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

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.

Flint, Michigan: Neglected by the Government, No Place Else to Go

News & Analysis

How Flint, Ferguson and Baltimore are All Connected. Emily Badger for The Washington Post.

I Grew Up in Flint. Here’s Why Governor Snyder Must Resign. Art Reyes III for Talk Poverty.

A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint. John Eligon for the New York Times.

Flint’s toxic water crisis was 50 years in the making. Andrew R. Highsmith for the LA Times.

Race is In the Air We Breathe and the Water We Drink. Jim Wallis for HuffPost Politics.

 

 

Connections

Across the board, when we start to probe deep into these forgotten places, we start to see a trend emerge. We start to see the different ways in which racism impacts African Americans, and we also see the different ways where it impacts the places where they live.
– Henry Louis Taylor, professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo

The best answer to continual denials from white Americans of being a racist is this: Racism is in the air that we breathe and the water we drink.
– Jim Wallis, writer

No matter what their credit is, no matter how many years they’ve been working for Buick…. They have no place [else] to go.
-Ailene Butler, 1960’s Flint, MI activist

 

Statistics

42% of residents of Flint, MI are below the poverty line.
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Events

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Focus: African American Studies Response Series

Why has “Black Lives Matter” — as slogan, as hashtag, as rallying cry — been taken up so widely?

In the spirit of black studies’ long tradition of timely, engaged, and accessible critical analysis, the Department of African American Studies at Princeton launched a blog project called FocusIt was intended as a kind of virtual conversation, bringing together members of our Princeton intellectual community with other scholars, writers, activists, and artists. We invited readers and followers to join us we discussed pressing issues in contemporary black life, both in United States and globally.

A digital conversation took place over six week with responses from scholars, activists, and artists
The entire conversation, hosted on Medium, is also reproduced below:

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)