Interview: Wanelisa Xaba on the relevance of African-American feminists to African Women

By Luso Mnthali (@lkmnthali)

South African feminist Wanelisa Xaba says that important lessons can be drawn from black feminists in America given the similarity of  experiences of a white supremacy and patriarchy. However, she says, that it’s important that we know that “Black feminism didn’t originate from the States, Black women have been feministing even before white women coined the word. Black women in Africa had been having conversations and living intersectional lives before Kimberle Crenshaw.” 


This was published on Afripop’s website first. 

I think it’s important to know that the feminist movement in South Africa isn’t a middle class and comfortable one – it could never be. It has to be rooted in the poor, in the black women who need it most and who feel it most, and from whom it will organically be a tool for freedom. So who are the people we must know about? Who are the pillars of the movement here, and others on the continent or abroad who shape your views?
There are so many people to know! I think its important here to locate my feminism. I locate myself as a Black feminist. If I don’t then I might be mistake for mainstream feminism which is White liberal racist women. Black feminism because I am from the Black Consciousness school of thought which located white racism and imperialism in South Africa and Africa and how it has psychologically damaged the Black soul. People like Steve Biko, Anton Lembede, Robert Sobukwe and Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela are people to know. Postcolonial scholars like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Edward Said, Es’kia Mphahlele, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe and the great woman who revolutionized how we think of gender binaries (women and men) as a Western construct: Ifi Amadiume.

Wani Sobukwe

Beautiful African female giants who challenge white feminism by just existing like Oyeronke Oyewumi, the great Sylvia Tamale, Amina Mama, Pumla Gqola, Yaliwe Clarke, Sara Longwe, Desiree Lewis and many others. Once you have read the depth of these women’s insights you understand why I would get mad when Americans write articles that invisibalize these women. Two African-American women that helped me come to terms with Black consciousness and feminism at the same time, are Audre Lorde and Angela Davis. I think these Black women understood the homophobic and sexist Left and racist hostile white liberal feminism and carved a space for the Black feminist to exist without losing their commitment to fight white racism and Black patriarchy.

What’s your view of Beyoncé and the celebrity endorsement of feminism? And can I tell you – I have Flawless on right now as I type this. “Gahtdamn! Gahtdamn! Gahtdamn!”

Look. I love Beyoncé but I’m very very very critical of her. I think if I’m honest, I don’t love her for her feminism but because her fame, her Barbie doll white normative beauty, her power and money is something that entices me from the margins. The seduction of power and fame in a capitalist society. I think if she wants to be a feminist, I am not the gatekeeper of feminism. I do defend her though because white feminists tend to police her and their perception of her stupidity stem from racism. I think some Black women impose respectability politics on her, how she dresses and her weave. I do think that Beyoncé is not critical of white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism of which she gains much from. She doesn’t have to wear a fro and be Black power however she needs to be critical of her role and how she has gained and still perpetuates patriarchy and whiteness. No one is the perfect feminist but at some point, you must refuse to participate so fully in systems of oppression.

So you’re not saying that African-American feminists are not or that they don’t remain useful, but that they consider not silencing other voices, especially other black feminist voices? What about the accusation that we may be harsh with them but we still use their pedagogies? We use their tools, even as we speak about Audre Lorde or bell hooks, do we still criticise them?

They are relevant to us African feminists especially in a South African context where we live under white supremacy where the Gatekeepers are an anti-Black government. They understand what it means to fight on all fronts. I am not saying that Audre Lorde is not useful, in fact my whole thing is that her and Angela Davis had/have a very broad sense of the term Black and to continuously make connections with the Global South. Even Assata Shakur in Cuba. But I become very critical of Alice Walker and her positionality when she delivers a talk in South Africa and criticises our president’s polygamous marriage. It’s like, you don’t have the understanding and cultural knowledges to understand the nuances of that. You can’t talk about that lady, sorry. Again, I think that even though I may not claim to know what it is to be an AA, however I educate myself quite regularly on their struggles and terms and tools. But I wonder if I would be able to have a conversation with Black feminists in the US about the cultural complexities of female circumcision and the fact that I know some feminists who want their husbands to pay lobola.

I think that African-American feminists can be mindful of the fact that there is another world of Black people outside the US who define Blackness and Black feminism differently to them. That even though they might be underdogs in the States, that because of how global hierarchies are structured, their ignorance of the rest of us and our struggles can be oppression in itself. That we support their struggles however Black people are dying elsewhere under white supremacy. Do they know about Marikana in South Africa? Do they know about the woman in Zimbabwe who was attacked for wearing a short skirt? Do they know about the unequal flow of news from the West to the rest of us? Women like Angela Davis knew the power of international solidarity amongst the poor and oppressed of the world and not just a one way from the West.

Lastly, Black feminism didn’t originate from the States, Black women have been feministing even before white women coined the word. Black women in Africa had been having conversations and living intersectional lives before Kimberle Crenshaw.

Thank you so very much for talking to us, Wani, you’re always a delight.

Thanks so much for listening to me.

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