Black lives matter, But to whom? (Part I)

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Below is the opening of a powerful new essay (Jan. 19, 2023) by Bayo Akomolafe for the Democracy and Beloning Forum. We invite you to read the full essay on their website.

May you be recognized by powerful people.

An ancient Chinese curse, allegedly

Strange Openings, Meandering Paths

Four days away from the Christmas of 1848, in the dark and occult hours before morning wakes, Ellen and William Craft beheld each other through tearful eyes for the last time. Minutes later, they collapsed to the floor, both falling into a writhing heap of limbs and agony, convulsing, trembling, and flailing until the strong brew they had ingested hours earlier passed through them. When the sun yawned awake to the sounds of the cock crow, his surveillant gaze travelled across the undulating fields of Georgia, across the cottonfields of one plantation in Macon, and fell through the cracks of the cabin where two lovers had spent their last human moments, and where a few obsidian-black feathers belonging to two fugitive crows now littered the log floor – tell-tale signs of a daring escape, a transformation too offensive for history to embrace. 

But they were not the first to turn, you see. 

Forty-five years before Ellen and William shapeshifted into birds, a small vessel named York suffered a terrible mutiny. It was drifting up north along the length of Georgia’s coastlines from Savannah’s marshlands towards Dunbar Creek in Glynn County. Onboard that vessel, 75 Igbo men, women, and children taken from the east of present-day Nigeria pounced upon their masters, drowning some of them. The others that did not drown escaped ashore to seek reinforcements. Refusing to give their bodies to the coastal plantation that had purchased them, the slaves marched into the waters singing an ancestral song of loss, promise, and queer hope – the kind that needs a healthy dose of hopelessness to be itself. A song to Chukwu, the Great Spirit.  

Nearby was one Mr. Roswell King, a plantation manager for Major Pierce Butler, whose account of the matter is considered the first authority on the subject. “[The slaves] took to the swamp,” Roswell writes through gritted fingers – with the lilt of a man who had only just suffered a great injustice. How dare they? 

His description was as cold and as sterile as the cosmology that enabled his supremacy. However, alongside that stoic account of things, an ecology of wandering lines, rumours, echoes, mispronunciations, [1] nightly whispers, generous embellishments, and strange openings began to fester like an untreated wound. A beautiful, pulsating wound rich with posthumanist themes and irreverent desires. In this subterranean world, another story was more compelling: the seventy-something ‘Eboes’ didn’t just “take to the swamp”. They turned. They sprouted giant black wings and flew back to Africa, borne by winds conjured in the cavernous depths of Chukwu’s nostrils. The same winds that whispered directions to the Crafts as they flew to Boston. 

And why not? 

Why not retell the marronage story of the Crafts and the legend of the Igbo Landing as if they were speculative-fabulist, sci-fi, animist adventures? Why not relieve them of their burden to say only one thing, to be only one thing, to fit into only one sense of history, to affirm ‘just the facts’? Why not turn them this way and that to see what happens? Why think of marronage and fugitivity only along the cold and sterile lines of history? Along the lines of “what really happened”? 

Something about Black exile, about Black refusal, gestures at a generosity stranger than ‘truth’ can accommodate; it gestures at how things spill away from neat lines and steady identities; it gestures at the drunken, creolized promiscuity of ‘reality itself’. Black exile distrusts straight lines and loves zigzagging cartographies, meandering stories that do not care much for some Cartesian notion of a fixed truth. Black exile loves death and ghosts, moonlit dalliances, subterranean experiments, hybrid bodies, bacchanal aesthetics, perverse mixtures and spillages, monsters with phallic horns sprouting from their heads, grandmother concoctions, and stories of a promiscuous ‘world’ that won’t stay still long enough for us to paint its portrait. For Black exile, facts vibrate at the speed of mystery. 

I know how this sounds. 

It might seem a dangerous thing to say that history bleeds, and that it is an effect of political arrangements instead of a pure ideal awaiting discovery and the elucidation of historians. It might seem reckless to say that facts are not as straightforward or as innocent as we often presume (as Saidiya Hartman herself seems to acknowledge when she writes that facts are the State’s preferred fiction…fiction endorsed by State power). This danger is especially pronounced in a time when countercultural fortifications on the political left (at least in the United States) are being engineered to counteract the corrosive effects of “alternative facts”. 

Yes, these are moments when telling the truth, verifying identities, fact-checking statements, speaking one’s truth, and acknowledging the objective superiority of science and the scientific method feel like urgent matters of life and death. 

The irony of attempting to create safe zones, to nullify the offending body, and to postpone fascism indefinitely is that it is often in the effort to guarantee this immunity to the corrupting influences of the folks across the aisle that we become the very thing we resist. Lean on a wall long enough, push against a surface hard enough, and you also start to take the shape of your adversary. 

It’s almost as if there is something performatively sticky about trying to flatten an ‘Other’ that reminds us fascism has more readily thrived where people trusted in their own purity, the inertia of their social analyses, and their unflinching certitude about their moral positions. It has thrived where rationality was divorced from feeling and poetry and politics; where extreme lines of distinction were scratched out in the soil to divide “them” from “us”; where the measures adopted to remedy the excesses of the bad guys and to create a safe world cleansed of harm and its effects incarcerated us; and, where other ways of knowing the world were told off as inferior shadows of a more advanced way of knowing. 

When we begin trusting that we’ve figured it all out, that our descriptions of ‘facts’ are confident reflections of the way the world really is, we become frozen and impervious to the movement of things. The world is not a simple archive of things that happened, but is a creative, orgasmic dancing with itself, experimenting with im/possibilities.  

These reframed stories, decorated with fugitive abandon, are not subjects of the grand old truth. They are dynamic examples of exile, of a “right to opacity” (to borrow Edouard Glissant’s excellent phrasing). Roswell King’s account of things wasn’t the true version; his recollection was no less value-laden, populated, oriented, invested, and speculative than the emergent accounts of transmutated flight. As such, to believe the fugitive stories are ‘true’ is to diminish their power. The point is not whether they fit into a cold notion of history, or whether they have paid their tributes to some Enlightenment notion of fact. Indeed, the point is that they don’t. These stories allow the slaves to become something else. They refuse full disclosure. They permit them the right to opacity. They grant them a fugitive afterlife that falls outside the text of legibility. The stories mispronounce history so that other effects and orientations might be glimpsed. 

These stories live in the places where history is beside itself in its madness; they will not bow to the colonizing morality of Truth with a capital ‘T’. And neither will the text that follows, my humble attempt to reframe the most vibrant countercultural moment in new light…the kind that glistens darkly. 

To compose a brothy, flavoured account of how black lives come to matter, one must risk straying away from the categoricity of history. To take black mattering seriously is to become fugitive, to touch rough surfaces, to eat up the offending thing. One must perform the kind of mutiny that denies history its absolute claims to exclusivity. One must disguise oneself, take on new forms, and travel with mispronunciation and misrecognition if one is to exit the plantation. 

***

This essay is about the limitations of recognition and the risks of representation. 

This essay is about the contested, resource-laden, quicksand of Black life – and the many attempts to pave it over, to save it, to voice it out to the ignoble deafness of dominant power, to weaponize it, to centralize it, to render it liveable, tolerable, intelligible, and useful (like a newly constructed parking lot) to modernity’s compelling march to mastery. 

This essay is about exile, refusal, and wild experimentation as viable political projects we must entertain, especially in moments when the prospects of inclusion and justice, the promise of diversity, and the logistics of equity no longer appear to be in league with our hopes for radical transformation.

I write about “Black lives matter”: not the decentralized, US American (but increasingly international) anti-racist movement that began in 2013 as a social response to police brutality and violence against Black people in the United States. Not the movement that grew exponentially and gained greater attention on the heels of the brutal murder of George Floyd in 2020. But the central claim that the movement rests on, right there in its name: “Black lives matter.” 

It seems self-evident, doesn’t it? That Black lives matter? In the middle of writing this essay, tucked into a warm cabin in a snowy forest town called Petawawa in Ontario, along with other readers investigating Nahum Chandler’s paraontology and W. E. B. Du Bois’s writings about Blackness, I told a Black sister about its progress and about my fears the essay would quickly become too unwieldy and too long for modern tastes – given that I imagined I had a lot to say. I told her the title included the popular phrase, Black lives matter

“Then your essay need only include one word after the title,” she quipped, as she rinsed the cassava slices that I had just passed on to her. 

“Yeah, what’s that?” 

Obviously,” she said, with a knowing smile. 

It might appear an incontrovertible thing to say, but its simplicity belies a theoretical density worth investigating. How do Black lives come to matter? What are the ingredients of this mattering? What do the popular ways of voicing this claim exclude? How is the articulation of Black lives intimately connected with the constitutional violence of the nation-state? In naming Black lives the way we do, what is surfaced and what is lost? What is at stake if we win the argument? 

By using “we” here, I include ‘myself’ as an ‘African man’ in the mighty swirl of transatlantic conversations between Africa and diasporan Blackness; between the Bight of Benin and Dunbar Creek; between ‘Wakanda’ and Oakland; between the African independence movements and the civil rights movement; and, between the Blacknesses conjured in the wake of loss and devastation. This essay, difficult to compose, is an attempt to contribute to that historic conversation in fragments that has been christened by many moments: by Martin Luther King’s celebrated 1957 visit to inaugurate the new nation of Ghana along with its first president, Kwame Nkrumah; by the meeting between literary giants Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin at the 1980 conference of the African Language Association in Gainesville, Florida, where both men would think of their respective nation-states (and the global state order in general) as sites of violence, incapable of delivering “freedom to the people within its borders”; [2] and in the adoption of George Floyd as a symbol of anti-police-brutality resistance by #EndSARS Nigerian protesters in 2020. 

The confluences are many. Black worlds have for long beheld each other, dreamed together, conspired together, hoped together, and protested together. Now, more than ever, new conversations are needed. The examples shared of Black convergence above illuminate the long and prodigious body of a worlding project, an inquiry at the edge of the creek – a project best announced with Reverend King’s piercing question: “Where does Blackness go?” Towards the shore with cries of “Black lives matter!” or into the warm transindividual waters of refusal? Towards the accoutrements of the manicured citizen-subject or in the direction of fugitive birds? Towards a politics of recognition or towards a politics of imperceptibility? 

It is not that these orientations are mutually exclusive or binary; they are not. I merely cast these political options in this way to momentarily contrast them, to alchemize the ingredients of Black mattering, to trouble the dominant device of Black excellence as a wayfinding cartography, and – in the spirit of that great conversation between Blacknesses – to sniff out other frames of Black mattering that wander away from the adversarial, protest-led, voice-driven, critique-inspired, politics of representation we’ve grown so used to and are slowly getting weary of.  

To do this, I offer one more instance of that Black-on-Black conversation: an unlikely discussion between an African American music superstar and me at a dinner table somewhere in Norfolk, Virginia.

Footnotes:

[1] For instance, “Igbo”, which to local users is properly pronounced with the explosive ‘b’ and somewhat silent ‘g’, becomes Eboe in the New World.

[2] Askew from the Nation: Thinking About Home and Country with Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/askew-from-the-nation-thinking-about-home-and-country-with-chinua-achebe-and-james-baldwin/


Read the rest of this essay at the Democracy and Beloning Forum

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