Hold On or Let Go: A Review of Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality

The cover of Jennifer C. Nash's book "Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality." The cover features a painting of a dark-skinned person wearing a white shirt.Hold On or Let Go: A Review of Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer C. Nash. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019, 170 pp., $23.95 (paperback), 978-1-4780-0059-4.  

By Wei Si Nic Yiu                         

Jennifer C. Nash’s field changing book Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality lovingly engages with the concept of intersectionality and asks readers to resist the lure of holding onto intersectionality as “an article of faith” (67). This book is daring and unafraid to sway the waves of discussion around intersectionality, Black feminism, and the politics of intellectual labour. It proposes new paths for relating to one another as feminists, and in so doing it advances a new form of intimacy for the discipline of women’s studies that enables loving engagements with forms of scholarship and analysis that many perceive as being embodied by, as Nash puts it, “a particular racially marked subject” (83). Nash opens with a host of questions generated by her observations on the proliferation of discussions on intersectionality in the context of Black women’s intellectual production, women’s studies, the corporate university, and in popular culture. Looking at how intersectionality as an analytic often described “as something that had been stolen” from Black feminists in academic conversations, Nash questions the implication of the Black woman’s body that “haunts the analytic…even if she is not always explicitly named” (2). She demonstrates the allure of intersectionality that imagines holding on as a form of Black feminist agency. Nash describes Black feminist theory’s proprietary claims to the analytic of intersectionality as a practice of holding on. By correcting who “owns” intersectionality, the analytic then itself becomes a term to be claimed as property (40). Correcting, rather than clarifying, becomes Black women’s primary intellectual labour in the academia. From the rectification of intersectionality’s “true” genealogy to the correction of intersectionality’s misuse, Black women, Nash argues, are positioned to take on a defensive position. This narrative imagines intersectionality as a territory that requires protection and defence by Black feminists, via a well-rehearsed and often singular genealogy of intersectionality à la Kimberlé Crenshaw. Furthermore, in these iterations of origin stories, the labour of intellectual production shifts from imagining critical practices to the work of defence. The labour of critics become one of producing counter origin stories and correcting the misuse of intersectionality as an analytic (48).

Focusing on the fraught relationship between intersectionality and women’s studies, Nash argues for a different form of engagement with intersectionality that does not require Black women to hold onto the analytic and perform the labour of care as a guardian and protector. Instead, she develops a project of letting go, which unsettles the set of practices that defensiveness brings forth, “particularly the proprietary claim to intersectionality” (3). She stresses that her intention is to critique (and I am using her words here) “the proprietary impulses of Black feminism in an effort to reveal how the defensive affect traps Black feminism, hindering its visionary world-making capacity” (3). This gesture, however, does not intend “to diagnose individual Black feminists as defensive or to pathologize Black feminist feelings” (3). Rather, in opening up intersectionality, Nash pushes Black feminism forward and draws from an archive of Black feminist theory that includes non-Black scholars. This political and intellectual move disassociates Black feminism and Black feminist theory (modes of intellectual production) from the bodies of Black feminists by expanding the terrain of Black feminist theory to include claims made from “different identity locations” (5). This reorientation offers a point of departure and steers us away from defensive postures that initiate a boundary and “treats Black feminism not simply as an intellectual political, creative, and erotic tradition but also a way of feeling” (28).

In re-imagining the ways in which Black feminists can relate to the “critic” and the practice of “critique” by letting go of the territorial hold over intersectionality as an analytic, Nash highlights the danger of collapsing critique into a singular figure and the labour of Black feminist rescue that often “presumes the critics’ omnipresence yet refuses to name specific critics” (50). Reading sideways, Nash argues, is a strategy that could provide “a new genealogy that neither rejects nor accepts intersectionality but instead sidesteps it entirely” (55). Here reading sideways allow us to engage in a citational practice that does not call for intellectual originalism. Nash describes reading sideways as “a performance of ambivalence made manifest through silence” (55). Nash makes a provocative claim by arguing that “Black feminists produce the critic rather than expose the critic” (56) by casting them as an outside to the field of Black feminism. In this rhetorical move, she invites us to treat the critic as a loving, generous figure who offers a different way of approaching Black feminism.

In the first chapter of the book “A Love Letter From a Critic, or Notes on the Intersectionality Wars,” Nash mines the potential of the critic by situating critique as loving, rather than destructive. Here, she examines how intersectionality has imaged the critic as a singular figure who is dangerous and outside of the field of Black feminism. Tracing the word “critic” within a Black feminist theoretical archive in the United States, Nash lovingly and carefully unpacks the various meanings encoded in the term “critic.” Nash argues that a singular story is being told about intersectionality by Black feminists and this story has “a moral imperative: intersectionality must be saved, and Black feminists must defend intersectionality” from the critic (34). This defensiveness reinscribes Black feminists’ role as “relentless, demanding, policing disciplinarians,” which unwittingly reasserts territorial claims to intersectionality (34). Nash argues that this defensiveness over the territory of intersectionality holds the analytic captive due to the fear of the imagined critic. Interrupting this disavowal of the singular critic haunts Black feminist engagements with intersectionality, Nash instead celebrates the “spectral figure of the critic [who] might provide an opportunity to embrace precisely the letting go” (35).

Tracing the slippages between Black feminism and Black women, Nash reveals how intersectionality wars might “seem to be fights over intersectionality’s meanings, circulations, origins, ‘appropriation,’ and ‘colonisation,’ but these flights are actually battles over the place of the discipline’s key sign — Black woman — in the field imaginary” (37). Looking at the tone and the forms of the scholarly debate, Nash shows how criticism is constructed as a violent practice, rather than a loving one. She argues that the intersectionality war is often waged over “the genesis of intersectionality” that imagines intersectionality to have “a coherent, legible origin, describing a particular moment of intersectionality’s creation” (39). Here, an origin story is “an insistence on intersectionality’s place in Black feminist thought, thus correcting the widely circulating notion that intersectionality is the product […] of women’s studies” (39). This corrective move, via the pinning of intersectionality’s origin in Black feminism, is fascinating to Jennifer Nash because of “Black feminist theory’s own proprietary claims to the analytic” (40). This corrective labour that holds onto the claim of intersectionality as “ours” is a form of defensiveness. Nash argues that this form of defensive work is a sign of scholars being “seduced by the narrative of singularity” (42). Signalling the lack of specificity in the account of the critic, Nash traces how critics are often presumed to be monolithic. Often, critics are imagined to be performing similar or redundant work and the different labour is collapsed by the practice of parenthetical citations, “which clusters scholars whose work on intersectionality is actually quite complex and varied” (48).

Using Jasbir Puar’s concept of assemblage as an example, Jennifer Nash interrogates how Puar is framed as the only critic and how that framing is “secured and sutured through both her body and her imagined identity” as outside of Black feminism as a non-Black scholar (53). She compares Puar’s status to her own by showing how their “respective “critical” projects are differently described, circulated, and received in the field” (53). Naming her position as a Black feminist and a Black woman, she writes, “my critiques of intersectionality are imagined as practices of love and affection rather than hostility and are thus treated with a kind of generosity” (54). Nash wraps this chapter up by inviting us to treat the critic as a loving figure that is generous and offers a different way of approaching Black feminism that does not lock us into a proprietary relationship with the analytic. This means reimagining the inside and outside of Black feminism, which pushes us to “interrogate how our anticaptivity project has become its own boundary-policing exercise” (58).

I deeply admire Jennifer Nash’s bold argumentation, which is informed by an extensive and careful engagement with key texts on intersectionality, care, Black feminism, and critical legal studies. Bringing together scholars from multiple disciplines, she persuasively activates letting go as a means to reimagine Black feminist’s intellectual production that opens up new worlds and new possibilities. For example, in her third chapter, “Surrender,” she brings together transnationalism and intersectionality in the history of women’s studies via the history of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) as women’s studies’ institutional home. Nash imagines a new story for the two concepts, one where they are not antagonistic but rather intimately conjoined. In this context, Nash explores Black feminist surrender of intersectionality, proposing that a strategy of letting go can become a deliberate practice of freedom. This practice of letting go “surrenders [intersectionality’s] exclusive investment in Black woman and emphasizes the analytic’s capacity to speak to ‘women of color’ broadly” (104), which “opens up new intimacies and locates political promise in a revitalized intimacy that is radical” (110). Doing so, we can move beyond defensiveness and tell different stories of what Black feminism can do, beyond corrective labour. While I believe in the potential of surrendering and deeply admire Nash’s care-full engagement with the potential of letting go, I am hesitant to agree that defensive postures are not a form of Black feminist agency or that there is only one monolithic investment in Black feminists’ investments in intersectionality. Furthermore, I must ask – are we all equipped with the tools to let go? Should we all let go or should some of us hold on?

This book offers provocative and nuanced readings of texts and asks critical questions that push the boundaries of Black feminism. For instance, in her fourth chapter, “Love in the time of death,” Nash asks “what if the disavowed deathly archive of law is reimagined as a home for Black feminism’s loving practice” (113)? Posing love’s potential “as a way forward, as another way of feeling Black feminism,” Nash locates the juridical as a site of radical possibility “where we can unleash new ways of feeling Black feminist” (115).  Her book activates new questions for Black feminists and for scholars and practitioners who use intersectionality, while her examination of various Black feminist engagements with the analytic highlights how the celebration of intersectionality does not signify racial progress of the field of women’s studies. Rather, she shows how intersectionality had become co-opted and marked by a single affective posture of defensiveness. Her examination of representations of intersectionality forces us to confront both the limits of defensiveness, corrective labour, and intersectionality as well as the power of singularizing critique around intersectionality, collapses a range of intellectual labour production that could be fruitful.

Wei Si Nic Yiu is a PhD student in Gender Studies and a Graduate Student Researcher at CSW. They were the recipient of CSW’s Irving and Jean Stone Recruitment Fellowship in 2018.