This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
It began with an email of simple praise. A senior scholar reached out to me about my academic writing. Her words were hospitable and soft; and, I responded. Now, almost a year later, we continue to write, like pen pals. We exchange reflections on our lives and relate to what the other has expressed. We’ve created an intimate space that can provide the intellectual and emotional leeway we’ve found missing in our scholarly lives. We are both Black women, studying, and writing about other Black women, which centres race and gender in much of our work. These concepts also live in the textures of our experience and dispositions and animate our correspondence, much less for analysis or critique, than for naming those shared aspects of ourselves that have shaped so much of our inner and outer lives. In our electronic missives, our bodies are present, as are our hearts. She described this created space in April by relaying, ‘My shoulders have moved away from my ears.’ She adds, ‘At my age, as a Black woman academic that feels good.’
Our writing has turned into a friendship. ‘Feel no guilt! Life has too many demands and obligations; don’t let this exchange become one.’ She begins generously. I regretted my delay in responding to her having unintentionally prioritised the mundane over our communication. She redirects me back to the gentle feel and purpose of our conversations. She invites presence, truth, and passion, such a far cry from the responsibilities of her titled position and the expectations of academic expression. But these are also the experiences I presume generated a longing to create such hospitality, to write freely and curiously, and to welcome me in.
This past November, she wrote of truth telling and having time to think. She said this is what ‘[she] misses as an academic. Everything recently feels rushed and devoid of creativity.’ The term slow scholarship, articulated as a feminist politics, reiterates her sentiments and cravings. It calls for a different sensibility around the creation of our intellectual work. My friend wrote these words before the gravity of Covid-19 and this new life of zoom classes, calls, and socialising. She wrote them as a Black woman whose presence, ideas, and voice in academic life rarely have received the benefits of patience or urgency. Life in academia, and academia, in its new socially distanced form, are not moving slower or inviting innovative voices. If anything, they have accelerated and dilated in ways that cause more stress, more tension in our bodies and constriction in our words. Despite or maybe because of it, we continue to write.
This May, in the midst of the pandemic, my friend wrote of testimony, asking about who hears us as Black women and how. She spoke of the impact of the virus on university life and in turn, how it bears on her person. I am reminded of the well-worn understanding that most often Black women are keepers of each other’s stories. Formed by similar structural forces, we, more often than others, can recognise each other’s experiences, hear each other’s pains, and celebrate each other’s victories small and large. If so inclined, we can empathise, mirror, challenge, and affirm. Such an ethics of care comes out of the historical contexts that have both demeaned and generalised our experiences. But what this relationship teaches is how we can prioritise each other’s spirits and hearts. We can encourage each other to walk towards a more surrendered path, one so ambivalently and unimaginably envisioned by many Black women. Given the pressures and aggressions Black women have endured, it’s a bold request to ask them to voluntarily yield, and one that only handcrafted spaces of intimacy and presence are able to make.
For me, this means daring to write at the edge of discovery, to blend worlds of matter and spirit, and to speak with an immediacy of what wishes to come through. There is rarely a point to be made, but a revelation on the cusp of arrival. In the comfort of her words and ear, I explore with increasing candour. It’s a space to take risks, to travel from the contours of Blackness and womanhood into how we swim in the ocean and dig in the dirt. With each missive, the quiet invitation persists to write more honestly, to bring a quality of truth to that which lies just out of reach.
There are differences between us of which we are aware: age, family, professional trajectory, place of birth and residence, to name only a few. She tells me of her own path, not linearly, but scattered through descriptions of family and migration, her relationships with other Black women, her feet in the sand, planting her garden. We tend to relate out of our longings and reservations, our grappling with the lives we have and our desired adjustments. Writing with her feels like balladeering, making sounds of our sentiments and offering them up.
Another academic/artist friend, who’s queer, Black and feminist, introduced me to the concept of radical friendship. She did so knowing my contemplations about what friendship means for Black women. This friend told me of a community of feminist women of colour in Germany who practice radical friendship, naming how they join in community to create family-like support, place, traditions, and commitments. They celebrate and they mourn together. In so many societies where hostilities towards Black people, queer people, and women run deep, it feels familiar that people with resonant body-experiences rely on friendships for safety, solidarity, and home. Less familiar to me was how they consciously devised the architecture of their friendship. From the example of this community of feminist women of colour, I understood ‘radical’ to anchor the unmoored idea of friendship by providing structures of care-taking and practices of mutuality.
The possibility that friendship, rather than marriage or neighbourhood, for example, could provide the skeleton for community interrupts the casual, breezy quality of common uses of the word friend. Old friend, new friend, Facebook friend, friend-with-benefits, work friend, all gesture to the dilution of the term and how our language falls short for the range of our relationships, particularly for those that are not sexually or professionally defined. In the universe of our emails, my friend’s language, by contrast, sustains. Our friendship generates and beckons, perhaps giving it a radical feel in its effects. In her words: “More and more I’m allowing the knowledge produced by my heart to take charge and lead me. To trust the value of this knowledge is not easy for someone trained in “logic”. But I’m learning to retrain myself to see all the ocean and not just what’s visible on the surface.” I’ve come to see that our friendship strengthens the eros in observation, expression, and vulnerability. It recognises our longing and the mysterious parts of each other. In doing so, it exemplifies a type of friendship, driven by an uncertain but no less wondrous attempt to become more of ourselves. I would call it sacred.
Dr. Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. She currently works as a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her writing on black life across the diaspora has been published in various academic journals and appears monthly on the blog Black Perspectives. In addition to her academic endeavours, Dr. Henery works as a mitigation specialist, conducts interviews for the Texas After Violence Project, and guides others to creatively navigate their lives.