Johns Hopkins University Press

"Citational Desires" treats the growing celebration of a "Black feminist politics of citation" as indexing Black feminist theory's anxiety around its institutionalizationand its usage by an array of scholars of varied identities and with varying investments in Black feminist praxis and ethics. In this article, I interrogate the Black feminist argument that certain forms of citation reveal an ethical usage of Black feminist theory and that others index a non-ethical usage. My venture here is to treat this preoccupation with ethical usage as one of the myriad ways that Black feminist theory invests in itself as intellectual property, as terrain that must be defended from the specter of dangerous critics, colonizers, appropriators, and even from scholars who lack the requisite commitment to the tradition.

"Have you cited a woman of color today?"

—Koritha Mitchell, December 14, 20191

In her now-canonical article "The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies," Ann duCille described Black feminist studies as a "traffic jam," one where Black feminist critics "are … in danger of being trampled by the 'rainbow coalition' of critics—'black, white, male, female, artists and academics, historicists and deconstructionists'" who have been attracted to "the magnetic field of black feminist studies."2 DuCille's essay is a profoundly self-conscious performance of Black feminist ambivalence, one that sits with enduring and vexing questions: What does it mean to find the field that one labored to produce suddenly considered chic? What does it feel like to have generated a body of knowledge and find that other scholars—particularly white scholars—lay claim to it and make careers from it? What does it mean to be pushed to the periphery of something you made? What does it feel like to have worked for field formation and actually gotten it, to have found Black feminism a theory, method, praxis, and approach taken up by Black studies, women's studies, and a host of other disciplinary and interdisciplinary projects across the humanities and social sciences?

For duCille, what is particularly troubling about Black feminism's representation as an "anybody-can-play pick-up game performed on a wide-open, untrammeled field" is that scholars with little training in Black feminist histories, theories, methods, or genealogies produce "new" work that fails to honor—or even mention—earlier scholarship written by Black women.3 Underpinning this critique is a concern with the material labor Black women perform in institutionalizing Black feminist studies—labor which, as myriad Black feminists have indicated, quite often kills Black women academics. In Barbara Christian's analysis of Black feminism's location in the academy, she warns that we must "be clear about the dire situation that African-American women academics face,"4 and Grace Hong—drawing on Christian's work—writes:

So many of the black feminists of Christian's generation have died—struck down by cancer and other diseases—including Christian herself in 2000. June Jordan in 2002. Sherley Anne Williams in 1999. Audre Lorde in 1991. Beverly Robinson in 2002. Endesha Ida Mae Holland in 2006. Claudia Tate in 2002. Nellie McKay in 2006. Veve Clark in 2007. In naming these women, these black feminists, I respond to James Baldwin's imperative to "bring out your dead."5

The call to "bring out your dead" is a plea to make visible how Black women have labored intensively to produce space in the academy for Black feminist theory, and for Black women's bodies. And this labor has produced embodied consequences for Black women, most often discussed as the premature deaths that have come to be associated with Black feminist labor, with the university increasingly theorized as violently extractive, literally sucking the life out of Black women. The failure to cite this work is often taken as evidence of an institutional disregard for Black women's intellectual labor and lives, even as institutions increasingly rely on the aesthetics of diversity which Black women's bodies are thought to emblemize.6 [End Page 77]

In the twenty-five years since duCille's article was published—as Black feminist theory's worldmaking possibilities have found partial homes in the university—the question of how scholars, particularly non-Black scholars, engage with and in Black feminist theory remains a site of intense debate for Black feminist scholars. Indeed, one might read the long history of Black feminist scholarly engagement with the university, particularly around the anxiety that Black feminism and Black feminists might not "survive the academy,"7 as a rumination on Black feminism's uneasy relationship with its simultaneous precarity and institutionalization, and as a meditation on what it means to find the field occupied by scholars who do not identify as Black women, who are not trained in Black feminist studies, and who, as duCille suggests, might be drawn to Black feminist theory for an array of reasons, from genuine intellectual and political commitment to a sense that Black feminism offers a valuable left credential.8 There remains a tremendous anxiety around how we Black feminists determine or discern whether scholars' mobilization of Black feminist theory is genuine or predatory, embedded in political commitment or rooted in gaming a hyper-competitive academic marketplace.

The Black feminist concern about scholars with questionable "commitments" to Black feminist theory and praxis reveals that Black feminists construct our field in very particular ways. Black feminists often narrate their work as requiring deep intellectual and political commitments, with the work itself standing as a form of care for the soul (here, we might think of Sara Ahmed's reflection on Black feminist theory as not only an intellectual project but also a "life-line,"9 or Eric Anthony Grollman's assertion that "Black feminism will save my life"10). Thus, to practice Black feminist scholarship is imagined to require a worldview, a praxis, and an ethical commitment, not simply a theoretical framework, method, and approach to answer a research question, as one might imagine research in other fields. Of course, this figuring of Black feminist intellectual production as soul work and laboring with it as "being saved" is precisely the language of love that can mask work, much as, Black feminists have argued, the institution has constantly extracted, devalued, and rendered invisible Black women's intellectual, psychic, and material labor.11 This is where the call for "care" becomes so central to Black feminist work: to treat Black feminist theory, to treat Black feminist foremothers, to treat Black feminist theoretical innovations with respect and thoughtfulness is imagined to do justice to Black feminism's salvific capacities.

How then have Black feminists suggested that scholars navigate this minefield where to not engage Black feminist theory is to ignore Black women's intellectual production and to engage Black feminist theory can be seen as an act of appropriation, colonization, or even anti-Black and misogynistic violence? This essay argues that the Black feminist preoccupation with the politics of citation—manifested in the celebration of certain "generous" or "collective" citational practices and the rejection of dominant citational practices—has been a strategy designed to manage Black feminist anxieties around the field's cache.12 Here, citationality is about far more than a name on a page—it is nothing short of life or death. To name Black women innovators is to do justice to their labor, their lives, their soul work. I see the preoccupation with citation—the hailing of some forms of citation as just, even as manifesting Black feminist ethics, and the critiquing of [End Page 78] other forms of citation as problematically enforcing prevailing institutional logics—as a visible manifestation of Black feminists' collective anxiety about the field's popularity generally, and about the particular circulation of certain Black feminist analytics, methods, and theories, perhaps most visibly intersectionality.

This anxiety has undergirded the popular and scholarly call to "cite Black women" as a practice of care, and has resulted in citation becoming the primary way that scholars are called upon to make visible their ethical engagement with, rather than the strategic deployment of Black feminist work. As Ahmed notes, "citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow."13 Citing "correctly"—and describing citation as something political and intentional—is imagined as a form of debt acknowledgement, and also a way of aligning oneself with the role of preservationist and "steward" rather than with that of the interloper or even colonizer. In describing the Black feminist construction of some forms of citation as ethical "stew-ardship," I draw on Ange-Marie Hancock's work on intersectionality which celebrates "stewardship" as the hallmark of generous engagement with the analytic. Hancock notes that "we must also act as what I call 'stewards' of intersectionality studies—create epistemic communities both local and global that will ensure the production of intersectional work that is simultaneously inclusive of the heterogeneity of intersectionality studies and is clear about how not to engage intersectionality."14 For Hancock, "stewardship" is a form of careful and forward-looking engagement with intersectionality, a loving, tender orientation toward the analytic committed to ensuring its future viability and vitality. It is this notion of preservationist rather than strategic or even careerist use of Black feminist theory that I argue underpins Black feminist advocacy around a certain politics of citation.

In this essay, I interrogate the Black feminist argument that certain forms of citation reveal an ethical usage of Black feminist theory and others index a non-ethical deployment or even theft. My venture here, as in my earlier work, is to treat this preoccupation with ethical usage as one of the myriad ways that Black feminist theory invests in itself as intellectual property,15 as terrain that must be defended from the specter of dangerous critics, colonizers, appropriators, and even from scholars who lack the requisite commitment to the tradition.16 While Hancock, for example, develops her conception of stewardship as a form of collective ownership over intersectionality, advancing the notion that we can all carefully hold intersectionality and pass it on, I read this preoccupation with correct usage as indicative of a collective desire to maintain the territory of Black feminist theory, ensuring that it is appropriately and correctly tended. In critically exploring the preoccupation with an ethical politics of citation as a performance of stewardship, my [End Page 79] intention is not to disavow the ongoing Black feminist conversations about the invisibility of Black women's labor (and lives) in the university, or the ways that academic disciplines have been formed around the simultaneous invisibility and strategic deployment of Black women's ideas. Instead, my commitment in this essay is to probing the psychic structure and attachments of Black feminist theory itself, always with an investment in imagining how we might deepen our commitments to non-captivity and non-territoriality in the most profoundly challenging of moments, precisely the one that duCille describes: when our work, which Black feminists have always argued is not merely academic work but life-sustaining creative output, feels like it is being used, circulated, mobilized, taken apart from our names, our histories, our bodies. I am as invested in understanding the feeling of having something taken from us as I am in exploring the development of citation as a tool for discerning the colonizer from the ally. I seek to urge Black feminist scholars to find other ways to respond to the feeling we have of being under siege, and to sit with rather than seek to resolve through a territorial impulse precisely the ambivalence that duCille suggests is constitutive of Black feminist academic subjectivity.

In this essay, I interrogate why Black feminists have pinned our political hopes to citationality and I suggest other ways we might organize our political desires and dreams, always in the service of producing generative and creative worldmaking theory and praxis. I trace three ways that Black feminists have imagined citation as potentially preservationist and ethical: tracing citation as a form of undoing violence, citation as a form of "un-forgetting," and citation as an act of critical generosity and care. In all three cases, I seek to sit with how the positioning of good, ethical citationality as a form of honoring Black feminist theory, and implicitly Black women, becomes a strategy of both shoring up the boundaries of Black feminist thought and requiring those who make use of the theory—particularly those who do not identify as Black women—to make explicit their political and ethical commitments. I end the essay with a rumination on how Black feminists might contend with our own ongoing institutional desires, and with what an ethic of capaciousness in Black feminist theory might resemble, even as it might leave us feeling deeply vulnerable.

Undoing Violence

A Black feminist citational practice is often figured as a way of undoing past and ongoing epistemic violence, including the erasure of Black women's intellectual and scholarly contributions to various fields. In this section, I particularly sit with the work of woman of color feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, thinking alongside her detailed body of scholarship on citational practices that foreground women of color. For Ahmed, citationality acts as a form of careful preservation and recognition through its insistence on making visible Black women's longstanding and unrecognized intellectual labor. It is then a crucial form of reparations and redress that undoes institutional logics through insisting on making seen and seeable Black women's work. If citation can render Black feminist subjects and Black feminist authors institutionalized and visible, it can also—through its absence—render some bodies (and labor) invisible. A footnote on a page, a mention of an author or a group of [End Page 80] authors' critical contributions thus is a way of gesturing to the lifeworlds of Black women, a way of undoing longstanding practices of violence. As Jessica Marie Johnson writes:

A black feminist and radical womyn of color politics of citation is one that acknowledges ways black women's intellectual production has been and continues to be rendered invisible, exploited, or devalued, then both centers the intellectual artifacts created by black women and privileges black women as producers and creators with the sole and extraordinary right to determine their encounters with institutions (i.e. academia, mainstream media, law enforcement vis à vis the surveillance of social media platforms and the internet more broadly) and bodies of thought outside their own circle."17

Undoing harm by citing Black women (or not citing white men, something I will take up later) can be a way of performing what Justin Mann has termed Black feminist "world-breaking"—literally demolishing the architecture of conventional disciplinary knowledge and canon formation through a refusal to engage the established canon, and through an insistence on Black women's long, understudied and unacknowledged, forms of labor.18 Citation is figured as more than an act of "centering" Black women; it is a way of building another world entirely organized around Black women's brilliance, one that undoes violence and embraces an ethic of redress.

Every act of foregrounding certain scholars' labor requires placing others in the background, and undergirding a Black feminist citational politics is often the relegation of white male authors to the citational periphery, precisely because the ubiquity of citations of white men is indicative of ongoing anti-Black and misogynistic epistemic violence. Ahmed, for example, notes that "I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men."19 This "blunt policy," the purpose of which is to "break long-standing habits," is a form of building "feminist shelter."20 Here, "feminist shelter" takes the form of making literal space for women of color on the page, for honoring their labor and innovation, for recognizing the transformative capacity of Black feminist and women of color feminist scholarship. This act of citing is also a way of calling attention to the constitutive absences at the heart of dominant scholarship, the myriad ways conventional disciplines are constructed around Black women's absence. As Ahmed notes:

Sometimes I get amazed when people say they are not aware of the work done by feminist, black and postcolonial scholars on questions relevant to general debates within cultural studies or philosophy. How can you not know, I want to ask. How can they not be cited, I protest. What I have learnt is that "not knowing" about certain things is an effect of the lines people have already taken, which means they "attend" to some things only by giving up proximity to others, which is at the same time giving up on certain futures. … So point to such exclusions we must!21

The intentional citation of women of color—which is also, but not always, bound up with the intentional non-citation of white men—is an act of undoing the violence at the heart of disciplinary knowledge, an active project of "pointing to such exclusions." This is also a project of blazing new citational trails that other scholars can follow and continue. As Ahmed writes, [End Page 81]

citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this not simply from writing the book, from what I found about what came up in how the words piled up, but also from giving presentations.22

This form of brick-laying—creating an alternative intellectual world from women of color knowledge production—is both the act of worldmaking and a project of fortification. While the house is a form of shelter for its writer, and the production of a refuge from the violence of academic life—much as bell hooks figures "homeplace" in her canonical essay—it is also about the creation of a certain kind of territory, one that Ahmed seems to figure as anti-institutional, radical, creative, and as something that can be shared with future generations of women of color feminist scholars.23

The construction of a new "house" is often practiced through a preoccupation with the idea of "more" as a Black feminist ethic: citing more Black women, and more Black feminist work, is indicative of a willingness to lay more bricks. Quantity, then, comes to represent the depth of a scholar's commitment to Black feminist scholarship and to Black women. Tests like the Gray Test (named after Kishonna Gray in the tradition of the Bechdel Test) emphasize the importance of scholarly work that "cite[s] the work of at least two women and two non-white people" and mentions that work "meaningfully" in the scholarship.24 Advocates of the test's approach to citation maximization emphasize that tests merely set a "minimum" for citational inclusion, not an aspirational goal, and popular Black feminism often hails the #Graytest alongside #citeblackwomen and #citeherwork as a rallying call for transforming the citational universe and thus the circulation of "diverse" work. The call for "diversifying citations" which often emphasizes counting citations (as diversity's logics are often wedded to such "data") puts a premium on the appearance of the number of citations in a particular text as an index of political commitment. With its preoccupation with counting, data, and numeracy, the logics of Black feminist citation can easily seem to resonate with the logics of diversity, aligning the desire of Black feminist struggle with the "inclusion" of Black women in the citational universe, rather than the creation of a completely new system of academic valuation and knowledge construction.

In its relentless figuring of "Black woman" and "white man" as citational polar opposites—one representing the quintessential outsider whose innovations have largely been ignored and one representing the quintessential institutional insider—this figuration of citation also largely posits Black feminism as anti-institutional knowledge. Yet the idea of Black feminism as necessarily anti-institutional formation—where Black feminism is figured as a separate "house" providing radical sanctuary from the epistemic violence of the university—is a prevailing romance around the field that requires sidestepping Black feminist theory's own institutional longings and attachments, including our desire to be robustly cited, to be part of the canon. Black feminist citational practices often call for replacing canonical figures like Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and G.W.F. Hegel (the "white men" who stand in for institutionality itself) with Black feminist scholars including Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe. This call for the [End Page 82] refiguration of the canon—rather than the destruction of systems of value and the workings of academic celebrity culture that elevate certain works to the status of the sacred—reveal Black feminist longings for institutional recognition.

Moreover, the call for "citing Black women" often reduces Black feminist thought to Black women, calling for the citation of Black women rather than a particular field of knowledge or theoretical content. This call often assumes that Black women scholars write as Black feminists and through Black feminist frameworks, and thus continues the conflation of "Black feminist" and "Black women" that Black feminist scholars themselves have long upended. It is also worth interrogating how certain Black feminist writers get wholly written out of even Black feminist citational practices, particularly writers whose thinking disrupts the dominant conceptions of Black women in a particular time or at the present moment of politics, while other Black feminist scholars in particular moments themselves come to be institutionalized, have their work stand for the field itself. "Brick-laying" can be its own act of hierarchy and omission regardless of who is laying the bricks, and what their commitments are. Of course, my claim is not that Black feminists should surrender a desire to redress citational violence and harm, or the longstanding exclusion of Black women from the citational field, and thus from how scholars are taught, in the most fundamental way, who and how to read. Instead, my insistence is that we interrogate our romance with citation as a form of freedom, a romance that causes us to overlook citation itself as both a site of violence and a logic of property.


In her analysis of the feminist possibilities of the genre of biography, possibilities which include undoing erasure and fundamentally rescripting dominant historical narratives, Gayle Wald develops the term "un-forgetting." Wald writes:

It [biography] taught me that "forgetting," like memory and remembering, is a social practice, not merely a function of the passing of time. And it taught me that biography can be a crucial tool of "un-forgetting": a process which, in the best cases, resists the totalizing and exclusionary strategies that have rendered a person invisible and unaccounted for.25

Black feminist citational practices treat certain forms of citation as manifesting a commitment to un-forgetting Black women—particularly Black women scholars writing in earlier historical moments. The stakes of un-forgetting feel particularly high as Black feminist theory increasingly turns its attention to the premature death of Black feminist theorists, and to the ways the university acts as a site of early death for Black women scholars. I am drawn to Wald's term un-forgetting because it emphasizes more than simple remembering, rather actively works to both bring to the foreground Black women thinkers and interrogate the institutional, intellectual, affective structures that have made possible their forgetting. If, as Ahmed suggests, "citation is feminist memory," we might also consider Black feminist conceptions of citation as aspiring toward practices of un-forgetting, toward interrogating the very structures that have made Black women "invisible and unaccounted for."26 [End Page 83]

In Beyond Respectability, Brittney Cooper offers an "intellectual genealogy and geography" of Black women's long-standing "public intellectual" work, emphasizing the book's investment in constructing an intellectual history of Black women.27 Critical efforts like Cooper's hailing of Black feminist theory as "intellectual history" are part of an effort to "un-forget" Black feminist genealogies that often get obscured or entirely ignored. Cooper is aligned with ongoing scholarly efforts, particularly around intersectionality, to think about the term's long roots that preceded Kimberlé Crenshaw's creation of two metaphors to illustrate intersectionality's analytic power to make visible Black women's doctrinal invisibility.28 The effort to foreground innovators like the Combahee River Collective, Frances Beal, Deborah King, and Anna Julia Cooper reveals how earlier Black feminist labor gets written out of contemporary circulations and the field's systemic forgetting of decades of Black feminist work. For Cooper, un-forgetting takes the form of a Black feminist laying claim to what is often a very traditional (and, frankly, very white) framing—intellectual history—and fundamentally rewriting what that field means. In Cooper's hands, Black women reveal that intellectual history can be a genealogy of public-facing scholarship invested in thinking deeply about race, gender, and justice.

Cooper emphasizes that un-forgetting is a different, and in her formation more ethical labor than simply remembering. She argues that many of the scholars she writes about have been remembered, "their names exist almost like family photos relegated to a wall we rarely touch. We know they are important. We memorialize them with honored places on the wall of our offices and libraries and in the histories we write. … But then we shelve them, as though preservation is the most apt way to show respect for their critical intellectual labor."29 In rooting her work in intellectual history as a discipline and genre, Cooper installs Black feminist innovators like Pauli Murray and Mary Church Terrell as scholars whose work speaks to enduring questions in the humanities similar to how the ideas of Foucault, Marx, and Hegel are imagined to be universal theoretical frameworks.

This is the labor of un-forgetting: revealing the intellectual and ethical utility of Black women's thinking, and its capacity to provide key ways of approaching enduring humanistic questions. We might think of Cooper's intellectual history and un-forgetting as providing a blueprint for a different kind of citational practice. She writes:

If I were aiming to show (and was successful at showing) how Black women's ideas dovetailed the ideas of Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari or Louis Althusser or Judith Butler, this book would be deemed sufficiently rigorous and, dare I say, "original." That I am for a different goal, namely to show that we take Black women from Fannie Barrier Williams to Mary Church Terrell to Pauli Murray, as theoretically seriously as we take the work of French white males, requires a different inclination. … What might it mean for Black feminist scholars to say they are theorists in the tradition of Anna Julia Cooper or Fannie Barrier Williams, or Ida B. Wells or Patricia Hill Collins or Joy James, in the same way that scholars are allowed to claim that they are Marxist, or Freudian, or Foucauldian, or Kantian, or Spinozan? What might it look like to be Cooperian or Wellsian in our approach to the study of Black women's lives and Black intellectual thought?30 [End Page 84]

Much as Ahmed suggests a "blunt policy" of citing only women of color, Cooper asks us to consider what it might mean for Black women to act as theorists whose work explores persistent and urgent areas of humanistic inquiry. Cooper advocates a vision of the citational universe where Wellsian—like Foucauldian—becomes a way of describing a worldview and theoretical framework, where Black women's knowledge, like the imagined white man's knowledge, constitutes a recognizable and revered approach. Unforgetting, then, is not only about reworking the citational field. It is also a certain claim to power that is waged in the name of injury and redress.

If un-forgetting is a practice of retelling the history of disciplines and treating Black women intellectuals as offering universal theoretical innovations, it also can suggest rewriting field formations in much the same way, with different "predictive" bodies and founders at the helm—a history of great Black women. Un-forgetting as a mode of foregrounding Black women's intellectual work can also, some scholars suggest, fundamentally rewrite our prevailing conception of disciplinary knowledge. In her analysis of how to teach students to pose better questions, Kyla Wazana Tompkins writes:

Does it matter that Spillers wrote "Mama's Baby" three years before Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity was published? Yes, it matters very much. What is there to say about the fact that Spillers is mentioned only once, in a footnote, in Butler's groundbreaking book? What is produced by the force of that exclusion? What if we rewrite Butler's theory from within the work that Spillers does to re-narrate gender as an always-already raced American grammar book. What other ideas about matter, performativity, abjection and regulatory normativity might be produced? (Answer: read Spiller's essay, in which almost the entire gist of critical theory—particularly on race and sexuality—for the next thirty years is predicted.)31

For Tompkins, the invisibility of Spillers in Butler's work, and perhaps even in the field of feminist theory writ large, means that the field relies on a particular history and genealogy that obscures Black women's radical and transformative thought. If we center Spillers, Tompkins tells us, we see that "the entire gist of critical theory … is predicted," and we can read the constitutive absences at the heart of Butler's work, perhaps even the absences at the heart of feminist theory itself. Tompkins, like Cooper, suggests that citational practices attuned to Black women's intellectual production offer us different narratives of field formations, narratives that fundamentally upset the established "stories we tell."32

Certainly Tompkins, Cooper, and other feminist theorists operating in the mode of unforgetting stage valuable work reassigning the intellectual history of feminism, remaking intellectual genealogies to not just include but to center Black women. While important to establish Black women's long histories of intellectual production, it is worth circling back to duCille as we advance our claims that "Black women did it first," that anti-Black and patriarchal violence operates by ignoring the ways that Black women have already invented much of what we know. In this logic, Black women paradoxically get rooted to the intellectual past tense and invoked as ways of insisting that they already created everything we have. As the Cite Black Women collective notes, [End Page 85]

we have been producing knowledge since we blessed this earth. We theorize, we innovate, we revolutionize the world. We do not need mediators. We do not need interpreters. It's time to disrupt the canon. It's time to upturn the erasure of history. It's time to give credit where credit is due.33

In this logic, great Black women predict the field and in fact all fields. Our sole collective task is to listen to Black women's revolutionary theories. The cyclical and ahistorical nature of citational practices might urge us to exercise caution in our investment in origin stories generally, and Black feminist origin stories specifically. Instead, we might ask if there are other pathways, other feelings, that might enable Black feminism in more radical presents. What might it mean that in the name of Black feminism Black women become symbols only of conceptual excellence rather than "complex personhood," when Black women's work becomes the intellectual universe's history rather than unfolding present?34

Generosity, Care, Capacity

In her engagement with the intellectual history of "race women," Cooper notes:

We care enough not to let these women be thrown away, but in many respects, the dearth of critical engagements with most of the women under consideration in this book suggests a lack of critical care in handling their intellectual contributions. This book is not only committed to the notion that we should "care more." It explores what a careful examination of Black women's intellectual traditions might yield for both the study of Black intellectual history and for one particular branch of Black intellectual history—Black feminist thought.35

Underpinning Black feminist arguments about citationality is that citation itself can be a practice of both "caring more" and being "careful" with Black feminist genealogies. Indeed, the call for care as an ethic and as a way of structuring scholarly inquiry has proliferated in Black studies, particularly in recent years, with Christina Sharpe famously calling for "care" as a problem for Black thought and as a central tenet of what she terms "wake work," a way of "defending the dead" which is always, for Sharpe, a practice of honoring Black life.36 We can exhibit care also with how we think about writing, citing, engaging earlier work, and thinking alongside rather than against, or with little attention to earlier work. Care is a form of critical generosity which Mark Anthony Neal—citing Treva Lindsey—describes as a "citation practice that disrupts male-centered recollections of Black artistic contributions."37 To treat Black feminist work with care, to treat Black women with care, becomes a practice that not only confers respect on the work but also confers something on its user—a credential demonstrating that their engagement with Black feminist thought is ethical, conscientious.

Following duCille, my essay reconsiders a Black feminist preoccupation with citationality and the feelings surrounding it as performances of the only correct Black feminist engagement with earlier texts as well as signs of care, and ways of distinguishing a trespasser from a steward, both because of its imaging of Black feminist theory as [End Page 86] territory that must be defended and because of its implicit sense that there are "better" uses of Black feminist work. In a moment in which intersectionality is a "buzzword,"38 where "white feminism" is considered worse than misogyny or patriarchy,39 the left credential that ethical usage of Black feminism can confer on its users is undeniable, and alluring. I argue here that Black feminist scholarship might interrogate and even resist rather than be seduced by the call to offer left credentials, certifying which scholarship we deem adequately preservationist, sufficiently manifesting the requisite proximity to what we imagine Black feminism to be. While I am compelled and at times even seduced by the rhetoric of "citing Black women," I also find myself troubled by what Angela Harris described as the "trotting out" of Black women "onto the page (mostly in footnotes)" as evidence of the authors' (real or fictitious) political commitments.40 I am equally troubled that this trotting out of Black women is performed in the name of Black feminism, and in the name of Black women's freedom. While I remain invested in citational practices that do justice to earlier work, that track debates within Black feminist theory rather than treating it as a singular space of moral certitude and ethical correctness, I remain ambivalent about the project of territoriality, and instead always invest in a riskier and vulnerable antiterritorial stance. What if we do not know yet how to do justice to the past? What if we imagined Black feminist ethical and political struggle not as providing the answer to that question, but as demanding that we sit in the murky territory of not-yet-knowing?

So I return to duCille and her profound rumination on ambivalence as the ethical compass of Black feminist theory, and ask: How might we uncomfortably sit in the place of our uneasy "success"? How might we recognize and reckon with our desires for "success" and institutional power, rather than being seduced by a call of our own imagined anti-institutional stance? How might we respond to our own complex (and at times "ugly") feelings with a sense of capaciousness rather than an ethic of policing? This essay, then, aspires to grapple with citationality as an index of Black feminism's messy institutional desires and attachments, rather than as a site—or the site—of our own radical freedom dreams. The capacity to cite Black women must be present in a different kind of world, but that capacity must include Black feminism's capacious myriad traditions, genealogies, feelings, and disruptions, and must include an ongoing willingness to disrupt the conflation between "Black woman" and "Black feminism." What we must wish for, fiercely imagine, frightening as it may be, is a relationship to Black feminist innovation that eludes property and territoriality, captivity and policing. [End Page 87]

Jennifer C. Nash
Jennifer C. Nash

Jennifer C. Nash is Jean Fox O'Barr Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her most recent book is Birthing Black Mothers (2021).


1. See Koritha Mitchell's tweet, December 14, 2019,

6. See Rachel Lee, Sara Ahmed, and Tiffany Lethabo King for some of the authors who have been thinking through this paradox in their work.

8. It is also worth noting the particular poignancy of staging these questions in Diacritics, a journal that both published Hortense Spillers's field(s)-defining "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" and has largely developed apart from Black feminist theory and politics. In a conversation about the essay, Spillers noted: "You know it was kind of astonishing. I think some of it was the venue in which it appeared, I mean it came out in Diacritics" (see Spillers et al., "Whatcha Gonna Do?", 300). To find myself, a Black feminist scholar invested in Black feminist genealogies, publishing on the politics of Black feminist citationality in a journal that is not well known for an investment in Black feminist theory is to navigate precisely the minefield I am invested in here: What does it mean for institutional spaces to speak in the language of Black feminist theory and to not have historical investments in Black feminist knowledge production?

12. Nyong'o writes: "Throughout this project, I have been influenced by a black feminist citational politics that asks us to acknowledge individual and collective work wherever uplifting a public name can forward a wider black social practice that must necessarily remain partly camouflaged in these times" (Nyong'o, Afro-Fabulations, 238n54).

15. Cite Black Women explicitly uses the term "intellectual property" to describe its "praxis," noting that "there has been a total disregard when it comes to recognizing and respecting the intellectual property of Black women. For centuries, people have listened to our ideas and reproduced them without citation. For centuries, people have been content with erasing us from mainstream bibliographies, genealogies of thought, and conversations about knowledge production. We have also been fed up with it for centuries" (Johnson et al., "Cite Black Women: A Critical Praxis").

16. I develop this further in my book Black Feminism Reimagined.

24. Thanks to Samantha Pinto for calling this to my attention. The second edition of Wendy Belcher's Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks takes up the Gray Test explicitly.

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