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Understanding Intersectionality through Literature

Jordan B. Jones discusses race and gender in Global Women’s Studies Colloquium.

Literature is powerful. When used to discuss topics such as race and gender, literature can provide us with a mirror that helps us reevaluate our lives and our roles in the lives of others.

Addressing this subject, Assistant Professor Jordan B. Jones (Brazilian Literature) presented “Black Female Narration, Self-Definition, and Intersectionality in Brazilian and US Literature” at the October 21, 2022, Global Women’s Studies Colloquium. Jones discussed how literature can invite readers to examine more closely the injustices Black women face because of their gender, race, and class.

Jones offered this disclaimer: “It might seem a little unexpected for a White man from a middle-class background to be talking about this—and I don’t pretend to fully understand Black female experiences throughout the Americas—but I do feel that it’s important for people of all backgrounds to study it.”

Jones explained that after witnessing racial issues when he lived in Brazil and later in Baltimore, he started “thinking about what literature could actually do in the face of very real challenges of violence and oppression and poverty.” He then introduced two of the books he has studied that address Black females’ experiences. The first book, Por cima do mar by Deborah Dornellas, is set in Brazil and recounts the life of the main character, Lígia. The second book, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is set in the United States and follows the main character, Starr, over 13 weeks.

Both books examine Amefricanity and intersectionality. As Jones explained, Amefricanity, a term coined by Brazilian intellectual Lélia Gonzalez, “describes the core experiences shared by Afro-descendant peoples in the Americas.” Intersectionality, a term from theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, means that when discussing an individual’s lived experiences, the individual’s gender, race, and class are always intertwined. Jones put it this way: “So Black women from low-income communities, like Lígia and Starr, are attempting to not only navigate being Black or being women or being from a low-income community but all of these things at the same time.” The two novels show that Lígia and Starr share overlapping experiences because of that intersectionality.

In both books, the main characters experience trauma and violence at the hands of others, and in both cases, the violence is directed toward the women because of their gender, race, and class. Jones said, “The first-person narration gives us direct access to their thoughts, to their voices, and as the novels progress, each protagonist’s view of herself in the world evolves. She challenges stereotypical narratives about Black womanhood, while asserting her own self-worth.”

Two women working side by side.

“Literature can be a space of revelation,” Jones said. “It can help us see differently and help us understand people differently.” Both novels invite us to reflect on the experiences of Black women and examine what we can do to better support, listen to, and advocate for the Black women and girls in our lives.

Citing an idea from philosopher Iris Marion Young, Jones said White people can help Black communities and avoid White saviorism by understanding the term asymmetrical reciprocity. This term means “you can never fully understand what another person’s experience is, regardless of whether you are the same age, gender, race. You have to recognize it’s an incomplete exchange. But even though it’s an impossible task, we still have to try.” To engage with Black individuals’ experiences, Jones suggests adopting a position of “moral humility” (Young), which is a “posture of ‘Let me listen to you and validate your experiences. And I may disagree with the politics or with other aspects of this issue, but first let me listen and not have a response or rebuttal always ready. Just let me listen, sit with it, and then we can move forward.’”