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“If they come in the morning…”: Gaza and Black Solidarity

26 Nov

one.
I want to go outside.

When i was a kid, my parents would force my brother and I to leave the interior of the house to play in the backyard – whiffle ball, basketball, hide-n-go-seek, freeze tag – or ride bikes in order to give them some relief from our noise. Theirs was a commendable desire: for us to get fresh air, to see the sunlight, to play with other kids, to exhaust ourselves so that we might sleep. But we were crafty and did not necessarily appreciate such desire, existing on the edge between playing outside and ColecoVisions, Atari 2600s, Nintendos and Sega Genesis game consoles. On the horizon of such 16-bit fun, neither being outside playing nor inside gaming, were of much satisfaction, at least to me. So though we would gradually make our way to the back porch, quietly open the door and retreat to our room, I always desired more.

What I have discovered years later most emphatically, however, is that if there was a place to go, it was not necessarily reducible to the geographic lines of forced distinction, it was not, that is, based on the ability to be mobile. If there was an outside, it was based on how my brother and I would work and play together, how we would argue and fight each other. Outside, in other words, was a condition of imaginatory faculty. And what I learned from “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” Bob Ross’s “Joy of Painting” and the “Eyes on the Prize” series is that imagination is foundational to creating new worlds of inhabitation. To be outside while contained, to be outside through lodging oneself into interiors.

two.
The Black Panther Solidarity Committees in Germany was a local movement that emerged through noticing the vivifying force of blackness as resistance:

“The black power struggle is part of the struggle of all suppressed and exploited people. Their resistance struggle is also our resistance. This is why the American negroes do not need words, but guns. Only this language … Burn, Baby, Burn can be understood by the white ‘Herrenmensch.’” Berlin Komitee Black Power, “Solidarity demonstration for Black Power,” Flyer (1968).

Black Feminist Philosopher and Cultural Critic, Angela Y. Davis knows something about the inescapability of interiors, of being lodged into a system and structure that sought for her demise. But she also knows something about the power of voices, of speaking to other women behind prison bars, about enacting freedom through imagining new worlds. Davis became a particular figure for a local struggle for the Black Panther Solidarity Committees was that not reducible to Davis’s flesh; she became a figuration for the horizon of Black Power, what it can do and be in the world. The movement in Germany, and its struggling with and for Davis’s freedom, recognized the violence of theological-philosophical rhetorics that produce something like a political party, a nation-state, that perpetually marginalizes the “least of these,” sharing in antagonistic struggle against that violence. Black Power could not be contained in any one body but was a force that could be enacted and proliferated in various worlds through aesthetic practice, through enacting living in, but not being of, certain worlds. Attending to the local allows us to consider the conditions of our current moment, while not submitting to normative progress narratives.

“The struggle we are engaged in is international. We well know what happens in Viet Nam affects our struggle here and what we do affects the struggle of the Vietnamese people. This is even more apparent when we look at ourselves not as African-Americans of the United States, but as African-Americans of the Americas.”

This struggle for and with Black Power against imperialism was also important to Stokely Carmichael who, in 1967, argued that Black Power is concerned with internationalism, one that stands against marginalizing practices of these United States as a movement against colonialism and imperialist oppression. Engaged in internationalist struggle, any movement and resistance to colonialism and imperialism is a concern for Black Power, an articulation of Black Feminism and Womanism, an enactment of BlackQueer Aesthesis, producing change in various worlds of our inhabitations. Thus, the Black Power Committee in Germany participated in blackness as an interruptive force, seeking to reconfigure and reestablish modes of affinity and lines of resistance.

The concern for Angela Y. Davis’s abolition, the concerns Stokely Carmichael outlined in his speech, are aesthetic theories that disturb political economies and historical narratives that let state borders become the touchstone for radical difference that would have us misrecognize our interconnectedness. Their concern for others as a concern for self troubles the assumptive logic of racial exclusion, such that we can rethink the relation between, for example, the California Men’s Colony and the “open air prison” that is the Gaza Strip, or generally, any imposed set of statutory strictures. Black Power in its varied iterations compel a retooling of the concept of the “local,” where the local can now be the sociality that emerges as a response to moments of crisis – any decisive moment or staging, any critical occurrence or happening.

In her autobiography (1974), the section titled “Walls” describes Davis’s experiences being transported between, and sequestered in, California prisons awaiting trial for “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley.” Davis’s writing is an intellectual project about obstruction, about the meaning of being walled in and sequestered; but she does not stay there. The wall as obstruction also becomes the occasion for resisting, an occasion for thinking the possibility of opening even in the most horrific of conditions. She knows that walls and obstructions never eclipse the capacity to be otherwise, to change, to be inflected, to be, that is, outside. She knows that like Jericho, walls come down, that they disintegrate with time, with chance. Davis is in the tradition of Harriet Jacobs, of Henry “Box” Brown. That is, being boxed in, being in a “loophole of retreat” or being in a California prison could not take away the ability to cognize, to think, to engage in an intellectual project of the outside. The outside became that which is imagined as irreducibly social and resistant to enclosure. “The walls of my windowless cell were far too thick for [the people standing outside the prison’s] chants to penetrate. But I could feel them and I felt happy and strong because of them” (287). We might call what she felt, even on the inside, a moment of external insurgent feeling. That mode of insurgent feeling, we might say after Davis, is an illustration of the way “Walls turned sideways are bridges” (347). The sounds of chanting, the screams for justice, turn walls into bridges. But where can we go once the bridge is constructed?

three.
“Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!” Thus begins the 2011 Gazan Youth’s Manifesto for Change, and attention to this document is evermore urgent, it seems to me, because of the recent escalation of Israeli violence that resulted in more than 160 Palestinians, many of whom were civilians, even after the agreed-upon ceasefire. Often described as an “open air prison,” Gaza has roughly 1.7 million people living in roughly 140 square miles, making it “one of the most crowded places on earth.” Borders controlled with access in and out of Gaza limited, with access to water, food and medical supplies curtailed, all of the people in Gaza are being held hostage, are being punished for the mere fact of living. Civilian deaths are nothing more than figurations of “collateral damage” and the United States supplies Israel with much of its ammunition.

Gazan youth recognize their being pawns in a set of political maneuvers that do not have their best interests at heart, but only the furtherance of a capitalist productions of state power. Their Manifestor eight times say they are “sick” of the conditions in which they are existing, what Fannie Lou Hamer would call being sick and tired of being sick and tired. But if they are in prison, if they are held in confinement, let’s think a bit more with them about such sequestering.

“Jails are thoughtless places. Thoughtless in the sense no thinking is done by their administrations; no problem-solving or rational evaluation of any situation slightly different from the norm. The void created by this absence of thought is filled by rules and the fear of establishing a precedent (meaning a rule they had not yet digested)” (Davis 290).

The prison is thoughtless, not because folks imprisoned lack thought, but because the administering of violence, the creation and maintenance of the conditions of confinement through brutality and punishment, lacks anything of problem solving, anything of recognition of something like humanity in the ones imprisoned. The Gazan youth claim: “There is a revolution growing inside us” and it is a revolution that allows them to keep heart despite the turmoil, the violence, the constant violation under which life exists for them. They conclude, offering the world what they desire: “We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace.”

What the youth document is an otherwise than philosophical-theological treatise, it is a critical practice of collective thought that emerged from the condition of feeling like a problem. Their Manifesto was a calling out into the world, a longing for sociality. The Manifesto does not offer a causal link to historical moments positing that theirs is a continuation and moment of progress. Rather, they offer an aesthetic theory about the concept of history itself through the performance of lament as Manifesto. They interrupt western philosophical-theological concepts of space and time through the present now, the urgent thrust, of their writing. The history their Manifesto performs is a theory of the commons similar to the Communist Manifesto and the Black Panther Party Ten Point Program. They offer a history that interrupts linearity of time and space through the set of demands as desires for the outside. Their history makes of their demands an urgently local concern for us all and we must be open to, vulnerable to, their longing.

four.
Empire and its continual marginalizing of the “least of these” – what the Occupy Movement calls the 99% – it appears after November 7, 2012, is having the Best Week(s) Ever! With the drone attack of Yemen and the Department of Justice’s defense of indefinite detention – “plaintiffs lack standing because there is absolutely no basis for concluding that they would be detained under the challenged military force authorization”; I still have not figured out if this is tautological or simply circular logic – election day, Obama’s conference call about the Grand Bargain two days after the election asserting that the social programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security would likely be on the next episode of Food Network’s “Chopped” or the US’s unambiguous response to and support of Israeli strikes in Gaza, what we are noticing is the continued movement rightward of left-wing politics. The concern about complicity – how we participate, by paying taxes for example – is one that we must consider deeply. Just how can we resist, from our admittedly small spaces in the world, such practices that further entrench inequity into the fabric of our lives like Cotton?

Perhaps it is something like Harriet Jacobs and her inhabitation in a crawlspace for seven years; that the consent that she could not give she could, yet and still, withhold. We do not consent to the atrocities done in our name, in the name of a nation-state. In absence of having a “choice” about how tax dollars are utilized, how we finance war and thus, participate in it, withholding consent is the power that catalyzes movement. 

five.
I have never shared with my parents the names of men that have given me great, unfettered joy, the names of persons who have made my heart flutter and the pit of my stomach churn with butterflies. They do not know the names – nor the occurrences – of the smiles I have been given and returned, the hands held; but also the sadness. They do not know who first broke my heart, or the one who most recently captured my dreams. If I had joy to be shared, sadness to be released, it would secrete itself after having been carried, held within until I could find a clearing space to laugh, dance, weep. And upon finding out she would be released on bail – a victory won in the long struggle for her freedom – Davis withheld joy: “I laughed out loud. If I had been anywhere else I would have shouted, but there in the solitude of that jail I held my joy” (Davis, 330). The religious convictions of my parents do not steal my capacity for joy; rather, having joy in the midst of such doctrine makes the joy felt evermore difficult. I want to tell them how I saw him recently and wanted a lingering hug. But I cannot. Like Davis, if I could be anywhere else, if I could be outside, the held joy – as withheld breath – could be shouted. I search for a clearing.

The clearing is a space of open exposure, of vulnerability, even as it is a likewise space of protection. Can we create a clearing – as a mode of solidarity – for Gazans? Can we see the violence under which they suffer, which is part of the US Empire, as connected to our struggles here? How is the Gazan enunciation of youth concern a “local” issue? Martha and the Vandellas solicit us still, telling us that dancing in the clearing of streets is generative for new worlds, a critique of the world in which we exist. So to the streets we must go, to the outside, even if initially the exterior within our own minds. It is there where we can gather and join in solidarity with others.

Angela Davis edited a collection of essays while incarcerated titled If They Come In the Morning based on a heartfelt letter she received from James Baldwin while locked in confinement. That letter claimed that if we sit idly by and allow the violence of state power to violate whom it considers Other, it will likewise come to claim whatever “us” of which we claim to be a part. We breathe the same air, share the same earth, so what affects me will undoubtedly affect you. Instead of the temporal privileging of presentist accommodations, perhaps we should share in and celebrate the mutuality of shared vulnerability, shared joy, to be in relation to one another, to – along with the Gazan youth – “scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in.”

Let’s go outside.

the receipts: notes on voting abstention

12 Nov

one. 

I was defriended on Facebook this summer after a rather dramatic set of exchanges that took place publicly and I recently began to think about that defriending because I wanted to consider how mishearing and misreading were the grounds through which a purportedly critical analysis of my position was given and how that mishearing and misreading allowed the individual to feel good about himself once he finally clicked “unfriend.” Mishearings and misreadings are often foundational for argumentation, and though one’s argument may or may not, in fact, be correct, because of the straw man against which they contend, incongruity is often the result in such conversation. I reposted a status written by Mark Naison that argued, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of the person for whom people would vote into presidential office, that grassroots organizing must, of necessity, take precedence, given the economically unviable world in which we live:

‎”No matter who wins the next election, the US is likely to become a poorer, crueler country with leaders in every walk of life seeking to protect their own advantages while demanding sacrifice from those who work for them, or depend on the programs they offer. If there is going to be kindness, generosity and compassion, it is going to have to come from people ‘on the ground’ and be reflected in how they help one another when they are in trouble. [A]nd how they share dwindling resources.”

The individual that eventually defriended me responded by saying it was sad that I was cynical, that I should have hope and belief in the “political process” and that I should simply join Team Obama. I resisted a lot of his language because Naison’s assertion was not about the limited category that we call politics, as such. It was about how we will need to build coalitions with folks from all walks of life, how the hoarding and greed of the economically privileged class squanders resources for the “least of these,” making of us all dependent on one another. I was reminded of this exchange because of the urgency of Naison’s words ringing ever more true today: his words were a call to sociality, to being together with others that is likewise the condition of emergence for imagining a new world, a world wherein we share together in resources, wherein we share together in life and love through generosity and compassion.

Naison’s words reverberate, indeed, given the fact that the Chicago Teacher’s Union held a strike that lasted seven days in September this year, teachers fighting for better wages, better work hours, medical and mental health staff for students, better accommodations, books on the first day of class and a reduction in the weight given to standardized testing for teacher evaluations. Many folks on the left agreed with the CTU’s position. And when a candidate for president in 2007, President Obama promised not only to support unionized labor, but to put on his comfortable shoes to march with unions for better labor conditions. However, the striking in Wisconsin and the CTU illustrates the ways Obama wanted nothing more than the CTU strike to end quickly and quietly. In other words, whatever the teachers would receive would be gained through their own collective organizing with no support from the one that once promised to be with them.

Naison’s words reverberate, indeed, given the fact that the Occupy Movement, under the guise Occupy Sandy, is one of the primary means by which folks in New York City are receiving resources after Hurricane Sandy. The Occupy Movement was certainly dismissed by both major political parties, with the Republicans thinking the lament of the 99% vacuous and tantrum, with the Democrats attempting to coopt the critique of the current political economy by attempting to “Occupy the Vote.” Funny, then, how it has been the support given by the Occupy Movement that gathered quickly and rose to the occasion of the current crisis, delivering meals, clothing and medical supplies.

Naison’s words reverberate, indeed, given the fact that Wal-Mart workers are calling for a strike, organized action against the superpower because of its varied, storied, many abuses of the workers there – everything from ensuring workers do not have schedules long enough to receive healthcare benefits, though forcing workers to labor extra “overtime” hours, to the general belittling and lampooning of workers as “stupid” and “dumb” by management. Similar actions are likely to proliferate rather than come to an end because we live in a world of economic collapse, the refusal to take Climate Change seriously during presidential electoral debates, the privatization of public services and the general assault of organized labor.

Indeed, if we are to thrive in the world, we will achieve this through collective organizing, by another politics, a politics that contends with and against simple assertions of “political processes.”

two.

(Trigger Warning: Lynching Image) 

Various reminders to “get out the vote” last week invoked the category of “ancestors” as the reason for such urgent action. It is, indeed, true that the history of suffrage movements in the US document various marginalized groups contending for the ability to vote in local, state and national elections, attempts to participate in the representational political form that is our republic. I was uneasy by the invocation of ancestors, of family members who once could not vote, as the reason why we must participate today. It is true that suffrage was, and is, held from peoples throughout the history of the US with violence and perpetual violation. The underside of such assertion was the implied critique that to not vote, to intentionally abstain, is mode of dishonoring the same past. But there were other ancestors, other modes of collective – and thus political – organization that did not desire the thing, we might say, was withheld them.

“‘Slaves and maroons from various plantations met regularly in the cipriere,’ Gwendolyn Mildo Hall writes, ‘Huts were built, with secret paths leading to them.  A network of cabins of runaway slaves arose behind plantations all along the rivers and bayous.’ Much of the social life of the city’s slaves became concentrated in the swamps where they could talk, dance, drink, trade, hunt, fish, and garden without supervision.  The settlements were hidden away, but they were also integrated with the life of the city.  Unlike in some places in the United States, these maroon communes had many women and children” (Disturbing the Peace, 62).

The ciprieré communities secreted from local plantations, maintaining a relationship to spaces from which they escaped, but established new patterns of behavior and aesthetic interventions for protection and peace. Setting traps, navigating the swamps, having sex, singing, raising children, eating – all these were aesthetic practices that always and likewise had to be forms of preparation. Maroons needed be ready at a moment’s notice for encounter with the political world of the exterior that would bear down on them and produce violence against them. Each practice, therefore, was a likewise preparation for the possibility of the threat of violation; each practice, thus, highlights the ways in which interventions always likewise have an aesthetic quality and theoretical underpinning. We might say that the CTU’s ability to organize quickly, that Occupy Sandy’s ability to gather and disperse resources at a moment’s notice, was but another figuration of the extrapolitical aesthetic practices of marronage, a way to be in worlds but not of them, a way to respond to needs as a critique of the institutional structures that create such need in the first place.

Michelle Wright writes about how “[m]ost of the Social Sciences and Humanities derive their standard notion of time from physics – specifically Sir Isaac Newton’s notion of time as a fixed constant, linear in its movement – physics itself abandoned Newton’s belief a century ago” (73). That which is considered space and time in Social Sciences and Humanities emerge from particular philosophical and theological movements. Such that interruption of an aesthetic practice offers a general critique of the normative political sphere, such that black power disturbs historical narratives and the ease with which ancestry is sometimes deified, such that blackqueer atemporality troubles binaries of rocking or mocking votes. The interruption that is black power, that is black feminism, that is the blackqueer aesthetic, also disassembles space as well. Such that it becomes increasingly difficult – if not impossible – to distinguish the Prison Industrial Complex and the general militarization of police power in cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Oakland in the elusive borders of something called the United States from the heightening of militaristic power that terrorizes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya. 

So while it is true that abstention from electoral politics does not, of necessity, protect, attending to another ancestry, the history of marronage, perhaps presents us with other ways to think abstention-as-protection, where protection was not about the participation in, nor the replication of, the spaces from which enslaved folks escaped, but was about the desire to be left alone, to organize and care for one another without the imposition of the state. In our world, in our interconnected cyberculture, the local becomes ever more important and Occupy Sandy, as a figuration of ciprieré marronage, is an illustration of the quick, intense and intentional emergence of sociality to current local conditions. And maybe the local is all we have. 

three.

I was defriended last week on Facebook, either the day before or of Election Day, for reasons similar to the opening story. I posted writing by Summer McDonald about her decision to not vote in this year’s election. I was confused not by those antagonistic to a decision to not vote, but that people were upset about the audacity to declare the decision of abstention in the midst of all the enunciations of support for the red, blue, green or independent parties. I hadn’t read too many things declaring abstention as a choice, so I’m still waiting for receipts about why this limited group produced such a seemingly loud response. 

I have attended a church locally in Durham for roughly two years (and I will return once I get out of job market / finishing dissertation … heaven. lol), though I am a self-proclaimed agnostic. Something about the sociality of being together with others was, and is, important to me, though I oftentimes disagreed in some pretty huge ways with things being said. There was something about struggling with others, while struggling within myself, to make a new world inhabitable by more folks than just ones generally deemed acceptable. But sometimes, struggle is too much and lines are drawn in the sand. The first time I walked into a church in Durham four years ago, as I took my seat in the very back of the church, the pastor quickly began bespeaking the horrors and sinfulness of being gay. And I don’t even think I wore my rainbow headband that day. But I picked up my keys and walked out as quickly as I walked in. And one of the ministers, presumably, ran out after me to ask who I was and why I was leaving. “I’m a gay dude…but I’m ok with it. And your pastor is just wrong,” is what I told him to which he replied, “give me your number so we can talk about it later.” Gotta love the contradictions. 

As a cisgender gay dude that grew up in Pentecostal churches as a musician, songwriter, singer and preacher, I am well acquainted with heteronormativity, sexism and homophobia that run in a lot of religious rhetoric, such that I understand when other folks choose to abstain from participating in religious communities. For them, religious ritual does not counterbalance the at times violent rhetoric used to dismiss large groups of folks. For them, religious ritual is something that they find otherwise and elsewhere than the church … and in many ways, they create gatherings in spaces that are just as sustaining and important. I think I’d be justified in never going to another church in my life, and I’m ok with that. But I also get why people continue to go back, with hope. We need not denigrate either position, as both emerge from a desire to be and be together with others. I do not dishonor my parents, my former churches nor my old way of life when I use the queer theoretical ideas I learned in elite, private universities just because I learned them in those elite, private places. You do not dishonor your ancestry if you choose to live in the world in ways that honor what you believe allows you to stand in your truth, to be transparent in a world that would have of us all to be fearful and afraid. Rather, we honor folks when we engage them, even when we disagree loudly. 

Interrupted Attachments: On Rights, Equality and Blackness

17 May

Remaining attached to certain ideals even when – and sometimes, most especially after – privileges that accrue to such concepts have been pointed out and problematized, should force us to ask some serious questions about the relation of citizenship and subjectivity, the relation of citizenship as subjectivity, to ongoing processes of exclusion and violence. The questions would be something like: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Attachments to certain concepts rehearse, reiterate and revise – through an uninterrogated longing and desire to be an individual, a self-determined thing that seeks the power of the state for validation – the virulence of state power, its capacity to make of us all docile creatures waiting for an affirmation of what we already have, what we already do in perpetuity, as if we have nothing and do nothing without such recognition. And thus, we celebrated the announcement from the head of the United States – an historic, enduringly imperialist project of the uninterruption of violence, incorporating difference insofar as it consolidates the furtherance of capitalist inequity – while readily dismissing and setting at remove for a later date, a non-utopic future always approaching but never here. This is not about the possibilities of horizon, a queer manifestation of the liberational force of broken frame.

Attachments are deferral without demand, abeyance without appeal.

Attachments are the “wait until we have this,” which is never too far from hearts, minds and lips of uninterrupted celebratory posture, wherein what is continually inaugurated is an abstraction – in the name of a “we,” but in the service of nothing other than desired coherence, stability, stasis.

What is given here is an incrementalist approach towards citizenship rather than a radical commitment towards justice. We see trees but certainly, no forest. Incrementalist approaches are necessarily a solicitude of citizenship, and embedded within this approach is the implication that in just a few “short” years, we will all look back at the folly of what is now our present moment with derision, but also with self-satisfied joy. We need only wait. But the “we” who is called upon to wait is always a peripherality to, and obstruction of, thought.

This pic/meme of the opposition to interracial marriage and now gay marriage should be noted.

Noted not because of the framing similarities between the juridical discourse and public debate about gay marriage with interracial marriage; it should be noted because we have not yet dealt with – nor does it seem urgent for enough folks to do – the root causes of such inequitable distributions of rights in the first place. So in fifty years we will say how “backward” our now present moment was with regard to “gay marriage” but because we refuse to deal with the root – an imperialist political economy that necessitates inequities of all sorts – we’ll likely both be having this same conversation with a newly marginalized group while AT THE SAME TIME folks will still be discriminated against based on race, gender, sexuality and class. Because, you know, racism, sexism and classism aren’t really dead yet and aren’t promising to go anywhere soon. [This notion of the “backwards” has been stated about North Carolina and the overwhelming vote for Amendment One, lampooning the state as full of “rednecks,” “hicks” and conservative black Christians; this displacement does not even think about the exploitive political economy of the US, let alone NC – something like 2% above the national unemployment rate, for example. The self-satisfaction of those making the claim about NC, for example, while refusing to interrogate the political economy that creates the conditions of inequity is not a little bit intriguing.]

Anyway.

The normativity of monogamy married [pun? intended.] to the ability to receive financial aid and benefit and tax breaks, as well as the literal violence of the rhetorics of “same gender” / “same sex” to folks who are intersex, genderqueer and transgender compel the inquiry: who is this “we” and what is the “this” that is seemingly being attained? Of course, one could claim that a general public would need be educated about such queer variances and that what is most pertinent in our now moment is the celebration of the now moment, a prepositional displacement banishing the concerns of others for the now moment. But then the most we do is submit to – even if we’d rather critique – the power of the state, reinforcing its capacity to extend by excluding. It seems that everywhere, folks have aspirational attachments and none of us occupies a position where this could never be possible, though historical marginalization tends to be thought as shoring up against such aspiration. Thus, the case of the following curious picture should be noted.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the first dude is white and the second anti-gay marriage dude is black. I think it’s the tight curly fro or something. [Even if he’s not, stay with me]. What this picture rehearses, beneath its very thin veneer is not simply the idea that black people in the US are more homophobic than others, nor simply the idea that blacks cannot see the connection between interracial marriage and gay marriage as both are concerns about civil rights. What is beneath the surface is an implicit, but more foundational, claim about the coherence of marginalized groups, about how historically marginalized peoples gain subjectivity: by the assemblage of fucked up things that have happened to them. The second panel of the image implies: “hey, black man! some bad things happened to you in the past and that bad stuff is the sum total of what, and – most importantly – who, you are!” The vivifying force of the image is the idea that that which marginalizes is that which makes or forms “subjectivity” [and I think subjectivity is a bad thing; more on that soon]. The implication in the image is that marginalized groups own that which marginalizes. When this attachment is operative, “community” [which some say is fiction, though I’ve not been convinced; I’m an agnostic who goes to church for a reason] is grounded in that which is offensive, that which wounds.

But blackness is not reducible to “bad shit”; black community did not subsist and thrive in the face of the violence of slavery and Jim Crow by gathering around and deciding to be more fucked up and by believing that those things that others pathologized in us were bad. Black community was and is an incarnation of blackness, characterized by the joy of living in the face of institutions and systems that seek to diminish the very possibility for joy, for life, for love. The image rehearses the iterability of the narrative that reduces blackness to discriminatory things done to black people, that regulates blackness to bad shit, as a particular kind of historicizing purity, a coherence at the heart of our definable moments [e.g., the violence of Middle Passage rather than mati, affectional bonds created during Middle Passage that exceeded the horror, exceeded the violence, and allowed thriving life]. And, thus, the critique of black folks by Robin Roberts in her interview with Barack Obama wherein she bespoke the “especiability” of black homophobia such that Obama’s change would be grave “…especially in the black community”; thus the critique of Barak Obama by black clergy like Jamal Harrison Bryant and by religious groups such as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The above image, thus, is the presentiment of the various critiques from multiple directions – both for and against “gay marriage” – as they each assume blackness is reducible to historic marginalization, and that those historic conditions are the grounds for a coherent, stable identity that can be easily and readily identifiable. In this formulation, blacks would have to be “more homophobic” just to identify the antithetical position of necessarily nationalist, patriotic sentiment, or as Hortense Spillers argued otherwise, this black homophobia would have to be invented [and in some ways, it seems to have been]. This is a problem of, fundamentally, attachments.

What is most vulgar about uninterrogated attachments is that it causes us to contend with institutions like COGIC and its restatement of their opposition against gay marriage, requires us to respond to Jamal Harrison Bryant’s statements about gay people, while leaving intact and uninterrupted the violence required for citizenship under these American skies. Roberts’s statement of black homophobic “especiability,” COGIC’s oppositional restatement, and Bryant’s resistance to gay folks all articulate, at bottom, a concern about what it means to have personhood in the face of uncertainty, incoherence and instability. However, the problem emerges from, and is an attachment to, the fact that subjectivity is created by a violent move out from the incoherent, it is an aspiration toward stability and certainty. In that way, Roberts, COGIC and Bryant simply participate in the ever-expansive goal for subjectivity. But as the very idea of subjectivity is sustained by the logics of self-determination, I fail to find the utility; these are western philosophical concepts, placing “European man” as theological-philosophical-spatial center, and the “others of Europe” (as Denise Ferreira Da Silva calls it) can only journey toward a determined “self’ … subjectivity is defined by the ability to be fully possessed of oneself, to be closed, stable, anti-social, to be wholly determined; it emerges through violence and violation, thus i’m not persuaded that it is a worthy pursuit. The attachment is to a particular mode of violation against the social, a violation that yields the articulability of the individual. We might say that “gay marriage” is articulable in our present moment as a desire for citizenship that necessarily moves out violently from the incoherence and instability of queerness, sets those who cannot easily be – or those who do not want to –  “same gender” or “same sex” in the zone of deferral and abeyance. No demands, nor appeals here.

Maybe detachment is what we need. But how can we get there? Is an anti-political politics possible that thinks the world differently? One possible reply, which here may show up as a peculiar conceit, is to ask – and daily inquire intentionally and diligently – who do we want to be? Certainly not a novel question though it is ever-pertinent. Do we want to perpetually reinstantiate the conditions of inequity, only ever-so-slightly increasing who gets to count as normal, enlivening and refreshing the violence of the state, allowing such violence and violation to go uninterrupted in some otherwise location [e.g., the Prison Industrial Complex; Palestine; Wall Street]? Or do we want to radically transform our world by asking tough questions about our own, personal, private propensities for comfort over and against the safety of others? What world have we been given and what world do we desire to make? Southerners on New Ground does this work: to make bonds that do not diminish difference but builds coalitions based on collective struggle for a world full of radical, affirming love. SpiritHouse, Inc in North Carolina does this work: to lament the loss of black life but, as importantly, to affirm the life still here: to care for this life through joy, song, prayer, dance. This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about through asking: what do we want to be, today, everyday? This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about by relinquishing attachments to ideas, philosophies and theologies that we – even if they would have us – should interrogate because they would not, nor could not, have us fully whole, fully human, fully alive without relegation or repression. And maybe detachment from certain violent and violative concepts would allow us to fully attach, both to our deepest and most foundational humanness, and thus, to the world in which we abide, with others, in joy, in love.

The Love of Black Mothers and the Care of Black Children

18 Mar

I

In august of 2011, I had to call my mother – on a cell phone with not a lot of power left because I had been checking Facebook and texting friends, hoping to be released from a CT Scan clinic at Duke Hospital – to tell her that in less than two hours, I would be under anesthesia and that there was a chance (50 percent, I later discovered) I might not wake up. Things, for me, felt as quick as this opening sentence: no time to think about what was happening: just hazy, blurry, rapid movement. It was difficult for me to tell: the forceful speed with which a visit to student health for what I thought to be a painful pulled muscle (and no need to inform my mother of such frivolity) turned into no less than 13 doctors visiting me in the Operating Room prep area within the span of 30 minutes, all saying “we’re surprised you’re alive!,” and hinting that had I waited another 24 hours to see about that pain – pain thought only to be the residue of a new Bikram yogi – I would likely have died. How to tell that to your mother on the phone when she is hours away in New Jersey; to receive a phone call from a nervous father not moments after speaking with said mother, attempting to explain to him that you don’t even know what the doctors meant while he sat at work, trying not to sound baffled and tear up a bit; to try to explain the severity of the issue at hand without understanding. This was the context of my visit to Duke Hospital in late August 2011. And there was a hurricane in the New Jersey area that made travel impossible so though I had a hospital stay of six days, it was not until the day after I was released that my mother made the trek to North Carolina to attend to me, to take care of me, to cook and talk and help me walk. Still, mostly I remember how I felt moments before I was wheeled into the Operating Room: on the phone with my mother while a friend from church held my hand, me laid out on the bed: and as my mother prayed that God would protect me and my theological convictions shattered because of my agnosticism, I cried like I was a five year old: confused: dazed: hoping, above all, that that would not be the last time I’d hear her voice.

Though unemployed at the time, “even if I had been working, I would have taken off to be with you,” is what my mother said, and what I knew to be true. She was with me for two and a half weeks and just having her here was of grave importance. The woman who changed my diapers and fed me in high chairs and with whom I made chocolate chip cookies while my older brother was at school when I was no more than three years old; the woman who potty trained me, who showed me how to tie my shoes – the blue Nikes with the yellow swoosh right before we walked to the Five and Dime store around the corner on South Orange Avenue – all this I remember about the interactions between a mother and her son. And all I could think about on that hospital bed not moments away from an incision and a very serious operation was, “I hope this is not the last time I talk to her.” But many recent events are making me revisit the love of mothers, the love of black mothers, for children, for black children. And I keep thinking that I, at least, had the opportunity to call my mother and say something before the unexpected erupted in our lives. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

 

II

The capacity for black women to be mothers is radically under attack presently. Of course, this is nothing new: from antebellum legal declarations that the “status” of children would follow the “status” of mothers because those persons were the reproductive force of degraded station; to the report of one such Moynihan that ostensibly blamed black matriarchy for the failures of black social life without ever interrogating the normative modes of family that Negroes “failed” to produce; to recently, the incarceration practices of black mothers who have the purported nerve to “steal” public education from municipalities.

Though Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, lived with her father part-time and, thus, was within the lines of the of Copley-Fairlawn school district, she was sentenced to ten days in prison, having stolen “quality” education for her daughters. The school district’s stance was that the tax dollars needed to stay with “their” students. Of course, it did not matter that Williams-Bolar’s father paid the very same taxes to the very same municipality. What mattered is that the person who stole education was not a primary resident of that municipality.  The idea that Williams-Bolar, or anyone really, “stole” public education should give any of us pause because such claims, particularly when thought about as a theft of tax dollars in particular areas, do not take into account the economic structure that makes such declarations of theft possible. That is, ours is a political-economic system that necessitates inequitable distributions of wealth and, attendant to wealth, healthcare, educational and job opportunities. The desire to make out of Williams-Bolar an example is nothing other than a war against the poor who point out the fundamental injustices that persist in our political-economic system that makes a poor class out of the majority. For the Copley-Fairlawn school district to prosecute Williams-Bolar was nothing other than a claim that all persons are not worthy of equitable resources in educational practices but only those born, quite literally, in the right lines. Though pardoned, the very fact of the prosecution should tell us that something is fundamentally wrong with the way resources are hoarded by some and refused to others.

Unfortunately, Tanya McDowell has not been pardoned and has a mandatory prison sentence of five years with another five probation. Though homeless, with her most recent residence being Bridgeport, Connecticut, she enrolled her then five-year-old son in the Norwalk School District. She did not plead guilty, but rather entered a plea under the Alford Doctrine, refusing to admit guilt but conceding that the state had enough evidence to convict her [and when does the state not? especially when it can fabricate…but more on that soon]. We live in a world where the very concept, that someone could possibly “steal” education, is possible. This should force us to ask some serious questions about what is at stake in educational practice as it does not seem to be raising awareness, making people critical thinkers or the affirmation of the capacity to learn. When education can be “stolen” and one “convicted” of such action, it appears that education is nothing more than a commodity that participates in the inequities that many of us are committed to dismantling. This is especially preposterous for McDowell because the folks responsible for her conviction will not say that she “stole” from a fundamentally, foundationally inequitable institution. Robin Hood be praised; black women mothers be damned, so it seems. McDowell’s purported theft only shows just how discriminatory the structure of education is.

Both McDowell and Williams-Bolar illustrate what is, quite literally, class-based targeting … no one in “good” (economically viable) school districts would be accused of such theft because, at base, they would not need to “steal” these goods in the first place. And sure, they’d argue that their taxes provide for such an occasion for educational opportunities but then obscure the fact that these possibilities for economic viability are made from the same inequitable political-economic structures that animate the educational and judicial system. The residents within the lines of the “good” school districts are there because of inequity, not in spite of it.

Hannah Arendt, though sympathetic to the Negro cause for justice in the 1950s, could never bring herself to the American south and “even avoided occasional trips to Southern states because they would have brought me into a situation that I personally would find unbearable.”[1] This while she likewise stated that she could not understand how a Negro parent would allow the school to be a politicized space, how a Negro parent could send the girl in the photograph – Elizabeth Eckford – into conditions of such violence and violation. In another version of the same “reflections” about Little Rock, Arendt stated, “My first question was, what would I do if I were a Negro mother? The answer: under no circumstances would I expose my child to conditions which made it appear as though it wanted to push its way into a group where it was not wanted.”[2] When Mamie Till had an open casket funeral for her son Emmett and had the photographs published in the Chicago Defender and elsewhere because she wanted the world to see what had happened to her son, the response from some was ‘what kind of mother would do such a thing?’

In the cases of both Williams-Bolar and McDowell – and with the persistence of such queries; and with the excessiveness of punitive response to their maneuvers and choreographies rooted in a love for their children – at issue is the question: what kind of mother would do such things? Arendt, the critique of Mamie Till, Moynihan’s “report” all show that the Negro/Black/African American Mother is a general problem for theological-philosophical thought: just how do they do the thing that they do; just how do they show care, show love, give joy, give hope, in the midst of perpetual violence and violation? From what resource do these persons draw in order to move forward, and move ever forward, faces like flint, in joy, in love, given the brutal conditions under which these persons are forced to live? Williams-Bolar and McDowell are philosophers and theologians of black maternity and we do well to listen to their resistance to the given world. But not every black mother is so lucky to have an end-date to her suffering.

III

“Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.”[3] Thus begins Hortense Spillers’s fascinating “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” focusing on the very specific, very particular material conditions of black people since historic passages through mediums and middles on bateaus, ketches and skiffs, named with conventions such as Jesus, or the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Spillers prophesied the telling of Trayvon Martin’s murder to his parents: an unmarked, unnamed body, Trayvon’s father, Tracey Martin, “thought that he was missing, according to the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, but the boy’s body had actually been taken to the medical examiner’s office and listed as a John Doe” for a day.[4] Spillers’s being marked converges here with Trayvon’s being discovered, the normativity of the conflating of blackness and anonymity, enunciated and rehearsed by some people not knowing a name, by some people not giving a damn. It is important to note – as a sign of irrepressible, irresistible life – that Spillers says “not everybody” because if she is unknown, and if Trayvon is John Doe, this is limited and not absolute, no matter how pessimistic we may appear to become.

Being marked, being discovered. What we have here is an ontological set of concerns. What when your marking is the point of your discovering; what when the thing that you constantly manifest is the thing that constantly must be found elsewhere? The manifestation of Trayvon’s being marked by George Zimmerman occurred through the refusal to be earnest. Rather, Trayvon appeared as “a real suspicion guy,” Zimmerman’s was a gaze attesting the idea that Trayvon was “up to no good” and that he seemed to be “on drugs or something.” Though raining and night time, in Zimmerman’s mind donning a hood was nothing more than an accouterment to such criminal behavior, grounded in the fact of Trayvon’s presence: “he looks black.” Literally walking down the street looking around, basic behavior in which many of us participate daily, was criminally suspect to Zimmerman, enough so that he called 911, registered a complaint, trailed Trayvon in a car, got out the car, confronted Trayvon, scuffle ensued, ending in two shots: one in the air, one in Trayvon’s chest.

There appears to be a conspiratorial nature to the Sanford Police Department’s engagement with this particular case. No longer, even no longer primarily, is this operative at the level of the individual and interpersonal, and thus, Zimmerman’s claim for “self-defense.” The institutional practices of justice are being obscured and obstructed from even an initial movement into the search for justice. The PD at best appears to be misinformed, at worst lying, about what occurred, when it occurred, who said what, and how they said it. The PD is covering up the fact of Zimmerman’s past in favor of saying that he had a “squeaky clean record.” The PD is not even willing to arrest because they feel they have no “grounds” upon which to act, though their inaction is justified only by their refusal to be earnest, to be truthful.

It seems that the Sanford PD thinks that “self-defense” is only possible as a reasonable response when the force of such purported “defense” exceeds that of the one against whom such force is supposedly necessary. That Trayvon could not ask “what’s the problem?” to a dude who was slowly trailing him in a car did not register as a desire to guard his own personhood. It is only the continual elevation of force, turned fatal, that gave Zimmerman license to claim he was merely, only acting in “defense” of his “self” (not a little problematic category in the general, given the necessarily violent and violative history of such a concept in the west. Certain folks, through privilege, can claim such status, it seems and a black boy threatened such “selfhood”). Zimmerman’s theological-philosophical understanding of “self” is the problem and we find this out based on his discovery of a marked, suspicious boy.  What Zimmerman guarded, what he fundamentally defended, was his “right” to make a claim, here in this case, that someone was “suspicious” and his “right” to protection against the very appearance of that which bodied forth his claim. He was guarding against a general antagonism – a black boy walking home, not unlike Elizabeth walking to a Little Rock school, not unlike Emmett whistling.

How does one tell and tell a mother, a black mother, that a son, a black son, was murdered for suspiciously having Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea? Sybrina Fulton – Trayvon’s mother – knew Trayvon’s name. And each time, each and every time, I watch an interview of her, I am moved by her being moved, and angry by her being angry, and upset by her being upset, and confused by her being confused. Zimmerman, as of this writing, has not been arrested yet nor charged with any wrongdoing because he claimed self-defense. Fulton has appeared in several news conferences and interviews simply asking for justice to be done…for her son. The anger and rage, the sadness and melancholy of Fulton [and, but of course, Tracey Martin as well] must unfortunately be bottled up, be channeled into niceties, sitting in seats answering erroneous questions about Trayvon and if he enjoyed eating chicken.

But most poignantly, and most upsetting, is the way Trayvon’s voice will be, no doubt, etched in his mother’s mind: the release of a 911 call clearly has the cries, the pleas, the wailings from a young black boy for help seconds before the chilling sounding out of two gunshots. And then, silence. The cry for help, the plea for aid, the wailing for release is fundamentally on the edge between the particular and the general: it is his particular lament but rehearses and improvises a long history of such lament. Trayvon’s voice echoes and is echo; it reverberates and is a moment of previous reverberation. It is this haunting, chilling and quite simply, heartbreaking sound that his mother knows is the last sound he made. His shriek shares in, and gives, eternal force. But I understand something of his crying out in despair: hoping his mother would hear him, feel him, love him…still, even under such unequivocally horrendous conditions.

I want for Fulton what I want for Williams-Bolar and McDowell: justice. I want for these mothers, these black mothers, what I want for the world: an end to suffering that we cause by the inequities we set into motion and refuse to interrogate. Trayvon’s murder is part and parcel of a political-economic system predicated upon lack rather than abundance, hoarding rather than sharing.

IV

Tarrying. Having grown up in the Black Pentecostal sect of Christianity, I learned early on what it meant to tarry: to wait on the indwelling, the infilling, of the individual with the Holy Spirit, announced by the “initial evidence” of glossolalia, of speaking in tongues “as the Spirit gives utterance.” What so fascinates me about tarrying is that it literally means, “wait” but in that waiting, a sociality is both fashioned and in process of being fashioned, is both made and being made. The sounds of wailing and moaning, of “Jesus” and “have your way!” and of hand claps and foots stomps and tambourine jingles jiggling: cacophonous transcendence that is not always and everywhere loud but is dynamic, dramatic changes in volume and breath allow for the inhabitation of the Spirit. And then, one person breaks out, speaking in tongues. Then another. And maybe, and perhaps, another. And at the end of such tarrying is praise for those who “came through.”

I end by a brief discussion of tarrying because of a fundamental concern that Williams-Bolar, McDowell and Fulton presence for us: how long must we wait for justice to be done in the world, for justice to “come through”? They are but specific examples of an ongoing, general trend for certain lives to be treated as tenuous. But from our position, the position of the underground and submerged, the position of the marginalized, we know of our lives differently. The sorta political-economic world in which we exist needs for joy and love to be a limited resource rather than a radical commitment to allowing others to live, and thrive in that living. But this other position, we know of the joy of inhabitation, of the new song. We know it because we experience it daily but there are massive and strident attempts to make such abundant life unavailable. But we make this abundance life, not because of the brutal conditions of the world, but in spite of those conditions.

People would get frustrated and not a little angry if they tarried all night long and still not have an experience of glossolalia; it seemed – because of theological conviction – the Holy Spirit was refusing to indwell a particular believer. To have some folks speak of the joy and pleasure of the experience while others – pining and climbing and reaching for such ecstasy – have it refused is not a little bit disheartening. That same frustration and anger I carry against the radical assault on women in politics today, from reproductive health rights to incarceration for the theft of public educational goods asking: How long? How long must we wait? And though we create beautiful, radical sound and sociality in such waiting – as with the tarrying YouTube clip above – we still want for such waiting to break forth and burst free into the “coming through” from it all. Williams-Bolar had to fight to have her sentencing reduced from felony to misdemeanor. McDowell will be separated from her young son for five years. Fulton? Fulton does not know if justice will be served…she knows that her son has been murdered. At least I got to call my mother and hear her pray over and for me as I laid on the hospital bed. I want that for everyone.


[1] Hannah Arendt and P. R. (Peter R. ) Baehr, The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin Books,, 2000), 232.

[2] Hannah Arendt and Jerome Kohn, Responsibility and Judgment, 1st ed. (New York: Schocken Books,, 2003), 193.

[3] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2003., n.d.), 203.

[4] Charles M. Blow, “The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin,” The New York Times, March 16, 2012, sec. Opinion, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/opinion/blow-the-curious-case-of-trayvon-martin.html.

whitney: an attempt at tribute.

12 Feb

RIP Whitney Houston

i’m still in utter and complete shock regarding whitney houston. floored. very saddened. i left church this morning with some seething hope that i’d hear “it was an internet rumor” or a hoax or something. the weird thing is, my parents didn’t allow my brother and i to listen to “secular” music growing up and whitney was no exception. but as i heard of her passing last night, i teared up a bit. i began to think that even with the injunction against non-gospel music, i somehow still knew most of whitney’s songs, even when i was very young. her music made its way into school shows, everyone sang about children being the future, wanting to let them lead the way. everyone belted “and iiiii will always love you!”

but it was when she remade chaka’s “i’m every woman” that i got in trouble — a lot of trouble — for singing the song in my junior high school hallways. see, i must’ve been too flamboyant when i was 12 years old but i distinctly remember being reprimanded by my science teacher in front of the entire class when she said to me, without a hint of humor, “you’ve got some really feminine ways about you. if you don’t stop acting like that, people will think you’re gay” and she went along and finished her lesson or whatever. funny how some moments become etched in your mind.

i became not a little bit careful and surveilled myself with the hopes of repressing as much of those “feminine ways” as possible. but not knowing the grounds upon which my teacher made such a declaration, i was fighting a losing battle. anything i did i’m sure could have been construed to be in the “feminine” kind of “way.” and so it was that one day, after watching BET videos — likely video soul — i found myself in love with this “new song” called “i’m every woman.” and so it was that i’d sing this new song in the hallways of my junior high school: loudly, with much excitement and not a little bit of irony. but it just so happened that my science teacher’s attempt at public shaming gave others the license they needed to participate in a similar surveilling of my activities.

and so it was that a friend of mine [i will, of course, never forget who it was] said to me in the middle of a line, “ooooh, imma tell ms. burke! you actin like a girl!” and could not wait to return to the classroom to tell her that, indeed, “ashon was singing a girl song!” my teacher looked at me with not a little bit of disdain but also a hint of pleasure, “what did i tell you about that? people are gonna think you’re gay.” and that was that. it was an odd moment where the performance of gender, sexuality and song came together for me, even in a derogatory way. i’d been called a “faggot” in church for singing soprano but those school scenes — with classmates and teacher — seemed different. my voice was changing, puberty had already set in. so it wasn’t my voice that was the culprit. it was something other. of course, i still love, and sing, the song … whitney’s version of the song. but not again until after a very long period of waiting.

i found, with singing some non-gospel song, that the relationship between queerness and song that worried me since before puberty began was not relegated to the church … but that the performance of someone like whitney could also tattle. a choice had to be made: to continue to listen to her background ubiquity with pleasure, to sing anyway; or to stop, become quiet, and withdrawn. i chose the latter for a very long while because i could not untangle my sense of erotic, libidinal difference from such songs — sacred or secular. but in the background, in the underground, underneath, all this music still moved me. and moves me still.

whitney was just always there, always in the background singing clearly. for me, and with her performance of “i’m every woman,” she was an underground soundtrack for how performance pronounced all kinds of queer things about you, libidinal excesses. and her voice was always celebrated: they named a school after her in east orange, she continued to visit her church in newark, my high school prom date sang background for whitney all of the time. last night, it hit me: i share in all of these tangential connections to her work, to her voice. and i realized last night, as i was struck with the desire to cry, that whitney’s voice, her unabashed tone and clarity, her playfulness and depth of character created a performative space for me to be … whatever that being was and was becoming. like nina simone stated about the song “feelings” at the montreaux jazz festival, similarly, i am not mad at whitney making contemporary for me a “girl song” that i could sing … rather, i am mad at the conditions [all those institutional -isms] that produce the necessity and demand upon my science teacher to respond to my singing whitney — to singing a presumedly “girl song” in a decidedly “heterosexist land” — with such dismissal and chagrin.

because i realize: in me is every woman’s voice that has come before me, their life, their breath, their force, their vitality. the love of my mother and grandmothers is all in me. every woman is in every child ever born, a materiality of the refusal of alienation. black folks know something about an injunction of having to “follow the status of the mother” … but though the imposition was through a horrific condition, we celebrate the mother anyway. because it’s right. every woman. in all. each of us.

so i’m just sad. thank you, whitney, for your life.

Mamie Till’s Memorial

22 Aug

she wanted the world to see what they had done to her baby, Emmett. so as we quickly approach the day Emmett was violently violated and killed (August 28), i want to consider again the religious ethics that prompted his mother’s — Mamie Till-Bradley — desire for the world to experience the death of her son. of course, we already know that death is anything but uncommon. it is but a part of what we call life, it is the culmination of such lived experience and behavior. death is not unique of itself, so we must know that Till-Bradley was not celebrating the death of her son. thus when she declared that she wanted the world to see, it was not death itself, but a particular aesthetic, a specific mode of violence in which she and her son lived, that she wanted to display for the world. that is, she wanted the world to see the way folks would go about murder, the evacuative nature of such violence and the sorta havock it produced on flesh and blood. she wanted the world to see what violence does in the world, how it bloats and mottles, how it distends and reeks in order to prompt us to engage with others another way.

an active member of Evangelistic Crusaders Church of God in Christ, Mamie Till-Bradley was pentecostal and i want to consider her openness to what Anthony Heilbut describes as “the blackest of institutions,” i.e., black pentecostalism, opens up for Till-Bradley in terms of a very specific enactment of black feminist care [of her son, for her community [and community is not fictitious or mythical]] and critique of the world that would allow such violence and violation to occur.

can we think with her? experience her grief? Emmett’s mythic whistle turned

lynch
cotton gin
70 pounds
barb wire tied
noose neck
throw in water
sinksinksink
drowndrowndrown
clench teeth

(maybe he was dead already?  but)

clinch teech
underwater, underneath
the sound, the sound of
breath stolen
life stolen
mississippi?  goddamn.

1955 saw her son’s demise and it took several days, and several phone calls in order for Till-Bradley to convince the municipality of Money, to return Emmett’s body to chicago.  and we know that the return of the body to chicago was nothing short of an attack on the senses.  so much so that it is said that Emmett’s body could be smelled blocks away from where it emanated. can you hear her?  screaming?  crying?  the loss of her son.

mississippi?  goddamn.

she wanted the world to see what happened to her son, so she decided to have an open casket at the funeral: There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”  what does this open casket and her pentecostalism have to do with each other?  hers was the same sorta pentecostalism that was only gaining a bit of popularity in 1955, from which many mainline black churches — baptists, ame zions, methodists — were distancing themselves.  this was the same sorta pentecostalism that was getting people kicked out of their homes for joining up with the “holy rollers” and the “sanctifieds…”  in other words, this wasn’t a popular sect at all, and the disdain often functioned by way of an indictment against the emotionalism, the tears, the running and shouting (not to be confused with hollering) around and in the church.  and of course, these emotive bursts are not reducible to pentecostalism, though i’d argue that in a cultural worldview, pentecostalism is thought to be constituted by these seemingly excessive physical, embodied practices.

what does this religiocultural experience for Mamie Till-Bradley have to do with her desire for a radical, excessive, emotional openness?  not just an openness to the horrors of the world?  she was, to be sure, a black mother.  and Moynihan’s report was soon to come, the “pathologies” he’d happen upon were previous to that “report” (1965).  black motherhood was always conceived as something of an impossibility.  she was also radically open to display, to showing that was at the same time, always already more than merely showing, more than merely visual. and if we think about the song that i oft deem egotistical for a church to sing —you can’t join it, you’ve got to be born in it– with Till-Bradley’s public display of her son in mind, one wonders what the relation of this particular kind of seeing that necessitates hearing is to being born into a movement, rather than merely joining it.  that is, i do believe that the work of social justice is not about merely declaring yourself a part of it.  but it takes a transformative posture, an ennobling force, some state of ultimate concern that evacuates a sense of individualism and joins one to community to struggle together.

she wanted the world to experience what had been done.  the dismemberment, the disfigurement.  this was, in my estimation, a public theology of pentecostalism that became an important moment in the long history and tradition of black social upheaval.  to be sure, Emmett was not the first to be lynched and would not be the last.  but his moment served as a hinge of sorts.  Brown v. Board of Education took place one year previous but schools would not be desegregated until at least 1957 with the Little Rock 9.  i’d argue that Mamie Till-Bradley’s religiocultural, existential crisis that was bound up with an embodied religious experience is what made a movement that was already moving move further still.  that is, though movement for civil rights were underway before the picture of swollen, mottled body was circulated, that the desire for the world to see reverberated and echoed.  it made pentecostalism public, palpable, pleasurable.  it gave pentecostalism what it already had: the capacity to be transformative, to enact social justice.  but more, she gave the movement for civil rights an aesthetics that it already had.  pentecostal theology is about the emptying out of oneself in order to be filled with the Divine.  and this emptied fulfilling is noticed by way of movement, sound, dance, by the way one behaves and comports.  an aesthetic of excess is normative.  but the display of the image of her son was also about knowing that brutality does not take away the capacity to be filled and moved.  she should have been so hurt because of her son’s death that immobility would have been understandable.  but the capacity to move remained.  through it all…

of course, Till-Bradley was not happy.  she was not happy to have lost a son.  she was not happy to open a casket and have the world see.  but she did it anyway.  the old saints would call it “holy boldness.”  they’d say that in the face of the incalculable, regardless of the rejection from friends and family, that there was something down inside them telling them to go on ahead.  to keep moving forward.  i feel constrained to say i love this narrow way, glory hallelujah, i’m one of them today.

  

Till-Bradley knew something of a holy defiance that was not about happiness but that echoed pleasure.  of course, she loved her son.  she enjoyed her time with her son.  she wanted the best for him.  her display of his open face, by way of an open casket, was her giving the world the gift of her capacity to love.  she could not describe her love, so she gave something else: she gave the edge, the bruise, the image of what took him away.  she gave us the moment of her most ineffable and pointed coalescence of emotion.  the fact that she could not describe is not surprising.  so indescribablewords don’t go there, so maybe moaning will.  to give the world the image of her inability talk, to enunciate, to describe, to give the image of a moan?  it is to make visual the sound of moaning (and what i’m saying here, of course, is not new).

certainly, her love was not reducible to the photograph, or the image, or her tears.  but in those moments that we see of her, and in his stillness, his swollen body that she gave us to see?  therein we see the love of black mothers that Moynihan thought impossible.

what if we thought of excess as prompting thought?  Till-Bradley wanted us to see these images.  there is within them, i think, the energy of her love. there is within them, i think, the energy of her theological, existential position…a peculiar people, indeed.  something is internal to the image of Emmett that is also internal to Mamie Till-Bradley’s religious posture, a quickening and movement of the spirit, by the spirit towards justice. so, and of course, as we approach the day of Emmett’s death, the day when the love of Till-Bradley turned into a force of movement, we can not simply shed tears of a bygone time. James Craig Anderson’s recent death — in mississippi, goddamn — rehearses for us the ongoingness of racial animosity, hate and fear. times are still very urgent and i think Till-Bradley’s black feminist aesthetics of openness and movement still echo with us today, and still have the capacity to inform our resistance against these institutional and systemic forces that refresh and revise racism for a new era.

“I met a woman today …”: Concern as Aesthetic Practice

1 Aug

The reiteration :: we already have what we need in order to form a new world, a new world forged out of the material existence of that which already surrounds us. We have love, we have laughter, we have light. We have desire, we have depth, we have darkness occasioning the possibility of secretive and social movement against the grain of the constant, ongoing, perpetual imposition of the violent force of normalcy, hegemony. I write from the sea cost in South Carolina today. And I write because, having visited an open-air market selling boiled peanuts, peaches, squash and shrimp, an older black woman who grew up on St. Helena Island encouraged me. She encouraged me to continue to do the work I am doing without knowing what, particularly, I am doing. She does not know the rubrics of my research, does not know me – as is often said – from a can of paint.

My cousin, with whom I recently made reacquaintance, introduced me to this older woman because I was looking for a few of the local Praise Houses on the island. Upon telling the small band of three who work in and own the open-air market that I will be traveling to Sapelo Island, GA soon for more research, I was told to take copious notes. My response: “I’ll try!” to which I was told “no no no! Don’t try. Do it! Just do it.” And I smiled. Right before leaving, having been pointed in the direction of a Praise House, the older woman turned to me, “the next time you think you can’t do it, when you wanna waver, just remember that I told you you could do it!”

She wanted me to remember her as someone encouraging. So a few questions, of course. What prompts such a desire in another to show concern and care? What mode of social life creates the contours of her existence so much so that anyone so brought into the boundaries are likewise given the same ethic of concern and care? Why did she not merely smile, but intentionally insist on such words to me, compelling me to continue on a journey towards which she knows not where? Some theorists would have that such folks isolated on islands, descendants of enslaved folks, were fundamentally and ongoingly alienated from forms of kinship and love. But rather than some sorta alienation or relegation from establishing concern and care, I believe that particular forms of social life disperse those qualities curiously, refusing heteropatriarchy as the only [or even privileged] site where love and laughter, in all its genuineness and generosity, can be deployed.

This refusal to allow the idea that “blood” is the ground of being for “family” is what I think is necessary addressing the problems of our world today, and urgently so. The notion that concern and care can be distributed in queer ways is sorta cool to me; queer insofar as the forms of relationality established by the performance of something other than some sorta biological determinism also resist state formation and incorporation as citizenship. That is, the very real concern and care demonstrated me today is an aesthetic form that is no less theological, sociological and yes, musicological. This has everything to do with the woman’s knowledge of the locations of Praise Houses on the island. And, indeed, her concern and care is likely much influenced by the forms of sociality and togetherness encountered in those Praise Houses. It is a form, however, that many seek to escape for its purported primitivism, for its backwardness, for its bygone quaintness.

I think her demonstration of, let’s say, concern as an aesthetic practice is theological in that it is about the worldview of the creatures on the earth and in the sea, about a particular type of transcendence of the material world that stands before her in all of its fullness into the desirous, deep, dark recesses of an unknown cosmic field and mosaic of belonging. Or, more simply, her belief that there are powers unseen acting in the material world allow her to care for cans of paint, for dwellings built for the expressed purpose of praise and for some dude she just met today.

Concern as an aesthetic practice was also demonstrated sociologically in that she was concerned with how the work I am engaging connects me to her, how it connects me to humanity in general. She became excited when learning of my trip to Sapelo Island because she, too, had read the work of someone who lives there, Cornelia Bailey and found the writing exciting and inspiring. By the woman’s own admission, she’s never been to the island, so in some ways, I am going for her, which is why taking notes is of necessity [“don’t try! just do it!”].

Finally, concern as an aesthetic practice was also demonstrated musicologically. Victor Zuckerkandl wrote about musical tones as “vibrational affinities” wherein one is always on the way from one tone to the next, never in one tone then the next. That is, musical tone – the sounds we hear when one is singing or slipping up and down the scale – is a social event, done together with other tones. But more, musical tones are vibrational, they are the always moving and on the move results of rubs, caresses and frictions. She became animated when speaking with me today, full of laughter and a sing-song voice, clapped her hands a bit too.

So I began to wonder: what if the aesthetics we encounter are not something we seek to escape but become the occasion for resistance? What if – rather than being fundamentally embarrassed by the small, cramped, dark, hot spaces of the Praise Houses from which loud singing and shuffling feet can be heard for miles – we cultivated such aesthetic practices in the service of modes of flight and escape from the inequitable distributions of power and resources encountered daily by many of us?

To reiterate :: we already have what we need to make the world anew, one committed to concern and care, a world where each is loved and laughter is cultivated. We would do well to pay attention to laughing women, dancing children and the folks thought to mine the fields of death that is always social. Maybe the abundant life they experience daily, the exuberance in spite of the marginalization, the joy in the midst of sorrow is a gift to the world that we need only accept.

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