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.

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

How does Black Lives Matter cross borders?

From: Joshua Guild
To: Focus
Date: September 24, 2015, 11:12am

Thanks to all of you for these thoughtful and challenging opening provocations. There are many directions the conversation could go from here, and a host of themes/topics I hope we can delve into more deeply as we continue. But one of the things that strikes me the most in reading back over the contributions thus far are the multiple invocations of the international, the global, and the imperial.

Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post

Charlene characterized BLM as being at once “hyper-local and internationalist,” which I think is a useful framing and one that demands our further attention. Rinaldo and Joy both asked us to think about how BLM has been shaped by Obama’s role as the black face of the American Empire. Though I think she was making a slightly different point, Imani invoked Hall to ask, “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Lives Matter?”

One entry point into trying to answer that question, it seems to me, is to think more expansively about BLM in relation to non-U.S. blacks, both inside and outside the nation. Jessica argues that, “#BlackLivesMatter demands a radical seeing of each other — intra-black, infrared, diasporic, futuristic, historic, archived and unimaginable.” If this is so, how might we reflect on the ongoing violent expulsions of Dominicans of Haitian descent from the D.R. in this context? Or consider the human rights crisis of migrant deaths, detention, and marginalization occasioned by “Fortress Europe?” Or the global response to epidemics in West Africa and Haiti and what Peter James Hudson and Jemima Pierre refer to as “the epidemiology of anti-blackness?”

This is the challenge of black studies, as Christina Sharpe puts it, “in the wake.”

So, as the movement enters into what Keeanga refers to as its “second phase,” how might it balance local, national, and transnational concerns simultaneously? What manifestations of BLM are best suited for this work? Are there risks to the movement — and whatever successes it has achieved thus far — in broadening its primary focus beyond systemic anti-black state violence in the U.S.? What are the consequences of notdoing so? What does history offer in this regard, either in terms of cautionary tales or models of organizing?

The ties that bind Black Lives Matter

From: Imani Perry
To: Focus
Date: September 18, 2015, 9:51am

Let me begin with a limitation, or a vexation, with the digital age slogan or the hashtag era, period. In the digital age, the era of “big data,” a hashtag or title or keyword (and Black Lives Matter operates as all of those) becomes an essential tool for sorting and organizing; for searching, for discovering what is being said on matters that matter to you, and for discovering where one finds people of fellow feeling and concern. The challenge of sorting, however, is always one of what gets sorted in and sorted out. We must constantly struggle with the question of what and who is getting sorted out, whether as a function simply of how algorithms work, ignorance or misapprehension, or deliberate human efforts at exclusion.

What is this “Black” in the hashtag, to paraphrase Stuart Hall? Who is it? When we confront the violent reality of premature and unjust death that results from state and economic power (i.e. I’m talking about police power but also the voracious weapons trade, and those that bring environmental hazards, incarceration, and predatory market conditions in both gray and “legit” economies /privatization/exploitation even parasitic forms of “assistance”, to poor and Black communities here and abroad) we realize that the systems of domination that come to a head when we see Black people die unjustly and without remedy, are a very complex knot. One in which we are implicated as perpetrators often even when we are its victims. Their structures are varied and tied together. They don’t require the designation “Black” to coalesce around Black people’s lives and to find expression in Black suffering. We have enough racial ideology and a palimpsest of historic degradation and domination, to ensure that happens without a word ever being made to describe our flesh.

All of this to say, we who believe in Black liberation must be ever vigilant about the limitations of a banner, a hashtag, a rallying cry in terms what it doesn’t name or account for, and what it doesn’t reveal.

That’s not a criticism.

The passion of the words Black Lives Matter initiates or frames something that has resonated in ways my fellow thinkers here have talked about profoundly. It is a refusal to accept these systems that create Black death and stymie Black life. I think, by implication then, it is also a celebration of Black life. And “Black Life” is that space of transcendence, grace, resilience and beauty, of deep humanity that persists in Black life worlds notwithstanding the centuries long Western project that is set against it/them/us. Our individual lives matter, and our “life” matters too. Beginning here, I think, stakes the claim as to why we have to do the untangling I began with.

When you untangle a knot, of thread for example, what you sometimes find is that there are actually three or four or five pieces of thread in there, that the thread doubles back and turns over on itself. Sometimes the knot gets tighter before it gets looser, sometimes you rip threads in frustration. I’m hoping we don’t do that now, that we can just stick with it.

The most important political development in a generation

To: Focus
From: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
September 11, 2015, 7:55AM

I think the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement is the most important political development in Black America in a generation. In a political moment where the successes of a layer of Black people had been elevated as proof of America’s just democracy and also as the basis for the regular chastisement of other African Americans, the movement has terminally punctured the idea of the US as post-racial or colorblind. The brilliance of the movement slogan, Black Lives Matters, in my opinion is its capacious explanatory power. While some, including the recent New York Times editorial praising the movement, would like to narrowly confine the goals of the movement to addressing police brutality, activists and others that operate within the wide periphery of the movement have worked hard to link police abuse, violence and murder to a much broader net of inequality, racism and discrimination that runs rife throughout American society. It has also exposed the deep chasms in Black society that are driven much more by class than just “generation.”

We are now moving into the second phase of the movement beyond only pointing out the incidents of police terror or just shutting events down to draw attention to the persistence of injustice. The challenge will be in connecting the implied breadth of the slogan to the multiple layers of Black society for whom “Black Lives Matter” resonates. This requires actually organizing. This organizing should be rooted in concrete demands and actual measures that the movement can use as a guide or barometer of its progress.

For me it’s a moment of profound optimism but also concern. The movement is developing at a moment when the police are on a years-long killing spree. This year alone American police have killed more than 800 people since January. At the same time, movements do not grow and build just because they should. They must be built and that means there have to be political arguments and debates over the nature of the organizing, strategy and tactics necessary to go from episodic events to sustained organizing and growth and eventually social transformation. The movement is in its infancy so there has to be patience but also the constant excavation of the next steps necessary to continue to move things forward.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie