questions of presence


This article considers some of the ways in which ‘the black woman’ as both representation and embodied, sentient being is rendered visible and invisible, and to link these to the multiple and competing ways in which she is ‘present’. The issues are engaged through three distinct but overlapping conceptualisations of ‘presence’. ‘Presence’ as conceived (and highly contested) in performance studies; ‘presence’ as conceived and worked with in psychoanalysis; and ‘presence’ as decolonising political praxis among Indigenous communities. I use these conceptualisations of presence to consider the various ways in which the black woman as figure and as embodied/sentient subject has been made present/absent in different discursive registers. I also explore what is foreclosed and how this is itself linked to legacies of colonial ‘worlding’. I end with consideration of alternative modes of black women’s presence and how this offers a resource for new modes of sociality.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Miles Davis' album released under that title by Capitol in 1957, contained tracks that had been recorded between 1949 and 1950. The sliding temporality of the emergence of a mode of jazz called ‘cool’ was the dominant presence for a while, echoing the paradoxes of ‘presence’ more generally!

  2. 2.

    Nishnaabeg, also called Anishinaabe, are one of several culturally related Indigenous peoples whose lands traversed parts of what is now Canada and the USA. Others in this grouping of related peoples include the Oji-Cree, Ojibwe and Algonquin.

  3. 3.

    See the 17 February 2016 article in The Guardian, ‘My daughter was failed by many and I was ignored’ (Gentleman and Gayle, 2016).

  4. 4.

    The death of Sandra Bland following her being stopped by the police for a supposed traffic violation, was the event that gave rise to the #SayHerName movement and campaign. She was found hanged in her cell on 13 July 2015. This was three days after she had been stopped.

  5. 5.

    One need point to no more than the violence and contempt meted out to black lives by the police in Brazil, the USA and the UK.

  6. 6.

    Pamela Ramsey Taylor lost her job following a period of suspension, and Mayor Beverly Whaling resigned from her post.

  7. 7.

    Boris Johnson (2002), the current Foreign Minister of the UK, wrote of ‘piccaninnies’ etc. in his column in the newspaper The Telegraph, published 10 January 2002; Kelvin MacKenzie (2017), once editor of The Sun newspaper, now only a columnist, wrote of the Everton football player Ross Barkley in terms that referenced ‘gorillas’, published 14 April 2017.


  1. Alexander, M., 2005. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Ardill, N. and Cross, N., 1988. Undocumented Lives: Britain’s Unauthorised Migrant Workers. London: The Runnymede Trust.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Armstrong, D., 2005. Organization in the Mind: Psychoanalysis, Group Relations and Organizational Consultancy. London: Karnac Books, pp. 10–28.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Ayler, A., 1964. My Name is Albert Ayler. Copenhagen: Debut.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Back, L.S. and Bryan, C., 2012. New hierarchies of belonging. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 15(2), pp. 139–152.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. BBC News, 2016. Michelle Obama ‘ape in heels’ post causes outrage. BBC News, 17 November. Available at: [last accessed 10 September 2017].

  7. Benitez-Rojo, A., 1996 [1992]. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean Society and the Postmodern Perspective. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bion, W.R., 1970. Attention and Interpretation. London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Bion, W.R., 1989 [1963]. Elements of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.

  10. Carlson, M., 1996. Performance: A Critical Introduction. New York and London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Chancé, D., 2011. Creolization: definition and critique, Tr. J. Everett. In F. Lionnet and S. Shih, eds. The Creolization of Theory. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 262–268.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Dabydeen, D., ed., 1985. The Black Presence in English Literature. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Davis, M., 1957. Birth of the Cool. Los Angeles: Capitol Records.

    Google Scholar 

  14. de Finney, S., 2016. Under the shadow of empire: Indigenous girls’ presencing as decolonizing force. In C. Mitchell and C. Rentschler, eds. Girlhood and the Politics of Place. London: Berghahn Books, pp. 19–37.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Elkins, C., 2005. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. London: Jonathan Cape.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Equalities and Human Rights Commission, 2016. Race report: healing a divided Britain. Equalities and Human Rights Commission, 18 August. Available at: [last accessed 30 November 2016].

  17. Etienne, J., 2016. Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of First-Generation African Caribbean Women. London: Trentham Books, UCL IOE Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Fuchs, E., 1985. Presence and the revenge of writing: rethinking theatre after Derrida. Performing Arts Journal, 9(2–3), pp. 163–173.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Gentleman, A. and Gayle, D., 2016. ‘My daughter was failed by many and I was ignored’. The Guardian, 17 February. Available at: [last accessed 10 September 2017].

  20. Glave, T., 2008. Whose Caribbean? An allegory, in part. In T. Glave, ed. Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 177–190.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Glissant, E., 2011 [1997]. Traité du Tout-Monde, Poetique IV [Treatise on the Whole World, Poetics IV]. Paris: Gallimard [in French].

  22. Goldman, M., 1975. The Actor’s Freedom. New York: The Viking Press.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Goodall, J.R., 2008. Stage Presence. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Goodell, W., 1853. The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice Shown by its Statutes, Judicial Decisions, and Illustrative Facts, Third Edition. New York: American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Hall, S. and O’Shea, A., 2014. Common-sense neo-liberalism. Soundings, 55, pp. 8–24.

    Google Scholar 

  26. INQUEST, 2017. Deaths in police custody. INQUEST: Truth, Justice & Accountability, 14 November. Available at: [last accessed 17 December 2017].

  27. Jay, A., 2014. Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham. Rotherham: Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Johnson, B., 2002. If Blair's so good at running the Congo, let him stay there. The Telegraph, 10 January. Available at: [last accessed 4 January 2018].

  29. Jordan, J., 1976. Second thoughts of a black feminist. Ms Magazine, pp. 113–115.

  30. Kinouoni, G., 2017. White women’s innocence, oppression and a can of Pepsi. Race Reflections, 8 April. Available at: [last accessed 10 October 2017].

  31. Lorde, A., 1984a. Age, race, class and sex: women redefining difference. In A. Lorde Sister Outsider. Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, pp. 114–123.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Lorde, A., 1984b. Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power. In A. Lorde Sister Outsider. Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, pp. 53–59.

    Google Scholar 

  33. MacKenzie, K., 2017. Here's why they go ape at Ross. The Sun, 14 April, p. 13.

  34. Nanibush, W., 2010. Mapping Resistances. Curatorial essay. Peterborough: Ontario.

  35. Ogden, T., 1992a. The dialectically constituted/decentred subject of psychoanalysis: the Freudian subject. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 73(3), pp. 517–526.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Ogden, T., 1992b. The dialectically constituted/decentred subject of psychoanalysis: contributions of Klein and Winnicott. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 73(4), pp. 613–626.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Ogden, T., 1994. The analytic third: working with intersubjective clinical facts. In T. Ogden Subjects of Analysis. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., pp. 61–95.

  38. Oliver, K., 2004. The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Social Theory of Oppression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Oluo, I., 2015. I have a proposal for Rachel Dolezal. The Stranger, 12 June. Available at: [last accessed 10 October 2017].

  40. Oluo, I., 2017. The heart of whiteness. The Stranger, 19 April. Available at: [last accessed 10 October 2017].

  41. Peltz, R., 1998. The dialectic of presence and absence: impasses and the retrieval of meaning states. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 8(3), pp. 385–409.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Pykett, J., 2012. The new maternal state: the gendered politics of governing through behaviour change. Antipode, 44(1), pp. 217–238.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Rankine, C., 2015. Citizen: an American Lyric. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Reddock, R., 1985. Women and slavery in the Caribbean: a feminist perspective. Latin American Perspectives, 12(1), pp. 63–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Richards, S.L., 2006. Who is this ancestor?: performing memory in Ghana’s slave castle-dungeons (a multimedia performance meditation). In D.S. Madison and J.A. Hamera, eds. The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies. Thousand Oaks and London: Sage, pp. 489–507.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Said, E., 1984. The World, The Text and The Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Scott, D., 2000. The re-enchantment of humanism: an interview with Sylvia Wynter. Small Axe, 8, pp. 119–207.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Simpson, L., 2011. Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: ARP Books.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Sisters Uncut, 2016. Sisters uncut UK day of action. Sisters Uncut, 14 November. Available at: [last accessed 30 November 2016].

  50. Spivak, G., 1985. Three women’s text and a critique of imperialism. Critical Inquiry, 12(1), pp. 243–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Spillers, H.J., 2003 [1987]. Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: an American grammar book. In H.J. Spillers Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago and London: University of London Press, pp. 203–229.

  52. Stoler, A.L., 2002. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R., 2008. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Tinsley, O.N., 2008. Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: queer imaginings of the Middle Passage. GLQ, 14(2–3), pp. 191–215.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Tinsley, O.N., 2010. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Winnicott, D., 1971 [1953]. Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. In D. Winnicott Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock, pp. 1–25.

  57. Winnicott, D., 1960. The theory of the parent–infant relationship. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, pp. 585–595.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Winnicott, D., 1965 [1962]. The development of the capacity for concern. In D. Winnicott The Maturational Processes and the Facilitational Environment. London: Tavistock, pp. 73–82.

  59. Women’s Budget Group, 2016. New research shows that poverty, ethnicity, and gender magnify the impact of austerity on BME Women. WBG: Women’s Budget Group, 28 November. Available at: [last accessed 10 September 2017].

  60. Wynter, S., 1994. No humans involved: an open letter to my colleagues. Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, 1(1), pp. 42–73.

Download references


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Association of Psychosocial Studies Annual Lecture in December 2016. My heartfelt thanks to the Association for inviting me and to the lively and engaged audience from whom I learnt much and whose energy sustained me. I hope I do justice to you here. Special thanks to my beloved friend and inspiration, Avtar Brah. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers for their close reading and helpful suggestions.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gail Lewis.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lewis, G. questions of presence. Fem Rev 117, 1–19 (2017).

Download citation


  • black women
  • presence
  • colonial violence
  • de-gendering
  • psychosocial
  • triangular space