To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande – Book Review
Date Posted: Thursday 29th July 2021
Publisher: Pluto Press (2019)
Review by Vanesha Singh
Discussions which centre Black women’s resistance to neoliberalism and racial and gender-based oppression will invariably have a number of takeaways for feminists, particularly around how we confront white feminism and liberate Black women. That is certainly the case with To Exist is to Resist, a vast collection of essays put together by academics Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande.
Emejulu and Sobande offer a robust definition of Black feminism in their introduction, but in summary, it can be understood as a politics of affirmation and liberation which values the lived experiences, struggles and achievements of Black women. Important, is that Black feminism is ‘not a reaction to white-dominated feminism’ but seeks to encourage a different way of seeing the world – the end goal of which is the liberation of all, starting with Black women.
Feminists should read this book – even those who believe they may be well-versed in Black feminist thinking – because it treads unchartered waters. As the authors explain, typically, Black feminism is dominated by Black American culture and voices from North America, demonstrated by the weight that authors such as bell hooks, Angela Davis and Audre Lorde still hold in our discussions. The authors reassure readers that moving away from these viewpoints is not to devalue the critical work of such American Black feminists – although in my opinion, this goes without saying. In fact, one cannot help but notice just how often Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider is referenced by various contributors for being transformative to their understanding of resistance. Yet, to dismantle the social order and challenge oppression requires us to recognise systemic racism and sexism in Europe today, this is key.
After the introduction, the book is split into four parts: activism; the private sphere (with discussions around home and friendship); academia; and digital and creative labour. Each chapter showcases acts of resistance – both big and small – in various countries across the continent. But before moving on to the numerous essays, Emejulu and Sobande ask readers to reflect on the ‘similarities of experiences across linguistic, cultural and national borders’ as well as the nuances in how local contexts produce specific kinds of violence and resistance – and this is the lens in which To Exist is to Resist should be read. In doing so, the book challenged me to deconstruct what I think I know and instead, listen and reflect.
It is through this book we gain insight into, for instance, issues of race and Blackness in Denmark and stories from activists in Germany which rarely make it outside the country; or how Black and womxn of colour activists are being excluded from feminist activism in Madrid. We gain an understanding of what Afrofeminist literary spaces in French-speaking Switzerland mean to women; or how Zwarte Piet, ethics and Black Motherhood are entangled in the Netherlands.
There are some recurring truths from contributors. Above all of these, I believe, is the importance of challenging anti-Blackness. Another interesting and repeated point is made around Black women’s experiences of racism and sexism in supposedly liberatory, left-wing spaces, and how these socialist, feminist movements across Europe are still harming and excluding Black women. “Those who fight for us but without us are against us,” reads one chapter by French activists from the Mwasi Collectif.
There is clear crossover in experiences across Europe, particularly in part four which hones in on academia and spotlights not only the racism and hostilities Black women face because of the power structures in education, but also the joy from the support and solidarities they have formed in such spaces. The importance of space – or rather safe space and non-mixed environments – is also emphasised throughout for allowing women the ability to meet and confront their oppression. It has stirred me to learn more about exactly what this concept means, its usefulness and how truly safe spaces can be achieved.
Emejulu and Sobande’s approach to research – centring the lived experiences of Black women to form an understanding of oppression and resistance – deviates from traditional research methodologies which avoid personalised narratives, and is what makes this book an especially interesting read. One chapter, for instance asks Black women in Germany to share their ‘hair story’ – how the textures of their hair, or hairstyles, have led to discrimination to highlight how these individual experiences contribute to collective understandings of society overall. Another chapter features conversations between two friends. Other chapters platform women of colour activists and academics sharing their interpretations of friendship and failure, successes and erasure, to draw wider conclusions about such circles.
This approach, of analysing lived experience, is championed by many Black feminist theorists as a useful methodological tool, and seen by some as perhaps even more powerful than professional and educational experience for understanding how oppressive structures operate.
And by approaching research and epistemology in this way, contributors are clearly better able to articulate the racism and anxiety they (or other women) feel in certain spaces. Viki Zaphiriou-Zarifi – an organiser in Greece mobilising to improve lives for African women in Athens – expresses this in her chapter, explaining that at conferences, political meetings and parliamentary debates, marginalised women are silenced for ‘[lacking] the authority of political, academic or institutional discourses’. Contrastingly, as Zaphiriou-Zarifi explains, “women’s testimonies, grounded in felt and lived experiences, give them a power and an authority that theorising alone could never carry.” This approach to epistemology thus “challenges what it means to be political, who has the right to speak when, where and to whom.” Another contributor, Kesiena Boom, illustrates that by having their lived experiences validated, Black women can see themselves ‘as a source of valuable knowledge about how intersecting oppressions operate’. What comes through, then, is that examining lived experience empowers and validates women, as well as allowing for more nuanced theorising of oppression and resistance.
In publishing this collection, the authors hope to expand Black feminist theory through the knowledge and lived experiences of activists, creatives and academics in Europe. Two of their additional end goals, they explain, are to challenge hegemonic socialist and feminist politics, and create the conditions for fruitful coalitions between different racialised groups. And on all of these counts their book makes headway, particularly because of its success in bringing an array of voices across Europe together to confront mainstream feminism in an accessible way.
Vanesha Singh is assistant editor at the Fabian Society.