Patricia McFadden: Contemporarity And The Possibilities Of Building Alternative Societies

31/08/2021 |

By Capire

The feminist researcher Patricia McFadden talks about new feminist paradigms to refuse subalternity and focus on women’s potentialities.

Take a look at the second part of Capire’s interview with the eco-feminist Patricia McFadden, from Eswatini, in Africa. Patricia talks about her notion of Contemporarity as a new feminist paradigm which focuses on women’s lives and potentialities, especially for Black women. To know more about Patricia’s trajectory and her critical views on gender and nationalism, click here.

We want to focus on this notion that you are developing about Contemporarity as a way to understand feminism. Can you start by presenting the idea?

Let me begin by trying to articulate how this notion just emerged in my consciousness and the ways in which we can begin to think about our feminism in this contemporary moment? We live in contemporary societies, and these societies are shaped and defined by capitalism, racism, colonialism, as well as by the struggles that all of us are engaged in, fighting for our freedoms. For me, the notion of Contemporarity emerges out of Southern Africa, but it is a notion that can be useful to all feminists, particularly Black feminists, wherever we are located.

I’m hoping that, over time, this framework of thinking about feminism in new ways will be enriched by the women who use it. Every time you use the notion or think about it, you add your life experiences, insights from your struggles, and the notion acquires political and ideological weight. It can travel in our feminism in the ways in which we imagine the alternative. What were called “alternatives to capitalism”, like socialism, communism, and other expressions of egalitarianism were largely crafted, imagined and framed by males. We must bring our feminism to the alternative, with all its different energies and expressions not only of resisting patriarchy, but also of celebrating who we are and who we want to become as women.

The idea of Contemporarity is really situated in my participation in anticolonial struggles in Southern Africa, where I acquired a consciousness of resistance. I worked for almost 35 years in the African women’s movement. If you look at my past work, my readings, my writing, you will see that I spoke of the nationalist women’s movement as my home. As each African country achieved independence, Black women entered the public as aspiring citizens, making demands upon the new Black elites and generally rejecting the constraints that colonialism had imposed on us for centuries.

For a long time I wrote about citizenship and how we could become citizens in new ways. Then I moved, and began to write about rights when I realized that rights are the social outcomes of struggles. Nobody gives you rights. The neocolonial elite, the Black rulers, still maintain the distance between us as Black women, as Black communities, and themselves, which was created as a colonial ruling strategy to deny our personhood and our very presence within the purview of the white gaze. Black men have kept the infrastructures of both colonial repression and traditional feudal systems largely intact, thus distancing the majority of Black women and their communities from the civil ‘democratic’ state and the claims that this state declares belong to all who live in  ‘post-colonial’ societies.

After ‘liberation’ – when the resistance movements especially in Southern Africa acceded to state power and became ‘ruling parties’ – we immediately experienced the first of many backlashes as radical women who had been active in the anti-colonial resistance. Everywhere, we were reminded that our most important role was to be wives and mothers, and we systematically were pushed back into the hetero-patriarchal family, the private domain, told that “now the struggle is over’ and women should behave in ‘normal’ ways. I did not accept this reactionary stance and insisted on being very public and radical in my feminism. I have always lived alone and still do as I enter my seventh decade of life. I also experienced a backlash in the African women’s movement because I was challenging the relationship between women and Black men in the state. Eventually, I had to create new spaces and a language that would speak to the incomplete work that I could see nationalism was unable to resolve.

I also lost my son. It took many years, to embrace the anger of losing him and coming to terms with the grief. My feminism was crucial in my survival of the trauma I was carrying in my body and soul. That is how I returned to this mountain – the place where I had been born and grown up, running around in the wild, without fear of the snakes and other creatures who have lived here for millions of years. So I made the connection between being vegan and being feminist and growing my own organic food. I re-learned that I love being a woman, alive and feminist; that I love being radical, I love food, and I remembered all this because I sought refuge in nature. I translated the feminist mantra ‘the personal is political’ into every aspect of my everyday life.

Contemporarity then, is about situating yourself in the new possibilities and opportunities that our world is offering us, based on the many struggles that women have engaged in since the dawn of patriarchal time. We cannot be told by the UN or by those who occupy the state, who we are and what our feminism is.

Take a look at the human condition everywhere on this planet. Particularly for us as Black women, our bodies are falling apart. We are wrecked by so-called life-style diseases like diabetes, hypertension, viral infections and chronic inflammation of all our organs. We are dying at faster rates and in larger numbers than any other group of humans. And our children are often as sick as we are. This crisis of black survival is directly linked to the predation of big international pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations, which are mining the Black female body. We have become the latest and last capitalist frontier.

We sustain a massive global ‘fast food’ market because we consume mainly sugar and starch that white capitalist farmers produce, through cheap Black and Brown labour, as feed for the creatures they keep incarcerated in breeding pens across the landscapes of the North and South. We consume chickens, pigs, and cows are fed on genetically modified and hybridized soy and maize/corn. This ‘fast food’ masket is directly responsible for the diabetes and hypertension that is steadily killing us in our middle years.  Many of the vegetables that we might occasionally put on our plates are also heavily contaminated and polluted by fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives and a host of other chemicals that destroy our organs and keep us in the cycle of chronic illness, medication and eventual early death.

This is the most important reason why we have to re-imagine our feminism as a collective and personal project of redefining solidarity not just among humans, but   with other living creatures as well. Becoming vegan as a political expression of radical activism and as an expression of self love is crucial to creating an alternative world.

How can Contemporarity enable a re-connect with the efforts to retrieve ancestry as a source of power and resistance?

For the past 500 years, our Black bodies and psyches have been devastated and mauled physically, psychologically and spiritually by capitalism and Christianity. We carry a lot of trauma in our bodies, which is reflected in the many illnesses we suffer and in many of the fractures which are destroying our communities. These contemporary challenges have instigated our consciousness as Black women. We have a deep longing for narratives and legacies of struggle as we search for our wholeness. We want to reconnect with who we were before colonialism ruptured and destroyed the spiritual connectivity that existed in African communities.

Nationalist independence was a gesture, an opportunity for us to reconnect with our ancestral legacies. In South Africa now, many are becoming diviners, providing a link between ancestors and current-generations. It is very widespread here, and I think it is directly linked with the repairing, the reconnection with our past, with our humanness. This search for our essence of belonging as Black people runs through all our struggles against repression and bondage.

Audre Lorde came to Ghana in search of her spiritual mothers. Toni Morrison’s book Beloved is about returning to our mothers, to our past, where we were nurtured spiritually as humans, because slavery aimed at dehumanizing us. It tried to strip us of everything that makes us human, to make us into things that are bought and sold – the whole idea of buying and selling Africans was a brutal exercise in dehumanizing us, and the societies that benefitted from this brutality have remained essentially slaving societies. Africans everywhere held onto the ancestral spiritual traditions and practices of humanism within the self and community – and the ties with those who came before – so as to survive the brutality of hatred.

At the same time, this return is a slippery slope, because it takes us back to nationalism. I can see it in Audre Lorde’s work on her return to Ghana. Her work took a turn towards nationalism, something she had consistently fought against when she was talking about homophobia in Black communities in the United States.

Audre Lorde talks about pleasure as a very strong source that every woman should know. Is there a connection between pleasure and the concept of Contemporarity?

At this point I am just exploring the possibilities of this idea of Contemporarity, and how we can fill it up with new imaginaries until it overflows. We draw from the most radical legacies, and Audre is radical and so vital for us. She also teaches us courage. Courage enables you to touch the most inner parts of yourself. You go inside your Eros, the most beautiful part of you, but you have to have the courage.

She teaches us how to remove all the taboos because the reason that patriarchy buries pleasure and creates taboos around it is because our core power lies in our Eros. As women, we are told that we have to love and care for everybody – except ourselves, of course. Children grow inside our bodies and suck from them; men are in and out of our bodies for most of our lives as a patriarchal sexual entitlement; employers use and exploit our bodies to make profit.  It feels endless.

I also learned from Audre’s work on pleasure that there is a distinction between needing other people and being sufficient. When you are born, you arrive on this planet with everything you need. It is inside you, you just have to explore it and bring it to the collective human project of freedom. But, as females, we are under constant social and cultural surveillance. We are told that we belong to everybody else except to ourselves. This is the foundation of hetero normativity, and too many women have accepted this fraud. That is why every woman owes herself a feminist identity and lifestyle.

That is also why lesbian love is so dangerous to the patriarchal status quo. Women who love each other in ways that are outside the patriarchal infrastructures of power pose a threat to the most fundamental elements of heterosexuality and male power. Although all humans have the capacity to experience pleasure, we have to understand its political significance and meanings. That is a feminist insight which we must return to, because in these contemporary societies that we live in, our bodies, our ideas, ourselves can become so easily commodified through the idea of pleasure as something that is for sale.

Can you speak about the connection of the notion of contemporarity and the capture of our identities as Black women?

Feminism is basically under attack through depoliticization and appropriation. First they took the notion of gender and mainstreamed it. Then they disembedded it from the radical feminist traditions and theoretical context which gave rise to it as an explanatory tool in women’s struggles against the male status quo. The so-called mainstreaming of gender and the appropriation of our language happened across the world. One of the ways in which globalization, as capitalism, operates in this moment is to homogenize language and life generally. Everything must be made the same.

All the women’s organizations aligned with the state use the same language. The center of this reactionary project is the United Nations, where all these people meet and agree on certain strategies. The UN was established initially to assist the West, to suppress the resistance of colonized societies, and to find new strategies of plunder and control after the second imperialist war. They were unable to stop the decolonization process. There is a hierarchy of inequality in the so-called United Nations. There is nothing united about the countries that make up the UN. Through the exclusionary practices and policies of the Security Council which is made up of the head honchos of the capitalist system, western states have been able to perpetuate well established colonial policies of extraction and militarism across the societies of the majority South.

We need to think about globalization as being much more than structural adjustment policies by the World Bank, or the economic policies of the IMF which have devastated so many societies and lives; or just the financial infrastructure through which life becomes financialized on behalf of speculative capital which currently rules the world;  the markets and all that. These are all very central to capitalism. But it is also and more importantly about the dire realities of humans mainly those who live in Black bodies and the brutalities that we have experienced and endured since capitalism arose in Europe as a predatory, raced industrialized mode of production.

We are all living in the same place. We all live on planet Earth, and often common challenges are what bring us together. The World March of Women is an expression of the commonalities we face as women. We bring the specificities of our feminism to these collective sites of discourse and activism, and we must be fully aware that our consciousness is directly influenced and defined by the material conditions within which we resist patriarchy and that the bodies that we live in are nuances of the ways in which we articulate our feminism as struggle and celebration.

Is the building of self-sufficiency capable of inspiring collective alternatives? Can these experiences of women build the broader projects of freedom that create alliances with other social movements?

Let me start here: as radical women we all come from traditions that minimize the individual because we understand that capitalism focuses on the individual, greed and accumulation. Therefore, Left politics and the traditions that we come from emphasized the collective. But for women the collective is also an exploitative place. In collective spaces called the family and the community, we are still required to be altruistic and self-sacrificing through motherhood and wifehood, for example, and most of us are killed there. Even as women who do not participate in heterosexual marriage, we are often pressured to be female in ways that are premised on the normality of altruism.

Throughout the fight against capitalism and patriarchy, we have tried to redefine the collective and to bring women’s interests to the center of the collective. Mostly, we have failed to change the matrix of power between male interests (which are the Left) and our feminist interests. The larger, dominant notion of altruism is more hegemonic and powerful. The time has come for us to critically interrogate the patriarchal foundations and assumptions that Left politics is premised upon and which continue to exploit and minimize radical women within the Left community.

We are feminists, but we live, work, struggle and love in patriarchal societies. Very few of us question or challenge compulsory heterosexuality. But the reality is that compulsory heterosexuality is a noose around our necks. It constrains us and limits our radicalness. Feminists have to think carefully and deeply about the compromises they make as compulsory heterosexuals and make a political analysis of what it means for their feminism.  A good place to start is to honestly and in self-love ask oneself if the compromises are worth giving up your freedom. These are difficult questions that feminists have to ask themselves as part of the experience and application of Contemporarity. The collective and the individual are not irreconcilable. But they can only be reconciled if we deal with the contradictions, taboos and constraints that are put on us when we push the boundaries that keep us unfulfilled.

Will the men give up patriarchal privilege by engaging in new kinds of theoretical and activist work? They have to do the ideological and political work, the mobilizing work to create a new language that speaks to their rejection of patriarchy. When they do that, then they can begin to experience freedom in ways that are not about standing on our necks, shoulders and backs, and taking our lives. Their lives will become enough for them once they initiate the journey away from patriarchal impunity and privilege. They will become sufficient human beings. It is the same with racism. White people have to give up their race privilege. Otherwise, Black people will have to continue fighting racism, which is really a distraction from the crucial healing and recovery work that we need to do among and inside ourselves. When we fight racism, we create spaces which are quickly occupied by white people, because they are still not giving up their privilege.

About the alliance issue: it is time for organizations to go through the difficult new work of re-imagining the alternative in whatever sphere they operate. Because we, the feminists, are on the cutting edge all the time, we are the ones that have engaged and who take our energies to the allies. It is time for us to lean back and say to every organization that fights for justice: let us have the new discussions, ask the new questions and start doing the new work in new ways. That way, new and sufficient platforms of solidarity will emerge and the possibilities of living in eco-loving ways with all living beings will arise. And feminism will flourish through freedom.

Interview conducted by Tica Moreno, Bianca Pessoa e Mariana Lacerda
Edited by Helena Zelic

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