“Strategic Gazes: Black Women Watchers in the Abolitionist Uprising”: MLA JUST-IN-TIME SESSION PROPOSAL

deadline for submissions: 
September 10, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Carmel Ohman / Modern Language Association
contact email: 

The MLA Convention (virtual, Jan 7-10, 2021) has opened up last-minute slots for proposed sessions discussing the events of summer 2020. The session organizer invites contributions for 15-minute papers that engage one or more intersections of Black studies, sexuality studies, Black feminist criticism, visual cultural studies, and surveillance studies. Full session description here:

On May 25th, 2020, Black Minneapolis teenager Darnella Frazier took the immense personal risk of filming officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. Frazier’s act, which helped catalyze the ensuing abolitionist uprising, is an example of what Simone Browne calls dark sousveillance - the Black strategy of asserting autonomy in conditions of unfreedom by watching (“veilling”) from below (“sous”). Dark sousveillance involves gathering visual intelligence on anti-Black surveillance mechanisms, including search and seizure (Kelly Ross), that form part of slavery’s afterlives (Saidiya Hartman). 

This session turns to the subject of Black women’s strategic gazes during the abolitionist uprising of 2020. In this time of amplified hypervisibility for Black people in the US, how are Black femmes strategically negotiating the constitutive anti-Blackness, misogyny, and heterosexism of the visual field (Nicole Fleetwood) to mitigate harm and enact complex forms of autonomy? How do such gazes reckon with abolitionist discourse’s erasures of murdered Black femmes (including Riah Milton and Breonna Taylor) and the continued sidelining of Black femme intellectual labor (from Frances Harper to Dorothy Roberts)? Furthermore, given the proliferation of screens and mediated viewing during coronavirus quarantine, what are unexamined connections between conceptualizations of the Black gaze rooted in sociology (“dark sousveillance”) and those rooted in visual culture and Black feminist theory (bell hooks’s “oppositional gaze”)? 

Note that the session aims to balance an informed attention to histories of anti-Black social control with an emphasis on Black women’s complex reclamations of the visual field for Black life and flourishing. NO visual violence will be shown. Topics might include but are not limited to:

  • strategies of Black privacy (Shoniqua Roach), opacity (Fleetwood), and/or dissemblance (Darlene Clark Hine)
  • connections between Black gazes in visual culture and dark sousveillance (for example, Black televisual or filmic re-framings of police violence)
  • African American literary depictions of sousveillance from antebellum slave narratives to the present 
  • Black twitter communities of watchers, ranging from communities of organizers/protesters to TV fan communities (Dayna Chatman)
  • complex Black pleasures, erotic or otherwise, in watching or being watched under various conditions of visibility (Mireille Miller-Young, Jennifer Nash)
  • Black femme strategies for navigating the aftereffects of bystander and bodycam recordings of anti-Black, misogynist, and heterosexist extrajudicial violence
  • protester responses to surveillance technologies including facial recognition and social media intelligence gathering
  • pedagogical considerations for engaging Black visuality without entrenching trauma narratives or controlling images of Black womanhood (Patricia Hill Collins)

Send 250-word abstract and 100-word bio to Carmel Ohman cohman@uoregon.edu by September 10, 2020. Participants must register for the convention and be MLA members by 22 September, 2020 (limited financial support available if needed). Participants may not already appear on the MLA program more than once.