) shift when you read this book. Perhaps, for me it is the power of seeing/reading a black woman, from my home country Zimbabwe discussing issues that affect me (and so many others) through giving her personal narrative. Tsitsi Dangarembga is an author, playwright and filmmaker from Zimbabwe who is well known for She No Longer Weeps, Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not and This Mournable Body. Black and Female is Dangarembga’s first published work of non-fiction, a collection of three essays; ‘Writing While Black and Female,’ ‘Black, Female and the Superwoman Black Feminist’ and ‘Decolonisation as Revolutionary Imagining.’ These three essays discuss writing, race, gender, feminism, womanhood,colonialism and decolonization. The introduction does great work in laying a firm foundation upon which the three essays are built. It gives the reader a picture of the fibre of the society which Dangarembga was born into, raised and continues to live in.

Dangarembga explores the world’s categories and how she’s experienced them. She  identifies the word “black” with respect to experiences that she has lived due to the imposed conditions. It is those experiences that show her what to be “black” or identified as such is. In the 80’s Feminist theory showed her how she’d been constructed as a “female” person, with certain expectations attached to that and failure, neglect and refusal to fulfil those expectations is deemed punishable rebellion. Dangarembga traces her serious writing to the University of Zimbabwe where she explored her writing and after some time she started to write about characters that were familiar to her, spoke to how she wanted to be represented. Dangarembga notes that she found her writing fire in intersectionality. Writing while “black and female” does not limit her  writing it however affects how her work is placed in the world; be it from publishing to contracts, to reviews and money. In 2020, at a 'Meet the Author' event organized by the Harare Book Club, I listened to Dangarembga narrate the struggles that she faced to get her first manuscript published, and even after the critical acclaim of Nervous Conditions, the struggles that she continues to face to get more work published and support for her films. As a black woman writing, these conversations and texts are important to me. The struggle is real out here and sometimes you just need to see the systems for what they are and that it's not only just you. In the essay, ‘Writing While Black and Female,’ I am reminded of the power of words, the importance of that very act of writing as part of healing and resistance.

Dangarembga also discusses the positioning of black African women in colonial times and in the present. The marginalization, violation and oppression of women is at the centre of patriarchy. It is a system that thrives on silence, so what must happen to women who dare to speak (refuse to be silenced) and stand against (are visible and confront) the system in various ways? Dangarembga talks about the importance of being a “feminist of conviction” because going against the mainstream requires a strong anchor and conviction is necessary. In the midst of all the accusations, threats, exclusion, dangerous consequences (which often manifests as violence on women's bodies, their space, an anthying to show/prove control) confronts those who are considered rebels, conviction pushes one to carry on. Some examples are, the harassment of women whose 'sin' is political participation in support of their divergent views, verbal abuse/online bullying targeted at women who call out what is wrong on social media and ostracization of those women who dare to take a stand within the family structure. Some months ago, I read Prof. Pumla Dineo Gqola's Female Fear Factory where in a chapter titled 'Fearing Feminists,' she highlights the cost of challenging patriarchy; 'it isolates. Patriarchal violence is isolating. It isolates through hypervisibility…Their humiliation has to be staged publicly or it will not matter.' Dangarembga shows how the existence of a supportive community (sometimes it takes just one person's support) on all fronts can do even in the face of that isolation. I think that solidarity, though many are not in agreement about what this means, is important. The essay, “Black Female and the Superwoman Black Feminist,” affirms once again to me that no one is safe from the system, “Women experience gendered and sexualised trauma every day.” (page 85). No woman is safe from the violent agenda of patriarchy. Even those who are “successful” should somehow ensure that their success fits into patriarchal boxes. Proximity to the system creates illusions for some women, who may feel that they are protected, but really once that proximity is stripped off (as it usually is) they just become dispensable as subjects of patriarchal domination who can be put in their 'place' at any time. Certain parts in this essay reminded me of what bell hooks highlights in Feminist Theory: Margin to Centre, that the absence of extreme restrictions leads many women to ignore the areas in which they are exploited or discriminated against. One needs to simply look beyond their own experiences and use any form of power that they may have for the collective benefit. There is an urgent call to acknowledge the creative work of black African feminists, to support feminists, feminists working in disadvantaged environments and for everyone to consider internally derived agency. It is true, that after the labelling of feminism as a dirty word and the seclusion that follows it, any association with it has frightened many women. It is also true that false securities, individual (limited) freedoms are mere distractions because the struggle continues until everyone is free, further cementing the necessity of intersectionality if we are to all make it out alive.

The legacy and structures of the slave trade and colonialism have a tremendously wounding effect. Dangarembga digs deep into the design of colonialism to show how far reaching it was. "Empire is about power, appropriation, expropriation, and often extermination, regardless of physiology." (page 26) Colonialism was aggressive and throughout this collection Dangarembga looks at how that affected her life, from her country, the public to her personal. I do not see how one can talk about colonialism without mentioning the role of religion. Dangarembga notes that religion played a huge role in the trajectory that her parents' lives took and consequently hers. I am glad that this issue is not glossed over. Reading about the slave trade and ecolonialism is enraging. This collection does two things; 1. it records history 2. it teaches and both these things contribute to our collective memory. Dangarembga does not merely state the damaging and dehumanizing atrocities of the slave trade and colonialism but also uses that history to suggest that we should map a way forward that actually deal with the root issues. While for most of us there is an urgent need to decolonize on all levels (including this psychologically ingrained idea of inferiority), certainly the designers of colonisation must let go of white supremacy because the world is structured around that notion of supremacy. Dangarembga contributes to the consistent efforts, especially by feminists from Africa to ensure that this history is not forgotten and call for the need to change. Coloniality is alive and is currently affecting our lives. Dangarembga brings up an important issue of the practice of colonialism through controlling the minds of the colonized. Which therefore means that, that there should be a mind shift. In her work Decolonization and Afro-Feminism, Prof. Sylvia Tamale highlights how decolonization will require complex, methodological and creative approaches. She speaks of a two pronged approach of the political and the psychological. This is critical because we need to think of ourselves differently and take out all the damaging teachings. It's not a one-day process but it is one that requires great will. On inequality, climate change, sustainability and immigration, Dangarembga suggests that we change ourselves and confront the roots of our problems. We cannot afford to be complicit and I am encouraged to act. Should we remain complicit we will continue to be wounded and to wound.

Dangarembga’s words in this collection are deeply personal, powerful and moving. These personal essays have allowed me to engage with her fiction work on a new dimension. The opening line of the book in the introduction had me by the hook and the writing is clear as always. I can't help but imagine what else is instore for us, in the meantime I'll be rereading my notes and highlights. This is one of the books that was on my 2022 most expected book list and I am glad that I found the opportunity to read it. It is only when we understand the structures in place that we can be able to uproot the system. It's a book I wish I could gift every feminist that I know!


Book Details

Title: Black and Female

Genre: Non-fiction

Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga

Publisher: Faber and Faber (2022)

Pages: 176


Other materials:

  1. Gqola, Dineo Pumla. (2021). Female Fear Factory. Johannesburg: Melinda Ferguson Books.

  2. hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

  3. Tamale, Sylvia. (2020). Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Ottawa: Daraja Press.


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