Everyday Freedoms

June 2023

Denise Noble, Decolonzing and Feminizing Freedom: A Caribbean Genealogy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); 374 pages; ISBN 978-1137449511 (e-book)

Denise Noble’s Decolonizing and Feminizing Freedom: A Caribbean Genealogy uses a transhistorical and transnational lens to uncover the meaning of freedom and independence in both everyday and academic discourses of African Caribbean diasporic womanhood. Her analysis is grounded in a series of interviews with her subjects—ten Black British women of Caribbean descent—all of whom, Noble reports, “without exception, expressed high levels of familiarity and investment in the idea of independence as a powerfully lived reality, material necessity and ideal or value shaping their conceptions of what it means to be a Black woman” (103).1 Her subjects’ conceptions of freedom were grounded in an ideal of personal sovereignty and articulated in terms that often reflected a popular trope that positions the Black woman as a survivor and as economically independent, autonomous, and agentive. Their understandings were enabled in part, Noble’s study finds, by an attachment to a Caribbean “home” identity (93), grounded in an experience of the Caribbean as a geographical, cultural, and psychic space that “nurtures the capacity to see oneself beyond the wounded subject of racist representations and experience in Britain” (66). For her interviewees, a “transnational and diasporic consciousness” provides a “counter horizon,” or an alternative conceptual space that allows for self-identification outside “the terms of Western modernity” (90).

This work is divided into nine chapters, each of which provides a situated analysis of “the embodied, quotidian and vernacular practices through which African-Caribbean British women have generated and deployed contested meanings of freedom” (7). Throughout Noble’s analysis she foregrounds the complex and contested meanings of the terms and concepts on which she focuses: strength, freedom, Blackness, identity, agency, and empowerment. These are concepts to which her interviewees return time and again, though in less pointed language than that used in the analysis and with varying degrees of certainty. The text of the interviews is both framed by and interspersed with sociological and historical analyses of Britain’s colonial and postcolonial entanglements with the Caribbean, yet Noble is careful to maintain the distinctive character of her subjects’ contributions. The contradictions expressed in her subjects’ responses emphasize both the raw complexity of the experiences the women seek to narrate as well as their diverse range of experiences and backgrounds.

While keeping in view both the popular cultural image of the strong, free Black woman and her interviewees’ own interpretations and modifications of these tropes, Noble’s work brings a fresh perspective to the specific, historical, but frequently disconnected conjunctures of power within which such conceptions of Black British womanhood have emerged. These historical conjunctures, Noble argues, can be used to “identify the changing temporalities of liberal-colonial governmentality, as it has targeted and sought to shape African-Caribbean women as both subjects of freedom and subjects of British liberal-colonial rule” (157). Further, the genealogical approach Noble takes serves to uncover the historical “intermeshing” of concepts of freedom and therefore their limits (186). Discourses of freedom articulated by her subjects, and theorized in this work, emerge in tension both with the lived practices of resistance to the instrumentalization of freedom by structures of colonial governance and with a politics of “muscular liberalism” (2). The latter, a term made popular by the British prime minister David Cameron, is one to which the book turns repeatedly and is used to define a contemporary British politics that valorizes a concept of the enterprising individual who occupies the moral center of British cultural and political values. It is a concept that at the same time implies a denunciation of the values of “passive tolerance,” the perceived fault line of British multiculturalism (161–62).

Noble traces the concepts of freedom and self-empowerment so central to her interviewees’ sense of self back to traditions of resistance that emerged first during slavery. More significantly, for the purposes of her argument, she also examines these concepts in the context of the period following the publication and implementation of two interconnected reports—the Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services (1942; known as the Beveridge Report), which laid the foundation for the modern Welfare State in Britain, and the Report of the West India Royal Commission (1945; known as the Moyne Report). Noble gives an insightful reading of their interconnection, arguing that as reports that were instrumental in laying the foundations for state intervention in civil society and family life in the UK, both also marked critical moments in the circulation of British racial rule and patriarchal nation-building in Britain and the Caribbean. In addition, she notes: “Both moments also represent significant transformational phases in British state policies for the racially articulated gendered management of labour” (162). Noble’s deft juxtaposition of these reports serves to emphasize the imbrication of gendered subjectivities in the conjoined politics of the metropole and the colonies and the racialization of classed and gendered categories. Both reports institutionalize the category of “the housewife,” whose role at the imperial center was to replace Britain’s depleted White subjects and in the colonies, to reinforce White rule. At the same time, both reports sought a moral agenda that, in the “West Indies,” involved, paradoxically, measures designed “to instil the attitudes and habits of ‘proper family life’” (173) among Caribbean working-class women while recognizing, and at the same time undervaluing, their economic role. As several studies have shown, however, African Caribbean women had consistently refused to be coerced into marriage by colonial institutions. They successfully resisted efforts to be confined to the domestic sphere and continued to prioritize economic, sexual, and social independence.

By appealing for single, nonmarried women’s labor to rebuild its shattered state, Britain was able to exploit the bifurcated identities its colonial liberal reforms had created and simultaneously to feminize and racialize service roles in the newly created and expanded public sector that included transport, social care, and health. Again, however, although African Caribbean women were recruited to the service areas of the public sector and categorized as workers instead of as connected and social individuals, they resisted efforts to be constructed only as workers: women settled, built families and communities, and worked, often independent of male support. One of the interviewees comments, characterizing her mother: “A strong Black woman, she ran the show. And I grew up with that, thinking that if I didn’t do certain things, I’d be failing the Black race” (128). Indeed, Noble dedicates this book to her mother, a postwar arrivant to the UK: “To my mother, . . . who refused to be crushed by the fear of racism or sexism and taught me to stand in the bigness of my history, culture and myself.”

As all Noble’s interviewees demonstrate, the concept of freedom as personal sovereignty is deeply implicated in African Caribbean diasporic women’s self-identification. It is, as Noble observes, a daily preoccupation but also one that tends to reaffirm a liberal agenda around individual freedom and one that might also reflect a submission to popular stereotypes of the strong and emotionally and materially independent Black woman. As a result, her subjects “act as though they are freer than their objective conditions dictate” (342). They reflect the belief that they are not controlled by others or by other circumstances. However, as Noble argues, citing Sharon R. Krause, “Women’s experiences of agency are often intersubjectively fulfilled through their networks of interdependencies” (342).2 Individual agency is, therefore, a product of those interdependencies and not merely reflective of an exercise of free will and individual agency. In addition to an affirmation of her mother’s strength, the interviewee cited above mentions her own fear of failure, of not “managing,” and her wariness of the popular celebration of struggle. “But . . . what is so great about struggling, anyway?” she asks (128). The valorizing of individual achievement by “muscular liberalism” also roots the conditions for failure in the individual, thus making concepts of freedom, strength, and achievement complex and problematic in the everyday experiences of this study’s subjects (19).3

Noble’s genealogical tracing of the making of the African Caribbean diasporic woman as a subject of freedom in colonial, anticolonial, and postcolonial discourse performs a timely intervention into a climate of hysteria that prevails around the subject of immigration in the UK, one that though changing in its terms and references is always underpinned by racism and the legacy of imperialism. It is a work that begins to unpick popular concepts of freedom, suggesting the incapacity of language to adequately describe the complex legacies of freedom in the Caribbean and among its diasporic subjects and suggesting an urgent requirement to reformulate racialized and gendered concepts of autonomy and agency, freedom and unfreedom.

Suzanne Scafe is Visiting Professor in the School of Humanities at Brighton University, UK. She has published extensively on Caribbean diasporic women’s literature, Caribbean literary history, and Black British women’s literature and culture. Her forthcoming book, Reading to Resist: Contemporary Black British Women’s Fiction, is set to be published by Routledge in 2024.

[1] All italics in quotes are in the original.

[2] Noble references Sharon R. Krause, Freedom Beyond Sovereignty: Reconstructing Liberal Individualism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015), 4.

[3] The term “muscular liberalism” was introduced by Prime Minister David Cameron in a 2011 speech.

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