Black, anti-racist and anti-capitalist feminism is often side-lined in mainstream discourses. In their book, Revolutionary Feminisms, Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah interview some of the most powerful voices in revolutionary feminist through to consider urgent transformations of the economy, social relations and political structures.
Below is an excerpt from their book, featuring the wisdom and words of Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore. To find out more, be sure to book for the forthcoming free event, Revolutionary Feminisms, on 26 November. In the live online panel, Bhandar and Ziadah are joined by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Vron Ware to discuss what resistance looks like, from anti-colonialism to prison abolition.
BB/RZ You once said, in an interview with Michael Preston, ‘I’ve had many lives Michael . . . many, many lives.’ Can you tell us about these many lives, particularly in regard to your early political formation?
RWG Yeah, I’d be happy to. It cracked me up when I saw Michael Preston’s name here, of all people in the world. Very kind person. Left liberal, Black political scientist who was one of my protectors when I worked at the University of California, Santa Cruz, so I don’t even remember doing an inter- view with him.
I grew up in a family of organisers and activists. One way to describe them was using the old-fashioned term ‘race people’. We were Black people for Black people, or before that we were negroes for negroes, or coloured people for coloured people. My father and his father were labour organisers; my grand- father was a janitor and was one of the organisers of the first union at Yale – the blue-collar union, Local 35, which organised during World War II. And then, my father was a machinist, and he organised the Tool and Die Makers at Winchester Repeating Firearm Factory – the guns that won the West – in the 1950s. There was a lot of organising, as well, in New Haven around housing, access to education. New Haven was a city that had a very small Black population when my parents grew up there, but after World War II a lot of Black people, mostly (but not exclusively) from North Carolina, moved into New Haven to take jobs in the then-expanding military industrial complex.
New Haven’s principal products, as I’ve written about, in those days were weapons and students. Guns and graduates, if you want to put it that way. So I grew up in a household in which organising was part of everyday life. I was sent out to desegregate a school when I was ten years old, and so that was part of my project, to get through this girl’s prep school intact, which actually was kind of a struggle. But it never occurred to me not to do it. After the fact, people would ask me all the time, ‘Didn’t your parents know you would be miserable?’ And it’s like, what part does that play in the world of liberation struggle? Parents deciding that something shouldn’t happen because it might be hard for their kids to do it – that was never even a concern. They never asked me if I was happy and I never told them I was unhappy. I just did it. And I kind of loved it for four years because I’m a nerd; and then I hated it for four years because I was a teenager.
Then I did a lot of political work doing all kinds of things – anti-war work, work in solidarity with the Black Panther Party. I wasn’t a member of the Party, but in solidarity with it. Very close family members were members of the Black Panthers.
BB/RZ Why did you decide not to join the Black Panther Party?
RWG I had already joined a communist tendency that seemed satisfactory to me at the time. I wasn’t against the Party, I just had my formation that was sensible to me, so that’s what I did. I’m actually a little embarrassed about it now, not because it was communist, but just that particular one. In California, I spent many years doing work that tended more and more to revolve around access to universities. School curriculum, that kind of thing. And it wasn’t a plan of mine, it was just a world I knew really well, and I figure people should organise what they know, and in doing so will learn what they don’t know. And then they can extend and expand their work.
So by the time I was forty-three, I had been out of school for seventeen years, and I had decided that as much as I had been really thrilled to study dramatic literature and criticism as a student, I was never going to make my living either in the professional theatre or in academia teaching that stuff. Because, although I could see the connections between the sort of world making that characterises drama or theatre, and the world making that characterises our everyday experiences, I wasn’t all that interested in pounding into people’s heads that there was a continuum that was worth paying attention to. Rather, I thought that what I should do was go back to school, study political economy in a really systematic way, so that I could do something else with my energy and brainpower.
So I went back to school when I was forty-three and did a PhD in geography. I hadn’t done a geography course between age thirteen and forty-three and I still have my geography book from age thirteen, which was actually pretty splendid. It was a book that laid out, very carefully, different modes of production.
Fast forward to 1993. I went back to school at Rutgers, where I worked with Neil Smith, who is a geographer; Dorothy Sue Cobble, who is a labour historian; Bob Lake, who does work on urban planning and policy; and Ann Markeson, who is really quite a fine economist. We eventually separated paths because we had different ways of thinking, but I learned an enormous amount from her. And from my own reading that I’d done in study groups and on my own that preceded my return to school, to graduate school; this meant that I was already a student of Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson, Stephen London, Hazel Carby – all of these people whose work I had read and reread, and, indeed, as an adjunct I’d taught. So all that shaped what I did in geography school, doing the PhD, and it shaped my approach to the work that I’ve done on mass incarceration, criminalisation and the other topics that I’ve been writing, organising and thinking about.
BB/RZ What do you think geography added to your way of understanding the world?
RWG Geography added a rigorously material imperative to anything I thought about; that would not necessarily have been the case if I had done a PhD in, say, American studies or cultural studies. It doesn’t mean that in those interdisciplines I couldn’t have done what I did in geography. But in geography, you have to have the real, all the time, and since geography is the study of how we write the world, the real, then, is never static anyway. It has everything to do with human–environment interactions, it has to do with the social, it has to do with the scale and organisation of capitalist and anti-capitalist space. So all of that enabled me to keep my focus on what mattered to me and to learn to think about those things in ways that I hadn’t ever thought before.
BB/RZ Could you tell us a little bit more about taking your background in radical Black thought into the field of geography, and what that was like? You didn’t really have any models to follow in bringing that work into the field of Marxist geography.
RWG That’s a really great question, and I didn’t have models to follow, which is to say this: because of the experience I had desegregating that school, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do and needed to do, no matter the context. And I knew it would be a struggle, but it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do that. And I realise now that when I went off to geography school, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be like the Day Prospect Hill School for Girls,’ but obviously that experience had shaped me in so many ways, some of which I’m still probably not aware of.
So there was that. But the other thing is that once I started geography school, and I went off to my first geography conference, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) annual meeting, I looked around and I found some other Black people, and some other people of colour and white people, who were talking about interesting stuff, and we hung out. And we never stopped hanging out. And we spent time together. We talked a lot, we fought a lot. We went through all kinds of intellectual and social development together.
The most senior person in the group that I hung out with was this incredible guy called Bobby M. Wilson, who taught his whole career at the University of Alabama. He’s since retired. We’re around the same age. He might be a couple of years older than I am, but he’d gone and done his PhD straight out of college, so he’d been a professor since he was in his twenties. And his work is phenomenal. His greatest work, which everybody in the world should read, is called America’s Johannesburg, and it’s about Birmingham. It’s an astonishing book. It’s a book that asks the question: How did it happen that so much of the most radical expression of the Black liberation movement emerged in Birmingham? What was it about Birmingham?
He laid out the shifts in Birmingham from its founding as a post–Civil War city. It’s about the same age as Johannesburg; its extractive industry is like Johannesburg; it’s apartheid, like Johannesburg. And he laid out the develop- ment and consolidation of that city’s economy and racial order over time. It’s just an amazing piece of work. He’s a Marxist, and he writes about race in everything that he does.
Another one of our little coterie was the late Clyde Woods. Clyde, who had been a student of Edward Soja at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been, as it were, educated in a certain kind of Marxist geography tradition, and himself had realised the limits of a certain core of Marxist thought – in part, because Ed himself had been an Africanist by training, and he knew that a lot of the stuff that he was encountering in the work of white geographers, guys, his comrades, was not attentive to the contradictory dynamics of race and class and gender. And Ed wanted to understand that, so Ed started reading bell hooks, and he was Clyde’s mentor.
I mean, this was actually the world. There was a world that was changing, there was a lot of scepticism, I will say, on the part of some people who, in the US context, looked at a certain kind of American cultural studies that made claims about political commitments to be kind of more noise than anything else. Some left social scientists were trying to work up useful theories for engaging the problems that capitalism and racism and sexism create and reproduce; some wanted to reject cultural studies outright. Others, including me, said: ‘Wait a second – you’re making a really varied intellectual landscape into this flat plane. Let’s actually look more at what Stuart Hall and so on have said and done and written.’ So we brought that cultural studies, the Birmingham school, as it were, into the AAG.
Another person who became a dear friend and close colleague is the Chicana geographer Laura Pulido, who’s written about race, organising, and rural and urban struggles. So we formed this coterie, and we spent a lot of time together. As I said, we argued a lot; we fought a lot to try to figure out what we should do and how we should do it.
And I’ll say that one of the legacies of that effort that really characterised the mid 1990s in geography in the United States has bloomed now in the twenty-first century in the general field of Black geographies. That field wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t done what we did, and I know that Katherine McKittrick, who is one of the central people in it, would attest to this. When she was a graduate student, I met her when I was junior faculty, and we had a very long, intense engagement about her work that became Demonic Grounds.4 And so, those were some of the things that happened to geography over time.
So, did I enter geography thinking, ‘I’m going to change this discipline’? No, I entered geography so I could learn how to do some things. That was my purpose. I needed some tools. I got the tools, but in getting the tools, acquiring the tools, I brought to them other tools that I had, and so they do work that’s somewhat different, perhaps, than if I hadn’t had the other tools to start with.
BB/RZ Something that you refer to in your work, and that you’re quite adamant about, is that you’re a historical materialist, and that formulation has been used in some absurd ways and some very interesting ways. Can you tell us a bit about how you’re using it and why it’s so important to you?
RWG That formulation is important to me because, in the struggles that I’ve engaged with over time, and in things that I’ve thought about and studies that haven’t been firsthand engagements, what’s always apparent is that people make what’s new out of something that’s already there. And the something that’s already there might not be adequate to the task, just as I was talking about earlier with the tools that I had and then the tools that I acquired, but there’s a there-ness that matters. It matters in how we figure out how to change the conditions of life, how we improve our conditions of existence, and I did think for a long time that experience is what mattered in some way. That it was really about experience. And one of the formulations in Marx that I always found very beautiful is where he talks about how we mix our labour with the earth, and in so doing we change the external world and change our own nature. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. I also think it’s true.
However, one of my mentors, the late, great Cedric Robinson, thwacked me on the arm one day and said: ‘I’ve been trying to tell you as long as I’ve known you – it’s not just experience, it’s consciousness.’ So, because of the influence that Cedric and others have had on my work, I shifted. I haven’t disavowed historical materialism, and I can’t imagine I ever would, but I realised that consciousness has to play a bigger role in my analytical work if I want to get beyond the notion that experience is all that matters. Because if it’s all that matters, then that would also mean that a certain kind of extremely flat and categorised – or, to use a word that you used, abstracted – view of identity is enough to change the world. And it’s not, and I know better than to think that.
BB/RZ There are many theories of consciousness that exist within Marxist and Marxist-Hegelian traditions. Can you tell us how you are thinking about political consciousness specifically?
RWG I’m thinking about consciousness these days in the terms developed by, for example, Amílcar Cabral and the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), and popularised by people like Paolo Freire. So consciousness, and conscienceisation, which is to say, to translate that word from Portuguese to English: awareness is not just a matter of information; it’s not a matter of facts, but one of developing and pursuing things through a sensibility that shows a different possibility can emerge.
To go back to Cedric’s work, probably one of the most quoted phrases from all of his work is ‘ontological totality’. And while many people repeat this, I don’t think most of them have actually sat and thought about what this might mean. And that ontology has to do with what, for example, Clyde Woods writes about with his formulation of blues epistemology, which is to say, an already elaborated, but not fixed, sense of how ‘small d’ development might proceed. Of how, as Cedric writes, having a commitment to what he calls the survival of the community, means that one’s pursuit of liberation is different from having a commitment to, say, the restoration of land to the landed bourgeoisie in Palestine from before 1948, to take another example. Or what Frantz Fanon talks about when he talks about the pitfalls of national consciousness. Part of how I put that into operation is through asking questions that have more stretch and resonance than other questions. So there’s an example that I use in something that I wrote, about how in organising in rural California against prison expansion, I learned pretty soon – not soon enough, but pretty soon – to ask not ‘Why do you want a prison?’, but instead, ‘What do you want?’
And even that opened up my consciousness to understanding, as well as provoked a kind of consciousness-shaping, even among two or three or four people, that could then become the foundation for further organising. So again, consciousness isn’t a matter of having adequate information, although information is not unimportant. And consciousness is not an effect of experience, although experience matters.
To continue reading, purchase a copy of Revolutionary Feminisms:Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought, published by Verso Books.