An Insistence on Not Being Discouraged

Modern, and contemporary criticism of African and African diasporic art is an area of inquiry that Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu insisted must exist. Professor Okeke-Agulu, along with others like Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor wrote into life a genre, and a lineage of artists who diagnose and critique African nation states and related projects. Okeke-Agulu is author of the recent Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria, which takes a broad view of the subject. His new work, Obiora Udechukwu: Line, Image, Text, takes a more narrow view, focusing on a former teacher who he names as the most influential Nigerian artist of the 20th century. Okeke-Agulu is currently at work on a book called Contemporary African Art in the Age of the Big Man, which tells the story of contemporary art after dictatorships, civil wars, IMS, and the devastation of African economies in the 1980s.

Doing the Work

To: Focus
From: Jessica Marie Johnson
Date: October 26, 2015, 10:31am

My Strength Lies, 2007 by Wangechi Mutu

Since this conversation began, Keisha Jenkins, a black trans woman, was killed by a mob in Philadelphia. In Cleveland, the prosecuting attorney released two reports indicating Officer Timothy Loehmann was justified when he shot 12 year old Tamir Rice within seconds of pulling up next to him in a police car. Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs passed away. And Hillary Clinton discussed mass incarceration and body cameras, but found it difficult to simply say “black lives matter” on international TV during the Democratic Presidential Debates.

In the midst of this, black women produce. Talitha LeFlouria received the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians for her book Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (UNC 2015). Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was named a Senior Ford Foundation Fellow for her work on civil rights and racial justice. Books on race and surveillance, as well as black feminist performance, expressive culture, and political ideology by Simone Brown, Tanisha Ford, Uri McMillan, LaMonda Horton Stallings, Kimberly Juanita Brown, and many more break the mold, reshaping each and every way we think about how to think about black politics, anti/blackness across time and place, black women and who is included in that identity, history, and lifeway.

Darlene Clark Hine, at the 100th Anniversary of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, asked a plenary on the future of Black Women’s Studies what those with knowledge, history, research skills, and a desire to make change need to be doing NOW to change the world, to make this a world we want to live in, that we remain alive in. If the issue is doing the work by publishing, teaching, and mentoring, then we are doing the work. If the work is bringing our questions, vulnerabilities, and fears to light in forums like this one, then we are doing the work. If the work is showing up at Black Lives Matter conferences, at workshops in our local communities, at rallies and marches, but also at city council meetings, police forums, and planning meetings with activists, we are doing the work. The next step appears to be crossing boundaries (and here I deliberately invoke Hine and Jacqueline McLeod’s edited collection Crossing Boundaries: Comparative History of the Black Diaspora) and making connections, doing very necessary kinship work of building with each other in radical new ways. We are still working on how to do this.

If I picked one text to pay tribute to this labor of love and world-making, to add to the works above, that celebrates the parts of us that are problematic and raw and important, it’d be Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. It is my favorite. It is the story of the making of the New World and the text I turn to when I’m not sure whether this is all worth it, when I’m positive the number of deaths will break me, or someone around me, or our entire damn system. Wild Seed is the text that reminds me we are all implicated and sometimes the happy ending isn’t the triumph of a cause so much as the unmaking of a god.

For some reason, this gives me hope.

Confronting the triads of black life/death

To: Focus
From: Joy James
Date: October 24, 2015, 9:04pm

Our discussions of BLM/SayHerName are complicated: by empire and global anti-racist solidarity; terror and the infantilized; avoidance of speech and memories of the “unspeakable” violence that we (especially the children) face.

#StopTheCops photo by Sarah Dashi

Bitter and traumatic memories frame governance in black life/death triads of racism>resistance>repression. Racism logically points to some form of genocidal expression. Resistance thus becomes conditioned by fear even while it organizes against it. Repression counters through policing and governance, and then offers an open invitation to join its loyal opposition, or be marginalized or silenced.

Official memory masks repression as structural rather than aberrational. We are more familiar with racism and anti-racist resistance movements than governmental repression (which may be the most frightening because we petition the federal government for help). We historically lack clarity in consensus about what our movements are fighting. For instance, in Eyes on the Prize, Part II: A Nation of Law?, the late Frank “Big Black” Smith, a leader in the 1971 Attica prison rebellion for human rights, recounts the retaking of the prison in which he witnessed friends and white guard-hostages killed by the white National Guardsmen who shot several thousand of rounds of ammunition into the men gathered on the catwalk. Describing his later torture and rape (using current DOJ definitions) by state employees, Smith weeps upon reflecting that the rebels anticipated violent retaliation but not barbarism.

#StopTheCops photo by Frank Johnson

With or without carnage, governance-as-repression is an expression of racism; it is also embedded into anti-racist resistance. Local and global liberation movements are under surveillance, infiltrated, targeted, disrupted, intimidated or coopted. At times, activists (mostly outside the US) are imprisoned, tortured or executed. US training or funding for global policing and militarizing promotes the repression of pro-democracy dissent. Targeted by white racism, black governance seeks a “civil rights” pass because it represents black authority (through empire). Despite racist opposition to it, black governance is not black liberation; consequently, its recognitions of anti-racist movements foster political confusion.

Che noted earlier that criticism is life enhancing. Movements and leaders engage in self-critiques as a corrective against fears and desires to preserve/expand (black) social and economic status acquired under empire. They guard against governance that directs dissent through manipulations of fear; management of grief; cultivation of institutional or personality loyalty. Former BPP political prisoner Dhoruba bin Wahad publicly questions how the NSA and other agencies disrupt social justice movements and foster contradictions within movements. This line of engagement though is not representative of most of the diversity within black progressivism.

#StopTheCops photo by Frank Johnson

Charlene reminds us of the importance of youth activists, the Chicagoan namesakes of the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” formation, who addressed the 2014 UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in Geneva. CAT grilled the US delegation on: torture at Guantanamo Bay; the militarization of police (Ferguson); police torture for false confessions (Chicago); and rape in US prisons. The president’s press conference offered assurances that the US respects human rights as highlighted by CAT while media coverage deflected from black radicalism in Geneva. Michael Brown’s parents, Leslie McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., and the Black Women’s Blueprint (hosting a 2016 UN tribunal on sexual violence) also testified before CAT. That UN gathering was on torture not genocide though; and context and content shape political analyses and demands.

Our complex political battles in the triad illustrate the “unspeakable” of:

1) governance’s paternal desire to control, infantilize, and criminalize citizenry

Although fewer in number than George W. Bush’s, President Obama’s signing statements also expand the executive branch’s police powers and diminish protections for whistleblowers and dissidents.

2) foreign policy’s market devaluation of black life

Commerce determines the global value of black lives. Journalists report that the US “greenlighted” the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus when Clinton’s 1994 National Security Council (its then director on African affairs as Obama’s presidential advisor for national security) allegedly prioritized governance and finance over human life (in arrears to the UN, the US shied away from peacekeeping debt). After the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda is gutted, governance discouraged describing the blood bath that followed as “genocide.”

3) empire’s proclivity for terror against children

UN peacekeeping troops systematically raped starving African boys in exchange for food (the UN whistleblower who recently alerted the media was fired from his post). While on US military compounds, Afghan military officers rape boys and chain them to beds; Pentagon officials, pursuing elusive military victories, instruct soldiers to ignore the children’s screams out of respect for local customs (US soldiers who intervene are forced into retirement; one dies from Afghani retaliation).

4) writing that maps strategic, ethical, and spiritual powers

Writings in resistance that help in swallowing the Morphean pill include: Vincent Woodard’s The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture; Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State; and Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind.

From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation

To: Focus
From: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Date: October 22, 2015, 11:08 am

Black soldiers in the Union Army.

On April 12, 1865, the American Civil War officially came to end when the Union Army accepted the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy on the steps of a courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. The Union Army, led by 200,000 Black soldiers, had destroyed the institution of slavery; as a result of their victory, Black people were now to be no longer property but citizens of the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first declaration of civil rights in the United States, stated that

citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States . . . to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.

There was no ambiguity that the war had buried chattel slavery once and for all. Days after the surrender of the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln rode into Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the slaveholders, where he stood upon the stairs of the former Confederate capitol building and told a large gathering crowd of Black people days into their freedom,

In reference to you, colored people, let me say God has made you free. Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called Masters, you are now as free as I am, and if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and bayonet and teach them that you are — for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One hundred and fifty years later, on April 12, 2015, at nine in the morning, 217 miles north of the Appomattox courthouse, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old Black man, was arrested by the Baltimore police. His only apparent crime was making eye contact with the police and then running away. Freddie Gray was loaded into a van. By the time he emerged forty-five minutes later, his voice box had been crushed, his neck snapped, and 80 percent of his spinal cord severed.

The distance from the end of the Civil War, with the birth of Black citizenship and civil rights, to the state-sanctioned beating and torture of Freddie Gray constitutes the gap between formal equality before the law and the self-determination and self-possession inherent in actual freedom — the right to be free from oppression, the right to make determinations about your life free from duress, coercion, or threat of harm. Freedom in the United States has been elusive, contingent, and fraught with contradictions and unattainable promises — for everyone.

Black people were not freed into an American Dream, but into what Malcolm X described as an “American nightmare” of economic inequality and unchecked injustice. The full extent of this inequality was masked by racial terrorism. One hundred years after Emancipation, African Americans dismantled the last vestiges of legal discrimination with the civil rights movement, but the excitement of the movement quickly faded as American cities combusted with Black people who were angry and disillusioned at being locked out of the riches of American society. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans participated in the uprisings in search of resolutions to the problems of lead poisoning, rat infestations, hunger and malnutrition, underemployment, poor schools, and persisting poverty. Where liberals and radicals often converged was in the demand that Blacks should have greater political control over their communities. For liberals, Black electoral politics was a sign of political maturity as the movement left the streets for the poll booth, urban governance, and community control. The problem was not “the system;” it was exclusion from access to all that American society had to offer. Some radicals were also lured by the possibility of self-governance and community control. Indeed, it was a viable strategy, given that much of Black life was controlled by white elected officials and white-led institutions. The question remained, however: Could the machinery wielded in the oppression of Blacks now be retooled in the name of Black self-determination?

The Baltimore Police Department 2015.

If freedom had in one era been imagined as inclusion in the mainstream of American society, including access to its political and financial institutions, then the last fifty years have yielded a mixed record. Indeed, since the last gasps of the Black insurgency in the 1970s, there are many measures of Black accomplishment and achievement in a country where Black people were never intended to survive as free people. Is there no greater symbol of a certain kind of Black accomplishment than a Black president? For those who consider mastery of American politics and Black political representation as the highest expression of inclusion in the mainstream, we are surely in the heyday of American “race relations.” Yet, paradoxically, at a moment when African Americans have achieved what no rational person could have imagined when the Civil War ended, we have simultaneously entered a new period of Black protest, Black radicalization, and the birth of a new Black left.

No one knows what will come of this new political development, but many know the causes of its gestation. For as much success as some African Americans have achieved, 4 million Black children live in poverty, 1 million Black people are incarcerated, and 240,000 Black people lost their homes as a result of the foreclosure crisis — resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in Black savings. Never before in American history has a Black president presided over the misery of millions of Black people, the denial of the most basic standards for health, happiness, and basic humanity. Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte recalled his last conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., in which King lamented, “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. . . . We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”

The aspiration of Black liberation cannot be separated from what happens in the United States as a whole. Black life cannot be transformed while the country burns all around it. The fires consuming the United States are stoked by the widespread alienation of low wage and meaningless work, unaffordable rents, suffocating debt, and the boredom of poverty. The essence of economic inequality is borne out in a simple fact: there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 American billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of the living wage. Corporate executives, university presidents, and capitalists in general are living the good life — because so many others are living a life of hardship. The struggle for Black liberation, then, is not an abstract idea molded in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it is intimately bound up with them.

The struggle for Black liberation requires going beyond the standard narrative that Black people have come a long way but have a long way to go — which, of course, says nothing about where it is that we are actually trying to get to. It requires understanding the origins and nature of Black oppression and racism more generally. Most importantly, it requires a strategy, some sense of how we get from the current situation to the future. Perhaps at its most basic level, Black liberation implies a world where Black people can live in peace, without the constant threat of the social, economic, and political woes of a society that places almost no value on the vast majority of Black lives. It would mean living in a world where Black lives matter. While it is true that when Black people get free, everyone gets free, Black people in America cannot “get free” alone. In that sense, Black liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.

Talking About Origins, and Recommendations for Future Reading and Reflection (Focus, Vol. I)

Imani Perry, Rinaldo WalcottChe Gossett and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. offer closing thoughts on the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter for Focus, the African American Studies Response Series. #FocusAAS21

RINALDO WALCOTT

All of the emergencies of black life that produced the movement, energy and the demands of and for BLM will remain with us until a concerted effort to think serious alternatives to global human organization is given serious thought. Indeed we must invent alternative ways of being together and articulate them as possible and we must be willing to put flesh on the bones of those new ways for living together. In the USA we are already seeing both liberal incorporation and intra-black political dissent around what the future might look like for the movement. Indeed, it is clear that few are willing to begin to articulate alternatives to our present mode of life and instead claim pragmatic reformist agenda. History teaches us that such a move signals the already defeat of larger political horizons. Such a retreat means for me that BLM is in many ways a stalled movement now.

Sylvia Wynter, Jamaican novelist, dramatist, critic and essayist

Recommended reading:
Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species: Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations” in Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, K. McKittrick, ed., (Duke, 2015).

CHE GOSSETT

“I am not supposed to exist. I carry death around in my body like a condemnation. But I do live…There must be some way to integrate death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it.”
— Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Audre Lorde in 1983

Black feminist Audre Lorde’s writing is part of a critical Black feminist –as always already trans — affective infrastructure of thought that ruminates on what Jared Sexton calls “the social life of social death.” I’ve also been reading The Power To Die: Suicide and Slavery in British North America by Terri Synder, which is a harrowing account of the archive of slavery and mass suicide, such as Igbo’s Landing, through which suicide is memorialized as flight and traces as a trope in African American literature on the afterlife of racial slavery, such as Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Lorde’s examination of the interplay of life and death and her liberatory poetics and pedagogical brilliance are much needed in contemporary discussions of Black life mattering in the time of what Saidiya Hartman terms the afterlife of slavery and for what Fred Moten and Ronald Judy elaborate on as the “socio-poetics” of blackness, a socio-poetics that Lorde’s legacy is a crucial part of expanding and sustaining.

EDDIE S. GLAUDE JR.

The current movement stands at a crossroads. Relentless market forces, fighting among various groups within the movement (all too often based in crass forms of identity politics), and the incessant pull of celebrity culture threaten its radical thrust. Still, the internal contradictions of global capital continue to destabilize political and economic arrangements around the world, providing critical opportunities for a fundamental reordering of our way of life. I am not sure what will happen given where we now stand. Much hangs in the balance. (The ghost of blues legend Robert Johnson haunts…) And it seems, especially for those who are on the frontlines of this movement, that we must understand more fully the complex ways we struggle under neoliberal conditions. A kind of hypercritical self-reflexivity (to resist the very way neoliberalism transforms us from those who care about the good to persons in pursuit of self interest) is required if we are to hold off the ways our struggle can be used to further the ends of late modern capital. On one level, what is needed is a radical civic power outage; so we can reboot this thing. But that will take profound leaps of imagination (freedom dreaming as Robin D.G. Kelley called it) and a fundamental radicalization of the will.

Recommended reading:
Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso, 2014); and Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 2007)

IMANI PERRY

Every day I find myself thinking about grief as a problematic. Grief is an expected part of human experience, but the circulation of Black death in the form of stories and images is simply unrelenting and death and torture themselves also seems to be unyielding. I worry about how to maintain the fortitude to keep organizing in the face of it, and also about the temptation to simply turn away from it altogether. Add to this the way national electoral politics so often do the work of turning our attention towards them and only them. At this moment we must continue prioritize the question of liberation above and beyond the spectacle of the presidential election, and with that think seriously about resiliency in the face of brutal conditions here and abroad.

Recommended reading:
I think Paule Marshall’s memoir, Triangular Road, and Charlayne Hunter Gault’s memoir, In My Place, are useful readings in this moment because they both treat loss, suffering and social movement with the grace, complexity and nuance. They are timely works.

Inviting Final Thoughts (Focus Vol. I)

From: Josh Guild
To: Focus
Date: October 19, 2015, 5:24pm

Just over a month ago, we initiated this little experiment called Focus, catalyzed by what felt to many to be an unrelenting wave of violent assaults on black bodies and black psyches. It was an invitation to gather together in this virtual space — guided by black studies’ ethos of both critical interrogation and public reckoning — to think about black life, black death, and the pathways towards more liberated futures. The call was an opportunity to think, question, speculate, and reflect in a slightly different register, together and in public.

Photo courtesy of the flickr user, Light Brigading (https://www.flickr.com/photos/40969298@N05/)

Our discussion of Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, and the movements, mobilizations, and media produced under those banners have led us in a number of different directions — from considerations of scope and strategy to reflections about empire and internationalism. We’ve talked about the ways the recent responses to anti-blackness have carved out new spaces of resistance and thought about the reservoirs of individual and collective resilience required by this moment. As several of you have insisted, understanding the present condition demands a critical confrontation with history, dismantling the comfortable mythologies of past social movements and (re)assembling a different kind of black radical archive across a more expansive geography and imaginative terrain.

In so many ways, we’ve only just begun the conversation. There remain a host of pressing questions and concerns worthy of further exploration. But those will have to be left for others to take up, or for another time.

As we close out this inaugural series, I want to thank all of you for your contributions. I welcome any final thoughts you may have, however brief or far-reaching. And in the series’ spirit of critical exchange, I also encourage you to share suggestions for further reading — texts that might further illuminate conditions or inspire and sustain us in these difficult times. This, I would argue, is part of a larger service that black studies can — indeed, must — provide wider publics if it is to mean anything at all in the time of #blacklivesmatter.

In solidarity,

Josh

The Traveling Metaphor and Politics of Black Lives Matter

From: Rinaldo Walcott
To: Focus
Date: September 30, 2015, 8:21am

Photo from QZ.com

Does BLM travel? Of course it does. However let me risk a move here that might help us to think about the difference between a particular and specific politics of BLM traveling, as opposed to BLM traveling as a metaphor. The power of metaphor is both in its elasticity and its contraction — that is, what it allows in and what it cannot. As my colleagues, have pointed out here, in particular Joy James and Che Gossett, BLM has practiced a politics of transnational political identification that is both within the black radical tradition (in relation to Palestine) and simultaneously hampered by empire in black face, as the Obama administration, for example, drones East Africa and the Middle East, and uses Kenya and Ethiopia as proxies for its resource wars in Africa, among other imperial projects globally.

The present and urgent fate of Haitians demands that we see and witness the complicities of empire in our time. My concern here is that Haitians must attempt to make a life in the context of a global order that wishes them to disappear — from everywhere. As Haitians move within the Caribbean region we witness the limits of modernist ideals, the most obvious being that of nation and citizenship. Haitian movement calls our attention to the reigning logics of white supremacist organization of all of our lives. Indeed what travels from BLM is the emphasis on a life, on what a life might be, on how we might achieve our lives. And it is in this endeavour, the one of achieving a life, that Haiti re-joins African most spectacularly.

So let me briefly turn our attention to the African refugee crisis and the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar as a stretching of the metaphor and the politics of BLM. The late Stuart Hall has taught us that migration is the “joker in the globalisation pack,” that planned and unplanned migrations threaten to undo and upend neoliberal regimes of capital movement, while labour is supposed to stand still and often people are discarded when no longer needed.

Indeed, while BLM might have been politically activated by state violence, most spectacularly police violence in the USA, the movement in both its rhetoric and its links and indebtedness to an international black radical tradition, demands that we engage the African refugee crisis as central to all of its concerns.

Photo ibitimes.co.uk

Africans crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a life, a life denied them, both in terms of resources and in terms of the logics of white supremacist world orders, contract and stretch BLM. The insistence on life by Africans moving forces us to consider what exactly is a modern life. What exactly does it mean to claim one’s self for a life? It is in fact the insistence on a life that black movement/travel has continually upturned the fictions of modernist ideals. African migration, both planned and unplanned, continually returns us to the demand that we imagine a different world, that we risk putting flesh to ways of being in which a life becomes possible. African migration alerts us to the political demand that we remake the world anew in the aftermath of that other great migratory moment of the post-1492 world. Indeed, BLM travels because the very idea of black and blackness in the modern world cannot be divorced from movement. And it is in recognizing how fundamental movement and or migration is to late modern capital that we might begin to risk intellectually navigating a different present and thus future. African’s crossing that strait remind us that movement actual and otherwise demands notice what actually matters — our lives.