This publication would not have been possible without the water protectors who risked their lives and livelihoods to advocate for Native sovereignty and the protection of Mother Earth’s resources. To them I’d like to say: Wopida taŋka ečičiyapi ye. I am especially grateful to Antonia Juhasz and Simon Moya-Smith who created and made the important videos I analyze in this article available to the public. The personal conversations I had with each of these filmmakers illuminated their commitment to Native feminist values and the project of decolonization that are reflected in the videos. I look forward to continuing conversations with the filmmakers to build upon the analysis presented in this article.
On October 28, 2016, just days after hundreds of water protectors1 were arrested and physically assaulted by the Morton County Police Department, leaders of the No Dakota Access Pipeline (NODAPL) movement called on jingle dress dancers to come to the resistance camps adjacent to the Standing Rock Reservation. A large conglomerate of approximately 50 dancers arrived to dance on the frontlines of the action just a day later, with police and armored vehicles just down the road. In this paper, I ask: How can we understand the jingle dress dancers’ movements across colonial configurations of space and time as the embodiment of an indigenous radical tradition? I contend that while the U.S. settler colonial state perpetually demands that indigenous people disappear through processes of assimilation and physical elimination, the act of dancing on the frontlines of a fight for Native sovereignty forces the state to acknowledge a level of indigenous autonomy and incongruity with white settler society.
The form of dance practiced in this contested space serves as a simultaneous embodied remembrance and imagining. The jingle dress dancers call on the memory of ancestors and cultural teachings to collapse impositions of settler time, space, and patriarchy. The act of dancing in the tradition of ancestors conjures a double presence that recalls the resistance of ancestors and proves that bodies not only remember the violence and pain of colonial conquest, but also the power of indigenous knowledge to subvert and overcome settler-colonial structures. Hence, the dance proves powerful because of its insistence on refusing to be regulated by normative colonial movements. This form of dance, as it accesses embodied memory, gives shape to the notion of indigenous autonomy as it generates the power to move between planes and provides the freedom to define oneself and to determine the parameters of indigenous identity. It legitimates the freedom to practice spiritual traditions regardless of restrictions imposed by the settler government.
Ultimately, the jingle dress dancers engage in an indigenous radical tradition of imagining an alternative mode of existence rooted in non-heteronormative interpretations of spatial and temporal relations and connectivity. Heteronormative space restricts mobility, especially for Native women. It seeks to confine them to designated domesticated spaces. In the same vein, heteronormative capitalistic notions of temporality are normally calibrated through ideas of sexual and economic productivity; however, this works differently for Natives. Natives are denied both coeval temporality and future temporality. They are primarily talked about as existing in a ‘tragic’ past.2 For jingle dress dancers to so visibly move across this contested space and call upon ancestral knowledge in their imaginings of futurity is to fundamentally challenge colonial heteropatriarchal space and time. In other words, their movements and embodied memories map an unbounded spatial-temporal plane traditionally restricted by the settler state. Additionally, where heteronormative expressions of connectivity emphasize intimate relationships amongst men and women, the jingle dress dancers in the context of the NODAPL movement, express non-hierarchical connections that go beyond the human. Their movements engage a connection between the water, the Earth, ancestors, and animals. Thus, they connect not just to humans, but to energy and to other sentient life forces. These connections assert a precarious freedom, as it is incredibly powerful to be able to assert sovereignty through these reclamations of space, temporality, and futurity; however, these assertions are met with extreme repression to suppress sovereign claims.
This article explores the extent to which the jingle dress dancers conform to Jaqueline Shea Murphy’s conception of ‘doing indigeneity’. 3 This concept encompasses an understanding of indigeneity as more than a static identity. Rather, much like Maile Arvin’s notion of an analytics of indigeneity, this idea engages indigeneity as something in-process, generative, and imaginative—rooted in traditional “stories protocols, epistemologies, and reciprocal responsivities.”4 As such, to ‘do’ indigeneity is a performative process of using indigenous methods of engaging with the world to ground and envision decolonial possibilities. I hope to illustrate that this method (re)maps—as in constructs and re-signifies—an indigenous feminist space over patriarchal social, geographic, and bodily colonial arrangements. The act of dancing, laughing, and loving in the face of immanent threats to life, freedom, and sovereignty is emblematic of an adamant rejection of the settler’s terms of order.
This topic necessitates a theoretical analysis of cultural production because the NODAPL movement relied so heavily on images and videos to spread their message. This movement has relied greatly on social media to garner support and to hold the state accountable for its inherent violence. Thus, the videos I am analyzing are found on news outlets and social media sites like Twitter. It should be noted that in contrast to many forms of analysis, I will not be detailing the cultural aspects and meanings of the jingle dress. While this form of analysis may be important in some instances, there has already been scholarship that speaks to this topic. Furthermore, the goal of my paper is not to make the jingle dress dance a ‘legible’ form of cultural expression. In fact, making the dance legible runs counter to the claim I wish to make—that it is, in part, the illegibility of the dance that makes it so powerfully subversive to the white settler state. Thus, this paper engages in an extension of Audra Simpson’s theory of ‘ethnographic refusal’, by refusing to unpack the anthropological genesis of the jingle dress for a racist academic audience.5 This work is not meant to make sense of the jingle dress dance in a way that facilitates cultural appropriation. Rather, my analysis aims to draw attention to the jingle dress dancers and their filmmakers as proponents of forceful assertions of sovereignty.
To ground this analysis, it is important to describe what I am tentatively calling an indigenous radical tradition. This term derives from Cedric Robinson’s discussion of the ‘Black radical tradition’. Robinson describes this tradition as Black people’s revolutionary practice of consistently resisting the terms of order that premise their oppression by obstinately opposing the worldviews that rationalize white supremacist mythology (i.e. scientific racism, manifest destiny, democratic nation-building, and so on).6 Robinson explains that the root of Black resistance is located in a distinctly African consciousness, which in turn facilitates what Ashon Crawley, among many others, calls an imagining of being/existing ‘otherwise’.7 We see a similar form of consciousness existing in various Native-led resistance movements, particularly in the actions engaged by NODAPL water protectors. Their resistance gives us insight into the process of imagining an Otherwise realm of existence, in contrast to the terms of settler colonial order. Though the oppression faced by Black people in the United States should not be assumed commensurate with the oppression experienced by Natives, there is comparable overlap in traditions of resistance. Like the Black movements described by Robinson, which are influenced by a metamorphicized African consciousness, Native people have also held-on to—and consistently (re)constructed—indigenous consciousness. This consciousness is mobilized in resistance to the destructive forces of settler colonialism. The NODAPL movement, and other movements like it, are underpinned by a Native-based ontology,8 as evidenced by NODAPL’s insistence on prayer based resistance, their emphasis on the power of women, and the assertion of a symbiotic relationship between men, women, ancestors and the Earth’s resources. Thus, any analysis of Native social movements must acknowledge both their grounding in indigenous epistemologies and their locus within a tradition of radical resistance.
Before I commence the discussion of the jingle dress dancers, it is important to also call attention to the inextricably gendered context of the NODAPL movement. First, it is important to note that Native women still experience sexual assault at rates higher than any other demographic in the United States.9 There is a trend of increased sexual assault when pipelines are built adjacent to Native communities. In the North Dakota Bakken oil fields, ‘man camps’ provide shelter to the primarily male temporary workforce. The communities adjacent to these camps have experienced increased levels of sexual violence, prostitution, and drug use.10 Many of the activists arguing against the Dakota Access Pipeline have used this as an example of how the Dakota Access Pipeline not only poses environmental risks, but also heightens the risk of patriarchal-misogynist violence against Native women.11 Instances of sexual assault have long been used as tools of settler colonial governance and rule, and many scholars have called attention to the interrelation between this violence and the lethal human conquest of Mother Earth.
Despite the resistance of water protectors and the threat of environmental pollution Dakota Access insisted on building the pipeline. The phallic representation of a drill digging into Mother Earth against her resistance has serious undertones of sexual assault. These violations in conjunction with the violence enacted on Native women are indicative of the sense of entitlement settler society claims in relation to Native women and Native land. They never seek permission from Native people to make the land ‘productive’. Rather, they appeal to the colonial government whose interests are always invested in asserting rightful claim to indigenous land. Since Native ideology sees the Earth just as sentient as humanity, the violation of either is an egregious offense. Thus, it is ever more powerful to see Native women responding to such offenses in the form of social movements. Yet this also means they continue to bear the brunt of state repression in quotidian, day-to-day life. This is certainly true at Standing Rock, where it seems the heaviest exactions of violence were exerted on women’s bodies. By enacting violence against Native women, who are often the leaders of resistance movements, and in many cases considered the cultural bearers of Native societies, the colonial project aims to repress the indigenous radical tradition. Still, even in the face of this violence the women at Standing Rock continued to unsettle patriarchal logics and the coherence of settler self-knowledge, thereby engaging in an indigenous radical tradition that is also rooted in Native feminist praxis.
The jingle dress dancers exemplify the spirit of this Native feminist praxis. As discussed above, the American settler colonial project involves intricate injections of heteropatriarchy and hetero-paternalism into the structure of Native communities;12 however, the NODAPL movement has worked to subvert those arrangements in unique and notable ways. Both videos I examine involve powerful and strategic choices in terms of how and where the jingle dress dancers are filmed. For example, the jingle dress dancers and organizers of the action chose to position the dancers on the frontlines rather than dancing in the camps, or in spaces considered more ‘safe’. This is impressively dissident considering it refuses to be regulated by the threat of violence. This choice, when compounded with the filming choices, becomes an even more subversive move.
In the first video,13 the dancers are focused in the foreground and take up most of the frame; however, just beyond the dancers we see what appear to be military vehicles on the hilltops and a barricade created by the police to restrict the water protectors from moving into the construction zone of the pipeline.14 By foregrounding the women in the video, the colonial social arrangements of heteropatriarchy are overturned. In this arrangement, the matriarchal traditions of the Očeti Šakówin15 are given primacy over settler colonial heteropatriarchal structures. Furthermore, although there are several men in the frame, they are standing in supportive roles in a circle surrounding the dancers, and we do not see any of the predominantly white male police force. By reversing the social organization, and by positioning men and the police vehicles in the background, the dancers and filmmakers collectively redefine whiteness and patriarchy. By dancing on the land before the instruments of settler colonial violence, these Native women call out the white supremacist settler state for its violence, hypocrisy, illegitimacy, and inability to assert dominance over Natives. This new interpretation of whiteness is part of the (re)mapping of space discussed by Mishuana Goeman. Goeman explains (re)mapping space as the labor of generating new possibilities. She writes: “(re)mapping is not just about regaining that which was lost and returning to an original and pure point in history, but instead understanding the processes that have defined our current spatalities in order to sustain vibrant Native futures.”16
Thus, Native women engage in an act of (re)mapping by calling on dance as the embodiment of both traditional and contemporary indigenous epistemologies of resistance. The U.S. has been heavily invested in establishing a heteronormative patriarchal social structure; however, it’s important to recognize the interconnections between social and physical space, as for Natives, the colonization of social space is just as important as the colonization of physical space. The colonial configurations of social space are integral to the dispossession of Native women in particular, as many Native women lost their independence and their rights to own and maintain property through redefining women’s roles according to the European standard.17 Thus, to (re)map a more indigenous social space is to also imagine a (re)mapping of physical space.
This physical space is further (re)mapped through the application of Jacqueline Shea Murphy’s discussion of ‘doing indigeneity’. According to Shea Murphy, “indigenous dancers’ bodies…are a location of ways of being and knowing…[a]nd movement practices…are a tool for locating and unearthing these ways of knowing.”18 In this sense, it is not only the location of the filming and dancing, but also the very movements the dancers employ that (re)map space. The fact that the dancers are engaged in unified, but improvisational dance, and that their regalia is vastly different from person to person, makes their dance practice less legible, predictable, and controllable, and therefore, it can be regarded as ‘threatening’ to the state. The spontaneity of the dancers also introduces the notion of Native temporalities that are not confined by the disciplinary regimes of punitive linear-progressive colonial time. Such normative conceptions of time are important to the settler state because of its predictability, as opposed to the more multi-dimensional indigenous conceptions of time. This form of dance disrupts the state’s ability to expect and manipulate a future, as the future becomes tangled with the present and thus, becomes unregulated by the confines of colonial temporality and spatial organization. Hence, this form of dance compels an interpretation of indigeneity and Native futurities as multiple, contingent, and constantly being formed and re-calibrated. By disavowing colonial conceptions of linear time where the future is inevitable, the Jingle dress dancers call on indigenous epistemologies to produce an imagining of an indigeneity yet to come, and for this reason the dance can be considered to be ‘doing indigeneity’ rather than simply being an indigenous performance. The latter assumes a more stagnant identity while the former acknowledges indigeneity as resilient, inventive, and fluctuating.
This indigeneity yet to come is further enunciated through the slogan Mni Wiconi, Water is Life. This slogan invokes a notion of time that is also antagonistic to capitalistic notions of time. Settler capitalist ideologies of time place primacy over instantaneous extractive values, while the indigenous perspective espoused by Mni Wiconi calls attention to time’s continuity and generative power. Where Dakota Access ignores the environmental and health consequences of building this pipeline that will affect present and future Native generations, the indigenous consciousness informing the efforts of water protectors’ is bound up with a consideration of future generations. This consideration tethers the future to the present and continuously disturbs hegemonic structures of power maintained through the pervasive acceptance of linear time within settler society.
The most noticeable aspect of the second video is the cinematography.19 Rather than panning across the dancers or looking down on them, the video focuses primarily on the dancer’s feet, and scrolls up to occasionally film the dancers’ faces. This modality of filming from the bottom up reverses colonial implementations of a top-down hierarchical structure, and is indicative of an indigenous consciousness that focuses more on grass-roots organizational systems. This combined method of filming and dancing makes (re)mapping its central tool of decolonization. Colonial logics of seeing tend to be more removed from subjects and spaces in order to capture the entirety of a performance, and can be connected to the desire to manipulate and control the future. For example, anarchist anthropologist James C. Scott comments on the historical objective of modern nation-states to create legibility, control, authority, and engineer society, most crucially in periods of systemic unrest.20 In order to do this, state planning of cityscapes necessitates the use of airborne tools to capture entire spaces and involves a heavy emphasis on “straight lines and hard right angles.”21 The choice to film only portions of dancers’ bodies and to film from various angles defies the colonial desire to create orderly and controllable space. Thus, the jingle dress dancers and the film makers use the camera from below to (re)map space as illegible and uncontrollable—as free and sovereign. It thus locates power in illegibility and invisibility. I contend that the choice to film in a spatially adjacent position to the dancers exploits the camera’s inability to fully capture the dancers’ essence as insurgent, unruly, imaginative, and powerful. As such, the dancers’ bodies, the embodied knowledges of their movements, and the ancestors who dance alongside them can be defined as excess by the colonial state, and the indigenous futurities their bodies create refuse to be subsumed under colonial logics. The video merely provides a glimpse into their embodied knowledge by filming several dancers’ feet and portions of their bodies, but it cannot fully capture their complexity. While the camera provides the opportunity to compress space-time so viewers can connect to the movement, its inability to fully contain the dancers’ bodies indicates that the camera, as a colonial apparatus, is fundamentally unable to regulate Native bodies. Thus, the dancers’ movement through contested and surveilled space signifies their refusal to be governed by colonial logics and a decision to move on their own terms.
Therefore, I assert that the NODAPL jingle dress dancers both enact and provide a model for an inhabitation of the indigenous radical tradition. Their movements and (re)mappings of both social and physical space reveal the limits of settler colonial logics of violence, heteropatriarchy, and containment. The embodied knowledge and futures created through the dancers’ movements invoke spirits of ancestors past, and together they envision futures unknown. These ghosts, like the ‘lawless’ dancers who conjured them, move freely between planes unable to be controlled or made visible. Their autonomy lies in the choice to become visible when it suits them, but they cannot be made legible. The dancers’ refusal to be made legible creates an affinity between them and the ghosts they conjure. Ghosts and dancing water protectors move on their own terms, to their own beat, and according to their own time. Their movements, remembrances, and visions of the future transport them through closed portals to realms untraveled. The settler state can’t follow them there. They are free.
The term ‘water protector’ is itself a method of resistance in its refusal to be defined by settler society’s definition of resistance/right/wrong/legitimacy/illegitimacy.
Mark Rifkin. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination, vii. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Jacqueline Shea Murphy and Jack Gray. “Manaakitanga in Motion: Indigenous Choreographies of Possibility.” Biography 36:1 (2013): 242-78.
Maile Arvin. ‘analytics of indigeneity.’ Native Studies Keywords, edited by Stephanie N. Teves, Andrea Smith, and Michelle H. Raheja. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015. 119-29.
Audra Simpson. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham; Duke University Press, 2014.
Cedric Robinson. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 72-73, 240. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
, 73, and Ashon T. Crawley. Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.
Maria Regina Firmino Castillo. “Dancing the Pluriverse: Indigenous Performance as Ontological Praxis” Dance Research Journal: Congress on Research in Dance 48:1 (2016): 55-74.
Sarah Deer. The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, ix. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Antonia Juhasz, telephonic communication with author, September 14, 2017.
Očeti Šakówin (pronounced oh-chet-tee sha-koh-ween) is the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota term for the seven council fires. This term is used to reference the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota nations as a whole.
Mishuana Goeman. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2013, 3.
Jean M. O’Brien, “‘Divorced From the Land’: Resistance and Survival of Indian Women in Eighteenth-Century New England.” In Native Women’s History in Eastern North America before 1900: A Guide to Research and Writing, edited by Rebecca Kugel and Lucy Eldersveld Murphy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. 333-67.
Jacqueline Shea Murphy. The People Have Never Stopped Dancing Native American Modern Dance Histories, 10. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
When the idea for this essay originally came to me, I was at a neighborhood vigil for the late rapper Lor Scoota, an influential figure in the Baltimore hip hop scene.1 After hours of Black tears and suffering, due to the murder of yet another Black person, a burst of black joy emerged as if from the ashes, as folks listened to Scoota’s hit single “Bird Flu” on repeat, and danced around the neighborhood. This burst of black joy must have shook the entire city. Consequently, the Black mourners-turned-dancers were met by the police state issuing a curfew, forcing everyone to go home. The police, in riot gear, surrounded the mourners with guns pointed in their direction and helicopters that circled the West Baltimore neighborhood. Newscasters and cameras poured into the neighborhood as flashing lights beamed down throughout the darkness, where the shiny metallic balloons that read “SCOOTA” still danced in the wind. We were occupied in every direction.
There had been no riots, but the police prepared for war as if Baltimore was burning. I could not help but be mesmerized at the militarized guns, the riot shields, the coordination and discipline of the force. I could not help but observe the size and number of police officers-turned-domestic-military. I could not help but be enamored by the spectacular power of the State, and recognize this as the social utility of occupation—to stiffen black existence, to sustain the simulation of white superiority and black inferiority. I could not help but think about the need for a revolution. I was taken by an impulse to destroy the simulation and return to a new Real—a “zero degree of transformation,” a “turn toward blackness.”2 Yet I was also struck by the thought that if a revolution were to come, we could never win.
We could never win a revolution, and the death that swallowed Lor Scoota is the same unceasing death that surrounds the people who mourned him, and anyone who attempts to challenge the anti-Black world. It was not easy to come to this conclusion. I still obtain glimmers of hope for the future, but the historical record shows that if the future is anything like the past, the only thing guaranteed is fungibility and accumulation. I remember running home, crying, and writing the beginning sketches of what would become this essay. These sketches became the building blocks for a theory of weaponization—one blackened answer to the question of “how should we live” in the unending age of anti-blackness. I did not write this out of self-righteous radicalism. In fact, I believe that those who write radicalism self-righteously forget that, “Normally people are not radical, normally people are not moving against the system: normally people are just trying to live, to have a bit of romance and to feed their kids.”3 I wrote this out of the sad belief that once we have lost all hope in the prospect of black lives ever being able to live, to matter, to sustain romance and feed their families without an unmoving proximity to death, once anti-Blackness has sucked every bit of spirit we have dry, our only hope is to lose hope, to recognize we cannot win. The end of the World begins once we recognize that a Black sentence is a death sentence, and learn to weaponize it.
learning to die
in the anthropocene
must be done
for those who
were never invited
Black life is lived in a white hyper-reality. By this I mean, black life is lived inside a constituted white fiction which concretizes itself as fact. Black life is a life lived in non-existence; blackness “exists” as a symbol of death that is, but is not. Blackness “exists” only insofar as White Being structures it onto a map of anti-black violence.4 Achille Mbembe corroborates this in his Critique of Black Reason, stating:
Racism consists, most of all, in substituting what is with something else, with another reality. It has the power to distort the real and to fix affect, but it is also a form of psychic derangement, the mechanism through which the repressed suddenly surfaces. When the racist sees the Black person, he does not see that the Black person is not there, does not exist, and is just a sign of a pathological fixation on the absence of a relationship. We must therefore consider race as being both beside and beyond being.5
The reality that replaces that which is is a white hyper-reality. This white hyper-realism fixes blackness as “a sign of a pathological fixation.” White hyper-realism is the paradigm whereby consciousness is unable to distinguish between the fictions created by White Being and the Real.
It is this fact that permits black death to be subsumed in simulations by each and every (analytic) encounter with Whiteness and the World. Questions like, “Can the Black suffer?” and “Is it capable for the Black to be wronged?” arise due to the inability to access a grammar of suffering to communicate a harm that has never ended, a harm that can never end without ending the World itself. It is for this reason that viral videos of black death, more than opening the possibility for liberal notions of justice, seem to suture the relationship between the mythical and the real that perpetuates itself through the reification of black trauma. Black death, more than deconstructing the ontics of the Human, seems to extend its hyper-reality. Black death makes it harder to distinguish white fictions from any sense of real harm being done to human flesh. The Black is meant to experience its death over and over and over again; and the World itself recycles all its fictions-as-the-Real. Put differently, the White World subjects the Black to perpetual, gratuitous violence, and then uses that violence as evidence to further suggest that the Black is not Human. For how can a Human endure such a thing? The experience of gratuitous violence secures the semiotics of the white hyper-reality. White Disneyland stays intact.
Blackness exists at the nexus of fact and fiction, possibility and (non)value, inclusion and exclusion. Blackness is trapped even in saying it’s trapped because the “trapped-ness” of the Black extends to locations where the diction and syntax of White “words don’t go.”6 The Black does not have the grammar to speak against where and how it is trapped since Blackness can only articulate itself through the semiotics of Whiteness. That White Being continues to center black death as the matrix of possibility for its hyper-realist structure indexes the promise of death insofar that White Being is promised futurity. The Black was rendered fungible through the conjunction of the political and the libidinal economy of the anti-Black world. Blackness gave birth to the commodity and the economy of signification that structures the cartography of the Human’s coordinates. This could be said to be astill birth, insofar as the nature of Black life in a white hyper-reality is conducted on a plane that guarantees natal alienation, social, and ontological death. The Black body lives to die; the specter of death shadows it everywhere.
What matters crucially here, in our invocation of the hyper-real, is the importance of the Symbolic. The Symbolic is what “structures the libidinal economy of civil society.”7 The Symbolic here is understood as “the representational process” that structures “the curriculum and order of knowledge” and/or “the descriptive statement of the human” in our contemporary World.8 And in this World, white symbolism is everywhere. In fact, in an anti-Black paradigm, white symbolism is everything. White symbolism over-determines itself as the Symbolic itself, and denounces anything that challenges its genre-specific mode of knowing, seeing and understanding the World. In other words, white symbolism holds a monopoly on the Symbolic in ways that operate “lawlikely so within the terms of their/our order-speciﬁc modes of adaptive cognition-for, truth-for.”9 There is no outside to whiteness, to white semiotics, to white constructs of value and reality, to white structuring of libidinal value. And for this reason, like Wilderson, “[I] am more interested in the symbolic value of Whiteness (and the absence of Blackness’s value)…”10 in a world of white hyper-reality.
If Blackness is lived in the hyper-real, then there is a hyper-intensification—an overrepresentation—of semiology that dictates the coercive violence of the Black’s (non)existence. The semiotics of White Being is the factitious fiction that simulates the entire World. White Being and black death are part of a globally blood-soaked symbolic exchange that has extended itself over the terrain of the World to such an extent that there can be no distinguishing between the Real and the Non-Real. White Being is that Being for whom ontological capacity exists, whereas the Black is the antithesis to Being, that fleshly matter whose essence is incapacity.11
If “language is the house of being,”12 as Heidegger puts it, then Blackness is trapped at the very center of White Being. Dionne Brand puts it concisely when she writes, “We are people without a translator. The language we use already contains our demise and any response contains that demise as each response emboldens and strengthens the language it hopes to undermine.”13 This abject positionality was codified through a violence so epochal that Modernity itself can be said to have been inaugurated through it. However, at the same time, “the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it.”14 That black death and anti-blackness exist in this liminal positionality posits the impossible possibility of a rupture in the moment. For that which is inside the structure, only through being outside the structure, enables the possibility of both sedimentation and disorientation. Jacques Derrida writes, “The function of this center was not only to orient; balance, and organize the structure—one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure—but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure.”15 If black death centers the structure, then it is somewhere in the perfection and expansion of this antagonism (the inside-outside antagonism) that the cartography of gratuitous anti-Black violence is laid out. What might happen when what orients the structure becomes insurgent, attacking the structure through that which centers its very Being? What might happen if black death became weaponized in order to further limit the freeplay of the structure—the expansion of White Being?
Afro-Pessimist thinkers, in favor of a diagnostic analysis, tend to veer away from the tradition of critical social theory that prescribes solutions to the analysis in the conclusion of their work. However, one finds throughout Afro-Pessimist literature a battle cry, a prophetic vision, a pulsing pessimist hope for the “end of the World.” For if Whiteness ended Worlds through its colonial simulations and violent transmutations of Africans into Blacks, then the only way out is an end to the White World. White Being is irredeemable, and so is the World it fosters. Sexton says, “In a world structured by the twin axioms of white superiority and black inferiority, of white existence and black non-existence, a world structured by a negative categorical imperative—‘above all, don’t be black’—in this world, the zero degree of transformation is the turn toward blackness, a turn toward the shame, as it were, that ‘resides in the idea that ‘I am thought of as less than human.’”16 It’s only through black vigilance that the simulacra of White Being is made clear and the spectacle of gratuitous freedom is made visible. It is somewhere in this structural antagonism, that on the one hand conditions the possibility of the World, and on the other hand conditions the possibility of its end, its limitations, its disorientation, that we found the language to say the unsayable and do the undoable. As Frank Wilderson reminds us:
Black Studies in general and Afro-Pessimism in particular present non-Black academics with more than an intellectual problem. It presents them with an existential problem. The reason is because there’s an aspect of Afro-Pessimism that we don’t talk about…which is that were you to follow it to its logical conclusion, it’s calling for the end of the world…it wants the death of everyone else in the same way that we experience our death, so that one could not liberate Blacks through Afro-Pessimism and be who one was on the other side of that. That’s the unspoken dynamic of Afro-Pessimism.17
If we are engaging in a war in which the symbolic value, the semiotics of this World itself, positions “the Black as death personified, the White as personification of diversity, of life itself,”18 then resistance needs an “unspoken dynamic.” It needs a space where “words don’t go”—a form of guerrilla linguistics, a submarined syntax, an undercommon communication. Perhaps, here, where the conversation is blackened, and the theory is phobogenic, and the journal is Propter Nos, we can allow ourselves to excavate insurgent dictions still lost in the lingua franca of White Being, but full of the specter of black terror, black disorientation.
If the Black is death personified, then what might happen if we weaponized our death? What might happen if we recognized the inevitability of that death? What if we began to think that the non-uniqueness of that death was an opening towards the “end of Humanity?” In The Spirit of Terrorism, Jean Baudrillard writes, “When global power monopolizes the situation to this extent, when there is such a formidable condensation of all functions in the technocratic machinery, and when no alternative form of thinking is allowed, what other way is there but a terroristic situational transfer?”19 Terrorism consists of the militaristic tactics used by those who are facing globalized White Being with asymmetrical technologies of terror, violence, intimidation and war. A terrorist is any armed vigilante willing to rupture the system of semiotics through an equally cofounding semiotic. A semiotic that returns one to the “desert of the [Black] Real”—where a “project of total disorder” is unleashed upon the semiotic system.20 Black terrorism is a violence that re-appropriates the death embedded in the Black’s ontological incapacity in order to enable the possibility of a radical capacity—gratuitous freedom. White Being itself is a decentralized onto-epistemic deployment of violence, and if violent insurgency is necessary, then the decentralized approach of the black terrorist is necessary to counter the terror of White Being. This being said, black terrorism is perhaps better understood as counter-terror terrorism. We do not have the power to end the World with life. We only have the power to end the World through death. As Baudrillard writes, “The radical difference is that the terrorist, while they have at their disposal weapons that are the system’s own, possess a further lethal weapon: their own deaths.”21
The United States has an international military force, a storehouse of nuclear arms, and the capacity, within their police state alone, to “terrorize” not just one block in Baltimore, but the whole entire world. Black terrorism is what happens when we heed the Afro-Pessimist call that “A living death is as much a death as it is a living,”22 it is what happens when we take seriously the unsayable in Afro-Pessimism. Black Terrorism is (non)ontological fugitivity that disavows any need to focus on social life—black terrorism steals black death itself from White Being. It is for this reason that Baudrillard speaks to his own White Being and the specter of terror when he says:
When Western culture sees all of its values extinguished one by one, it turns inward on itself in the very worst way. Our death is an extinction, an annihilation. Herein lies our poverty. When a singularity throws its own death into the ring, it escapes this slow extermination, its dies its own natural death. This is an immense game of double or quits. In committing suicide, the singularity suicides the other at the same time—we might say that the terrorist acts literally ‘suicided’ the West. A death for a death, then, but transfigured by the symbolic stakes. ‘We have already devastated our world, what more do you want?’ says Muray. But precisely, we have devastated this world, it still has to be destroyed. Destroyed symbolically. This is not at all the same undertaking. And though we did the first part, only others are going to be able to do the second.23
We are the others. Tasked with the (un)fortunate task of ending White hyper-realism, the White World, and White Being. Well aware that if White Fascism continues the project of black annihilation, the only choice we will have is to fight. Not because we want to, but because we have to. But, ultimately, we must remember the words of Huey Newton: “[T]he first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man.”24
In the age of Trump, the perfection of slavery reaches its horizon.25 The disavowal of the lives of refugees is White Being attempting to reconcile the “Nation-State” simulation with the free track and flow of bodies it’s been attempting to murder; the deportation of undocumented immigrants in conjunction with the materialization of borders is White Being attempting to secure its linguistic and economic integrity; the rise of the private prison and the militarization of the police force is White Being attempting to innovate the system of enslavement and necropolitics for the 21st Century; the plundering of indigenous land and bodies is White Being attempting to finish off the project of genocide; the disregard for the Earth is White Being ensuring the Anthropocene will also be the Apocalypse. Trump is a reinvigoration, a call to arms, for White Being, and White Being can only be “destroyed symbolically.” Black terrorism transfigures the symbolic stakes because it steals away that condition of White Being’s possibility in a kind of fugitivity that is a zero-transformation into Blackness. This being said, we all know that the only thing that follows the absolute loss of hope is this Black Spring, this Neo-Fanonian violence, this blackened terroristic situational transfer. In Baudrillard’s words, in the Age of Trump, let us remember the gift of immorality, “Terrorism is immoral. The World Trade Center event, that symbolic challenge, is immoral, and it is a response to a globalization which is itself immoral. So, let us be immoral…”26
1 Lorn Scoota was a famous Baltimore rapper, known for his hit single “Bird Flu,” who was murdered in Northeast Baltimore.
“Dismantle, change, build” is the refrain that succinctly describes Critical Resistance’s abolitionist praxis. To us, abolition is a long-term vision as well as a strategy that can be applied in the day-to-day work of organizing—and winning—campaigns in our communities. We are a national organization, but the work of dismantling, changing, and building happens locally through our chapters. One example is the Stop the Injunctions Coalition (STIC), which existed from 2010 to 2012 in Oakland to fight the use of gang injunctions across the city. Critical Resistance-Oakland worked in coalition with over a dozen other groups to resist the criminalization of Black and Brown communities and demand a reinvestment in their well-being and self-determination instead. Through a multi-pronged abolitionist strategy, STIC successfully made Oakland the first city in the country to completely end the use of gang injunctions as a policing tactic.
We compiled responses from organizers in STIC to gain insights into what has happened since the victory. Organizers share their lessons from this recent historic campaign against policing. To clarify briefly: “policing,” in an abolitionist framework, is just one of the many institutions and social practices that constitute the U.S. prison industrial complex (PIC). By framing this project as an inquiry into the strategy of anti-policing insurgency in the East Bay Area, our respondents explore its implications in the broader movement for PIC abolition. The organizers point out STIC was not an isolated campaign, but rather built upon the “dual power” generated by prior work against the policing of Oakland youth and parallel struggles against solitary confinement in California prisons. Moreover, the legacy of the Black Panther Party—whose vision called for abolishing the racist capitalist state, ending U.S. imperialism, domestic warfare, and decriminalizing liberationist and sovereignty struggles—runs deep within the grassroots political cultures here in Oakland.
STIC built upon this genealogy of resisting state violence by persistently invoking Oakland’s lineage of liberation movements without mystifying or appropriating them in an exploitative way. This is important to highlight because many tendencies of the establishment Left are currently domesticating the history of these movements, the story of the Black Panther Party in particular. We actively strive to be non-participants in this new wave of Panther appropriation, opting for a relation to our local histories that learns from rather than systematizes or naively mimics the Party’s approach to praxis.
Since the very last gang injunctions were taken off the books in 2015, anti-policing work has only grown stronger in Oakland. The coalition’s strategy of demanding an end to policing as well as a reinvestment in communities created a genuine space for healing and well-being in anti-policing work. This grew into new organizations like Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) and projects like the Fruitvale community garden. Critical Resistance-Oakland also launched the Oakland Power Projects in 2014, which worked with community members who were impacted by the gang injunctions to further build community power and well-being without relying on the police. The Oakland Power Projects has worked with health-care providers to develop workshops and toolkits for building community power to intervene in health crises without police and 911. Additionally, we created a workshop called the “Abolition of Policing” to continue popular education around strategies to make PIC abolition a reality.1 As we continue organizing against policing, prisons, and surveillance in the Bay Area, it is crucial to remember and learn from the fight against gang injunctions. Seize the time! This work is far from over.
Reflections on Organizing with Stop the Injunctions Coalition (STIC)
Critical Resistance (CR): What did you learn from STIC about the ways the PIC operates and the ways it could be resisted?
Sagnicthe Salazar (SS): One huge lesson that I learned from the work with STIC was the connection between policing, prisons and gentrification. Learning about the dynamics around the country around gang injunctions and how in cities that have been gentrified there has been a prerequisite of increased policing and policies to either lock up or scare off a population, was incredibly clear. It was also really clear how certain communities get demonized and dehumanized as a way to build up a rhetoric and a story that justifies the need for increased policing. Fear and the false sense of safety that cops and prisons create for some people have been the gateway to allow cops license to do inhumane operations that disrupt entire communities and engage with individuals in inhumane ways. This story of fear for lack of safety is never backed up by actual dynamics on the ground. For example, in Oakland youth crime has decreased tremendously, yet the fear mongering around the street violence has used “youth” as a scapegoat to justify the increase of curfews and increase policing.
Though I already knew the power of centering and empowering the voice of those most impacted, it was definitely revelatory for me to witness the power of educating, organizing, and bringing to the forefront those most impacted. Working with the guys that were listed on the injunctions was not only powerful for our community in Fruitvale, it led to the creation of an organization, invigorated and created a sense of urgency to youth organizers by showing a tangible need for action by bringing the guys around, and it lead to the building of new leaders, as guys on the injunction list saw a whole community backing them up.
Though there were many more lessons, one other lesson I want to highlight was the strength of having a multi-pronged strategy. Doing work where we had grassroots organizing, legal and media work lead to Oakland being the first city in the country to defeat a gang injunction and it allowed services to be provided to the guys on the list while never compromising our message and larger goal to remove the injunctions completely.
Woods Ervin (WE): Part of doing work with STIC was learning about the history of policing and the targeting of street orgs/gangs as part of validating police expansion. I learned about the sinister use of city civil court orders for the purpose of targeting Black and Brown communities—removing one’s right to legal representation when being identified as deserving of added policing. Also, I learned a tremendous amount about the gang validation process—the ways that almost any combination of attributes can arbitrarily get you validated and the impossibility of getting off—as well as the increased likelihood of imprisonment with police contact and penalties while in prison because of said validation.
I also learned about the ways in which a city can blanket target a specific area for an extra layer of policing and the impact that this has on communities of color. The gang injunction on some members of the community also affected everyone associated with those people within the area of the injunction. This dramatically increased the likelihood of community members leaving their neighborhood because of the experience of intensified policing. Unsurprisingly, the boundaries of the North Oakland Injunction are the exact same boundaries of the touted “NOBE,” [North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville] otherwise known as the “hippest” place to live in the East Bay. The direct link between policing and gentrification was made very stark by watching this development unfold during our fight.
On a more positive note, I learned some powerful lessons in resistance, definitely via youth organizing. I learned about the history of Prop 21 in the Bay and the impact of youth organizing that went into protesting the passing of this law in the state.2 This left behind a number of linked youth organizations with a tradition of organizing for youth self-determination. Due to this tradition, we were able to engage youth as a coalition via multiple workshops provided in schools and community centers. The youth then mobilized this information accordingly, self-organizing walkouts on protest days and becoming a powerful force when the city proposed a curfew as part of policing package alongside the gang injunctions.
Lastly, the work that was done by the legal team in relationship with the community organizers really helped me to understand the potential for “inside-outside” strategy. The way that the attorneys prioritized the needs of the codefendants on the injunction list while working to not undermine what the coalition was doing made our work that much stronger, ensuring that we’d be able to achieve our goals.
Jay Donahue (JD): One of the biggest things I learned from organizing with the Stop the Injunctions Coalition is historically the PIC is used to enforce the larger overall project of social and economic control of people of color, poor people, queer people and others. Gang suppression tactics began to be used heavily in the 1980s to target street organizations that are ultimately the descendants of radical Third World Left organizations of the 1960s and 70s. The 1980s saw a confluence of government disinvestment in social and economic programs, the systematic movement of drugs into urban areas (sometimes directly related to U.S. foreign policy), and continued repression of Third World left movements for self-determination. It was this confluence that set the stage for the war on gangs, which was really another era of the war on the self-determination of people of color. We can draw parallels from how gang injunctions work in cities like Oakland and Los Angeles, particularly when we look at the geographic locations targeted for injunctions. In the case of the North Oakland injunction, the area, a historically black neighborhood, was being targeted for gentrification. The injunction was a way to make living in that area for Black people untenable and to further push out that community. The city also knew that because of years of repression and targeting that there was a lack of community organizing infrastructure and political power in those neighborhoods. Similarly, the San Antonio and Fruitvale neighborhoods where the East Oakland gang injunction was placed were also being targeted for gentrification, however, there is a long history of strong community organizing and cultural resistance in these neighborhoods, which I believe the city underestimated.
I also learned, or rather it was reinforced, that because the PIC works in many ways or has many tentacles that it reaches into every aspect of our lives, there are many places to attack the PIC and many ways to fight. I think we saw this quite clearly in the three pronged strategy that STIC employed. We had a grassroots strategy that used mobilizations, art and culture and work with youth as tactics. We had a media strategy that sought to both lift up the voices of those most impacted by the injunctions (those named and their family members) and to bring the language that we were using around the injunctions into the mainstream (for instance, the use of the word “controversial” in the media). Finally, we had a legal strategy that worked to get people named in the injunction off, but that also understood its limitations in the face of organizing against the PIC.
CR: How did PIC abolition inform your work during the campaign and after?
SS: Though we read in books how the demonization of a scapegoat population allows for the creation of policies that lead to mass incarceration often without any factual data, the gang injunctions showed me how this work in real time and real life. Many of the guys on the gang injunction list who were deemed the toughest criminals that we the city needed to fear, were often never even in gangs and the only fault they had was being born in the “wrong neighborhood.” This was not a story anyone could tell those of us in the Fruitvale, these were our realities. We knew and grew up with the men that were named on that list and many of them were squares that might have had minor offenses and or had been pushed out of Oakland schools. Yet, the gang injunctions were creating the story that if we locked these folks up our communities would be safer.
We know what jails do to our folks and we know that policing and jails will only bring about more trauma and violence in our community, so our work in this campaign was also about educating our community not only about the injunctions and about the lies that they had sold our community, but also about the actual impact of policing and prisons.
With the guys on the list and other community, a huge effort of our campaigns was to both publicize and show to our own community both the fact that we already have solutions that do not include prisons or cops, and what those solutions look like.
Through block parties, murals, and responding to instance of violence on the street, we were able to galvanize community around the importance of our own solutions and the dangers of us supporting the PIC and relying on or supporting police.
WE: I learned about how the city and country targets those they identify as gang members, labelling them as the “worst of the worst” and deserving of an extra layer of policing, thereby validating the existence and expansion of the PIC. PIC abolition demands of us to imagine a world without punishment—meaning that even those deemed the “worst of the worst” require community to think expansively about those that make up community, what are root causes of harm that need to be addressed, and a community member’s capacity to transform and change after engaging in harm. This politic urges us to start with those the state deems “the worst of the worst” and work to do our strongest organizing here to reveal the PIC as an agent engaging in massive perpetual harm for the purposes of maintaining the socio-economic status quo.
This came into play a year later when the 2011 hunger strikes were launched by the organizers at Pelican Bay.3 There is a through line via the CalGang4 database specifically but through a larger politic that connects the gang injunctions via gang validation to the prison within a prison—solitary confinement or administrative segregation.
The struggle the hunger strikers took against their treatment within solitary confinement meant combating this narrative of “the worst of the worst” inside of prison, reclaiming their own dignity and humanity through their struggle with the California Department of Corrections. It also served to reframe who was the true perpetrator of egregious harms given that they were willing to starve themselves rather spend any more time being treated the way that the California prison system treated them.
This politic definitely informed the communications and organizing work that CR was able to participate in support the strikers win their demands.
JD: I think the coalition overall and Critical Resistance more specifically really pushed to maintain abolitionist strategies as part of this campaign. We did this is a few ways, so maybe I’ll touch on just a couple. First, we resisted the pitting of one group of people who were named against another. This happens often in struggles against the PIC where one group of people is “bad” and deserves the punishment the state is seeking and the other is “good” and deserves to be spared this punishment. This emerged in the injunctions struggle as some people who were named were truly part of a gang and others were falsely accused. We sought to bring all of the named people to the organizing table while simultaneously providing historical and current local context for the emergence of street organizations in Oakland. Additionally, we sought to center the messaging for the campaign around the fact that injunctions are attacks on communities of color and youth of color.
We also pursued abolitionist reforms to the injunctions in the face of resistance by the city to ending them altogether. An example of this was getting the city to remove the use of “John Does” from the injunctions. The “John Does” were used as place holders to allow the city to add more people to the injunctions down the line. This was huge victory. Finally, I think we recognized that abolishing the PIC and even incremental steps towards that goal are a long haul struggle. This campaign took years to achieve the final victory of the city taking the injunctions off the books as a tool for policing in Oakland.
CR: How do you see STIC’s anti-policing work to be part of ongoing liberation struggles in Oakland?
SS: I think the work of STIC led to the creation of strong alliances around the city around anti-policing work, abolition work, and work to support home grown solutions. These alliances have stuck around and strengthened work around gentrification, building up and building on solutions like community gardens, community response, safety models, and the work around the larger fight around policing and the militarization of cops.5
The lessons learned through this campaign and the success this campaign had has strengthen our ongoing work in the city and has served as a model to follow in other campaigns where we both want to serve the people without compromising our values and larger goals.
Also the success of the campaign lead to the creation of CURYJ (Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice) which is an organization that employs gang impacted youth to do anti-violence work in the community and it has at its leadership guys who were named on the injunction list and got politicized. This organization is still around today and continues the work around education and organizing to heal our communities and battle the PIC in its different forms.
WE: There are two ways that the legacy of STIC lives on within CR. First, with our organizing in the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. There’s an overlap in organizations and organizers, a sharp articulation of the negative impact of policing on communities of color, whether it be everyday policing to extreme instances of policing and the way that scapegoating and fear-mongering is mobilized to expand police powers.
Also the anti-policing work of STIC lives on through the Oakland Power Projects.6 The Oakland Power Projects were developed directly after STIC closed with a people’s victory. Part of the project’s initial development was by interviewing allies that mobilized as part of STIC in order determine what is a project that articulates what Oakland needs more of while eroding the power of policing. This question and dreams and schemes with STIC allies led to shaping out this project, which asks community members to decouple policing from what it claims to do, and lift up and fund resources that actually keep communities safe, healthy, and whole.
JD: The work of STIC really solidified anti-policing work in Oakland in the wake of the uprisings following the murder of Oscar Grant. STIC was born in a city that was already policing resistant, and the strength of our organizing ensured that this resistance is more targeted and strategic. The work of STIC also served to solidify various coalitions or to pave the way for coalition work that before might not have been possible, specifically the Stop Urban Shield Coalition and Third World Resistance. I believe that STIC organizing also paved the way for the emergence of other formations such as the Anti-Police Terror Project and the Oakland Power Projects. STIC’s organizing made it clear that Oakland residents were ready and willing to resist policing by building their skills and tools to not use the police as a default response to harm.
2 Proposition 21 was a statewide measure that passed in March 2000, severely increasing punishment for young people over 14. The law is a true example of being “tough on crime” by mandating adult trials for young people convicted of murder, and eliminating certain civil liberties previously extended to youth such as confidentiality and informal probation. Under Prop 21, people labeled as “gang members” or affiliates similarly had their rights stripped away and mandated to receive harsher punishments.
3 Critical Resistance-Oakland organized in support of the 2011 Pelican Bay Hunger Strike on the outside through the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. For more information see on the strikes and ongoing struggles against solitary in California and beyond visit: https://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/.
4 “CalGang” refers to a state-level database of suspected “gang members and affiliates” which problematically employs the same logic of gang injunctions by criminalizing street organizations and increasing the reach of policing into communities. Listing over 150,000 individuals, CalGang has been called out for frequent inaccuracies and a general lack of transparency as it is overseen by the very law enforcement agencies that use it.
5 The Stop Urban Shield Coalition has actively organized against one of the largest military weapons and trainings expo held in Alameda County since 2014, building on the anti-policing frameworks of STIC. See more at: http://stopurbanshield.org/.
Stop the Injunctions Coalition (STIC) was a diverse group of organizations, families, and concerned community members that joined together to fight gang injunctions in Oakland, CA. To learn more about STIC’s historic victory against the racist “anti-gang” movement visit https://stoptheinjunction.wordpress.com/.
Woods Ervin is a black genderqueer trans person and organizer. Woods is currently doing active work to dismantle the prison industrial complex and come up with transformative practices for addressing legacies of community and systemic harm with the TGI Justice Project and Critical Resistance. Woods uses they/them pronouns.
Sagnicthe Salazar is a first generation undocumented migrant Xicana from East Oakland by way of Guadalajara, Jalisco. He is a grassroots organizer and educator who has dedicated the last 18 years of his life to organizing for cultural, educational, work and human rights of Raza communities and communities throughout. He organizes with Xicana Moratorium Coalition developing Xicana change agents and building with different communities through various coalition work. He was the Dean of Restorative Discipline and School Culture at Castlemont High School and now the Director of Restorative Discipline at Elmhurst Community Prep in East Oakland.
Jay Donahue is a member of the Oakland chapter of Critical Resistance and has fought the violence of policing and imprisonment through local campaigns and coalitions such as the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition and the Bay Area Committee to Stop Political Repression. He participated in the Stop the Injunctions Campaign by supporting media and communications work. Jay currently lives in Geneva, NY.
Critical Resistance-Oakland is one chapter of a larger national organization that seeks to build an international movement to abolish the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. They believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure. As such, their work is part of global struggles against inequality and powerlessness. The success of an international abolitionist movement requires that it reflect the communities most affected by the PIC. Because of that CR employs strategies to abolish the PIC and does not support any work that extends its life or scope.
Chicago Anarchist Black Cross is an anarchist organization based in Chicago, IL. The Anarchist Black Cross has been an underground movement at the forefront of solidarity efforts for political prisoners and prisoners of war. Mail can be sent to: Chicago-ABC, 1321 N. Milwaukee Ave., PMB 460, Chicago, IL 60622.
True Leap Editorial Collective (TLP): For readers that don’t know, can you explain what the Anarchist Black Cross is? What has been the primary function of the federation over the years, and how long has the chapter in Chicago been active?
Chicago Anarchist Black Cross (C-ABC): Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) actually began as the “Anarchist Red Cross” in Tsarist Russia. The group existed to help support prisoners and organize for self-defense. During the Russian Civil War, the name was changed to Anarchist Black Cross, to stop the confusion between them and the “Red Cross” relief organization. The group then sort of died off in the 1930s, but resurfaced in the 1960s in Britain, where they helped aid Spanish revolutionaries fighting against Franco. It spread to North America in the eighties and now there are at least twenty chapters that we know of in North America alone, as well as chapters in Europe, South America, Australia and elsewhere.
Chicago ABC, specifically, has been around since 2006. It has served many different purposes over the years and the function has changed as needs change. Prison is meant to be a lonely and isolating experience. It is meant to break us down and disconnect us from the world outside. We work to break down this barrier by keeping communication with folks on the inside. We organize events to raise money for prisoners, do letter writing nights, organize noise demos outside of prisons, help prisoners organize themselves on the inside, distribute free literature on a weekly basis, run a pen-pal program, and a whole host of other things. We wish to both support those who are imprisoned and provide solidarity when prisoners rise up and resist on the inside.
However, I should clarify that Chicago ABC is not actually part of the Anarchist Black Cross Federation. The reason for this dates back many years to a rift that sort of developed over what constitutes a “political prisoner” and who we should be supporting. This rift has largely been settled since then, but resulting from this, we simply never became part of the federation. Our chapter believes that all prisoners are inherently political due to the nature of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Criminalizing communities and locking people up is always an inherently political act. As a result, we choose to support anyone who writes us to the best of our ability. The type of solidarity and support that we offer may differ, but we are always working towards freedom for all prisoners.
TLP: How does your group understand itself within the broader terrain of progressive-to-radical movements in Chicago? Can you share some key struggles that your organization has participated in over the years?
C-ABC: Well, liberals generally don’t like us, because our name has the scary A-word in it, which is fine, we don’t like them either. But we also haven’t totally given up on them… [laughter] …In addition to doing work with prisoners, we also do a lot of tabling at events to try and get information about anarchism, prison abolition, anti-fascist work, direct action tactics, and lots of other topics. At the end of the day, though, we are anarchists and we pick our friends accordingly. The most recent struggle which we put a lot of effort into was helping support prisoners organizing the September 9th prison strike. We recognize that exploitation of prisoners for their labor is one aspect of the continuation of racial chattel slavery. Slavery did not die in 1863, and these rebellions and strikes will continue to grow until it does. Over a year of planning went into making this nationally coordinated strike happen and it took a lot of communication between those on the “inside” and those on the “outside.” The initiative was spearheaded by prisoners and facilitated largely by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Many folks from various ABC chapters also participated in this organizing. The strike turned out to be the largest prison strike in US history, and showed the sort of collective power that prisoners can have when they organize.
TLP: While there is a lot that can be unpacked here, especially in terms of the continuities between slavery and the prison industrial complex, maybe for now we should stick with the point that you ended on: the fact that prisoners are organizing…and this has always been the case. A lot of self-described activists in the “free world” seem to miss this. It’s fucking infuriating how so many people still have no idea that the strikes even took place last Fall. From hunger strikes to other more insurrectionary tactics being taken up by prisoners all over the country, this is some of the most dynamic and important political work going on! And it also should go without mentioning that the work of families and loved ones of prisoners, formerly imprisoned people, and radicals organizing with prisoners is certainly crucial in the equation. But this work takes place largely off the radar of most progressive organizations.
In this regard, it is incredibly important for readers to know about the work that groups like Anarchist Black Cross take up in order to build (and sustain) horizontal connections across prison walls. And this reminds me of a famous quote from George Jackson, which I’d like to recite briefly:
A good deal of this has to do with our ability [as prisoners] to communicate to the people on the street…Oh yeah we can fight, but if we’re isolated, if the state is successful in accomplishing that, the results are usually not constructive in terms of proving our point. We fight and we die, but that’s not the point. The point is, however, the face of what we confront, to fight and win. That’s the real objective: not just to make statements, no matter how noble, but to destroy the system that oppresses us. By any means available to us. And to do this, we must be connected, in contact with and communication with those in struggle on the outside. We must be mutually supporting because we’re all in this together. It’s all one struggle at base.
So, as Jackson is saying, whether the political work takes place “inside” or “outside,” it is really all one struggle at base, and Anarchist Black Cross provides one example of a model for actualizing this theoretical point. Now I’m curious to ask, what is your chapter’s take on direct action? What does that look like for ABC? What other tactical and strategic lines does Chicago Anarchist Black Cross engage or support?
C-ABC: Direct action gets the goods! We differ from liberal prisoner support groups in that we choose to directly support those who use militant tactics in the struggle for liberation. In the context of prison struggle, a recent example of solid praxis that comes to mind was in Pittsburgh at Alleghany County Jail. About eighty prisoners began a work refusal and released a list of demands that included more case workers, better medical services, and a legitimate grievance procedure. After those on the outside heard of this sit-in, they took to the jail in masks, smashed windows of the jail, a security camera, and several police vehicles. Similar models of solidarity occurred around the September 9th prison strike where people all over the US and even other continents took action in solidarity with those on the inside rising up. This took the form of noise demos and marches, as well as direct attacks on prisons and those who profit off prison labor. This is the type of solidarity that can produce results.
In recognizing the gravity of the struggles we are engaged in, we must recognize that a diverse range of tactics must be used if we want to win. We don’t believe in codes of non-violence because violence is already here and is constantly held over our heads every day. The police and the state are violent institutions. They maintain their control through the threat of violence. Peaceful codes on non-violence are not going to get us out of the situation we are in. The state holds up non-violent protest as a model to strive for precisely because it does not challenge their power. So often in history, liberal groups will seek to co-opt revolutionary movements by seeking to police the tactics used and bring individuals back into the political system. Many NGOs and liberal groups today work as pressure valves in this way, driving people who are righteously angry back into the system, rather than organizing to fight against it. We must resist this cooptation and organize autonomously and militantly. This inevitably means coming up against the state as they struggle to maintain control. We recognize this and believe this solidifies the importance of groups like the Anarchist Black Cross.
TLP: We appreciate how Anarchist Black Cross chapters over the years have emphasized a type of solidarity with prisoners that is measured in action not just in rhetoric. Organizing and materially supporting folks inside is difficult work to sustain, and—depending on one’s organizational capacity—can also be quite exhausting. But it is so important to showcase groups such as ABC, because you also provide working examples of how radical organizations can operate and sustain themselves without liberal donor funding or registering for “non-profit” status. There are a handful of groups that could provide models, but what is important here to showcase is how there are outlets and methods to doing abolitionist work that are still “grassroots” and not totally institutionalized—work that is not based on relentless grant writing or housed solely in universities. Could you maybe speak a little about some of the failures and successes you have experienced in trying to sustain an organization without much external financial support? I think a lot of people looking to engage in political work that is not connected to the academic and non-profit industrial complexes would benefit a great deal from hearing about some of your group’s experiences.
C-ABC: How to secure funds is certainly one of the great questions in anarchist organizing. Luckily for us our costs are relatively low. Right now the majority of our money goes towards postage. We sustain ourselves by having a benefit show or two a year, and through donations when tabling at events. Being connected to a network of radicals definitely helps a ton in securing materials. Someone almost always has a friend with a hookup on the things you need. If not, there is almost always a way to get the things you need for free if you try hard enough.
TLP: What do you think the purpose, goals, and strategies of an anarchist organization should be? What kind of form or infrastructure do you think it should embody?
C-ABC: Anarchist organizations take on a ton of different forms. All of them can be useful in some way if they pose a threat to our enemies. We generally operate rather informally and like this type of organizing as opposed to rigid membership type groups, but we work with these types of groups as well. I would say I am personally less concerned with formalizing everything, than I am with taking action. All types of organizing are useful, in so far as they produce action. We can’t sit around and wait for a magic number of members to take action. The fight is happening here and now!
TLP: Has exhaustion or burnout ever been an issue for members of your organization? How have ya’ll dealt with these things?
C-ABC: Burnout is definitely something real that we face. We have seen quite a few people put a lot of energy into this and simply get tired of doing it. It can be exhausting and stressful at times and I honestly don’t think we have any good solutions to this. The best we can do is try and make things fun and flexible. Being able to experience fun and joy together is something I think is really important for groups to be able to exist long term. So much of the work we do in these movements can be boring and tedious. We need to make sure to have time to experience joy together. Mobile street dance parties come to mind as something that brings people out in a way that is both conflictual and also just really fun. We probably can and should do more in this area to help folks avoid burnout, but the reality is that a lot of the work is not always exciting.
TLP: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Maybe we’ll wrap this interview up with one last question. What do you understand to be the most important role that the Anarchist Black Cross can play in the current political moment…both nationally…and in local struggles against racist state terror in Chicago?
C-ABC: We find ourselves in an obviously important historical moment. Anarchists are starting to find themselves on the front page of the New York Times, in viral videos on the internet, and in many other places we are maybe not used to being. The tactics that we use are becoming more widely acceptable. While this is really wonderful to see, we also know that this means that repression is inevitable. The state won’t simply give up control and when a threat is perceived to be growing, history tells us they will do everything they can to squash it. While this speaks to the importance of groups like ABC, we also need to be doing our best to organize for self-defense in our communities. We need to be able to defend ourselves not only against the state, but also against far-Right groups as well. Sometimes defending ourselves also means going on the offensive against these groups. We can’t simply wait around for the fight to come to us. We know that the state and the far-Right want to see our movements destroyed and we must be proactive about it.
We also need to work to build ways to keep our movements alive within prison. If we take it as evident that we will experience a wave of repression, we must work to understand how we can see prison as an extension of our struggle rather than the end of it. How can we continue to build our movements within prisons? How can we help prison rebellions grow and support those who engage in resistance? These things take a lot of effort and a lot of organizing but we should think about these strategies as we gear up for the fight ahead. There are more people pissed off and looking for ways to plug in now than maybe ever before. We must be willing to build and grow with these folks and create a force capable of withstanding oppression. This regime is not going to go peacefully and we must prepare for the fight ahead.
I started organizing at 19-years old, and have been organizing for about 16 years. In my early years, I was trained by the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) through Southwest Youth Collaborative, in Chicago. The CTWO came up in response to the Alinsky model of organizing—which was anti-ideology and dealt with class in only the most liberal sense. The Center for Third World Organizing felt doing organizing around racism, sexism, and imperialism was essential to building working class power—particularly among working class people of color. An example of CTWO’s work on the media and discourse end is the website Colorlines. I then organized with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and was member of Batey Urbano, a Puerto Rican-led activist space in Humboldt Park working to fight gentrification. If you have been by Humboldt you can see that we lost, and they won. And by “them,” I mean white Hipster America. From there, I became a youth organizer for a few years in Uptown, doing work to stop school closings. Lost that fight too—most the schools got closed. Then I went SEIU, and finally started winning bargaining campaigns with support staff at Chicago Public Schools, the Park District, and at University of Illinois, Chicago. Lastly, I was an organizer with Black Youth Project 100, a national Black-led, Black-only organization that works within an abolitionist Black queer feminist politics.
I share all of this in order to show that I have lost a lot of campaigns and won some, too; I have done some good organizing and some bad organizing, as well. I once had a trainer tell me “just because you have organized for a long time, doesn’t mean you are good at organizing.” That always stuck with me. I share all of this because those experiences inform my beliefs and biases (sometimes they are one and the same) about how we can transform society within our lifetime.
I believe that building power for transformative social change, by which I mean socialist reform or revolution, comes from base-building organizing. I want to organize the majorities of people in our country, not just the current self-identified “left” that one finds in professional progressive left organizations, leftist activist groups and coalitions, and on leftist media websites, magazines, and social media. I want to create, build, and learn strategies and utilize tactics that engage with people who aren’t using the social media networks that we are a part of, who don’t listen to the leftist podcasts we listen to, and who don’t interact with the traditional progressive and leftist outlets that we use when we are speaking to our vision of a socialist world.
I was taught that as an organizer I should have a general vision and political program for how society can be organized in a more just and democratic way. That vision and program is informed by various ideologies and analyses that are rooted in the political organizing traditions of socialism, feminism, abolition and decolonization. I was also taught that ideologies, analysis, theories, and political traditions mean nothing if you are not committed to learning, building and sustaining the craft of deep organizing, whether it is structure-based or movement-based (which includes building workers strikes and mass direct actions that consistently disrupt elite power at a large scale, rather than just protest and oppositional electoral politics). Organizing means that our focus is on the majorities of people who are not yet with us in fighting for either a progressive, leftist, radical, or revolutionary political platform. It means engaging them face-to-face, in conversation, and building workplace power, community power, and electoral power through democratically ran organizations, formations, and mass campaigns that seek to strategically confront the forces of capital and the state.
I am about winning an abolitionist, decolonial, socialist future now, and I do believe that the various traditions of organizing I was taught can meaningfully contribute to such a worthwhile political project.
The Problem the Left Thinks It Has
The left thinks that it lacks the correct meta-theory, ideological disposition, and frame of analysis. You see this most clearly demonstrated in the constant debates on class-centric politics vs. identity politics, which is just another iteration of the anti-capitalism vs. anti-oppressionpolitics debate. This debate posits that if we arrive at the correct sets of questions, then the Left can be great again. This debate rests on the assumption that the correct strategy and tactics—and our capacity to enact said strategy and tactics—primarily flows from having the proper ideology and analysis. There is a guiding assumption that ideology, analysis, and theory are the main causal mechanisms for building a strong left in this country. In my opinion, both sides are complicit in these assumptions, and both sides are wrong.
The anti-identity politics, anti-intersectionality position is just as hyperbolic as saying leftist politics are primarily a white political project, or that because Eugene Debs may or may not have said something racist, we shouldn’t work to build a socialist project. This debate allows for the Black anti-identity politics punditry of the likes of Adolph Reed, Cedric Johnson, Barbara Fields, Karen Fields, and R.L. Stephens, that speaks largely to a white Marxist audience and readership to validate their disagreements with identity politics as more than just disagreements, but as part of a deeper neoliberal pro-capitalist politics and the cause of the left’s inability to build power. On the other end of the spectrum, it allows for a punditry that claims only theorizations from those who are most marginalized can be the basis of an effective politics, strategy, and tactics. It also paints any insistence of the primacy of class or socialist politics as a thing that white people do, or as a marker of racism or sexism, and posits that the downfall of leftist politics in this country is a product of the white left.
As I stated earlier, the issue with this debate is that it portrays itself as building better theories and approaches of social change. I don’t think it’s actually doing that. In fact, I think that it—at best—produces good meta-theory and reveals some of the pitfalls of popular pet-ideologies. At worst, it becomes about people increasing their visibility and caché within the leftist and social justice culture industry, which produces its own version of a professional punditry class who do the work of brokerage politics—posturing either as the anti-identity politics spokesperson or on the anti-class politics spokesperson. I think this discourse is great at getting likes, retweets, and filling up comment sections. I think it does little to inform the debates around the connection between ideology, theories of change, and organizational orientations to mass struggle. It does little to help us better understand the leftist organizing traditions of non-professional bottom-up organizing that uses mass civil disobedience, workers strikes, and electoral politics that engage the masses of people, and scales from local to national to international victories.
The assertions against identity politics that come from these debates are coupled with the pronouncement that class politics—that is, anti-capitalist downward distributional politics—are less likely to be co-opted for neoliberal, capitalist, or imperialist ends. But I think the history of the AFL-CIO; the current support from significant parts of labor for the Dakota Access Pipeline; the second international; the creation of a privatized pension and healthcare system for union workers in this country; in conjunction with the decision by labor leadership to stop publically agitating for public pensions and healthcare, all speak to the ability for leftist class politics in the United States to be co-opted toward capitalist ends. One could make an easy argument that labor union leadership functions as an elite broker of working class power and interests in service to capitalist power. I could use all of these examples and say “haha, see leftist class politics ain’t shit, look how the state co-opts them, look how the professional managerial class of labor leaders capitulate to capital,” and dismiss leftist class politics. However, I would say that is short-sighted and just wrong—just as short-sighted and wrong as those who dismiss “intersectionality” because Hillary now uses the term. My point being, all forms of what can be called leftist ideologies and analyses along the anti-capitalist/anti-oppression/class politics/ identity politics/intersectionality spectrum have their strengths and their weakness. For me, it’s a matter of how, when, and to what degree do they inform one’s vision for changing the world and one’s plan to get there. Still, such ideologies, analyses, and theories are pointless without organizational, institutional, and personal commitment to developing and practicing deep organizing.
Much like “All my skin folk ain’t my kinfolk,” I would just as easily argue “not all working-class folk are my kinfolk.” And this is why we say the Marxist axiom that there is difference between class in itself and a class for itself. One’s relationship to the means of production doesn’t mean one is automatically in the position to have a better set of politics, analysis, ideology. They are just in a better strategic position to build power against capitalism. But that building of power, and the solidarity that comes with it, is only achieved through good organizing in conjunction with ideology.
To organize people in service of a leftist project and to act in such a manner, does not primarily come from getting people to adopt a uniform set of “proper” analytical frameworks concerning the relationship between race, gender, and class. Some people have this, and some people don’t. I have had non-Black workers who deeply believed Black men needed to pull up their pants and also deserve some form of welfare/basic income and a job guarantee. I have had Black workers who believed Black people need their own businesses and country, but also were willing to go on strike and believed that building a durable solidarity with white coworkers at UIC was needed for that. My point being, people can hold contradictory ideological and analytical frameworks for explaining the world and how they relate to the world and how they act to change it. People can believe racism is the motor of capitalism or that capitalism is the motor of racism. People can believe racism is rooted in the political economy, or that systemic racism can function outside of the political economy. Neither statement gives you much practical insight on learning how to build the people power nessesary to end racism or capitalism. Understanding and learning the craft of mass direct action, community organizing, and labor organizing at the scale that covers the local to global is what does.
The Problem the Left Really Has
My contention is that today’s Left doesn’t have an analysis, ideology, or theory deficit. Rather, it has a skills, ability, and capacity deficit when it comes to the basics of militant membership-based organizing, and building organizations, formations, campaigns and movements that can win social majorities.
In many ways, the framing of these debates comes from an ideology and theory-centric reading of leftist, radical, revolutionary and progressive politics, instead of a reading that also centers the strategy-, tactics-, skills-, organization-, and formation-building aspects of movement work and an understanding of how people develop the capacity to do this work. Such a reading shows that the main causal mechanisms for disruptive political upsurge in the United States during the 20th century was the ability to develop the capacity of organizing skills within leftist spaces, and act on such skills strategically and tactically. This, I believe, explains the strike upsurges in the 1930’s and 40’s and militant sustained civil disobedience, armed insurgency, rioting, strikes and bombings in the 60’s and early 70’s.
What’s sad is that we have recently had plethora of books that speak to this concern and try to correct it. Direct Action by LA Kaufmann; No Shortcuts by Jane Mclevey; This is Uprising by Paul and Mark Engler; Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown; Hegemony How To by Jonathon Smucker; Another Politics by Chris Dixon; and Rules for Revolutionaries by Becky Bond and Zack Exley. There is an article by Kate Aronoff that seeks to contextualize all these different books and account for their strengths and weakness. Book reviews and podcasts about these books have also come here and there. Unfortunately, progressive/leftist presses and everyday debates on the left, do not prioritize this kind of discussion, let alone reading, it seems. I think investing more time in study groups, reading, writing, tweeting, Facebooking and learning about historical organizing methods and approaches, and debating about which ones are best for our present-day political circumstances, is far more productive than engaging in circular debates surrounding identity politics vs class politics, or whether systems of oppression (i.e. colonialism, anti-Blackness, heteropatriarchy) are rooted in the political economy or libidinal economy. These analyses are important for understanding key dynamics on the structural sources of domination, but I do not believe they illuminate a meaningful path to building the power we need to make a beginning at meaningful reforms, let alone total liberation and revolution as defined by abolition, decolonization, socialism, anarchism or communism.
Heriberto “Sharky” Garcia is a political prisoner incarcerated at New Folsom, CA. He can be reached by mail at: Heriberto Garcia, #G36724, Facility/Bed C-6-112, California State Prison-Sacramento, P.O. Box 290066, Represa, CA 95671.
Revolutionary Greetings to You. My name is Heriberto Garcia. I’m a politikal prisoner that holds the AEH here in California. I’m dedicated to the movement/struggle with the international view of ending oppression—anti-imperialism. I became politicized thru my experiences from Jury Hall, to CYA, Level 4 Yards, and SHU’s in California.
[letter dated 7-25-17]
I’m a 26 year-old anti-imperialist organizer, theorist, and artist with a politikal line that revolves around five principles: peace, unity, growth, internationalism, and independence. I became radicalized throughout my incarceration. I began questioning things such as daily struggles of the people inside/outside, methods, and politiks. The more i continued in my quest for understanding, i realized how the struggles of all oppressed people are connected to the mass struggle against U.S. imperialism. It is this questioning of mine that has opened my eyes to the still unfolding truth. It is this constant questioning that has made me the human being that i am today. I know what i want to do in life, and that is to fight imperialism and liberate the people. To abolish the systems of White Being, to achieve emancipation.1 I don’t do this for glorification, ratings, to be “controversial” or to give my life meaning. I do it because it’s what is right. That is freedom. As a person who is consciously oppressed, resisting is what i do. I fight whether it is thru theorizing, literature, teaching, or learning, on the ground or from this cell, spreading the message of unity and revolution in this time of movement. This is my life.
I come from a line of migrant family. On my mom’s side, i’m Grman/Spanish, from my Dad’s side Mexican. I was born in Michoacán, City of Uruapan (Mexico). I traveled back and forward from Mexico to the U.S. throughout my childhood, living in struggle. Mom is a hard worker. My father is a federal prisoner, also a hard worker. I was introduced to the gang life at the age of 11. I ended incarcerated at the age of 16 and have been down ever since.
[cont. letter dated 7-25-17]
Being introduced to politiks behind the wall and meeting people from different walks of life, i started reinventing myself as a New Man and accepted everything i ever knew to be false, including religion. Throughout this time of reflection, i switched up my politiks, changed my perspective. I began practicing my theories of resistance and organizing. After our hunger strikes here in Cali, my politiks evolved and my perspective became international. I started reaching out seeking educational material and providing critical analysis on organizing prisoners while i was inside the SHU dungeons. I’m still evolving with the struggle and will continue as long as i’m alive.
[letter dated 8-28-17]
We all walk different paths, alleys, dirt roads, or simply carve our way to the present. I don’t think we need to experience the same things to understand where We are each coming from or who We are. We can learn from each other’s differences and determinations on where We’re trying to be—the things that We are doing now, the work that We put in to make the today of tomorrow a better now.
While professionals analyze our situation in the struggle attempting to understand it, We live it. We’re not part of the privileged that have the luxury to educate ourselves, or drop time to write about (no my bad—the time to “articulate”) contradictions; but, for the most part, We the Bandannas understand our fucked-up situation can be thanked to the Suits and Ties up on the roof of that sky scrapper. Yet, once you introduce revolutionary knowledge to a Bandana, she/he becomes a devoted comrade of the international struggle, who understands that political power comes from the barrel of a gun. Now transformed into this new conscious, principled, and commune-minded being (a New Man), the Bandana being that she/he was now is a comrade who will do anything and everything to transform/evolve their fellow Bandanas, so they may achieve a higher level of consciousness as this New Man.
I create art—narrative, talk, paint, sketch, draw, theorize, conceptualize—for the people and because i love it. I like the process of materializing an idea. When it comes down to art, i take pride, time, and dedication. There are times when a piece might take me weeks to finish and times which take only hours. I know most imagine prisoners just sitting on their asses and watching T.V. and consuming, which is true in a way. But for “active” prisoners, we pick up the slack of others, then we deal with these pigs always trying to shove us in a box somewhere. I’ve been kicked out of “rehab” groups, creative writing classes, “church,” etc., which are all places that can be converted into semi-seminars for revolutionary study. I pose a problem to the class and we share dialogue, or i provide input on a subject containing revolutionary elements. So mysteriously, my name is no longer on the list. I’ve been dealing with strip-searches, harassment, cell searches, “hate” and that bullshit. I don’t care, i understand the risk of spitting truth and/or living in defiance of (wh ite) imperialist authority. I embrace the struggle and the learning process—and for those times i bleed, it is then that i know i am alive. I make the best out of the situation i find myself in. I’m not going to stop creating.
[letter dated 8-3-17]
I think that there are three levels of politikal organizing here in Cali prisons. The first, to achieve unity, respect, and understanding amongst the oppressed. Second, to build the politikal consciousness of the people. Third, to mobilize the people towards emancipation thru radical sets of politiks. Right now, we are at work on level two.
The first level of struggle is one of peace and unity. In prisons here in Cali, this was exercised throughout the hunger strikes. But didn’t really make an impact until the ones in 2011. Which is when the “Agreement to End Hostilities” came into effect. Due to the influence that prisoners have out there, we can expect that what happens in prisons is then practiced on the street amongst the barrios-neighborhoods. To achieve peace and unity amongst the oppressed and therefore spreading this practice to the rest of the public.
Second, is the level of knowledge and growth, where we convert the prisons into some type of school, an educational campus so that all that come in can study, learn and become part of a teacher-student/student-teacher method and way of life, as opposed to the banking system of education practiced in capitalist society. This will revolutionize the incarcerated masses, whom will then take this new set of politiks to the neighborhoods-barrios to which they return, transforming the ghettos.
Third and finally, is the level of mobilization. Once level 1-2 have been accomplished, level 3 is the key to revolutionary emancipation. The land stolen from the people will be returned to the people. The masses will own the means of production. Institutions from the people for the people will be in every hood. New table of laws for the masses will be set by the oppressed. This will come only after ending imperialism, and, as we know, imperialism will not hand over power. It is up to us to take it. To achieve this, we must practice this line not only locally, but at an international level to bring independence to all. This last level is a battle and only through practice we’ll know what we’re up against here at home and how to defeat it.
The schematics I have presented to you outline a blueprint for the three levels of prison organizing, as I sit in my cell struggling achieve this. Struggling to be free, to stay sane. If not this, then what? Wait for the day of inclusiveness and make it a holiday? Reform a law, pass a bill, recycling the carrot of a pipe dream? Allow the colonization, genocide, and displacement of people to continue? Should I just suppress my feelings, my ideas, my being? Turn my cheek and be happy to plainly exist? Miserable, but existing. Eating, drinking, consuming crap—but existing. Fuck that! I will do what I can. I will attempt what I can’t learn from the process and do it again. For the love of humanity, for the love of freedom, for the love of abolition.
In an article about the Roland TR-808, discontinued by Roland in 1984, Kurt James Werner, Jonathan S. Abel, and Julius O. Smith III, write that the drum machine was “considered somewhat of a flop—despite significant voice design innovations, disappointing sales and a lukewarm critical reception seemed clear indicators that digitally-sampled drum machines were the future.”1 Centralizing an analysis of the circuits, sub-circuits, and software of the Roland TR-808, the authors suggest that, since its discontinuation there has been an inability to digitally replicate the analog sounds of the Roland TR-808. The authors take the machine apart, break it up, and think about inabilities, noting that misinformation and misconceptions about the sound, the beats, the bass of the original 808s has led to the inability to emulate it.2 They find remnants of Ace Tone’s 1964 R1 Rhythm Ace. They write, “A bass drum note is produced when the μPD650C-085 CPU applies a common trigger and (logic high) instrument data to the trigger logic.”3 They pay close attention to the circuit behavior of the 808. They emulate.
The authors dive into the mechanic circuitry and deep beats and bass of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, but say little about its significance for the musical, sonic, and textural sciences that are imagined alongside the unit. We thus consider the insights developed in “A Physically-Informed, Circuit-Bendable, Digital Model of the Roland TR-808 Bass Drum Circuit,” and overlay them with the mathematics of Black life, in order to think through the mechanics of emulation with and outside of itself. This is especially meaningful, since a “lack of interest drove second-hand prices [for the TR-808] down and made it an attractive source of beats for techno and hip-hop producers.”4 Emulation, in this sense, honors black creative labor and invention—the boom-bap-blonk-clap of 808s—as diasporic literacy, yet also understands this work as a series of inaccurate repetitions that disclose the awful, the hurtful, and the intrusive.5 Emulations, like 808s, are injuriously loving. We situate the 808s as one of many enunciations of black studies, as heavy waves and vibrations that intersect with and interrupt black life discursively and physiologically, as heartbreak.
Heartbreak captures, at least a little, those injuriously loving emulations of what it means to be Black and human within the context of white supremacy. Heartbreak works with and in excess of the bio-mythological heart, the hollow muscular organ and its narratives of affectively variegated tenderness and loss. Heartbreak represents the reverberating echoes of our collective plantocratic historical pasts in the present. Heartbreak elucidates how the violence of racial capitalism inaccurately reproduces black life. Heartbreak bursts apart. Heartbreak is feeling outside of oneself. Heartbreak is the demand to feel outside of ones’ individuated self. Heart/////break cannot be recuperated. Heartbreak fails the heartbroken. Heartbreak waits. It sounds. It envelops us like the thumping bass of the TR-808. Heartbreak cannot be repaired or resisted. It emulates but defies emulation.
Before House and Techno musics, before Hip-Hop, before Miami Bass, before Electro, I hear and feel R&B group Blaque’s 1999 song “808.” Before getting to the song’s historical significance, I want to emphasize how the track’s music and lyrics amplify the pleasure and joy of feeling the thump of the 808-machine, of sensing its meta/physical reverberations around and through the flesh:
‘Cause I’ll be goin’ boom like an 808
Be makin’ circles like a figure 8
You know it feels good from head to toe
Now hold on to me baby here we go
You’ll be goin’ boom baby boom baby boom
And I’ll be goin’ ooh baby ooh baby ooh
(check it out)
Blaque’s song encodes the flesh-memory of the innumerable hours I’ve spent listening to music made with the TR-808 in clubs, in living rooms, on headphones while walking, hearing/feeling the 808s boom from passing cars, etc. and the sheer enjoyment derived from it in a way that is difficult to cordon off into words on the page. Blaque’s song achieves this feat by analogizing the fleshy neural feelings set off by the boom of the 808, because “it feels good from head to toe,” and the internal neuro-viscous reward system derived from love and sex. By conjuring the power of Blaque’s superlative skills at moving their audience, the song also imagines a different kind of physical sensation:
See what I believe is
We was granted the power
What’s that? Power, wha…
Ha, the power to make you dance
Like this? Like what, though? Like wo? Like a Sssshhhh? 6
Love and sex are always knotted to broken hearts, because the throb of feeling good, from dome to foot, has a painful musicological history. The heart (muscle) and its narratives of loss and tenderness—tender losses—move to, stop with, pause on, slide across the boom of racial-sexual violence. Heartbreak, then, is always already part of the 808s Black circuitry, boomingly amplifying joy and pain, sunshine and rain.7 The thump, the boom, create shivering circuits of pleasure laced with damage, loss, sorrow.
“808” was written by Robert Sylvester Kelly, who preyed on young Black girls from Chicago’s South Side and secretly married his protégé Aaliyah Dana Haughton when she was a teenager. The members of Blaque were very young when this song was released, the youngest member being sixteen. While Kelly appears in the music video for “808,” it is not clear how much interaction occurred between him and the members of Blaque. The bitter irony of Kelly’s predatory ways is that as an artist, he has been extremely adept at writing songs from “female perspectives”—for example, his duet with Sparkle “Be Careful,” Nivea’s “Laundromat,” several songs for the Changing Faces, or his own “When a Woman’s Fed Up.”8 How does being a sexual predator, who referred to himself as the pied piper of R&B, correlate with Kelly’s adeptness for writing songs for Black women performers?9 Rather than thinking that this cross-gender groking is something that supersedes or mitigates Kelly’s predation, we want to insist that this tendency contributes to R. Kelly’s continued violation and sexual assault of numerous Black women and girls. It is tantamount to not shush the many different forms of violation in this context, since they represent the structural conditions of possibility for sexual violence but also remain significant in their own “right,” even while they are too often drowned out by the focus on the physical aspects of violence, sexual and otherwise. What structures and repertoires must be in place in order for acts of sexual violence to occur and what acts of violation (of trust, of corporeal boundaries, of confidence, and so on) precede physical/sexual violence?10 What modes of violation follow the brutalizations, for instance, when family members and friends refuse to believe victims, or when state apparatuses vilify and criminalize survivors? Where do broken hearts go? They probably cannot find their way home.11
[F]or black girls, home is both refuge and where your most intimate betrayals happen. You cannot turn off that setting. It is the dining room at your family’s house, served with a side of your uncle’s famous ribs. Home is where they love you until you’re a ho.12
Kelly’s musical ability for cross-gender identification feeds into and cannot be disentangled from his predatory actions. It is not per chance that Kelly would often prey on young girls after Lena Mae McLin’s gospel choir classes at Kenwood Academy in Chicago, his alma mater, playing the role of musical mentor in order to gain favor and groom his victims.13 This raises the general question we are uncomfortably left with: in what ways do desire, sexuality, violence, and ungendering coexist in (Black) life and in relationship to the TR-808? Kelly’s oeuvre also includes several cuts besides “808” that deploy machinery and technology within the context of love and sexuality (“You Remind Me of My Jeep,” “Ignition,” etc.) that extend the tradition of sex machines or feeling computer blue, because there must be something wrong with the machinery.14 Considering that Kelly, like many other Black celebrities, claims that he himself was a victim of sexual violence, are there ways to think about racism as not only being engulfed by increased “group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death,” but also the extreme susceptibility to many different forms of sexual violence and violation.15 Perhaps not being able to elude sexual violence is the ghost in the machine of this particular version of kinship, to emulate Saidiya Hartman’s memorable aphorism.16
What if the kind of heartbreak Kelly violently enacted cannot be resisted or repaired? What if it just settles in, awful, hurtful, and intrusive? Receding at certain moments, like the driving away of a car with an elaborate booming system, only to abruptly reappear at the most inopportune situations, its reverberations shaking you up to core when you least expect it. What do we do with that? Can the 808s and the mechanics of the deep boom, signal—at least in a small way—something else? This is sexual violence writ large. This is violence that is purposefully enacted within the context of longstanding intelligible plantocratic logics, where multiple affective and structural registers of Black love are always dragged through and into and across the sexual trauma of racial capitalism. I don’t want this. We don’t want this. Can the 808s and the mechanics of the deep boom, signal something else without losing the messed up vicious stagnancy of the predation (or the sinister twin practice of forgetting and/or excusing the violence either in the name of art/musical genius or racial solidarity)? Perhaps this is where we learn, at least momentarily, that black life and love are not something you can have, but something you do and can never get.17 Perhaps that which is awful and hurtful and intrusive, as unresisted heartbreak, should stand alone (un-flee-able), in plain sight and as negative affect, with the difficult knowledge that the act of naming violence does not engender the kind of reparation sexual violence requires, particularly if we take into account the countless acts of violation that precede, accompany, and follow sexual violence. Thus, predation represents a brutality in itself, unrepaired, intelligibly negative, and with a booming soundtrack—even in the unspeakability…like a ssshhh. How do we, who watch this and narrate this and hear this and live this, come to terms with the irreparable? Coming to terms with the unrecoupable means, above all else, having to exist with it and necessarily going on living. What cannot not be possessed does not follow the laws of redemption, instead it lingers as living in and with the after-life of the TR-808’s sonorous echo. Living in and with. Something you do and can never possess.
Blaque have stated that their name is an acronym for Believing in Life and Achieving a Quest for Unity in Everything. Blaque member, Natina Reed, was killed when a car hit her as she was crossing the street on October 26, 2012.18 In addition, the group was mentored by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who was tragically killed in a car accident in 2002 and who had set her boyfriend’s Atlanta mansion on fire in 1994 after a violent dispute, which had its basis in Lopes’s heartbreak.19 Is it possible to believe in (Black) life when surrounded by death and violence? Blaque are now also signifiers for the disappearance of R&B singing groups, or the last great flowering of R&B singing groups at the turn of the millennium (Destiny’s Child, 3LW, 702, B2K, 112, and more—many with abbreviated band names wherein the numbers signify a particular history, place, or identity). While much of this is the consequence of “simple” economics—it is cheaper for R&B singers to multi-track one voice instead of paying several group members to sing harmonies; it is less expensive for rappers sing their own hooks through Auto-Tune rather than paying an R&B singer to do so—it also highlights the continued devaluation of R&B music as an art form, especially Black women’s creative and affective labor, which are so central to this genre. Where is the appreciation for Black women R&B singers’ sounding of the strenuous labor of both love and heartbreak?20 How does the Black female voice carry out the care work of Black women’s labor, which cannot be recognized as such, as Saidiya Hartman argues? Where is the love for that something you do?21
The importation of the TR-808 sound into Black musical cultures is often attributed to Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (1982), which replays and emulates two different Kraftwerk tracks (“Numbers” and “Trans-Europe Express”). In 2016, several men came forward to state that Bambaataa had sexually molested them when they were as young as thirteen.22 As young boys, all of the men told of difficult family circumstances and declared that Bambaataa had taken on a parental role in their lives and served as their mentor before he began to sexually abuse them for extended periods of time. The narrative of these survivors becomes part of the computing that structures the boom of the TR-808s; desire and pleasure are qualified by the significant yet variable expression of sexual violence/violation as and with technology. Names are fading…Aaliyah, the unnamed young girls from Chicago’s Southside, Bambaataa’s awful and injurious sonic boom, and the unlisted and untenderness.
Rewind and come again, re-rewind. Marvin Gaye’s 1982 “Sexual Healing,” was one of first songs that featured the TR-808 drum machine. It was also Gaye’s last hit before he was shot by his father, with whom he had a contentious relationship, with a gun that he had given to his father as a present in 1984.
“My father,” Marvin told me in Europe in 1982 during a discussion of “Sexual Healing,” “likes to wear women’s clothing. As you well know, that doesn’t mean he’s homosexual. In fact, my father was always known as a ladies’ man. He simply likes to dress up. What he does in private, I really don’t know-nor do I care to know. You met him at a time when he was relatively cool about it. There have been other periods when his hair was very long and curled under, and when he seemed quite adamant in showing the world the girlish side of himself. That may have been to further embarrass me. I find the situation all the more difficult because, to tell you the truth, I have the same fascination with women’s clothes. In my case, that has nothing to do with any attraction for men. Sexually, men don’t interest me. But seeing myself as a woman is something that intrigues me. It’s also something I fear. I indulge myself only at the most discreet and intimate moments. Afterward, I must bear the guilt and shame for weeks. After all, indulgence of the flesh is wicked, no matter what your kick. The hot stuff is lethal. I’ve never been able to stay away from the hot stuff.”23
Gaye was heartbroken for most of his life, in part, due to his father’s visible ungendering, so much so that he added an “e” to his last name. The extreme physical violence meted out to him by Marvin Pentz Gay Sr. resulted in Gaye suffering from extreme anxiety and stage fright and also in Gaye extending the abuse in different forms to the relationship with his much younger second wife, Jan Gaye.24
Perhaps 808s soundtrack black studies and provide a technology, or boom, of blackness that organizes itself through heartbreak—actuating both heart muscles and a kind of ongoing hurtful tenderness engrained in the flesh. With this, 808s provide aural glimpses and moments of heartbreak that cannot be forgotten—they are plain in sight, harmfully—and situate sexual violence as a terrain that demands a response that is not invested in prior injured states.25 Responses and alternatives to injury are awful and difficult and forever; they emerge as song, story, grooving, crying, fight, jumping, quietness, laughing, poem. And more. Always more. This is living, necessarily living, and finding our way through earlier modes of heartbreaking damage that comprise the mattering of Black life, though not exclusively so. Where is the love?
808s are one way to think about black life as an invitation to listen. The book Phonographies provides a way to imagine how technology—most crudely, machines—are enunciations of black life. The book uses sonics, or flows, to delineate this enunciation of life within the context of racial violence and modernity. These ideas also emerge in relation to vocoders, drum kits, LinnDrums, 808s, clap machines and other VSTs. How do these sounds, vibrations, and machines offer us a genre of being human that does not begin with objecthood? Heart/////break. What do 808s do to us? And how do mechanics-machines refuse black humanity (the logics of the middle passage and plantation slavery did and continue to roboticize black people) while demanding that objectification cannot/should not define black life (I can never be your robot).26 These questions are not exactly new, of course—there is a really long and comprehensive list of scholars who think about the mechanization, objectification, and commodification of black and other marginalized people and longstanding resistances to practices of dehumanization. But the sounds and vibrations can also engender “flesh memory”—and this overlaps but is very different than what M. NourbeSe Philip calls bodymemory, right?—which interrupts the objectification-resistance dualism by asking how sound or vibrations, the 808s and the clap machines, are not simply extra-human devices or technological appendages that refine or degrade humanness as cyborg.27 Instead the 808s narrate life, Black life. So, the VSTs—the sounds and beats and grooves they make—are not outside us or of us, but praxis. The story—the stories told above—cannot be told without the deep boom, clap, unspeakable yet audible heartbreak. Like a sssshhh—eviscerated, ear-piercing silence.
Avoiding a linear-afro-future-post-humanist territory—by giving technology as purely embodied by machines too much clout—how do we talk or write or think about loving, desperately, the unspeakability of music and the loudness of heartbreak. The 808s are not the answer but they might help us sort this through. With this, we must refuse disciplinary and epistemological bifurcations (the tendency to analytically separate the sciences, for example, from poetics), to study autopoeisis and self-replicating systems, and to think about the mechanics of blackness outside corporeal black politics, where our broken flesh or our degraded bodies are either liberatory devices or signifiers of anti-blackness. Heartbreak. So, to rephrase: what do 808s do to us, physiologically, psychically, poetically? In what ways do the 808s contribute to the mattering forces of Black life?
Sylvia Wynter. Her first use of the term “the science of the word” appears (I think) in her 1999 essay “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, The Puzzle of Conscious Experience, of ‘Identity’ and What it’s Like to be ‘Black.’”28 In this essay Wynter thinks through how Fanon’s understanding of selfhood disrupts a teleologically biocentric, and fundamentally anti-black, understanding of the human, and how his writings open up the entangled workings of physiology and narrative. While Wynter explores these entanglements in most of her writings—she writes, often, that humans are hybrid beings, simultaneously bios and mythois—“Towards the Sociogenic Principle” offers a sustained discussion of the ways in which practices of racism and anti-blackness are narratively connected to the physiological and neurobiological sciences. This is to say that the larger symbolic belief system (what we might call our Eurocentric origin stories or cosmogonies, whether theological or Darwinian or both) of which anti-blackness is a part, is constitutive of, not separate from, the naturally scientific (what we might call flesh and blood and brain) aspects of humanness. We reflexly experience the knowledge system we are part of. Remember, too, this belief system is lawlikely instituted: how we know our selves and each other, how we believe in, how we reflexly respond to the world around us, functions to stably reproduce the existing order; we navigate that order as though it is natural and outside of our selves and outside our story-making abilities…but it is we who make the world what it is, it is we who believe in, desperately, (and thus naturalize) the prevailing biocentric belief system.29 However, this world-making only occurs within and against the constraints of our current biocentric order.
The entanglements Wynter explores do not situate the human on a biocentric frame (which is one of natural selection wherein some people are more evolved than others, some people are more human than others, some people are closer to humanity than others; where the sciences are neutral and stories and poetics are not neutral, and so on). In Wynter’s formulation of the human, an extension of and mashing-up of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, we are biologic-storytellers. We did not, to give an obvious example, evolve from prelinguistic to linguistic beings; humans have always been storytellers. In the long conversation in On Being Human as Praxis, she thinks about this in relation to the markings in Blombos Cave—clearly written 77,000-year-old linguistic communications scribed by humans.30 The conceptual leap Wynter offers calls into question our entire order of being: the crude and longstanding commitment to the biocentric belief system that naturalizes black people as unevolved and less-than-human is totally undone if humans are not absolutely sutured to an evolutionary apes-to-Aryan system of knowledge. The science of the word thus underlines two overlapping analytics: the deep connections between narrative and neurobiology and physiology (reflexly); the disruption of biocentric systems of knowledge (we are not what they say we are).
Working with Wynter’s conceptualization of the science of the word, 808s and other music inventions and reinventions evidence and enunciate black life. The practice of loving, desperately, the unspeakability of music, is found, in part, in our neurobiological and physiological and intellectual response to that music and music makers. Our neurobiological and physiological and intellectual response to the deep boom, clap, blip, which is untracked and everywhere and seeping into us and emanating outward and beckoning friendships and starting fights and teaching and storying and moving and keeping a beat (offbeat) and heartbreak. The science of the word imagines a different beginning from which to think through black music and technologies as well as other analytical questions. It is a total refusal of objecthood (as our black origin story, as our archive, as our future, more heartbreak, “the suffocating reification,” Fanon wrote) and, therefore, provides a pathway to imagine black life as human cosmogony:
I feel my soul as vast as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers; my chest has the power to expand to infinity. I was made to give and they prescribe for me the humility of the cripple. When I opened my eyes yesterday I saw the sky in total revulsion. I tried to get up but eviscerated silence surged toward me with paralyzed wings. Not responsible for my acts, at the crossroads between Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.31
It has been argued that music shapes and moves and repairs our neurosystem.32 With music, memory and language and words are built and rebuilt.33 With music, neurons are strengthened and reattached. With music. I have argued elsewhere, working with Wynter’s Black Metamorphosis, that the connections and wires and threads, between music and self and environment and others, not only conceptually subverts plantocratic and white supremacist (market) systems, but they also provide a way to track black life as livingness (and thus outside narratives of dysselection).34 More specifically, music, music making, music sharing, music dancing, music jumping, music singing—the act of loving music deeply, the act of feeling and loving music intensely—is one way black communities physiologically and neurobiologically navigate racist worlds. I do not think there is specificity of or to black neurobiologies and physiologies. I am not suggesting that. But I do think that the conditions of being black—the experience and living memory of the abyss, to borrow from Édouard Glissant—has opened up attachments to musical narratives-genealogies-sounds that we should pay attention to.35 For me, this is a radical reinvention of the self and our embodied knowledge! It is humanizing. So, if music shapes and moves and repairs our brains and bones and blood and nerves, if the boom of the TR-808 breaks our heart and jumps and moves us as we love music deeply and intensely, is this not a kind of neurophysiological resistance, refusal, or fugitivity within the praxis of Black life, at least fleetingly? What do we learn from and about each other in these moments of heartbreak and love? What do we pass on, what do we keep to ourselves, in order to practice black livingness in a world that refuses black life? How do we tell each other this feeling might be or is forever? Do we tell each other heartbreak might be forever? Is pain forever?36 How do we share fugitivity and waywardness?
With all of this in mind what we want to notice is not solely the consequences of violence—the fucked up predatory acts and stunningly quiet (as I see it) wreckage of violation experienced by those violated. The consequences and wreckage matter, deeply. But we must also ask ourselves, at the same time, without throwing that wreckage in the bin, under what conditions does human life become victim-wreckage and, as well, how do we tell this story by centralizing the ways in which our present system of knowledge rewards—physiologically! Socially!—violation. What is it about our colonial plantocratic system of knowledge that enacts violation as an articulation of black masculinity (not black men, black masculinity), and how does this interface with black masculinity’s ungendering in relation to white supremacy? And how, in this wreckage that is, in fact, black life, do we find enunciations of humanity and the unmet promises of freedom. Heartbreak is not, then, a signifier of racial oppression or love lost. It is not a noun. Heartbreak is an aesthetic-physiological practice. It is sorrow song. It untangles that violence, it does not describe violence for profit. Because in order even begin to do justice to this physio-aesthetic praxis, to Black life, it must exceed and unsettle the accumulative logic of cis-heteropatriarchal racial capitalism.
We have to ask ourselves: how do we want to know this—sexual violence, racist sexual violence—differently and in a way that does not replicate the violence. This is what I want to get to. This is very hard for me. I don’t know. I still feel the alibis piling up. How do we tell the story outside of the splash of sexual violence (and thus anti-blackness), since summoning the violence encountered by Black folks is so often bullied into doing the psychic, physiological, and affective dirty work for white supremacy? Whenever there is some type of crisis around “intimate” violences in particular, Black folks are summoned as ciphers through which that labor is accomplished without it having to affect the actual structures of white supremacy. Instead of confronting the many violences, sexual and otherwise, white men and women committed against Black female persons (“high crimes against the flesh,” Spillers calls it), the broken and torn black person, lynched, stands in as representative-knowable-enclosed-locked-down violence. Rather than reproducing the violence or accumulatively enumerating it, we seek to “tell a story about degraded matter and dishonored life that doesn’t delight and titillate, but instead ventures toward another mode of writing…,” other modes of being, other modes of living in and living with.37 Living on.
We Don’t Have Much of a Relationship Now.
Robyn Rihanna Fenty embodies a number of admirable qualities as a performer and public figure, however, none are as “savage” and awe-inspiring as the way she navigated the public scrutiny after Chris Brown brutalized her within an inch of her life in 2009 and the photos of her badly bruised and swollen face and body were leaked to TMZ by the LAPD.38 Fenty was 21 at the time. She shouldn’t have had to do this. Like a shhhh: eviscerated silence. Fenty refused again and again to become the proper and respectable poster child for victims of intimate partner violence, even though she was continually vilified as a “crazy Island woman” and confronted with her violated past and the images thereof as incontrovertible proof. In other words, the mainstream media demanded that she publicly provide the affective labor of being a violated Black woman by performing victimhood in very specific ways that would vilify Brown; she did neither. Fenty’s broken face and her broken heart—violence and violation => violation as violence, and vice versa—did not drive the invasive media queries and publicity. Rather, as we know and is so often the case, her (awful, hurtful) story of violence served as an occasion to discuss the larger problem of intimate partner violence, and, of course, to prove the pathology of Black folks and Black life. Violation.
Fenty has, instead, addressed the thorny complexities of the imbrication of sexuality and violence through her music and music videos (“Man Down,” “S&M,” “Love on the Brain,” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” are only the most prominent). Retrospectively, Fenty said the following about her relationship with Brown after she was violently violated:
[I thought] maybe I’m one of those people built to handle shit like this. Maybe I’m the person who’s almost the guardian angel to this person, to be there when they’re not strong enough, when they’re not understanding the world, when they just need someone to encourage them in a positive way and say the right thing. [I thought I could change him,] a hundred percent. I was very protective of him. I felt that people didn’t understand him. Even after…But you know, you realize after a while that in that situation you’re the enemy. You want the best for them, but if you remind them of their failures, or if you remind them of bad moments in their life, or even if you say I’m willing to put up with something, they think less of you — because they know you don’t deserve what they’re going to give. And if you put up with it, maybe you are agreeing that you [deserve] this, and that’s when I finally had to say, ‘Uh-oh, I was stupid thinking I was built for this.’ Sometimes you just have to walk away. [Now,] I don’t hate him. I will care about him until the day I die. We’re not friends, but it’s not like we’re enemies. We don’t have much of a relationship now.39
Slowly jumping from believing that she was “one of those people built to handle shit like this” to realizing that she “was stupid thinking I was built for this,” Fenty refuses being (and thus cannot be) conscripted into the longstanding narrative of the Black-super-woman-machine, who feels no pain, who does all the care work, who labors on behalf of everyone except herself. Instead, she implicitly states, “I can never be your robot.” She sits with and lives on and with the heartbreak, moving on but never completely leaving the scene. Sorry. At this time, we are no longer accepting repair jobs. Heart/////Break. Over the years Fenty has emphasized both her own heartbreak and her heartbreak over the way Brown, someone she loved, was rendered monstrous by the mainstream media. Her insights and struggles are meaningful, especially considering how white men—the Afflecks and the Polanskis and the rest—who exhibit similar violent behavior in a range of their heterosexual relationships, are seldom treated the same way. Bringin’ on the heartbreak, I repeat softly under my breath: she shouldn’t have had to do this, she really shouldn’t…. Are you ready to be heartbroken?40
In 2010 there was a huge poster in the halls of my department at Queen’s University. The huge poster was of Fenty’s broken face. After seeing the poster the first time, I did not return to it; Fenty remained in my pathway but I did not look at the poster or read the text that narrated and explained her brokenness. Other posters about “Gender Studies,” such as indigenous activism, fat shaming, queer cultures, Muslim women and feminism, accompanied the Fenty poster. The posters were part of a big class project wherein, from my understanding, the students pick a topic related to the course, highlight important images and ideas about that topic, and place all this information on a huge poster. My knowledge of poster assignments and projects comes from the discipline of geography. The Association of American Geographers has poster guidelines that the posters in the hallway, in my view, emulated: posters make a unified, coherent statement; materials, both textual and visual, should be of professional quality and be clearly legible from a distance of four feet (4’); text should be limited to brief statements; graphic materials will be displayed on a 4’ x 8’ poster board (landscape-oriented only). The only poster that depicted black women featured Fenty’s damaged, bashed in face. Fenty’s encasing and entombment in the hallway poster serve as synecdoches of these broader currents, since her public image is wedded to violence and violation, we and she are not allowed to forget, there’s no reprieve from this ongoing heartbreak. What gets lost in the shuffle is the labor of heartbreak that the poster and Fenty are forced to perform, all without her consent.41 As quiet as it’s kept, we continue living, regardless of whether we found love in hopeful place or not, intensely feeling the thumping boom of heartbreak (flesh encasing that hollow organ, un-flee-ing. Jump.).
The chorus of Fenty’s “We Found Love” repeats the following line over and over: “We found love in a hopeless place.”42 The bass drum does not appear until one minute and eight seconds—zeroes, ones, and eights—into the song, and its booming entry is preceded by crescendo of cascading keyboards as well as a drum roll, so central to House music. All these factors combined generate intense sonic tension so that the arrival of the bass drum registers as both like relief and like punishment. In this way, the structure of “We Found Love” approximates finding love: the flowing discharge of endorphins and resulting euphoria but also evokes the violence of being thumped by the beat in a hopeless place. Heart/////Break. Add to this Fenty’s voice, which remains almost impassive, displaying a “cool affect” that sounds like it is resisting the booming rush of the song structure/instrumentation. It is as if Fenty’s vocalizing is physically/physiologically refusing the unacknowledged care work demanded from the Black female voice in popular music. The track’s music video features scenes from a volatile heterosexual intimate relationship in which the lovers are portrayed by Fenty and a model/actor (Dudley O’Shaughnessy, who has an uncanny resemblance to Chris Brown). In addition to the unmistakable timbre of Fenty’s voice, the alarm bells, the central keyboard riff—which resembles a siren—and the stark contrast between Fenty’s vocals and music on this track amplify the joy and the heartbreak of living, continuing to exist and subsist. I was always struck by the following line: “Feel the heartbeat in my mind.” Does this mean that the neurological system emulates, synthesizes the beat of the heart, the thump of the bass?43 Is it a heartbeat of pleasure (we found love; living) or the throb of pain (hopeless place, fear, trauma)? Most like likely it’s both, mixed and engineered at different volumes and intensities, depending on the time of day, not overcoming but surviving, living with, breathing in, subsisting through. Boom, like an 808.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah has observed how young Black female fans of Beyoncé relate to Fenty in the aftermath of the visible violence she experienced. She writes:
I’m not certain they really hate Rihanna, or find joy in her hurt — instead I think what they really hate is that Rihanna knows firsthand, like so many women and girls, and perhaps like so many of them, that being violently hit by a man doesn’t ever feel like a kiss. It feels the opposite. It is a humiliation that is impossible to forget. So what I think the Hive hates about Rihanna is that there is no fun, no fantasy in that kind of knowledge of womanhood, just a reflection of the real but all-too-often silent life they too must wade through as young women of color in America.44
These reactions to Fenty underscore yet another layer, dimension, facet of the labor demanded of her: transcending, overcoming violence, violation and heartbreak. The way Fenty was treated in the aftermath of her brutal violation—Chris Brown’s assault, the leaking of the photos by the police, and the way she was treated by the media—forms a part of ungendering, given that Black women are thought to be inured to pain, deserving of violence, and thus not qualified for protection in the same way as white women. As Beth Richie writes:
Black women in vulnerable positions within disadvantaged communities fall so far from the gaze that is now sympathetic to some women who experience violence that they have virtually no right to safety, protections, or redress when they are victimized. At best, they are relegated to the status of undeserving. More often, those Black women with the least privilege, who live in the most dangerous situations, are criminalized instead of being protected or supported.45
But care work is still violently expected, injuriously demanded. There is a beautiful and heartbreaking part in the 2014 film Girlhood (Bande de filles) that centers around Fenty’s song “Diamonds” that highlights the joy and pain of Black livingness.46 While much of the film adopts an anthropological lens on the Black life of French teenage girls, residing on the outskirts of Paris, this scene imagines a momentary and clearly limited instant of free livingness. With her new friends Lady, Adiatou and Fily, the film’s protagonist, Marieme, rents a hotel room in Paris so that they can escape for a night the strictures of anti-Black racism, misogynoirI, family, work, and school that govern their lives. At one point during the evening, Lady, Adiatou and Fily begin listening, dancing, and lip-syncing to Fenty’s song, while Marieme sits on the bed and watches them. Marieme then joins the other three girls, as they all joyously dance, embrace each other, and mime the words: “Shine bright like a diamond/Shining bright like a diamond/We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.”47 The scene is bathed in gorgeous blue light, which serves to heighten the boom and rush of pleasure of the moment, and to visually distinguish it from the heartbreak of the characters’ everyday lives, the specters of violence and violation. Finally, as the song and scene move towards an ending, viewers not only hear Fenty’s voice on the soundtrack but Lady, Adiatou, Marieme, and Fily singing along with the song’s English language lyrics with audible French accents: “Feel the warmth, we’ll never die. We’re like diamonds in the sky.” Living on.
Prince did not like Roland TR-808 drum machines. He preferred LinnDrum machines.
“Flesh memory” can be linked to and interfaced with NourbeSe Philip’s “bodymemory.” The flesh, though, does something different than the body conceptually: it marks the specificity of Black human life in its entanglements with the various forms of matter. Hortense Spillers distinguishes between body and flesh, and, initially, for Spillers, the flesh was primarily the space of objecthood and the abject. 48 In Habeas Viscus and Spillers’ more recent writings, the flesh emerges not as a utopian zone or even an exclusively positive one, but as a realm of possibility, she calls it empathy, for Black life that is not beholden to inclusion into the category of the Man-as-human (to use Sylvia Wynter’s phrasing). So while the body remains an elusive mirage, an unattainable abstraction for those situated in the shadows of freedom, the flesh offers a liminal domain not beholden to inclusion in discourses and institutions designed to kill us. The flesh rescued the TR-808 from obsolesce.
One way to understand Black culture’s relationship to technology is through the way that especially Black music/sound humanizes by enfleshing supposedly discrete, abstract, rigid, inhuman machines by making them usable in heretofore nonexistent modalities, whether this is the turntable, the player piano, or the 808.49 Take the way that Brandy intonates the 808 on this particular track that she recorded with Timbaland in 2011:
You hear me from a block away, I still got getaway
Baby can you hear me now, can you hear me now?
Baby can you hear me now, can you hear me now? 50
Not one of the many Internet lyric sites provides transcriptions of Brandy’s rhythmic harmonic ad-libs: eeightt-ohh-eeightt—eeightt-eeightt, sung in her unmistakable husky tone and reoccurring for the duration of the song; they only archive the alphabetic words. Clearly, this is not the science of the word as imagined by Wynter’s elaboration of Césaire—but it does allow us to think about the mechanics of voice and how Brandy’s “eeightt-ohh-eeightt—eeightt-eeightt” parallels and is purposed for non-linguistic beats. The tone of Brandy’s voice and her intonation are fundamental to how the song works, how it achieves its effects in the flesh. It is also fundamental to shifting the signification of the machine and envisioning what the machine can and cannot do. Emulating the sensation of the TR-808, Brandy’s vocal apparatus, like Blaque’s, undertakes the care work of humanizing the technology. This can be likened to, but does not twin, how current mobile technologies become and are incorporated into humanness via their use in Black popular music.51 Jayson Greene’s recent commentary seems to willfully misunderstand Fenty’s use of Bajan Creole while also pointing to her singing voice (known as “Rihanna Voice”) as technology: “Rihanna Voice has become an industry-wide idea, a creative property like the Korg synth or LinnDrum, that the quick-working line cooks of the pop industry daub onto tracks like hot sauce from squeeze bottle” (emphases added).52 Comparing “Rihanna Voice” to using hot sauce feeds too easily into the “crazy Island woman” trope mentioned previously. Calling up other condiments in this context—soy sauce, mayonnaise, whatever—would be wisecrack; these are inventions only ingested, seemingly, by non-black people. The hot sauce squeeze bottle so perfectly recalls that crude Fanonian moment (good eatin’, zone of non-being) by refusing Fanonian subtleties (upsurge, we are not, actually, zones of non-being!). There are, too, altogether different registers of analogy available by imagining the use of “Rihanna Voice” as adding flecks of gold or glitter to the mix, for instance…or grasping for but not reaching a kind of shimmering poetics. Shine bright like diamond. In addition, besides conjuring histories of Black enslavement, the description of “Rihanna Voice” as a “creative property” in the vein of LinnDrums and Korg synthesizers disregards that the latter technologies are ownable and owned objects from which the Linn Electronics and Korg corporations derive substantial pecuniary profit whereas Fenty does not. Boom like an 808. Here, too, we take Black women’s creative imagining of space—the beat, intention of Brandy’s eeightt-ohh-eeightt and “Rihanna Voice”—to undo the supposedly empty and/or inhuman Black geographies of sound.53 In this way, both spheres facilitate the imagining of the flesh or Black life “as cosmogony.”
(human + machines + human heart) x rhythm ↔ technology
Spreading fast and there’s no cure (and there’s no cure)
No need to run from heartache (It’s gonna get ya)
It’s gonna get you, get you for sure
(Everybody, everybody sing it, yeah)54
Openness and messiness and incompleteness are a pleasure, especially when theorized alongside the inflexible and thick category of race, but it is awful and painful to live open and undone. I had an exchange with two black poets about two very different things. And these exchanges made me think about the many ideas I have gathered to learn about race and theorize about race and live as racialized, in day-to-day (scholarly and non-scholarly) contexts. These terms. I remember them mostly from graduate school. They were sometimes coveted, sometimes rejected. But they all sought to “destabilize” race and/or blackness. It goes something like this: race is fluid and third space and liminal, and blackness is fragmented and unfinished and on the threshold, and race is hybrid-on-the-border-messy and black is fractured, incomplete, flexible. And I thought: it is painful and harmful to live like that, isn’t it? It hurts to live always undone and unfinished. It is heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking even when the impossibility is joyful or you catch a glimpse of a life outside that inflexible weight.
Afro-Scottish poet and novelist Jackie Kay writes about this perpetual state of destabilized unbelonging in a poem from her 1993 collection, Other Lovers, entitled “In my Country.” A video of Kay reading this and another poem provide context, wherein Kay, who was adopted in the1950s by white Scottish parents, narrates several stories of white people relaying to her that being Black and being Scottish are a contradiction. For instance, a white woman asking her mother “Is that your daughter?” and demanding to know from Kay: “Where do you come from?”55 As a Black person in Scotland, Kay is an interloper, always already undone and unfinished:
a woman passed round me
in a slow watchful circle,
as if I were a superstition;
or the worst dregs of her imagination,
so when she finally spoke
her words spliced into bars
of an old wheel. A segment of air.
Where do you come from?
‘Here,’ I said, ‘Here. These parts.56
My former graduate student, Kara Melton, calls this “moving through.” She explores black mobility as a kind of constrained possibility with “moving through” underscoring the physical cost of navigating the geographies of racism and anti-blackness.57 What is the physiological cost? Is the claim to or of “these parts” possible for black people? What other geographic options are there? No return. Heartbreak.58
Maybe one way to think race or Blackness is that it functions by making the biologic reflexly real in the domain of social production: Blackness enfleshes social production; Black life socializes the biologic outside the terms of dysselection. Trying to make it real but compared to what?65
So, we are talking about relationality, and how extra-human devices and intense narratives of love allow us to notice what is beautifully human about those who have never been free. This sense of being, in relation to technologies—including technologies that are bound up in unpleasant stories, like the TR-808—adds a layer to what we know about black humanity. What we know, really well, is dehumanizing objecthood and innovative resistance and the complex navigation of the structural, gendered, colonial, plantocratic workings of racial capitalism. What extra-human devices and narratives expose is an analytical pathway that is in articulation with black humanity; that is, a lens or a framework or a worldview that is cognizant of, but does not seek results or answers that are beholden to either oppression or resistance. Put slightly differently, these extra-human devices and narratives expose navigation without dwelling on its oppression-resistance poles, they expose what kind of mechanisms and schemas and sounds and instruments (musical and not) help make this world navigable for those who are, in most instances, disciplined and surveyed and always imagined as static-in-place (look!). These extra-human devices are succor. Mark Campbell discusses these kinds of possibilities through his work on turntables and mix tapes.66 He argues, really beautifully, how the found objects and technologies, which inform and enhance black cultural production and music making, provide us with new ways of narrating humanity. This account does not split the 808s from the performer, it does not deny the disappointing and repurposed and sometimes awful and brutal history of 808s, it does not focus on the empty “body” that is manipulating or repurposing or playing the 808s. Instead this narration of humanity understands these moments, people, histories, beats, disappointments, as co-instituting each other which, in turn, reframes blackness outside existing calcified and superfluous and normative white supremacist guidelines (measured vis-à-vis Man-as-human). With this, we have to ask, how is the navigation made and how does the navigation feel? How does the succor offer relief or joy or sadness or heartbreak or anger or the intensely beautiful, physiologically? This is, for me, a mathematics of black humanity that already is; or the arithmetic of Black life that will have been.
We gon keep it bumpin while the 808 is jumpin’ 67
You + me’s not just arithmetic
it’s wicked mathematics
the combinations we could do
would make your maths look like ABC68
In some ways we are splitting and overlapping racial processes (enfleshment and navigation) in order to work out how extra-human technologies figure into black life and humanity. I have been working with mathematics and other number systems to try and think through these kinds of tensions and analytical difficulties. Mathematics is, for me, an unfamiliar system of knowledge. I am not a mathematician, but I am curious about how practices of categorization are not always, for the unfree, equated with knowable classificatory systems that capture and seal off their abjection. Mathematics underwrites multiple strands of Cartesian logics and positivism, and, in terms of time and place, the practice of slavery is situated firmly amidst European empiricism, various kinds of human and non-human data collection, and matters of fact. In many ways, mathematics enumerates commodification and dispossession through accounting and making black fact. As noted above, the economy of black objecthood is long studied and theorized. My question is, how do we think outside that system, if only transitorily, to draw attention to black life? How has the practice of counting numbers—not even mathematics, per se—fooled us into replicating black objecthood by rewarding (academic and otherwise) systems of accumulation? Here we can stack up a whole bunch of numbers: middle passage ledgers, the lashes and the cotton bails, counted the uncountable Black trans-sex-worker deaths, the ten or sixty or seven men and boys shot in the back in March 2014, the seven thousand, in 1998, women with broken faces, the red records. Why are we only noticing those accounts that cannot bear black life (the ledger)? We must, of course. We must unforget these numbers. But we also know, for example, that the field of mathematics is vast (algebra, calculus, geometry, logic, computation, graph theory, chaos theory, statistics, and much much more), so why attach black history and black experience and black bodies and black flesh only to a plantocratic accounting system that denies these other ways of knowing numbers? This is not, then, about refuting mathematics; it is about imagining black life from the perspective of struggle. For me, the science of the word uses and dwells on that accounting system as a way to explode knowable mathematical solutions (noticing the hugeness of this system of knowledge and numbers, infinities and pi, the irresolvable), insisting that the word (poetics, narrative) is implicit to that how we count what we count (we are responsible for, we make and adore, the accounts and the accounting). At the same time, the science of the word interrupts that system by noticing how sometimes it cannot capture other ways of poetic relational knowing; the science of the word thus seeks out the ways black people have understood themselves in numerical and mathematical ways that are not so easily sutured to plantocratic and colonial accounting systems.69 Black life and love are not something you can have, but something you do and can never get. This returns me to the 808s or the LinnDrum machines or eeightt-ohh-eeightt/eeightt-eeightt: here are mathematics—measured and unmeasured bam, drop, eeightt—that reveal a new or different register of black life (I hope!): That, perhaps, is wicked mathematics.
Wicked mathematics. Trying to calculate the incalculable, that which cannot be captured by or in the sociogenic code of Man, but discloses and creates human life as Black life. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Sun Ra come to mind in terms of “wicked mathematics,” since they all use mathematics, numbers, calculations, tabulations, charts, tables with and against the master-codes of Man. Of course, on the other side, stand slave ship registers, or school teacher’s ledger in Morrison’s Beloved, which lists in different columns the animal and human characteristics of the enslaved.70 And numbers are different from mathematics but they co-constitute one another to make meaning, to tell the story, to bend or calcify how we know the world. Du Bois and Wells-Barnett both deployed numbers to show how Black Life in the late 19th-century US was constituted by economic, political, sexual, and physical violence. In her autobiography, Wells-Barnett states that she uses “the statistics of lynching [to] prove that according to the charges given, not one-third of the men and women lynched are charged with assaults on white women, and brand that statement as a falsehood invented by the lynchers to justify acts of cruelty and outrage.”71 While we’ve now come to realize the futility of this particular numbers game, which is why there’s still the need to show that Black lives matter via the incessant cumulative enumeration of Black deaths, there is a inventiveness and enfleshed livingness to Wells-Barnett’s and Du Bois’s mathematics.72
Outside biocentric ledgers and coloniality, there is also the long tradition playing the numbers in Afro-diasporic and other communities (Italian lotto, policy, bolita, playing the bug, and so on). In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois writes: “Gambling goes on almost openly in the slum sections and occasions, perhaps, more quarreling and crime than any other single cause…” He then goes on to quote at length an article from the Public Ledger:
Hundreds of poor people every day place upon the infatuating lottery money that had better be spent for food and clothing. They actually deny themselves the necessaries of life to gamble away their meagre income with small chance of getting any return…. Many children go hungry and with insufficient clothing as a result of policy playing…The policy evil is, to my mind, the very worst that exists in our large cities as affecting the poorer classes of people.73
Clearly, these numbers perturb Du Bois, but he also states in another context: “history writes itself in figures and diagrams,” for which one needs numbers, for sure. Such a shame Du Bois could not see the history being written in the numeric playing of the bug. Or is the playing the bug in the system, the conjuring of other a-systems, maybe they’re eeightt-ohh-eeightt—eeightt-eeightt wedged between Black Life as world-mattering and Black Life as world(de)forming? Racial capitalism draws a line between sorting and playing, accounting and gambling, the (ledger) books and the (scoreboard) books. The numbers are inhabited; mathematics provides a method that determines the outcome. Heart/////Break.
Something’s Jumpin’ in your Shirt.74
I read somewhere that you can die from heartbreak. You can die of a broken heart. Heartbreak can lead to depression, mental health struggles, and heart disease just as they can and do often produce irreparable heart////break. The American Heart Association calls this “broken heart syndrome.”75
Broken heart syndrome can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure.
Broken heart syndrome is usually treatable.
The most common signs and symptoms of broken heart syndrome are chest pain and shortness of breath. You can experience these things even if you have no history of heart disease.
In broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.
I have always known we could die from a broken heart. We may not go the way of all flesh by and through and because of heartbreak. We may just die a little—those moments when our heart doesn’t pump well, the shortness of breath, the constricted, stifling circuits of chest pain. I realized, too, I cannot sufficiently work through contradictory workings of love and anticipatory loss and so I get stuck, mid-heartbreak. My heart keeps breaking, over and over, every single day. I can only explain the feeling as cold air being shot through my upper chest. Freezing cold air moving through my chest, day after day. It is not simply sorrow. It opens up, too, with possibilities. Last summer, I woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating pains in my chest. My first thought was: heart attack (family history, predisposition, stress, and alla that) rather than heart/////break, because the purely physical is more readily available as a diagnosis in a biocentric world. The throbbing aches got worse whenever I tried to lay down. I waited to call the doctor’s office until the morning, because I didn’t want to wake my sleeping daughters and subject them to the potential heartbreak of having to worry about the health of their parent at such a young age. After many hours of agony and speculation via numerous medical websites, my physician confirmed to me that I was afflicted with was an acute case of heartburn. Since heartburn is not a direct result of that particular hollow muscle, it was always a mystery to me why it was called that in English. As consequence of experiencing its painful boom so intensely in and around my heart, I finally understood viscerally why this condition was named heartburn, and how it differed from yet may be related to heart////break.
Can I get another take?
I wasn’t being honest in the last paragraph, taking an easy way out and not truly resting with heart////break. My full armor was still on, it’s dazzling and beautiful.76 My heartburn was related to heart///break. It has been almost ten years now: Lawyers. Department of Children and Family Services. Police. Doctors. Custody evaluators. Therapists. More lawyers. At some point, I am forced to justify to Them why my experience of sexual violation/violence and my queerness do not make me an unfit parent…Eviscerated silence. Boom. Heart////break.
This why I write and speak about ungendering/Blackqueerness and sexual violence/violation in detached, hushed scholarly tonalities—armor on, decked out in those gorgeously abstract gold fronts, like a shhh—, while knowing that I do so because they mark the core of who I am. There I is, living in, living with.77 I try to strip off the armor slowly, carefully but it’s difficult. The armor has merged with my “natural” body, blanketing my flesh, enshrining my psyche, encasing that hollow muscle. Fuck a cyborg, though, really. Boom…Like What?
Sitting on an airplane, I pause watching Moonlight for what must be the tenth time; it reduces me to not just tears but abject bawling face and all the emotions associated with it.78 As opposed to Mary J., I can’t even pretend that I’m not gon cry.79 Granted, I sob at many things: everything from Black Ink Crew, to Hortense Spillers’ sentences, to the worst manipulative Disney movies; and I still haven’t been able to listen to Prince’s “Conditions of the Heart” or “Sometimes It Snows in April” since his passing almost 18 months ago. Simply thinking about these songs brings tears to my eyes. Still. And, while I have many intellectual reservations about Barry Jenkins’s film and its reception, my critical shield washes away with blubbering, messy, tears whenever I enter the world of this film. Undone every time, Moonlight hits me like the full weight of twenty 808s; boooooom; heart////break. The film shatters my heart, for myself, for all sensitive femme/feminine Black boys and splinters at a world so intent on violently destroying our too-muchness, on paralyzing our wings, brutally overseeing how our softness congeals into a tough, protective veneer. Where do you go when your being is too much for this world? Where? Where is our love?
Though supremely frustrated that we do not see an adult version of the Chiron played so brilliantly by Ashton Sanders in the second part of the film’s triptych, I understand why the Trevante Rhodes’s Chiron in the third part must so fiercely don his thick sheath of masculinity. For some of us it’s not protuberant triceps and gold-plated grills but intricate theoretical vernaculars, themselves extensions of necessary-for-survival-street-corner-verbal-dexterities, tumbling out our mouths and dripping from our fingers, that are supposed enshrine us like intellectual superpowers. Still the same function. We were never meant to survive into adulthood, at least not as sensitive femme/feminine Black boys. How do you inhabit a universe, where you can’t even be imagined utopically (like a grown Chiron portrayed by Ashton Sanders), let alone tenderly, lovingly?
So, I began to weep for myself and all the Black boys like me, reflexly re-collecting palpably, physically, physiologically, what it felt like, what it still sometimes feels like to spend hours assembling and wedging into your armor just to walk down the block, or to simply enter a room full of strangers, because something between Infinity and Nothingness might pop off, sometimes a word, other times a look or a slight bodily movement. I inspect my armor again, now roughly four decades old, sensing that it has become a little too tight, a bit itchy, ripped there, chipped here, and worn out all over. Living in, living with…heart/////break, possibilities, openings:
This is why you and I and we dance. We’ll go out to the floor.80
Loving intensely and then monumental loss. Loving quietly, consistently and then booming hurt. We can also go the way of the flesh. We can die from a broken heart. This is terrifying, particularly if understood in relation to the heartbreaking history that underlies TR-808s. 808s break hearts. Boom. Jump. Succor. This is part of what we want to understand and patiently learn. The long histories of racial violence, the looming and real violations, the heart and the 808s, the mathematics and the flesh, the science of the word—these are sites that may not ordinarily understood or thought together, but when they are, they reveal black life and black livingness as shifting locations enfleshed by the arteries of enduringly heartbreaking and joyful routes and roots. The hollow muscular organ filled up.
Gratitude: Ray Zilli, Nick Mitchell, Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Lisa Lowe, Kris Manjapra, Demetrius Eudell, and Simone Browne.
1 Kurt James Werner, Jonathan S. Abel, Julius O. Smith III, “A Physically-Informed, Circuit-Bendable, Digital Model of the Roland TR-808 Bass Drum Circuit,” Conference Proceedings of the 17th International Conference on Digital Audio Effects (DAFx-14), Erlangen, Germany, September 1-5, 2014: 1-8; On April 1, 2017, in the midst of writing this piece, Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of the Roland Corporation and Ace Electronic Industries, died. Kakehashi developed the Roland TR-808, the Roland CR-78, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), and many other instrument technologies including the R1 Rhythm Ace that, in part, underlies the TR-808.
2 Kurt James Werner, Jonathan S. Abel, Julius O. Smith III, “A Physically-Informed,” 1.
3 Kurt James Werner, Jonathan S. Abel, Julius O. Smith III, “A Physically-Informed,” 2.
4 Kurt James Werner, Jonathan S. Abel, Julius O. Smith III, “A Physically-Informed,” 1.
5 Vèvè A Clark, “Developing Diaspora Literacy: Allusion in Maryse Conde’s Heremakhonon.” In Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1990.
6 Kelly Rowland, “Like This,” from Ms. Kelly; Mya, “My Love Is Like Wo,” from Moodring; Something for the People, “My Love is the Shhh!,” from This Time It’s Personal.
7 Maze ft. Frankie Beverly, “Joy and Pain,” from Joy and Pain.
8 Sparkle’s niece was one of the first girls to accuse Kelly of sexual abuse and Sparkle later testified against Kelly during his 2008 trial for child pornography charges.
9 Kelly’s recorded output contains just as many, if not more, misogynist entries, for instance “Feelin’ on Yo Booty” or “It Seems Like You’re Ready.” On the R. Kelly as pied piper and the Pied Piper legend see see: Chris Heath, “Why R. Kelly Calls himself ‘the Pied Piper of R & B’,” in GQ, February 3, 2016: http://www.gq.com/story/why-r-kelly-calls-himself-pied-piper.
10 Beth Richie shows how intimate households, communities, and the state often work in concert to create a “violence matrix,” which consists of “physical assaults against women,” different forms of “sexual aggression,” and emotional exploitation. Beth Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. New York: New York University Press, 2012, 132-133.
11 Whitney Houston, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?,” from Whitney.
13 Jessica Hopper, “Read the ‘Stomach-Churning’ Sexual Assault Accusations Against R. Kelly in Full.” Village Voice (16 Dec. 2013).
14 Prince, “Computer Blue,” from Purple Rain.
15 Chris Heath, “The Confessions of R. Kelly” GQ Magazine, January 20, 2016 http://www.gq.com/story/r-kelly-confessions. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Race and Globalization.” In Geographies of Global Change: Remapping the World, edited by Ronald John Johnston, Peter James Taylor, and Michael Watts, 261-274. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002, 261. See also: Beth Richie, Arrested Justice.
16 “Slaves were the ghosts in the machine of kinship.” Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 139.
17 Katherine McKittrick, “Fantastic/Still/Life: On Richard Iton (A Working Paper).” Contemporary Political Theory (2015): 28; En Vogue, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” from Funky Divas.
19 Sidney Madden, “Today in Hip-Hop: Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes Burns Down Andre Rison’s Mansion.” XXL 9 (June 2015).
20 “It scares me to feel this way,” Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” from Private Dancer
21 Saidiya Hartman, “The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors” Souls 18:1 (2016): 166-173. Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, “Where Is the Love?” In her 1978 essay that carries the same title as this song, June Jordan writes: “as a Black feminist, I must ask myself: Where is the love? How is my own lifework serving to end these tyrannies, these corrosions of sacred possibility?” June Jordan, Civil Wars: Observations from the Front Lines of America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.
23 David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985, 18. cf. Rinaldo Walcott, “Black Men in Frocks: Sexing Race in a Gay Ghetto (Toronto).” In Claiming Space: Racialization in Canadian Cities, edited by Cheryl Teelucksingh, 121-134. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006.
24 See Jan Gaye and David Ritz. After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.
25cf. Dina Georgis, The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East. Albany: SUNY Press, 2013.
26 Kanye West, “RoboCop,” from 808s and Heartbreak.
27 Marlene NourbeSe Philip, “Dis Place: The Space Between.” In Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. 287-316. See also: Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, 46-52.
30 Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Ed. Katherine McKittrick. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015; 9-89.
31 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (119). On “suffocating reification” see pp. 89.
32 Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Vintage, 2007; David J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Plume, 2007; Aniruddh D. Patel, Music, Language and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
33 This is in contradistinction to “dysgraphia” (the inability to write due to brain damage or disorder, deployed by Christina Sharpe) and “aphasia” (a communication disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that contain language, a word deployed by Frank B. Wilderson III). Here, I think, Sylvia Wynter’s science of the word is especially helpful. In my understanding, dysgraphia-aphasia are mobilized by Sharpe and Wilderson as “literary” or “theoretical” terms that help them think about anti-blackness and other forms of oppression. These terms help the authors tease out how some people cannot see or write or imagine black humanity. These terms are applied to our existing biocentric system. These terms help the authors make sense of black dehumanization. These terms help the authors work out how when some folks see black, they can only enunciate it in relation to hegemonic white supremacist normative conceptions of humanity. Yet both terms, dysgraphia and aphasia, carry the heavy clinical weight that is paired with learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and other neuroatypicalities. In addition to the taxing weight laid on those who are cast, in these scholarly works, as neurologically damaged and imperfect (disabled)—a move which refuses human-impairment as an alternative form of humanity—I want to suggest that if they were informed in any way by Wynter’s framework they would have (perhaps) shied away from deploying-and-emptying these terms. Or, alternatively and definitely more interestingly, the authors may have understood these terms as simultaneously clinical-narrative. One cannot discount the clinical underpinnings of these terms—no matter how hard one tries! So, what is at stake, for (black and non-black) neuroatypical and non-neurotypical people, for (black and non-black) people with learning disabilities, for neurotypical (black and non-black) people when brain dysfunction, symbolically, explains racism or anti-blackness or the inability to “see” or “read” black “correctly”? What happens when “illness” or “disorder” explains why we, or why they, hate? How are race and disability — impairment as the embodiment of blackness or impairment as projection of anti-blackness—being analytically mobilized to understand racial violence? And how do we grapple with the unsettling numbers, the math, the accumulations, the reams of paper that read: black folks with impairments are more likely to be incarcerated, murdered by police, and so on? What of the story of violence resulting in brain damage, communication disorder, the inability to write? What Wynter taught me [Katherine] is that the bifurcation of science and poetics is a kind of disciplined brutality. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the willful separation of the literary and the scientific does the work of colonial positivism—suggesting, explicitly, that there are kinds and types of discreet knowledge while also hiving off ways of knowing and being. So, dysgraphia-aphasia can never be simply symbolic or metaphoric or literary. They are deeply clinical, and they are lived, too, as clinically-poetic narratives within our prevailing system of knowledge that despises difference. If we trust Wynter’s formulation of bios-mythois [and I, Katherine, do]—it means these terms are always bios-mythois. Just as the 808s cannot be dislodged from that awful violence and be rendered “pure technology” and without history, the clinical-medical-neurological-and-poetic contours of impairment and neuroatypicality-non-neurotypicality cannot be dislodged from dysgraphia-aphasia. If this (a metaphorically impaired humanity) informs the analytical frame then, theoretically, it risks reflexly reproducing a dehumanizing law-like logic wherein ability and neurotypicality actualize what it means to be totally and fully human. This not only legitimizes biocentric corporeal categories in hierarchical terms, it also fails to imagine relational struggles across a range of corporeal and racial identifications. Singularity is required and Man-as-human restfully and stably reproduces itself at the apex of this formulation. With this, the trope of the “disorder”—which is being mobilized as a way to understand, say, racism or anti-blackness or scripts that degrade blackness—is locked into a biocentric frame, with disability, neuroatypicality, illegibility, in fact, inadvertently positioning the authors of the symbolic-literary dysgraphia-aphasia as normally and normatively able, typical, legible, non-disordered! Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016; Frank B. Wilderson III, “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the Political Trials of Black Insurgents.” InTensions Journal 5 (2011), http://www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/pdfs/frankbwildersoniiiarticle.pdf. See also: Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” In Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, 9-89.
34 Katherine McKittrick, “Rebellion/Invention/Groove.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Platform for Criticism, 20 (2016): 79-91.
36 “No pain is forever.” Rihanna, “Hard,” feat. Young Jeezy, from Rated R.
37 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 26 (2008): 7.
38 Much of our thoughts on Fenty were inspired by Alisa Bierria’s “’Where Them Bloggers At’: Reflections on Rihanna, Accountability, and Survivor Subjectivity.” Social Justice, 37:4; Nicole R. Fleetwood, “The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire.” African American Review 45:3 (2012): 419-435; Hannah Black, Dark Pool Party. Los Angeles: Dominica Publishing, 2016; Chris Randle, “‘I Feel Like Everything Shouldn’t Exist’: An Interview with Hannah Black.” Hazlitt (23 August 2016).
39 Alyssa Bailey, “Rihanna Talks Chris Brown, Staying Single, and Why She’s Not Having Casual Sex.” ELLE (6 October 2015).
40 Mariah Carey, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” from Charmbracelet, and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken,” from Rattlesnakes.
41 Similarly, in 2014 a surveillance video of Janay Rice being brutally beaten by her husband, football player Ray Rice, in an elevator was made public by TMZ and circulated widely on social media.
42 Rihanna, “We Found Love,” from Talk That Talk.
43cf. Prince, “Sex in the Summer,” on Emancipation. Several scientists and theorists have postulated that humans can not only discern lower frequencies better than high ones, but that this is partially a consequence of fetuses hearing the lower frequencies of the mother’s heartbeat and of her voice in utero, which is crucial for early neural development. See Michael J. Hove, et al. “Superior Time Perception for Lower Musical Pitch Explains Why Bass-Ranged Instruments Lay down Musical Rhythms.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111:28 (2014): 10383-10388.
44 Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You: The BeyHive.” NPR.org: The Record Music News from NPR (17 Mar. 2014).
45 Beth Richie, Arrested Justice, 21-22. Similarly, Bierria remarks: “Black women who are victims of violence are not simply accused of bringing it upon themselves, they are dis-positioned as its perpetrator… Seemingly, when black women are violated, their experiences of it and testimonies of resilience and resistance are vulnerable to politics that define their actions as instigating the violence.” Bierria, 106
46 Though I’m not sure whether this is apocryphal or not, Fenty was so enamored with this scene that she did not charge a licensing fee for the film’s use of “Diamonds” in its entirety, as is customary. This is complicated by the fact that the director of the film is a white French woman, Céline Sciamma. I raise this primarily to bring into focus the labor requested of Fenty in this context.
47 Rihanna, “Diamonds,” from Unapologetic.
48 Hortense J. Spillers, “‘Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe’: An American Grammar Book.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003 , 203-229.
49 This is really different than the idea of “the cyborg” which is, for both of us, a figure that extends the colonial project precisely because it seeks to dislodge itself from the flesh, denies practices of black and non-black servitude, even if sutured to these enfleshments and embodied racial economies in abstract refusal.
50 Timbaland, feat. Brandy “808”
51 Alexander G. Weheliye, “Rhythms of Relation.” In The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, Volume 2. edited by Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek, 361-379. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
52 Jayson Greene, “Is Rihanna the Most Influential Pop Singer of the Last Decade? Turn Your Ear a Certain Way and You Can Hear Her Everywhere.” Pitchfork. While Fenty has spoken about feeling the need to ‘tone down’ using the inflections of her mother tongue, Bajan Creole, both in her singing and speech, it bears mentioning that she has consistently recorded songs (“Dem Haters,” “Man Down,” etc.), beginning with her 2005 debut single “Pon de Replay,” that have deployed Bajan Creole (and other Afro-Caribbean intonations). Fenty has also collaborated with Caribbean artists such as Dwane Husbands and Vybz Kartel
61 Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom,” 287-88.
62 Spillers, “Mama’s Baby,” 206.
63 Spillers, “Mama’s Baby,” 208. While Spillers highlights the specificity of the ungendering of Black women here, a different part of the essay she refers to the “ungendering and defacing project of African persons.” Spillers, “Mama’s Baby,” 214.
64 Wynter and McKittrick. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species?” 34. Variations of this phrase also appear in the following essays: Sylvia Wynter, “Africa, the West and the Analogy of Culture: The Cinematic Text after Man;” “‘Genital Mutilation’ or ‘Symbolic Birth?’ Female Circumcision, Lost Origins, and the Aculturalism of Feminist/Western Thought;” Human Being as Noun? Or Being Human as Praxis— Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn: A Manifesto; “The Pope Must Have Been Drunk, The King of Castile a Madman: Culture as Actuality, and the Caribbean Rethinking Modernity;” “Rethinking ‘Aesthetics’: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice.” For access to Wynter’s articles and essays free of charge, please mail a request to True Leap Press. *Our collective is recirculating scanned copies of articles for educational purposes only.
65 Roberta Flack, “Compared to What?,” from First Take.
66 Mark V. Campbell, “Everything’s Connected: A Relationality Remix, A Praxis.” The CLR James Journal 20:1/2 (2014): 97-114.
67 Kelis, “Bossy,” from Kelis Was Here.
68 Nicolette, “Wicked Mathematics,” from Now is Early.
69 This also points to mathematics that are not fully sutured to colonial accounting systems—African fractals or “anumeric” cultures, for example —which points to other ways of knowing. See: Mike Vuolo. “What Happens When a Language Has No Numbers?” Slate (16 Oct. 2013); Misty Sol, “Hidden Figure: A Meditation on Genius and the African Origin of Math.” Philadelphia Printworks (26 February 2017).
70 Toni Morrison, Beloved. New York: Plume, 1987.
71 Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, 136.
72 W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Program for a Sociological Society.” W.E.B. Du Bois Papers. “A software bug is an error, flaw, failure or fault in a computer program or system that causes it to produce an incorrect or unexpected result, or to behave in unintended ways.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_bug.
73 W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro. Philadelphia: Publications of the University of Pennsylvania, 1899, 265.
74 Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra, “Something’s Jumpin’ in Your Shirt.”