—Joshua M. Myers
We live and have our being in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and despair. It is often rendered under terms like “irrational” or “senseless.” We are told that these moments exist outside of normal conditions: “this is not who we are.”
But who is “we”?
The questioning—how could this happen?—lingers as if it is meant to be a reckoning. Then it dissipates again. Until the next cycle.
As useful as these moments of introspection may be to some, Black thinking traditions have not had license to navel gaze, whether in moments of upheaval or during lulls. The clarification of who “we” are has always been an urgent vocation, a necessary practice of those writing for our lives. We write from an awareness that we could die in the streets at any moment, whether it be at the hands of riot police during a protest or at the hands of a police officer or vigilante imposing racial order—American order.
Whether these occurrences are irrational or senseless, whether they are legal or justified, has often mattered less to us. Because we know that they emanate from individual actors behaving under structural conditions. As Cedric Robinson once wrote, many of us know the “rule of law” has never meant any resemblance to “justice or a moral order.” Those committed to Black Study have continuously explored the meaning of these moments, not merely for the satisfaction of others’ curiosities, or to gain absolution from those who seem to not understand. Or even for appeal. Instead, the best of our work has been about undoing the structures that have caused these harms. This is work that thinks through race and the question of racism in service to a project of liberation from “the terms of order” that it requires. We are writing for our lives.
And though it is work created
under duress, it is no less beautiful for being created under these circumstances.
The beauty of Blackness is its capacity for regard and wonder, even in the
times of trouble. It is how we have lived. Writers able to capture this ethos are
many, yet their ideas, do not appear atop the bestsellers lists, on the
self-help blogs, in many of the calls to action to educate the nation. This is
less erasure than it is an evasion of a true reckoning, which would require a
call from those Black traditions that assert: this is who
But what makes this writing powerful, necessary, and yes, beautiful, is that is also an inward-looking tradition of finding ways to be otherwise in the face of it all.
The radical historian Gerald Horne’s many works address the terror of these times. In his 2014 text, The Counter-Revolution of 1776 rethinking the founding moment of the United States, he asserts that America’s birth was shrouded in racial concerns. The British move toward abolition and the restlessness of the enslaved were occasions for many colonialists to support the move toward independence. Thanks to the New York Times’s 1619 project, the outlines of this argument have become more popularized and many left-liberal American historians have cast doubt on its merits. They are less willing to taint the nation’s founding with the stain of the enslaver’s motivation. Horne’s work, however, continues a line of radical Black assertion. The conclusion of the text offers the ominous implication: If at the founding moment, enslaved Africans opposed the Patriots—their enslavers—perhaps part of the reason for the anti-Black violence their descendants have faced ever since is vengeance. Horne’s work is also critical in this moment because it assaults the kind of “methodological nationalism” that reifies borders, often assuming America as the only prominent location of for racist violence. But this kind of anti-Blackness reigns in the world—African enslavement was a global enterprise, a project of modernity. And a look at these reverberations can be accessed in a text like Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents.
Horne’s larger oeuvre, especially in the last decade, has documented the fear of Black resistance that burned in the heart of the slaveocracy across the Atlantic world. It was a justified fear, for resistance was widespread. Enslaved Africans never accepted the terms of their bondage. They never made peace with a system that reduced them to chattel. In Jacob Carruthers’s account of the Haitian Revolution, The Irritated Genie, this tradition of mass resistance is read as the true cause of the revolution. Narrating the story from the perspective of the force that guided Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Carruthers animates this important history of resistance with what scholars later described as a view from below. But Carruthers’s frame is also an occasion to think the kinds of societies that could be built with this “Spirit of revolution” in the aftermath of the decay of the old.
Before and subsequent to the creation of Haiti—the guiding light for many subsequent revolts in the African diaspora—earlier forms of self-governance were critical manifestations of resistance. Indeed, marronage, what Robin D.G. Kelley called the “first principle of African resistance,” was likely the grounding force in Haiti as well. Chronicling the presence of maroon societies in the United States, Sylviane Diouf’s Slavery’s Exiles has helped bury the once-persistent myth that these kinds of communities did not exist in mainland North America outside of Florida. Her exploration of marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, the areas around the Savannah River, and in Louisiana show how enslaved Africans recreated life beyond the plantation, amidst the brutality of slavery. The insightful chapter on “bandits,” further contextualizes how maroons viewed property and the requirement that it be liberated and shared. Especially, when that property was acquired with capital generated from stolen labor. Taking cues from Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, and the Haitian revolutionary examples, Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage intervenes in theories of freedom from these conceptual bases of maroon history and tradition. The power of this work is that it allows us to posit that perhaps the embedded liberalism that characterizes many contemporary resistance strategies should indeed be rethought.
But as the Haitian example portended, eventually society, itself, would have to become maroon territory. Revolt was the only option. And this is how we ought to view the enslaved African’s participation in the United States’ Civil War. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America remains the most important text on this subject. His framing of a “general strike” as the revolt which remade the war into one of liberation remains instructive. His ideas of the subsequent struggle to enact an abolition democracy and its betrayal remains a prescient analysis of the connections between race, state, and capital. No theorist has taken up this mantle more forcefully than Angela Y. Davis. Among her many works, Abolition Democracy imagines a world beyond the carceral state—itself, a literal extension of the unfree labor regimes and other mechanisms of control that sparked the revolts of the enslaved and the many facets of class struggle that came in its wake. All forms of violence—global war, torture, domestic, and sexual—are for Davis rooted in the same political structures that produced enslavement, that produced this society and the modern world. Abolition of the death penalty, of the prison, is of course about a new society altogether, is preparatory to abolition democracy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, normative conceptions of democracy centered on a privileged elite and disappeared “the people.” But more than that, democracy’s mode of operation encoded a rhetorical denial of the particular interests that are protected in market-driven societies. This global order relies on what Cedric Robinson in The Terms of Order calls political authority. Its violent enactment was possible through its appropriation of charisma. And the result has been a political system enveloped by leadership. By leaders. We believe in them, we empower them. We want them to protect us. To serve us. It is belief that is not as much misguided as it misapplied. We deserve protection, but Robinson’s work strongly implies that political leadership may be incapable of providing it. The failures of our political situation to protect Black lives, is not merely a failure of recognition, though that is crucially important. It is also a failure of the concept of politics. In a recent collection of Robinson’s writings edited by H.L.T. Quan, Cedric Robinson: on Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance, one of the many themes covered is that the propensity for political leadership to evolve into fascism is baked into the cake of “the political.” The need to exceptionalize fascism in order to provide an alibi for the repressions of liberal forms of political authority is constantly affirmed in scholarship across disciplines. But as it was for Aime Cesaire in his Discourse on Colonialism, it is for Robinson necessary to connect these concerns to a civilization, rather than a “nation” or sub-group. Also included in this volume is an essay that directly connects much of Robinson’s intellectual concerns to the contexts of the Rodney King assault, which he frames as in fact, more evidence of “the habituation of American society to a Hobbseian moral discipline and political order.” A concomitant to a post-1989 world in deep flux.
The recent history of the Los Angeles rebellion is indeed important to consider in producing this moment. The current president’s threatened invocation of the 1807 Insurrection Act was last weaponized in 1992. Sylvia Wynter’s No Humans Involved excavates how the police response to that violence, to the violence we are seeing now, was possible. In this and in her larger work, she argues that it is through Western society’s elaboration of the human that Black life was evacuated. NHI is not simply a code for the police. The police merely guard and construct borders for these definitions.
Affirming lessons we have learned from Davis, Robinson, and Wynter is a recent text which exposes the liberal role in the construction of the carceral state. Naomi Murakawa traces this development in The First Civil Right, an indispensable volume that explores just how central racism is to American liberal imaginations. That “law and order” was a bipartisan conceit of American politics surely might cause us to develop additional plans beyond simply voting certain people out of office (as important a strategy as that surely is). Nikhil Pal Singh’s essay, “The Whiteness of Police,” affirms the role of race in narratives of law and order, rooting the emergence of the institution in the preservation of the racial order. Much like Gerald Horne, Singh’s Black is a Country stems from the premise that the racism of the American project is more endemic than incidental. But there is always resistance. The text also demonstrates how Black intellectuals and activists not only exposed this in their writings but thought through how to survive within those conditions as well as construct alternatives. Among their solutions was the imperative of international solidarity, particularly in the wake of the Cold War, a tactic Horne finds all around Black American history. And one we can both see and continue to think about today.
As we do so, we must keep in mind the wonderful “authority” of Black expressive culture. It has been our saving grace. Among the people Singh’s work investigates are writers. They are our keepers. Our dreamers. Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic powerfully evokes creative expression as a generative form of political engagement in the wake of the post-civil rights era. Black music, art, and poetry, practice what Christina Sharpe in her In the Wake terms “wake work.” It is evocation of life against death, fully cognizant of the potential of death, fully defiant against its possibility. Take time to listen to the vibrations of the blues, “jazz,” and hip hop. In our brushstrokes, we wipe away our pain and bear witness to our suffering. And like Chick Corea, we “paint the world” anew.
In her letter to her sons, Breathe, Imani Perry speaks to these transformative possibilities, hearing it in the playing of Thelonious Monk and the music of The Commodores. Amid the joy of childhood, our children experience what it is to live in a world “bent on” them “not being or becoming.” We must never hide that reality from them. But we should never reduce them to these conditions. Perry writes against that reduction, from affirmations of life drawn from the deepest registers of Black tradition. We are left feeling very little despair, nor are we given to naïve hope. It is blues writing.
While we exhale, we might take in the beauty of Lucille Clifton. Her words in Good News About the Earth, included in the 2012 Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 are artful reminders of the necessity of an inward gaze: “something is black/in all his instances.” So we inhale them. Hold them close. We needed them in the wake of the sixties. We may need them again. “Come into the/ black/and live.”
Finally, there is the future to consider. In his Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelley speaks to the power of dreaming, of radical imagination. It is an essential recounting of the Black liberation movement’s struggle against racism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and empire. The premise is that these movements have had to do more, bear more, imagine more than what met the eye.
So it is with us. Any future vision must recognize that the freedom we desire has never existed, has never had to exist. But if we can know love, feel love, hold space for and in love, we can experience that future. Because it is love that inhabits radicalism. It will find a way.
Joshua M. Myers teaches Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. He serves on the editorial board of The Compass and is editor of A Gathering Together: Literary Journal. He is the author of We Are Worth Fighting For: A History of the Howard University Student Protest of 1989, available from NYU Press.