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More Than a Groove
Pursuing Happiness as a Political Project
When W. E. B. Du Bois poignantly asked in his book The Souls of Black Folk, "How does it feel to be a problem?" he provided a useful starting point for interrogating Black Americans' lived experiences within the context of American racism. I am sure he knew that there were a variety of answers to this question since Black Americans had suffered and survived amazingly diverse experiences of oppression by the time he wrote this question. Some could speak about what problemhood felt like in the sweltering cotton fields of the South, while others might have described how they were seen as problems in the grimy, stone-filled streets of the North. Photography documenting problemhood shows Black people hanging from trees like strange fruit, while Negro spirituals narrate the journey Black-people-seen-as-problems endured as they traveled on the Underground Railroad.
Using multiple genres in Souls, Du Bois does a brilliant job bringing the (white) reading audience behind the veil. He shares narratives (sometimes autobiographical) of living simultaneously as a Black person and an American in a country where many see Black folks as simply commodified, laboring bodies, savages to be saved and/or policed, while others who acknowledge Black peoples' humanity still deem it dangerous. Although Du Bois wrote this pivotal book over one hundred years ago, many of us find ourselves revisiting the text, interrogating how this perception of "Blackness" as a problem may or may not have changed since the book's publication. We continue to wonder whether the twoness Du Bois describes as "double-consciousness," the frequently in tension, conflicting notions of self one feels as a Black person and an American, may have changed with gains in access to political power, educational and job opportunities, and class mobility. The need to declare that #BlackLivesMatter in this moment would suggest that while some things have changed, others remain the same. Therefore, the narratives and theoretical tools Du Bois offers in this text are still useful for analyzing the racialized, social, and political experiences of Black peoples in the United States. However, each time I revisit the text, a voice in my head increasingly demands to know, "How does it feel to be a Black woman in the United States?"
Black feminist activists and women writers such as Anna Julia Cooper, Angela Davis, Paula Giddings, Deborah Gray White, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Barbara Smith have dedicated much of their time and life's labor contributing to Black women's studies and herstory, subsequently filling in the gendered gap in Du Bois's Souls. Legal scholar and Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the concept of "intersectionality," centering Black women's experiences in an effort to understand how multiple forms of oppressions intersect and work together to disempower and exclude. Providing powerful descriptions of Black women's experiences, while persuading others to pay attention to what life at the intersection of racism(s) and sexism(s) looks and feels like, these scholars teach us about how power works. They make Black women visible, illuminating their positionalities in systems of oppression and helping us understand how elusive forces work to make power appear invisible. Here, I follow their lead, recognizing and making visible the range of emotional experiences and expressions Black women have while living within the context of racism and sexism. Given their intersectional lived experiences, Black women's emotional journeys are political, especially because they live in a nation that consistently fights to misrecognize or deny the fullness of their humanity.
Thus, this chapter asks, "How do racism and sexism influence Black American women's pursuits of happiness?" Here, I detail the numerous activities in the United States and Jamaica that members of Girlfriend Tours International engage in in order to demonstrate that for them, the pursuit of happiness is a process — one that is not without emotional labor and costs, and one where cultivating a sense of belonging is essential. In their travels to Jamaica to effectively become visible as Black American women, two of my primary research participants, Queen Jamaicaholic Jacqueline and fabulous GFT member Gayle, are at the center of this chapter. I present their stories as archetypes for the kind of experiences other Girlfriends shared. I focus primarily on their trips and experiences to decipher what their affective experiences tell us about the relationship between affect and the intersectionality of race and gender. How might we understand their pursuits of happiness as a process filled with "political" decisions, including how to represent one's self or how to find spaces of safety and comfort? What could we learn if we framed pursuits of happiness as political acts for Black women, or even as acts of resistance? How might we see the creation of affirming spaces, or "safe spaces," for Black women as one of these political acts? This chapter exposes the process behind Jacqueline's and Gayle's pursuits of happiness, showing that matters of emotion are social and political and are embedded in histories of racism and survival.
By describing the emotional roller coaster Girlfriends experience as they endure criticism for their "Jamaicaholism" and gain praise from Jamaican men, I draw attention to the affective costs and benefits of their visits, detailing how these women feel as they navigate the affective dimensions of power within their virtual and geographic communities. I highlight the collective and processual aspects of their happiness, which shows the continuous sacrifice and effort they put into their pursuits. This, in addition to the complex web of emotions they feel while seeking diasporic connectivity with Jamaicans, complicates the one-dimensional view of these African American women as "Stellas" simply seeking to get their grooves back.
The Politics of (Mis)Recognition
Cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall spent his life writing about the politics of representation, particularly those in the media. Whereas some focus on whether media images are authentic or distorted representations, Hall pushes us to understand how all images are creative and active and, therefore, more productive than we frequently give them credit for. In many of his texts, Hall argues that images in media are powerful because they influence our understandings and imaginings of the world — who we are as a group of people, and how we interpret the events around us — and are connected to hegemonic discourses in each society. Consequently, even when they do not lead us to the conclusions they were created to push us toward, images and representations are always linked to the ways power is operating in a culture, in a community, and in the government.
In her popular book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry astutely describes the "crooked room," a concept that falls in line with Hall's explication of how the media and its images are productive. Harris-Perry uses the term "crooked room" to highlight the multiple spaces and ways in which Black women negotiate the forces of misrecognition that influence how others see them and how they see themselves. As these women twist, turn, and bend, trying to align themselves with the stereotypical images U.S. society has of Black womanhood, they experience psychological and physiological forms of shame. While trying to pursue happiness, these Americans often struggle to access economic and political opportunities that would ensure physical and emotional wellness and safety. Because of American racism, most experience institutional obstacles on their journeys to experience happiness regularly. Their ability to freely experience joy, peace, leisure, intimacy, and recreation are hampered by American patriarchy and its burdensome gendered expectations.
Harris-Perry spends a significant portion of the book explaining how Black women (specifically those viewed as American citizens) are structurally positioned to experience racialized and gendered hardships in the United States that produce feelings of shame. She writes,
African American women are structurally positioned to experience shame more frequently than others. As a group they posses[s] a number of stigmatized identities and life circumstances: they are more likely to be poor, to be unmarried, to parent children alone, to be overweight, to be physically ill, and to be undereducated and underemployed. Black women who escape many of these circumstances must still contend with damaging racial and gender stereotypes. They are aware that others see them through a distorted lens that renders them socially unacceptable. This sense of social rejection and undesirability may express itself in experiences of chronic shame, with both psychological and physiological effects. ... In this sense, shame is the psychological and physical effect of repeated acts of misrecognition.
Here, Harris-Perry describes the difficult time African American women have being seen and recognized within the United States. She points to the economic, political, and emotional difficulties these women endure as American citizens, arguing that these experiences may lead to profound feelings of shame.
Throughout Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry demonstrates that Black women do not magically find themselves in positions of economic, social, and political disenfranchisement; these situations are created strategically, and sometimes intentionally, by institutions and oppressive processes in the United States. Second, even if Black American women find ways to overcome these obstacles, they must still negotiate a sense of triple-consciousness — an awareness that these racialized, gendered, and nationalized oppressions influence not only their access to various forms of power but also how they construct their understandings of self and how others read their identities. In fact, it seems that the misrecognition of Black women, their identities and their affective lives, is central to multiple U.S. projects of oppression. Consequently, pursuing happiness in the context of American racism and sexism can be difficult, particularly for African American women. Therefore, I use the transnational pursuits of happiness of the ladies of Girlfriend Tours International to argue that this process of pursuing happiness is a political project for Black women. It is a process that requires a sense of determination and strong dedication to self-definition in the face of the psychological warfare and emotional strife caused by social and institutionalized forms of inequity.
In this way, one can understand why the controlling images and representations of Black women as Jezebels, Sapphires, Mammies, and Strong Black Women are important to pay attention to. These narrow and destructive depictions of Black women's lives in mainstream media and academic scholarship are frequently driven by a lack of appreciation for the complexities of living as both a Black person and a woman at the intersection of American racism and patriarchy. When one connects this to the discussion of happiness, we begin to see how media representations, and systems of oppression that work through them, attempt to limit and influence the emotional expressions of Black women. Many consuming these media images do not even expect Black women to ever appear happy, as they are conditioned to see them as ashamed, angry, and sad. For some, Black women's anger is seen as a source of strength that keeps them safe and pushing through racism and sexism. Referring to the frequently depicted Angry Black Woman, Harris-Perry writes, "But this no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners woman offers no expectation that the black woman is supposed to be happy, content, or fulfilled. Her sometimes explosive anger is part of what distinguishes her from the ideal of white femininity. This right to own and express anger is among the more potentially powerful psychological and political elements of the construction of black women's strength." For Girlfriends, Jamaica provides a space where they don't have to be angry and where their strength is seen and respected.
Furthermore, as Harris-Perry and others note, race and gender, or more specifically, racism and sexism, can drastically influence one's affective life, particularly one's emotional wellness. In Ordinary Affects, anthropologist Kathleen Stewart offers a provocative discussion about stress, claiming that it can "tell the story of inclusion or exclusion, mainstreaming or marginality. But its widespread power to articulate something stems not from a meaning it harbors inside but from its actual circulations through forces and trajectories of all kinds." Later, Stewart writes, "Racism can be a live texture in the composition of a subject." While I do not mean to imply that being, becoming, and feeling Black are only about one's experience of racism, I do mean to encourage scholars to investigate how racism, and the resulting stress of it, may profoundly impact one's emotional wellness, including one's definition of joy, sadness, and happiness. Stewart's discussion of stress and racism are useful for thinking through the ways some Black Americans are constantly engaged in an internal and communal discussion about power and agency and how this is reflected affectively.
In this chapter, I provide insight into the multiple ways race and gender affect one's access to happiness by putting the experiences of GFT members into conversation with Black feminist thought about race and gender in the United States. For example, Harris-Perry argues that the "internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political" because the "derogatory assumptions about their character and identity ... shape the social world that black women must accommodate or resist in an effort to preserve their authentic selves and to secure recognition as citizens." If we understand this to be true, then the documentation and analysis of the affective experiences of Black American women frequently leaving the United States in search of an escape from racism and sexism could tell us a great deal about what it means to be Black, American, and a woman. As these women encounter the oft contentious relationship between "Blackness" and "Americanness" while traveling (virtually and physically) to Jamaica, they find ways to interrogate and expand notions of Black American womanhood.
Here, I expand stereotypical depictions and one-dimensional narratives of Black women in order to "fuck with the grays," as feminist theorist Joan Morgan encourages. Black women's lives, like everyone else's, are complex and contradictory, are a combination of both/ands instead of either/ors. And as a result of the contradictory and intersecting ways racism and sexism work in the United States, one would expect Black women's lives to be complicated and multifaceted. These complexities and contradictions do not have to be viewed as negative but can be a liberating space of possibility, pleasure, leisure, and even happiness.
Race, Emotional Knowledges, and Affective Knowing
In the last decade, with the affective turn in multiple disciplines, many are embracing the idea that affective experiences are important, and even central, to understanding human life. Additionally, the notion that affect is both social and political is a common argument. However, if affect is social, then it must also be a process, and one that is undoubtedly influenced by historical and contemporary processes of racialization. Furthermore, if affect is social and racialized, then we must take into account how racism influences affect. While theorists such as Lauren Berlant and Ann Cvetkovich acknowledge the intimate relationship between affect and power, few interrogate how individuals and groups relegated to less powerful positions through systemic oppression may experience and articulate affect differently (although scholars like Rebecca Wanzo and Jose Munoz provide us with initial tools to do this work). In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed reminds us that emotions are not simply private things but are constructed in publics, with technologies, and in the context of social conditions, and are therefore political.
My argument here is that for those racialized and gendered as Black women in the United States, race is central to their affective experiences and therefore significant for what they view as social and political. For many Black women, something may not become political or social until race is taken into account. The literature and analyses of affect must reflect this or risk omitting significant aspects of the examination of affect. Additionally, an omission of Black women's experiences in the literature keeps us from understanding why a group like GFT sees race, and even diaspora, as important to how they define and experience leisure and pleasure. I suggest that GFT's frequent travel to Jamaica provides insight into the complex politics of Black American women's happiness, and it highlights how these women actively participate in their pursuits of happiness while negotiating the affective dimensions of diasporic relationships.
Excerpted from "The Pursuit of Happiness"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Introduction. "Jamaica Crawled Into My Soul": Black Women, Affect, and the Promise of Diaspora 1
1. More Than a Groove: Pursuing Happiness as a Political Project 31
2. "Giving Back" to Jamaica: Experiencing Community and Conflict While Traveling with Diasporic Heart 65
3. Why Jamaica? Seeking the Fantasy of a Black Paradise 99
4. Breaking (It) Down: Gender, Emotional Entanglements, and the Realities of Romance Tourism 123
5. Navigating (Virtual) Jamaica: Online Diasporic Contact Zones 163
Epilogue. Lessons Learned 187
What People are Saying About This
"This is the book that I have been anxiously waiting for. The Pursuit of Happiness is about how electronic media enables a group of middle-class black American women to find peace, love, and friendship outside their geographical space. This novel and innovative ethnography pushes the boundaries of what anthropology can be considered in its broadest definition."
“The Pursuit of Happiness is an engaging book that makes an important contribution to scholarship on tourism in the Caribbean. Bianca C. Williams's vivid language and keen analysis of her respondents are particularly enjoyable, and her interview data—which was obviously collected with care—make for a very rich and interesting read.”