Projector - Africa

Ilze Wolff, Tania Safura Adam Mogne

Reading time: 7 minutes



Black Women: The Poetics of Micro-Histories

Available until May 25, 2023

Christina Sharpe in her text In the Wake: On Blackness and Being speaks of the wake of slavery to understand the life and death of black people in our present. She asserts that the past does not always reappear to fight the present; rather, it is a taking over. So in no case, we can identify it as a chronological past.

That idea is extremely powerful because it speaks to how current everyday disasters are linked to unwavering black exclusion and its ontological negation since modernity. Throughout that text, she mentions a key point: “I include the personal here to connect the social forces on a specific, particular family’s being in the wake to those of all Black people in the wake; to mourn and to illustrate the ways our individual lives are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery.”1

Sharpe understands microhistory as an autobiographical example, as Saidiya Hartman says, “which is is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it’s not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes”.2 Her reading confirms the power of microhistory to reformulate History—with a capital letter—and generate knowledge. This is a power that has gripped me since 2017, when I carried out at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge de Barcelona program entitled Microhistories of the Diaspora: “Embodied” Experiences of Female Dispersion, which sought micro stories to account for something much larger, uncontrollable and overflowing. I am fascinated by this method of knowledge that displaces the grand narrative of history, questioning the dominant contents, gazes and languages from singular perspectives and placing the body at the center. This exercise also involves approaching everyday life to subvert the secular principles that categorized some as men and others as primitives, semi-men expelled from humanity.

Giovanni Levi,3 makes a clear analogy to understand microhistory: it is like using a microscope, the scale of observation is modified to see things that, in a general vision, are not perceived. Looking at a reduced and specific scale, as in a laboratory, it is possible to pose general questions and answers that have relevance in other contexts and realities, opening the possibility of linking processes and intertwining perspectives of very different kinds. An arduous exercise when information is not available. Saidiya Hartman resolves this conflict with critical fabulation, that is, she proposes fictional reconstruction to account for the gaps and voids that appear when archiving the history of people affected by racist violence, and in particular, that exercised against black women during slavery.

Carlo Ginzburg develops another proposal of microhistory that attempts to recover the problems from “the very perspective of the victims”. Ginzburg states that it is impossible to understand the space of mental or cultural realities of a society without starting from the essential division between hegemonic and subaltern cultures, the latter being understood as the cultures of the marginalized sectors and the lower classes of societies marked by the division of labor and the context of colonial production. Contexts that have molded subaltern individuals without history or voice, alienating them to the point of minimizing them, especially when it comes to poor and black women. While these women increasingly emerge with greater force appealing to their state of subversion, speaking unchained from social rules and reclaiming women as the source of life, power and energy, a timeless voice comes from the hand of intersectional microhistory, and from very disparate places and perspectives. Microhistories question historiographical versions and bring visions of everyday life, struggles, pleasure, suffering, dreams, desire or mental health, and above all, they reveal how the violences of slavery and colonization emerge in contemporary existences.

Healing Narratives – Summer Flowers
Bessie Head (1937-1986)

Some time ago I came across La voz de la locura femenina en la diáspora africana: Los trastornos mentales y la locura como trasgresión y síntoma de una cultura enferma [The voice of female madness in the African diaspora: Mental disorders and madness as transgression and symptom of a sick culture], a book in which Diana Rodríguez and Mar Gallego take the conflictive relationship between feminist theory and psychoanalysis to reflect on female madness in the African diaspora. Throughout their pages they discuss the controversies claiming that, in psychoanalysis, madness is conceived as a distortion of reality, uncontrolled impulses, feelings and behaviors, and therefore, it is considered as a psychic illness. However, they show how madness is the most direct expression of the fragmentation of being and is a place that women created to renegotiate their silenced identities in the face of an oppressive patriarchal system and its colonizing policies. They claim that madness became a place of expression for many disempowered women.

Franz Fanon, in his book Black Skin, White Masks, spoke about the sociogeny of madness, i.e. its social and cultural dimension. Rodriguez and Gallego take up the thesis of other theorists who state that “if culture is socially ill, it is not surprising that the individuals who make it up are also ill”. In this sense, they argue that our personal illnesses are directly linked to social illnesses, and they point out the existence of a feminine literature, a healing narrative, which allows us to heal the fragmentation of our being. Their paradigm is a 1974 novel, A Question of Power, written by South African author Bessie Head. A text that reflects on loneliness and invites us to enter into the political and social dimension of madness as a result of apartheid. Like most of Head’s novels, there is something autobiographical about it. Her birth in a mental asylum where her mother, a wealthy white woman who had a forbidden relationship with her father, a poor black man, was locked up, will mark her forever. Especially because when her mother died, she was forced to live with foster families, most of whom never accepted her because of her mixed race. But that was only the beginning of a state of ghostly madness and misfortunes that will accompany her all her life.

Despite all the misfortunes, her writing inspires the need to restore women to their true places in history, recognizing that they have always been outside of it, that they have been ignored and denied a voice. For this reason, it is her conviction that a new world can only be created by women who have gone through an experience of pain, who have suffered multiple vexations and have been condemned to marginalization and discriminated against for reasons of gender and race, and other stigmas such as insanity. And that is the African woman, a woman who emerges from suffering through resistance and struggle in the hope of awakening in a new world. This idea of a new world, of awakening and hope is what runs through the piece Summer Flowers.

In Summer Flowers Bessie Head, exhausted by the problems caused by apartheid, decides to move to Botswana with the firm intention of never returning to South Africa. In 1969, she built a house there with the profits from her first novel When Rain Clouds Gather. In that house she wrote A Question of Power at night and during the day she worked with other volunteers in Serowe as a gardener and as part of Boiteko; a communal gardening project that would later become a central part of her novel. It was also at that time when South Africa, her home country, was undergoing the most extreme and violent destructions of historic black neighborhoods under the Clustered Areas Act. Bessie Head wrote that she was “primarily concerned with the way people were losing land” and therefore considered her work to be in dialogue and continuity with that of the South African journalist, politician and writer, Sol Plaatje, who decades earlier documented the effect of the Land Act in his book Native Life and for which Head wrote the introduction to its 1982 republication. Today, the house is Botswana’s national heritage and this film attempts to link her voice, writings, practice and conversations with the work of the intellectual Sol Plaatje.

Summer Flowers, Bessie Head (1937-1986)
Produced by Wolff Architects 2021
Directed by Ilze Wolff
Edited by Khalid Shamis
Original score by Cara Stacey
Photography by Heinrich Wolff, Lerato Maduna & Malik Ntone Edjabe
With the authorization of the Bessie Head Heritage Trust & the Khama III Memorial Museum, Serow


  1. “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being”. Christina Sharpe . Duke University Press, 2016, p 14.

  2. “Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman.” Patricia J. Saunders. Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal,
    2018, p 6.

  3. Giovanni Levi is one of the promoters of microhistory, together with Carlo Ginzburg.


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