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REVIEW | 'Surfacing' is a substantial read, but how is this knowledge democratised?

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Surfacing is edited by Gabeba Baderoon (pictured right) and Desiree Lewis. One of the essays is written by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola. (Victor Dlamini)
Surfacing is edited by Gabeba Baderoon (pictured right) and Desiree Lewis. One of the essays is written by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola. (Victor Dlamini)

Surfacing: On Being Black and Feminist in South Africa is a collection of essays exploring what it means to be black and feminist in South Africa, from the perspective of the writers and within a global black feminist context that privileges or centres the work of black feminists in North America and West Africa.

As editors Desiree Lewis and Gabeba Baderoon explain, there are several reasons for this, relating to history, economy and geopolitics. But they highlight the fact that this collection contributes to the wellspring of world knowledges that include marginalised voices – a decentralisation of knowledge, rather than simply a protest against the dominance of particular voices among the subjugated.


The introduction provides a useful framing of issues of identity, social categorisation and context in terms of the selection of voices included in the book. It addresses the editors' choices and standpoints on blackness, feminism and nationality, with the view of "citizenship as participation". The debates about these identities are complex and constantly evolving. Surfacing is in four parts: introductory essays, essays on "unmaking" what it means to be black and feminist in South Africa, essays on positioning black feminism and essays on remaking black feminism.

As a form, the essay has a long academic, political and religious history and by using its flexibility, the writer can reach beyond a single audience while stretching, subverting and teasing out dominant ideas and forms of articulation. "Concision, wit, poetic force and autobiographical storytelling in the personal essay can carry enormous weight," write the editors. It is possible to also read the personal essay as a letter to the reader, whether that reader is the self, another or even social institutions. Examples from history include Paul's letters in the New Testament, Ahmed Kathrada's letters from Robben Island and the correspondence between US civil rights activist Pauli Murray and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt from the late 1930s to the early 1960s.

As instructions, protests and interventions, many letters made public share "the desire of a just world". In Surfacing, Pumla Dineo Gqola writes "a playful but also serious love letter to Gabrielle Goliath", a visual artist whose work gave her pause to think about the issues that she addresses in her scholarship on rape in South Africa. She reflects on bearing witness, assumptions about how survivors express themselves, and the ability to find joy and some healing in artistic expression.

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