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Northwestern hosts Black Feminist Futures Symposium
by Melissa Wasserman
2016-05-23

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Questions surrounding Black feminist futurity within the academy framed the conversation had at the Black Feminist Futures Symposium at Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art on May 20-21.

"I think the specificity of thinking about the futurity of Black feminism and thinking about its precarious positionality within institutions of higher education or its institutionalization whatsoever, is something that I think is particular to our convening this weekend," said Brittnay Proctor, Black Feminist Futures co-organizer and Northwestern University doctoral candidate.

Proctor organized the event with Northwestern University doctoral candidate Shoniqua Roach and Northwestern University Ph.D. student Chelsea M. Frazier. On May 20, the symposium kicked off with the plenary roundtable discussion.

The panel included Cathy J. Cohen, David and Mary Winton Green professor of political science and the College at the University of Chicago; Kara Keeling, assistant professor in the division of critical studies in the School of Cinematic Arts and in the department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; Nicole R. Fleetwood, associate professor in the Department of American Studies and director of the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers University, New Brunswick; and Zakiyyah Jackson, an assistant professor of Black feminist theory, literature and criticism in the Department of English at George Mason University. Frazier conducted the opening remarks, while Roach served as the evening's moderator.

The symposium brought in a little over 150 attendees and was open to the public. Proctor noted it was nice to see so many people come out on the first day and also have an intergenerational conversation work so well.

"It was a kind of space that articulated politics about loving Black people, but also caring deeply about Black women that resonated with me, that has always been kind of my light post, my North star," said Cohen, also the deputy provost for graduate education at the University of Chicago. "My passion right now is to think about where we're doing our work and scholarship in terms of Black feminist scholarship and we're doing them in institutions that both allow us to do that work, but they're also at times structured in ways that harm Black people and harm Black women, so it seems important to me that as Black feminists, we really think about that tension and contradiction, what is the price of inclusion and how do we build relationships and a politics who are outside the academy."

Each panelist began with a brief individual opening lecture that centered on questions that the symposium's planning committee, a group made up of Northwestern graduate students devoted to Black feminist intellectual work, developed prior to the event. Then Roach asked the panel those previously crafted questions head on. The questions, according to the organizers, had been largely informed by ongoing debates within Black feminist criticism and scholarship. The questions, they described, were around subjects such as tensions between trans studies/Black feminist theory, queer studies/Black feminist theory, among others. Following the prepared questions, attendees participated in the discussion by asking their own questions.

"We took many of our questions and harnessed them to account for and point to some of the larger tensions within and beyond the university," said Roach.

"I think what you saw was the diversity of Black feminist approaches—the theoretical work, some of the more empirical—my work is a bit more political and I think it's important for us to kind of ground what we do also in the lived environment where we are, so what does Black feminism have to say to the police killing Laquan McDonald, or what does Black feminism have to say to the dire straits of a Chicago state," Cohen said. "That's what, to me, Black feminism is about. It's about speaking to both the possibility and the problems Black people face and putting forth that vision of liberation that we can all move forward toward.

The panels held on May 21 were titled "New Directions in Gender and Sexuality," "Politics of Pleasure," "Keywords" and "Methods." Each panel featured scholars from various institutions.

"The panels were an opportunity to ask different scholars who's work we felt spoke to those particular themes," said Frazier. "The panels are an opportunity to delve more deeply into questions that are bracketed to a certain extent by those themes and also to take that opportunity to more deeply investigate some of the more general, overarching questions that came up organically and some that were directed tonight. We're looking forward to more interventions, more critical pressure, more notes of celebration, all the good stuff that you want to have a symposium like this."

"And for people to really take the conversation [and] to go a particular kind of way and for scholars to feel so open to being very honest and frank about some of the very immediate and very pertinent concerns of Black feminist theory, Black feminist thought and Black feminism as a project, a lot of people have been remarking about the ways that they didn't necessarily anticipate that kind of conversation to happen in the opening plenary the way that it did, but everyone is very pleased and surely we're pleased about the kind of conversations that got to happen thus far in the plenary and the kind of critical discourses that we got to have amongst one another," Proctor said.

For more information, visit sites.northwestern.edu/blackfeministfutures2016/home/ .


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