Deformation, Information, On Formation

beyformation

Noise matters. Ever tried to have a conversation on a phone with poor reception, snaps, crackles and pops interrupting your ability to hear? It’s a Wednesday and you’re waiting for a friend to arrive. This friend is on a train or a subway or bus. And each time you almost hear there was perhaps an incident. But you are unsure because the noise made itself intensely felt in the conversation, it announced itself as a deformation to smooth conversation. So it is this Wednesday, or that other one – no matter, really – but the noise frustrates. Such frustration is the matter, the material, of conversation. So you end up hearing your phone partner – or perhaps it is you that is saying it – “Can you hear me? Hello! Are you there?”

Noise matters. The conversation between friends or lovers or business partners on this or that Wednesday has to be about the noise, about the antagonism in order to have clarity. Noise interrupts flow. So the conversation ends up being about the interruptive. Once clarity gained, once signal clear, “Oh, I didn’t hear you.” “Repeat what you said.” “I was going through a tunnel.” “You were muffled” “I couldn’t hear.” Noise. I have been thinking about noise a lot lately, its texture and weight, its meaning for black performance in churches, on film, across stages. There is noise. Like D’angelo’s “The Line,” in which Dino Palladrino keeps the same bass line throughout the entire song except for moment 4’52” with a noticeable alternation, noise is that which seems most off but can perhaps be the foundation that transforms everything that comes before and after it.

So yes, there is noise in Beyoncé’s latest offering “Formation.” And such noise matters. It is noise that begs our attention. It is a Saturday and someone posted a link to a internet breaking video. There is praise and joy and thinkpieces and laughter. But at my viewing, there is also noise.

Look at the brilliant energy Beyoncé caused to erupt since the weekend of February 6, 2016. An energy brilliant and bright that has within it the possibility for transformation. I seriously did not want to write about Beyoncé mostly because I already have. I think the furor and intensity of the responses compel us all to think. And I believe deeply in the pleasure and joy that emanates from her work and that people find within it. As a cisgay black dude, one that misses going to No Parking and Secret and Escuelita in New York now that I’m a Los Angeles resident, I know the transformative power of the beat drop with a Beyoncé song. Don’t let the bass lick of “Deja Vu” slide in the middle of a set, don’t let “drop down low, sweep the floor with it” be rehearsed publicly. Life will be got and that’s all good. So I’m all about joy and pleasure and being happy and free. And the way Black women’s joy and pleasure has been scrutinized and sanitized and made almost impossible – certainly always criticized and problematized and dismissed and discarded – in this writing about “Formation” I want to say up front that I am in favor of pleasure and joy. It is what I write about and research generally.

But joy and pleasure do not emerge ex nihilo, which is why we have to be extremely intentional about what we praise and why. At first I thought it unfair to analyze the video because right wing folks are ridiculous. This engagement is just not that. They dismiss Beyoncé because they are terrible. But because “Formation” aspires toward radicalism, Beyoncé and team invite us to critically engage it. Her continued movements within the currents and flows of the conversation, the necessary and urgent noise making, of black feminisms, womanist thought and the Black Radical Tradition, it seems to me, begs us to engage her on the terrain upon which she stands.

The berets at the super bowl, the faux black panther outfits? The afros and pumped fists? We are called upon by the production of “Formation” itself as something revolutionary and radical, which means it should be held to such a standard. Holding it to such a standard does not presume that any of us stands there, has achieved there, because “there” is not a space to obtain or possess but a movement, a flow – like the gathering of waters – in whose currents we must maneuver. And it seems to me to be the case that the refusal to engage and interrogate the class politics of the video – a class politics that shows up through consumerism, materialism and benevolent capitalism – emerges out of a belief that she can’t handle the conversation, that it is too difficult.

I want to talk about and think through the openings created and the delimitations of dancing and singing over consumerist class culture that makes the noise of a desired “Black Bill Gates” and “the best revenge is getting paper” audible. These two statements are seeming aberrations, they are noise that needs cancelation – so far, it seems, unfortunately through refusing to engage it – that we need to feel its vibration in and on and through us. It is a noise that the lyricism of “Formation” couldn’t leave alone, Beyoncé had to get it out. And since it was offered to us, let us consider it.

Let’s take seriously all of our capacities to think…considering the possibilities and limitations of consumerism, materialism and capitalism are not mere academic worries or trifles. The water crisis in Flint, the school crisis in Detroit and Philadelphia and Atlanta, the policing crisis nationwide, the suffering of black, brown, indigenous, poor worldwide, are not disconnected from representation and images. We cannot on the one hand desire to say that the cultural production – always an endeavor, intellectual – is important for thinking with then balk at the occasion for thinking if it entails pushback or disagreement or dissent. That to ask, or to offer really, that perhaps many of us don’t believe in Beyoncé’s intellectual capacity when she herself makes clear that she wants to be taken seriously on the grounds of her aesthetic projects – her dance formations and sartorial choices and lyricism – as practices of the intellect. Can we be joyful about the lyrics that praise Jackson 5 noses, the dual register and play of “baby hair” in its Black English Vernacular force only to dismiss the lyrics that praise unabashed, unfettered capitalist consumption? They exist within the same delimitation, within the same song. We can deal with the complexity, the contradiction. And it seems we have been invited to converse about such complexity and contradiction because the visually stunning images and bass line were offered to us for our engagement.

There is noise. The noise of the desire for a Black Bill Gates, for revenge being best served as getting paper – and paper could be degrees, sure, but also monetary – presents for us a disjoint and disjuncture. The disjoint between image and sound would be cool because black performance is always more than double, is always irreducibly plural. Black performance occurs on multiple registers, is multimodal, arrhythmic, polyrhythmic. Like the young folks say, there’s levels to this shit. But what when rather than an intentional disjoint and disjunction, one desired coherence, one desired consistency? What when one does not imagine that messages about capitalist consumption as a moral good is inconsistent with a message about loving your black flesh, your baby hair and your baby hair?

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Sometimes I like Paul. You know Paul, the Apostle, the one that told slaves to obey their masters, the Paul that said in his flesh was no good thing. But he said more. I do dig the fact that he did say, “be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And I like that he said that he lived his life in such a way that caused him to write that we should continue to move towards – what I will say here is – justice, equity. He said it was not that as though he had already attained that which he sought but that he would relinquish those things that had hindered him in times past and would continue, and would press toward the mark in the cause of justice. So I like Paul not for what he at all times said. There was noise that inflect how he should be heard, that should compel us to think about his contradictions. Through attention to those contradictions we can know that none of us is exempt and each must be diligent to contend against injustice. I like Paul because in him one really gets a sense that he was trying to figure out how to do justice in his world.

So with the release of “Formation” has been a very intense response from all kinds of people. Twitter was aflutter and Facebook debates have caused rifts between friends and strangers. One thing said about Beyoncé in defense of her is “it’s never enough!” And what is meant by that is some of us want to continually criticize and analyze and scrutinize what she does. But it seems to me to be the case that, yes, for those of us concerned with justice, “it” never is enough. Nor should it be. And I think the perniciousness of the inequity of the economy is discounted when it’s said that “Formation” is just a video, that it is not that deep. Because it is more than a video: it provided jobs to workers in the film and music industries, it is an advertisement for merchandise on her website and for her upcoming tour, it is what colonial states like Israel will use as cultural capital to justify their existence against Palestinian life.

So we do not have the luxury for time off. We have to push each other. Yet as anyone versed in black feminism and womanist thought would know, critique is not neutral and has a context of emergence. So the critique, the pressure and weight to be anti-capitalist, decolonial, anti-imperialist, a prison abolitionist, against privatized education should not befall as the burden of the individual. So insofar as we want to have more than simply a conversation about the political economy but an interrogation of it that is produced through and produces inequity, it is not the burden of the individual.

I work for a university. Universities are currently bastions of neoliberal theory and practice. What I mean is that universities are privatizing education, exploiting local and state resources, are primary exponents of displacement of financially poor communities. Universities currently seem to be more interested in private wealth management and real estate building projects than they are about the work of education, especially teaching and education for the cause of justice, in the cause of alleviating the suffering of people in the world. Lots of universities have senior administration from banking and military industries, folks that have little vested interest in the production of truth and making a more just society. That to say I work within an institutional practice that produces and is produced by racial capitalism, that digs its heels into the privatizing of public resources, an institution that promotes inequity under the guise of multiculturalism and diversity. There is a reason why universities and colleges have pamphlets of smiling young folks of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Under the guise of diversity and multiculturalism is the fact of the political economy of inequity.

Yet, I must press. My colleagues must press. We all press. We cannot be comfortable. We have to figure out ways to inhabit these spaces while pressing for justice. This is an ethical demand that gurantees discomfort and to be a challenge. And the call to press is not just made to celebrities but to us all. We all share the load. We all have to speak forcefully against capitalism and the way the political economy moralizes against the poor and working class.

I wonder who celebrities are to us, why we invest so much time and energy into their worlds. I understand being moved by music, a play, the sound of a sermon, a guitar lick, a drum solo, a textured voice. I understand being moved by the dynamism of a Jordan dunk, the gravity of a Nina Simone arpeggio, the weight and texture of a Kim Burrell riff, the joy and frivolity of a Cam dab, the lightness and sweetness of Whitney’s timbre. But at times we invest something terribly overwrought in these figures which disfigures them – many lament having to be everything for everyone – and disfigures us in kind. Such investment is largely about the ways they come to be powerful, and this within a political economy of inequity. Such investment is largely about what they have attained financially, about their capacity for benevolence because of such acquisition, about gettin’ that paper.

Being a Black Bill Gates, getting paper all, on face value, seem to be ok. But is revenge what we most desire? Is choreographic reversal – wherein the police have their hands up – most desired? That is perhaps true for some of us. But that is not the force of one strain of the Black Radical Tradition. How does one get paper in a fundamentally inequitable economy? And though some argue that one has to attain wealth to speak truthfully, to produce revolution, I fear a misunderstanding of the tradition. Do we wanna rearrange the pieces on the board or blow up the game altogether?

We are all drowning. We need a way out, a way of escape. This isn’t a demand for a politics of purity but for pressing. Pressing each and all of us forces us all to consider how our complicity to the workings of the political economy is demanded of us in order to live. We have to be able to imagine that we can do and live and be otherwise than through the organization of wealth as is the status quo, through the organization of resources through inequity. We cannot let the fact that each of us has our complicity demanded of us be a reason to disengage from the necessity of critical analysis and, hopefully, a lot of imagining and in such imagining, bringing into being otherwise possibilities. We who are abolitionists come from a tradition, a rich and long tradition, wherein liberation was not conferred by Lincoln or others. The enslaved in the United States emancipated themselves through a general strike. We come from that tradition, one that saw the necessity of thinking and living and imagining otherwise.

We are contending against nothing short of empire and its rapacious violence. It is good and right and ethical to ask of Beyoncé to boycott her upcoming performances in Tel Aviv to stand in solidarity with Palestinians who are victim of ongoing violent occupation. It is good and right and ethical to ask Beyoncé to think more about the violence that grounds capitalism, the sorta violence and violation that produces the wealth of a Bill Gates and the violence of benevolent capitalism that is the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation is responsible for pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the privatization of public education, a process that has dispossessed lots of black women teachers, lots of students from neighborhood schools and, yes, lots of black, brown and indigenous people from neighborhoods. It seems our imaginations have become constrained by the political economy, by the current order of things, the contemporary neoliberal organization of knowledge.

Think, for example, of schools in Pennsylvania and New Orleans. There have been huge disinvestments in local and state funds for public education, contributing to the crumbling of buildings, the breakup of teacher unions, the lack of capital investment for the futures of black, brown, indigenous, poor educational possibilities. After such disinvestment, the promise of state of the art facilities and teachers that can train students from programs like Teach for America, this after the disinvestment and disenfranchisement. Only after disinvestment is the possibility for profit, which prompts certain organizations to show so-called care and concern. This care and concern obtains only because there is a profit to be made by those that have been marginalized because of the political economy.

And consider the city of Cleveland filing a claim against Tamir Rice’s estate for $500. That is not a lot of money for a city at all. So let me opine: it’s not about the money at all, it’s not about the desire to further humiliate, to further demonstrate power, to further cause the family turmoil. The city could sue for $1 or $10 or $100K and I suspect the reasoning behind it would be the same. Yes, the claim is about the ambulance ride for Tamir. But the state murdered Tamir through an incompetent officer then lied about the event. This lawsuit is legal but is it ethical? The lawsuit is the demonstration of the ways the political economy conspires with the law to produce unethical behavior, to produce violence. So perhaps getting paper, perhaps benevolent capitalism, is not what we need to alleviate suffering. We really need a way out, a way otherwise.

There is no, there cannot ever be, a revolutionary nor radical capitalism. The system of economics is fundamentally exploitive. We have to attend to the alleviation of suffering. It is our task.

How to speak to and against these disinvestments that have ruptured the lives of black, brown, indigenous, working class life? How to speak to and against it in the cause of justice? This is demanded of us. That the black political elite have been at the helm of the privatized education movement should not deter us from speaking truthfully. We cannot allow the articulation of our marginalization to allow us to have a neoliberal political horizon, one of profitability and convenience. Is this not what we learn from black feminists pressing against black patriarchy and misogynoir, against those that would marginalize black women from leadership positions and organizing because they are women? Is this not what we learn from black queer folks pressing against the heteronormative impulses that serve as the basis for much rhetoric regarding black community and its disruption of family through racial capital, Middle Passage, enslavement? We learn, in other words, that we who believe in freedom cannot rest because freedom is not a place but a practice, liberation is not something we can possess but only something in which we participate. We can never be satisfied, we can never obtain, we have to keep living and being and striving to do otherwise.

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It’s ok to have pleasure. And this is not me giving permission because, seriously, I am in no position to give or withhold. And as homie would say, who are me to judge? That is, it is not within my purview nor desire to make a claim on pleasure as a possibility. I write lovingly about my upbringing in the Blackpentecostal church, and this though I know and speak passionately and explicitly against its sexism, homophobia, classism and militarism and desires for empire. In each object is the capacity for multiplicity and sometimes what is in the object is the antidote, the corrective, to the way it can oppress and marginalize.

So it appears to me that the desire to policitize “Formation” as a sort of pure performance or as one that can only be analyzed on some of what it gives, does the work of placing the pleasure gained from it in the zone of the political. Pure insofar as class becomes a category that is not under scrutiny nor is it analyzed. This placement into the zone of the political can occur because of the assumption that the political and the pleasurable are distinct categories that only sometimes criss-cross. The will to make Beyoncé malleable through placing her into already predetermined political projects simply instrumentalizes her as an object for our political theorizing, an instrumentalizing that is used in the service – rather than the disruption – of the neoliberal making of herself into a private, consumable product, good and service. And there is also the disappearance made audible through voices with flesh that is never seen. Queer presence is heard but not seen. It is not a disembodied experience but a removal of the flesh, a defleshing. Isn’t the defleshing of queerness on screen similar to a normative longing that produce resistance against, for example, queer folks leading in Black Lives Matter protests? That we should be seen but not heard or heard – that is, showing up – but not seen? It seems to me to be the case that we are afraid of being moved by aesthetics, that we cannot rest with the way she says – dual frequency – “baby hair” – with the color palette, with the dance formations. And it seems we cannot rest there because we think aesthetics lack intellectual content, that aesthetics are not a collective intellectual practice. So we force the pleasure and aesthetics into an already predetermined political project. And because we are radical and enjoy the content then, yes, the content itself must be radical too.

Perhaps it aspires towards such a radicalism, perhaps it moves towards it. And in that, we should celebrate. But there is more required of us all, yes. The reversal isn’t what we desire but a dismantling of the capacity to compel us to raise hands. Because, and this is also key, police are also exploited by the state though producing violence for it. We are all drowning.

The people called black demonstrate that blackness is an orientation, a way of life. Black people are insofar as the flesh is performance. This performance is decolonial and abolitionist as its ground of being. Blackness cannot be possessed because it is not, but is the antagonism to, property. And, attendant to this, radical and revolutionary are not identities one can claim. Rather, radical and revolutionary are ways to be in the world, are orientations, are dispossessive in how such ways of life compel us to interrogation and reflection and collective, improvisational organizing. None of us is radical nor revolutionary. Rather, what we do can contribute to or take away from the work of radicalism and revolution. We can put our hands to the plow or take them off. But the work must, will, continue.

The work of radicalism and revolution, currents and flows of the work, need us all, we all can and need to participate. These ways of life are not possessive and aren’t property. Rather, people that have come in its name – people in the Black Radical Tradition, for example – enact the tradition rather than identify as the tradition. So, sure, some of us may not get every cue and marker in “Formation” immediately but that just impresses upon us the necessity for community and study as a way to think together. That we do not get the cues does not mean something is not for us, not if those things are made available to us, to the world.

The context of emergence of our practices, given the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ordering of the world, should force us to be diligent to act against it. That ordering is violent. I always wonder what we would do, say, wear, how we would behave, in absence of that ordering, in absence of that violence. So the celebration of identity, one’s race, ethnicity, gender, religion, of itself isn’t a radical or revolutionary thing. And that’s true even if you are from a historically and contemporarily marginalized group. The question, the challenge, is this: how does this celebration contribute to the work of justice and equity, to the alleviating of suffering?

Noise matters. So perhaps we can ask in that ways does “Formation” prompt the imaginations of some to live more deliberately in such a way that does justice against inequity and violence. And we can ask while also experiencing the materiality of the noise, the noise we must engage and through engagement use as a platform for seeking to think and do and be otherwise. Because otherwise is possible. And that’s the beauty of and the dissent about the video: that it opens a space of articulation for imagination and collective thought.

a brief ramble about identity, spiritual identity and empire.

story time!

so when i was first deciding to come out as a gay [yes. said. just like that. lol], i really thought that the most important thing to do was to reconcile my spiritual life with my sexual desires and orientation. i thought that once that work was done that the work of justice would be complete, that i’d have a clear way to think about the world and how to interrogate it. and that because i thought so much of what i was experiencing in terms of cognitive, emotional and spiritual dissonance was because of the conflictual and complex and contradictory messages and thoughts and ideas and behaviors i was experiencing and noticing among others. i thought once i finally reconciled my spiritual practice with my sexual orientation, then i could be a regular preacher. i figured that what was needed was a simplistic widening of the theological circle, of theological thought, to include me …

and that’s all true. i needed to be included. and i am quite glad i figured out – with a community of folks that held me up and accountable, that showed me otherwise ways to live – i’m glad i was allowed space to figure out how to do that reconciling work.

but.

what was so unsettling was that that reconciliation was so very me-based, it was so very individualistic. and, eventually, such a reconciliation was unsatisfying. it was when i began to think about empire, when i began to really think about how economy and politics affect the everyday living of folks, that i began to think more broadly and to put much less emphasis on my personal, private practice of personal, private spirituality – and importantly, the personal, private practice of personal, private sexuality. it was only when i began – again, with help of community that would hold me accountable –  to connect concerns about one’s erotic life to the violent policing that is empire, when i began to think about how empire requires of us to submit to its will, how it requires of us to accept inequity as normative and immovable, it is when i began to think about all those things that the stakes became a lot more clear. the stakes are not fundamentally about my or your personal, private practices of personal, private erotics or other behaviors. the stakes are about the dismantling, the uprooting and discarding of systems that have us bound, systems that perpetuate violence, famine, lack … systems that have the many fight for squandered resources. and insofar as our differences – in terms of erotics, spiritual practice, race or class – marks us, our differences are sent into the world to make us know with stunning clarity that otherwise is possible. (sent: “[A] whole bunch of things sent me to say it…And that’s what I mean – to be sent, to be transported out of yourself, it’s an ecstatic experience, it’s not an experience of interiority, it’s an experience of exteriority, it’s an exteriorization. And so we’re sent. We’re sent to one another. We are sent by one another to one another.) we are sent into the world with the various, infinite differences we carry in order to critique the normative function and form of this inequitable world, to imagine that there is otherwise possibility.

a good friend said to me that we often “don’t realize the deep level of interrogation required” and i think that’s true. so much of the way we think our relation to the world has to be interrogated to really be committed to dismantling systems of oppression. i don’t want a religious community to accept my gay-as-hell-ness while also being a religious community complicit with warfare, with violence against black, brown and indigenous peoples, terrible immigration practices, water shutoffs, homelessness, joblessness, neoliberal logics of school and healthcare privatization, etc.

the stakes are high. we are contending against nothing but systemic world inequity, produced by the very thing that gives or withholds from us our “rights.” and this is not easy. and this is not fun. but it is urgent and necessary.

there is much required of you. and me. to put your hand to the plow of justice means to commit to connecting the dots, to being unflinching – even when, especially if, we are fatigued and tired – to keep pressing. but we press together with community, we share the load, we bear the burden together. there’s so much more to do. but it’s not up to me or you or anyone else to do it alone … but it is up to us that are committed to justice to work together, even through disagreement and argument about how such work gets done, to commit to being with each other in community, to struggling together. because empire would have us be separated…and fighting each other so that it can do its perpetual violence in its many guises.

The “Biology” of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

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We have been named from the outside, yet remain unknown. Needed for coherence, we have been disavowed for our fleshly capacity to derange normativity. We – us blacks and queers and women and trans* people and and and – are varied, many, intersecting varied modalities of identity. We – us that are not white, cis, heterosexual, male folks – come in many forms. We have been marked as marginal and discardable only after we arrived, marked from varied sides, from every whichaway. And this after our arrival only because rule and law exists insofar as it tries to correct an already existent unruliness. This unruliness is life, social life, life in and as blackness. Rules and laws are utilized to order the unruliness of the “us,” of the blacks and queers and women and trans* people and and and. Rules and laws “invent” as pathological our already existent mode of sociality as in need of control. Hoes and sissies and nappy hair in need of perms, rhetorically rehearse a more fundamental and foundational aversion to queer things, a queer mode of living that sets loose the very concept of blackness, because in such a concept is resistance that testifies to the power and force of gathering in the name and cause of something greater than the individual self. The individual self is a biological entity, a body, that can be counted.

But we live in a moment wherein the interrogation of the so-called naturalness of biology is necessary, wherein the social construction of the category needs be made explicit. Biology has never been on the side of the marginalized because the categorical mode of thought emerged from the same racialist projects that produced simple assertions about the purported simplemindedness of black folks. Biology has been used to pathologize; to on the one hand say that we simply are beholden to more primal urges and are thus unable to rise to the level of culture, while on the other it is used to explain away and justify things racism, patriarchy, sexism, homo- and transphobia. Think, for example, of the simplistic assertion that “men are visual creatures” … in such an assertion is a capitulation to sexual violence, is an assent to the notion that being “visual” is what disallows male-identified persons from acting justly because libidinal drives force them to look and to react with knee jerks and gazes and inequitable displays of power. The visuality of men, accepted as a biological – and thus, unavoidable – fact is the same sorta ideology that set loose not just the idea of racial difference but a hierarchy that says those who do not register visually as white are in need of constant correction and control through coercion. Visuality is but one register of such coercion. It occurs, likewise, in terms of how folks sound, how folks smell and feel, how folks taste. Biology, and really all of that which is called “science,” is harnessed in the service of patriarchy and no amount of appeals to it will do much good.

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Some of us have just celebrated, while others of us have lamented, Father’s Day in the United States. This day seems to bring out many emotions, and much of that emotive response is grounded in patriarchy and the purported need for a male-identified person to live “in the household” as proof positive of the proper development of children. It seems that a penis in the household becomes tantamount to a stabilizing presence, that the biologically male body serves as fortifying the unruliness and uncontrollability of the female flesh. The flesh of females, particularly and intensely the flesh of females that are likewise racialized black, register as that which is dangerous for biologically male and female children. We discovered this idea with Moynihan and his “report” that laid at the feet of black women the “tangle of pathology” of black social life. If a biological penis were in the household, then black social life would cohere with the wishes of the nation-state, reproducing the concept of the normative family, one that could be counted on to defend the nation, to be properly patriotic, to capitulate to the wishes of empire. The unruly biological black female mother has not the capacity within her to be a protector or provider, but merely functions as a presence of production. Black female flesh is proper for reproducing bodies for the furtherance of the goals of empire but certainly is not one that could provide something like stability in the lives of children. Such that black female flesh is constantly on display and desired for its capacities for production, though hypersexualized and discarded because of such hypersexualization.

So, many lamented the celebration of black women on Father’s Day, a day for folks with biological, and importantly not constructed, penises.

For Mom, On Father's DayThis card seems to have offended people because according to many, “only men can be a father.” But what does this statement, and the sentiment behind it, actually mean? How have we arrived at a categorical distinction of what a father is supposed to be or mean or do that is not always and everywhere constructed by the milieu in which we live currently? If a father is one that protects, provides, cares for and is concerned with the concept of the family, how is that not reflected by the category we call “mother”? What, in theory and actuality, delineates the difference between such gendered roles? It all comes back to biology, how biology is utilized to not only make a claim for absolute difference but is used to then pathologize those of them, those of us, that do not abide by such strictures. Few of us, of course, do, but the aspiration towards such abiding is something to which we should attend in our intensely, explicitly neoliberal world. Rather than celebrating the fact that folks want to celebrate the important people in their lives, black female flesh, black mothers, were castigated for attempting to “play the role of the father,” because biology set the parameters for what is and is not possible for that categorical distinction. Biological distinction is, in other words, fuckin all of us up.

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Graduating and celebrating all sorts of academic accomplishments, Karlesha Thurman was called a “hoe” because of her public breastfeeding of her child during her graduation ceremony.

Karlesha Thurman

Because the set of assumptions about black female flesh as always unruly and out of order, sex and sexuality are always already moralized against. Many attempted to defend Karlesha – and rightfully so because folks that argued against her were simply silly – by saying that she was producing a biological act by breastfeeding, that what she was doing was grounded in science, not cultural practice nor a general cultural immorality. But such defenses only worked in the service of reifying the absolute difference and distinction between science on the one hand and culture on the other. Those defenses that turned to science – through biology – as the means that normalized her breastfeeding only ended up mining the very category of black female pathology in order to articulate why she, as individuated, should be given a pass.

But such should not be the case. Why do we allow dudes to walk around beaches and streets and clubs without shirts but not women? Is it because there is something inherently different in the chests of men and women biologically? Is it because folks want to protect women’s flesh from being subject to gratuitous violence and violation? Not so. Not at all. Women are subject to violence – sexual and otherwise – not because of the unruliness of their flesh but because of the cultural collusion with science that produces something like patriarchal, sexist renderings of culture. Folks talked shit about Karlesha Thurman because not even biology offers recourse, because blackness and female flesh exist outside the bounds of biology.

Karlesha Thurman Comments

What is it about Karlesha Thurman’s “biological” condition that made her a “hoe”…? What is it that transforms something that is natural into something that is in need of being tamed, controlled, relaxed? It is the collusion of cultural with science that produces such a rendering of her feeding her child. And this collusion of science and culture needs much attention and interrogation.

What we discover with Karlesha, and more emphatically with Blue Ivy Carter, is that there are two kinds of naturalness and, as such, two kinds of biological explanations for how folks exist in the world: that which is natural but in need of control and that which needs to be tamed; and that which should be cultivated, protected, proliferated, congratulated. Blue Ivy Carter has been the subject of hella scrutiny because of her hair, naturally grown out of her head though it may be.

Blue Ivy Hair

This particular photograph was such a problem that Blue Ivy became subject to a Change.org petition titled “Comb her hair”. The desire for her hair to be combed, to be otherwise than nappy – and both Crissle of The Read as well as Kimberly Foster at For Harriet have discussed this – is an affect of the naturalization of whiteness. But to move in their direction and further still, it is not just whiteness but the ways whiteness as biological is naturalized, how white bodies biologically are proper and that which falls beyond and aside the productions of white bodies are deemed problematic. Blue Ivy’s natural, biological hair is in need of taming, perming, combing, control. Her hair is not like other hair because, in effect, it is not white enough. Resorting to biological explanations for her hair simply won’t be enough because it is the unruliness of its blackness that is being interrogated, not any concept of so-called naturalness.

iv

The unruliness of Blue Ivy’s hair, the unruliness of Karlesha Thurman’s breastfeeding, the unruliness of celebrating flesh that doesn’t have biological penises for Father’s Day: they all mine an already existent pathology of black social life as in need of control, particularly through acts of violence. And this is true not just for the flesh of women-identified folks but for men and boys as well. There is pathology that is assumed to be true for black social life and only then, after such pathology is established as axiomatic, do various modes of categorical thought come to “explain” the reasons for unruly, queer, off, problematic behavior. And it is the afterlife of presumably true black pathology that Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (MBKI) coheres and builds its capacity for supposed change.

MBIK is a program that seeks to help black and brown boys with self esteem, to give them mentorship, particularly by telling them they have “no excuses” and by telling their parents that they are the ones most implicated in the failings of their children. The initiative was created on the heels of George Zimmerman’s egregious acquittal and after the murder of Jordan Davis. Yet, instead of talking about structural and institutional racism, about the ways blackness is figured in the national imaginary as dangerous, as violent and as – yes – pathological, Obama chose rather an initiative that would set at the feet of the children so-attacked their issues in need of change. Obama ongoingly utilizes so-called black pathology as a means to identify with black American community: though his father was Kenyan and his mother white American, he uses the narrative of the absentee black father – one with much popular appeal, though not verifiable “scientifically” (funny how even science and math would disavow the very appeal he makes to it) – in order to identify with black American social life. But more than identify with it, he seeks to continually distance himself from such social life by declaring his success even though he purportedly shares conditions with the black folks he chides. Obama talks often with black folks about how his father was missing and how he smoked marijuana, and it is that lack and bad behavior supposedly gives him a foundation to talk about and to black folks in the States and their ongoing failings with respect to being impoverished, lacking education, having poor health and being constantly incarcerated.

Obama’s speech that inaugurated the MBKI intimated that he is exceptional because, unlike most black (and brown) boys, he had folks that cared about him and his well-being throughout the duration of his life. Such that his “bad behavior” did not impact him negatively in ways that it does others. This is not him speaking to privilege but him distancing himself from the black and brown boys that normatively do not have folks who love, care, nor respect them. Yet there have been folks organizing in the service of and love for black and brown kids for centuries, institutions from churches and mosques and schools to sororities and fraternities and social organizations.

The very foundation of the MBKI is founded upon a faulty idea that black and brown boys don’t feel care or concern from an early age. Yet research from educators like Janice Hale has demonstrated that black kids enter schools more excited and ready to learn, achieve better and are more active than any other racial ethnic group, which is why Hale argues so much in favor of early childhood education. Black kids enter into schooling situations ready to learn even if, as Obama pointed out, they have a less extensive vocabulary than do white children at the same age. The problem is precisely that early on, black children feel the effects of institutional structural inequity: this happens through both microaggressive racialist practices and through more official means like testing and placing kids into remedial classes because they have “behavioral issues.” MBKI includes women through negation, through saying that the pathologies of black womanhood, of black motherhood, of black teaching women is simply not enough to control the behavior of black boys. What is needed is the controlling, stabilizing force of the black father, the black man.

However, the main problem with MBKI is not that it does not explicitly include women in its plan – it includes women through pathologizing mothering and teaching – but that the initiative itself is grounded in a general, nonspecific black pathology as axiomatic. It is grounded in the conceptual zone and frame that says blackness is unruliness and this unruliness must be controlled through varied forms of violent encounter with the nation-state. Sometimes, the violent encounter is with Stop-and-Frisk measures, with the increasing militarization of state police and general police and carceral practices. Other times, the violent encounter is with Race to the Top and its focus on “accountability” and “results” and “no excuses,” though schooling in general has been assaulted under the this current and previous administrations in the service of privateering profits. And at other times, the violent encounter is with initiatives that simply rehearse the language, logic and rubrics of neoliberal, individualist uplift narratives. MBKI is a science project, one that is founded upon the need to understand and, thus control, black pathology.

Like so many Blue Ivy strands of uncombed hair, like so many Karlesha Thurman breastfeedings, like so many sissies in sanctuaries, MBKI is a tactic of controlling the excesses of black social life. We should resist this with all of our being.

v

“These hoes ain’t loyal,” is but one sensationalist quotation from Jamal Harrison Bryant’s recent sermon titled, “I Am My Enemies (sic) Worst Nightmare.” In this sermon, he also decried the fact that the Black Church has created the condition wherein the only black men willing to abide there are “sanctified sissies.” He also discussed how there are “more lesbians” in the black community than ever before. This all because of the dissolution of the black family as a categorically distinct and pure zone, one that is relegated to father, mother and children. The failure for loyalty is felt everywhere and throughout the sermon: women aren’t loyal to men, gays aren’t loyal to holy libidinal drives, all to say that the failure of loyalty is a debt and personal moral failing, is an individualist infraction that is in need of reproving and adjustment. Bryant relies on the same supposed pathologies of unruly black sexualities that produced the conditions wherein Karlesha Thurman could be called a hoe: that something about her, about our, flesh is excessive to the point of danger for the whole of the community. It is the job of the excessive ones to regulate our behaviors for the salvation of the community. But this move for regulation and repression is to occur so we can fully, as a community, participate in the bounds of neoliberalism, not to disrupt and disfigure its function and form. Perhaps being disloyal to such aspirations is a gift. What worries Bryant, I think, is what worries Obama: the unruliness and uncontrolled nature of black sociality. Each participates, through various rhetorics and modalities, in the belief of an already believed, a priori black pathology that has to be both sought after and, after being found, destroyed.

And it is this search for the destroying of unruliness, of untamed hair and breasts and sexualites, that allows me to finally understand what Hortense Spillers means when she says that the black American male-identified person has the unique opportunity to “say ‘yes’ to the female within.” And must respond not to this opportunity, but to it as demand. What Bryant’s sermon demonstrates is a desire to tame the unruliness of queerness, the unruliness of female flesh, that is not grounded in the biological body but in the force of that which is deemed unruly, queer, excessive by the nation-state, by the inequitable distribution of power. Bryant wants to tame and perm and relax and control the aesthetics of the Black Church, of Blackpentecostalism, because in such aesthetic practice is the deformation of the very aspiration towards inclusion in national political initiatives that are only ever aspirations towards inclusion in neoliberal violence. Obama likewise wants to search for and destroy a similar unruliness. He participates in this search through Race to the Top measures, through initiatives that are supposed to “keep,” but that refuse to name emphatically systemic and instructional racism, sexism, homophobia, violence. They each tend towards the basic, pernicious ideology of blackness as offense, blackness as toxic and immoral.

What is needed is a general disbelief in the projects of empire, no matter how seductive the call for inclusion. A disbelief in the idea that what we are and already have is not enough. A disbelief in the pernicious and insidious ways pathologizing blackness operates in our moment. A disbelief in the capacity of empire to produce justice. A disbelief that nappy hair is bad, that breastfeeding in public insinuates acts of flagrant violence, that sissies in sanctuaries are not likewise vital for the quickening force of religious community. What is needed is a disbelief in the law of the father because the “law” is what establishes the very capacity to be a father, it normativizes certain relations as more important than others. But this has never been the truth for black folks, and I suspect others as well. Play aunties, play cousins, mom-moms, paw-paws, half-sisters, half-brothers, the people down the street and up the way: other socialities exist and cannot be reduced to or contained by the biologic necessity of blood. Biology restricts sociality and purports to be itself the grounds of culture. And it is this same law that incarcerates with racial and classed bias.

Yet, we can do and think and be otherwise. We can keep each other aside from, outside and beyond milquetoast federal initiatives. What is needed, in other words, is a disbelief in the current configuration of things that press both science and culture into the service of finding and critiquing blackness as deficit and detriment. This disbelief is the saying ‘yes’ to the radical force of black womanhood within.

blues clues

Kanye was certainly not the first to say, when he told Sway, “you ain’t got the answers…!” This is a rather common reply to people who opine about, and argue against, status quos in their variegated guises and how they must be destroyed in order to produce something like justice in the world. It is often claimed, for example, that if one is not offering a concrete set of solutions in a one-to-one relationship to the problems enumerated that they have an inherent flaw, the inherent flaw producing a fundamental incapacity for one to resist. That is, one isn’t allowed to disagree if they’ve not a list of otherwise plans. Though I disagree with the thrust of such ludicrous opinion, I still want to return to Blues for Mister Charles to offer a set of thought experiments, what my friend Lindsey Andrews says produces “questioning [that] leads…away from ‘explanation’ and allows [one] to describe anew time, history, and experience in ways that can respond to the insistent and unpredictable materiality of the world.” This, she further offers, can go “beyond epistemological determinism, closed ontologies, the limits of historical causality, ideology, and institutional structures.” So, in brief, I want to offer a few thought experiments that could help disrupt the notion of education, through the institution of schooling as it currently exists, in the service of privileging learning as a social, critical, open-ended practice.

So, some made up thought experiments:

 

ONE
Organizations like Teach for America, as a friend once suggested, could focus on building capacity in cities rather than bring a supposed cadre of caring individuals from outside those cities – people from mostly elite, private universities – to teach. Instead of utilizing funds raised to train post-college students for five weeks in order to dedicate two years of teaching in underserved public schools, monies could be funneled to teachers, teacher assistants and aids who currently work in public schools. This would give them the resources to build capacity in location. It would disrupt the sort of logic of disaster capitalism and poverty volunteerism, wherein students from elite universities give time and energy to feel-good projects. This would, of course, mean a radical reorganization of funding for organizations like TFA, and would put pressure on thinking about local communities not as transient, but as places where people live, where people have thriving lives. This would simply give resources such that such thriving could be more achievable.

TWO
End standardized testing as it currently is apocalyptic literature. Standardized tests are high stakes for both teachers and students currently construed, and the ability for schools to receive funding under Race to the Top is connected to their performance on such tests. Such that they are apocalyptic in nature, meaning they serve a purportedly prophetic, end-times, doomsday function. They supposedly foretell the cognitive abilities of students and the pedagogical insufficiencies of instructors. They are used in the service of heightening the powers of the nation-state to determine the destiny of its subjects. In this literature, though, is not a renewal of the world but the perpetual brushing up against doom, against destruction, without ever a promise or movement towards justice. Simply, this literature is used to condemn certain classes of people to unending failure, economic and social lack.

THREE
I have been obsessed with versioning lately and Blackpentecostal singing has always intrigued me because people in different locations will sing the very same song with different words in different random places. Some fiction:

when i was a kid, this showed up mostly when we had visitors to our church or when we went to visit other churches for afternoon services at churches with whom we fellowshipped.  my brother and i would notice how people would sing the same songs we knew but with subtle differences.  of course, you’d have to be part of the pentecostal world to really appreciate it.  but we loved to sing, for example, one song as

i believe god, i believe god / i believe god will do what he said
no matter what problems may bring / i believe, i believe god

but then we’d be somewhere else, some other church but they’d say

i believe god, i believe god / i believe god can do anything
no matter what problems may bring / i believe, i believe god

of course.  the slight difference between “will do what he said” and “can do anything” is illusory to most.  the rhythm was ostensibly the same.  the repetition and the sentiment, pretty much consistent.  but my brother and i’d hear this and we’d look at each other and smirk just a bit.  not only smirk, i suppose, but we would want our correcting voices to be heard, so over the incorrectness, we’d say as loudly as possible – even if only to each other – will do what he said! – forcefully. it was a moment to articulate difference as inherently part of the pentecostal world in which we were part.  it was cool because we’d notice the difference without being able to account for it or name what it meant.  all we knew to do was keep singing what we knew the words to be a bit louder.  it became an occasion for us to laugh with each other at them.  it wasn’t disparaging or anything like that.  they would take our well-worn testimony service songs (this, well before the advent of powerpoint and screens, at least in our churches) and enunciate them with different lyrics.  they “messed up” our song.  but the songs never belonged to us in the first place.

The critique in Blues for Mister Charles was about how education, through schooling, attempts to make us the best kinds of citizen-subjects, that it requires us to be indebted to the nation-state in order for its ongoing operation. So perhaps Blackpentecostal song can be an articulation of the resistance to normative function and form. This to say that Zora Neale Hurston’s concept of variation with difference has a lot to do with learning over and against schooling, over and against education. What she calls “characteristics” of black performance – with variation around a theme being a primary marker – is instructive for considering the utility of the local as a means to resist the governance, the governmentality, the surveilling that obtains to national standards, national rubrics.

churchtambourine

Local disruptions are already proving to be critical interventions against national standards, against the notion of the standard. What Blackpentecostal singing does is not simply assert that the original is not the only way but that the very concept of pure origin must be interrogated, that what we have is only an irreducible series of relations. What works in Philadelphia is in relation to, but different from, what works in Chicago. And what works in Chicago is in relation to, but different from, what will work in Portland, Oregon, what will work in Los Angeles. But the desire to produce disruption to the logics of national standards, privatizing of education, charters and choices are variations on a theme. What is urgent in our times is that the theme under which we typically think about learning must be uprooted from the making of proper citizen subjects indebted to the nation-state.

To be clear, the idea of the local runs counter to the concepts of choice and charters because they are based in corporatized models, not simply nationalist but nationalist-towards-global competitiveness. And this because public resources are used in the name of local solutions but are exploited for private, anti-public and thus anti-social ends. More, these schools still proliferate the idea about education, through schooling, as making of its students proper, obedient citizens. These schools do not disrupt the logics of neoliberalisms, they are not freedom academies. Rather, they perniciously promote neoliberalism realities against imaginative leaps while lining pockets of elites.

FOUR
But what about going to college? Currently, the centering display of inequitable power within educational institutions is their desired capacity to make people accountable to themselves. Such that a student homeschooled, another unschooled and yet another traditionally schooled each must make their labor coherent and legible to whatever institution they desire to enter. The institution, however, is not required to make itself available to the desires and labor of such students, it is not about what the students bring but how said students can replicate the normative form of the institutions and the normative arc for becoming a citizen. One can spend their days in radical primary and secondary schools, backpack through Europe and volunteer for causes, but will still eventually need to “mature” and become cohesive, legible students that desire educations for a good jobs, in order to still replicate the indebtedness to the current configuration of political economic inequity. This notion of being mature has everything to do with the dissociation from, the escape from, the local as a normative trajectory of becoming.

The notion of “going away to school” is not transcendent across linear space and time, though it does function in our society to index the process of maturation. One’s ability to “go away” revolves around normative class aspirations and theories of citizenship, such that we consider those who live at home while in post-secondary education as in a wholly different and developmentally deficient progression categorically (thanks to Allison Curseen for prompting in me this idea regarding the difference between growth and development). In different Canadian provinces, for example, people tend to choose local universities, something like our community colleges, without there being a denigration of the concept. And even within the borders of these United States, many students attend state schools that are close to home, though the overarching narrative is that one should go away for college education. [Full disclosure: the university at which I teach has roughly 50% of its students from the immediate Southern California area and many live at home with parents.]

I focus on the concept of going away to simply mark the ways a normative developmental narrative regarding one’s education often is about leaving the social space from which one emerges, about denigrating the sociality that makes us possible, in order to become the scholar, the theorist, the thinker, over and against the social that is the purported zone of homogeneity. But because of the digital, we actually have an opportunity to rethink what the bounds of the local are, sorta like when Jesus implies that one’s neighbor is whomever one finds oneself around in need at any given moment. The digital allows us to consider the emergence of localness as grounded in communities of theme, communities that are not just near each other physically, but communities that form of necessity in order to respond to moments of crisis. When Susan G. Komen decided to defund Planned Parenthood in 2012, a localized community emerged quickly to respond through email, message boards, tweets and facebook posts. This localness was based on the object of analysis having within itself a centripetal force such that folks gathered around it, mobilized around it, in order to enact change.  So I’m not making an argument that folks must attend schools “close to home” physically as the corrective to the logics of education in the service of becoming citizen-subjects. Rather, I am arguing that the theme of learning being pressed into such service must be disrupted, and it can be disrupted through another spin, the spin of the object, the object drawing us to itself, the object of justice.


END

These are, admittedly, wild thought experiments. But that, I think, is my point. I’d like to imagine another way of being, another mode of thinking and learning that does not submit to the dominant narratives nor the current configurations of inequity. Perhaps wild thinking, radical imagination, can give a momentary disruption long enough to think that an otherwise is possible because it is, in all its unruliness, thinkable.

blues for mister charles

i
Our time is not unique. Ours is an ongoing rupture of violence and violation that was set loose into the world as far back as 1492, though the logics of displacement, aversion and the making of objects through categorical distinction no doubt existed previous to that historic flashpoint. Our time is not unique. Ours is one that attempts to consolidate revolutionary impulse and radical social form into ever-expansive neoliberal dreams. Our time is not unique. Ours is grounded in the flowering and flourishing of the promise citizenship, a promise that necessitates submitting ourselves to violence the nation-state imposes on its subjects. Our time is not unique. And yet we would do well to consider the form inequity takes in our milieu, we would do well to be attentive to the creative capacity and inventionary instinct internal to empire such that we can contend against injustice in all its guises.

ii
Learning is not a luxury. Learning is what we do, what we be, when we gather together with others to think, to consider, to play the dozens, to laugh, to shout in church aisles, to dance in nightclubs, to sit on porches, to sit at tables eating starchy foods and fried meats. Learning is what we do, what we be, when we commit ourselves to sociality, when we commit ourselves to longsuffering that would have us – in all our fleshly thereness – be with, rather than raptured from, the worlds of our inhabitation.

But learning is under radical assault. Learning is, because of schooling, being submitted to neoliberal realities against radically imagined fantasies. Schooling is becoming a privatized industry and this runs antithetical to the necessary openness to worlds that constitute the grounds for learning to occur. Schooling gives education but we are discovering a concept that we have already known, which we already been known for a long time: learning is not the primary goal of school but, rather, its goal is education. And being educated is about becoming the proper kind of subject, the proper kind of citizen, for the state’s use and exploitation. Education, so construed, is about making a promise today about one’s future relationship to the nation-state, it is about becoming indebted to a political order.[1]  Learning, in such a configuration, is the resistance straining against such indebtedness because learning gives the tools for critical analytics, critical enfleshment, social flesh as a critique of governance.

Stefano Harney says of debt that, “The common way to understand debt…is that we are, by coming into debt, making a promise to act out capitalist social relations – as they currently exist – in the future.” And it is this common understanding of debt which is operationalized in the service of education currently. And I’m not just talking about, teachers in K-12 classrooms that are literally being encouraged to go into financial debt, taking “low interest” loans for school supplies. And I’m not only thinking about the financial debt college students accrue by taking out exorbitant loans in order to provide for their essentials, in order to eat and have shelter while attending post-secondary institutions. I include all forms of schooling that would seek to make us better, more productive citizens for the nation-state as requiring of us a certain indebtedness for purportedly allowing us time and space to be educated. Education – through schooling – makes us debtors, the best kinds of citizens, through forcing the promise of futural relationships of inequity. Schooling is the instrument mobilized to deliver education, schooling attempts to suppress creativity, desire, uniqueness and sociality through standardized tests, assessment rubrics, core “standards.” Schooling, as a mode of administration, is against the very interrogation of current (anti-)social relations with respect to the current political economy. Schooling is about the inculcation and enactment of obedience: “What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” Yet James Baldwin offers, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has.  This is the only way societies change.”

We are told that through schooling, if we work and study hard, that we too can go to college and get good jobs. But there is much that remains unsaid in such declarations. The hard work and study that produces an entrance into college and good jobs is the maintenance of the existing anti-social relations of inequity. These existing anti-social relations keep us forever competing against one another. Our labor is exploited to make the nation a strong global competitor. Suppressed, then discarded, is the question about the purpose of learning itself. Education is about the suppression of the question in order to gain entrance into normative mode of subjectivity, about our emergence into the “world” as it is currently construed. What also goes unsaid is that the suppression and eventual discarding of the question about the purpose of learning is as true for Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields as it is for thought that occurs within the delimitation of the Humanities. It is not the Humanities that are under assault; it is learning itself.

What is occurring with explicit intensity in our milieu is the trade-ification of all modes of knowledge such that anything learned is supposed to be used to make the nation-state competitive on a global scale. Folks majoring in business, law and medicine are just as discouraged from radical creative thinking as folks in the Humanities are. The lack of arts and music programs – discarded as so many unwanted questions – has had pernicious effects in poor K-12 school districts. No longer are arts and musical knowledges considered integral to the development of the whole student, save in situations where parents can afford such seeming excessive, creative luxuries. The indebtedness that becomes the foundational characteristic of education is virulent in its attack against various literacies, various social practices of learning.

Literacies are not eternal, they change over time. Literacies are always social practices, engagements with others in order to produce otherwise worlds of inhabitation and thus are not reducible to the technique of delivery. Important are what the techniques make possible and the kinds of interventions radical social practices of learning can be. For example, it was not always assumed that the ability to read and write would give coherence to something like a subject, it was not always thought that personhood was predicated on this particularized form of knowledge transfer. But the antebellum rule against reading and writing for enslaved folks is instructive. Though some theorists claim that reading and writing would allow enslaved persons the “establishment of the African’s human identity to the European world,” it seems more appropriate to consider how literacies were utilized to resist the nation-state’s violence and violation. What we must do in our own time is give attention to the antebellum period’s injunction against reading and writing, not because reading and writing confer personhood but because the one’s who were juridically prohibited from the practice recognized its utility. We must attend to the past in order to ask what the modes of learning are today being kept from the marginalized, what modes of literacies are today deemed unnecessary and are discarded as excess.

During the antebellum period what was given was an education that sought to suppress and discard difference, what we might think of as common standards. Indeed, various skills were acquired in order to keep the peculiar institution profitable – everything from agricultural sciences to hospitality. But there was also learning, learning through fleshly performance that was against the education that would make of these black objects mere organic machines with no will nor volition. The learning took place not just in the hush harbors and clearings. Learning also took place as the excessive creative force that sustained people during labor, such that singing and chanting and hollering could measure distance, denote time and provide protective noise for escapes. Folks learned against the trade-ification of education, against the skillset deemed necessary for labor.

And today, too, we have education wherein everything acquired is supposed to be instrumentalized into the service of the state, helping us become proper citizens. It would seem that the national Common Core Standards Initiative would address issues of access in education. The CCS only organizes learning such that it will have people both college and career ready. But the guise of “common standards” is quite antithetical to learning as social practice. The CCS contributes to the suppression and discarding of difference in the service of state power, is just another iteration – under neoliberal delusions – of the suppression and discarding of internal, irreducible difference. The critical intervention calls us to descend just below the surface.

iii
On the surface of things, it perhaps looks as if these various initiatives and calls for STEM education and denunciations of the Humanities, are means to care for individuals, to care for the “self.” But if there is anything artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s work has elaborated, it is the interrogation of surfaces.

Piper’s Art for the Artworld Surface Pattern is a tightly constructed room, closed off from the world, full of sensory information on walls.[2]

piper

The “piece” is a rather small room that could fit three to four persons in it. Walls flat with only one small entrance, the furnitureless room’s walls and ceiling are covered with newspaper clippings of various political struggles and world disasters.  As well, “At arbitrary places across the photographs the words NOT A PERFORMANCE are stenciled in red” (162). There is also the insertion of sound and speech with a recorded tape loop. The speech is the repudiation of the material on the wall as art, it is a stereotyped reply about the aesthetics “that ignored completely [the] topical thrust” of the work (164).  As such, the piece “surrounds you with the political problems you ignore and the rationalizations by which you attempt to avoid them” (161). The point of the overload of both visual and sonic material was to create a situation in which, “in order to distance oneself from the work, one would be forced to adopt some critical stance that did not itself express the aestheticizing response” (167).

People enter this art space only to be confronted with problems they’d much rather avoid. This confrontation takes place on the level of the scene constituted by the seen and the sound.  What Piper does – by way of the words “NOT A PERFORMANCE” as well as the audio loop – is to gather and insert thought, which is typically thrown away. To be attentive to the “surface pattern” is to give attention to that which easily recedes, that which readily is discarded. Attending to the “surface pattern” equally requires attention to that which exits right below the surface, that which is barely there, that which shows up by way of a resistance to showing up. The “noisy” walls and speech saturate the room, causing the looking away, the aversion, for what is seen and heard. Piper uses the surface of walls and the plain-ordinary surface-level speech of dismissal to have viewers go below such surfaces, to confront the world.

And on the surface of things, there seems to be much chattering about the need for quality education, for everyone from pre-K to post-secondary. But what this chattering does is obscure the ways education, through schooling, has followed the arc and trajectory of western theologic-philosophic concepts for the grounds of existence: the denunciation of the social in the service of the individual. Education, through schooling, is about the means to articulate a coherent, stable, impenetrable “self,” one that competes with others to prove worth and value, one who submits to metrics and measurements, to tests and examinations. This “self” also submits to being evaluated by those around about them and the examiner will make declarations about the capacity for the individual to be good, to be intelligent, to be normal. Just below the surface of the chattering is the desire to keep the status quo operational, is the desire to reduce the capacity for learning while increasing access to education. Barack Obama provides a sufficient example.

Obama had the following to say about “Art History” as a mode of examining the world:

[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree – I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.

This pontificating cannot be divorced from the radical restructuring of public education currently under his administration. It has been noted time and again that his Race to the Top (RTTT) is more egregious than Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and it is not by accident that the privatization of public education under the guises of charters and choice has many of these “boutique” schools focusing on STEM rather than anything in the Humanities. It is also not by accident that many of the first programs that were defunded in public education were arts and music programs. It is not that Obama is against art-making itself as a practice. He used at least three Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service observations to put paintbrush to hand in order to show what service to one’s community looks like.

bhopicstitch

What is vilified, then, is not action – a trade, a skill – but thinking, collective, improvisational, social thinking about any range of actions one could take in the world. It is perfectly within the horizon of education to acquire a set of common actions in order to get tasks done; what is not encouraged is the theory that would have one thinking about color and saturation, about lines and texture. This is problematic and vulgar because it also assumes that intellection is a result of class, that learning only happens amongst elites. However, for example, the ruptures on warehouse floors in Detroit during the Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers prove otherwise, workers reading Marx in order to critique unfair labor practices. So though Obama could go into schools to offer skills, there was no theorizing about the policies that create the conditions of inequity that produce the need to volunteer at such a location. Obama painting walls and wood while decrying art history only underscores the ways social intellectual practices as modes of inhabitation, as ways of life, are under assault.

Creative social intellectual practice itself is excess, and thus is only ever constitutive for an otherwise world’s production of joy and justice. With the assault to social practices of learning, creative enjoyment is then marshaled as a mode of labor – through volunteering – that must be relegated to days off, must be relegated to modes that do not have within them the critique of systemic injustice. This is the promise of being indebted to society through education: to carry into the future the present conditions of inequity, including such good faith, feel good projects of every-now-and-then volunteerism. What cannot be questioned, what must go uninterrogated, is the condition of the world that produces this demand of education over and against the open-endness of learning.

Such that what Obama opined about Art History was not an accidental throwaway sentence about the impotence of art history education to acquire employment. Deeper still, he acknowledged – without stating so explicitly – that future job growth will obtain mostly with jobs requiring only a high school diploma. ‪Doug Henwood had to say about jobs in the next ten years: “So according to fresh projections from the [Bureau of Labor Statistics], the 10 most rapidly growing jobs over the next decade, accounting for a quarter of total job growth, require on average no more than a high school diploma, and only one – nursing – pays more than the national median wage.”

Like explicit newspaper clippings with NOT A PERFORMANCE written across our bodies, the fact of blackness – through the very inhabitation of our flesh – is political, calling for the various aversive logics that attempt to control us. Rather than lingering with the question of the purpose of learning, the nation-state seeks to quiet the perpetual questioning that we carry in and as our fleshliness, the nation-state seeks to paint over the walls of inequity in the service of keeping us indebted to inequity. Social practices of learning, against schooling education, would have us ask interrogate empire’s desire for a promise of our complicity to the current political economy.

iv
This is a Blues for Mister Charles. Charlie, we all know, is the informal, the non-standard, the familiar and intimate version of Charles. What education does today specifically is move from Charlie to Charles, exploiting the rhetoric of common standard while actually enacting the force and violence of normativity. Rather than the irreducibility of internal differentiation and variation of care and concern that emerges in the local that would yield such intimacies and familiarities, scantrons, rules of law and order orders and rules the school day. Nutrition managers felt compelled to follow rule and order, discarding the food of children, rather than break such ruling in the cause of justice. The children were quite explicitly punished for their parents’ future promises of indebtedness to the anti-sociality and alienation of capitalism. This fact of inequity and debt has been a constitutive force of anti-blackness and we are simply seeing the logics of inequity proliferating. The formal rather than the intimate, the anti-social rather than the zone of sociality, the standard rather than differentiation: all this is what education, through schooling, would produce antithetical to social practices of learning.

As James Baldwin stated, “Mister Charlie” is the non-disruption of white supremacist logic. Such that Blues for Mister Charles would not disorder the logic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Rather, the formality merely marks the spread of empire’s violence and violation more explicitly felt, known, present. Charles rather than Charlie is an affect of purported post-raciality, a vision of livability wherein differences do not matter, where they are suppressed and discarded in order to have “a more perfect union.”

Yet, various movements – the Philadelphia Student Union, Chicago Teacher’s Union, North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement, as examples – are using their flesh to make promises of bad debt, of black debt, that refuse to take the current model of anti-sociality into the future. These varied movements provide examples of learning that are against education, learning that produces impropriety, learning that is itself a critique of any notion of a common core standards, and a more general critique of the emergence and arrival into citizenship. And this by their walking and display of signs. And this by their angered voices and pleas. They refuse, and thus we should refuse, to sing blues for Mister Charlie, for Mister Charles, that would leave Mister uninterrogated. They recognize that formality and standard are effects of the continual hiding of violence from view. Like how a protest of 80-100 thousand people this past weekend in North Carolina went unnoticed in mainstream media, there is an aversion to our fleshly ways of learning, an aversion for refusing quieting and sitting still allowing the nation-state to enact violence on us without resistance. They, we, refuse. They are, we are, using flesh, as Harney would say, to promise to refuse to take today’s anti-sociality of capitalist debt arrangements into the future. They have, we have, better things to carry.



[1] My understanding of debt – which will run throughout this piece – is entirely influenced by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s notion of debt and indebtedness. For the important treatment of the topic, please see Harney and Moten, The Undercommons.

[2] Adrian Piper, Out of Order, out of Sight, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).

an oversimplification of words

i
Roy Grimes disagrees with his mother and their disagreement is within the tradition of what might be called black disbelief. Black disbelief, it seems, is a refusal of the conditions of one’s life worlds while simultaneously enunciating the possibility for something new, something otherwise. Roy Grimes, in Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin, laments to his mother Elizabeth, saying that the actions of his father Gabriel do not meet up with the rhetoric of holiness and righteousness, that the violence and violation Roy receives is not consistent with the ideology and religiousness of a love ethic that is pronounced verbally. Within this gap – of which the London Underground Tube system tells us to “mind” – is the radical force of love, its capacity to produce otherwise worlds that are not grounded in such violence and violation. Roy’s is an ethical charge against the normative modes of his existence: he disbelieves that violence is concomitant with love, he disbelieves that physical, emotional and spiritual abuse is a mode of protection. He does not want to be a citizen of the household of faith, nor of Gabriel Grimes’s domestic space, because with such citizenship comes the relinquishment of liberatory praxis, of living vibrantly and abundantly. With such citizenship comes duty and obligation but certainly nothing like joy or peace. Roy, it seems, recognized this all. Roy’s frustration and demand, his disbelief, emerged from his acute perception attuned to the ways that he is victim of inequitable distributions of power. But his being victim was not a totalizing force, so much so that he spoke back, forcefully, truth to power.

Nina Simone corroborates Roy’s charge. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, Nina Simone produced a rendition of the song “Feelings” by Louis Gasté and Morris Albert.

What strikes me each time I listen is her interrupting the song almost at its very beginning to say, “What a shame to have to write a song like that,” of which she quickly followed with, “I’m not making fun of the man. I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that!” She looked on, after having offered such commentary, to the incredulity of the audience. They could not comprehend her disbelief in the very situation from which a song emerges. Their refusal of comprehension was an articulation of the privilege that disallowed engagement, incarnation, fleshliness in our world. Their refusal was a mode of rapture, leaving behind those who disbelieve as a material spiritual practice.

Roy Grimes is our guiding post. His desire and demand for love is an ethical injunction against not only the conditions of his world but ours as well. He did not speak merely of a mode of affection that is ephemeral in its enactment. He spoke of a love that charges his parents to live into the world differently, to ethically engage their children through reciprocity and concern, through the obliteration of hierarchies that are grounded in unjust power differentials. He desired a love, in other words, that fundamentally would alter the alienation produced through violence, he desired a love, in other words, that would, in sociality, flower. Simone pinpointed the very thing Roy lamented, she elucidated a black disbelief: that there are situations that produce demands on and for us to speak, demands that have ethical force and thrust. We live in such situations, such moments of crises.

And so we listen and incline our ear towards Roy’s lament, towards Roy’s critique of violence and violation. We sit still with Roy, hearkening to his disbelief, making it our own.

ii
We live in a world of namings and misnamings: arguments over if someone is or isn’t a “public intellectual” (Melissa Harris-Perry, for example); if someone is “dumb” and “stupid” (Porsha Williams of Real Housewives of Atlanta fame, for example); what “affordable” in terms of housing means; “urban renewal” in terms of gentrification; “choice” and “charter” in terms of privatizing and defunding equitable educational schooling opportunities for young folks. What these modes of naming do is provide a monolingual reduction of words, they oversimplify the complexity of life experiences. There is an assumption that the words have within themselves crystalized and concretized meaning, that they have self-evident capacities to name realities. But what seems apparent in our pernicious times is how these words often disallow rigorous analysis in the service of ease and comfort with our political ideologies. Let’s consider Barack Obama as a primary figuration of such misnaming.

Barack Obama – so the various opinions claim – is “smart” particularly over and against the “dumbness” of his predecessor George W. Bush. His being “intellectual,” his reading books and newspapers and his being a “constitutional scholar,” are all facts mobilized to underscore just how smart he is. Yet, these words merely oversimplify the pervasiveness of violence that has proliferated under his administration. Smartness, intelligence and intellectuality are instrumentalized to shield from a fundamental truth: Obama’s tenure as the leader of this supposedly free world has been more radically violent, economically inequitable, more secretive and surveilling than anything the “dumb” Bush could have imagined. Misnaming produces the conditions whereby we can avert gazes from the violence produced and, instead, celebrate symbolism. When the words are mobilized to veil from the fact that the actions they obscure enunciate quotidian violence, the urgency of minding the gap, of Roy’s ethical injunction, intensifies. It’s all about the words used and how they cohere with or against actions.

The crisis occurring in American urban cities – through privatization of schooling, gentrification, displacement of communities, joblessness and chronic unemployment – is called urban renewal. What sounds like a solution ends up being a perpetuation of the cycles of inequities, a proliferation of systemic and institutional violence. Barack Obama has, for example, recently named five “Promise Zones“: “the President’s plan to create a better bargain for the middle-class by partnering with local communities and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety.” However, the Promise Zone is just a misnaming, an other naming, of what came before under previous administrations as “Empowerment Zones” and “Enterprise Zones” (Reagan and Clinton as examples). With these purported “promises“ are a bootstrap-like mentality, the people whose necks are under the boot of empire are the ones required to make a promise to empire, to better citizens for its goals and purposes. But so far, we on the left have raised little voice against such violent policies that leave the structures producing inequity intact. Though we’ve written lots about Beyoncé’s feminism and Ani DiFranco’s plantation blues and (the quite terrible) Macklemore’s win of four Grammy’s, much less has been said from our circles about the cycles of violence and violation. There is a gap, of which we are not minding, between the profession of faith in social justice and that which rouses us to collective outcry and action. Or, more precisely, the actions which we engage often are in the service of articulating the personal, private individual, the enlightened bourgeois subject, through acts of personal, private social piety.

iii
Some of us took it to the walls, paint on rollers and got to work, making old t-shirts a bit dirty, meeting folks along the way. Others of us, perhaps, donned tool belts, put nails in drywall and through wood. Some of us went to food banks, placing rice in bags for a few hours. This is what has become of the day to remember Martin Luther King, Jr., plain ole personal good feelings. The day to remember King has been co-opted by the government since 1994, officially called a “Day of Service.” And there is something pernicious about the exchange of the seeming immemorial death and remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. with volunteer work, replacing the radical force and ethical charge of King’s black disbelief against the conditions of the world from the political zone of dissent against empire with projects that consume our time, replacing the affective labor of black radicalism with the ways to feel self-satisfied about a “job well done” through service projects. We live in a moment of aversion.

bho-volunteering

 

What was engaged that day were projects grounded in a logics of aversion, projects that take our energies away from considering the conditions that produced King’s assassination. Through “service,” our attention was diverted towards rearticulating the personal, private individual as most in need of development. The personal, private individual is the one who volunteers, who does projects, who addresses needs of communities mired in poverty, inequity in education and victims of food insecurity. All the various well meaning projects can make us a little bit exhausted, can introduce us to various folks we’ve never met, and can allow us, at day’s end, to be self-satisfied. These projects let us gather around a concept called volunteerism with hopes that such a concept will have within the power to rename our realities. It is a misnaming steeped in a belief in the power of words themselves to do the work of justice.

 

What are you doing on Martin Luther King’s birthday?

I’m volunteering!

 

What got King assassinated, however, was not a simplistic notion of service, was not the articulation of a political subject of the state as most in need of protection. King was not assassinated, in other words, because of the notion that his identity as a black man was a particularly unique and individuating mode of victimhood. Rather, his murder emerged from his recognition of the fact that until we attempt to unsettle and uproot systemic structures of inequity, that we simply participate in the perpetuation of American exceptionalism. He spoke out – finally – not just against racism, but also against warfare and American militarism and, also against poverty. King, like Baldwin’s Roy, began to mind the gap between the rhetoric of the “greatest nation” and the forms of violence it produces globally. King became aware of the ways empire itself produces inequity at home and any abroad. And the tactic of American empire has been to mute his radicality and critique, to appease us with feel-good service projects, such that we think Barack Obama is a logical extension, rather than an vulgarization, of King’s life struggles. Simply, the word “service” has come to replace justice work, the act of personal volunteeristic piety has come to replace the hard labors of struggling against empire.

This misnaming is not unique to King and a “Day of Service.” This misnaming, this oversimplification of words, is what has allowed the ongoing opening of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp that has detainees whom have never been charged with any crime at all, detainees who have been cleared for release. This oversimplification of words is what has the Affordable Care Act touted to be “universal” healthcare rather than, say, single-payer health insurance, which would, not just in rhetoric but also practice, be “universal.” These various misnamings are made possible through the logics of aversion, through a turning and turning away from the injustices right in front of us, turning and turning away with hopes that naming will otherwise do the work of justice.

King’s was a critical intervention grounded in the spiritual practice and exercise of black disbelief, not in some sort of secularity that was about becoming a political subject of the state, about becoming a proper citizen. Misnaming is a problem of the secularizing – having an aversion for certain forms of social practice – of our society. Secularizing makes certain concepts available universally through a liquidation of the radicalized potential and force, leaving unchanged the inequity that produces the desire for secular civil society. What we have, then, is a secularized King, a defanged and muted object, no longer produced by and producing black disbelief as an antagonistic way of life, but now an object of suffering that is merely exchangeable. Though King was certainly about serving others, what is meant and produced by the “Day of Service” and making a political claim on his service is that King becomes a politically coherent object that serves the interests of empire, he becomes a symbol in empire’s hands and, thus, exploitative powers.

king-party

Such that there is not much difference between the promotional flyers of Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration parties and the calls for service work in his name. The flyers simply makes explicit the objectification that undergirds the latter, while at the same time, the latter comes with it a moralizing stance and operates in the service of empire building.

iv
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a sumptuous, gorgeous, moving film. A complex set of images, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is about the possibilities for love, for thinking about and experiencing emotions when there is complexity built into, but unspoken within, relationships. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty begins with the tale of an artist who is one night stood up by a would be lover friend and the varied feelings he has for her. This beginning is announced in a film titled How Would You Feel. But immediately as this first film begins, it is interrupted by another film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty as that interruptive force, to give context, to give flesh and meaning to what is in the first, original film. So with How Would You Feel, viewers gain an entry into the psychology of the filmmaker and his feelings about “her.” In An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, viewers gain an understanding of “him,” his previous relationships, his complexities. This collection of films is about black disbelief, refusing the conditions of the single narrative to tell the story, displacing the single author, the single medium, the single voice in order to have various voices, textures, colors, media types to present a set of interconnected stories.

oversimplification-1

And through the film, we come to learn that oversimplification seeks to make rational the feeling of beauty. Feeling itself, it seems, is something in need of control. Oversimplification is the reduction of excess, the discarding of the not easily named emotional registers of inhabiting the world. Oversimplification is fundamentally a secularizing of the object of our affections. But the two films – each interrupting the other – move through several narrative voices in blurry places, in the middle of passages, in the middle of words; it is sometimes animated, sometimes live-action, sometimes puppetry; it is repetitious while also varying themes with each repetitious return. As such, the film seeks to unsettle such secularity by celebrating the excess of performance and form: everything from voice to artistic visual representation, from documentary to fictional presentation, all to get at something about “her” beauty, the beauty she has that augments and interrupts him.

oversimplification-2

The film is a critical intervention into, and an interruption of, oversimplification of words, of sentiments. It refuses singular form in order to trouble linear narrativity. It is an ethical film, a film about the gap between words and actions, the zone of the oversimplified. But the film speaks back from that zone to say those that have been oversimplified are anything but simple. When “her” finally speaks, she speaks with depth, with care, with precision, with love. She, a character of black disbelief, speaks against the ease with which she is narrated in How Would You Feel as simplistic. She interrupts the ease with which she is misrepresented, the ease with which she is turned into an object of his suffering for exchange in the film.

oversimplification-3

I have been bothered by the concept and theological idea of rapture for some time but it seems to structure the ways in which we inhabit our western world. Rapture is about escaping the conditions of suffering “when the trump shall sound” with folks leaving the “unsaved” behind to live in a world of crisis. The concept of rapture, it seems, is fundamentally about escaping conditions rather than inhabiting them, it oversimplifies by removing ourselves from the fleshliness of reality. I think we have purchased the concept that “the personal is political” wholesale without much interrogation on either side of the “is,” which unfortunately has gifted us this present moment that easily oversimplifies through words. Often, what is named is a personal set of infractions – “the personal” – as a means to speak about the uniqueness of one’s experience over and against the experiences of others, as a means to disrupt and shut down the possibility for interrogation. “The personal” is not about the capacity to be in the world with others but is, in effect, about the capacity to disengage in the service of personal, private protection from the world. It is antithetical to social justice because it disallows a conversation about structural inequity because the specificity of “the personal” as an example becomes the example par excellence. And “the personal” is often about the articulation of a set of infractions that makes of someone a victim, such that their sense of identity is grounded in such victimhood, and such victimhood becomes the shield against which no interrogation can occur. “The personal” is the elaboration of the bourgeois subject.

Then also on the other side of the “is,” is a need for interrogating “the political.” This concept is not neutral and has its own sets of problematics: political but towards what end? are we attempting to become the political subject of the state? If so, whatever is named as “the personal” used to articulate one’s capacity to be this subject of the state is, then, a problem that needs to be unsettled, disrupted. How Would You Feel is the articulation of “the personal” against which An Oversimplification of Her Beauty emerges as the interruptive force. The latter film refuses rapture, in its beautiful blackness, the film disbelieves in disengagement as the means to produce justice. It recognizes that rapture is not grounded in disbelief but a general disengagement from the fleshliness of our milieu.

v
There is something cool happening on subways in New York City. Kids are claiming space, expanding the possibility of movement, expanding – at the same time – the limits of imagination. There is something cool happening on subways in New York City. Gays are claiming space, expanding the possibility of movement, expanding – at the same time – the imagination for queer inhabitation, for queer livability. What makes the zone of the subway – a constrained, closed space on the move – the site from which emerges a critique of oversimplification? Why is this a zone from which to give an aesthetic intervention and interruption that misreads the normative ideologies of criminality for black young people in spaces where Stop and Frisk are normalized?

These various movements – while on the train on the move – are the critique of inertia, the movements of kinesthetic energy against potential and kinesthetic flesh, about striking a balance between movement and inhabitation. Theirs are movements on the move, movements that critique the ways of seeing them as potential criminals, potential threats to safety, potential enactors of violence. They utilize the confinement of subway cars to articulate other modes of being, they explode the potential energy of constraint through occupying the space with difference. They speak back, through performance, to how blackness, black flesh, is oversimplified and through such speaking back, fill the space with abundance, with excess, with ethical force. With each step, with each flip, with each pole dance, with each vogue, they not only articulate a disbelief in the conditions of the quotidian, they enunciate and elaborate the imagination towards otherwise possibilities. They pick up on Roy’s ethical charge, they ground themselves in Nina’s rhetorical dehiscence, they perform the doubleness of disbelief. They make, in other words, the world anew through a refusal of oversimplification of words.

to be well fed

i.
We are a discarded people. But perhaps such being discarded may prove to be cause for celebration. We are off to the side and undergrounded, indeed, but even still, right there. Right here. On street corners, pants saggin. In project apartments, tenement housing and unaffordable “affordable” units. In urban, ex-burban and suburban areas. Academies of the streets, of the universities. In boardrooms too. In mosques and churches, synagogues and Buddhist temples. Here and in the otherwise, we discarded are skilled in simultaneity, we have a particular orientation to the world. Ours is an orientation that does not find its genesis in the violent and violative experience of being thrown away, though our orientation certainly uses such experience, such trauma, as a means to practice and perform critical intervention. Being discarded, in other words, is not a totalizing force. Ask Henry “Box” Brown, his becoming a thing, a discardable parcel, as a means to enact sociality and liberation. Ask Harriet Jacobs, stilling her flesh, throwing herself away, discarding herself inside a crawlspace, finding fugitive flight through withdrawing. Ask fictive Maud Martha, a young girl who found that what is to be cherished in life are dandelion weeds we so haplessly uproot because they are of no value, because they are ordinary.

Ours – the discarded – is a history of refusing the totalizing force and disruptive nature of being unwanted, of being used and removed after being exhausted. We, the discarded, mobilize constraint in the cause of justice. We, the discarded, instrumentalize being waste, being excess, because we know that being valued in a political economy of fundamental inequity is to suppress our ability to speak, act, perform truth to power. We offer a critique of the world given us. This world constitutes itself through removing that which exceeds boundaries, that which can be, in effect, thrown away. The discarded are that constituting force. But importantly, we make worlds against the very imposition of being relegated to being discardable. And by such world making, with such celebration of the capacity to create, is the exceeding beyond the violence and violation of relegation. Like Maud Martha, we discover in the ordinary everydayness of our worlds, that indeed, there is much that should be cherished in the zone of excess, in the zone and inhabitation of the discarded.

ii.
The children escaped from enslavement, dwelling in a wilderness that seemed unending. And the children, the Hebrew community, were hungry. They besought their deity in order to find sustenance and in such seeking, eventually, were fed quail and manna for days on end. However, after eating this meal one too many times, these wilderness dwellers, in between captivity and new lands yet to be conquered, began to complain. Though they received daily provisions, theirs was a sustenance that lacked variety. I have heard this particular biblical story sermonized several times but never considered from the vantage and worldview of the wilderness wanderers. They should not, preachers would offer to congregants, complain. How dare they be delivered from captivity only to complain that what was provided was not enough?! Of course, this biblical story about sustenance was supposed to teach folks in our time how to behave, how to be grateful when our bellies are full, even if we are less than excited by the things we’re offered. Hunger, it is thought, is a biologically determined accident of flesh but variety – such spice of life – is only for those that can afford such.

Sermonizers I’ve heard discuss this story end up criticizing desire and pleasure; that because the Hebrews were newly freed from enslavement, they should be content with their provisions being met and have no concern about desiring variety, variety that could provide pleasurable experience. They lacked resources and that lack was supposed to interdict the capacity for aesthetic choice. They should lack, in other words, taste. Sermonizers end up implying that though everyone deserve to eat, some certainly should not desire more than mere sustenance being met. Yet what we can glean from the story, if considered from the worldview of the newly emancipated, is that one’s condition of poverty does not take away the capacity for enjoyment, for desiring joy, for wanting sumptuous, exquisitely excessive pleasure. Fighting for desire and pleasure with food, fighting for varieties of flavor, is to contend for one’s fleshliness, is to petition for the “vivid thereness” of the discarded. This contending and petitioning will be grounded in the very zone of experience that is purportedly discardable: the excesses of pleasure and desire.

Underlying these varied critiques that sermonizers give is that there are certain categories of lack, lack created by systemic and institutional inequities to be sure, which should forestall anything like a complaint from the one receiving benefits, insurance. This critique of pleasure and desire of the flesh is not relegated to Judeo-Christian sermonizers. This critique is the way that capitalist nation-states structure relations to impoverished peoples, peoples whose appetites for pleasure and desire are likewise deemed discardable.

December 28, 2013, 1.3 million people lost Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits. The opinion of lawmakers is that when UI benefits are limited rather than expanded temporally, folks without employment will seek jobs quickly and reenter the job force. But North Carolina was a testing ground for such vulgar thinking and it was found that chronic unemployment – folks who have been out of work for longer than one year – increased rather than decreased. The longer one is out of the labor force, in other words, the more difficult it is to become employed again. Some of us, perhaps, felt it the weekend of October 9, when Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were compromised because of a database error at Xerox. To learn, at that moment, that the very few funds given to people to assist with making food ends meet is bound up with private industry was telling (JP Morgan, along with Xerox, also profits from poverty). But more than the temporary rupture in the benefits that weekend – when people at various supermarket retails left full shopping carts because they had no other method of payment – was the decrease in SNAP benefits for roughly 47 million Americans November 1, 2013.

When SNAP benefits cards were shutdown because of the electronic errors, people took to Twitter and Facebook to create funny memes: purportedly funny were images of women and men passed out on streets, saddened because they could not get food; purportedly funny were hashtags that laughed at people on line becoming angry because of this unforeseen error meaning that they would not be able to feed themselves or their children. People began having a general conversation about how people “on food stamps” exploit the system, how they’re simply lazy and refuse to work, how they don’t even really deserve the money they get to eat with, how they should just stop having so many kids. Fundamentally, in other words, was a critique of pleasure and desire because certain stations in life, because, in other words, one is impoverished. One should not complain about what is given them because, foundationally, one does not deserve to eat well, one does not deserve to have a job they enjoy. One should be happy SNAP benefits only decreased to roughly $1.40 per person per meal rather than nothing at all because, you know, even this small amount is too much because, you know, those folks are lazy and oversexed and scantily clad and and and …

We narrativize against impoverished people instead of the conditions of inequity that create poverty. And this narrativizing finds its genesis in a critique of pleasure and desire itself as something wily and out of control, something that impoverished peoples do not rationally utilize nor understand. We do not think, to be precise, some folks should be well fed because we understand appetite to emerge from the zone of deservement.

iii.
Perhaps Michel Foucault was wrong, perhaps moralizing against pleasure is not only relegated to the sexual. Or perhaps we must expand upon Foucault and consider the ways some folks, whatever behaviors they engage including eating, is always already coded as sexual. And, more, coded and considered sexually deviant. Appetite, who does and does not deserve to be well fed, is a means of conceiving populations and modes of sexual deviance. The idea of the welfare queen is instructive. Poverty through the pleasures and desires for food become modes of trauma, sexual identification and taxonomic affiliation. This categorical distinction itself is an ever-widening expanse, allowing for the articulation of governance and inequity. In the figure of the welfare queen, for example, is the interarticulation of gender, affectional orientation, class, and because of children, the reproductivity of “bad” citizenry, and food consumption. When this figure is attacked, in other words, pleasure itself is the target and, more implicitly even, we make of food consumption that which yields a categorical distinction for sexuality. Such that by decreasing SNAP benefits and Unemployment Insurance benefits, which will necessarily target the same populations while also making a claim that these persons receive “too much,” a necessarily moral injunction is levied against the impoverished folks as a category of sexuality. These economic attacks attempt to curb sexual deviance.

Foucault questions: “how, why, and in what forms was sexuality constituted as a moral domain? Why this ethical concern that was so persistent despite its varying forms and intensity?” We might think of poverty then, perhaps, also as a zone that is marshaled to articulate a mode of sexual difference for the state. If this is so then the reduction in SNAP and UI benefits is part of the generalizable moralizing against desire and pleasurable behaviors of impoverished peoples. This is the same moralizing that was found, for instance, during former President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform that included the language of “personal responsibility” and gave incentives for families that appeared heterosexual through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Both these programs targeted sexual behaviors as in need of rationalizing instruments and tools by way of marriage training and shaming families’ moralities that refused to cohere with such nation-building measures. TANF was specifically created to address out-of-wedlock births and marriage rates for low-income Americans.

Pleasure and desire – together – become the primary figuration of excess itself, that which refuses rationality and coherence. This figuration transforms pleasure and desire into that which is not only discardable but, in order to have proper thought, necessarily must be thrown away. And this in the service of achieving some purported higher, moral good. This is as true for what arguments in favor of or against Beyoncé’s possible feminism do to pleasure and desire as it is true for the reduction of SNAP benefits and the reduction of Unemployment Insurance assumes about the moral lack, the excesses and luxuries, of poverty’s pleasure. The discarding of pleasure and desire is as true for the moralizing against, and thus the ban of, large sodas and other sugary beverages that impact consumers at 7-11 but not Starbucks in New York City as it is for incarcerated persons having food historically and contemporarily targeted as a site of punishment. Food consumption and who is allowed to be well fed is a battlefield for contending against inequity.

What is the affective labor and mode of moralizing against poverty pleasure? They just don’t deserve it, “it,” it seems to me, being pleasurable experience itself, desire fulfilled. Being impoverished is supposed to shame us into being good citizens who produce, work and operate out of duty rather than pleasure. We are to act rationally, not passionately. Being impoverished is not only supposed to make of us discardable but this station in life is supposed to utilize and exploit our desire and pleasure as that which is most immediately and necessarily discardable in order to create of us proper citizens.

iv.
Just what do we see when we look at trash? Tim Noble and Sue Webster compel this question with their various projects that reuse discarded materials, trash, and configure them into constructions with depth, weight and texture. With their work, viewers must stand in particular proximity to objects in order to notice the various forms of life, sociality and discarded pleasures that make up any projected image.

Wasted Youth (2000)

The various images on walls emerge from shadows. The skill and care that Noble and Webster put into the construction lets at least this viewer consider the intricacies of any sociality, including most fundamentally those socialities of the discarded. Soda bottles and cans, food containers, rolls of toilet paper, cups, plates, even taxidermy animals assist with the construction of these art objects. Passing them without the projection on the wall, one might wonder what is located in the depth and layers of the construction. But certainly one would not immediately think that something could emerge from shining a light on these constructions. Importantly, then, the object which emerges on walls because of the shone light bodies forth in darkness, in blackness itself. The sociality of the discarded shares a fundamental constitutive relation with the idea of blackness.

Shadow Sculpture
Wild Mood Swings (2009-10)

There is both desire and pleasure one finds when viewing both the discarded materials and shadows of blackness that appear on walls. The desire is to know more about the figures so-constructed, the lives created and fashioned from such thrown away materials. But more, one finds pleasure in the very sensual experience of, delight and joy with, the discovery of what is projected. A smile, a furrowed brow, a destabilizing of knowledge produced by trash, by objects already having been exhausted producing, yet and still, other worlds of existence. We discover the possibility for capacious, manifold narrative that resists dominant understandings of the discarded. And perhaps resistance, Kima Jones tells us, “is the only thing that makes life worth telling.”

I have struggled and wrestled with this Youtube video for a few weeks now. In it, Reese Napper-Williams sings about the power of her chosen deity to rescue her “just in the nick of time.” She does not have, it seems to me, the best voice. There are, it is certain, singers who could have technically sung with stronger voices, with more clarity and precision. Napper-Williams, instead, wavers and struggles to achieve some notes, is a bit flat here, a bit sharp there. She belts out and then the voice thins. Yet, her rendition moves me. What she has is a certain conviction. Listen to what she sings at 5:38

I was going down
But you came in the nick of time
I was going crazy
After I lost my baby
You came in the nick

He came in the nick of time
Came in the nick of time
I thought I would lose my mind
But he stepped in right on time

Writing her words, however, does not capture how she sang them, how it was performed, how the performance was the constitution and construction of the discarded, of blackness, of that which was easily discardable. Her words linger and eclipse the written word through melsmatic rupture. She gave it style. But she did not sing alone. She sang with a choir and congregation behind and in front of her, egging her on, yelping and screaming and moaning, raising hands and jumping up and down, particularly after she said, “After I lost my baby.” There is something there, in the performance itself, which refuses being relegated to the zone of being written. There is pleasure and desire that only emerges when one gets down with the congregation, there is a narrative to which we do not have access, though it is echoed in her refrain and the eruptive encouragement such refrain received.

Is this not what Noble and Webster discover: that shining light on discarded and unthought objects produces the blackness of such discarded materiality, the blackness of such sociality? Shining the light is about allowing the texture of discarded life to be as it is. And as it is, it already is its otherwise. Napper-Williams tells narrative through resistance because her life, the life of the choir and congregation, the life of the performance, depend on such telling.

And we tell the story of the discarded, we tell the story of the 1.3 million whom have lost Unemployment Insurance and have decreased SNAP benefits, because this telling is necessary to celebrate the lives of the discarded. We tell because of the pleasure and desire that is celebrated in Napper-Williams’s singing, in the congregation’s antiphonal reply, in Noble and Webster’s art objects are also a functional critique of inequity that we experience. This pleasure and desire posit the possibility of another mode of inhabitation.

vi.
My friend sat across the table from me and explained how her mother used food stamps – when they were stamps – to keep the cupboards, refrigerator and deep freezer filled with food. Hers is a family of many siblings and her mother wanted to always ensure that she and her progeny were well fed. This desire for being well fed, and the pleasure generated by the capacity to do such, emerges from love, from an irrepressible and inexhaustible force of desiring justice not just for one’s own person, but for that of others as well. My friend and I talked about how, in times past, people would go to neighbors’ houses asking for sugar, butter, milk, eggs, whatever if necessary, and that there was no shame felt in such asking. But more, there was no shame – nor feeling of superiority or patronization – in such giving. What was had was had in common, as commons, as between, and thus with, us all. My friend and I eat together at tables all across Los Angeles not simply because we are hungry but because the table provides a space for sharing, for giving and receiving care and concern. We eat not because it is deserved but because there is appetite, there is pleasure and desire to be had and fulfilled. We eat together as a mode of sociality as an otherwise than religious confessional spiritual practice. Like Sufi dervishes taking vows of poverty, begging not for themselves but for others; like Christian community knowing that “blessed are the poor in spirit,” the sociality of the discarded emerge through emptying our personhood for communal justice. We eat together as a means to inhabiting our flesh, to forcing the worlds that have discarded us to see that even in such liminality is the possibility for celebration. This should not be a privilege.

We must be willing to speak forcefully against such inequity. We must create hashtags about UI and SNAP benefits as quickly as we created petitions against Ani DiFranco, as quickly and intensely as we wrote #BeyoncéThinkPieces. If we do not, we dismiss and dispel concerns for justice to the zone of the Political rather than allowing it to remain with us, the discarded. To not speak is to refuse excessively sensual experience of sociality in which we participate, it is to repress pleasure and desire in the service of politics. But we are already here…construction of the otherwise has begun.

every black girl needs a makeover: for rachel jeantel

I
I believe in Black Study.[1] Black Study, for me, is a spiritual and performative practice of sociality, resisting normative theologies and philosophies. Black Study is about the ability for aesthetic behaviors typically deemed excessive, erratic, discardable, dismissible – behaviors in need, we might say, of a makeover – to be constitutive for other ways to exist in worlds. Black Study provides new models for collective intellectual movement and improvisational protocols for existing in otherwise worlds, it is a methodological mode of intense, spiritual, communal meditative critique and/as performance. Black Study is fundamentally about our capacity to be, and to exist, in the otherwise. Far out in space, right here against time; otherwise in the underside and underground of normative rule, function, form, law. From the murders of Sakia Gunn, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Michele Hilliard and Renisha McBride to the incarceration of CeCe McDonald and Marissa Alexander, what is apparent are the ways that ours is a milieu of misrecognizing Black Study. These premature deaths, these carceral practices – grounded as they are in anti-blackness – variously illustrate the violence and violation that attends such misrecognition.

Our times privilege the individual, the subject, over and – yes – against the social, the collective. Modernity’s creation of the subject begs attention because it is grounded in concepts of rationality, of the individual’s capacity for intellection. Edmund Burke’s worry over the shouts of large crowds, for example, was because he considered such collective, improvisational noisemaking as having within it the potential for disturbing his individuated thought process:

Excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror. The noise of vast cataracts, raging storms, thunder, or artillery, awakes a great and awful sensation in the mind, though we can observe no nicety or artifice in those sorts of music. The shouting of multitudes has a similar effect; and, by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that, in this staggering and hurry of the mind, the best-established tempers can scarcely forbear being borne down, and joining in the common cry, and common resolution of the crowd.[2]

It is the joining with the common cry, with the common resolution, which gave Burke pause. But from where is that pause borne, from where does such hesitance emerge? Was it from the noise itself, from the clamor and volume of storms and bombs bursting in air? Or was it the commons – the zone in which sociality happens – as the target of such critique? Turning to other thinkers of Modernity allows us to see that with the inauguration of this theological and philosophical mode of existence, “at its foundations, the modern notion of the individual and thus the modern age [itself was] intensely private and apolitical.”[3] Modernity, in other words, shored up against the commons, the porosity of flesh, moved to think one as a contained, continuous object. Susan Buck-Morss says the following about containment of the biological thing we call a “body”:

The nervous system is not contained within the body’s limits. The circuit from sense-perception to motor response begins and ends in the world. The brain is thus not an isolable anatomical body, but part of a system that passes through the person and her or his (culturally specific, historically transient) environment. As the source of stimuli and the arena for motor response, the external world must be included to complete the sensory circuit.[4]

What we have is evidence of the porosity of fleshly experience. We are, in effect, open to the world and that openness is the grounds out of which emerges sensate awareness of placement in inhabitation. We do a fundamental violence to flesh when we attempt to become the subject of modernity, when we aspire towards enclosure of our flesh, making of ourselves bodies that matter, divisible and individuated. In a word, fundamental violence is wrought when attempting to capture and incarcerate the flesh from its sense perception and motor response to the external world. The external world is not out there but in here, within each of – and passing through – us as we pass it along.

 

II
There is a pervasive belief that traumatic experience becomes the ground zero, the absolute zero moment, from which one’s identity, one’s self emerges. The normative conception of trauma is that whatever one was, or what one had, before such experience of violence and violation, quite literally, is nullified, is voided such that any trauma is totalizing. This conceptualization of trauma as the ground and absolute zero for identity, for selfhood, it seems, animates many of our modern liberal, leftist projects. The proliferation of identities – I’m a cisgender, black male-identified, gay-identified, middle-class, east coaster from a religious background but now am kindasorta agnostic and full of disbelief, a college graduate with three postgraduate degrees – is not only exhausting in its enumeration. It is also exhausting in that it presumes that the proliferatory remarks, as preface, gets one closer access to the subject we “really are.” The enumeration of identity is a purging of sorts, an expurgation of queerness as a way of life, a desire for the correct, coherent, stasis that is something like one’s identity.

Such that the way this proliferation is taken up, as a taxonomy of identities in many of our leftist projects, it seems, is grounded in bad faith in Black Study, it is grounded in the idea that identity, selfhood and the very possibility for community formation is founded at the points of victimization, at the moment of trauma. It misrecognizes institutional Black Studies as an area of concentration that is mostly concerned with traumatic experience of transatlantic enslavement, of Africa and its Diaspora; it wrongly assumes that the force of blackness finds its originary genesis in transit, in movement from Africa to the New World. It wrongly assumes, in other words, that blackness is tantamount to the experience of violence , the experience of pain, that black people feel ongoingly. Such that other liberal, leftist projects attempt to seek to find – with exacting precision – moments of violence and violation to both name their subject position and to claim space. This creation of subjectivity based on violence and violation not only seeks out traumatic experience in order to bespeak how it individuates and subjects us, it becomes the grounds upon which to analogize how one’s oppression and marginalization is like another’s: “gay is the new black,” for example. Simply, this desire for subjectivity is nothing other than a desire for a makeover, a redressing that leaves in tact structural and institutional inequity.

 

III
Ebony Magazine declared: It’s a “new year,” so she’s been gifted a “new look.” A new look, indeed, that has “refined” her. It is this refined “presentation” that “will help her transformation into adulthood.” Before the Huffington Post changed the name of a piece about her, the title stated flatly, “Rachel Jeantel Doesn’t Look Like This Anymore.”

racheljeantel1

Quickly changed to the softer, simpler, less sensational, “Rachel Jeantel Gets Makeover Compliments of Ebony Magazine, TheGrio,” the latter title rendering doesn’t fully capture the point of the Ebony spread: that Rachel does not have to embarrass Black folks anymore. Indeed, she’s been given a makeover and promised a scholarship to college by Tom Joyner. We could, of course, simply think about the makeover and scholarship offer as well-meaning gestures by well-meaning people, all that had Rachel’s best intentions at heart. But reading Amoy Pitters, makeup artist, state, “I know that this is going to change a lot for her,” one should wonder a bit more about just what the this in her declarative is supposed to be.

The makeover of Rachel Jeantel was supposed to make her look otherwise than she did during the court case of George Zimmerman. The makeover was not just a feel-good day of self-care but was bound up with aspirations others have for her: “We want to keep [her vivaciousness and personality], but translate it into ways that can work for her, for her new life as a student. We want to give her a look that’s going to translate from campus life, to any internships, or employment that she may be doing while she’s at school.” This all seems well and good until we recall that Rachel Jeantel was tried in the court of public opinion before she ever opened her mouth while testifying on behalf of her murdered friend. She was squarely lampooned for her body size, her complexion, her hair, her clothing … she was criticized for her speech patterns, her gestures, her frustrations with a very frustrating line of questioning. We cannot, it seems to me, think of the makeover aside from that context, the context that already declared her not enough, the context that rendered her fundamentally incapacitated, the context that said had she been something otherwise than what and who she was, perhaps the case would have concluded differently. She was the key witness, so the line of reasoning went. To desire to “translate” her appearance goes hand in hand with the unstated desire to translate her speech into coherence, into something standard – like collegial speechifying for the university.

The makeover is nothing other than bad faith in Black Study: it submits to the idea that whatever one is – particularly when the one is what we don’t want, don’t desire, before ever speaking – at the moment of trauma needs be nullified and voided, that a new way that dismisses as discardable one’s past is most urgent. It is to participate in the violent process of making flesh into bodies, of making the incoherence and otherwise rhetorical patterns and gestures of one Rachel Jeantel into a body, into a grammar, a grammar that coheres with wishes for upward mobility and respectable presentation. The makeover was about the individual as the primary target of trauma, the subject that needs to be redone, closed off, individuated … it was to form of her the bourgeois subject of enlightened thought, even and ever so on her way to college.

So though perhaps we might declare it a moment of self-care, because of the West’s theological and philosophical inheritance, we need interrogate, as my colleague would write (though I take it in another direction), who is the self of self-care? Who, or what, is the thing we attempt protecting when, for example, we explicate lists of trigger warnings for things that may perhaps cause the rexperiencing of trauma? Does not the declaration itself assume the very subject position that created difference-as-deficiency in the many guises that proliferate today such that we have racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia? Would not one have to assume – from the position that declares what experiences warrant such a declarative – that their experience is normative? Is not this normativizing of personal experience the very problem of, say, whiteness? Is this not, in other words, bad faith in Black Study, a desire to makeover flesh into coherent substance, cohesive subjectivity? What is the “self” – even when hinged to words like “care” – other than the declared desire for being the bourgeois subject of enlightenment?

Perhaps it seems impolite to critique a makeover when Rachel, it seems to me at least, enjoyed the experience. I don’t criticize enjoyment and I get a haircut about every three weeks. Still, I am reminded of what Yasmin Nair notes, that we exist in a moment where folks on the left enjoy confessing traumatic experience. This confessional posture also means that naming the personal – as Tamara Nopper writes – makes possible the occurrence when “someone who discloses they survived violence presumably cannot be questioned for their framing or political commentary even as they are presenting their work as feminist analysis and/or politics and trying to shape public conversation about violence.” The stories, these various modalities for confession, are all about enclosing and hindering the possibility for thought, for dialogue. “But it was a nice gesture!” is a modality of the personal-as-political with a foundational claim that operates through narrativizing sentiment as a means to shut down conversation.

It is from within this world of desired selfhood and subjectivity that such a makeover – which includes not only wardrobes and makeup and hair extensions, but college attendance; so perhaps we must think about the bourgeois conceptions of what it means to be a proper college student – emerges. Rachel Jeantel’s “new look” is specifically tied to class aspirations that others have for her. Folks were embarrassed by the sassiness with which she gestured, the speech pattern that resisted Standard American English, the eye rolling and general fatigue with the defense attorney’s continued attempts to caricature her. They were embarrassed, more precisely, by the excesses of her personhood, of her flesh, that was antithetical to the law. But instead of respond with overwhelming support, folks got on Twitter and Facebook, wrote blogs and opinion pieces, about how she was not properly prepared, about how her purported lack of education should have kept her away from the stand as a witness. I then wondered and continue to wonder: if her “updated look” is tied to her capacity for class mobility, how are we operating in the service of continued inequity rather than its dismantling?

No one can deny, when in the courtroom and making public appearances thereafter, that for Rachel Jeantel it was hair done, nails done, everything did … she, indeed, made sure to account for her appearance in ways that did not demean her nor others. Thus, to opine that what was given is critical care, a mode of self-care through accessorizing, does a disservice to who she was on the stand: resistant to the legal bullshit, to the legality of murder, to the illegibility of blackness in civil society. On the stand, all that she did served as a reminder that the anti-blackness that animates our American skies is not something she had to accept but was an anti-blackness that she could, and in fact did, refuse.

But now, it is thought at least, she is proper enough for a selfie.

 

IV
Perhaps it makes sense that the makeover of Rachel Jeantel cathects outward appearance with upward, college bound, class mobility. College campuses around the nation are guilty of beautifying neighborhoods in the service of importing folks to those neighborhoods who would be respectable. Homes get fresh coats of paint. Housing authorities and city planners get dollars to knock down and build up mixed use developments. Cities like Newark can claim new stadiums and restaurants and hotels and supermarkets (because, sure, Whole Foods is affordable, right?). What gentrification does is makes a claim on the flesh, on something like what Hortense Spillers describes as the “zero degree,” of a location considered uninhabitable, a zone of nothingness. This uninhabitability, this zone, is not of nothingness because no things are there but because the ones who are there, the things who abide there, are thought to have nothing, are imagined to be only excess, blobs waiting to be put together, to be made cohesive, to be reconfigured through fun makeovers. Gentrification wants to get us closer to the “really are” nature of the city, of what it could be if it’d simply get its act together, if the right accessories were included and others excluded, if certain modes of aesthetic practice were extended – like blond hair tips – and others – like low-performing public schools as so many undesirous tattered garments – were discarded.

But perhaps becoming respectable, too, is not enough. Vanessa VanDyke was told she’d have to cut her hair – because of its unruliness – or be expelled from school in Florida. Perhaps, too, Ebony and TheGriot have plans to team up to give her a makeover, make her hair acceptable such that she won’t be considered a threat, a problem, a “distraction.” The very thing that gave Rachel Jeantel’s testimony the force of radical dissent is that which, through the concept of the makeover itself, is most in danger of being engulfed, suppressed. Perhaps justice is an otherwise, a different mode of intellectual practice, which does not glory in the new as a replacement and eventual discarding of the old. The soul of blackness – the resistance of objects – stands to be gentrified, radically displaced, if we do not celebrate the radical edge of the already existent other world. Rachel’s eye rolls know the fact of radical edge; Vanessa’s hair practices this. Perhaps, like Rachel, every black girl needs a makeover. But, then, what would we say – and what would we do – when we submit to such crass ideology?



[1] This terminology, Black Study, is utilized rather than Black Studies to intimate a relation between what gets institutionalized in the university as Black Studies, African American Studies, Africana Studies, Ethnic Studies and Multicultural Studies beginning with the student protests on college campuses in 1968 with an intellectual practice that is always collective and resists institutionalization.

[2] Burke, “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. 24, Part 2. The Harvard Classics,” See section titled “Sound and Loudness.”

[3] Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, 47.

[4] Susan Buck-M orss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’, October, 62 (1992), 3–41 (pp. 12–3) <doi:10.2307/778700>.