- Fugitivity in African American Women's Migration Narratives
My primary aim in this short paper is to remind you to read for fugitivity in life writings by women of African descent. If you assume black women's life writings locate a free subjectivity within white patriarchal imperialist spaces, rather than in a self-conscious and choreographed fugitivity, then you will not read the texts they write. For even before Phillis Wheatley engaged in eighteenth-century transatlantic migrations, black women's life narratives have inscribed, and continue to document, our fugitive disidentifications. To disregard black women's fugitivity is to risk mis-reading black women's lives and life writings. Anti-blackness everywhere has always required black women to construct a fugitive selfhood that exploits and subverts the very invisibility that white patriarchal imperialism imposes on them.
For me, fugitivity marks a convergence of multiple tropes. You probably know the fugitive slave woman figure in such classic antebellum slave narratives as Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. You may recall that Running tells the story of how Ellen Craft freed herself and her husband from slavery to a fugitive freedom by dressing as a slaveholding man. This is, perhaps, an expected example. Drawing on standard dictionary denotations, however, I want also to summon synonyms of fugitivity, including transience, transitioning, and impermanence. From here we can extrapolate fugitivity to signify straying, roaming, and mobility, and even elusiveness and volatility.
In linking fugitivity to interstitiality, I mean to examine how, and how much, black women's geographical repositionings, our migrations, both involuntary and intentional, coincide with our ideological and psychological movements. I am thinking of bodily transpositions and also organized actions for political change. In her 2015 ethnography Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship, Aimee Meredith Cox proclaims shapeshifting as one of black women's most exigent survival [End Page 636] strategies. The word choreography in Cox's subtitle glosses her definition of shapeshifting as "how young black women living in the United States engage with, confront, challenge, invert, unsettle, and expose the material impact of systemic oppression […] and [reveal] our collective vulnerabilities" (7). One finds fugitivity in the "dance" Cox locates in black women's performativity, and I include African American women's life writings among these strategic performances.
Before Cox published Shapeshifting, Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden transformed the hundreds of oral histories they collected for the African American Women's Voices Project into the 2003 book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. Akin to the related terms codeswitching and styleshifting, shifting is for Jones and Shorter-Gooden "a matter of long-term survival" (62) for black women. Shifting contains "all of the ways African American women respond to and cope with racial and gender stereotypes, bias, and mistreatment" (62); the "compromise [required] to put other people at ease, counteract the misperceptions and stereotypes [about black women], and deflect the impact [and violences] of those hostilities on" all black lives (63).
Shifting, shapeshifting, fugitivity, and the implicit correlates of home, homelessness, and diaspora not only emerge as themes in the life writings of black women ranging from Nancy Prince and Ellen Craft to Alice Walker and Jamaica Kincaid, but also form the methodologies black women use to frame their experiences of both displacement and deliberate movement out of and away from anti-blackness and diverse gendered xenophobias. In constructing an autobiographical subjectivity to re-member shifts in spatial coordinates and ideological and psychological positions, black women identify fugitivity as integral to their life writing production. They do so across diverse black print cultures, including religious pamphlets, popular magazines, diaries, scrapbooks, travelogues, and increasingly poetry slams, blogs, and podcasts.1 In that black women's life writings chronicle their movements within interstices and across a life span, their autobiographical production corresponds to that of Frederick Douglass as posited by critic Celeste-Marie Bernier: "Douglass sought to transform his exposure to an existential no-place in an ongoing physical and psychological state of fugitivity in white US mainstream society into the catalyst for developing self-reflexive strategies for reimaging and reimagining...