/ 4 November 2022

The black feminist’s survival guide

Tsitsi Dangarembga Wires002
hold placards during an anti-corruption protest march in Harare in 2020 after which she was arrested. Photo: Supplied

For the socially engaged and conscious, it came as no shock when author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested by the government of her beloved Zimbabwe in 2020, accused of inciting public violence during an anti-corruption march that took place in July that year. 

The state wanted to send a clear message — any form of dissent from the public shall be dealt with harshly and forcefully. They found in her the perfect citizen — since she was in the news for her Booker Prize nomination for This Mournable Body, why not make an example of her? 

The charges were but one layer; Dangarembga wasn’t the only one. 

Since 1980, when Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF took the reins from Ian Smith’s regime, the result of a sustained chimurenga (uprising), those in power have used the same oppressive tactics as the British colonialists to enforce civil obedience. 

The suspended sentence stemming from that charge was handed down in September, amid the appearance of Black and Female, a collection of essays from Faber & Faber. The book marks Dangarembga’s first foray into non-fiction writing — bar the speeches she has written. 

Said the author, after the court ruling: “Our role as citizens is being changed into a role that is not an active citizen, but a subject, and we are not a monarchy.” 

One of the conditions for the six-month sentence is that she stays out of trouble for the next five years. The message is clear: keep quiet, or else …

Dangarembga locates, isolates and deals with the roots of her trauma across three essays. The first, “Writing While Black and Female”, is about how writing enables her to analyse the “interconnectedness” of her personal and national histories. 

“The best writing opens the lesion again and again, and cleanses,” she writes, and indeed proceeds that way, by first locating the site of the wound — empire. 

She toggles skilfully between the writing of Toni Morrison and the scholarship of Kimberlé Crenshaw: “I found the fire for my writing in intersectionality, decades before I heard the term,” she writes. 

Dangarembga acknowledges, and indeed castigates, slavery as “a drainage of the human population”, the effects of which are still evident today on the African continent. 

“The wounds of the empire to my part of the world […] are peculiar because they came clothed as presents.”

“Empire is about power, appropriation, expropriation, and often extermination, regardless of physiology,” she writes. And so she proceeds, tracing the wound, noting the ways in which it continues to encroach on public life. 

“Through writing, I cultivate my being to bring forth forests that replenish our depleted humanity.”

The sites of the wound: realising that she and her brother became foster children when their parents arrived in 1960s England; realising that her black skin made her existence the target of unrelenting microaggressions, like being called a “piccaninny” by an older white man. 

“Blackness is a condition imposed on me, rather than being an experienced identity,” she notes. 

Dangarembga speaks of how she found comfort and an ally in her grandmother on her family’s return to pre-independence Zimbabwe. It was in Mutare, where her educator parents lived and taught, that she located a new set of wounds.

“The children didn’t know what to do with us, and doubted that we could be played with like ordinary children,” she writes.

Writing her-story: Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga and her colleague Julie Barnes. Photo: Zinyange Auntony

All these realisations laid the foundation for a feminism that would find its place among like-minded women through her university years in the early 1980s. 

She reveals later in the essay that the publication of her novel Nervous Conditions made her understand the implications of writing while black and female but is careful to add “writing assures me that I am more than merely blackness and femaleness”. However, her condition positions the content of her writing, as she later observes.

Dangarembga remains scathing, but fair, throughout the text. Where there’s an opportunity to go full-rage, she exercises restraint. This, I assume, is the result of engaging long term in feminist thought and critically understanding the discourse to the point where she’s able to distil its foundational elements and incorporate them into her life, of which writing forms a large part. 

She notes her father’s rage while still managing to find space to highlight his humanity. This is not doubling down. Rather, it’s understanding that human existence is complex and deserves a humanistic approach — one without judgement and absolutes. 

Black, Female and the Super-woman Black Feminist, the second essay, is still ringing in my head as I write this, some three weeks removed from my initial encounter. “My construction of maleness as a mode of being that requires hurtful power over others for validation, devoid of compassion, even for its own pain, was established early,” she shares in the chapter. 

Overall, the book forces me to reflect on my own patriarchal inclinations. When she writes about her anxieties regarding “a relentlessly terrifying humanity”, I am driven to think about being a straight male in a society that rewards the most toxic traits of masculine inclinations. Rage notwithstanding, I too can exhibit — and do exhibit — such traits and I think about how I can minimise harm to those around me by not engaging in such. 

Her writing isn’t devoid of an awareness that she exists within a larger context (white supremacy), and this grants her words a personal touch that doesn’t bar them from reverberating universally.

Parts of Dangarembga’s writing make it apparent that women are still fighting the same battles. So, despite changes to laws which made it possible for women to not be subordinates of men (sign contracts, own land, start a business), the situation remains the same today to a large extent, for example, women still can’t cross borders with their children without the written consent of the child’s father. 

And don’t get me started on how our legal framework is still designed to undermine the “agency and selfhood” of African women at every level of society. 

These revelations and realisations are shocking when one thinks about just how long women have had to exist as subordinates to men, and how vicious and unrelenting the attacks on those hard-won victories remain. 

In essence, women and other minority groups will never be at ease until oppressive systems are toppled. A large portion of that eventual emancipation demands an immediate departure from patriarchal inclinations, as well as an absolute refusal to endorse men who co-opt feminist theory for their own benefit, while remaining oppressive. 

Such is the toxicity of patriarchal violence that it extends its stranglehold to woman-woman and woman-child relations. 

Thinking through the Nervous Conditions character, Maiguru, she writes: “Many African women often reflected a distorted sense of womanhood and female power.” 

I immediately thought of my own upbringing and the experiences of women throughout my own community whose oppression was particularly pronounced where their own daughters were concerned. They did not succeed at becoming allies and, instead, instituted another generation of women who exact the same level of harm on those they deem subordinates today. 

I found myself wondering about women who write in the same stream as Dangarembga. Arudhanti Roy’s scathing collection of essays Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Haymarket Books, 2014) came to mind, as did the feminist writings of the late Nawal El Saadawi. I also thought about the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists (Anchor Books, 2015). Capitalism, for example, is more about the ways in which the Indian state asserts its power as a means to silence and corrupt potentially reactionary forces, artists included. 

Dangarembga speaks of how state-level patriarchy destabilises feminist movements in Africa by refusing to engage in the lived realities of working-class feminist activists, while at the same time propping up career feminists who are often attachés of state-approved NGOs. She writes that being a committed feminist while black and female “is to live constantly at the brink of survival”. 

The final essay is titled Decolonisation as Revolutionary Imagining. Here, Dangarembga says: “Decolonisation that frees all from fear requires a new revolution of the imaginary and its products.”

This book is a theory made manifest. It’s universal discourse. It’s what is necessary.Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga, is published by Faber & Faber and costs R179.