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.

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.