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.

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


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).


“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.


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)


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.

The Traveling Metaphor and Politics of Black Lives Matter

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

Photo from

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.


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.

Black Love Post-Death

From: Jessica Marie Johnson
To: Focus
Date: September 22, 2015, 10:13pm

I am late. I write this response in the wake of the Ferguson Is the Futureconference hosted by Princeton AAS, post- the quiet around #SandraBland (addressed beautifully and painfully in a recent essay by Kali Gross), post- the dystopic snuff film horror show that was the #NatashaMcKenna video, post- meetings and protests in Chicago demanding #RekiaBoyd’s killer be brought to some kind of justice. Post- the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Post-screams and post-death.

Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker

Post- battle after battle where black women and black femmes lay their bodies on the front lines to try to make a better world. #SayHerName, as a rallying cry around black women whose lives were and are being extinguished by the police, was initiated by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie in a brief written for and published by the African American Policy Forum. It extends and deepens a conversation articulated on the ground and in academic work by scholars like Crenshaw and Ritchie, by organizations like Incite:

Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color* Against Violence, and in texts (reissued or in the process of being reissued) like This Bridge Called My BackWritings by Radical Women of Color and Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.

#BlackTransLiberationTuesday, which occurred on August 25th, 2015, was organized nationwide under the general architecture of the Black Lives Matter movement but took its own form and built on histories of organizing in different locations. In Chicago, tapping into decades old networks of labor organizing and on the ground organizing by groups like F. L. Y. (Fearless Leading by the Youth), #BlackTransLiberatonTuesday took the form of a forum on job discrimination and other labor issues facing the black trans community of Chicago. In New York, #BlackTransLiberation organizers shut down AfroPunk’s three stages to draw attention to the (then) 18 trans people killed (including at least ten trans women of color) in the U.S. since the start of 2015.

Photo from

Earlier in the Response series, Rinaldo wrote: “Anyone who cares to know, knows that three black, queer women coined the term BLM in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin.” I love Rinaldo’s phrasing: To “anyone who cares to know.” Anyone who cares to know, knows the facts above as well.

Anyone who cares to know, knows this year, 2015, was the 60-year anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, which occurred the day before 10-year anniversary of the day the levees broke and water flooded the city of New Orleans and the one year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson. Sixty years ago, a child’s body was found in the water and a mother draped herself over her son’s body and demanded the violence done to him be seen, demanded media play a part in witnessing her son’s murder. Mamie Till cared if you knew. Ten years ago, bodies washed away and and black women bent over backward to keep their kin afloat and then were displaced and called “refugees” in a timeless erasure and hysterical insult (these descendants of slaves who created New Orleans?? Refugees, you say?!?).

One year ago, bodies, many of them black women and black femmes, once again moved toward the front lines to help organize, protest, support, and heal. Not because St. Louis and St. Louis County couldn’t organize, protest, support, or heal itself. We moved toward St. Louis in solidarity with members of the community and, to be true, with some tension over what solidarity meant. Who would care about whom? Who would be seen in the fray, that weekend and in the weeks and months ahead as marches, Twitter chats, teach-ins, syllabi, political campaigns, and communities responded to each person killed, each murderer who would never be brought to justice? Which issue would be lost in the mix? Black trans femmes? Afrxlatinas? Black girls and gender non-conforming youth? The insurgent and defiantly independent Black Midwest? Who would we, black activists, organizers, and supporters, care to commemorate and who would be bothered to take care of our memory and our kin if and when we were caught in the crossfire and disappeared?

As a movement, #BlackLivesMatter is a demand for institutions and individuals (those with guns and those without) to see us (black people) in the fullness of our humanity, to stop stealing us away, as Joy suggested. It is a testimony and it, as Joy points out, transforms ordinary black people into scientists and witnesses. It is also a charge of genocide, as Charlene described, and the youth activists who brought the city of Chicago before the United Nations and finally won reparations for victims of CPD torture knew this as well.

Ferguson is the Future Panelist, Walidah Imarisha.

But #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan resonates in part because it is a demand for care. I’m interested in ways #BlackLivesMatter demands a radical seeing of each other — intra-black, infrared, diasporic, futuristic, historic, archived and unimaginable. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a call like this before. #BlackLivesMatter is not static, and although slogans never are, #BlackLivesMatter wears its shapeshifter identity like a badge or banner crafted from our Trickster past (a fact participants and panelists at the #FergusonFuture symposium returned to again and again). It is tricky, after all, to care for us, a sleight of hand against Western modernity.

#BlackLivesMatter also isn’t humble or even always noble, as Eddie points out, but, flagrant in its willfulness; wakeful, disrespectful and vulnerable. It demands to be seen, all hours of the day, in all formats, it pings us through notifications, it appears in our timelines and email inboxes, it slaps us in the face as graffiti along train tracks and unexpected traffic snarls due to impromptu marches and awkward conversations with white co-workers at lunch. It won’t go away. It won’t play by the rules. How nasty, how rude! And in doing so, #BlackLivesMatter asks us to remember the problematic and human in our liberation histories — to remember that OUR narratives of freedom time and civil rights success often forget what it meant to lose sleep, friends, family, money, our minds in the middle of the war. To be turned against ourselves (#COINTELPro). Octavia Butler knew (and Katherine McKittrick tried to remind us) that there are ways to get free, there are ways to get out, but you always lose a limb on the way home. In like and as terrifying fashion, #BlackLivesMatter won’t let us forget we are human too.

Recovering the human in our visions of freedom and internalizing the messy, dirty, soft, and unkempt pieces we carry with us, caring for ourselves despite those bits and in the face of and facing down something so much bigger — our own genocide — is the kind of care #blacklivesmatter demands.

We needed this kind of care — a deep and virulent acceptance of our own flesh — to confront the loss and mourning that accompanies evidence of 800 dead black bodies strewn across the U.S., to demand retribution from institutions built on black death and do it all without killing ourselves and eating our own young in defiance.

We needed this kind of care to live life post-death. And the resonance in #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan is not only what this demand for action has done to galvanize organizers, policy-makers, and communities around the country but what it has done and continues to do to transform the zombies who walked among us, black and hard and cold as ice. There is no stopping the zombie apocalypse, it has already happened and it will happen again, but if there is a potion that brings us back home to ourselves, #BlackLivesMatter may actually be it.

Black Lives Matter charges theft — but not genocide

To: Focus
From: Joy James
Date: September 16, 2015, 7:35am

The activists of the diverse #BLM — co-founded by black, queer women — work as forensic scientists. They collect, preserve, and analyze evidence as they testify on crime scenes in which blacks are victimized by authorities. Forensic witnesses though do not author, authorize or enforce the laws that regulate or prey upon blacks (through prison/police killings, beatings and rape or revenue schemes in excessive municipal fees). Activism thus becomes #BLM’s greatest gift. It repurposes flash mobs, die-ins, social media, and contrition therapy (e.g., demanding that Hillary take personal responsibility for lobbying to pass President Clinton’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill which enabled mass incarceration). With no sovereign powers (even the President noted after Freddie Gray’s homicide that he cannot “federalize” police), and an optimism that belies democracy’s deceptions (see Lani Guinier’s Tyranny of the Majority), #BLM’s has contributed a hashtag; disruptive creativity; the 10-pt “Campaign Zero;” and, to date, the most anti-racist, presidential platform of a major party candidate.

Jamelle Bouie.

Yet, #BLM appears uneasy as it charges theft — of lives, jobs, education, dignity, health — but not genocide. This makes for an awkward global alliance with radical sistren/brethren in favelas, e.g., black Brazilian activists in “React or Die!” who battle police (militarized through US training and funding) to end the 2k executions of civilians each year (roughly double the number of US police killings). A bridge between black movements is built into the forensics of the 1951 Civil Rights Congress text — signed by William Patterson, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones — We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People:

Out of the inhuman black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease. It is a record that calls aloud for condemnation, for an end to these terrible injustices that constitute a daily and ever-increasing violation of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Aided by black and white liberals, sixty years ago the U.S. responded swiftly and punitively to having its racism challenged in the international political arena. Now (black) life is a bit more complicated. We seem to be opposing different version(s) of ourselves as we try to assert our worth. Consider that serving at the pleasure of a pro-surveillance (black) president, black Americans lead the DOJ (which protected white collar criminals in corporate banking; and through the FBI demonized black panther political prisoners in COINTELPRO’s “afterlife”); Homeland Security (which authorized secret surveillance of #BLM, while downplaying domestic terrorism by white supremacist lone wolves such as Dylann Roof); and the National Security Advisor (which de-prioritized the human rights of African, African Diaspora and Palestinian people to advance “security”). Repression that follows black unrest resisting negated value is collective, governmental, and now also black. In the opaque politics that we study, we can be grateful for transparency: “black lives matter” is a synonym for “black lives do not matter”; and so, emboldened by some clarity, we act at the scene of the crime.

Black lives matter is about the matter of the unsovereign

To: Focus
From: Che Gossett
September 15, 2015, 12:05am

I just came from watching Out in the Nightabout the NJ4. The film screening was held by FIERCE which has been fighting anti-gentrification battles in the wake of what Samuel Delaney poetically rendered in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue — surveillance, displacement, and ultimately continued criminalization of our lives as Black queer and/or trans people. I was so appreciative of being in an audience of primarily queer and/or trans folks of color, Black especially, in watching this heart- and soul-wrenching and devastating film.

The four women, some of whom are gender non-conforming, are described in the corporate media in a way that speaks to the ongoing anti-black racialization as animalization — as a wolf pack — blackness as bestial/brutality, hybrid below the human but not within the category (even) of the animal. They are also described in white corporate media as savage. Again, blackness figures as brute — returning us to Derrida, but through the lens of Jared Sexton, via the thought style and route of Nahum Chandler — we circle back, to something I’ve been recently trying to think through: Blackness, the beast and the unsovereign. Black lives matter is about the matter of the unsovereign.

The NJ4

Leaving the film I was haunted by so much of the imagery that felt so viscerally familiar. As a child who grew up in Roxbury, Massachusetts with an incarcerated father, I empathized with the child of one of the NJ4, Renata, who was dealing with his parent in prison. The state violence of captivity and penal bondage runs throughout the film, whether it’s the child being placed in state custody because his mother is imprisoned, or it’s the violence of racial capitalism that devalues black queer and/or trans life. As I left the theater I walked down the stairs and realized I was in the middle of a Kara Walker art installation, walking being enveloped by those silhouettes of slavery, reminded me, as did the film, that we are living in the afterlife of slavery — which is racial capitalism

The struggle to free the NJ4, as part of a prison abolitionist and Black, queer and/or trans liberationist legacy — from Angela Davis, to Kuwasi Balagoon, to Miss Major and CeCe McDonald is also a struggle against the prison as a gendering racial apparatus which aims to, COINTELPRO style, isolate and neutralize us in solitary confinement and/or through the general economy of its violence. We are a fantastical people however. In the face of premature death (AIDS ongoing — via HIV criminalization — is a key example) we continue to fight for life, an insurgent act in of itself.

A black global conversation

To: Focus
From: Rinaldo Walcott
September 9, 2015, 10:21 AM

So I have been thinking that one way to conceive of Black Lives Matter as both slogan and organizing principle is to think of it as shock and trauma. Behind my claim is an assumption. The assumption is that black people both on the USA and elsewhere have been shocked and traumatized by forms of naked racist violence that many had perceived to be behind us. In the post-Obama era many of us wanted to believe that more naked forms of racist violence would recede but the reverse has been shockingly clear. Indeed, the trauma of the moment is one conceived by the central contradiction of how does one reconciled that the most powerful man in the world (symbolically) is a black man and that black people everywhere appear to be the scourge of the earth? It is the starkness of the contradiction, one that otherwise might be demobilizing that has been energetically mobilizing. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting the BLM the movement exists because Obama is in the White House. Rather I am suggesting that his presence there bears down heavily on the moment and the movement and how we might think it and think about it.

Anyone who cares to know, knows that three black, queer women coined the term BLM in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. The still lingering collective trauma of his death, followed by so many others, in what appeared to be a quick succession, added an important and necessary impetus and energy to mobilizing against state violence in this moment. Significantly, in the era of social media and its multiple intimacies, noticing those same state practices in other national spaces has been a significant boost for transnational black political identification and action. BLM is a significant symbolic rally cry that achieves a certain kind of diasporic intimacy. Nonetheless it is fraught with many complications and complexities as it is extended into other national spaces.

In the Canadian context, the dire conditions of black life makes BLM as both slogan and movement a not surprising political identification for black people here. However, black Canadians do not have access to the levers of political power in the same way that African Americans have political institutions that broker black voters and their concerns into the mainstream political process. Indeed, one might argue that black Canadian political life and thus political desires, aspirations — and not even policy — is far removed from the Canadian political process and scene. I write this as a federal election is taking place in Canada. The Liberal Party of Canada has as one of its star candidate the former police chief of Toronto. The chief has been a stalwart of our stop and frisk policy called “carding.” None of the leaders of the political parties have felt pressure of any kind to speak to a practice like carding that disproportionately affects black Canadians. In fact, the leader to the left party has promise to fund another 2,500 police. So in some ways the urgency of BLM holds important resonance for black Canadians. Canadian institutions all of them render black life invisible and tangential to the nation as a whole.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

The importance then of BLM as transnational, as diasporic in identification and sensibility is crucially important. And yet one gets a strange and uncomfortable feeling that its diasporic desires, too, will wane. One feels a certain time-sensitive and thinly narrow national desire that limits its political potential. The power of BLM has been in its call to notice what is immediately around you and therefore to notice the local and the national. It is at the international that it’s complications reveal themselves. How do we account for the USA imperial project in black face? How do we think about global black dispossession when nation-states remain still sturdy in the face of fluid capital? How might we think the black global as more than the immediacy of our local and or national condition? Such questions find themselves being bitterly debated now, especially on social media as the complications of BLM. The power of BLM is the black global conversation it has in part rekindled, how it is resolved remains to be seen. We still nonetheless have to pose the question what might freedom be in this moment.



Focus: African American Studies Response Series Vol. I

Take a look into the inboxes of leading scholars, activists, and artists and follow along as they consider some of the most urgent topics in black life today. This is a project of the Princeton University Department of African American Studies, edited by @jbguild. This series began September 7, 2015.

Welcome to Focus — “Black Lives Matter/Say Her Name”

An ongoing digital conversation with responses from scholars, activists, and artists, including:

Charlene Carruthers, National Director, Black Youth Project 100 (@CharleneCac)

Eddie Glaude, Jr. William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies; Chair, Department of African American Studies, Princeton University (@esglaude)

Che GossettIndependent scholar, archivist and activist (@chegossett)

Joy James, F.C. Oakley 3rd Century Professor, Williams College

Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History, Michigan State University (@jmjafrx)

Imani Perry, Hughes Rogers Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University (@imaniperry)

Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, Assistant Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University (@KeeangaYahmatta)

Rinaldo Walcott, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology and Equity Studies, University of Toronto (@blacklikewho)

Convener: Joshua Guild, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, Princeton University (@jbguild)