• The Only Space

The Photo

A Black girl, no older than three, adorned with white lace bows. She is all movement. Energized by the crowd and lavished with the naiveté only children have, she has yet to come to terms with the world around her and is too free to care. With her mother, she is the farthest thing from still; full of the type of unchecked energy that fits a child that has yet to learn that a lady is to be seen and not heard. I imagine from the photo that there was music in the air; the people around her were bustling with excitement; mothers gossiping with each other; children running in the still too dry heat, kicking sand into the air.

But it’s her smile.

The smile of a girl who had yet to know the world, or better yet a girl who had yet to understand what was being taught about the world.

Suddenly the music changes, the people grow silent, and the girl becomes confused. As the anthem begins, she spots a familiar face in the distance, wiggles from her mother’s hand, and runs. Disrupting the parade of soldiers, she chases the figure.

The photo is captured mid escape. And it is the moment of movement that has always intrigued me. This photo speaks of not knowing, speaks of freedom and imagination. It exists in a space and time before I understood what it meant to be at home, to be woman, citizen, and feminist.

I think about this photo now more than ever before. Today as countries deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are faced with the glaring and undeniable inhumanity of capitalism, and its racial and gendered inequalities. The developments we are experiencing are not necessarily new, but rather an exacerbation of preexisting societal structures. If  we consider raced and gendered labor disparities, poor health infrastructure in Black neighborhoods, food deserts, and mass incarceration, it should not come as a shock that in the United States Black communities are far more at risk of exposure and death. As the death toll continues to rise, both politicians and their supporters say we must choose between the economy and human life. But whose life? They articulate a universal us but in reality the lives lost will be those from marginalized communities.What is both striking and repulsive to me is that this dichotomy has always underpinned US policy both internally and globally.

CEOs of large corporations make billions off the backs of the working class, while the minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 and the cost of living continues to rise. This question of human life or the economy is a manmade construct; one I would argue is built off the needs of elite white heterosexual men. This dichotomy is poised by wealthy CEOs, and political elites, capable of quarantining at home without any financial concerns; their children likely attend elite schools with resources necessary to transition to distance learning. Yet it is the working class that must get back to business as usual; they must willingly choose to accept the possibility of death for the good of the economy. If this continues to be our point of departure for understanding our communities and responding to this pandemic, there will be more loss. We must make a critical turn away from how we have always understood the world around us. Rather than confine ourselves to already asked and answered questions, we must ask new questions, imagine new ideas and new ways of knowing.

So I ask you, how do you know the world?  This question of knowing and not knowing has always been a uniquely feminist concern. I am reminded of feminist author Sara Ahmed’s quote “ to live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable”[1]. So we must question, rather than find safety in constructions that will never serve us. We must question,  because we have accepted a universal knowing at the cost of black and brown bodies, queer bodies, gendered bodies, and disabled bodies.

No longer the untainted girl in the photo,  I question as a means of reclaiming what and how I know the world. This reclaiming is not about a search for a universal answer but rather to create space for multiple knowings and truths.

And we must create space together. This type of feminist space making is a collective process that builds solidarity across activist groups, communities, and nations. This space making isn't singular or tied to a location. It is co-created, embodying stories told, and stories yet to be imagined. It is all movement and imagination; it shifts, bends, and transforms. These space(s) are where the processes of knowing and unknowing are rooted in collective reimaginings.

Like the girl in the photo, mid-sprint, with our questions fueling movement, we will wriggle our hands away from what we have known and escape towards new futures.

This piece is not mine, but rather a product of all the feminists I have known in my personal life, and encountered in my search for questions about what I was taught to know. 

Thank you Isabel Kubabom and Adrielle Jefferson

[1] Ahmed, S. (2017).  Living a Feminist Life. Durham, US:  Duke University Press