Week 10 – Black Radical Imagination III: Black Lives Matter

Page Illustration: Max Bender, Unsplash, 2020

Assigned Readings and Media

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta (2016). “Chapter 7: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Press, pp. 191-219.

Smith-West, Corey (2016). The Sounds of Black Lives Matter. Pitchfork, October 17, 2016.

Herlock, Ethan (2020). A Playlist of Tracks Soundtracking the Black Lives Matter Movement. The Face, June 19, 2020.

The Movement for Black Futures

I’d like to say that as we embark on Week 10, our final week in the course, that things are coming full circle – but if we have learned anything from this term it is that past/present/future is not so simple. We continue to exist in those spaces of possibility where past/present/future all interact simultaneously – where time and space, power and resistance, possibilities and limits breath the same breaths.

It is within this moment that the movement known as “Black Lives Matter,” a movement self-consciously understood as a movement for Black futures has taken root.

To begin this week, we will dive into the play “The Death News” by Amanda Parris and directed by Charles Officer. The Death News is part of a series called 21 Black Futures, a production of Obsidian Theatre, Canada’s leading theatre for Black art.

This play, written by Amanda Parris, takes place in a near-future world not unlike our own, where premature Black death is an inevitability. But there is one significant shift from the present: Black folks now have the power to define the stories of their own lives on the hit television show The Death News. In this 12-minute play, we meet a young man who grapples with what to say when he records his obituary for a future episode — date TBD.

Watch The Death News

Reflection

After (or while) watching The Death News reflect upon the following questions: 

- Despite the grim theme, reflect upon the way the lead character shifts the focus from death to life? Why is this shift important? How could you relate it to the movement for Black lives?

-Reflect on the regional (Toronto) dialect of the lead character. How does his way of speaking situate his life in a specific time and place? Why do you think the playwright was intentional in developing a script and choosing an actor who spoke with this dialect? 

- Look up Amanda Parris and Charles Officer.  What is their background? What other plays have them written/directed? How does The Death News relate to a longer history for both of them of engaging with these questions of the lives of Black people in Canada?

#blacklivesmatter

In 2012, as a response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old Black teen by George Zimmerman, three Black queer women (Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors) created the #BlackLivesMatter as a means of expressing their outrage over another death but also as a means of affirming life.

From the first tweet on July 13, 2013, until today, we can witness the way in which #blacklivesmatter has become a rallying slogan for a vast swath of disparate, decentralized, and geographically dispersed movements globally that focus on Black futurity. As we can see below, from July 2013 to March 2016, the #blacklivesmatter exploded in use. It also resulted in the rise of the reactionary #alllivesmatter response by many who felt either defensive by the claim to Black futures, or who sought to suppress the message through overt forms of racism. Despite this spread, by the end of 2016 the hashtag was still seen as pretty radical and was most often used with Black communities and/or among progressive and radical circles of social movements.

However, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter exploded into the mainstream. It is now much more ubiquitous – gracing the windows of small businesses closed during the pandemic, painted on the main thoroughfares of major streets in North America, printed on flags hanging in people’s windows or put up on the lawn like election signs.

In this final lecture for the course, we examine the movement that brought this slogan to the mainstream. We assess the way in which people in popular culture have engaged with the politics and visions emerging from this disparate movement. We unpack how the media has sought to shift and re-take control of the narrative of what “Black Lives Matter” is. We then draw on the writing of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to analyze the political development of the movement – from what she describes as #blacklivesmatter to #blackliberation.

Three Waves of BLM

In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor argues that the key events that have led to uprisings under the slogan #BlackLivesMatter are parts of a series of waves of Black resistance that have emerged from the current historical context. Taylor draws a historical trajectory of the long history of the movements that comprise Black Lives Matter from abolitionist struggles against slavery, to the civil rights movement, to the riots of the late 1960s/70s, to the COINTELPRO demobilizing of Black resistance, to the crack epidemic and subsequent “War of Drugs” of the 1980s-1990s, to the riots after the Rodney King verdict in the 1990s, and to the neoliberal economic context that has brought about an increased impoverishment among working class Americans and a renewed white supremacist movement aimed at stoking racial hatred and creating disunity among the working class.

In her analysis of Black Lives Matter, she affirms that its trajectory and futurities are not clear or set in stone. For Taylor, the political consciousness of the various individuals, collectives, and groups that have converged under the slogan #BlackLivesMatter is being worked out through organizing and relationship-building in action.

The development of consciousness is never linear—it is constantly fluctuating between adhering to ideas that fit a “common sense” conception of society and being destabilized by real-life events that upend “common sense.”

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, 2016

Content Warning: The following section deals with the multiple and frequent deaths at the hands of police or other forms of law enforcement by Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour in Canada and the United States. It is not a comprehensive list. I am referring to these cases only in so much as we need to understand them in the context of key moments of evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement.

For more information: Say Their Names; Remembering Black, Indigenous, and other People of Colour Killed by Police in Canada

To best understand how the strategies, tactics, and goals of BLM have evolved and transformed since 2012, we can perhaps organize our study into three waves:

Wave 1 (2012 – 2014) – #BlackLivesMatter

Image: Trayvon Martin by Shepard Fairey, 2012

As we’ve noted above, we can trace the origins of the rallying slogan #blacklivesmatter to the social media response of Patrice Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza to the slaying of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Martin’s killing at the hands of George Zimmerman and the imagery of a young Black boy wearing a hoodie and coming back from a store after purchasing Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea being stalked and then eventually shot by a self-appointed “neighbourhood watchman” stirred protests and rallies.

However, it was not until Zimmerman’s acquittal based on Florida’s “stand your ground” laws that we saw the mass upsurge in movements and organizing – one that was aided by the # hashtag #blacklivesmatter.

Martin’s death brought about organizing that focused on the impunity of killing Black people in the name of “law enforcement”. Following Martin’s death, those of Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and others in 2012-2013 at the hands of the police mobilized even more people in their local communities to begin organizing and demanding an end to police brutality.

Some commentators in the media, like Geraldo Rivera on CNN, started victim-blaming those who were killed (like Martin) suggesting, for instance, that Martin was at fault for being a Black kid wearing a “hoodie” which could be considered threatening. These attacks on the character of victims of shootings would become a common narrative and a means to justify the deaths.

In his 2017 track, “DNA,” Kendrick Lamar samples a segment from Rivera’s media comments where he explicitly attacks the rapper for saying “hate popo, wanna kill us in the streets for sho” on a track in To Pimp a Butterfly (itself written after the first wave of BLM uprising). Rivera goes on to suggest that he’s told his latinx sons to not wear hoodies because you look like thugs.

As BLM was emerging as a movement in 2012-2013 in the US, a formal coalescence had yet to occur in Canada. However, in Toronto in 2013 thousands mobilized on the streets in support of Sammy Yatim, shot to death by Toronto police in an empty streetcar where Yatim was having a mental health breakdown.

Image: Sammy Yatim, 2013

Yatim’s death at the hands of Constable James Forcillo, was part of a long line of incidents of police violence resulting in death in Toronto. His killing was one of in a long line of shootings that themselves have created waves of uprisings, including the so-called “Yonge Street Riot” in 1992, the 1979 protests following the killing of Albert Johnson in Toronto (protests that led to the creation of the Special Investigations Unit), and many other protests and uprisings including those around the shooting of 16-year old Filipinx teen, Jeffery Reodica in 2004.

These killings at the hands of police intertwined with the increased surveillance and policing of racialized and Indigenous youth in Canadian urban centres, the reduction in funding for mental health and social welfare programs, the increased acceptance of NYC style “broken windows” policing as a model in main municipalities, and the tightening of relationships between police officers, social workers, immigration enforcement officers, and other public service employees.

In 2014, a series of police killings: Eric Garner (New York City), Mike Brown (Ferguson, MO), Laquan McDonald (Chicago), and Tamir Rice (Cleveland) prompted a more organized, sustained, and widespread resistance to police brutality.

As Yamahtta-Taylor describes it:

In the summer of 2014, the Black working class of Ferguson “caught a glimpse of freedom and tasted a bit of self-determination” when they stood down the police and National Guard and stayed in the streets for Mike Brown. Their local struggle inspired Black people around the country to take to the streets and stand down the police. What began as a narrowly conceived demand for justice for Mike Brown has erupted into a movement largely identified by the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” It reflects the political maturation of this stage of the movement.

Similarly, in Canada, the murder of Jermaine Carby by Peel Police, resulted in the organizing of Black Lives Matter-Toronto.

BLMTO, in their own words:

Black Lives Matter – Toronto is the first chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network outside of the United States. We are the local Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, an international organization and movement fighting police and state violence and anti-Black racism.

We are a platform upon which Black communities across Canada can actively dismantle all forms of anti-Black racism, liberate Blackness, support Black healing, affirm Black existence, and create freedom to love and self-determine. We work to forge critical connections and to work in solidarity with Black communities, Black-centric networks, solidarity movements, and allies in order to to dismantle all forms of state-sanctioned oppression, violence, and brutality committed against all Black communities, including African, Caribbean, Afro-Indigenous, migrant, queer, trans, and disabled Black communities.

BLMTO, 2020

Wave 2 (2015 – 2019) – “Pragmatic Utopianism

Following the mobilizations and rallies of 2014, Black Lives Matter started to coalesce into a decentralized network of collectives, individuals, and supporters. What had once been a simple #hashtag affirming the importance and value of the life of a young Black man gunned down because of white supremacy, had become a broader rallying cry for a multitude of dispersed campaigns against anti-Black racism – a concept that itself was more clearly and specifically defined in this period.

The second phase of Black Lives Matter is described by Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor (in the word of Michael Dawson) as “pragmatic utopianism.”

She explains:

Political scientist and radical, Michael Dawson argues for “pragmatic utopianism” that “starts where we are but imagines where we want to be … based on the utopian imaginings of a much different America—one we are repeatedly told was impossible to obtain—combined with the hardheaded political realism that generated the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve their goals.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, 2016

This pragmatic utopianism is, in other words, the Black radical imagination that we have been studying since the start of this course. It is a means by which people organize not simply to resist racist policies or call on the state for justice, but rather a space where folks begin to dream of the possibilities of liberation and the societies they wish to create.

Image: Sandra Bland, Say Her Name, 2018

In the United States, a new wave of rebellions and uprisings took place following the killings by police officers of Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Kalief Browder (New York City), and a BLM activist Sandra Bland (Waller Country, Texas).

The mobilizations that blossomed out of these deaths resulted in significant shifts in the popular discourse. In Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles baseball team were forced to play a game without fans (something that is now common in the era of COVID, but which was unprecedented before). The game was played without fans because of mass riots that erupted following the release of a cell-phone video that showed the brutal beating Freddie Gray received at the hands of police only minutes before his death (in a police van). Many of the white players made light of the fact that there were no fans, while the teams most senior Black player, Adam Jones, was forced into the spotlight and put in the position of trying to quell the riots. Watch him struggle through this press conference, trying desperately not to blame the youth, but also repeating the line “don’t destroy your own community”.

Recognizing that mass media were focused centrally on the deaths of young Black men, the Black queer women organizers of BLM began to attempt to re-focus the importance of recognizing state violence on Black women. The slogan #sayhername emerges out of this struggle and begins to grow precipitously following the death of Sandra Bland.

Blood Orange, release a track dedicated to Sandra called “Sandra’s Smile”

In Canada, the intersections of anti-Black, anti-migrant, and discrimination against people with mental health issues resulted in the killing of Andrew Loku by Toronto police in his home. It was Loku’s death that formalized the organization of Black Lives Matter-Toronto and resulted in a multi-week tent city in front of Toronto Police Head Quarters, the blocking of the Allen Expressway and a many other smaller scale actions calling for justice and an end to anti-Black racism in Toronto.

We see in this era the expansion of tactics and strategies used by people who mobilized under the slogan #blacklivesmatter. We also witness the first vestiges of BLM in the mainstream, with predominantly Black athletes (save for a few exceptions like professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe) begin to tweet using the hashtag and discuss actions.

It was during this time that Colin Kaepernick decided to protest the national anthem as a symbolic gesture in recognition of the condition of Black Americans facing state violence. Kaepernick has since been blacklisted from the NFL and there is continued discussion on sports TV that politics and sports should never mix.

During this time we see the spread of a diverse array of tactics and strategies to achieve transformational gains – and there is an immediate backlash.

That backlash might look different but often fell into the same trope:

“I support the message and understand why they are doing what they are doing – but I don’t agree with how they are doing it”

Let’s examine this claim through examples of the various tactics used by BLM organizers and the way that they are either dismissed or rejected by mainstream media:

  • Intervening in ElectionsExample #1 (Bernie Sanders)

While social movements seem and often are reported as though they are cohesive political organizations, the reality is that social change happens through the disparate and decentralized actions of multitudes. What, as we learned in a prior week, Fred Moten calls “small scale actions with infinite proliferations.” These actions, however, culminate into a vast and powerful movement that has place many people on the defensive – including those who are overt white supremacists and those who, like the family in Get Out see themselves as progressive liberals.

Movements are meant to be disruptive and change doesn’t happen without conflict.

Activity 1: BLM-TO Pride 2016 Sit-In

In February 2016, Pride Toronto released a press release announcing that Black Lives Matter-Toronto, a group led primarily by queer and trans* Black people, would be the "Group of Honour" during that year's pride march. As the "group of honour" BLM-TO was asked to lead the 2016 Pride March in Toronto.

The press release from Pride Toronto read as follows: "We look forward to standing beside and honouring the extremely important and significant work of Black Lives Matter - Toronto, who are leading a timely movement in our city both boldly and fiercely," said Pride Toronto Board of Directors Co-Chair Alica Hall.

"We hope to bring awareness and attention to meaningful conversations and engage social actions. The ways we have intersected in the past remain today, through our desires to come together and fight alongside one another for liberation. Pride Toronto, our staff and volunteers, all openly welcome the opportunity to learn from the coalition, celebrate their successes and give support to the continued fight for Black lives" (Pride Toronto, 2016).

The Strategies, Tactics, and Goals
Prior to the Pride Parade it was announced that the Toronto Police Services would be unveiling a mural to honour the LGBTQ community in Toronto's gay village. Organizers from BLM-TO sought to resist the media spectacle surrounding the unveiling by bringing to light the ongoing harassment, discrimination, and violence faced by queer and trans people of colour at the hands of the police.

You can read about this action here: Black Lives Matter protesters interrupt Pride mural unveiling by Toronto police.

During the Pride march, organizers also engaged in a sit-in action that blocked the intersections as they unveiled a list of demands that had been put to the Pride Toronto committee. Organizers sought to push Pride Toronto to transform the space of pride and to recognize the important and continued struggle of many queer and trans* communities – particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of colour who still face systemic violence.

You can see a video of BLM-TO's action here: Black Lives Matter - Toronto

Black Lives Matter-Toronto, along with various community groups, including BQY and Blackness Yes have the following demands:

1. Commit to BQY's (Black Queer Youth) continued space (including stage/tents), funding, and logistical support.

2. Self-determination for all community spaces, allowing community full control over hiring, content, and structure of their stages.

3. Full and adequate funding for community states, including logistical, technical, and personnel support.

4. Double funding for Blockorama + ASL interpretation and headliner funding.

5. Reinstate and make a commitment to increase community stages/spaces (including the reinstatement of the South Asian stage).

6. A commitment to increase representation amongst Pride Toronto staffing/hiring, prioritizing Black trans women, Black queer people, Indigenous folk, and others from vulnerable communities.

7. A commitment to more Black deaf and hearing ASL interpreters for the Festival.

8. Removal of police floats/booths in all Pride marches/parades/community spaces.

9. A public town hall, organized in conjunction with groups from marginalized communities, including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter-Toronto, Blackness Yes, and BQY to be held six months from today. Pride Toronto will present an update and action plan on the aforementioned demands.

This action created a flurry of controversy within the media and among members of the LGBTQ community. Below you will find a variety of articles written with different thoughts, opinions, and historical contexts of the action. Take a moment to read them before answering the final set of questions.

Read the following three articles: 

It's OK to support a movement without agreeing with its tactics, opens in a new window

Black Lives Matter-Toronto Co-Founder Responds to Criticism, opens in a new window

Black Lives Matter Toronto recaptures Pride's activist roots, opens in a new window

Questions: 

- Reflect on the way that tactics are used as a means to police, discipline, dismiss, and reframe the message of social justice movements. 
- Think about how BLMTO seeks to develop a politics of black futurities by situating their movement within a historical context. 
- Reflect on the work of the Black radical imagination in this situation. 

Once you've complete this - do a google search to follow this story up to today. I want you to check out the way that this sit-in tactic at Pride spread globally in the movement for Black lives. I want you to reflect on the changes that have taken place within Pride Toronto. 

Thinking about the response of the mainly white/non-Black audience at Pride, what were the teachable moments that Alexandra Simone, the BLM organizer with the megaphone in the first video was referring to when conflict began with the crowd! 

Wave 3 (2020 – Present) – Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation

On March 13th, 2020 – the same day that most of Canada had gone into lockdown in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, Breonna Taylor, a Black paramedic on the frontlines of containing the virus, was shot and killed in her own apartment by Louisville police officers conducting a raid.

Taylor’s death was a symptom of a widespread issue that was becoming apparent as the deaths from COVID-19 were piling up amidst denial, mockery, and resistance to fact from President Trump, the US media, and many others: Black people and other poor, marginalized, and working class people would bear the brunt of the virus.

Image: Jallicia Jolly, Abolition Journal, 2020

As Jallicia Jolly, wrote in Abolition Journal‘s blog, “To be a person of color and an immigrant in this country is to know its cyclical violence intimately.” Taylor’s death prompted mobilizations despite the dire nature of COVID-19 and resulted in an important public discussion on the way anti-Blackness is institutionalized in every space in the United States, Canada, and globally.

By May 25, 2020, when George Floyd died of asphyxiation with police officer Derrick Chauvin’s knee on his neck, the movement that erupted had learned the lessons of the past decade of organizing. Organizers in Minneapolis (as well as elsewhere) were making the links clear between anti-Black racism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and were drawing very clearly on the foundations set by groups like the Combahee River Collective 50 years ago.

In fact, when people burned down Minneapolis’ Third Precinct in response to George Floyd’s death, polls showed widespread support from the general public.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, writing four years prior to this moment, urged this as the next turn in the BLM movement:

The next stage will involve progressing from protests aimed at raising awareness or drawing attention to the crisis of police violence to engaging with the social forces that have the capacity to shut down sectors of work and production until our demands to stop police terrorism are met. The movement has shown that violent policing does
not exist in a vacuum: it is a product of the inequality in our society. the police exert their authority in a fundamentally disordered society.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, 2016

The ensuing protests shut down America, Canada, and many other countries in the world amidst a global pandemic – perhaps only briefly – but powerfully. There is a sense that movements for Black lives have indeed started to see pathways toward Black liberation that are situated in abolition, see the role of social service providers in contemporary policing, and are practicing new forms of conflict resolution outside of the state.

These moments have situated class solidarity against capital, queer/trans* liberation, and intersectional feminism as central to struggles for justice.

Popular music has paralleled this move with many artists like Tierra Whack, Ric Wilson, Noname, City Girls, Dua Saleh, Junglepussy, Pink Siifu, among others making clear ties between class, race, gender, ability and liberation.

To finish, let’s analyze a track produced by Philadelphia-based artist Tierra Whack called “Unemployed” that seeks to make those links more clear. Think of the parallels between Whack’s video and Peele’s film Get Out.

Lyrics: Click Here.

We end the course turning back briefly to Hartman’s words that opened up the course in Week 1. Her description of the beautiful experiments in living free amidst the wayward lives of her young Black subjects at the turn of the 20th century are a lesson for these times more than ever.

As though writing for this very moment, Hartman reflects:

This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape. They can see the wall being erected around the dark ghetto, but they still want to be ready for the good life, still want to get ready for freedom.

Saidiya Hartman, 2018, p.24

Week 9 – Black Radical Imagination II – Abolition

Page Illustration: Kaitlynn Radloff, Justseeds, 2020

Assigned Readings & Media

Podcast, Parts I and II

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson (2020). Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition interview with Chenjerai Kumaniyka Parts I and II. The Intercept, June 10, 2020.

Readings – Only 2 pages!

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 227-228. New York: Norton.

Dear White People and Non-Black People

Dear White People poster, 2017

This course, as I’ve re-enforced over the past 8 weeks is constructed through an engagement with ideas, projects, and artistic expression that emerges out of the experience of Black people in North America – what we call, drawing from Robin D.G. Kelley, “the Black radical imagination.” As a non-Black instructor in this course – a course that is primarily made up of non-Black students – I want to take a moment here to reaffirm the need for action on our part.

Often in talks or discussions on social justice, once the panel is over, one of the first questions that come out of a Q&A session is, “Now that we have learned what you’ve told us, what do we do?” This is a draining and challenging question for the panelists to respond, partly because we each have our own pathways, responsibilities, capacities – and it places that labour and responsibility back on the speaker to help guide you there. That’s an undue burden.

I hope that weeks 8-10 of this course provide you with some potential pathways where non-Black folks in North America can make themselves useful and productive in the struggles for Black liberation – not simply as “allies” – but as people who understand that Black liberation (among other forms of struggles) is inherently tied to our own liberation. And, I hope equally that the Black students in this course might be able to engage more deeply with some of theory, movement knowledge, and practices emerging out of these ongoing struggles for liberation.

We don’t need more allies in the world. We need more people willing to see the interconnection between their own struggles for justice and those of other people, but who also see the way in which we benefit, are complicit, and have work to do to unlearn and disengage from white supremacy as the dominant paradigm of our society.

Content Warning: The following scene contains a graphic and realistic portrayal of the racial targeting with a weapon by a police officer toward a Black youth

There’s this scene in the Netflix series Dear White People (2017) where a conflict breaks out at a house party on the campus of a fictitious Ivy League school and Reggie, one of the lead Black characters on the show, ends up with a gun pointed at his face by a university police officer.

This incident causes Reggie significant trauma and, in the process, opens the audience up to the life and death politics and carceral realities of the education system for Black students. By carceral realities, I am talking about the systemic and all-encompassing ways in which young Black people’s lives are circumscribed by their relationship with mechanisms of state coercion (i.e. police, social workers, teachers, school administrators). This means that seemingly mundane activities (i.e. a small argument, sleeping on a bench on a university campus , going to class) can result in an escalating interaction between that person and at some point an agent of the carceral system that can have significant consequence on their lived experience (including trauma, violence, incarceration, having children removed from their custody, and death). In fact, a recent study has showed that the primary cause of death of young Black men in the United States is killing by police officers (Edwards et al. 2019).

Spoiler Alert: Later in the show Reggie and other students in the Black caucus (as well as the audience) discover the police were called by a white Teacher’s Assistant named Gabe who is a romantic interest of Sam, one of the show’s lead Black female characters. In the process of calling the police, Gabe sees himself as trying to return his school to peace after conflict between Black-led anti-racist activists and a group of students mobilized by the rhetoric of the white supremacist alt-right.

A foil for white liberalism, Gabe, (consciously or unconsciously) works to secure the context of carceral violence against Black students on campus in the interests of stability and order, the hallmarks of peace within liberal democracy (Coulthard 2014). In Dear White People Gabe and other white students on campus (whether representing left or right on the political spectrum) are, as Harney & Moten (2013) exemplify in their analysis of the films Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Shaka Zulu (1987), portrayed as being surrounded by “natives,” inverting the role of aggressor so that acts of upholding or reproducing colonialism and white supremacy are made to look like self-defense (17). While Dear White People is a fictitious television series, the themes underlying the show are prevalent and familiar to racialized and Indigenous students on university campuses throughout North America and more broadly within all aspects of the education system.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Two Questions

In her interview on the Intercepted podcast, Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains to guest host Chenjari Kumanayika, that two fundamental transformations have happened in the way policing is understood in our society:

a) So many more agencies and people (i.e. store clerks, teachers, social workers, nurses, day care workers, food workers, etc.) have absorbed functions of policing as part of their day-to-day job.

b) The police force has absorbed more and more the roles of social workers as their budgets have ballooned and other sectors of society have seen drastic cuts.

Gilmore suggests that this is not a coincidence but a direct result of the neoliberal policies of the past 40-50 years that have seen social services and community benefits gutted, while state funding for police and prisons has skyrocketed. She discusses the political economy of this context in her interview and suggests that the prison-industrial-complex is a direct result of this cycle of impoverishment, defunding, and then the bloating of the carceral system.

In thinking about this condition, Gilmore poses two fundamental questions to the audience:

  1. What makes peoples lives vulnerable?
  2. What are the process by which we seek to deal with harm in our society?

Go back to the scene in Dear White People.

Either you’ve seen the series or you’ve just watched this short clip, but within the clip, you should be able to reflect upon Gilmore’s two questions in some detail.

Take a pen and paper if that helps or jot some thoughts out on a note pad. I want you to be able to visualize your response.

Then, follow me in a thought experiment, just for a moment. Go back to the scene and this time imagine that the police did not exist.

Using Gilmore’s two questions as your guide, I want you to identify both the short-term and long-term issues that are required to address question 1) what makes peoples lives vulnerable and question 2) what could be the processes by which we seek to deal with harm in this situation?

This is not a simple: they need to talk it out activity. There are structural elements at play. There are beliefs about who belongs and doesn’t belong on campus. There are values about whether having peace (i.e. limiting conflict) and having justice (i.e. creating the conditions where this specific conflict is limited or would not happen) that need to be worked out.

Take a pause. Once you’re ready, let’s jump into the lecture content for Week 9!

The Origins of the Police

Wikipedia Commons

In North America the modern police has its origins in three distinct but interrelated pathways. We’ll cover them each below.

Pathway #1 – Poverty & Work

As Gilmore notes in her interview on the Intercepted podcast, one of the core functions of the modern police force first organized in London, England was to force people to work. If you have taken my course SDS 331R: Social Inequality, Social Justice, and Social Action – you will remember that Karl Marx teaches us that the rise of capitalism produced two main conditions for peasant populations: (a) the privatization of lands (enclosures) forces people off of their communal lands and often into the main cities (dispossession) and (b) the separation of peasant populations from their means of livelihood creates a condition where the only thing that they have left to sell is their labour (proletarianization).

People, however, didn’t willingly just flood the factories in search for work. Factories were (as they are today in many places globally) dangerous, poorly ventilated, exploitative, and provided very little funds for workers. Children under the age of 6 years of age could be found toiling away in these desolate conditions alongside grown men, widows who had lost their husbands and many other populations.

Many people refused to work in those conditions and for them it was safer to beg in the streets, to pilfer food from shops if they could, to work piecework when possible, and to roam around looking for opportunities outside of the inevitability of factory life.

Modern police were invented within the span of a few decades – roughly from 1825 to 1855 (Whitehouse 2012) and the origins of the police in this regard are not the result of the need to deal with violence or crime in our society, but rather indigence and the refusal to work (Neocleuous 2000).

unknown artist; Patrick Colquhoun (1745-1820); Thames Police Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/patrick-colquhoun-17451820-135240

In A Treatise on Indigence, Patrick Colquhoun ( this guy), the “father” of the modern police force, does not frame policing as a response to crime, but as a practice of social control.

Specifically, the police’s function is to punish, confine, and regulate the lives of people who are considered able-bodied and refuse to sell their labour within the capitalist system.

Historian Peter Linebaugh goes deeper into Colquhoun’s background to show that his interests in policing and labour were also spurred by his economic position as a planner of the trans-Atlantic (slave labour) “cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximize profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa.”

Linebaugh shows that when this work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. He became hyper-aware of the need to secure wealth from the possibilities of slave rebellions and the revolutions of the poor. He instituted the hanging of those committing money crimes. And as Linebaugh continues, “He led the apprehension of those in textile labor who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organized political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations. Financed by West India merchants and planters in 1798 Colquhoun established the Police Office. In 1800 Parliament passes the Marine Police Bill expanding and making official the police as a centralized, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. His treatises on police inspired the foundation of police in Dublin (Ireland), Sydney (Australia), and New York (USA)” (Linebaugh 2015).

Playlist Track #1 – Listen to the track “Police State” by Dead Prez including an opening sample of a speech by Chairman Omali Yeshitela. Think about the way in which the rap duo historicize the police in a similar way to Gilmore and Linebaugh. This track, released in 2000 is an important predecessor to the music that will shape and be shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pathway # 2 – Slave Patrols and Bounty Hunters

The second pathway of the emergence of the modern police can be understood through the slave patrols and overseers who violently ensured the productivity of the enslaved workforce and investigated, prevented, and led search parties for people who sought to (or successfully) escaped bondage.

Where did slave patrols originate? To understand that we need to take a brief history lesson to the Jamestown colony in Virginia and the site of Bacon’s Rebellion. The legal foundations that would separate poor indentured Europeans from the condition of chattel slavery faced by Africans can be understood through the legislation passed following the rebellion, a rebellion, that was also about who would have the right to colonize the land of Indigenous peoples – resulting in the massacre of numerous Indigenous communities (including children).

Content Warning: This animated cartoon contains graphic scenes of massacres, death, and violence towards enslaved peoples.

The conditions that underlie the pact between poor and rich white people is what upholds white supremacy in North America. Poor whites, now able to buy their freedom from servitude were utilized as overseers, slave patrol officers, and worked as bounty hunters trying to track down people who had liberated themselves from enslavement.

Courtesy of Duke University Libraries via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

Playlist Track #2 – Listen to the track “Sound of Da Police” by KRS-ONE. In this 1993 track KRS-ONE traces the history of policing in America. Follow the lyric sheet, how does KRS-ONE teach about the history of the police that touches on the theft of land, the role of the slave overseer, and the current economic/social context for an understanding of harm and vulnerability?

Pathway #3 – As Colonial Force

The final pathway in the emergence of the modern police force are the militias (regulated and unregulated) that acted as colonial forces seeking to dispossess Indigenous peoples from their territories. Many of the most celebrated U.S. Presidents were land speculators and militia leaders (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, etc.). The U.S. War of Independence was specifically fought over who would gain access and control of the conquest of lands west of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – lands protected in the 1760 British Proclamation.

In Canada, we see the rise of these formal militias in the Northwest Mounted Police – who would eventually become the RCMP.

The myth of the RCMP is that they came to protect us from the whisky traders and bad guys. They came to protect the conqueror’s property and they still protect the conqueror’s property.

Maria Campbell, 1989

Like other forms of policing, the RCMP’s origins and the origins of militias like the Texas Rangers were never about protecting people or reducing harm, but about securing property and land. This puts the current context of RCMP officers violently arresting Wet’suwet’en land protectors in 2019 and 2020 into a historical light.

This excellent article in The New Inquiry provides a brief timeline of the RCMP’s origins and history.

Think about the history of the RCMP as told in this article and then reflect on its portrayal in this famous Kent Monkman painting

Image: A Story of Canada, Kent Monkman, 2017

How does this line up with the way in which the RCMP have been portrayed within popular mainstream culture?

Abolition & The Black Radical Imagination

Image: Andalusia Knoll, 2009, Just Seeds

We must begin by noting that from the very onset, the first singular moment in which Europeans began kidnapping Africans to force them into servitude, there was resistance. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was never and can never be understood as an act in which those who were being subjected to this institution stood by and let it happen.

Many African people, different nations and communities, successfully fought off, evaded, and/or killed their would-be captors before they were ever brought to the slave ships.

If captured and forced onto ships for the Middle Passage, enslaved Africans resisted by organizing hunger strikes, forming rebellions, and even committing suicide by leaping overboard rather than living in slavery. Scholars believe that roughly one slaving voyage in every ten experienced major rebellions” (Low Country Digital History Initiative).

The resistance was so fierce that Europeans redesigned slave ships with the express purpose of containing rebellion. Uprisings also happened in the settler colonial states of Canada and the United States. As we learned in the video above, indentured Europeans and Africans often organized in tandem to escape bondage from the elites who were seeking to steal Indigenous land and use them as cheap labour. However, even after the passing of racial hierarchy laws in the United States, Africans continued to mobilize.

They organized insurrections and rebellions that killed their enslavers and allowed them to escape. They fled in the cloak of darkness (and sometimes in broad daylight) to establish Maroon communities of free Black folks who lived outside of the bounds of white re-capture. They repurposed the Christian religion forced upon them to centre their story of enslavement and their quest for liberation. They created and facilitated underground communication, cross-continental networks, and other forms of infrastructure that provided for the possibility of escape. They negotiated with their enslavers to purchase or win their freedom.

They burned entire cities to the ground in search of liberation. For instance, watch this short video on the story of Marie Joseph Angelique, an enslaved African woman in Montreal whose story had been lost until the historian Afua Cooper rescued it from the archives and gave it the life and power it deserved.

Read more: CLICK HERE

I want to take a moment to pause and reflect here.

To understand the abolitionist movement, we need to take a moment to reclaim those “minor figures” and re-centre the movement. Too often, the historical teaching of abolitionism has been limited to a specific era of cross-racial (often upper class) advocates like Harriet Beacher Stowe and Frederick Douglass that flattens or is unable to make links between abolitionism past and present.

In her book In the Wake, scholar Christina Sharpe gets us to refocus on the meaning of “trans*” in Trans-Atlantic in thinking about these unnamed abolitionists.

She writes,

As we hold on to the many meanings of Trans* we can and must think and imagine laterally, across a series of relations in the ship, the hold, the wake, and the weather – in multiple Black everydays – to do what Hartman, in “Venus in Two Acts,” describes as ‘listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives’ and to do what NourbeSe Phillip calls the necessity of ‘telling the story that cannot be told (33)

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake, 2016

We need to understand the history of abolition in the same way we explored the network of mychorrizae in Week 8. There was a long and fierce history of resistance. In between the key events and moments in history that culminated eventually in the US Civil War, there were rebellions and uprisings, there were refusals and strikes, and there was, as anthropologist James C. Scott describes, “footdragging, dissimulation, false-compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.” All of these actions by individuals, groups, and then broadly as a mass movement are part of the history of abolitionist struggle.

The U.S. Civil War, 13th Amendment, Reconstruction

We are about to go through a vast amount of history in a small amount of space – so I want to acknowledge that in this piece of the lecture we cannot do justice the importance and depth of these multiple historical moments. However, given how central the U.S. Civil War is in the lore of abolitionism in the United States, I think it is critical that we set some basic parameters that will help us bridge the abolitionist struggles of the 16th-19th centuries with those of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Let’s begin in Haiti.

To understand the success of abolitionist movements in Canada and the United States, we need to start in Haiti. As the great historian C.L.R. James helps us to understand, the Haitian Revolution, itself inspired by the calls of Liberté, égalité, fraternité during the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence during the U.S. Revolutionary War is a critical event in the global history of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From August 21, 1791 – January 1, 1801, enslaved Africans rose up under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture and defeated the French colonizers and slavers – successfully creating the democratic republic of Haiti, the first free republic led by ex-enslaved people.

A painting of Toussaint Louverture on the side of a bus in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2008. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The Haitian Revolution shook the colonialist west to its core. France, fearing economic devastation, from the loss of wealth derived from their largest slave colony, threatened to bring the weight of their entire military force on the newly liberated republic of Haiti if they did not agree to compensating France for its “lost wealth.” That lost wealth literally being the enslaved Africans who fought for their freedom. In 1825, France amassed a number of war ships along Haiti’s shores until the government agreed to pay “reparations” of 150 million francs (IN 1825!!) for the lost slaves in order for them to recognize the island as a sovereign country. Haiti was forced to pay those reparations until 2010. No, I didn’t make a typo.

These reparation payments decimated Haiti’s economy and through the threats of violence and political coups, France, the United States, and Canada have continued to destabilize the nation-state to protect its own interests. Including most recently when they orchestrated a coup d’etat against the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he suggested France should repay Haiti these stolen funds.

Less than a decade after Haiti was recognized as a sovereign state by France and the rest of Europe, Britain began to see the writing on the wall with uprisings in Jamaica, Barbados, and Canada (among other places) becoming much more frequent. Also Britain had gone into a significant amount of debt due to the 7-Year-War with France (1754-1760), the US War of Independence (1776-1783) and as they claimed more and more territories under the Empire. Abolishing slavery was a way to preserve their control over the territories without necessarily changing the economic model of wealth extraction drastically. In 1833, Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire – and then immediately set forth to re-introducing indentured servitude – which brought a mass influx of migrants from India and China to the Caribbean to do the work that enslaved Africans had been doing.

Abolitionism as a moral platform upheld by white people in Europe and the Americas was itself a response to the movements for liberation of Black folks.

U.S. Civil War

While the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) is often uncritically painted as a war against slavery and Abraham Lincoln is hailed as a great Emancipator, these are narratives that are reconstructed that centre white leaders/society as developing a moral compass rather than as a response to the pressure, effectiveness, and resilience of the Black abolitionist struggle.

Watch this short video and think about the way in which Lincoln is portrayed in our cultural zeitgeist and the material facts of his conduct:

Reflect on this video, then in relation to the most recent Presidential election. As the United States was thrown into instability during the mass rebellion for Black Lives in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s murders in the spring/summer of 2020, think about how President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris framed their position on defunding/abolishing the police in response to BLM.

How can you relate Biden & Harris’ campaign and politics to that of Lincoln prior to the US Civil War? Do some research on Kamala Harris’ work as a Prosecutor in California – what was her role/position with respect to the incarceration of Black Americans?

Back to the Civil War. The Union under Lincoln’s leadership had no interest in passing what would become the Emancipation Proclamation until Robert E. Lee took over as head of the Confederate forces and posed an imminent threat to the power of the wealthy industrialists backing the Union. It was then, in a move of desperation, that Lincoln determined emancipating Black people from slavery should they join the Union forces to defeat the Confederates was the only way to secure victory.

And victory was secured! The Union defeated the Confederacy thanks to the influx of Black soldiers fighting for their own liberation.

This led to the passing of the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Take note of the wording. The 13th amendment, widely considered the amendment that abolished slavery – doesn’t fully do this. It leaves it open to “except as a punishment for a crime”.

For a great take on what that meant historically check out the Netflix documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay

This film was based on the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Watch Alexander discuss this process in her interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.

The period following the passing of the 13th Amendment is the time often referred to as “Black reconstruction”. The Black radical scholar W.E.B. DuBois “argues that the period represented an potential revolutionary moment in which the southern black population played an active and crucial role.” It is from this moment that DuBois devises the concept of “abolition democracy” the notion that the United States can only become a democratic space through a reckoning with the politics of abolition – in its fullest.

You can read the entire book Black Reconstruction in America for free – to learn more about this important era in U.S. History.

The Prison Industrial Complex

In 2003, Angela Davis coined the term “Prison Industrial Complex” (PIC) in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? as a way of describing the way in which racial capitalism sustains itself through the incarceration and policing of Black people in America. The concept of the Prison Industrial Complex is borrowed from the term “Military Industrial Complex” coined by former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower following World War II, in his description of the arms race building up around the Cold War.

What is an industrial complex?

An industrial complex refers to a cycle/loop pattern that sinks a society deeper into a specific centre based on its growing importance to the economic viability of a city, community, region, or nation-state.

A simple equation can be understood as such:

  • Framing a community as violent or wayward (see Hartman) leads to calls for more policing and “crime prevention”
  • A need for more crime prevention (see for instance Rudy Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” policy in NYC) leads to more funding for police – including “community police”
  • More police often results for more arrests for minor crimes
  • More arrests requires more space in jails, courts, prisons – which requires greater funding of these institutions
  • We see a rise in the number of prisons built – so now, even if crime is going down, it becomes economically important (to save the jobs created) to ensure that those prisons remain filled
  • This results in stiffer and more long-term penalties (i.e. Three Strikes Laws) and then ever more people being incarcerated for longer times
  • This results in a sense that crime is in fact going up (particularly driven by the media’s need to highlight crime stories because they are often the most sensational).
  • Which results in people feeling less safe and demanding even greater and more extreme forms of policing

This cycle, as we should be aware, is always filtered through the lens of racial capitalism, where those communities targeted for incarceration (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, disabled, neurodiverse, poor) are also the same class that stand to benefit from low level jobs within the carceral system.

In the 1994 track “Work for Peace,” poet and revolutionary Gil Scott Heron dissects the military industrial complex and suggests that to break from the cycle we need to “go to work.”

How can we see the links between the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex in Heron’s song? What would it mean to work for peace? Based on the content in our course thus far and your own experiences and reading – what types of abolitionist processes (think back to Week 5 when we covered INCITE!) could qualify as “working for peace”?

The Prison Industrial complex has created the context of mass incarceration in the United States. This incarceration rate is higher per capita than any other country in the world. The Prison Industrial Complex, however, does not work on its own. It is deeply entwined with the Psychiatric Industrial Complex that locks many people up against their will. It is connected to the Non Profit Industrial Complex that has created a network of professional social workers who collaborate with law enforcement, remove children from homes, and promotes band-aid solutions instead of radical reforms as part of its mandate. There is also Border Imperialism, which re-constructs and re-defines the act of migration as something that is a threat, is illegal, and requires the detention, incarceration, and deportation of people fleeing violence, economic hardship, and social turmoil often caused by the military industrial complex and global capitalisms desire to extract resources and labour from poor countries.

Given these realities, Angela Davis, explains that the Prison Industrial Complex must be a shifting concept to understand how carceral racism and capitalism operates in the current context. Similarly, we must also see how ongoing settler colonialism, land theft, resource extraction, and racism towards Indigenous peoples has resulted in a similar over-incarceration and targeting of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

This context of capture is interwoven in our society – our economies becoming reliant. Our schools churn out students looking for jobs. There is an emphasis on maintaining the system.

Activity 1: The Roots of Youth Violence

Back in 2005 I was working as a coordinator with the Grassroots Youth Collaborative when we were invited by the Office of the Premier of Ontario to participate in what would come be called "The McMurtry-Curling Roots of Youth Violence Inquiry".  You can see a snapshot of baby me below as our staff gives the middle finger to what became of that process.

In this activity I want you to skim through this report: Rooted in Action: A Youth-Led Report on Our Demands and Plans to Addressthe Root Causes of Violence in Our Communities by Alpha Abebe and Craig Fortier. 

Reflect on the following questions: What were some of the key recommendations that came directly from the youth in our programs? Which, if any, of these recommendations have been implemented since 2005 in Ontario? How many of these issues feel as pertinent now as they did in 2005? Could this report have been written today with little changes? 

Then go ahead and watch the video I recorded talking a little bit about my personal experience with this process. After doing so, I just want you to keep this example in the back of your mind when we begin to explore the ways in which the calls to defund/abolish the police are being re-interpreted through a lens that would bring these calls for action back within the realm of the prison, non-profit, and other industrial complexes discussed above! 

Today’s Abolitionist Movements and the Black Radical Imagination

Over the past year, we have heard the call to defund and abolish the police ring across the uprisings for Black Lives Matter and beyond. There seems to be real momentum and popular support (especially in Canada). Nonetheless, there is a battle happening behind the scenes that seeks to bring this movement back under the confines of the liberal democratic system.

We have begun to hear politicians, leaders of non-profit groups, and even some police chiefs suggest that the notion of “defunding or abolishing the police” doesn’t actually mean defunding or abolishing the police. And, in fact, in Toronto and other jurisdictions motions to cut the police budget were either defeated or, as is often the case, the police were offered more money for “training, body cams, and other activities”.

But abolitionists like Mariame Kaba have been pushing back, linking their work to the long history of abolitionist struggles and arguing that “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolishing the Police.” As Kaba and Noname suggest in their collaborative work, this is not simply about cutting and slashing budgets (as is common in neoliberal society), but it is rather a re-imagining of our social responses to harm, violence, poverty, and need in our communities.

Check out this interview with Kaba and Noname and reflect on the way in which they invoke the Black radical imagination in their abolitionist visions!

As Kaba and Noname suggest, abolition is a process that must be undertaken in community. Think about this in relation to Hartman.

In this course we have centered this process in the theoretical framework of Saidiya Hartman who suggests that the process of abolition and living free requires:

The attempt to elude capture by never settling. Not the master’s tools, but the ex-slaves’ fugitive gestures, her traveling shoes. Waywardness articulates the paradox of cramped creation, the entanglement of escape and confinement, flight, and captivity. Wayward: to wander, to be unmoored, adrift, rambling, roving, cruising, strolling, and seeking. To claim the right to opacity. To strike, to riot, to refuse. To love what is not loved. To be lost in the world. I tis the practice of the social otherwise, the insurgent ground that enables new possibilities and vocabularies; it is the lived experience of enclosure and segregation, assembling and huddling together. It is the directionless search for a free territory; it is a practice of making and relation that enforlds within the policed boundaries of the dark ghetto; it is the mustual aid offered in the open-air prison. It is a queer resource of black survival. It is a beautiful experiment in how-to-live.

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 227-228.

As we move into Week 10, our final week of content for the course, I want you to keep this history in mind as we turn to the study of Black Lives Matter. I want you to reflect on these frameworks and theories as you begin to brainstorm your playlist for the final assignment.

To move us from Hartman’s analysis to the content for Week 10, I want to leave you with a track by the Sudanese-American Minnesota based non-binary artist Dua Saleh caled “body cast”. This song was released following the uprisings in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd.

Read Dua Saleh’s statement on the track here.

Follow the lyrics here.

As you listen to this track, think about how you would include it or incorporate it in a playlist. What work does it do? How does Dua Saleh evoke rage, pain, and trauma and then repurpose it as a righteous anger and evocation of the Black radical imagination?

Week 8 – Black Radical Imagination I – Emergent Strategy

Page Illustration: adrienne maree brown, Black Heroes of the Internet – adrienne maree brown, 2020

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

brown, adrienne maree (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Oakland: AK Press, pp. 1-190.

Emergent Strategy

In this course we have studied the relationship between social change and popular culture, but we have yet to focus on a key question:

How does social change happen?

In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown [note that brown uses lowercase letters in the spelling of her name], suggests that the possibilities of the Black radical imagination (among many other types of change) must come about through an intentional and complex process.

Quoting Nick Obelensky, brown writes, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”

Let’s sit with that sentence for a moment, because there is a lot to unpack.

For brown, Emergence, is not a cataclysmic event. It is not something that we can describe in the same way that Jemisin discusses, for instance, a “fifth season”. Instead it starts with micro-processes and simple interactions. As these interactions multiply they form complex systems and patterns that bring about something new.

Said, differently, poet and theorist of the Black radical imagination, Fred Moten, describes these as “small scale actions with infinite proliferations.” These small scale actions (i.e. protests, changing the culture of dance parties, information campaigns, uprisings, riots, electoral campaigns, etc.) all make up the ecosystem of social and political change.

To flourish, according to Moten and brown, social movements must proliferate, they must use a wide range of strategies and tactics, and they must innovate, but perhaps most importantly they must communicate and be in relationship with one another. This is what the Zapatista’s describe as “Un Mundo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos” or “A World in Which Many Worlds Fit.” In this sense, brown suggests, “Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.”

It’s not simply enough to fight for a different world!

We need to learn to grow together in intentional ways so that we can embody those very worlds we want to create in our practices, relationships, and engagement with the land.

To help social movement activists think through what that would look like, brown draws on the science-fiction work of Octavia Butler because she sees the value and importance of “science-fictional behavior” in the process of social change. This means being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations. This should resonate as a clear link to the Black feminist and Black queer futurities we studies in Weeks 4-7.

A Guide to Survive the End of the World – Inspired by Octavia Butler

adrienne maree brown and her sister Autumn host a podcast called “How to Survive the End of the World” and I think this concept resonates very strongly with how we will study the Black radical imagination in the context of contemporary social movements.

Emergent Strategy is structured (partially) through the paralleling of contemporary real-world politics with a passage from Octavia Butler’s book Parable of the Sower. Interestingly, Octavia Butler’s books started charting for the first time on the NYT bestsellers list nearly 15 years after her death and nearly 40 years since the publication of her first books, during the global pandemic in 2020.

The passage reads as follows (with brown’s sub-titles for chapters in brackets):

“All successful life is adaptable, opportunistic, tenacious, interconnected, and fecund. Understand this. Use it. Shape God. ∞ = Δ.”

To unpack these terms more, we can think about them this way:

Fractal: How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.

Adaptive: How we live and grow and stay purposeful in the face of constant change.

Nonlinear & Iterative: not arranged in a straight line and involving repetition.

Resilient & Transformative: How we recover and transform

Interdependent & Decentralized: mutual dependence and dispersion of power.

Creates More Possibilities: infinite proliferations not subcultural or proprietary.

adrienne maree brown uses these concepts above to explain the processes and relationships needed for social movements to create change. But how does change happen?

This is still the question we are trying to answer!

It is the final part of the quote that gives us direction in this regard: “Understand this. Use this. Shape God. ∞ = Δ.”

The Equation

(Understand this) Scholarship/Reflection: brown suggests that social movements do not simply rely on knowledge from books/theory, but rather are in the active process of producing knowledge.

This is akin to what Fred Moten and his collaborator Stefano Harney distinguish between what they call “academics” and “study.” Academics within the realm of the university often relegates students to the “state of those without interests (Harney & Moten 2013).” This means that in the structure of the contemporary university as a space where grades, credits, tuition fees, deadlines, plagiarism, and codes of conduct are more important than the act of actually studying – we see a demobilization of the student and a loss of interest. The topic that once inspired them has become alienating, job-like, and more aligned with social status than the pursuit of knowledge.

However, Harney and Moten do not despair! They say that in the undercommons of the university, including among student-based social movements, there is a constant and continuous process of study. Here, study is unmoored from the institutional demands of school and it is able to live, grow, and mutate in the messy way that organisms and life does.

brown, like Harney & Moten, suggests that social movements too produce knowledge in this fashion. Through study, reflection, and sharing of knowledge (including the use of academic knowledge), participants in social movements are able to synthesize and theorize the possibilities of the radical imagination.

(Use This) Practice/Experiment: brown then suggests that the next part of the equation is practice and experimentation. theory is no good as a purely ideological pursuit – it must be tried, there must be failure, there must be vulnerability and willingness to enact the improbable to make it possible.

Here, I like to use the analogy of baseball to bring this concept home (pun intended!). A great baseball professional player, one who will one day be considered for enshrinement in the prestigious “Baseball Hall of Fame” succeeds at getting a hit 3 out of every 10 at-bats.

Image: Frank Malzone of the Boston Red Sox vainly swept with his glove as Willie Mays stole third base in the 1960 All-Star Game.Credit…Ernie Sisto/The New York Times

Willie Mays, pictured above, one of the greats of all-time had a lifetime batting average of .302 (meaning he got a hit every 302/1000 at-bats over his career). In most accounts, we might consider this to be failure because Mays failed to get a hit in nearly 70% of his at-bats. But, baseball like life, is a game that rewards adaptation, transformation, interdependence, resilience, and iterative learning. What made Mays great is that he learned from those failures. He learned to FAIL BETTER.

When we think about practice and experimentation, we are really dealing with the realm of failure. The ability to adapt, and this, brown suggests, is precisely what successful social movements do. They do not simply theorize the worlds that they wish to create and hope that they catch on with other people through mechanisms like voting or education or hiring more people of a certain background in the workplace – they “see the future first” (in the words of Frank Ocean) because they are experimenting with these possibilities in the present.

(Shape God) Intention – the next part of brown’s equation is intention. This part of the equation can often be forgotten in the male-dominated and misogynistic spaces of many contemporary social movements. The goal of “winning” becomes more important than “what does winning look like?” Often in these scenarios harming or defeating an enemy by any means necessary is synonymous with winning, but what if that creates a toxic environment within the social movement group that mirrors those same toxic environments the group is trying to win against?

In this case, like what we learned from Beyonce, the Combahee River Collective, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and INCITE! in Week 4-5, intention and process matter when we are trying to bring about social change. It’s not simply enough to win, our success is also measured by the intentions, heart, relationships, and interpersonal links we’ve created through our movements.

This doesn’t mean that there will be no conflicts!

Conflict is a big part of working through strategy, of dealing with failure, of calling each other to account for the sometimes shitty ways we treat each other despite our best intentions, trauma is real y’all. But winning is as much about the cultures that are created by our movements than it is about the material gains our movements secure (both of which can be volatile and temporary).

(∞ = Δ) Infinity = Change – this leads us to the final part of the equation. Using the mathematical symbols for infinity and change, brown, via Butler (notice that brown does not put anything in brackets here) suggest that our ability to be dynamic, to adjust, and to proliferate infinitely is critical to success of movements. There is no singular answer or solution (i.e. a style of Marxism, a political party, a form of Feminism, a political slogan, etc.), but rather that our collective well-being, that will allow us to survive the “end of the world” must be rooted in an acceptance of and willingness to pursue multiple pathways in communication and relationship with one another.

Biomimcry & the Radical Imagination

adrienne maree brown suggest that we can best understand “emergent strategy” through observation and mimcry of other living species. For brown, emergent strategy is not simply a human derived politics, but one that is based upon our interrelationship with the land and other living creatures. It is both speculative (like science fiction) and derivative (it derives from something already in existence). She suggests biomimicry is an ancient practice – “a recovery not a discovery.” This is not something new, human have and continue to mimic the natural world in many ways – but she says that these processes have been lost in some respect by urban social movements.

brown defines biomimetics or biomimicry as:

The imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems (23).

How do social movements learn from biomimicry?

One of the important questions facing social movements is: how do we bring about a “world where many worlds fit” without creating more conflict? The social movement theorists Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery ask a similar question in their book Joyful Militancy: What makes radical spaces and movements feel transformative and creative, rather than dogmatic, rule-bound, or stifling? (Montgomery & Bergman 2018).

In her explanation of how emergent strategy is derived, in part, through biomimicry, brown highlights the work of her home-town (Detroit) based organization Complex Movements. Complex Movements uses an emblem system with ferns, ants, wavicles, mycelium, and more to engage communities in thinking about the formation and movements of the future.

As shown on page 45 of Emergent Strategies, Complex Movements encourages workshop participants to observe, learn from, and study the processes of other living creatures in our world as potential guides and pathways to creating the futures we wish to bring about.

AN EXAMPLE: THE MYCHORRIZAL NETWORKS OF SOCIAL MOVEMENTS

Let’s break down what brown is getting at. How can we understand social movements through the lens of biomimicry? Well, for one thing, let’s return to a question we investigated earlier in the term:

How can we tell if a social movement has been successful?

This is a lingering question when, as we have learned from our work in the first section (utopia/dystopia), that the notion that we are going to reach some form of utopian state seems unrealistic and far-fetched and, as we have learned from our work in the second section (futurities) through the words of José Esteban Muñoz, “queerness is not yet here. We may never reach queer.” In other words, how do we measure success when the process seems to be in a constant state of becoming?

The media, governments, academics, and historians often ask questions like: has this or that movement been a success?

For instance:

Occupy Wall Street: Has Occupy Wall Street Changed America?

Black Lives Matter: How Public Opinion Has Moved on Black Lives Matter

Idle No More: Idle No More: Where is the Movement Two Years Later?

It’s not that the questions that these actors are asking are incorrect, but they are often incomplete because they are short-term in scope. People want to see the results of their actions in real-time, but that isn’t how social change takes place. It is an ebb-and-flow between periods of extreme and active struggle and periods of slow and intentional building.

The activist and theorist Rebecca Solnit uses the mushroom as a means of understanding how social movements work. Here, Solnit draws on biomimicry to ask different questions than those of the journalists/academics looking for real-time evidence of a social movement’s success or failure.

Here, Solnit makes the point that “uprisings and revolutions” often seem spontaneous – as though they came from nowhere! But, in fact, what most people see and experience as social movements is the result of years (sometimes decades or centuries) of tending to relationships, learning/unlearning, practice, adaptation, failure that happens below the surface and outside of the purview of people who are living their lives within the confines of the society as it currently exists.

For brown, this is the site of the radical imagination. She suggests, “Imagination is shaped by our entire life experiences, our socialization, the concepts we are exposed to, where we fall in the global hierarchies of society…We are in an imagination battle…but we are living in the ancestral imagination of others…”

Moment of Reflection: What does she mean that we are living in the ancestral imagination of others? How does this relate to our analysis of past/present/future earlier in the term?

Activity 1: Beware of the Dandelions

Complex Movements: Beware of the Dandelions — Detroit (FULL) from EMERGENCE Media on Vimeo.

Check out the above video by Complex Movement called Beware of the Dandelions. Check out the website here: https://emergencemedia.org/pages/beware-of-the-dandelions 

Reflect on the modes of the project.  Why do you think that they have convened three modes? What is the importance of the intersections of art, biomimicry, and social movement organization in Detroit? According to the video how are people being engaged in real life-skills work that has a political and historical purpose? 

What are the movements that you can identify as contributing to this project? 

Elements of Emergent Strategy: A Case Study of Black Lives Matter

Using the elements of adrienne maree brown’s “Emergent Strategy” we can begin to gain a deeper understanding of Black Lives Matter as a movement. In this section we will briefly engage with brown’s articulation of each element and relate an example of BLM organizing associated with that element.

a) Fractals (the relationship between small and large)
b) Intentional Adaptation (how we change)
c) Interdependence and Decentralization (who we are and how we share)
d) Non-linear and Iterative (the pace and pathways of change)
e) Resilience (how we recover and transform)
f) Creating More Possibilities (how we move towards life)

Fractals (the relationship between small and large)

Image: DIYGenius

A fractal is a pattern that the laws of nature repeat at different scales.

As brown writes,

A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.

Maybe one of the best examples of a fractal pattern in social movements is the way that a strategy or protest might be replicated in many different places, many different contexts, all spurred by a specific moment. We saw this in May 2020 after the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. Protests that erupted in Minneapolis that night spurred global protests – often using similar tactics, strategies, and messages.

Check out this interactive map that shows just how widespread the protests following the death of George Floyd were!

While this is cool in and of itself, many of the conversations that were happening locally in Minneapolis about strategies and tactics (including the idea of defunding the police), were being discussed in other cities and towns! There was a desire to align strategies across time and space to respond to a specific moment, and yet each organism in this larger social movement had the autonomy and ability to decide for themselves what to emphasize and how to grow. Despite this, a coherent and broad-based movement could be seen (in the mainstream) as the fruit of the labour of social movements over the past few decades became visible to a broader public.

Intentional Adaptation (how we change)

Social movements need to adapt to local contexts, to historical moments, to the lived realities of their participants, to threats and challenges, among many other things. Adaptation can often be reactionary – in which a movement adapts in reaction to something (i.e. a new law is passed or a terrible President is elected). The problem with reactionary adaptation is that your movement is always responding to an external stimulus (i.e. a school administration’s policies for student activists or the rhetoric of a bigoted politician). This constant state of reaction leaves very little room for intention.

brown, suggests, that healthy social movements do not simply react. They adapt with intention. Intention is the “thing that you plan to do or achieve,” it is decided upon internally. An adaptation means that you are pre-figuring the context of your struggle (i.e. imagining the future) and then acting according to what that future might look like.

Take for example the actions of Bree Newsome in June of 2015. As part of an anti-racism movement in her home state of South Carolina, Newsome scaled the 30 foot flag pole in front of the South Carolina State House and pulled down the Confederate Flag, a symbol of pro-slavery and Southern racism in the United States.

Bree Newsome’s action (as part of a collective of anti-racist organizers) inspired other groups to intentionally adapt their strategies to see the value in removing racist symbols and statues as direct acts of resistance – as opposed to going through the long and often unsuccessful process of appealing to different channels.

This political strategy was adapted and became part of the tactics of protesters over the next five years resulting in a wave of statue removals and graffiti during the uprisings this summer. Even the scientific magazine Popular Mechanics got into the frenzy publishing a scientifically studied article on the best way to safely and efficiently topple a statue.

In the UK, the website “Topple the Racists” using mapping software to list all of the racist statues in the country and updates (in red) once a statue has been removed.

Ballerinas Kennedy George, 14, and Ava Holloway, 14, pose in front of a monument of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered its removal.

The politics of toppling/graffiti tagging statues was in the news in 2020 in Toronto when BLM targeted the statue of Egerton Ryerson, a noted racist, and the founder of Canada’s residential school system (the namesake of Ryerson University).

Interdependence and Decentralization (who we are and how we share)

brown defines the terms interdependence and decentralization as follows:

Interdependence is mutual dependence between things. If you study biology, you’ll discover that there is a great deal of interdependence between plants and animals. “Inter-” means “between,” so interdependence is dependence between things, the quality or condition of being interdependent, or mutually reliant, on each other.

Decentralization is the dispersion or distribution of function of power, the delegation of power.

This is a very important concept as many social movements throughout history have relied on structures that emulate those already in power, including a hierarchical and centralized power structure (think of authoritarian communism or charitable movements) or a structure that seeks to promote independence and self-sufficiency (think of self-help movements).

brown suggests that contemporary movements succeed largely when they move in a different direction – recognizing the way in which our lives our interdependent means that we have to build stronger systems where we can rely on one another (i.e. solidarity not charity) and promote leadership amongst the greatest number of folks in our communities (i.e. the point is to create more leaders and not more followers).

During the pandemic, a number of projects burst on the scene engaged in a practice called mutual aid. Mutual aid is not charity. It is not doing something for the good of other people out of the kindness of your heart (and sometimes for recognition). Instead mutual aid is the notion that the government is not and will not respond to poor people’s needs during a crisis, because it is not in the interests of the elites. Instead, regular people need to self organize to help each other.

The People’s Pantry in Toronto is one such project. You can read more about the project here, but it is a multi-faceted poor/racialized people led project of mutual aid that provides food to folks in our community who need it. It is meant as a mutual aid project in the sense that those involved could themselves be food insecure at any moment and they are creating a network of interdependence in which a structure exists to help those who are in that situation.

This project also included fundraisers for Maggie’s Torotno Sex Worker Project’s Black sex worker survival fund among other projects to support member of the community.

Non-linear and Iterative (the pace and pathways of change)

While we often are projected this idea that “progress” is linear by the media and liberal commentators (i.e. things always get better each generation), social movement actors know that this is a farce. Instead, what people think of as the natural progression and perfection of human kind’s humanity and goodness is a myth created by those in power to demobilize and quell conflict. If we believe that time is all that is needed for positive change to happen (i.e. the commonly spoken tome: when my grandparents generation dies out then racism will be over), we fail to see the myriad of successes, failures, tragedies, and hardships that go into progressive social change.

brown explains that social movements are non-linear (not denoting, involving or arranged in a straight line) and iterative (involving repetition).

We can clearly see this in terms of the multiple waves of uprisings that have happened under the slogan “Black Lives Matter”

Read this interview with Opal Tometi, one of the creators of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and founders of the Movement for Black Lives in The New Yorker. How does Tometi reflect on the iterative and non-linear pathway of BLM?

Resilience (how we recover and transform)

We often think about resilience as a personal thing, but it is perhaps misunderstood as such.

As brown defines it:

Resilience is the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens. The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, etc. an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

Resilience is the outcome of working through collective grief. In social movements successes and failures, changes in social context, new members, interpersonal conflicts, burnout, etc. can test the resilience of a movement.

In Cindy Milstein’s edited collection Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, she suggests, “We can bear almost anything when it is worked through collectively. Grief is generally thought of as something personal and insular, but when we publicly share loss and pain, we lessen the power of the forces that debilitate us, while at the same time building the humane social practices that alleviate suffering and improve quality of life for everyone.”

For social movements, the ability to collectively work through grief is paramount to their success. When movements fight against a deportation to finally fail and see a friend, community member, and loved one forcibly removed on a plane – members experience grief. When a protest results in arrests, beatings, and pepper spray and the trauma that comes with such violence – members experience grief.

When individuals within social movements experience conflict or burnout or some other form of trauma in their personal lives – members experience grief.

Go back briefly to the BLM protest in LA where those assembled begin to sing the lines from Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright.” How do you identify the work of collectively grieving that brings about resilience in this video?


Creating More Possibilities (how we move towards life)

The final element in brown’s Emergent Strategy is “creating more possibilities” and for brown this is the key factor in how we move towards life. What does that mean? As we’ve noted throughout this course, the ability to collectively imagine (and then enact) multiple futurities all at once is a critical element of social movement organizing.

Creating more possibilities means opening more and more people up to the worlds that are bubbling beneath the surface.

During Pride in 2016, the largerly queer/trans* leaders of Black Lives Matter-Toronto were named the honoured “Grand Marshalls” of both the Toronto Pride Parade and World Pride. They took this title seriously and led a sit-in that included a list of demands for Pride Toronto before they would allow the march to proceed.

Read about the sit-in and watch the videos here.

Thinking about the list of demands proposed by BLM-TO and imagining the history and iterative processes that went into trying to make these a reality before the sit-in, reflect on how in that moment BLM-TO was creating possibilities in order to “move towards life.”

Reflect also on how this action impacted the LGBTQ+ community and Canadian society more generally since 2016! If you have the time and interest you can definitely follow this story right up until today!

Activity 2 - Assess Yourself: Your Emergent Strategy Journal
At the end of the "elements of emergent strategy" section of the book, adrienne maree brown provides a helpful self-assessment tool to think about emergent strategy in your own life.  You could engage with this tool in relation to your own life and relationships or you might be involved in a social justice group and could try to tool with members of your collective. 

The point here is to take a moment to pause from thinking about other moments/people and to think about your own life. Does Emergent Strategy resonate with you in terms of a way to live your life? Does it not? Why or Why not? 

The Art of the Playlist

The final assignment of the term is the “BLM Playlist” and while this may seem like a simple (and perhaps enjoyable) final project, don’t sleep on the depth and complexity that you can elicit through a well compiled playlist.

Read this article in NYT and think about the various components that the author goes into when thinking about creating “the perfect playlist“.

Thinking about this article, start to brainstorm a little bit about what criteria, concepts, feel, angle, vibe you want to have for your playlist!

Here are the instructions for the Assignment as a review:

Assignment 3: The Black Lives Matter Playlist (30%)
Due: Friday, April 16th 2021 11:59pm ET via LEARN

BACKGROUND
Music plays a critical role in giving life, voice, and a rhythm to collective mobilization. Certain songs can become a defacto soundtrack of political movements. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” was vital to the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was the backdrop for 1970s Gay Liberation struggles, A Tribe Called Red’s “Sisters” was heard at rounddances and protests during the Idle No More movement. The history of movements is often intertwined with the creativity of musicians and some songs can capture stories, feelings, or histories in ways that rally chants, books, articles, or interviews cannot.

Black Lives Matter emerged as a #hashtag rallying cry in the face of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012. In 2013, three radical Black organizers (Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opel Tometi) advanced a political project that they dubbed #BlackLivesMatter. This #hashtag helped to organize a set of disparate but connected Black resistance struggles in the United States and brought this movement into the realm of mainstream [white] public consciousness. Numerous musicians and artists have both been influenced by the emergence of BLM as a movement and have been affected by events and killings of Black people in their music.

DETAILS
The Black Lives Matter Playlist assignment prompts students to research and identify songs and artists who have been central to this nascent movement in all its multiplicities. Working in parallel with the cultural shift towards playlists as a listening mechanism for music, this assignment prompts students to intentionally create a tracklist between 6-10 songs that are in
some way influenced by or influencing the broad movement for Black lives happening in the United States, Canada, and globally. Your playlist may focus on a specific subtheme (i.e. police brutality, highlighting Black excellence, global Black resistance, Black Lives Matter Canada, etc.) or can be more general. Your playlist will be accompanied by a written component that will draw from the writings/speeches of adrienne maree brown, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Saidiya Hartman in its analysis.

INSTRUCTIONS

Structure
1. You will curate a 6-10 song playlist with the broad theme “Black Lives Matter”.

2. The playlist can be one on streaming platform (i.e. Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) but for the purpose of this assignment, will need to also be submitted in written form.

3.Your written playlist will include the following components in this order: Artist Name/Song Title/Album Title/Year of Release/Song Length

4. You will include with the playlist a written booklet (between 1250-2000 words) that does the following: (1) explains the theme of your playlist and the method you went about to compile it; (2) an analysis per track listing of why it was included, how it relates to the readings in the course, and its relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement; (3) a works cited page that includes all music, writing cited in the paper (not included in word count).

Content
1. The are some “rules” to completing the playlist. As noted above you must have a minimum of 6 tracks and a maximum of 10 tracks.

2. You must have no more than 2 tracks that were released before 2013 (the year Black Lives Matter began)

3. You may choose from any genre, but need to be sure that you can effectively argue each track’s connection to Black Lives Matter

4. You must have a minimum of 2 tracks performed by women/trans*/nonbinary people (i.e. it can’t be filled with cis-men)

5. You must have a minimum of 2 tracks released in 2020

Style
1. Your final submission will include a screenshot of your streaming service playlist and a typed list of the tracks you’ve selected

2. You will submit an accompanying written booklet (1250-2000 words) that will respond to the questions noted above

3. Your submission will cite from and draw analysis from at minimum 2/4 of adrienne maree brown, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Saidiya Hartman.

4. Citing external books or academic articles and some theoretically detailed blog posts (ask me before using) is encouraged!

Week 7 – Black Queer Futurities II – Blonde

Page Illustration: Boys Don’t Cry Magazine, 2016

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Ocean, Frank (2016). Blonde. United States: Self-Released (Stream album via numerous sources paid and free).

Lewellyn-Taylor, Benjamin (2019). The Free Black Artist: Frank Ocean Through a Decolonial Lens. Black Theology 17(1): 52-68.

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “The Beauty of the Chorus,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 297-343. New York: Norton (Required Text). 

The Beauty of the Chorus

In the chapter, “The Beauty of the Chorus,” Hartman introduces us to Mabel Hampton, a 17 year old girl, who fled her lot in life as a servant in a white family’s home in Jersey City to become a chorus line dancer in Manhattan – in the summer of 1919.

Similar to the thematics in Frank Ocean’s Blonde, we are brought into the complex network of friendships, lovers, and queer spaces that helped to shape Mabel in her search for freedom.

Three key themes run through both pieces that we will focus on in this week’s lecture content: (1) Practicing freedom and autonomy; (2) Black queer love as revolutionary and heartbreaking; and (3) racial capitalism.

Practicing Autonomy and Freedom

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments Saidiya Hartman suggests that for Mabel, “Coney Island provided her exit from servitude, and the stage was the free territory” (299). For Mabel, dancing and singing provided her with a radical hope of living otherwise and, as Hartman explains, “choreography was just another kind of movement of freedom, another opportunity to escape service, another elaboration of the general strike.”

If we reflect on Benjamin Lewellyn-Taylor’s article, “The Free Black Artist,” we witness a similar story in the rise of Christopher Lonny Breaux (aka Frank Ocean). Frank Ocean’s upbringing in New Orleans surrounded him with music, including the jazz records introduced to him by his mother (who we hear in a vocal recording titled “Be Yourself”, track 3 of Blonde). He struggles working multiple jobs to pay for recording time in studios only to have his entire home/recordings washed away in Hurricane Katrina. He is forced to leave his hometown to pursue a career elsewhere, first in Houston, then Los Angeles. His struggles for freedom from the corporate controlled recording industry and his influences in the Black queer community become central to his personal, social, and political development.

Hartman writes:

Tumult, upheavel, flight – it was the articulation of living free, or at the very least trying to, it was the way to insist I am unavailable for servitude. I refuse it. (299)

On the dance floor it was clear that existence was not only a struggle, but a beautiful experiment too. It was an inquiry about how to live when the future was foreclosed. How was it possible to thrive under assault. Could the joy afforded by the cabaret attenuate the assault of racism? (307)

Reflecting on these concepts of living free and beautiful experiments in Hartman’s story of Mabel Hampton, think about the interplay between the tracks “Be Yourself” and “Solo”. In Season 3, Episode 11 of the podcast Dis/sect, host Cole Cushna delves into the interesting interplay between Ocean and his mother.

She is giving heartfelt advice in “Be Yourself” about not doing drugs and yet, the opening line of “Solo” talks about Ocean on an acid trip:

Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself
Gone off tabs of that acid

Ocean, like Hartman, is describing the push-pull of desire/freedom and responsibility. The song “Solo” plays with the theme of duelling heaven and hell. It is meant to portray the fears, tensions, failures, and vulnerabilities that are imbedded in one’s journey to freedom and autonomy.

Ocean suggests, “in hell, in hell, there’s heaven” – how can we related this to Mabel Hampton’s story of freedom?

Black Queer Love as Revolutionary & Heartbreaking

Without a doubt, both Hartman’s narrative of the life of Mabel Hampton and Frank Ocean’s autobiographical Blonde are meant to grapple with the revolutionary possibilities of Black queer love but also the heartbreaks, failures, and missed opportunities that are produced by the social and political context of the day.

In Frank Ocean’s tracks, “Self Control” and “Good Guy” we hear Ocean talk about the beautiful experiments of love that he explores in queer relationships. In self control he is rueing a lost love or a missed connection – the timing isn’t right – the fears and vulnerabilities each is willing to expend contradict each other. Their sexual relationship is on the down low, and Ocean is wishing that it could be public, but the other person is in a relationship and fears leaving and perhaps fears the queerness of his love.

Ocean sings:

I came to visit, ’cause you see me like a UFO
That’s like never, ’cause I made you use your self-control
And you made me lose my self-control, my self-control

Keep a place for me, for me
I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s no thing
Keep a place for me
It’s no thing, it’s nothing
It’s no thing, it’s nothing

In a similar way we learn about Mabel Hampton’s relationship with Gladys, an older women married to a man, who promises Mabel’s best friend Mildred’s mom that she wouldn’t “mess around” with Mabel. But their desire for each other, their desire to find queer love in spaces where it felt so hard to find creates a situation where Gladys plays on the emotions, vulnerabilities, and naïveté of a young 17 year old Mabel in a way that both deeply hurts the girl and provides her with a window into the possibilities of queer love. It is a messy and at times unconsensual lesson in the ways that Black queer love is circumscribed by the fears, harms, and intergenerational traumas caused by the constriction of freedom in living in a racist and homophobic social context.

In contrast, Ocean’s “White Ferrari” talks about the transformative possibilities of queer love. In parallel to the relationships (some romantic/sexual and other platonic) that helped to shape Mabel’s life (Mildred, Ruth, A’lelea Walker, Gladys Bently, Jackie Mabley, etc.), Ocean uses “White Ferrari” to talk about how intimate relationships are foundational to the transformative power of love.

He sings:

Primal and naked
You dream of walls that hold us imprisoned
It’s just a skull, least that’s what they call it
And we’re free to roam

We immediately see Ocean questioning this freedom. In the next track, “Seigfried,” Ocean struggles with the vulnerability of living outside of the logics of dominant society.

He recoils, singing:

The markings on your surface
Your speckled face
Flawed crystals hang from your ears
I couldn’t gauge your fears
I can’t relate to my peers
I’d rather live outside
I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here
Maybe I’m a fool
Maybe I should move
And settle, two kids and a swimming pool
I’m not brave (brave)
I’m not brave

Racial Capitalism

In Black Marxism, the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cederic Robinson introduces us to the concept of racial capitalism. He suggests, as we have studied in the works of Black feminists like the Combahee River Collective, that we must understand capitalism as being inherently tied to racism. That the two are inseparable.

Hartman seeks to reaffirm the depths in which racial capitalism transformed the lives of young Black women seeking to live free in early 20th Century New York City. By the end of the chapter, Mabel Hampton whose experiences as a chorus dancer had given her a love for theatre, opera, for freedom and uncompromising queerness in an era that disallowed it, and a desire to live her life in a more masculine expression – was still – in the end relegated back to domestic servitude.

Her lived reality returns her to the market for day laborers, Hartman noting, “that white uniform was the one dress she was still forced to wear”. Exhibiting that her ability to freely express her gender, her sexuality, and her queer Blackness was still tied to the social and historical context of racial capitalism that returned her to one of the few means of survival for Black Americans in that time.

Meanwhile, on the final track in Frank Ocean’s Blonde, “Futura Free,” Ocean reflects on his success and his desire to live free in relation to the context of racial capitalism in America.

Ocean starts “Futura Free” reflecting on his life and how fame and fortune has transformed it. The song, is sung as though Ocean is speaking directly to his mother.

He sings:

If I was bein’ honest
I’d say long as I could fuck three times a day
And not skip a meal, I’m good
I used to work on my feet for 7 dollars a hour
Call my momma like “Momma”
“I ain’t makin’ minimum wage, momma”
“I’m on, momma, I’m on”
“Now I’m makin’ 400, 600, 800K, momma”
“To stand on my feet, momma”
“Play these songs, it’s therapy, momma”
“They payin’ me, momma”
“I should be payin’ them”
I should be payin’ y’all, honest to God
I’m just a guy, I’m not a god
Sometimes I feel like I’m a god, but I’m not a god

He struggles with the fact that people are paying him all this money to play these songs that he considers “therapy”. He says, “I should be playing them” and rejects the way stars become deified (I’m not a god).

By the end of the song, however, just like Mabel Hampton, Ocean worries about how his Black queerness and his success will be felt by others. Will racial capitalism allow for his success to continue? He likens his life to that of Selena who was murdered by the head of her fan club. He worries that his success will be fleeting and throws him back into sex and drugs as a means of avoiding these big questions.

He reflects:

I’ll keep quiet and let you run your phone bill up
I know you love to talk
I ain’t on your schedule
I ain’t on no schedule
I ain’t had me a job since 2009
I ain’t on no sales floor
You say I’m changin’ on you
I feel like Selena, they wanna murder a n***a
Murder me like Selena

The album ends with a recording taken in his childhood by his little brother, Ryan Moore, who would go on to die in a car crash in 2020 at 18 years old. In the recording you can hear Frank Ocean and some of his friends dreaming about what they wanted to be when they grow up. It is innocent, gentle, nostalgic, and seeks to bring us back to the possibilities of dreaming.

Artefacts – Nikes

ARTEFACT #1 – THREE VOICES

Image: BrettLeeMovies, Retrieved Here, 2016

In “Nikes” we hear three distinct “voices,” each sung by Frank Ocean himself, but each presenting a different angle/analysis.

The three voices include: (1) Pitched Down/Screw Vocals; (2) Pitched Up Vocals; (3) Frank’s Unadulterated Voice. We will analyze the role each of these voices plays in the song.

As we study in Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments in her chapter “The Beauty of the Chorus,” the lived experience of Black folks and specifically queer Black folks is often an exercise in shapeshifting and code switching. In a society so concerned with being your “true” and “authentic” self, how does one who must shape-shift to survive and life a life of relative freedom reckon with what it means to be real? We grapple with this question in Week 6 when are confronted with the concept of “realness” in the NYC ball scene in the film Paris Burning.

In “Nikes,” Ocean uses the three versions of his voices to enact these multiplicities of being. In doing so, a more full and nuanced understanding of the artist emerges.

VOICE #1: Pitched Down/Screw Vocals

The first voice we encounter in “Nikes” is the pitched down (screw) version of Frank Ocean’s voice. The voice is distinctively in the genre of Houston’s early-mid 2000s “chop-and-screw” music scene, led by DJ Screw. The notable features of a “screwed-up” vocal style are: low pitch, slow tempo, drawlish cadence – these vocals are meant to emulate the effects of drinking lean (aka sizzurp or purple drank) which is a combination beverage that includes prescription grade cough syrup (with promethazine), soda, and hard candy. The drug was popularized in the Houston chop-and-screw hip hop scene and is now cited and referenced in multiple genres of music and in many cities.

The drug combination can be addictive and deadly and in the last two decades numerous rappers have had serious medical issues, addiction, or have died from its use – including Lil’ Wayne, Mac Miller, and Pimp C (one of the originators of screw and one of the artists memorialized in Nikes).

The Pitch/Down and Screw vocals pays homage to Houston and that scene because it is the place that took Frank Ocean in following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in his home town of New Orleans in 2005.

These vocals serve as an unfiltered subconscious voice that allows Ocean to perhaps say things that he would otherwise be afraid or feel uncomfortable sharing in public. To some extent, drawing on the sociologist Erving Goffman’s work, we can consider this screw voice as the “backdoor” of Ocean’s personality.

The voice repeats “I’ve got two versions” and this is a line that we can trace to the lead up to the release of Blonde. Recall from the Lewellyn article that Ocean drops Endless to get him out of his contract and then the very next day drops Blonde as a self-released album that undercuts the success of Endless and allows him to buy back his Masters from Def Jam ostensibly freeing him from the grips of the corporate music industry. Many have speculated that this is an intentional “rubbing in the face” to Def Jam by Ocean who reveals his sleight of hand in the video for Nikes. Particularly the part in the song where this voice says “This is a set up…Tell these guys you ain’t basic.”

There is no spacing between the pitched down/screw vocals and the pitched up vocals – they are interspersed and we can imagine them as being the multiplicities of being within the Black queer body/experience.

Listen to the track only focusing on the pitched down vocals.

What does this narrator do in the story of Nikes? How does this vocal track work to reflect and recognize people Frank admires? How does this narrator reveal some of Frank’s insecurities and vulnerabilities?

VOICE #2 – Pitched Up Vocals

We encounter the second voice roughly 30 seconds into the track. This pitched-up vocal might be understood not only as a new voice, perhaps in Goffman’s analysis “the front stage” (the you, you seek to present to the world – aka your Instagram self), but we might also see this as Frank’s attempt to complicate gender. Using the pitched-up vocals, he’s able to give a feminine (though with a hint of cyborg – shout out to Week 3) quality to his vocals. We hear the opening line amidst the pitched-down/screw voice saying “I’ve got two versions”.

The first line spoken for voice #2 are the opening lyrics to the song: “These bi***es want Nikes/They looking for a check/Tell them it ain’t likely.” We learn that one of the core themes of the song is the validation that comes with conspicuous consumption and the commodification of the body (including Black bodies, queer bodies, femme bodies, and all intersections thereof).

There is a tension being held throughout the video – the body and body parts are portrayed often in commodified ways – in which only specific body parts, the performance of sexual desire, etc. are centered in the shots. However, the body is also portrayed in these power, consensual, and erotic ways that affirm sexuality, beauty, desire, and sensuality as critical to freedom. The pitched up vocals act as our narrator into these themes.

Listen to the track only focusing on the pitched up vocals.

This voice is the primary narrator in Verse 1 of the song. Listen to the track using the lyric sheet as a guide. How does Nikes move between a rant on hedonism/capitalism to an intimate admission of vulnerability, fear, imperfection, desire?

VOICE #3 – Ocean’s Unadulterated Voice

We finally hear Frank Ocean’s voice without the effects of auto-tuning in the second verse of the song. Here we can imagine this to be, again in Goffman’s analysis “the side-door,” where parts of an “authentic true” self are revealed. However, Frank Ocean seems to reject this notion of the partitioning of oneself.

Voice #3 doesn’t speak about oneself, instead it uses the “we” pronoun and clearly seeks to situate Frank Ocean within a particular community. We can assume this is the Black queer community and this segment of the song speaks directly to the queer love shared within the community, akin to the story of Mabel Hampton in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. We witness here that the pitched-down/screw vocals have disappeared and the pitched-up vocals return at the end of the song to harmonize with Ocean.

Listen to the track only focusing on the unadulterated vocals.

This voice is the primary narrator of verse 2. How does the imagery change between verse one and verse 2 in the video? How does this line up with the change in vocal styles and topics? Using the etymology of the word “queer”, identify the queer markers of these vocals tracks.

ARTEFACT #2 – CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION & COMMODIFICATION

To understand the politics of Frank Ocean, we need to take a step back and explore the ground-breaking Los Angeles hip hop collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All Don’t Give a Fuck (OFWGKTADGAF or Odd Future). Odd Future was a decentralized, off-kilter, controversial collective of rappers, artists, skateboarders and fashion designs who had come together to create. The most famous members of the collective included Tyler, the Creator (a co-founder), Earl Sweatshirt, Syd (front person for the Internet), and Frank Ocean. While the collective was known for often homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, many of the members of the collective (including Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean, and Syd) have come out as queer/non-straight. Tyler, who perhaps had the most well-deserved criticism, speaks about creating these “monstrous” type homophobic characters as part of his struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality.

Odd Future, however, was also a collective that believed in fierce independence from the music industry and sought to subvert the control and dominance that music corporations had on the lives of artists, particular Black artists. They were one of the first groups to use viral media/social media as a tool to get their music out. Many of the artists who were part of this collective and who have had commercial success have either remained independent or, like Ocean, have found a way to gain their relative independence from the corporate music industry.

Frank Ocean has just pulled a major feat in which he delivered one album to get him out of his contract with Def Jam (Endless) and then stunningly drops a second (Blonde) the very next week.  He then takes an advance for the sales of Blonde from Apple to buy his entire back catalogue back from Def Jam/Universal. The video for Nikes, can be read and understood, as Lewellyn suggests in our readings, as a sort of statement of artistic freedom that refuses the trapping of hedonistic consumption pushed by corporate executives to keep artists tied to their contracts.

It is also a critique on the exploitation and appropriation of Black/queer/femme bodies by the music industry to sell records. When Frank Ocean sings “She said she need a ring like Carmelo. You must be on that white like Othello. All you want is Nikes,” he has cleverly dissected the capitalist trappings of success in the music industry and has (gently) criticized his fellow peers who have fallen for this.

She said she needs a ring like Carmelo

This lyric references the NBA player, Carmelo Anthony. One of the greatest basketball players of his generation, Anthony is perhaps best known as one of the few greats who has never one an NBA Championship. This is a photo of 36 year old Anthony playing for the Portland Trail Blazers. He has transitioned from a star player to a role player in search of that elusive championship – in which players are each granted individual rings for their accomplishment.

Here Ocean is using Anthony for a foil – suggesting that the “she” in this lyric is so desperate for the gold/riches “rings” that might be provided by the music industry that she is willing to hang on and continue to work her body for the possibility that is becoming further and further from reality.

You must be on that white like Othello.

This lyric is a triple entendre. It could be read as a reference to cocaine (i.e. you are snorting so much coke that you are delusional and overly optimistic – two common effects of the drug – that you are orchestrating your own downfall by being jealous of the financial success of others. It could also be read as a more literal reference to the Shakespeare play “Othello” in which the title character, a normally level headed and capable Moorish military officer, has just married a much younger and very beautiful white girl Desdemona and is eventually goaded by a bitter soldier into a fit of rage, jealousy, and insecurity that leads Othello to killing his wife who he truly loves. It could also be read as a comment on the racial character of the music industry – in which Black artists are made dependent on white music producers to advance their careers, but the trade off is their own subservience.

All you want is Nikes.

Nike Dunk SB Low Paris, currently valued at $190, 823 at Stock X, 2021

The last line in this triplet is biting. After dissecting both the desire and fallacy of the desire in the first two lines, Ocean simply responds, but “all you want is Nikes.” There’s a bit of a feeling of defeat. We aren’t aware if this is a personal battle inside himself or a critique at the broader hip hop culture, but the line seeks to show how conspicuous consumption has clouded our notion of what freedom looks like.

There are parallels between these lyrics and those on the (2000) critically acclaimed socialist hip hop album Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez. On the track “Hip Hop,” Dead Prez tackle similar themes and ask aloud:

These record labels slang our tapes like dope
You can be next in line and signed and still be writing rhymes and broke
You would rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance?
A Beamer, a necklace, or freedom

Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders, during his campaign to become the Democratic nominee for US President in 2020 appeared on the show Desus & Mero and discussed this culture of conspicuous consumption in a humorous sketch (start at 5:30 if you want to see the specific segement that deals with shoes).

ARTEFACT #3 – ON HISTORICAL & SOCIAL CONTEXT

The song and video for “Nikes” is very aware of the social and political context in which it is written. Beyond tracing Frank Ocean’s political chess game with Def Jam, signalling the anti-authoritarian origins of Odd Future, and laying the groundwork for a statement against conspicuous consumption – Ocean situates himself and the characters in the video – all of whom straddle the lines between beautiful and grotesque, in the current realities of Black people in America.

As noted above, the song itself pays homage to the legendary music genre of “chop-and-screw” that came out of Houston. Ocean also recognizes the other musical influences in his work but giving a shout out to the A$AP mob (New York City) who blended the Houston style “chop-and-screw” sound with a woozy New York style rap/singing style of the early 2000s.

In the video we see a cameo by A$AP Rocky, one of the most visible members of the A$AP mob, when Frank Ocean pays tribute in the first verse.

Ocean sings:

Pour up for A$AP

RIP Pimp C

RIP Trayvon, that n***a look just like me

Here we can see Frank Ocean do multiple things at once. As noted above, he situates the track and his influences within the song itself, honouring the rappers A$AP Yam and Pimp C for their contributions and inspirations to Ocean’s work. A common practice in hip hop, we can understand this practice as akin to citations in academia, we are publicly and openly citing our inspirations and sources – we are not claiming individual genius, but rather that our work is derived from a long lineage of art, thought, culture, and production. It is honouring to cite people in your music.

The final homage goes to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old Black boy who was murdered by George Zimmerman in Florida (and for which Zimmerman was eventually acquitted based on Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground Law“. In this part of the video, we see Frank Ocean holding up Trayvon Martin’s photo and he emphasizes the uncanny resemblance between himself and the murdered teen.

In this moment, we see Ocean wearing a blue hoodie with the words “Lover” written on the front and holding the young man’s photo. We see the visceral pain in Ocean’s eyes and feel the affective statement that Black Americans live in terror in the United States – with Ocean reflecting on how it could just as easily have been him that is being memorialized.

ARTEFACT #4 – ON QUEER BLACK FUTURITY

At exactly the 3:00 minute mark of the video Nikes, the song takes a dramatic turn. We have been listening to a discordant duet between the pitched up and pitched down/screw vocals that have to this point addressed much of the themes we’ve reflected on above.

There is silence and Ocean now appears in a simple jeans and t-shirt. The t-shirt contains text taken from NYC-based artist Jenny Holzer’s piece “truisms,” but is also evocative of text usage on the social media platform Tumblr. It is on Tumblr where Frank Ocean first spoke openly about his queerness and it is fitting imagery for the moment.

The sound comes to a brief stop. And then we hear Ocean’s true voice return – as he sings his ordinary look becomes extraordinary and he is now transported to a stage that is lit up where he wears a full white outfit and he is wearing makeup and his face is painted with a shimmering glitter.

He sings:

We’ll let you guys prophesy
We’ll let you guys prophesy
We gon’ see the future first
We’ll let you guys prophesy
We gon’ see the future first
Living so the last night feels like a past life

These lines speak so clearly to José Esteban Muñoz’s queer futurity. But they are speak very clearly to the notions of the Black radical imagination that we’ve encountered in Hartman, Kelley, and other people’s works over the term. Here Ocean uses the first person plural “we” to address the audience. He says, “we’ll let you guys prophesy” and repeats this intermittently between saying, “we gon’ see the future first”. This is such a critical juncture in the song.

On the one hand Ocean can be understood as speaking about critics, media members, mainstream society, the music industry, etc. who are always trying to suggest that we should remain closed, conservative, and small – that they somehow have the ability to prophesize the future.

But Ocean refuses this. He suggest, “we gonna see the future first.” For Ocean, this futurity is formed not through predictions, but in practice. It is formed through the practice of queer Black love – something that we see intimately displayed throughout the video. Think back to the story of Mabel Hampton or Mistah Beauty in Hartman’s Wayward Lives, think about the opening story in Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, think about the worlds being created by the queens dancing in the NYC balls in Paris is Burning, think about the movements on the ground in the summer of 2020 evoking and practicing a world in which Black Lives Matter. “We gonna se the future first” is a testament to the hope, possibility, and power of radical futurity as a practice and not as a passive prediction of things to come. It is not allowing our lives to be determined but doing the hard work to have a say in the futures that could be possible.

This passage of the song ends with the line “Living so the last night feels like a past life.” There is another double entendre here. We can understand this line to be a literal reference to the queer party culture that Frank Ocean is signalling towards – one where you like with a freedom and a queer Black joyfulness that blurs time/space. There is also this second meaning, where Ocean is collapsing the past/present/future because this Black queer futurity is so powerful that we are transforming so rapidly that even last night feels like lifetimes ago.

In this respect, the song alludes to intimacies of queerness and Blackness that are outside of the white cis-heteronormative framework.

Ocean then makes illusions and comparisons between this power and the power of psychoactive drugs.

He sings:

Acid on me like the rain
Weed crumbles in the glitter
Rain, glitter

Here Ocean reference the drug LSD (Acid) when he sings “acid on me like the rain” – referencing the ways in which LSD opens you up to alternate experiences – and then follows with “weed crumbles in the glitter” – evoking the imagery and intimacy of a group of presumably queer folks prepping for a night out. There are crumbles and flecks of weed mixed in to glitter (both substances notoriously hard to contain when prepping for use). There is meant to be a mix of the ethereal and the intimate in this section and so Ocean repeats “rain, glitter.” Here Ocean is trying to create a setting for the space of liminality – between dream and wake – the place of the radical imagination.

He then finishes this verse by singing about the messiness and non-conformity of queer Black love.

He sings:

I may be younger but I’ll look after you
We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you
When you’re not here I’ll save some for you
I’m not him but I’ll mean somethin’ to you
I’ll mean somethin’ too
I’ll mean somethin’ too
You got a roommate he’ll hear what we do
It’s only awkward if you’re fuckin’ him too

This final piece of the song lyrics suggest different types of intimacies – intimacies that we can trace in the lives of Hartman’s subjects in Wayward Lives. That love, intimacy, and devotion are not and do not have to be constrained by the singularity of the institutions of monogamy, marriage, white supremacy, cis-heterosexuality, etc. That we can love and make love to one another outside of these trappings and that these forms of relations are no less valid and (in fact) may provide us with connections and intimacies that have been lost.

ARTEFACT #5 – ON SPIRITUALITY

The final piece of artefact that I want to address in Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” has to do with the multiple spiritual references and overtones that permeate the record/video.

The entirety of the imagery of Blonde, an album about nostalgia, childhood, awakening, and freedom, is underscored by Frank Ocean’s love of car racing. In the video we encounter Ocean in a flame-retardant racing uniform being lit on fire in front of a number of race cars. Here, the recurrent visuals of self-immolation nod to Buddhist monks self-sacrifice in the face of oppressive forces and the concepts of re-birth and re-awakening.

For Ocean, this video, and the album Blonde are a sort of re-birth and re-awakening. This is the album that he records free from his contract with Def Jam, but it is also his first album that address and deals with his life following his decision to speak openly about his sexuality (while he posted on Tumblr the day before the release of Channel Orange – the album had been largely conceptualized and recorded before the decision to post).

There’s also a moment where Ocean speaks about his fears and insecurities in these decisions and the lines:

Speakin’ of the, don’t know what got into people
Devil be possessin homies
Demons try to body jump
Why you think I’m in this b***h wearing a fucking Yarmulke?

In these lines Ocean speaks of the possessive pull of the industry, but also of normative society and the ways in which Blackness and queerness are deemed abject and horrific. He suggests that he’s wearing a yarmulke, to symbolize that he is aware of and continues to fear the power of God – despite seeking to live and be free and co-create futures outside of those that have been laid before him.

Week 6 – Black Queer Futurities I – Paris Is Burning/Freetown Sound

Page Illustration: Blood Orange, “Benzo“, 2019

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Blood Orange (2016). Freetown Sound. United States: Domino. (Stream or watch via YouTube).

CONTENT WARNING: Paris is Burning contains descriptions of anti-trans* violence and murder. Livingston, Jennie (1990). Paris Is Burning. Off White Productions Inc. Copy. (Currently streaming on CRAVE TV in Canada).

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “1909. 601 West 61st Street. A New Colony of Colored People, or Malindy in Little Africa,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 177-191. New York: Norton. (via Course Text)

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “Mistah Beauty, the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Woman, Select Scenes from a Film Never Cast by Oscar Micheaux, Harlem, 1920s,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 193-202. New York: Norton. (via Course Text).

Queer Futurity

Image: Come with me, Now I need you Mickalene Thomas, 2007

As we have already covered in Week 2, this course focuses on the multiplicities of possible futures proposed by radical social justice movements within popular culture.

When we discuss futurity, we are not talking about an imagined “future” that is set, yet unknowable, but rather we are analyzing the world through a lens in which multiple futures can and are made possible through collective action, communal affect, and radical forms of practice and failure.

This week begins our investigation into the political importance of forms of Black queer futurities within contemporary social movements. It seeks to engage in the thinking through and enacting of queer ways of being outside of white supremacist, cis-heteropatriarchal, capitalist, and ableist power structures.

This is not idealism. It is a practice that is riddled with failures, like all important social experiments (this is what Saidiya Hartman means when she calls them beautiful experiments). A key text in queer theory, The Queer Art of Failure gives credence (and perhaps grace) to the fact that the process of creating new ways of being is difficult – there are no models – and people are struggling within the current dynamics of society that are filled with all kinds of oppressive mechanisms of control, shame, self-hate, etc.

Halberstam explains:

“Rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures.”

Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, “Ending, Fleeing, Surviving,” 2011

What is perhaps the most important take-away here is the notion that trying to imagine and live out realities that don’t yet exist in our society is a collective experiment in creativity, failure, and incongruence. As we will come to see in our analysis of the film Paris Is Burning, the NYC Black/Latinx led queer ball scene of the 1970s-1980s was one such site of social, political, and emotional experimentation.

What is Queerness?

As we’ve done previously, we need to dig into the historical roots of the word to situate our analysis. The term queer has its origins in the English language in the 15th Century as an adjective from either the Scottish “strange, peculiar, Eccentric” or the Low German “oblique, off-center.” These original definitions will be helpful to us as we explore further.

By the late 18th/early 19th century the term began to be used as a verb, meaning “to spoil, ruin” or “to puzzle, ridicule, cheat”. This more negative connotation can be seen as an extrapolation of the adjective – adding something strange or peculiar to a substance can have the effect of spoiling it.

The development of the term queer or queerness into a slur used to denounce people who were or were perceived to be homosexual or gender-non conforming can be traced to the term’s usage as “strangeness” and has overlaps with Christian and Victorian principles of propriety that sought to label anything that was outside of the monogamous, nuclear, cis-heterosexual family as abject or monstrous.

This use of the term was weaponized in the early 20th century as a way to besmirch, shame, and ridicule people who did not fit into these rigid gender and sexual frameworks. However, like other slurs, a segment of the LGBTQ2S+ population (predominantly BIPOC, lower/working class, trans* and non-binary, and disabled segments) began to reclaim the term as a source of pride.

Image: The New York Times Young people outside the boarded-up Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village soon after the uprising.
Credit: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

This is where the term started to gain more acceptance as a way to politicize and name the theories, knowledges, and practices that emerged out of the experiments in other ways of living that occurred over the 20th Century, often underground, and most often by poor and marginalized people – like those who erupted into riots against the police raids at the Stonewall Inn in NYC in 1969.

The hype and success of the Stonewall Riots were both a blessing and a curse – as social movement victories often are. For one, the riots were widely supported by both marginalized and more mainstream (self-identified respectable) groups, including a number of high profile “homophile” organizations (white middle class liberal gay acceptance movements). In an excellent article on the power of storytelling in social movements, Armstrong & Crage suggest that a coming together of a whole bunch of factors they call “mnemonic capacity,” led to the decision to commemorate the Stonewall Riots – which subsequently led to an annual march, the Christopher Street march (named after the street in Greenwich Village where the Stonewall Inn is still located). They were later called ‘parades’ and were intended to show pride and solidarity as a community against police vice squads and the mainstream media who sought to “out” known homosexuals.

In hindsight, this riot (and the many other riots against vice squads by LGBTQ2S+ people before and after Stonewall, including the 1981 Bathhouse Raid and 2000 Pussy Palace riot in Toronto), gave voice to the bourgeoning queer politics of the late 20th Century and early 21st Century. These movements burst into the mainstream and forever changed our concepts of love, family, gender, sexual desire, consent, policing, interracial love. They also influenced our mainstream language, fashion, music, art and aesthetics among other forms of popular culture.

Despite these successes, the space created by these movements to open possibilities for LGBTQ2S+ folks more generally also came with a series of losses: (1) appropriation; (2) erasure; (3) commodification; (4) a return to respectability politics; (5) an investment in capitalism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy (pink washing); among others.

For instance, demands to dismantle vice squads and abolish the police, (central to those of the Stonewall rioters) soon became sanitized and more palatable forms of political goals like legal marriage, inclusion in the workplace, etc. Important goals – but goals that tended to benefit predominantly white gay middle/upper middle class men, nonetheless.

Activity 1 - Stonewall and the Legacy of Marsha "Pay it No Mind" Johnson
As Armstrong & Crage suggest, mnemonic capacity is a critical part of spreading a social movement. The ability to remember, commemorate, and narrate the stories of social movements allow for movement actors to not only reach new audiences, but to help people deeply feel their shared struggles.  This is what George Katsiaficas calls "the eros effect". 

However, mnemonic capacity and who has the resources to control the story can also have a huge impact in demobilizing, flattening, and white washing a social movement.  Popular culture often plays a significant role in this process. 

Take, for instance, the story of Marsha P. Johnson.  Johnson was a largely forgotten figure in the Stonewall riots (including prior and subsequent struggles). A Black, trans* women, Johnson worked as a drag performer at local gay clubs, and was at the Stonewall Inn the night of the riot.  Her story lives through the word of mouth narratives of people who participated in the riot, including that of Sylvia Rivera, a trans* Puerto-Rican activist who was also a key figure in the riots, who believes that Johnson was the person to start the riot by throwing a shot glass at one of the arresting NYPD officers. 

The story of Marsha P. Johnson had been ironed out of the more sanitized versions of the history of the Stonewall Riot. However, in recent years, the Black trans* film-maker Tourmaline, began work on a short film in Johnson's memory, Happy Birthday, Marsha! 

Check out the trailer for Happy Birthday, Marsha! here: 
Tourmaline's film was self-researched, crowd-funded, and throughout the film process she struggled to secure funds and distributers to finish the movie. 

During that time two large feature films were released, both created and produced by white men, purporting to tell the story of Stonewall and to reflect on the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson. 

Watch the trailer for Stonewall, here: 
Watch the trailer for the documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, here: 
After watching these three trailers, take a moment to read this article written by Tourmaline in Teen Vogue, where she explains how the archival footage she had found on Marsha P. Johnson ended up in the David France film The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. 

Reflection Questions
1. How does the work of Black trans* storytellers like Tourmaline get flattened or erased in the trailer for The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson? How do we engage with an otherwise important piece of work given what we know about David France's appropriative relationship with Tourmaline? 
2. With the added understanding that the character of "Danny" in Stonewall is fictional and never existed. How does the story of the Stonewall riots get white-washed and sanitized in the feature film? 
3. What aspects of the Black radical imagination can you point to in the way Tourmaline portrays Marsha P. Johnson in her film Happy Birthday, Marsha!?

You Never Did Define Queer Futurity, Did You?

To help us understand what we mean by queer futurity, we turn to the late Cuban-American queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. Muñoz’s work has been influential to many scholars and activists include the likes Robin D.G. Kelly, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, among others who are seeking to theorize the Black radical imagination.

In his groundbreaking book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Muñoz draws on familiar concepts in this course. For Muñoz, queerness is not yet here and he suggests we are not yet queer.

What does he mean by this?

We should now have the tools to decode it. If we understand queerness as a utopian ideal of the multiplicities of love, gender, sexuality that are based in principles of consent, care, non-possession, experimentation, and beauty, then it can never be a fully accomplished ideal. Instead, queerness is an experiment in practice, transformation, healing, and collective imagination. It is a recognition that we will never reach a place where there is no violence or hurt or fairy tale peace – but rather we can work towards practices and principles that allow us to work through these negative aspects of life in healthier, more full, and more intentional ways.

Sounds familiar, right?

Muñoz is not interested in queerness as a brand or identity or even as a noun. He instead pulls us back to the origins of the word as a adjective and as a verb. For Muñoz queerness is an active practice, it is not a self-realized identity. He suggests that in the realm of the aesthetic (i.e. the arts, fashion, music, theatre, style, literature, poetry) we can often glimpse pieces of the promise of queerness as a possible other way of being outside of the current logics of our society.

Think about and reflect on the way queer/trans* artists often offer otherworldly artistic pieces that provide us with new possibilities to understand love, intimacy, healing, consent, etc.

This week’s focus on the documentary Paris is Burning and the album Freetown Sound by Blood Orange looks specifically at how the Black radical imagination is filtered through and within queer futurity.

Paris Is Burning: A Promised Queerness

First, a disclaimer, Paris is Burning (1990) is a documentary film by a white director, Jennie Livingston. Livingston had been a very active activist and organizer with ACT UP, one of the first and most influential groups that mobilized in response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Livingston was (and continues to be) a committed activist and organizer and has actively built and maintained relationships with BIPOC queer/trans* communities in NYC.

Despite this background, a controversy that erupted following the success of the documentary resulted in all but two (Willi Ninja and Dorian Corey) of the main participants suing Livingston for a share of the profits.

Prior to filming Livingston had agreed to pay each participant a share of $55,000 divided equally amongst the 13 key informants, but fought the lawsuits in court (they were eventually all dropped).

However, this incident raises important questions about the responsibilities of film makers, researchers, service providers, and others to the communities that they seek to support. Was Livingston’s documentary (which is undoubtedly an important push against the erasure of this ball scene important subculture) extractive in its intent? Did the director maintain a relationship with the participants after filming? Should the director and production company have shared profits from the film with the participants? How would this transform the nature of documentary film making?

This is an ongoing question. As Hartman, explains in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, it is a question that Mary White Ovington grappled with alongside W.E.B. Du Bois – what parts of your commitment are extractive and moralizing and what parts are a desire for connection, relationship, and solidarity?

The NYC Ball Scene

The documentary Paris is Burning is filmed and captures the “ball scene” in New York City over two distinct time periods (1987 and 1989). The documentary is structured as an oral history told by participants in the community. There is no narrator or overdub by the documentary producer, the participants and organizers of the balls are narrating their own story.

Each participant provides different aspects of the story of their community and sub-culture, including: its organization, its purpose, the lived realities of the participants, the failures and imperfections, and the language and culture that is co-created through the balls.

HOUSES: ORGANIZATION OF COMMUNITY

Participants in the documentary spend considerable amounts of time explaining the organizational structure of the balls.

We learn that the balls are run through “houses” (Labeija, Xtravaganza, Pendervis, Ninja, etc.) and that each house has a “mother” and “father”. While the participants cheekily refer to their houses as “gay street gangs that fight at a ball,” there is a clear modelling of chosen family structures within queer/trans* communities (“a group of human beings in a mutual bond”.

The houses are a prefiguration of the types of chosen families that queer communities were creating and continue to build today – with all of their imperfections and beauty.

FUTURITY: THE PURPOSE OF THE BALLS

Participants suggest that “in a ballroom you can be anything you want” and participants model this not only in their creative runway walks, outfits, and dances, but also in the way that the culture is constantly evolving.

Dorian Corey, for instance, suggest that the ball scene used to be about “drag queens and showgirls” but now (1987) the participants are more interested in looking like supermodels or playing with “everyday” categories (i.e. realness).

The enacting of futurity is prevalent through the film with some participants fantasizing about living “like a spoiled rich white girl,” while others suggesting that “I wouldn’t enjoy being a millionaire and hoarding it.”

The ball scene is both a place of class and race consciousness as well as a space of contradiction and incommensurabilities.

LIVED REALITIES

Participants speak very clearly about the lived realities of survival and violence that they face – and – we learn in the 1989 segment of the documentary that one of the participants Venus Xtranvaganza is brutally murdered.

The participants also talk about being forced out of their birth family homes, living in poverty, and the nuances of sex work. They are hyper aware of the violence that they face as queer and trans* Black people and people of colour.

For instance, in one scene, Venus Xtravaganza pushes back about questions of doing sex work by saying “if you are a married women in the suburbs and you want your husband to by you a washer and dryer set, you might have to sleep with your husband to get it.” Refusing the framework of “selling one’s body” or being “exploited,” Xtravaganza returns the gaze onto mainstream society and clearly points to the ways in which women’s bodies and their sexuality are also controlled in patriarchal marital relationships.

There is agency in her comments.

Following her death, one participant responds, “that’s part of being in NYC, a transsexual, survival.”

LANGUAGE & CULTURE

The language and culture created in radical underground sub-cultures often trickles into mainstream culture. Sometimes, major events (like the release of Paris is Burning or the appropriation of Vogueing in the Madonna video/song “Vogue”) can speed up this process.

The NYC ball culture developed a language and culture that wasn’t simply stylish, but had real and meaningful importance within the society they were in the process of co-creating.

Terms like vogueing, throwing shade, mopping, being legendary, reading, yaas queen all had their origins in this scene – and have since been (mis)appropriated mostly without attribution or knowledge of their origins by mainstream (white) gay culture and then eventually mainstream society.

Reflection: What happens when in-culture language is mainstreamed? How does it flatten or remove context?

The categories at the balls, however, provided another element of mainstreaming of queer culture that perhaps has a more positive effect. Through these categories participants were able to play with gender and style and find themselves not within a strict male-female binary, but instead along a much more fluid and dynamic spectrum of gender identities and forms of expression.

The ball scene critically gave language (butch, butch femme, high femme/low femme, realness, etc.) to the multiplicities of identities and ways of being that seemed impossible within the classic binary male/female dichotomy.

Past/Present/Future (Revisited)

In Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, the chapter “Mistah Beauty, the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Woman, Select Scenes from a Film NEver Cast by Oscar Micheaux, Harlem, 1920s” provides us a glimpse into the radical lineage of the NYC ball scene.

Hartman narrates the story of Mistah Beauty (Gladys Bently) as though it was presented in film by the Black film director Oscar Mischeaux. Hartman describes Mistah Beauty’s transness and queerness in cinematic fashion: “In the film, the telltale gestures, tics, and queer traits would give Bentley away: his tendency to swagger; the too-big body, the too-loud voice, the mountain of flesh, the vocal intonation, the distribution of hair, the masculine distribution of weight, his brazen flouting of law and custom and civilization, the preening defiance and naked display of pleasure” (194). Hartman humanizes and normalizes Bentley through his queerness and transness and also admonishes him for his patriarchal treatment of the chorus girls.

In the 1920s ball scene, like in the 1980s ball scene in Paris is Burning, queerness and transness especially accompanied with blackness was a threat to the “imperilled norms of temperance, monogamy, and heterosexuality” (200). She imagines the tragic ending of the film: a car crash, a bullet, prison…and yet none of these are as painful as the reality.

The 1930s NY state law that would require “female performers to apply for a license to wear men’s clothing in their acts. Cross-dressing was now labeled as subversive. Queers were placed in the sightlines of Senator McCarty and the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC]. Bentley’s much discussed marriage to a white woman in a civil ceremony made the entertainer vulnerable” (200).

Here we see how the ball scenes were threats to the US state and in particular the fact that these scenes fostered interracial relationships and spaces for queer love. These provisions forced queer people to fear for their lives even more – to read more about this in a Canadian context check out The Canadian War on Queers by Kinsman & Gentile. Think about the context, then, in which these ball scenes went further underground and reconstituted themselves into what became the ball scenes of the 1970s/1980s documented in Paris is Burning.

Moving into the future, we can see these dynamics play out in multiple ways in the reaction to the Black Lives Matter-Toronto sit-in at the Toronto Pride (World Pride) parade in 2016.

Image: CTV – “People from the Blacks Lives Matter movement march during the Pride parade in Toronto, Sunday, June 25, 2017.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

Based on this week’s lecture content, take a moment to revisit the controversy that erupted after Black Live Matter-Toronto’s actions at Toronto Pride in 2016 and 2017.

Read this article by BLMTO co-founder Janaya Khan.

Think about the notions of erasure, appropriation, relegation to the margins, and shifting of political focus that has taken place since 1969 and Stonewall.

FREETOWN SOUND: ARTEFACTS OF BLACK QUEER FUTURITY

Overview

Blood Orange is the musical persona and project of Devonté Hynes, a London-born, NYC-based singer, songwriter, recorder producer, artist, and director of Guyanese and Sierra Leonese descent. The project began in 2011 with the release of the album Coastal Grooves (2011), followed by Cupid Deluxe (2013), Freetown Sound (2016), Negro Swan (2018), and Angel’s Pulse (2019). Hynes has also written and produced several scores for film and art, including the original score for the film Queen & Slim.

Hynes’ music is inspired by his love of history, archives, and exploration of his adopted city of New York. In a New York Times article on his album Freetown Sound, Hynes explains, ““I like the idea of these actual physical hubs, and what’s happened on those streets over time — there’s almost ghosts, traces of what’s been happening.” There is significant overlap in the process that Hynes describes in making the album and the methodological approach used by Saidiya Hartman in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.

Both projects seek to draw upon fragments of Black and queer sociality and lived realities to craft a narrative and affective engagement with the subjects of their work.

For Hartman, this is our sense of longing for more information about the protagonists of her historical narratives – our fears, frustrations, and then bits and pieces of joy when we see glimpses of living free.

For Hynes, we are brought into a rich tapestry of soundscapes, fragments of recordings, personal and social lyrics, and a sense that the project as a whole is a love song in the name of a Black queer feminist futurity.

We will trace pieces of the Black queer futurity presented by Hynes through an analysis of “artefacts” found among the fragments and sonic landscape of the album Freetown Sound.

Artefact #1 – By Ourselves – Ashlee Haze – NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Blood Orange, NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, 2019

“By Ourselves,” the opening track to Freetown Sound does not feature Dev Hynes’ voice. This is very uncommon in most popular music – where the primary artist – is often at the forefront of the album. Instead, Hynes makes a conscious decision to begin the song with harmony vocals by two upcoming artists Ava Raiin and Ian Isiah over a sample of the Jazz legend Charlie Mingus’ song “Myself When I Am Real“.

These decisions immediate situate the listener into the world being created in Freetown Sound. This is an album that situates itself in the underground history of Black music clubs, but also in the futurity of Black queer performers.

We then hear a second sample, this time a vocal sample of the spoken word poet Ashlee Haze “For Colored Girls,” a poem about the revolutionary affirmation of Missy Elliot in Haze’s growing understanding of Black feminism. Hynes’ again situates his album in the lineage of Black feminism that we have studied already in this course.

The artefact I selected to engage with the themes of Black feminist futurity within Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, is a video performance for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series. Here, we see Hynes’ on keyboard accompanied by Jason Arce on saxophone, Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah on vocals along with a powerful full-length spoken word performance by Ashlee Haze of her piece “For Colored Girls” (0:00 – 4:33).

Haze affirms:

Feminism wears a throwback jersey, bamboo earrings, and a face beat for the gods/ Feminism is Da Brat, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, and Angie Martinez, on the “Not Tonight” track/ Feminism says as a woman in my arena you are not my competition/ As a woman in my arena your light doesn’t make mine any dimmer

Ashlee Haze, 2015, “For Colored Girls”

In this piece, a dedication to the rap artist Missy Elliot – and specifically referencing her 2003 track “Pass that Dutch,” Haze constructs a distinctly Black feminism that affirms the importance of popular culture and mainstream representation of women like her. She draws on the unapologetic way in which Missy Elliot displays her fatness and Blackness as beautiful – and she locates Elliot within the history of hip hop artists who have also been apologetic about their bodies and sexuality.

Missy Elliot, Pass That Dutch, 2003

Hynes’ playing the accompanying piano (with the virtuosity of a lineage of great jazz pianists from NYC including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington), enhances Haze’s words with an emotional tenor and intimacy that is both befitting for the poem but also serving to let the listener into the journey they are about to undertake.

Artefact #2 – Augustine – Lyrics Sheet & Video

Blood Orange, Augustine, 2016

Lyric sheet from Genius.com: CLICK HERE

The second track on Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound is titled “Augustine” and references the 4th Century African Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine. As per the lyric sheet at Genius.com, Saint Augustine was the descendent of a father who was freed from slavery during the Roman Empire.

Hynes’ opens the album by situating himself in the narrative. He tells the parallel story of his parents’ migration from Sierre Leone (father) and Guyana (mother) to London at the age of 21 with his own migration to New York City at the same age.

This is a crucial component of the albums meta-narrative – the weaving and leaning on our ancestors and ancestral knowledge in the face of oppression and violence.

My father was a young man
My mother, off the boat
My eyes were fresh at 21
Bruised, but still afloat
Our heads have hit the pavement
Many times before
You stroke his face to soothe him
While knowing that there’s more

The chorus then comes in:

See, Augustine
Late have I loved and chose to see
Skin on his skin
A warmth that I can feel with him

Here Hynes’ directly sites Saint Augustine’s most famous work, the book of Confessions. As noted in the genius article and in interviews Hynes’ conducts about the album, here he is attempting to show a parallel between Saint Augustine’s conversion to Christianity and his feelings of being “at home” within his newfound spirituality and Hynes’ own feelings of being ‘home’ in New York City – of finding his place in community an context. This can be plainly seen through the way New York City becomes an intimate backdrop for Hynes in the video – with him sitting and playfully playing “air piano” atop a car hood that is driving through New York City neighbourhoods.

And no one even told me
The way that you should feel
Tell me, did you lose your son?
Tell me, did you lose your love?
Cry and burst my deafness
While Trayvon falls asleep
The things that I can’t do to you
The things that I can’t do to you

The final verse finds Hynes’ grappling with the killing of Trayvon Martin, whose murder by George Zimmerman in 2012 sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Through the intimacy of this verse we witness Hynes’ praying to Saint Augustine, until he must cry and “burst my deafness” – forcing him to listen to the streets, listen to the vibrations of struggle that are building around him.

The outro, sung by Hynes and Ava Raiin (who we meet in By Ourselves), calls to another African spiritual person, this time Nontetha, a Xhosa prophetess who following the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 who began to preach liberation from white Apartheid in South Africa and was eventually incarcerated for her spiritual mission of unifying Black South Africans against the racist settler colonial regime:

Nontetha
We heard it all from you
Nontetha
We waited here for you
Nontetha
We heard it all from you
Nontetha
We waited here for you
Nontetha
We heard it all from you
Nontetha
We waited here for you
Nontetha
Kushé-o aw di bodi
Nontetha

Hynes invokes Nontetha name as a means of recalling the ancestors and evoking a blurring of past/present/future in the lived realities of Black people struggling against a brutal racist regime in the United States. The song ends with lyrics in Hynes’ father’s native Krio language, “Kushé-o aw di bodi,” which translates to “Hello, how are you? Nontetha” which suggests that the spiritual connection has been made.

Artefact #3 – Desirée and Queer Futurity

The final artefact that we will explore from Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound is the track “Desirée”. Desirée is the track that most closely loops in all of our lecture content for the week.

First, Desirée opens with fragmented samples from Paris is Burning.

Later because of the fact that we’re waiting for the working girls to get there [unidentified person]
(And what is it those girls are doing?) [Director: Jennie Livingston]
Well, they’re making money for the balls, or they’re making their costumes [unidentified person]
Their outfits, or you know getting, getting it together like that
(What is their profession?) [Director: Jennie Livingston] something like that [unidentified person]

At times they do expect sexual favors, but that is between myself and them
So I do not wish to further speak about that
If they do, but at most times ninety-nine percent of the time they don’t
Ninety-five percent of the time they don’t [Venus Xtravaganza]

In an interview with Pitchfork, Dev Hynes explains how important the NYC ball scene was to his artistic and political engage in the world:

[Interviewer (Jason King)] As I was listening I was struck by the idea that there are all these queer ghosts on the record, voices who passed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, like Venus Xtravaganza from Paris Is Burning. You weren’t in New York at that particular time, but it feels like you have a melancholy for a New York era that you didn’t actually live through.

[Devonté Hynes] Blood Orange wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for that period of New York and the voices that spoke up in that era. And, to a certain extent, the person I am now wouldn’t really exist if I hadn’t started listening to people like Octavia St. Laurent and Marlon Riggs almost as mentors. Not only did I find strength in what they were doing and their words and energy, but I fell in love with the actual aesthetic of it all too—this frozen thing that maybe doesn’t fully exist anymore felt like the home where I needed to be.

I moved to New York nine years ago, and it wasn’t calculated at all. I just came here and then stayed. Around that time there was a publicized string of gay teen suicides, and it fucking tore me up. As someone who was bullied so intensely when I was younger—to the point of near suicide and all types of shit—I knew that feeling. I was at a point where I was feeling really strange; I was writing music but I actually had no intention of releasing anything. I felt kind of done. Around this time I was also revisiting dancing a lot more.

In the interview, Hynes recalls the lives of Venus Xtravaganza, Octavia St. Laurent, Marlon Riggs, and others from the NYC ball scene as ancestors – in the same way we see him call to Nontetha and Saint Augustine in “Augustine” or the way that Ashlee Haze recalls Missy Elliot in “By Ourselves.” The album projects futurity through the lived realities of those who struggled for the present.

Think back to the line in José Estevan Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: “Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic.” See how Hynes parallels this notion in his response to King’s question about Paris is Burning. For Hynes, this documentary and the people who made up the NYC ball scene helped him glimpse a future that was outside of the brutal logics of our current world.

This aesthetic, as Hynes’ suggests, influences not only his beliefs and engagement in the world, but also his style, his art, and his collaborative approach to his work.

See for instance the ways in which part of Hynes’ aesthetic is drawn from the style of such legendary ball icons like Willi Ninja

Willi Ninja, Strike Like a Ninja, 2016
Blood Orange, “I Know”, Official Video, 2016
Blood Orange, I Know, 2016

Throughout Freetown Sound the ghosts and voices of queer, Black, femme, and Black queer femme ancestors and community give life to the political urgency and radical futurity put forward by Hynes in his work. These artefacts are only a small component of the dense richness of this album as an example of the Black radical imagination through a lens of radical Black queer futurity that it is.

Most recently, Dev Hynes has been named Artist-in-Residence at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute and students will have an opportunity to learn directly from him.

Week 5 – Black Feminist Futurities II – Spill

Page Illustration: Cover Art for Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Artist: Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Now There Are Three Ways to Get this Done: Your Way, Their Way or My Way, 2014.

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline (2016). Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Durham: Duke University Press. (Course Text)

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 229-256. New York: Norton (Course Text).

Black Studies for the Digital Soul (2017). Left of Black with Hortense Spillers and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Public Lecture, Duke University, March 22, 2017.

Intergenerational Learning

The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner

Esther Brown did not write a political tract on the refusal to be governed, or draft a plan for mutual aid or outline a memoir of her sexual adventures. A manifesto of the wayward – Own Nothing. Refuse the Given. Live on What You Need and No More. Get Ready to Be Free – was not found among the items in her case file. She didn’t pen any song lines: My mama says I’m reckless, My daddy says I’m wild, I ain’t good looking, but I’m somebody’s angel child. She didn’t commit to paper her ruminations on freedom: With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of potentialities?

The cardboard placards for the tumult and upheavel she incited might have said: “Don’t mess with me. I am not afraid to smash things up.” But hers was a struggle without formal declaration of policy, slogan, or credo. It required no party platform or ten-point program […]

[…] Esther never pulled a soapbox onto the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue to make a speech about autonomy, the global reach of the color line, involuntary servitude, free motherhood, or the promise of a future world, but she well understood that the desire to move as she wanted was nothing short of treason. She knew first-hand that the offense most punished by the state was trying to live free.

How does the radical imagination get cultivated from generation to generation?

This week focuses on this question in a myriad of ways:

  1. History of Black Feminism – we will trace some of the lineages of Black feminist thought across history with a specific focus on some contemporary political projects that originated in Black women’s organizing.
  2. Intergeneration Mentorship – using the relationship between Hortense Spillers and Alexis Pauline Gumbs we’ll investigate the ways in which contemporary movements grow with rather than evolve from past struggles.
  3. The Preservation of Artefacts – pulling on artefacts related to the work of the cross-national chapter-based collective INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, we’ll explore the ways in which their work in the late 90s and early 2000s spilled into contemporary struggles.

We begin, however, with Esther Brown

Saidiya Hartman uncovers and pieces together the story of Esther Brown from police reports, court documents, news clippings, notes from the social workers and probation officers in her life, and files from the women’s prison in which she was detained. Hartman pieces Brown’s story together through these artefacts and in conversation with the social, historical, and political context in which Brown lived.

Through this reading against the grain of the artefacts that she uncovers, she is able to conceptualize the fragments and beliefs about living free that would come to inform Black feminist thought in the coming generations.

As Hartman notes, Esther Brown’s refusal to accept a life of servitude and disrespect, a life tied to patriarchal men, a life that limits her freedoms was seen as dangerous to the authorities of the day – if we think back to Jallicia Jolly’s “The Audacity of Black Pleasure” what has changed?

Hartman notes:

To the eyes of the world, Esther’s wild thoughts, her dreams of an otherwise, an elsewhere, her longing to escape from drudgery were likely to lead to tumult and upheaval, to open rebellion. She didn’t need a husband or a daddy or a boss telling her what to do. But a young woman who flitted from job to job and lover to lover was considered immoral and likely to become a threat to the social order, a menace to society. The police detective said as much when he arrested Esther and her friends.

Saidiya Hartman, 236

Esther Brown’s story is important to this week’s class because it is a perfect bridge between the three topics that narrate the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugivity:

  1. How does movement knowledge get passed down over generations?
  2. How does Black feminist emerge as a synthesis of the personal, social, and structural?
  3. Why must we understand the lived realities of Black women as a form of fugitivity?

Fugitivity

Casey Rochetau, “Queen of Swords” Shrine of the Black Medusa Tarot, 2016

Both readings for this week refer to fugitivity as a character of Black feminism and more broadly Black peoples experience in (North) America. But neither reading overtly defines what they mean by fugitivity.

Let’s unpack this term a little here.

As you probably have surmised, fugitivity, is a concept that is derived by Black scholars and activists from one of many forms of resistance to enslavement. The term fugitive refers to one who flees – originally denoting anyone who was fleeing (i.e. a refugee, a wife escaping a violent husband, a community mass exodus in the face of war or famine), the term came to be understood as someone who is fleeing the law.

Why? Well, as you may have guessed, this was as a result of the multiple Fugitive Slave Acts that sought to criminalize the act of fleeing slavery and, in fact, deputized all (white – and many non-white) people to act as bounty hunters returning enslaved people to bondage.

Black people living free, whether they had run from bondage or not, were at risk of being captured and (re)enslaved under Fugitive Slave Acts. Thus, the mere act of existing and living free as a Black person under these conditions was to live in the realm of fugitivity. With the formal abolition of slavery following the U.S. Civil War, these conditions changed but were never fully transformed.

When Hartman and Gumbs speak of “fugitivity,” they are reflecting on the current and ongoing condition of living an outlawed life in a society that seeks your capture.

In their highly influential book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten provide us with some criteria to understand fugitivity in the contemporary context:

  • Fugitivity exists in the feeling of perpetual “escape” or “exit” (think about the metaphor of “spill” running through Gumbs’ poems)
  • Fugitivity is the condition by which your public social life is outlawed (think of Jolly’s Audacity of Black Pleasure)
  • Fugitivity means being separate from settling (Leanne Betasamosake Simpson perhaps most clearly explains how Black peoples’ lived realities on Turtle Island are tied to those of Indigenous peoples)
  • Fugitivity means a condition of being perpetually “homeless” in the place you call home

When Gumbs or Hartman theorize Black Feminist fugitivity, they are appealing to the actions, experiences, and desires for freedom that are informed by the conditions of being in perpetual flight from the structures of power that seek to maintain the current social relations. They are building a theory that spans directly from the initial moments of capture (i.e. the origins of the European slave trade of African peoples) and its centrality to defining not only Black experiences in the Americas, but the entire condition and framework for the settler colonial societies that currently assert their dominance on these territories.

Activity 1: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Movements for social justice may seem to arise in novel ways, but they are intimately connect with the organizing, resistance, and lives lived of generations before. The hip hop artist Rapsody released the critically acclaimed album Eve in 2019.  A concept album that is constructed as an homage to Black women that have influenced the life and work of Rapsody, each track seeks to create a sonic and lyrical evocation of the influence of its subject.  These include Nina Simone, Aaliyah, Iman, Sojourner Truth, Oprah, Serena Williams, Afeni Shakur among others. 

In this activity you will watch two videos. The first, titled "Oprah" featuring  Leikeli47 and the second titled "Afeni" featuring PJ Morton (named after Afeni Shakur, former Black Panther and mother of the rapper Tupac Shakur) show very different angles to Rapsody's self-conception and how these women influenced her analysis. 
Rapsody, Oprah, featuring Leikeli47, 2019
Rapsody, Afeni featuring PJ Morton, 2019
Task
1. Try to pick up on the multiple references to fugitivity shared among Black women in both the Oprah and Afeni videos.
2. Try to reflect on the intergenerational knowledge and links to various Black women in history in each video.
3. What are some parallels to the chapter on Esther Brown? 
4. How does this video relate to the way in which Alexis Pauline Gumbs structured her set of poems around the work of Hortense Spillers (especially how they discuss it in the Black Studies for the Digital Soul video in our required media for this week). 

Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Spill

spill

BIO: Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer black trouble-maker and a black feminist love evangelist. She walks in the legacy of black lady school teachers in post slavery communities who offered sacred educational space to the intergenerational newly free in exchange for the random necessities of life. As the first person to do archival research in the papers of Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Lucille Clifton while achieving her PhD in English, Africana Studies and Women’s Studies at Duke University, she honors the lives and creative works of Black feminist geniuses as sacred texts for all people. She believes that in the time we live in, access to the intersectional holistic brilliance of the black feminist tradition is as crucial as learning how to read. (Retrieved from: https://consciouscampus.com/talent/dr-alexis-pauline-gumbs/)

As noted above, Gumbs is invested in the work of intergenerational learning – linking the work of such notable Black feminist as Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Lucille Clifton with contemporary movement work. Spill, her work of poetry inspired by the theory and analysis of Hortense Spillers provides us with one example of how Black feminist theory is passed down, interpreted, and re-engaged by younger generations of activists and organizers.

Below I include two poems in Gumbs’ collection. Within the frame or reference of “searching for artefacts” – I think it it useful to reflect on what these two particular poems express in terms of the act of learning from our ancestors and forebears.

POEM 1

This first poem can clearly be read as being about child birth. Drawing on the dominant metaphor of “spill”, Gumbs reflects on the building of a relationship with her unborn child and both her fears and hopes for the child’s future. It is a reflection on the commitments and process by which Black women pass knowledge to each other.

The poem can also be read as an allegory – similar to the way in which Common tells the story of hip hop through the song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (below). If the role of the mother in this poem is thought of as Black feminism and the unborn child as being Alexis herself, we can also reflect upon the process by which the theory, practices, and experiences rescue the poet from the world she confronts. Here, “first time i thought i was drowning in a world that needed you in it or it would disappear,” can be also understood as a nod to the way that Black feminism has refused the erasure of Black women from history – the same practice by which Saidiya Hartman combs through the archives. And, as we know about Gumbs, she too is invested in rescuing the concepts, theories, and writings of an earlier wave of Black feminists.

The poem format, like music lyrics, allows the author to encode multiple meanings (and multiple possible interpretations) in a work. It is meant to both inform, but also evoke a feeling, something that is not always possible in academic scholarship. For Gumbs, and many Black feminists, the notion that one’s politics must be deeply embodied in their lived realities – means that the ability to make their work “felt” becomes all-the-more important.

Common, I Used to Love Her, 1994

Gumbs draws on both the written tradition of poetry and the oral tradition of spoken word to engage in her political work. Here she presents her poem “Mixed Use” in spoken word format (content warning: racial and sexual violence).

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Mixed Use”, 2010

Take notice of the ways in which Gumbs’ voice and tenor develops an affectivity that draws you into the story. Her analysis hinges not just on the words spoken, but how they are spoken – the process matters just as much as the outcome.

Thinking about her tenor and tone, take a moment to read aloud the following poem. How would you situate the affect in the poem? What words would you emphasize? What is the core message and feeling Gumbs’ seeks to illicit from the reader?

POEM 2

Background Image: Paul Bulai, Unsplash 2021

This poem seems to be situated in a moment of rebellion in a Black neighbourhood that is undergoing a process of gentrification. We gather this from the lines: “it was the strange blue light of irrelevant police. as if aliens had landed and retail had run to meet them.” Here Gumbs is possibly referring to the way in which gentrification in Black communities ostensibly brings forth more policing in order to protect the retail stores that move in to neighbourhoods once white gentrifiers have come in to the area.

Nonetheless, there is a reclamation taking place. Here Gumbs gives us the lines, “it was night by the time the people remembered to be wild. or maybe they thought the moon a more militant god than sun. or maybe like everything else rebellion waited until the chores were done. or maybe they finally remembered what darkness was and broke the streetlights.” These lines speak to the awakening of a spirit of Black joy that seeks to reclaim the neighbourhood for themselves but is deemed “wild” by the newcomers.

The final stanza of the poem sees our protagonist witnessing this moment of radical Black joy and “her mouth tasted like zinc, it was her own blood” is used as double-entendre to signify literal blood of biting one’s lip in glee and the metaphorical blood of family and the joy in seeing one’s people in celebration.

CASE STUDY: INCITE! WOMEN OF COLOR AGAINST VIOLENCE: A STORY TOLD THROUGH ARTEFACTS

ARTEFACT #1: Audio Recording – Report Back by Ruth Wilson Gilmore – at INCITE! Conference on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, 2004

The first artefact that I selected is an audio recording that is hosted on the website Soundcloud. The recording features the voice of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, an abolitionist and Professor at the City University of New York. I chose this artefact to begin to think about INCITE! because it is relatively innocuous and yet it speaks so much to the ways in which Black feminism has influenced social movement culture.

The recording is from a 2004 conference hosted by the organizing INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence around the theme of “the Non-Profit Industrial Complex”. This conference was very important in the history of social movements in the United States (and in Canada), calling into question the success and limitations of seeking to engage in social change work through non-profit corporations and charities.

In the clip, Gilmore is heard “reporting back” a process by which one person is designated to summarize key themes in a discussion of a break out session to the entire delegation of a conference. Gilmore, identifies five themes that discussion participants agreed represented the tenor of their discussions:

  1. Confronting and educating funders
  2. Live the change
  3. Rethinking the relationship between pay and activism
  4. Building a base
  5. Dismantle white supremacist capitalism, but need to subsist

These themes would come to form part of the foundation of the widely read book edited by INCITE! in 2006 titled The Revolution will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. This book and this conference gave words and analysis to experiences of women of color trying to engage in social justice work as social service, social work, and other community-based organization workers. The conference also began to shift the relationship between social movements and non-profits (what are called 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States – and in the clip above). This more antagonist or distrustful shift in relations is derived precisely by the analysis that “the revolution will not be funded” which, as Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted notion suggests, means that “the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house”.

ARTEFACT #2: Stop Police Brutality Printable 4″x 6″ wallet card. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, c. 2000 or 2001

The second artefact that I dug up is a printable pdf of a wallet-card that was made by INCITE! The front of the car is presented below and the back of the card can be read here. The card is from circa 2000 or 2001 and it was distributed by members of INCITE! to young women of colour who participated in their programs and/or lived in neighbourhoods across the US in which INCITE! organizers lived. This included delivering stacks of these cards to allied small businesses, community organizations, or neighbours.

The card provides the holder with both an analysis that explains why police brutality happens to women of color and trans people of color and gives legal and practical instructions on what to do if the card holder comes into contact with the police.

This project came out of a longer campaign by INCITE! that sought to address gender-based inter-community violence outside of the law. These practices with community based accountability and violence-intervention would later come to be referred to as transformative justice. The notion that we ourselves have the tools to deal with violence within our communities and that the use of the police to do so often brings about more violence, incarceration, and exploitation of communities of colour.

ARTEFACT #3 – Digital Flyer, “Abolition Feminism” Celebrating 20 Years of INCITE! 2020

The third artefact that I am presenting is a digital flyer that was sent to invite people to a 20th anniversary conference organized by the Interrupting Criminalization Initiative at the Barnard Center for Research on Women celebrating 20 years of INCITE!

As you can see the flyer notes that the theme of the conference is “Abolition Feminism” and the speakers list advertising the participation of Angela Y. Davis, Beth Richie, Mimi Kim, Nadine Haber, Cara Page, Shana Griffin, Kiri Sailiata includes an intergenerational assortment of Black women and other women of color. These speakers, some of whom are long time members (and co-founders) of INCITE! are asked to speak to the theme abolition feminism precisely because it is a political landscape that was developed through the work of INCITE! in collaboration with racialized women across North America. While this is a celebration and commemoration event, there is only a small “looking back” component, and instead, the speakers are asked to forward an analysis that is relevant to the current moment (and would become even more central to social movements during the uprisings that took place a couple months later following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department).

Week 4 – Black Feminist Futurities I – Lemonade

Page Illustration: Roberto Cavalli @roberto_cavalli/Instagram, 2016

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Knowles, Beyoncé (2016). Lemonade. United States: Parkwood Entertainment (via Streaming – Spotify, Apple, Tidal/YouTube)

CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE; CHILD SEXUAL VIOLENCE – Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “A Minor Figure,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 13-35. New York: Norton. (COURSE TEXT)

PAGES 1-18 ONLY – Webster, Sina H. (2018). When Life Gives You Lemons, “Get In Formation:” A Black Feminist Analysis of Beyonce’s Visual Album, Lemonade, Senior Honors Thesis, Eastern Michigan University. (via LEARN)

Zandria (2016). We Slay, Part I. New South Negress: Region. Race. Culture

Black Feminist Thought

Image: WBUR Gallery, 2019. Caption: This series of pamphlets was created by the Combahee River Collective to spread awareness about the murders of black women in Boston. They had to update the number on the pamphlet as the number of murdered women increased. (Courtesy The History Project)

Perhaps no collective of activist-scholars have been more influential to contemporary social movements than the Combahee River Collective. This collective of Black feminist lesbian activists and scholars in Boston,they took their name from a book co-founder Barbara Smith owned detailing the historic raid on Combahee River and the instrumental part Harriet Tubman played in the military operation that freed 750 slaves (WBUR Gallery, 2019).

Members joined the collective as a refuge from the conditions that they faced within radical social movements in the 1960s-1970s. These included homophobia and misogyny in the civil rights and emerging Black power movement and racism within the feminist and queer movements.

Their conversations and collective organizing resulted in the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977), now considered to be one of the most visionary frameworks for political organizing.

Principles of the Combahee River Collective Statement

  • Black women are inherently valuable: our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s. We require autonomy and recognize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.
  • Stereotypes of Black women are used to keep us down: Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere.
  • Problems of Organizing as Black Feminists: The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions.
  • Psychological Toll of Organizing as Black Women: The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated.
  • Process is a Part of the Struggle: In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.

Intersectionality

If you have taken SDS 331R with me you will be familiar with this image – and you should also be familiar with the concept of intersectionality. I am using this image here because I developed SDS 331R around the concept of intersectionality and when the web developers at the Centre for Extended Learning asked me for an image that would define how the course worked, this is what I came up with (after they modified my original concept because it basically looked like the Olympic rings and they were afraid of copyright infringement.

So what is intersectionality?

The concept of intersectionality is directly derived from the political work of Black feminists (including those associated with the Combahee River Collective). Most notably, Professor Patricia Hill Collins provided us with a clearly thought out framework of intersectionality that is used today.

Intersectionality situates oppression through matrices of power. Collins makes the claim that we live and exist in societies that are created through a web of power relations. While many theories that preceded intersectionality tried to claim that oppression could be boiled down to one system of power (i.e. class, gender, race, ability, etc.), intersectionality sees power as being weaved into the structures of our society through multiple axes.

Let’s revisit those rings above:
  1. Let’s ascribe each ring to a contemporary structure of power (capitalism, white supremacy, (cis)heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, ableism).
  2. The rings have different patterns to show that each of these structures has their own histories, ways of operating, and populations that benefit and/or are oppressed by them.
  3. The rings are interlinked. To interlink rings in that way it has to be part of the origin. So, we are making the claim that these structures of power emerge together historically – they shape each other and conversely shape our society.
  4. The rings are locked into each other. If we are going to address the issues of power, we need to address them all simultaneously. We might try different things at different times, but the big picture is that social justice comes from a breaking down of all these structures (not just one).

Patricia Hill Collins explains that we need to see power and oppression through a lens of interlocking and intersecting systems. The last part is very important.

Collins is not advocating for an “additive model” of identity politics. She is not saying, you can pick and choose where you fall into these categories to get your “oppression score” (i.e. black (-1), cis/heterosexual (+1), disabled (-1)). Instead, Collins – guided by the work of Black feminists, articulates that we need to understand the ways in which systems of power intersect and create different conditions of life for different people based on where they are situated along these axes of power.

In a recent essay in The Guardian, Barbara Smith, co-founder of the Combahee River Collective pushes us to think about Black feminism through an intersectional notion of identity politics, not a superficial liberal politics of visibility. Read the article to see what she means by this.

Black Feminism & Hip Hop

Patricia Hill Collins was also early to recognize the way in which Black feminism was taken up in hip hop. In her book From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism she clearly shows how akin to within social movements, Black women struggled to find their place within an emerging music genre.

She argues, “to be a Black feminist-leaning woman in America during the Hip-Hop era is often a contradicting one.” Citing the way in which capitalist interests had co-opted and mischaracterized hip hop around the tropes of macho “gangstas” and money-obsessed young Black men, while Black women were positioned as “hoes” and “booty shakers”, Collins says that the radical possibilities created by Black women within hip hop are erased, minimized, and set aside.

Highlighting the work of Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Salt & Pepa, Collins traces the development of a Black feminist intersectional analysis within and among hip hop artists.

Most recently, during the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the summer of 2020, we saw the rapper NoName clap back at J.Cole who seemed to put out a dis track about her in the midst of the uprisings. Her track Song 33 responds to this dis through a Black feminist intersectional analysis.

A Minor Figure / A Queen

Image from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, p. 13

This week’s readings are a juxtaposition of two figures.

The first figure (a minor figure), an unnamed child found in Saidiya Hartman’s archival research. She is forced to pose (nude) for the photographer Thomas Eakins and his wife – who would later go on to be accused of numerous acts of child sexual abuse.

The second figure (a major figure), Beyoncé Knowles, known affectionately as Queen Bey by her legions of fans. We study her her mediations on fidelity, motherhood, Black love and power.

I’ve chosen this juxtaposition precisely to engage with the ways in which racial, gendered, class, and other forms of violence intersect in the lives of Black women and girls. These experiences are what give rise to Black feminist thought.

In Hartman’s chapter “A Minor Figure” we learn both about the author’s methodological framework for her research and we are introduced to the story of the unnamed girl. We witness Hartman trying desperately to read the emotions and non-verbal communication in the child’s portrait, situate them within the living conditions of young Black girls living in poor urban areas, and through the lens of power that makes their lives a footnote or a forgotten act of violence. She then, quite beautiful, projects and imagines, the lives of these young girls as they grow up – refusing to simply label them as “victims” and move in.

She crafts ” a love letter to all those who had been harmed, and, without being fully aware of it, reckoning with the inevitable disappearance that awaited” Black women (including herself).

Activity 1 - Bearing Witness to the Archives
Be sure to read Zandria's We Slay, Part I before completing this activity.

Saidiya Hartman approaches the archives knowing that they are a form of violence. Not only do the archives contain evidence and proof of the violence committed against many people, often painfully detailed or matter-of-factly written with a cold bureaucratic language - but also the way in which who appears and how they appear in the archives - and who collects and controls the archives are themselves violent. 

For instance, discussing her subject (young Black single women in Turn-of-the-Century urban centres in the U.S.) for the book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Hartman expresses, "Young women not in desperate need, not saddled with children, and old enough to say Hell no and Get out of my face evaded capture." They are missing from the archives partly because they are deemed unremarkable by those who collect this knowledge and by their own resistance to being "known". What Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson term "ethnographic refusal." 

Hartman notes: "I work a lot with scraps of the archive. I work a lot with unknown persons, nameless figures, ensembles, collectives, multitudes, the chorus. That’s where my imagination of practice resides."

Your Task: In the video for Beyoncé's  Formation (below) survey the chorus, the nameless or unknown persons, the voices/speakers that don't appear on-screen.  Select one figure/group from the video and take a moment to reflect upon who they might be (or who they are portraying), what their lives might be like, how the intersections of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, cis-normativity, etc. weave through their lives and create both contexts of violence and possibilities of beauty. 

Be Reminded of Hartman's Quote: Beauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given. It is a will to adorn, a proclivity for the baroque, and the love of too much. 

Note: We will take this activity up in the week's lecture, so if you are able to do it before class, all the better!!

Formation: The Multiplicities of Beyoncé’s Political Anthem

In 2016, in the wake of Black Lives Matter uprisings in response to killings of Michael Brown (Ferguson), Eric Garner (New York City), and Sandra Bland (Houston), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge), Laquan MacDonald (Chicago) we saw a wave of hip hop artists produce tracks inspired by these movements. Blood Orange produced the track “Sandra Smiles“, Vic Mensa produced the track “16 Shots,” Prince recorded the track “Baltimore,” Miguel produced the track “How Many,” Lauryn Hill released the track “Black Rage,” and Janelle Monae released the track “Hell You Talmbout“.

Perhaps no artist, however, created the ripple waves throughout the globe than Beyoncé when she released her track “Formation,” and accompanying video on the eve of the Superbowl. Formation’s reach was vast and Beyoncé overt political statement drew the ire of many of her (white) fans. This was compounded by her performance at Super Bowl 50 (the year before Colin Kaepernick would take a knee and be eventually blacklisted from the NFL for his political actions).

Take a moment to watch the Superbowl performance – observe the imagery, the wardrobe, and the political statements being made throughout Beyoncé’s performance:

What

Analyzing Formation Through an Intersectional Lens

The release of formation “broke the Internet” precisely because it resulted in a vast amount of conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé’s clearest political statement in her career, and the imagery/quotes/political affirmations that accompanied the video and Superbowl performance.

We will cover a few key threads here:

Black Queer and Trans* Folks in the Periphery and at the Centre

In Zandria Robinson’s (2016) blog post reaction to the release of Formation, she considers the way in which the music, video, and imagery all harken to queer/trans* community work in New Orleans.

She states,

Formation is an homage to and recognition of the werk of the “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens” in these southern streets and parking lots, in these second lines, in these chocolate cities and neighborhoods, in front of these bands and drumlines.

Zandria Robinson, 2016

If those lines sound familiar, that’s because Zandria is using terms used by Saidiya Hartman in our book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The argument here is that Formation immediately makes visible and centres Southern Black queerness as central to the analysis of the song.

And yet….

The main voice that narrates the track, Big Freedia, a Black trans* woman who is one of the originators of the New Orleans “bounce” genre of music, is heard but never seen. This itself became a point of discussion given that Big Freedia was also used to narrate a Drake song “In My Feelings” and there has been a clear trend (one covered in Weeks 6 and 7 of this course) of Black queer/trans* culture being appropriated and mainstreamed without due credit or recognition.

Black Feminism and Radical Black Love

The video and lyrics to “Formation” are a love affirmation to Black (and particularly southern Black) culture and people. The video transgresses time/space and we see scenes set in various eras and settings all blending together.

In it, Beyoncé, establishes her roots in this culture, repeating the refrain:

My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama

This very clear alignment with Black culture, identity, and politics shocked and disrupted normative (white) notions as a “safe” or “un” Black pop star. As Sina Webster argues in her undergraduate thesis,

After Beyonce officially displayed her Blackness for the world to see, she received a
considerable amount of backlash from white people, who deemed her performance too political. The Formation music video itself also received backlash as it featured a young Black boy dancing in front of a line of police officers, eventually making them raise their arms to him in surrender, and graffiti on a wall saying “Stop Shooting Us,” and Beyonce standing on a sinking New Orleans police car.

Sina H. Webster (2018), 2

For Webster, what makes this particular video so powerful is Beyoncé’s desire to root herself in her poor/working class southern Black roots rather than play into the “Queen Bey” phenomenon. As Webster suggests, to revere some Black women as “queens” perpetuates the notion that Black women must be royalty for them to be given respect, dignity, and a good life in the United States.

Barbara Smith. Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier writers of “A B lack Feminist Statement:· report, “[w]e reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” (13).

A Return to Liberal Capitalism

Perhaps no other part of formation received as much backlash from Black activists and feminists than the final section of Beyoncé’s formation. Here she moves from analyzing the conditions of Black oppression in America and forefronting Black queer, trans* and feminist movements that have fought for liberation and justice to the actionable part of her manifesto.

Specifically two lyrics that suggest that the key to Black liberation lies in … liberal capitalism …

You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation
Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper

Beyonce, Formation, 2016

These statements came with wide ranging detractors such as the feminist bell hooks and the abolitionist Ashon Crawley.

bell hooks, for instance, suggests that both “Formation” as a song and Lemonade as an album, while offering significant political content and need for reflection, fall short in their goals precisely because they lack an intersectional lens.

In the world of fantasy feminism, there are no class, sex and race hierarchies that break down simplified categories of women and men, no call to challenge and change systems of domination, no emphasis on intersectionality. In such a simplified worldview, women gaining the freedom to be like men can be seen as powerful. But it is a false construction of power as so many men, especially black men, do not possess actual power.

bell hooks, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is Capitalist Money Making at It’s Best, 2016

Meanwhile, Crawley, trying very hard not to “poke the Bey hive”, cautions that praising Beyoncé for the seriousness and politically astute nature of her song while willfully ignoring problematic aspects contributes to uncritical deification. Crawley explains, “Black performance occurs on multiple registers, is multimodal, arrhythmic, polyrhythmic. Like the young folks say, there’s levels to this shit.” As such Crawley believes we should also engage with Black politics in a similar fashion.

He notes:

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.

Ashon Crawley, Deformation, Information, On Formation, 2016

For Crawley, we must recognize that Beyoncé’s political assertion are not beyond critique. That careful and respectful engagement in conversation on movement-centered popular culture requires not a politics of purity (i.e. it’s ok if your fave is problematic), but rather an engagement with the limits of awaiting for messiahs among the elite. Given Beyoncé’s financial position, we need to recognize that despite this radical turn, her interests are tied to capitalist interests – and as bell hooks reminds us, “Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point. Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced and marketed to entice any and all consumers” (hooks 2016).

LEMONADE

Image: Dazed Magazine

Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade is a multi-layered and public reckoning with love, lateral harm, intergenerational trauma, and the beauty of Black joy in a world of anti-Blackness. Set across 11 chapters each coinciding with a poem by the British poet Warsan Shire, the album itself mirrors Beyoncé personal reckoning with the infidelity of her husband, Jay-Z.

Each song represents a chapter in the story and a stage of processing for the protagonist:

  • Intuition (Pray You Catch Me)
  • Denial (Hold Up)
  • Anger (Don’t Hurt Yourself)
  • Apathy (Sorry)
  • Emptiness (6 Inch)
  • Accountability (Daddy Lessons)
  • Reformation (Love Drought)
  • Forgiveness (Sandcastles)
  • Resurrection (Forward)
  • Hope (Freedom)
  • Redemption (All Night)

A number of excellent analysis pieces have been written on this seminal album. One of the most comprehensive studies of the album can be found through the podcast DIS/SECT which breaks down important albums song by song, line by line, and in this case visual by visual.

DIS/SECT approaches it’s work through a deep methodological combing of concepts, lyrics, references, and visuals to draw out themes related to the artists’ work. Take a moment to explore the podcasts’ first episode Intuition (Pray you Catch Me).

While we cannot cover the entirety of the album in one lecture, I’ve selected two tracks that delve into key themes for our course.

The (White) Public Gaze

One of the first chapter’s in Lemonade is Beyoncé’s mediation on denial and fear of the public gaze into a harmful moment in her relationship with her husband. Drawing back to our earlier work in this lecture, we recall the way in which Hartman frames the way in which outsiders control our perceptions of the lives of young Black women living in the “slums”. Here, Beyoncé Knowles, one of the most famous celebrities in the world is ruminating on the violence of the (white) public gaze in judging her relationship, her response to the rumours of her husband’s (now public) infidelity, and her reaction.

The album and this video reckon with the intergeneration trauma and lateral harm that is produced in the contemporary era because of the history of slavery in America. It is an attempt to engage with the question of how to (re)construct Black love despite these traumas and in recognition of these traumas. It is not a practice for white (public) consumption, but rather one that is deeply embedded in mutual love for those who have been impacted and continue to live this reality.

DIS/SECT, Season 7, Episode 2

Black Feminist Futurities

The final chapter of Lemonade sees the protagonist returning to the Destrehan Plantation, one of the largest plantations that exploited enslaved African labour. Following the track “Freedom” a resistance song, we are greeted with visuals and music that imagines a new horizon, a reclamation, and a redemption through the Black feminist lens Beyoncé has constructed throughout the album.

Pay close attention here to the way in which children and childhood is centered in this final chapter. How do you interpret Beyoncé’s maternal role in this video? How are the children representative of a radical Black futurity?

DIS/SECT, Season 7, Episode 11
Activity 2
Consider your exploration of the DIS/SECT podcast in relation to Lemonade. Think about how the podcast's producers dug into images, lyrics, and concepts introduced in the visual album. Reflecting on how the show delves into the metaphors, symbolism to interpret the meanings of what was being said, what was not being said, and what might be being said all at once. 

Take note of 2-3 interesting strategies that you observed that might help you as you work on your Assignment #2 - Black Futurities Digital Archives. 

Week 3 Utopias & Dystopias II: The Fifth Season

Page Illustration: Broken Earth Trilogy by broccolini, Fan Art, 2019

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Jemisin, NK (2015). The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Trilogy #1). London: Orbit. (COURSE TEXT)

Maynard, Robyn (2019). Reading Black Resistance through Afrofuturism: Notes on post-Apocalyptic Blackness and Black Rebel Cyborgs in Canada. Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 39(4): 29-47.(via LEARN)


AFROFUTURISM

Image: WIN-INITIATIVE/GETTY IMAGES Source: Yes Magazine

In Robyn Maynard’s essay, “Reading Black Resistance through Afrofuturism,” she maps out two important concepts: (1) how the foundations of our current society are built on anti-Blackness; and (2) how afrofuturism creates the possibility of imagining liberation outside the confines of Western Enlightenment thinking. These concepts are critical to our collective study this term and we will explore them in a little more detail below.

The Foundations of (anti)Blackness

Maynard situates modernity as the site of contemporary anti-blackness. Modernity, our current social reality, is constructed through the historical processes of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, and ableism.

Modernity emerges through the European mass-abduction and enslavement of African peoples, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the genocide of Indigenous peoples in what would come to be known as “the Americas.”

Europeans consciously and violently justified these processes by developing the pseudo-scientific reality that Africans and Indigenous peoples existed outside of humanity. This way of thinking came to be known as the doctrine of discovery and was justified by the Papal Bulls (i.e. The Pope’s evaluation of the morality of a given issue) that suggested that it was alright to enslave, kill, and steal land from African and Indigenous peoples because they were not Christian and therefore, not human.

As Maynard explains:

As the project of modernity positions black life as outside of humanity, the black condition can be conceived of as cyborg: figured at once as machine, fungible commodity and monster.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 29
Survivors, Resisters, Refusers – Not Just Victims

Maynard makes clear that from the onset of this process, those deemed to be sub-human or non-human were not simply victims of this brutal regime – what she calls “the foundational, apocalyptic violence exerted upon the black Atlantic.

She continues:

[S]ubversion and resistance have also defined the black experience, embodied by those who refused, often at great risk, to fight against incorporation into the violent structures of the New World, working instead toward new ways of black becoming.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 29
What is a Black cyborg?

Maynard says “To be black in a world that is structured by violent antiblackness is to be a cyborg.”

What does she mean by that? What is a cyborg? How does anti-blackness create the conditions that make black people living in modernity cyborgs?

Maynard lists (3) three conditions:

  1. Radical Alien-ness: There is a radical alien-ness to blackness, and to black being, in a white world: black people have been used as subjects for medical experiments, coded as “natural machines” in the service of white wealth production, and denied legal status as human beings (Lavender 2009, 190). (30).
  2. Survivors of the Apocalypse: Our ancestors—and here I speak to my black ancestors—who survived the apocalypse of the transatlantic slave trade and the violent colonization  of Africa did so in a world in which to be black was to be positioned as a non-human entity, subject to “the ongoing purge of the black from the category of the Human” (Walcott 2014, 96). (31)
  3. Dystopia is the Past & Present not Future: While the apocalypse is generally conceived as a dystopic possible futurity, the African diaspora has already undergone brutalities so vile and degrading, and so historically unprecedented in scope and scale, that only Armageddon can accurately describe the advent of modernity on our collective past, and only the postapocalypse can define our present (30-31).

What is Afrofutrism?

Maynard draws on Kodwo Eshun’s assertion that “black existence and science fiction are one and the same” (32). Based on the foundations of anti-Blackness that we’ve theorized above, what does that mean?

To understand the black condition as existing in a form of science fiction, opens activists and artists up to imagining possibilities outside of the boundaries that declare: “this is how it’s always been” or “Black people need more stable father figures” or “things are getting better”.

Maynard explains that the very conditions that construct Black people as “subhuman” are the same that give them access to theorizing and seeing ways of existing beyond the limits of the “human condition”:

With luck, too, she says, this knowledge “avails us with particular ways of re/seeing, re/ inhabiting, and re/imagining the world” (2016, 22). Put otherwise, to be denied access to humanity is not to be subhuman. In fact, it is to have access to ways of existing beyond and outside the limits of the human.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 32

Afrofuturism consists of:

  • artists, philosophers, musicians, scientists, and radicals
  • speculative cultural, artistic, technological and philosophical movements
  • the fields of science fiction, speculative art, cultural criticism and radical theory

Afrofuturism provides us with news ways of thinking, including:

  • redefining past/present/future
  • historical methodologies that fuse myth, science fiction, and realities of black oppression and resistance
  • thinking beyond the linear progress narrative of the Enlightenment
  • “a program for recovering the histories of counter-futures” (Eshun 2003:301)
The Black Radical Imagination

Maynard shows how Afrofuturism is a contribution to the Black radical imagination. This lineage includes: recovering histories of resistance spanning multiple centuries and continents that have been erased by dominant society; and individual and collective responses to slavery, colonization, capital, and racial domination in Africa and across the African diaspora.

For Maynard, the dystopia of today requires the Black radical imagination to bring us to a futurity that is – not this.

If life had become a nightmare so horrific it could be described today only as a dystopian science fiction, then the black imagination that stages a refusal to submit demonstrates a near-cosmic drive to futurity. As much as the black condition was, beginning with enslavement, marked by death, it was also characterized by a refusal to capitulate, while maintaining impossible desires of freedom.

Robyn Maynard, 2019: 36

For Maynard, this politics seeks justice in the following ways:

  • justice that is deeper than mere acceptance into (white) society
  • the possibility of becoming “black on black terms”
  • creating transformative change on a planetary level

How is the afrofuturist Black radical imagination expressed in contemporary popular culture?

To further understand how it operates, we turn now to the work of Janelle Monae.

JANELLE MONAE: THE METROPOLIS SAGA

Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid, 2018

It’s the year 2719, female android Cindi Mayweather (aka Janelle Monáe) has encountered a musical market world filled with severe social stratification.

Grace D. Gipson, Afrofuturism’s Musical Princess: Janelle Monáe, 2016

This is how scholar Grace D. Gipson introduces the afrofuturist world of Janelle Monáe’s The Metropolis Saga, a four (4) album (and counting) sci-fi speculative fiction treatise that Gibson describes as invoking “the literary genius of Octavia Butler fused with the music artistry of Prince”.

METROPOLIS: THE CHASE SUITE (2008)

While the characters Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis world are first introduced in Monáe’s self-released album, The Audition, the story begins in full at the start of her first studio album, Metropolis: The Chase Suite.

Monáe’s concept for these albums is derived from her own personal lived experiences in moving from her hometown of Kansas City to Atlanta in search of better work opportunities. The year this album was released coincided with the financial collapse resulting from the “sub-prime mortgage crisis” that disproportionately impacted Black communities who have been structurally shut out in getting mortgages since the days of “red-lining” and were now being exploited by the usurious scheme of sub-prime mortgages.

The album begins with this spoken word monologue:

Android No. 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown.

Mayweather, an android is not permitted to feel/love/exist outside of what she has been programmed to do and her love with a human sets her up to be chased by bounty hunters (although the daily rules specify “no phasers, only chainsaws and electro-daggers”).

Katie Goh, in her article for Dazed, explains how the lead single “Many Moons” establishes what would become Monáe’s signature Afrofuturistic aesthetic, “an exploration of real world issues of race, class, gender, and politics in a sci-fi setting.”

Goh suggests that “Many Moons” does two important things in creating Monáe’s afrofuturist world:

  1. Blurring of reality and (science) fiction: It creates a purposeful blurring of the lines between our current lived reality and that of the world of Cindi Mayweather. “Civil rights, civil war / Hood rat, crack whore,’ Monáe sings. “Cybergirl, droid control / Get away now they trying to steal your soul.” 
  2. Creates an Afrofuturist Imagery and Aesthetic: The video ends with a Mayweather quote – “I imagined Many Moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom” – predicting that Many Moons and many worlds will be how Mayweather (Monáe) gains her freedom. These moons and worlds will be the various “emotion pictures” and Afrofuturistic aesthetics that Monáe will create throughout her career, in a quest for total creative and political freedom.
THE ARCHANDROID: THE CHASE SUITE (2010)

The ArchAndroid picks up the plot with Cindi Mayweather returning after her escape from Metropolis to free the city from “the Great Divide,” a secrete society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love. Mayweather develops as a messianic figure returning to mobilize droids to fight for freedom.

The album is released in 2010 amidst mounting protests over the killing of Oscar Grant by San Fransico BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police on New Year’s Eve. The mobilizations that took place against police brutality and Grant’s killing were re-enacted in the 2013 film Fruitvale Station starring Michael B. Jordan. The ArchAndroid emerging in the lead up to the Occupy Wall Street protests further develops the dystopian world of Metropolis continuing to parallel the events of the rebellion with the real-world. The album trailer for The ArchAndroid gives us our first visual look at Metropolis and the city that Mayweather fled only to return to lead the Android rebellion.

THE ELECTRIC LADY (2013)

The Electric Lady, the third album to develop the world of Metropolis draws more heavily on post-humanist feminism to further develop Mayweather’s character.

Goh (2018) suggests that Monáe draws inspiration from feminist Donna Haraway’s seminal (1984) essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto” to suggest, as Maynard does in her piece above, that Mayweather (a representation of Monáe herself) can only be understood through the lens of the cyborg, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’; a ‘creature in a post-gender world.” Recognition of this identity, suggests Goh, is how equality will be gained.

Monáe’s android persona, Cindi Mayweather, is Haraway’s cyborg, a posthuman, genderless creature that has a fluid existence that doesn’t rely on boundaries or limitations.

Katie Goh, Tracing the evolution of Janelle Monáe’s high-concept music videos, 2018

The release of The Electric Lady came amidst protests of the murders of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Rekia Boyd in Chicago. In her engagement with these movements, Monáe produces a track in support of the rising BLM movement called “Hell You Talmbout“.

Thematically, The Electric Lady, is a scathing critique of the way in which white/non-Black society desires Black culture, music, and excellence but seeks to control and maintain it for its own pleasure. Freedom is unacceptable musically, financially, and spiritually.

This is best exemplified in the video for the track “Q.U.E.E.N.” featuring Erykah Badu that shows Cindi Mayweather and other Androids being held in a museum and only allowed out of their exhibits to perform for humans.

DIRTY COMPUTER (2018)

Dirty Computer, Monáe’s most recent release begins to transition and further blur the lines between her afrofuturist world, Metropolis, and reality. It continues the afrofuturist feminisms developed on The Electric Lady but begins to also incorporate significant aspects of Black queer theory – lining up with Monáe herself beginning to publicly talk about her own queerness/bi-sexuality.

In Cassandra L. Jones’ (2018) essay, ““Tryna Free Kansas City”: The Revolutions of Janelle Monáe as Digital Griot,” suggests that the shift between The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer can be seen as an awakening of Mayweather’s sense of the “queer love” she has developed with a human – a love not sanctified by the state – one that sets her at odds with the government. These albums show her transition “from an ordinary lover to a freedom fighter who seeks to dismantle the status quo” (Jones 2018:52).

Dirty Computer, however, blurs the lines more than any other album between Metropolis and lived reality. Monáe “voices narratives of liberation via technology, she equally confronts the racist, heterosexist, patriarchal, capitalist origins of technology and how these have been used against black women’s bodies” (Jones 2018:43).

This is perhaps most evident in the video and song “Django Jane.”

ACTIVITY 1
The video for "Django Jane" is filled with visual, auditory, and lyrical content that is both a continuation of Monáe's afrofuturist narrative of the Android freedom fighter Cindi Mayweather and a direct political intervention in the struggles for Black lives and Black queer love.  

INSTRUCTIONS
1. Watch the above video. 
2. Reflect on the visuals of the album - pull out at least one item that Monáe uses to symbolize an "alien-ness/futurity"; a connection to continental Africa; a connection to urban Black America. 
3. What is the importance of Black "femmeness/womanhood" ascribed to the lead characters. Pay special attention to these lyrics: “We gave you life/We gave you birth/We Gave you God/ We gave you Earth/We femmed the future/Don’t Make it Worse”
4. How does Monáe blur the lines between autobiography and sci-fi storytelling in this song? Pay special attention to these lyrics: "A-town, made it out there//Straight out of Kansas City, yeah we made it out there/Momma was a G, she was cleanin' hotels//Poppa was a driver, I was workin' retail//Kept us in the back of the store//We ain't hidden no more//"

THE FIFTH SEASON AS AFROFUTURISM

N.K. Jemisin, Vulture Magazine, 2018

ON NK JEMISIN

Speculative and Science Fiction have been the realm of white, conservative, and often over white supremacists like HP Lovecraft for many years. In fact, when Nnedi Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2011 they awards committee was pushed by Okorafor to change the award statue from the bust of HP Lovecraft who wrote all of his stories with an avowed and brutal anti-Black lens. Authors like the anarchist Ursula K. LeGuin or the afrofuturist Octavia Butler were small twinkles in a space utterly dominated by conservative white men.

In Alison Flood’s article in The Guardian on NK Jemisin, she describes how Jemisin’s 2016 Hugo Award for best novel (The Fifth Season) came after years of a block of mostly white, male right-wing writers acting as a voting block to thwart the award going to BIPOC and women/trans* authors.

Jemisin did not shy away from calling these people out in her award acceptance speech:

“This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers – every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honour, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s ‘identity politics’ –… I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction.”

NK Jemisin, Hugo Award Winner Speech, 2016

Jemisin went on to win the Hugo Award in 2017 (The Obelisk Gate) and in 2018 (The Stone Sky) becoming the first author in history to win three consecutive Hugo Awards and an award for each of the books in a trilogy.

In an interview with Jessica Hurley in ASAP/Journal, N.K. Jemisin discusses the political context that instigated the anger and urgency in which she wrote The Fifth Season (and the entire Broken Earth trilogy).

She recalls:

[T]he particular strains of how this story manifests, or how this world developed where it became a reflection of a lot of issues that I was seeing in the world around me, was because I was writing it around the time of Ferguson and watching that unfold on the Twitter feed, and a lot of that anger came through. There’s the idea that dystopia makes no sense when you’re talking to people from certain marginalized groups. Because the society we live in is a dystopia to those people. To my ancestors who struggled to survive in a country that actively sabotaged them again and again and again and again and is still doing so, a country that claims to have gotten rid of slavery and yet snuck in a little clause in the Thirteenth Amendment to make it “tee-hee, still possible,” I mean, this society is and remains a dystopia. Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder (471).

N.K. Jemisin, An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin, 2018

The pain, fear, and anger that Jemisin felt as people mobilized after the death of Michael Brown (and many others) during the 2015-2017 phase of the BLM uprisings provoked a vivid dream. Jemisin recounts that in her dream she saw a middle-aged Black woman lifting up a mountain and getting ready to throw it at her. She could not shake this vision and wanted to write about what earth shattering anger feels like in the context of living in a current dystopia.

KEY THEMES IN THE FIFTH SEASON

Broken Earth fan art by DOOMGLOSSARY

BURNING THIS WHOLE DAMN PLACE TO THE GROUND AS LEGITIMATE STRATEGY

There are at least two orogene characters (Alabaster and Essun) in The Broken Earth Trilogy who recognize that change in their society can only come through cataclysmic events.

Jemisin uses these moments to parallel contemporary debates around reform vs. revolution. She is highly critical of incremental change noting:

“There are those who believe in incremental change as the only safe way to make the world a better place. I don’t believe in that. Incremental change means a lot of people suffering for a very long time, mostly so that the people in the status quo can be comfort- able longer. The people pushing incremental change aren’t the ones who are suffering. And sometimes a revolution is necessary; sometimes you do have to burn it all down” (473).

Jemisin shows how the humans in The Fifth Season are enslaving orogenes and using their powers to maintain stability and prolong the inevitable in hopes for a “more convenient season”. She likens this to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where “

However, Jemisin recognizes as well that a strategy of “burn it all down” should not be advocated lightly and without recognition for the harm and violence that comes from such a political strategy. She explains that “he’s lamenting mostly white liberals who were constantly urging him to go slower, to just wait for a time that would be better, there would be a time at some point in the future when it would be appropriate for black people to be granted basic civil rights” (473). For Jemisin and for King, the problem was that society was devoting more energy to maintaining its power structure than it was to actually addressing the problems around them.

THE ECOPOLITICS and RESISTANCE TO THE ANTHORPOCENE
Obelisk, Eli Neugeboren, FanArt

This last point, about being more concerned with maintaining the power structure than dealing with the problems we’ve caused, gets at the heart of the eco-politics of The Fifth Season. In a time (over 40,000 years) of periodic, cyclical, and unpredictable “fifth seasons” where the world is so toxic that it becomes an “enemy” of the people who live on it, the society is so concerned about maintaining power and surviving the next destructive season that they legitimize the slavery and abuse of orogenes and their own hatred for the planet on which they live.

This too parallels today’s society and the debates happening within the environmentalist movements. Many (particularly white led) environmental justice groups and activists describe the era we are living in as The Anthropocene, the geological time where humans are transforming the entire planet. However, as Jemisin argues, not everyone on the planet is equally responsible for the damage. It is the systems and structures of power (capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism) that those who have power seek to maintain that are resulting in these dangerous changes – not general human activity.

Jemisin reflects:

It depends on what you consider the end of the world. An apocalypse is a relative thing. Usually the world survives just fine and there’s another species waiting to take our place if we nuke ourselves or something. And, hell, there are more than seven billion people on this planet (476).

NK Jemisin, An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin, 2018
BLACK WOMANHOOD/MOTHERHOOD
Syenite By Jameelah Walgren, FanArt

The Broken Earth Trilogy is centered on motherhood/parenting and Blackness. Through multiple character interactions Syenite and Alabaster and their son Coru (and the queerness of their relationship), Damaya’s relationship with her mother and then with the Guardian Schaffa, Essun’s loss of her son at the hands of his father and her quest to find her daughter Nassun.

The driving story is one about a woman “fighting to make a world worthy of her children”.

Jemisin explains, “And you see what it takes to make such a world when you’re fighting against oppression. You need to change the entire goddamn world to make that world function (475).”

While acknowledging that in real life it is perhaps not as daunting of a task as literally destroying the whole world, it remains a perilous journey.

Jemisin compares this to the current context of Black rebellion against police killing:

When you recognize the fact that we live in a society that is willing to roll out the damn army when a peaceful protest of people is taking place, when you begin to understand the scope of forces arrayed against a concept like Black equality, when you begin to realize how much, how many years of effort and energy are engaged in keeping my ance tors and me from having a decent life, it starts to feel like the Earth is out to get you (476).

NK Jemisin, An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin, 2018
SOLIDARITY AS SURVIVAL
How to Survive the End of the World, Podcast Cover Image, 2020

The final key theme that is relevant to this course is the way in which The Fifth Season suggests that solidarity, collaboration, and cooperation across differences in power/history/positionality is criticial to our collective survival.

As Jemisin argues, “The Broken Earth books are a Black female power fantasy, and I at least tried to address the fact that in the apocalypse it’s not the rugged individualistic white guys who have the guns and are domineering and whatever, who tend to survive. In real situations of disaster, it’s people who cooperate who survive. It’s people who look out for each other. Altruism and community are what help you get through, not being Mad Max” (470).

These are themes that will resonate throughout the course and perhaps most certainly through the work and reading of adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. If those themes are interesting to you, consider checking out adrienne maree brown and her sister autumn brown’s podcast How to Survive the End of the World which does a great job of bridging many of the topics that we cover in this course! It might also be relevant to Assignment 1, 2, and even 3!

Week 2: Utopias & Dystopias I: Get Out

Page Illustration:Get Out by Nick MCE, FanArt.Tv, 2017

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Peele, Jordan (2017). Get Out. United States: Universal Pictures.

Note: You can rent Get Out via YouTube or Google Play among other services.

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “The Terrible Beauty of the Slum,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 3-10. New York: Norton. (COURSE TEXT)

Jolly, Jallicia (2016). The Audacity of Black Pleasure. Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics Blog, August 22, 2016.

UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA

Image: Alexandre Brondino, via UNSPLASH
ACTIVITY 1: VISUALIZING UTOPIA/DYSTOPIA
Take a moment before moving forward. Grab a pen/paper or another writing implement.  

Close your eyes for a moment and conjure up a utopia.  Jot down what you saw.  

What was the scene? Who was there? What colours appeared? What was the temperature? What scents were present? 
What sounds could you hear? What was the feeling you had in that place? 

PAUSE. RESET. 

Now close your eyes again and conjure up a dystopia. Jot down what you saw. 

What was the scene? Who was there? What colours appeared? What was the temperature? What scents were present? 
What sounds could you hear? What was the feeling you had in that place? 

Coming out of this visualization exercise, I want to you keep in mind your personal experiences, historical context, and embodied reality (based on your race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, (dis)ability, immigration status) and how this impacted what you conjured.

To evoke or to open ourselves to the radical imagination requires us to be conscious of our multiple senses, our shared (and conflicting) histories, our positionalities and identities, and our awareness of the ways in which power operates both to inform and occlude our visions.

UNDERSTANDING UTOPIA

Utopia, fr. modern Latin, 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the term as a title for his book, literally means “nowhere”. From Greek ou “not” + topos “place”.  In everyday language we commonly ascribe the word mistakenly to mean “The good place,” which would be eu “good” + topos “place.”

When we consider utopia our minds immediately focus on the notion of “the good place”. A place that seems perfect, peaceful, beautiful, etc. The word first appeared in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book of the same name “Utopia.” For Thomas More this place was meant to conjure a place that could not exist. More created the word as a pun that mixed Latin and Greek. It is purposeful that ou-topos (no place) sounds a lot like eu-topos (good place). The point being that utopias are too good to be true.

For More, there is no perfect place and as such we should strive for order and social discipline rather than seeking to bring about worlds imagined through our morals or desires for liberty.

Sir Thomas More, a lawyer, politician, and pragmatist, lived by this ethos until his death. He was ironically tried and executed by a jury for failing to appear at the coronation of Anne Boleyn (living by his Catholic morals) despite acknowledging Anne’s queenship privately to King Henry VIII and expressing his desire for the King’s happiness and the new Queen’s health.

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AS UTOPIAN

“Utopian,” has been used as a derogatory slur against social movements on many occasions. Consider, for instance, that Karl Marx himself dismissed many of the anarchist theorists of his day like Pierre Proudhon as “utopian” socialists. Inferring that their idealism and beliefs did not align with the material realities and scientific reasoning of more centralized forms of socialism or communism.

Movements for social justice are often labelled as “utopian” or unrealistic because they seek to bring about worlds that seem impossible in our current circumstances. Anti-slavery abolitionists in the 18th and 19th Centuries were considered utopians, civil rights activists who sought to dismantle the Jim Crow laws of the U.S. were pinned with that moniker, and today movements that fight against borders or believe in a world without prisons or police are considered foolish or naive by many.

In an article in NY Mag, Zak Cheney-Rice grapples with the claims that the “defund the police” campaign is utopian and unrealistic. Take a moment to reflect on his argument below.

What makes campaigns to defund and abolish the police utopian? How do these campaigns emerge from the Black radical imagination? Why does understanding utopianism as a form of practice rather than as an unreachable place change the way we think about it?

Image: Taymaz Valley via: FLICKR, 2020

This is why the dispute over what “defund the police” means matters; efforts made in its name risk reinforcing what they seek to change if severed from its abolitionist roots. Some people would prefer that. Others cite pragmatism to rationalize asking for less. This isn’t to say that incremental change is unimportant; on the contrary, such a monumental task requires it. But wherever there’s agreement that police violence is the problem, and not the solution, aiming to uproot it rather than mitigate it isn’t just prudent, no matter how utopian or unpopular. It’s necessary. Abolition is an opportunity to reimagine how society responds to harm. Past efforts have been disastrous. Even if we’re not ready to demand a new world, we can see more from orbit than we do from underground.

Zak Cheney-Rice, NY Mag , June 15, 2020

UNDERSTANDING DYSTOPIA

Dystopia, “Imaginary bad place,” from dys “bad, abnormal” + topos “place”. Used by John Stuart Mill, 1868, in reference to the Government:  “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, cacotopians.”

The word dystopia is a much more recent addition to the English language. First used by the liberal utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1868 as part of a speech he gave in the British House of Commons criticizing the government, the term did not appear in print (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) until 1952. The concept of dystopia is used to convey an imagined nightmare world, normally one that takes place in the future. The concept of dystopia does date further back. Words like “cacotopia” (from kako “bad” + topos “place”) preceded “dystopia” to mean the inverse of “utopia”. For instance, utilitarian liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham (who is perhaps best known for the concept of the panopticon – popularized in Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish), often used the term, though it never resonated in the same way.

Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the “panopticon” derived from a prison where the guard was placed directly in the centre of the structure visible to every prison cell. Prisoners would be expected to “self-police” their behaviour because they would always feel as though they were being watched. In this way, the work of policing prisoners could be transferred from guards to prisoners themselves.
UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA IN POPULAR CULTURE

The concepts of utopia and dystopia have exploded in popularity in recent years. Using the Google word tracker we can see the drastic rise of the usage of both “utopia/utopian” and “dystopia/dystopian” since the year 2000 (see image below). A number of popular television shows and movies rely on these concepts to engage the viewer (i.e. The Good Place, Westworld, Lovecraft Country, The Truman Show, Her, The Matrix, Mad Max, Blade Runner, etc.). The concept of dystopia itself is also synonymous with books like George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Octavia Butler’s Parable Trilogy. These books have gained renewed interest in our contemporary era.

Why is this the case? What historical circumstances have created the conditions for the unprecedented popularization of these terms?

Search as January 4, 2021

Perhaps the interest in utopia and dystopia might be aligned with our current historical circumstances that include: climate change caused by capitalist exploitation and accumulation, the pervasiveness of global fascism and ethno-nationalism, the exponentially growing divide between the wealthy elite and the poor, and most recently the reckoning that world governments are both unwilling and unprepared to deal with the types of serious global pandemics these conditions will bring about.

In the introduction to Octavia’s Brood, the 2015 collection of speculative fiction inspired by the writing of the Black science-fiction author, Octavia Butler, editors Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha suggest that “Whenever we envision a world without war, without prisons, without capitalism, we are producing speculative fiction. Organizers and activists envision, and try to create, such worlds all the time.” In times where the line between dystopia and reality blur, we must anchor our visions of utopian futures in the teachings of people who have been there before. They suggest that the tools and lessons learned from movements against slavery, peasant uprisings, the interrelationships of nature in spite of human intervention,  etc. are helpful in planting the seeds of possibilities that exist outside of the logics of our current lives. In this sense, they are seeking to help those of us who wish to bring about a different world, to see the world differently and to break out of what Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist/author/poet Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls the “cognitive box of imperialism”.

PAST/PRESENT/FUTURE

We consider past – present – future – to be separate states of time. The past represents what happened before, the present represents what is happening now, and the future represents what will happen later. Much of history is founded upon the concept of the linear progression of time.

As my drawing below so eloquently shows, we generally think of past/present/future as three separate states of time. The present is reality – it is the temporal state of being that exists as you read this sentence. The past only exists in your memory – it is the temporal state of being that exists by recollecting the previous sentence. The future only exists in our imaginations – it is the temporal state of being that exists by either assuming what will come next or accepting that which we do not expect to come next.

Craig Fortier, Past-Present-Future, 2021

The study of history often considers the linearity of time to explain why certain phenomenon happen. This process is called teleology. There are multiple historical methods that are teleological, for instance, Karl Marx’s historical materialism draws on Hegel’s concept of the dialectical nature of history to show how history is created through the tension of forces of power that once resolved create new tensions that need to be resolved.

Marx’s dialectical materialist theory of history

As you can see in the above image, Marx believed that human methods of producing our sustenance creates internal contradictions and tensions that create conflict. He believed that in different periods of society, these tensions and conflicts would create “snaps” that would create a new condition (i.e. Unorganized Society to Empire to Landed Aristocracy to Bourgeois Democracy to Communism). For Marx, each stage of history can be defined by the tensions between those who have power and those who do not – with the ultimate goal of humans reaching a stage of classless utopia.

What if we think about time differently?

For instance, French philosopher Alain Badiou maintains that reality is grounded on a “void” of ”inconsistent multiplicity”, which is at once void and excess. An event ruptures the appearance of normality, and opens a space to rethink reality.

Ok, that sounds weird. What does it mean?

TIME AS MULTIPLICITY AND OVERLAPPING

There is a debate raging in the field of quantum physics. What if there are endless worlds occurring simultaneously with countless versions of you? These debates are not just speculation but are based on interpretations of material phenomena. The same debates are happening in the social sciences: what if the teleological and linear conception of history is limiting our ability to see multiplicity as the most realistic understanding of human experience?

In this concept of history, we understand that the past, present, and future exist all together in overlapping, contradictory, and complex ways.

The present is not a single present. It is a multitude of presents experienced differently by different people across space. The best way to understand that is by analyzing one of the most frequently spoken phrases of 2020: “We’re all in this together!”

Image: DREEEM, 2020

Using a linear concept of history, yes, we are indeed all experiencing the global pandemic caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 in the same moment of time. But are we “in this together”? If we understand time through a lens of multiplicity, then it is easy to see that some people: poor people, health care workers, the elderly, Black communities and other racialized people, those with disabilities, etc. are experiencing the pandemic in much different ways than say upper middle class people who are bored and working from home or wealthy elites who are continuing their vacations or travelling on their yachts. We exist in multiple realities at the same time.

Why?

Part of the reason is that we are all experiencing the past differently in the present. The past isn’t just a place in our memories. The past is the living realities that shape our multiple conditions of the present. The rebellions following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police is a direct result of the histories that converge in the present. These histories are what make the experiences for people during the COVID-19 pandemic so vastly differently.

If we then see the past and present as operating simultaneously to create our multiple realities – then what about the future?

Through this formulation the future exists in multiplicity too. It is not simply the result of meta-battles between power and counter-power (though it certainly is this), but it exists in the imaginations and actions of people in the present. Multiple futures are being forged at the same time. The BLM rebellions of the summer and campaigns to defund/abolish the police offer various visions that exist outside of what many people expected for the future prior to 2020. The dystopian possibilities of the wealthy profiting (like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon has) during a global pandemic where his workers are contracting COVID and dying at alarming rates was perhaps not the future envisioned by many people prior to the pandemic either.

The future is both the result of these forces and is produced in the imaginations of people on the ground.

In this sense, utopias and dystopias exist in the “space-time” of the multiplicity and simultaneity of past/present/future.

ACTIVITY 2: UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA IN BLACK PANTHER
Watch the following two scenes from the Marvel film Black Panther keeping in mind 
the concepts of utopia and dystopia as well as our discussion so far on past/present/future. 

In the first video we witness T'Challa's (Chadwick Boseman) return to his homeland of Wakanda.  
How do the directors of the film portray Wakanda? What are some of the key racial/gender 
dynamics at play? What about the scenery? What about the technology? Think about how 
Wakanda is presented as a past/future/present place. Why is it blurred? What pieces of 
utopian worlds do you identify? 

In the second scene we witness Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) staging a heist at the British Museum.  
There are many dystopian elements to the scene.  Can you identify them? How does Killmonger 
affirm the lived realities of the past in the present? What do you believe is the future Killmonger envisions?

What do these scenes do to construct a space within the Black radical imagination? 

THE TERRIBLE BEAUTY OF THE SLUMS

Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments provides us with an important window into how particular spaces and moments in time could be understood as both utopian/dystopian in the same instance.

Hartman seeks to show how the construction and production of the “ghetto” in the United States during the turn of the 20th Century can be understood as a culmination of social and political processes: the great migration of Black Americans from the rural south to the urban north in the decades following emancipation; the influx of European migrants and white settlers as part of the United States’ plan of Manifest Destiny; and the re-construction of formal and informal policies of segregation in both the US North and South.

Let’s reflect on two passages from our readings for this week.

The ward, the Bottom, the ghetto – is an urban commons where the poor assemble, improvise the forms of life, experiment with freedom, and refuse the menial existence scripted for them (4).

It is a human sewer populated by the worst elements. It is a realm of excess and fabulousness. It is a wretched environment. It is the plantation extended into the city. It is a social laboratory. The ghetto is a space of encounter. The sons and daughters of the rich come in search of meaning, vitality, and pleasure. The reformers and sociologists come in search of the truly disadvantaged failing to see her and her friends as thinkers or planners, or to notice the beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girls (4).

Saidiya Hartman, The Terrible Beauty of the Slums, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 2018

Hartman uses various terms to describe Black neighbourhoods in the urban north (the ward, the Bottom, the ghetto) as urban commons.

Why? How do the stories and narratives that anchor Hartman’s analysis help us to get glimpses of the way young Black women experienced freedom despite the squalid conditions of their environment?

Hartman then suggests that the same neighbourhood is “a human sewer populated by the worst elements” and is a realm of “excess and fabulousness”. Think about how these multiplicities are happening in the same time and space.

SPACES OF ENCOUNTER

Hartman suggests that the “ghetto” is a space of encounter and a social laboratory. In her book she reflects on the multiplicity of people who interact with the space of the ghetto and its primarily Black inhabitants:

  • sons and daughters of the rich come in search of meaning, vitality, and pleasure
  • reformers and sociologists come in search of the truly disadvantaged
  • social workers, cops, city officials who are sent to control and contain
  • people wishing to exploit, prey upon, and violate those they believe to be vulnerable

All of these interlopers construct and experience “the ghetto” through their own lens. They are not part of the community but rather exist only as tourists, agents of repression, and curious bystanders.

For Hartman, this is most evident by the archives left in their wake. The stories and narratives that she pieces together of the poor Black girls who are the protagonists of her narrative are constructed through the lens of these people. This is the violence of the archives – not only that the stories of the ghetto are told through a liberal lens of pity, disgust, and desire to reform – they are unable to see what is actually happening.

Hartman emphasizes: “failing to see her and her friends as thinkers or planners, or to notice the beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girlsThey fail to discern the beauty and they see only the disorder, missing all the ways black folks created life and make bare need into an arena of elaboration” (4-6).

This is critical to our understanding of the past/present/future of utopia and dystopia and the making the Black radical imagination. Amidst what outsiders saw as disorder (because of their inherent anti-Blackness), there was always an undercurrent of experimentation, relationality, dreaming and mobilizing.

Hartman continues:

At any moment, the promise of insurrection, the miracle of upheaval; small groups, people by themselves, and strangers threaten to become an ensemble, to incite treason en masse (8).

Saidiya Hartman, The Terrible Beauty of the Slums, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 2018

This is critical to Hartman’s argument in the chapter “The Terrible Beauty of the Slums”. In the midst of the nightclubs, the patio stoops, the crowded streets, the rooftops, is the undercurrent of Black joy. That joy amidst the dystopia of US racism is audacious and revolutionary. It is also seen (perhaps correctly) as a threat to white supremacy and it is policed, surveilled, social worked, studied, and demeaned by many of the same interlopers who come to the ghetto in search of greater meaning or feeling.

Zoom in to the present day for a moment and watch this infamous Pepsi commercial starring Kylie Jenner.

How do these same dynamics play out today, whether in communities, on social media, in the news, etc.? How does the commercial appropriate and sanitize Black resistance to state violence and re-centre whiteness and/or non-Blackness in the process?

THE AUDACITY OF BLACK PLEASURE

Image: Jallicia Jolly, Abolition Blog, 2016

Let’s fast forward to the present.

In Jallicia Jolly’s blog post in Abolition Journal, she describes a particular incident that happened to her and her friends. A group of Black folks was assembling by the beach in Detroit to collectively engage in leisure. Within minutes of arrival a phalanx of tow trucks arrived and began to tow away people’s cars.

Jolly uses the experience as an entry point to speak about the continued surveillance, policing, and assault on public displays of joy and pleasure among Black communities.

Jolly argues that in such a context, even the most innocuous public and collective expressions of pleasure by Black folks is itself a deeply political act.

What does that mean? How does it relate to the scene set in Hartman’s “Terrible Beauty of the Slums”?

Centering this approach to policing is the criminalization of public spaces and services, especially in predominately poor inner-city communities of color. City spaces remain demarcated by class and race distinctions that determine who can access the benefits associated with citizenship. These include the right to life, safety and protection as well as access to public services.

Black pleasure is a political act in the era of anti-black (& poor) state sanctioned violence. It is more important than ever to secure healing spaces that revive spirits as they uplift souls. As I’ve learned, calls to embrace black joy become revolutionary in the wake of the dehumanization of the militarized carceral state.

Jallicia Jolly, The Audacity of Black Pleasure, Abolition Journal Blog, 2016

Jolly expresses two related points above:

(1) City spaces remain demarcated by class and race and these less overt boundaries are regulated by police, social service providers, and urban planners who construct city spaces for specific populations and to remove others.

(2) Calls to embrace black joy become revolutionary in the wake of the dehumanization of the militarized carceral state

Let’s consider these points more closely.

First, Jolly argues that while segregation as an official policy ended in the United States nearly 50 years ago, de facto boundaries continue to exist and poor and Black people are a policed in various ways in public spaces.

This policing includes the “Karen” phenomenon of white women calling the policing on Black people living their lives. It includes urban and municipal policies that seek to remove “tent cities” of homeless people. It appears in urban planning through “hostile design” to drive away poor people from downtown shopping districts and other areas that are meant for middle/upper classes.

Second, Jolly then makes the claim that to engage in public displays of collective pleasure and joy becomes a revolutionary act given this context.

THESE CONCEPTS WILL BE IMPORTANT AS WE ANALYZE THE FILM “GET OUT” BY JORDAN PEELE.

GET OUT

BLACK DYSTOPIAN HORROR OR DOCUMENTARY?

In her essay 2018 “Horror vérité: politics and history in Jordan Peele’s Get Out“, Alison Landsberg proposes that “the cinematic conventions of the horror film are uniquely suited to bring into visibility everyday, endemic horror – a horror that many in US society refuse to see” (629).

Landsberg suggests that the conventions of horror film do the following four things:

  1. Horror films create a confrontation; the viewer is brought face to face with the grim and the graphic
  2. Horror films depict the unthinkable; the viewer is forced to confront the depths of evil
  3. Horror films make that which is unimaginable in reality an exhibition project; the viewer becomes a voyeur to a violent imaginary
  4. Horror films let viewers come to terms with things that they otherwise refuse or cannot see

This creates a real opportunity for horror film directors to engage in a process of making visible the real horrors of everyday life.

Jordan Peele in interviews promoting the film seems to affirm this is how he wants audiences to experience the film. Pay close attention to the following interview on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert as he explains that he wanted to submit the film for consideration for the Golden Globes as a documentary. As Peele explains it, “the movie is truth.” While this is partly comedic, Peele situates the film within the long history of the horror genre, but also in the everyday experience of Black people in America. He explains, to have a horror movie with a Black protagonist requires that the “protagonist is aware the whole time that horror is going down”.

Why does Peele make this claim? How does he then situate it in a historical context of horror cinema, especially in reference to the classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead? Consider Colbert’s reaction.

KEY THEMES IN GET OUT

The film Get Out is filled with deep and complex themes on the dystopian reality of Black people in America (and we can extend this analysis for the most part to the Canadian context as well). While not an exhaustive list, I suggest pay close attention to the following themes:

Liberal Racism the film does not focus on the overt and pervasive outward racism faced by Black people. The villains are not “Trump” supporters or southern/rural Americans. They are white upper middle class liberals in the US north. The type of people who “would have voted for Obama a third time if it was possible.”

Pay attention to how the film shows the deeply embedded racism that is at the core of white liberalism in America.

Hollowness of White People “Being Woke” the film works to critique the notion of “wokeness” among white people. It does so through both comedic scenes and hair raising horror – even using the Childish Gambino song Redbone with its repeated refrain “stay woke” as a device to clearly make this point to the viewer.

How do the white characters in the film betray the hollowness of their supposed “wokeness”?

Fetishization and Desirability of Black Bodies – the film makes clear and consistent allusion to the fetishization of Black peoples’ bodies in white America. The central purpose of the Armitage “scheme” is to literally occupy and utilize Black bodies for their own benefit. This theme can be seen as a critique of white capitalist enterprise that desires and fetishization Black people when their bodies are put to the benefit of white entertainment or financial gain.

Consider this theme within the context of criticisms levied by Black artists to their white fans, who benefit from their art, appropriate their styles and dialects, but who remain silent or even antagonist when the same artists make a plea to support movements for Black lives.

The Trap of “White Washing” – the film reflects upon the pressure on Black people to “white wash” in order to seem less threatening for the benefit of white people. Peele shows the ways that white people through coercion and temptation create the context whereby Black people are offered benefits for conforming to certain white norms (this happens most clearly in the story line of Andre Logan King – played by LaKeith Stanfield – and in the device of the sunken place ).

In what ways does the film suggests that this white washing is an empty and hollow pursuit.

The Historical Present of American Slavery the film examines the ways in which the past of American slavery remain within the present conditions of Black people. This is a dominant and “meta” theme in the film and one that plays upon the concepts of past/present/future we covered in this week’s lecture.

Reflect upon how Peele uses the story as an allegory about how slavery is re-constituted in different forms in today’s America. But also how the radical Black imagination continues to create moments of liberation.

ACTIVITY 3: UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA IN GET OUT
Reflect upon the very final scene in the film.  As Chris leaves the house attempting to escape he is confronted by numerous obstacles including having to confront his girlfriend Rose directly.  As the film reaches its final crescendo we hear sirens coming up the laneway. Chris automatically puts up his hands in surrender.  

Think about this moment in the context of what has happened in the film. 

What makes this scene dystopian? How does the arrival of Chris' friend Rod disrupt the dystopia to create an audacious moment of black joy? 

Week 1: Introduction – The (Black) Radical Imagination

Page Illustration: James Baldwin by John Jennings, Celebrate People’s History Series, Just Seeds, 2015

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

via LEARN: Kelley, Robin D.G. (2002). “When History Sleeps: A Beginning”, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 1-12. Boston: Beacon Press.

Turner, David C (2018). #ResistCapitalism to #FundBlackFutures: Black Youth, Political Economy, and the Twenty-first Century Black Radical Imagination,” Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics (1): 217-227.

WHAT IS THE RADICAL IMAGINATION

Words are not static and multiple meanings and signifiers can be attached to a given term. In this course, we examine the concept of the “radical imagination” as it exists in the interstices of popular culture and social justice movements. But what is the radical imagination? Is it a thing? How do we know this is an important term to use for this particular course?

When I’m confronted with these types of questions, I like to explore both the etymological origins of the word and also research and study how this term has been used in various social contexts.

How do we understand “the radical imagination”?

Let’s break it down and the build it back up together!

RADICAL

Easily the most misunderstood and debated of the two terms. The word radical is often equated to or used as a synonym for “extremist” or “illogical” or “dangerous” or “overly emotional” or “novel”.

But in the words of the famous Inigo Montoya (from the Princess Bride) meme:

What is the etymological root of the term “radical” and why is it used to convey the concept of the “radical imagination” and specifically the “Black radical imagination”?

Let’s begin by researching the etymology of the word “radical”:

This is a really helpful place to start. Drawing on the latin origins of the word radical we can see that the term derives from “of or having roots” and evolved to also mean “going to the origin, essential” of a given subject or concept. This squares with how many social justice activists have used the word to describe their politics and differentiate their politics from say, “liberal” or “conservative” political beliefs which are often tied to and embedded into the current structures of power in our political systems.

Perhaps most famously, the Black liberation activist and abolitionist scholar Angela Y. Davis, is quoted as saying “Radical simply means, “grasping things at the root.”

This distinction is important as it signifies that grassroots progressive political movements seek to address root causes of oppression and injustice in our society. There is a signalling with the use of the term “radical” that the movements that one is part of has identified how the large power structures of our society (i.e. capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, etc.) impact our day-to-day lives in material ways. Change, for a “radical,” comes from not just ensuring more women or people of colour are in positions of power, for instance, but rather from the collective work of many people to transform the systems themselves.

As the theorists Haiven & Khasnabish (2012) explain it:

In a social movement sense, radical implies looking beyond surface or easy answers and a desire to uncover the deep reasons (root causes) for our present reality.  It also implies fundamental solutions rather than temporary fixes

Haiven & Khasnabish 2012

In this sense, radical is a long-term proposition, but also one that asserts the need for short-term and urgent organizing among collectives of people.

IMAGINATION

The word imagination, while perhaps less distorted in its mainstream usage, can also be misunderstood.

Today, when we use the terms – imagine, imagination, imaginary – in our common parlance we are referring to things that are make-believe or fantasy (i.e. unicorns or Batman or role-playing). While this is a definition of “imagination” it is incomplete.

Italian Philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1993) notes that in European Ancient or Medieval conception, what we commonly called “the imagination” was considered the zone of passage between reality and reason. Essentially this means that the imagination was a zone where the unreal could potentially become real.

This is an important distinction.

In this older conception of the “imagination” we understand it to be the space between what is and what could be. It is a liminal space of possibility.

In this conception of “imagination,” by imagining a new way of being, you bring it into reality (by making it even a possibility to begin with).

One of the most famous quotes that helps to explain this understanding of the imagination was spoken by the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, who suggested “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

The late-American anarchist scholar David Graeber explains how the shift in our common conception of imagination happened. He explains that it’s only after Descartes (1590-1650), really, that the word “imaginary” came to mean, specifically, anything that is not real: imaginary creatures, imaginary places (Middle Earth, Narnia, planets in faraway Galaxies, the Kingdom of Prester John), imaginary friends (Graeber 2009:521).

TRANSCENDENT VS IMMINENT IMAGINATION

Graeber helpfully breaks up how we conceptualize the imagination by giving us two sub-terms that differentiate between these understandings:

Transcendent Imagination – stories and fictional texts that create imaginary worlds that, presumably, remain the same no matter how many times one reads them (Graeber 2009).

Disney’s Peter Pan is an example of the transcendent imagination

Immanent Imagination –  not static and free floating but are entirely caught up in projects of action that aim to have real effects in the material world (Graeber 2009).

a) A moment in the process of creating or shaping physical objects

b) A moment in the process of creating and maintaining social relations

Black Lives Matter as a movement sits within the definition of imminent imagination.
Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash

THE RADICAL IMAGINATION

Social movements engage in the radical imagination as a collective rather than individual process – what Subcomandante Marcos, the former spokesperson of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) calls “opening a crack in history” to allow for “a world where many world’s are possible.”

The radical scholar Cornelius Castoriadis explains it as such: “the imagination [is] the very substance of reality: social institutions [are] the solidification of the collective imagination” (Castoriadis 1975).

Zapatista slogan, “Un Mondo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos” [A World Where Many World’s Are Possible]. Image Link

If we are to combine the concepts into the singular “radical imagination” we can understand it as a practice or process by which people organize collectively to bring worlds about that exist outside of the dominant logics of society at the root of power imbalances in our lives.

Social movements develop the radical imagination through practice – and this is what informs their theories. What is unique about the radical imagination is that it is constantly in a state of flux – it is developing and growing through the work of movements – it is not a stable or fixed theory or ideology.

Haiven & Khasnabish describe this process as follows:

The sort of radical imagination these [movement] theorists dream of is one that is constantly being held open and one that ‘comes back’ to us in the present to shake up our own thinking and help us remember things aren’t as they must be and that they could be different.

Haiven & Khasnabish 2012

In other words, we can consider the radical imagination as a cyclical process of dreaming + organizing + testing + failing + reflecting + revising + dreaming anew!

THE BLACK RADICAL IMAGINATION

This course draws on the theories and knowledges of multiple artists, public figures, social movement actors, and scholars within the Black radical tradition in the United States and Canada.

This term’s emphasis on the Black Radical Imagination is meant to respond to the current political moment and work towards developing a more in-depth understanding of the theory and history between the interplay of Black popular culture and Black freedom struggles in North America.

As a white (non-Black) scholar, I come to this work with both a sort of urgency (recognizing that for too long Black movement scholarship has either been ignored or appropriated by non-Black activists or theorists) and a humility (recognizing that despite my best attempts at creating this course, my lived experience limits my analysis and ability to fully grasp the depths and complexities of the Black radical imagination).

I intend for this course as an entry point and as a recognition that there are far too few Black scholars in the university. However, this course also suggest the limits of the university as a space of study. The university can and often is a place of credentialism rather than education and study can and does happen outside of the university. As Harney & Moten (2013) explain, “it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can (26). ” For Harney & Moten this space of study within and outside of the university can be described as the undercommons.

This course, as much as possible, seeks to focus on the teachings that emerge from study in the undercommons (i.e. the social movement, cultural, and social spaces that exist within and outside of the academy, but are creating knowledge and theory that we can understand as part of the Black radical imagination).

This course is also guided by concepts of the Black radical imagination that are theorized by scholars like Robin D.G. Kelley, Saidiya Hartman, Angela Y. Davis, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adrienne Maree Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and many others.

FREEDOM DREAMS

In Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Robin D.G. Kelley begins the book by telling us, “My mother has a tendency to dream out loud…My mother taught us that the Marvelous was free – in the patterns of a stray bird feather, in a Hudson River sunset, in the view from our fire escape, in the stories she told us, in the way she sang Gershwin’s ‘Summertime,’ in a curbside rainbow created by the alchemy of motor oil and water from an open hydrant.” In this introduction, Kelley couches the Black radical imagination not simply in the everyday lessons his mother gifted him to imagine a world free of the oppressive structures that surround. He grounds these experiences in relationship to academic theory and frontline political struggles, rather than separate from them.

For his mother, the imagination isn’t just a hope or a desire, it is a lived practice, one that is worked out through trial and error, through failure and pain, but also through learning and love. This imagination did not deny the serious and oppressive structures and ideologies that confronted (and still confronts) young Black people, but it believed that another world could be forged through struggle.

It was not an ethic of pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It was a praxis of grieving, reckoning, coalescing, organizing, collectively imagining, and acting.

BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS

Similarly, Saidiya Hartman finds the Black radical imagination in the “black-city-within-the-city.” For Hartman, the communal luxury of the black metropolis was its ability to transform “the imagination of what you might want and who you might be, encouraging you to dream. Shit, it don’t even matter if you’re black and poor, because you are here and you are alive and all these folks surrounding you encourage you and persuade you to believe that you are beautiful too. This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape. They can see the wall being erected around the dark ghetto, but they still want to be ready for the good life, still want to get ready for freedom(24).

In an interview with ArtForum, Hartman emphasizes the importance of understanding the constancy of Black radical practice in the broader lens of radical politics, anarchism, and anti-fascism/anti-authoritarianism. Her book Wayward Lies, Beautiful Experiments is the central text in this course precisely because it gives us a lens to understand how the current context of Black young women, femmes, gender nonconforming and queer folk have played a consistent and vital part in developing and shaping our contemporary political movements.

As Hartman herself notes, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments makes one thing was absolutely clear: “the practices of refusal—shirking, idleness, and strike—a critique of the state and what it could afford; and an understanding that the state is present primarily as a punishing force, a force for the brutal containment and violation and regulation and eradication of Black life.”

Connecting her book with the contemporary era of Black liberation struggles, Hartman discusses the “jump warrant,” which enabled police to enter apartments at will and how this relates to the murder of Breonna Taylor in the contemporary equivalent of that jump warrant, which is the “no knock” warrant. “The police just enter a place and do as they will.

The Black radical imagination, as a practice, is inextricably linked with popular culture: music, sports, ball culture, fashion, queer aesthetics, language, visual art, theatre, film, and storytelling, among many other spaces.

This course draws on the theoretical frameworks of theorists like Kelley and Hartman to explore this important relationship between theory, culture, and radical politics – something that is integral to the Black radical imagination.

CASE STUDY 1

Alright: BLM & the Politics of Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Kenny Sun, Wikipedia Commons, 2017

What is the relationship between an artist and a movement? How does that relationship play out in real life amidst a period of rapid transformation? This case study looks at the evolution of Kendrick Lamar in relationship to the Movement for Black Lives.

By engaging in this case study, you will grapple with the broad questions that animate this course:

  • How does popular culture exist within the radical imagination?
  • How do radical movements transform popular culture?
  • What is the Black radical imagination?
  • How do we get to the places we’ve collective imagined?
NOTE: You will need to finish the readings for this week to fully engage with the case study below
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Read the article: The Improbable Story of How Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” Became a Protest Anthem by Jamilah King
    • Pay special attention to the argument King is making about both Kendrick Lamar’s political evolution through his engagement and experience with the Movement for Black Lives and the impact of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on the Movement for Black Lives.
    • Be sure to watch all of the videos included in the article from start to finish.
  1. Read the article: Has Kendrick Lamar Recorded the New Black National Anthem? by Aisha Harris
    • Be sure to clink on the associated links and get a sense of the historical context that was motivating both Lamar and the Movement for Black Lives in this moment.
    • Be sure to also watch the videos embedded in the article.
  1. Watch this YouTube Video: BlackLivesMatter – We Gonna Be Alright DTLA Protest 7-7-2016
    • Take not of the emotional tenor amongst the participants
    • Think about what that collective moment of affirmation is doing emotionally for people after what looks to be a long day of struggle
    • Pay attention to the role the song “Alright” plays in the video – recording nearly a year after the Cleveland video referenced in the articles above
Video by BlackTechz, 2016

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  1. Look up the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and possible a breakdown of his song on the podcast DIS/SECT. Think about the imagery and context of the song and its release during the first wave of BLM uprisings in 2015. Why do you think the track resonated so strongly with the Movement for Black Lives despite some of the tensions between Lamar and activists?
  1. In David C. Turner III’s article #RESISTCAPITALISM to #FUNDBLACKFUTURES in our course readings, the author concludes the piece noting: “The unsettling notion of Black Lives Matter highlights a fundamental flaw in racial equity reform logic: that Blackness cannot be reconciled in an anti-Black state with a political economy built on their backs and indigenous land.
  1. How do the lyrics, music and visuals associated with Lamar’s “Alright” and the videos of activists chanting the song relate to what Saidiya Hartman reflects above that, “This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape.”