Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Akwugo Emejulu

This conversation was recorded on 6th July 2023. Speakers: Dr Gala Rexer, Lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre // Professor Akwugo Emejulu, University of Warwick

GR:   Hello and welcome back to the SPRC Podcast. I’m Gala Rexer, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at UCL and today I’m speaking with Akwugo Emejulu, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. As a political sociologist, her research and writing include racial, gender and class inequalities in Europe and the United States, women of colour organising in activism, as well black feminism more broadly.

Professor Emejulu is the author of Community Development as Micro Politics; comparing theories, policies and politics in America and Britain, out with Policy Press and a co-author with Leah Bassel of Minority Women and Austerity, Survival and Resistance in France and Britain, also out with Policy Press, and her most recent book is Fugitive Feminism, which was published with Silver Press just last year, which we will be discussing today.

Thank you so much for joining me today, Akwugo, I really appreciate it and preparing for today’s session was so interesting and, honestly, a joy. So thanks for joining me.

INT:   Well, how nice and what a nice introduction. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited for our conversation.

GR:   So, in the preface to Fugitive Feminism, which is beautifully titled I think, Lifting My Face to the Sun, you describe fugitive feminism as a ‘wild propsosition, a paradoxical experiment to see whether it is possible to embrace the fugitive’ porous, shifting, and unstable identity for a black feminism of liberation’, and on your publisher’s website, Fugitive Feminism is described as a manifesto.

So when I was reading the book, I also sort of felt this radical or experimental energy I guess, and that’s sort of what I wanted to begin our conversation with. So how did you come to write this book in this particular form? What was the broader set of questions you wanted to address? And how did they emerge or maybe also depart from your previous work?

INT:   So the book came about out of a deep frustration and anger, I think, because so much of the work that I do is about exploring the struggles of women of colour activists in Europe, and particularly at first around issues to do with austerity measures and then it’s expanded to explore migrants rights, as well as anti-fascist activism, particularly in the context of the triumph of the Far Right, both in electoral politics, as well as in everyday life.

And I have been doing this work since the 2008 economic crisis and I always work in a comparative perspective. So I’ve been exploring how women of colour have been trying to build solidarity with their radical and revolutionary white comrades in socialist, trade unionist, feminist, anti-fascist circles and watching them be demoralised, disenchanted, and either actively pushed out of these ostensibly radical spaces or they take their leave because they’re not taken seriously. Their analyses of inequality are not taken seriously and their pragmatic suggestions for strategies and tactics for collective action are also dismissed.

And this work, and this is the longstanding work I do with my colleague, Leah Bassel, so this isn’t particularly new. Anyone who knows anything about black feminism knows that this is kind of the fate of black feminists in action in many ways. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how and why racialized women cannot be heard and when they articulate their intersectional claims, that is seen as a threat.

And there are lots of explanations for this, of which I don’t know if we necessarily need to go through here, but I think there is a foundational problem of how these activists are not… cannot be seen as equal members in struggle and really what that means is in a racial polity, in the context of the racial hierarchy, not only are they dehumanised but they’re not considered human at all, because this can be the only explanation. One of the strikingly similar findings that I have examined for 15 years in exploring women of colours activism, so regardless of migration context, linguistic context, you name it, it’s the same thing. So what is the explanation for this? And I think part of the explanation is that, in fact, these women are not considered human.

So that’s really where the book came from, is really trying to take a step back and look at some foundational concerns about what is going on with this empirical data but also what’s going on with the actual lived experiences of these activists? And in order to really think through these ideas, I think required me to take a step back from the usual way that I write. I think I pride myself, and even in my academic writing, I’m not one who’s using like the five dollar word all the time because I’m also not only speaking to academics, I’m speaking to activists themselves, I’m speaking to policy makers, and so part of that means that one has to write in a very different way anyway. So I was never one to write in a super fancy way anyway, like I’m very committed to writing clearly and directly.

But for this book, it was important to even take a shift away from that way of writing to be more speculative, to be more experimental as a way to think through these issues, and I think as well because I’m a political sociologist and I’m a qualitative researcher, and I’m kind of wading into the sub-field of black studies and a lot of theory, which I can do theory but I don’t do this kind of theory. So I think it also required something different from me in terms of how I’m writing.

GR:   Could you say a little bit more about your approach, or your different approach to writing in this book? So I’m interested really to hear a little bit about form, I guess, because it does depart from your earlier academic writing, or like academic writing in general.

INT:   Some of this was because of my editor, the wonderful Sarah Shin, who edited me when I used to write for the Verso blog, and so she’s one of the editors at my publisher at Silver. So she really kind of pushed me. We have a very good relationship and so I very much trust her with my writing. So I think she really did push me to be more experimental and fractured.

I think I didn’t go far enough for her liking and it’s also just because I was feeling, I wasn’t trained to write like this. I don’t know. So this is probably like the edge of what I’m most comfortable with and I think she probably could have pushed me further, but I was writing in the middle of the pandemic and stuff and I was like, I can’t take it, it’s too much change, I can’t take it. So, of course, Sarah has heard it all.

So anyway, I think that’s probably what it was and I think that was very helpful because I think the first draft, even the second draft of the book, which was much longer and much more dense and certainly much more academic, even in my open style of academic writing, I think Sarah came in with like a meat cleaver and was quite brutal in the editing and cutting back.

And I think it took me a while to accept the fracture, but I think the fracture and experimental nature of the writing was very helpful to convey my own ambivalence and hesitation. And so you see through the writing an unwillingness to go to certain places and an unwillingness to kind of close down arguments or conversations, but then that also maybe perhaps reflects the liminal state of the fugitive.

GR:   Yeah, let’s stay with that figure for a bit longer because I felt like we have seen this liminal figure of the fugitive or the fugitive feminist in a lot of recent writing and theorising in feminism, but black feminism specifically. So, for instance, we met riotous Black Girls and queer radicals in Saidiya Hartman’s work. We are thinking against, I guess, linear time in Lola Olufemi’s work and against the fixity of racialized and gendered categories.

And then in your work, we encounter Phillis Wheatley, the first black American woman to publish a book of poetry, and Fanny Eaton, a Jamaican born artist model, who most of the listeners probably know from the pre-Raphaelite paintings they’ve seen at the Tate. So could you tell us a bit more about these two black women and also what they can teach us about the figure, the minor figure of the fugitive but also about Fugitive Feminism?

INT:   I guess if we take a step back and say if it is indeed the case that, as Hortense, Spillers talks about, about how the black women’s body is ungendered through a process of patriarchal, white supremacist domination, then that helps us think through what is possible in terms of what it means to be outside of a stable idea of femininity, of womanhood. Of course, with Hortense Spillers’ work, and Sylvia Wynter, and a lot of the key black radical thinkers that I draw on, of course poses as a foundational problem and there has to be a way to evacuate these genocidal ideas of the human so that we can inhabit humanity on different terms.

And I say yes of course, but what would it mean if we stayed with this idea of being this other subject who is not subjected to these particular kinds of stable identities, and what would it mean to embrace this idea of liminality? What would it mean to embrace an idea of ambivalence and hesitation, not as a way of saying let’s reclaim a different way of being a human but say no, no, no, what does it mean to stay in that state of insecurity, of instability?

And that’s really what fugitivity perhaps might offer, at least from how I’m interpreting it because there’s a different kind of politics that is offered if we’re not trying to reclaim an idea of the human, and I often say it’s like surely we want better for ourselves than merely the human. And then the book is about exploring the possibilities of that.

And turning to Phillis Wheatley and Fanny Eaton, I think these two figures point to the problems and the possibilities of the fugitive, because in Phillis Wheatley’s case, as I talk about in the book, we don’t actually know who she is. So Phillis Wheatley is a pure construction of slavery, because Phillis is named after the slave ship that she was transported on from West Africa to New England and then Wheatley is the name of her enslavers. So on a foundational level, we have no idea who this women is.

And so that in a way… so she herself is not a lore but the name itself demonstrates what’s at stake in terms of what’s been stripped from her. And yet in this context, what we see, and why she’s such a fascinating and interesting and inspirational figure, is that she was provided with this incredible education and became this beloved poet of her time period. And I think that’s really interesting in terms of what it means of what’s possible, even within the confines of one would think a pure subjection, what is possible in terms of her imagining herself and bringing her own self into being, despite being stripped of her humanity and living in this space of not quite freedom, not quite enslavement, I find fascinating.

But of course I think the story, particularly in American terms, we always forget to tell about Phillis Wheatley, is that once she was manumitted, she was cast out and died in penury, which I think always demonstrates the precarious nature of fugitivity, that failure is always, in some way, kind of stalking this idea of fugitivity.

Now, with Fanny Eaton, I think she is a really fascinating example because we know so little about her, and I think she really demonstrates quite well that we have no idea about her interior life. We have no idea about who she is outside of literally the white gaze and the pre-Raphaelites, which I find fascinating, and yet we know that she lived a long life. She married, she had several children, she was doing her thing. I think she moved at the end of her life to the Isle of Wight or something, and so it’s like what’s she doing there?

So there’s something here about the possibility of living a kind of life, even though we know so little about her and if I was all fancy, I would then take Saidiya Hartman’s idea of critical fabulation and then impose these kinds of lives and ideas, but that’s not really my thing so I won’t do that. I think lots of people expect me to do that. It’s like no, no, no, that’s her jam. I’m just here reminding you of this incredible historical figure that offers us interesting lessons for thinking about how we might live our lives.

GR:   Yeah, also thank you for that little introduction to your theoretical foundations. I do have more questions about that but I want to stay with that question of the minor figures or the fugitive just a little bit longer, and it relates to what you just said about different styles of writing, Saidiya Hartman’s most specifically speculative fiction, more experimental ways of doing this kind of work, of doing storytelling, of developing counter-narratives, etc.

And our students at the SPRC, they’re very interested in this kind of writing but I also know you’re a sociologist, I’m also trained a sociologist. So there is kind of, I think, an interesting interplay that we can see in your work of doing this in a sociological way maybe, of trying new modes of inquiry.

So what I would like you to talk a little bit more about, if you want to, is how do you write with and against those categories that we already know we want to kind of get rid of, because that is what I understand is what Fugitive Feminism is all about, the embracing of not knowing where this is going, of the openness of the possibility of failure and also, I guess of the discomfort of being in this place. So what is the advice, I guess, you would give to students who want to embark on a new mode of inquiry that challenges the categories that we’re so attached to in the writing and research?

INT:   That’s a good question. I guess for me, I don’t know, I’m just not a… writing is a creative process for me in trying to think through and unlock an idea, but I’m not a creative writer, if that makes sense. So I think that’s important to make the distinction and I’m on bended knee, especially for fiction writers, because I can’t do that and I’m not pretending to do that.

So how I approach these things is really in that black feminist tradition of counter storytelling. When you seek to tell a story from the position of the most marginalised, when you are not seeking to occupy the centre and understand that there is another story, another perspective, another way of being, another way of doing beyond the white gaze, underground, difficult to fathom, hard to find, then that in itself, that move is essential because that starts to break things up. It doesn’t solve the problem. Making that shift doesn’t mean oh okay, everything is fine and now we’re working against categories but that is a foundational thing about whose voice matters, whose perspective matters.

So that’s always my starting point about who’s around the table? Who are we listening to? Who’s being ignored and what does that mean? What does that tell us about power? Because that’s really what my work is about. It’s about who has it? Who do they use it? And what are the outcomes as a result? So that’s always for me the starting point and it’s to think about, and this in bell hooks’ terms, about marginality isn’t always a bad thing. Marginality is the space for experimentation. It’s a space that can be working with others, i.e. fellow fugitives, can be a space for experimentation, certain kinds of liberation but it’s always precarious.

And I think it’s one of those things of understanding that it is always precarious is an essential lesson from living, because I just think about this moment that we’re in. We just celebrated 75 years of the NHS, it’s on its knees. The entire public sector is on strike. We have the resurgent Far Right. We have all of these things that, at one time, were settled questions, at least for some people, about funding a welfare state, about maybe fascism in public life is not a good thing. All of these things are now debatable again. So it demonstrates the precarity and the constant need to struggle for the new world and I think taking that on board… unfortunately we can never rest, because the gains that are won are always in jeopardy and I think it’s that idea of jeopardy that I think is so important.

GR:   Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and it also connects to, I think, the question of methodology that you also pose in the book and specifically you mention indigenous scholar Audra Simpson’s work as an important interlocutor to think through these questions, and Simpson proposes this idea of a politics of refusal that refers both to our own right to opacity towards the state, towards the researcher, I guess also towards ourselves in some senses and, as a result, our right to be ungovernable or like strategies to be so.

And that kind of seems like a companion methodology to the figure of the fugitive feminist or Fugitive Feminism but it is also important in more practical terms when we do research with or about those who are always already outside of the category of the human, and you refer to that in the book, and I was wondering if you could share a bit about how you encounter or engage with this politics of refusal in your own empirical work, but also maybe in and through the figure of Fugitive Feminism.

INT:   Yeah, so that section of the book is inspired… so I co-wrote an article with my colleague, Inez van der Scheer at the University of Amsterdam called Refusing the Politics of Usual, and it’s about exploring women of colour’s activism in London and Amsterdam. And I think from that project, that’s part of this project, the Politics of Catastrophe, what was really striking in that research project was how the various activists had enough. They had enough with the coalition building, they had enough with the interracial, interethnic solidarity work. Like we are going to do our own thing and we’re going to do it underground, out of sight, in order to do the work that matters to us, and particularly in the Amsterdam context, with those who are most at risk who were, at that time, the people they were working with, undocumented migrant women.

So for me, that was fascinating because everyone calls… because even though I am in a department of sociology but I’m actually a political scientist, so that’s why. I’m a secret political scientist in sociology. But political science tells us that there’s something wrong with these activists. Why aren’t they engaging with institutions? Why aren’t they working in coalition? This seems to be a kind of anti-politics, a kind of nihilism to their politics because they refuse to engage with others and, in my terms, refuse to be subjected.

So for me what was fascinating, and again no one is saying this is new, I’m just saying that these particular activists I’m working with, it was interesting to learn about their strategies and tactics. That tells us something important about, first of all, what kind of solidarity is available to these women and they’re saying, no thank you. It also tells us about what refusal this idea… and I think this idea of Refusing the Politics of Usual, that is taken directly from Simpson’s work, what she says is, in not playing the usual game of politics, and what she in her book, Mohawk Interruptus, she talks about this idea of rejecting the framework of Canadian citizenship and in so doing, one regains a sense of sovereignty over oneself, but also quite literally over one’s land and I think that’s very important whenever we’re working with indigenous folks who really mean it. Land back is not a metaphor, none of these things are a metaphor. But in order to claim land, one must also claim self-sovereignty.

And that’s what refusal does, because when you take on the usual structures of citizenship, you’re taking on playing those games, of participating in institutions, and she talks about paying taxes and doing all of these things and in her book, she talks about how… and this is the point about methodology, that part of refusal, if you’re serious about this, and especially if you are a scholar who is part of the struggle or is a comrade in the struggle, is that you can’t be reporting on what folks are doing, like what refusal looks like. It means that you yourself, you can’t be reporting and commenting on what people are doing because if folks are trying to get free, that’s not going to sit well with the powers that be and I think that’s really important.

GR:   I think that also relates to the question of audience and in the book you mention the sort of discomfort maybe of writing a book like this from within the neoliberal university and you mention this, we’re on strike ever since I got to the UK and the working conditions are only deteriorating. But what they also do is produce this figure of the scholar as the individual, as a genius, the single author publishing in high ranking journals and so on and so forth.

And your book obviously challenges this figure in the way, through its citational practice, through its very content, but I think there’s also this question of… and I talked to Françoise Vergès on this podcast before and we also talked about this, like how can we be fugitive feminists within this violent institution of the university?

INT:   I don’t know if it’s possible and I’ll be honest about that, I don’t think it is possible because it requires flights, it requires fleeing from the usual things. It requires a giving up of comfort and stability and security and me as a fancy professor and look, let’s… come on, that’s not what’s happening here and I’m the first one to say it, so please note, no letters about this. Like who writes letters anyway? So I don’t know if it’s possible and that’s why the book is so hesitant because it is this thing of saying, what might be possible and what is required from all of us? All I can do is what I’m doing because I’m not quitting my job any time soon, sorry folks, I have bills to pay and all the rest of it. So that’s not happening.

But what can I do to make things less terrible? That’s, I think, kind of the minimum standard and no one is saying that’s necessarily a fugitive practice, but there are things within the university that’s possible, of which for strike action, let’s be honest about the deep, deep limitations of what this is and how people really go to town. They’re making a meal out of this as some radical practice and it’s important but let’s everyone get a grip on some of this stuff. And I say this as a former trade union organiser, so I know of what I speak.

There are ways of being in the university that mean that you do not have to be an awful person, do you know what I mean? And yet this seems to escape many of our colleagues. Part of that means that you present yourself as not having all the answers, of wanting to be helpful to your colleagues, of wanting to be helpful to your students and I know that’s like… it seems commonsense but somehow is elusive to many of us. So I don’t pretend in any way that this is a fugitive practice but what I can do is try to make things less terrible for my colleagues and in that way, maybe we create possibilities, opportunities for doing things differently.

GR:   Yeah, but I also think your point about being in the university as a professor, as a lecturer and, in my case, as like an early career scholar, it is so important to say this place is difficult and we can’t really individually changed it but we can make it a better place for those who need it to be a better place, for those who it isn’t built for, and I think that sounds mundane but is so crucial. So thank you for pointing that out.

As I said earlier, I do have a follow up theoretical question which is something that I’m really curious to learn more about. So basically it’s about your departure from Wynter.  So basically if I understand Wynter correctly, she suggests reformulating the human as hybrid, as being nature culture simultaneously to reflect the human condition to be an ongoing process of becoming and of transformation. So her counter humanism is about different ways of living and being in the world and in relation with the world.

And in the book you write, that you want to consider what if the human cannot and should not be reclaimed specifically from a women of colour but even more so a black woman’s perspective. So I’m just curious to just learn more about your different route here, perhaps put more broadly how does a fugitive feminism differ from Wynter’s suggestion of a counter humanism or her broader project of reclaiming the human?

INT:   I think for me the departure is to say, what if we do not need this framework of the human? What would that mean? And how would that destabilise but then also reinvigorate a politics of black feminism which is, of course, grounded in a politics of the human? And it really is circling back to saying, what would it mean if we cannot stabilise these ideas? What would it mean that we live with ambivalence? That ambivalence is not something that we work through and step away from but ambivalence is the mode of being.

What would it mean to be in that in-between space of living with insecurity, which quite literally people are living in insecurity at this moment which is deeply stressful in social and economic terms. Can we not pretend as if that is a good thing, but say what would that mean for our politics if we inject that kind of precarity into thinking about who we are and how we’re meant to relate to each other in this world? And the stability, or at least a kind of temporary solace and stability comes from our social relations with others.

So I think Wynter and I, we get to the same place in the end but I’m not necessarily committed to this idea of the human, I genuinely do not believe that this fundamentally construction of the enlightenment, which was not built for, not just black folks but almost everyone, it is exclusive of almost everyone and that’s the rub, folks, about this idea of the human. What would it mean if we could cast off the long shadow of the enlightenment, away from these ideas of categorisation and domination and all these things, then what would be left? And then it brings in… because you’re an environmental person, I’m not an environmental scholar because then what would that then do to our relationship to non-human animals and the broader environment?

So I think there are all these kinds of possibilities if we can somehow get away from this idea, this framework of humanity, again this is now, we’re now so far away from where I am most comfortable and where my camp is, this is why the book is, I’m sure, foundationally unsatisfying because I’m like, who can say? I don’t know. I’m just asking questions. I’m such a jerk. Honestly, it was like I have no answers for you. I’m the Devil’s Advocate, I’m just asking questions.

GR:   But it sits with the content, like that is part of what you’re writing about. So I think the form mirrors your argument or your questions that you’re asking. So to come back to maybe where you feel more comfortable is maybe the end of the book, the last chapter, your call, I guess, for community, for care, for finding other fugitives in a shared divestment from this category of the human, but also the precarious and difficult struggle of finding joy in terror, I think that’s how you call it. Living in and with and through the circumstances that we’re surrounded with.

And you also already talked about, from your other empirical work with women of colour and black women who are activists, how the kind of coalitional politics mainly fail, especially with white feminists, with labour organisers. So how, or if so, how can Fugitive Feminism be a tool or an invitation maybe for a broader framework of anti-colonial, anti-racist feminist networks of solidarity, based on coalition or other modes, I guess, of shared fighting?

INT:   I guess when people ask me this question, I always say I’m in a bad place with this and it’s been a bad place for several years now. So as I mentioned before, Leah Bassel and I are writing this book called, Precarious Solidarity, and we’re talking about how the shift needs to be made from thinking about how solidarity or coalitional politics, how women of colour fail, and to shifting to understanding how solidarity fails women of colour, because solidarity is not possible in the context of a racial polity. And let’s be clear that this is not like an Afro-pessimist view, it’s actually about taking seriously the idea of the racial hierarchy.

And so given that the usual politics of solidarity, so it does not follow that, simply because we are all women, that we all necessarily will see each other as equal members of struggle. Fellow feeling, particularly on the Left, is not an assumption that can be made. It is something that has to be worked for and worked through, and that requires from us a different way of relating to each other, that simply being a socialist or a trade unionist or a feminist is nowhere, and has never been enough for any kind of mutual recognition. And so there’s a question here about rethinking ideas of solidarity that go beyond the usual categories, because the categories do not serve the purpose. This is what my work for 15 years has shown, that it does not do what it claims to do.

And so a shift needs to be made, both in the ways that we’re thinking about solidarity, but then also those categories by which we organise ourselves and think about ideas of collective identity, which then hopefully sparks collective action. So what that looks like genuinely will vary from place to place, from issue to issue, and the abolitionist feminists who are popular at the moment, they offer some examples of how that’s possible but there are also lots of problems with that. The longstanding Afro-feminist activism in France gives us some very interesting examples but all of them are, of course, precarious.

So for me it’s one of those things about where I feel most passionate and interested is trying to link theory to practice, and this is really my departure and the next step for the next book is to say, here is the challenge of, if we’re not human, what are we? And what is made possible by not being human? And then saying, okay, there are people literally right now doing this really interesting work and how can we learn from them?

I have some ideas, from some of the most recent work on refusal, on countering loneliness, all these kinds of… there are some interesting stuff that folks are doing and now the question is about trying to link these things together because the folks who are really engaged in the theoretical practices of fugitivity, it’s very interesting but no one is speaking to anyone. I’m always interested in saying, this is great but what do people on the ground think? How do they live this? Or how do they reject this? And for me that’s the most interesting thing, that we can have this conversation but I’m interested in what activists think about these ideas.

GR:   Thank you so much. So we can look forward to your new projects where you will be thinking these questions further, practically linking theory and practice.

INT:   Yes.

GR:   Thank you so much for this conversation. I think we reached the end of our time, so thank you so much.

INT:   Thank you, Gala, I really appreciate it.