Volume 26 Number 2
©2004 Tyagan Miller
A Whirlwind in All Directions
Striding through the halls of the Indiana Memorial Union, Mzilikazi Koné nods and waves to fellow students, talks about her involvement in Union Board projects past and present, and stops in at the food court to buy herself a bottle of juice. As she goes up a flight of stairs to an office in the Student Activities Tower, the conversation shifts to some of the subjects that interest her most these days: the status of poor women of African descent in Latin America, the literary and social value of diaries and oral histories that tell these women's stories, and the need for a perspective within feminist theory that addresses the realities of their lives.
All weighty and multifaceted issues, but Koné, an IU Bloomington senior, tackled them enthusiastically last summer in a research paper titled "Carolina and Reyita: Inserting Cuban and Brazilian Women in Black Feminist Thought and Theory." Her initial inspiration occurred during a course on black feminism taught by Audrey McCluskey, associate professor of African American and African Diaspora studies. Then, in the interdisciplinary fashion that characterizes all of Koné's scholarship, she shaped her project with faculty members Arlene Diaz, associate professor of history, and Sabrina Karpa-Wilson, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese.
"I've studied Spanish for years," says Koné, who grew up in Pasadena, Calif., "so I have a longtime interest in people in Latin America."
Koné presented her paper in November 2003 at the McNair Scholars' national conference in Delaven, Wis., under the sponsorship of Diaz and Karpa-Wilson. (The McNair Scholars Program, named for late astronaut Ronald McNair, prepares low-income, first-generation, and minority undergraduates for doctoral-level research.) The paper focuses on two figures: Carolina Maria de Jesus, a poor rural black woman who moved with her children to the favelas (slums) of São Paulo, Brazil, in the 1950s and powerfully documented her experiences in a diary titled Child of the Dark, and Maria de los Reyes Castillo Bueno, a Cuban woman born in the early 20th century who begins her oral history Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman with her grandmother's abduction into slavery.
One of Koné's main tasks was to examine ideas about testimonial literature. Commonly defined as works by writers who, as members of oppressed groups, experience and react to events and conditions that are often not recognized in "official" accounts, testimonial literature "allows those on the margins to have a voice," Koné says. "[Testimonial literature] can be what actually empowers formerly colonized peoples."
Besides considering testimonial literature's capacity for empowerment, Koné's project has broken new ground with its geographic connections. "There is a lack of comparative work on the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian women's experience," she explains. "I believe it is important to gain more knowledge about the women in both Cuba and Brazil because I think U.S. black feminism can learn a great deal from looking closely at their experiences."
In Child of the Dark and Reyita, these experiences comprise innumerable daily degradations as the subjects struggle to house, feed, and educate their children and help them to prevail over the racism that has impeded their own well-being. Writing about Child of the Dark, Koné observes, "We see throughout the book the treatment of the poor. . . . People will throw acid on food so that the poor cannot eat it or will dump rotten food in the favelas that makes the children sick." Koné also notes that as these women fight merely to survive, they are constantly hindered by prejudiced behavior toward people of color¤even within Reyita's own family, where lighter-skinned relatives are treated more kindly: "Her mother's internalized racism came out negatively as she treated her differently colored children and grandchildren differently," Koné notes.
Koné hopes that such insights into the lives of latinegras (Latin American women of African descent) will open a new vein of inquiry within black feminist thought and theory, one that acknowledges suffering but also recognizes black women's strengths. "Black feminism is about searching for and helping to define black womanhood," writes Koné. "It focuses on the importance of self-determination for black women. And while black feminism addresses the oppression experienced by black women, it is necessary to understand the independence of black women, so that we are not defined by our oppressions."
More scholarly attention is due to the experiences of women throughout the African diaspora, according to Koné. "By creating a more inclusive community of black women's experiences, we can further challenge the system of power," she says. This may sound like the dream of a typically idealistic 20-year-old, but Koné exhibits the kind of energy and determination that make change possible. "The great thing about Mzilikazi is that you can suggest an idea to her, and she goes off and does her research," says Diaz. "When she comes back, it's obvious that she's done a great deal of work." Project co-sponsor Karpa-Wilson adds, "It's clear that Mzilikazi is committed to social justice issues. She has made real connections between the lives of black women in Latin America and the black American feminist scene."
Quinton Dixie, assistant professor of religious studies, has also witnessed Koné's extraordinary initiative. In his class titled Hip-Hop and Spirituality, Dixie recalls, "Mzilikazi expressed an interest in the hip-hop scene in Latin America. After a few conversations, I figured out that her knowledge of the subject exceeded mine, so I pointed her to the literature and research I was aware of in the area, and she ran with it. We continued to have conversations about hip-hop and its potential as a positive force in popular culture, and I'm glad to say I've learned more from her than she has from me."
Her ability to enlighten others helped Koné thrive in her position as the 2002 director of lectures for the Union Board. With Union Board committee members, she helped plan and coordinate campus appearances by comedian Margaret Cho; professor, activist, and author Howard Zinn; poet Nikki Giovanni; film director Spike Lee; and feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, among others. Koné says that one of her most exciting moments in the 2002-03 school year occurred when she introduced Steinem's keynote address at a Kinsey Institute conference on women's sexualities, which was partially sponsored by the Union Board.
In 2003, Koné became the Union Board's vice president for membership, directing a range of programs aimed at recruiting and retaining Union Board officials and volunteers. She was also active in the Student Coalition, an organization affiliated with IU's Commission on Multicultural Understanding which addresses diversity concerns on the Bloomington campus, and she was an organizer of a March 2003 campus event titled The Color of War, a program that included lecture, poetry, and music critiquing the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its effects on people of color.
It's not surprising to learn that Koné's first name means "the whirlwind that comes in all directions" in the Ndebele language, which is spoken in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
"I'm named after a famous warrior from the 19th century who served under King Shaka Zulu and eventually started his own kingdom," she says. Her last name is also African; her father adopted it after studying in college with a professor of the same name from the West African country Mali.
"I come from a really strong, really empowering family," Koné says. The youngest among four sisters and one brother, she remembers a childhood filled with curiosity and commitment. "My parents have always instilled in me the importance of being aware and involved," she says. "They took me to all kinds of places and events, from museums to protest marches." This background laid the foundation for her successes at Santa Catalina High School, a small girls-only boarding school where Koné served as student body president in her senior year.
Koné came to IU as a Herman B Wells Scholar in 2001. Named in honor of the late IU president and chancellor, the Honors College-based Wells Scholarships provide full tuition to outstanding students in all fields of study. Visiting the campus for the first time as a potential Wells Scholar was "exciting but intimidating and nerve-wracking," recalls Koné, who has studied in Costa Rica and Spain but had never been in the Midwest before. "Because my high school was small, IU seemed so big at first, and I was concerned about that, but the Honors College has made this place seem like a smaller community."
Koné designed an individual major for herself: human rights with a focus on Latin America. She is spending the spring 2004 semester at the University of Havana in Cuba where she plans to make a video documentary about Cuban hip-hop music, among other projects. In the summer, Koné hopes to repeat her summer 2003 experience by completing another research project through the McNair Scholars Program.
Koné foresees some kind of graduate study for herself, though she hasn't identified a specific field. It will have to encompass all of her diverse interests and sustain the intellectual independence that IU has promoted. "Everything that has happened at IU has been fundamental to questioning and finding out who I am," Koné says. "Learning is an adventurejust seeing where it's going to take me."
Karen Grooms is senior editor in the Indiana University Office of Publications.