Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 2

The Enchantment of Being

Torkwase Dyson Black Interiority

Image Credit: Torkwase Dyson, Black Interiority, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 120. Courtesy of the artist.

The scene of writing has become for me a scene of hurting. As an African American woman, as a Muslim, as the single mother of a teenaged Muslim black boy, as a black feminist scholar and presumably an expert in black literature and culture, I feel summoned by language and by its public expression to say something that clarifies or improves or makes better on behalf of those and in whose names I typically write. But increasingly the shock of these perilous times has caused me to retreat from language. How does one settle with the lie of post-racialism in a time of renewed and blatant white supremacist governance? What is there to say, after all, in face of normative horror?

I have been stunned, it seems, into generalized reticence by the profound and visceral experience of not mattering. Some years after the simple declaration and radical promise that has shaped the latest iteration of black freedom struggle, “Black Lives Matter,” it is easy to overlook the profundity of that claim, which was shouted, cried, hashtagged, whispered, pled as a corrective. It is easy to overlook its simple insistence. We live in a world in which by virtue of mere embodiment, group membership, place of birth, relative access to resources, status, or ability, people are denied life and its ordinary conditions of preservation. We live in a world where some life loses its claim to sanctity, where the fact that one was born and that she breathes; that she, too, was given form; that it is hers; that this earth contains enough sustenance for her, too; that her time above ground is as valuable and treasured and fleeting as anyone’s, deeply and fundamentally do not matter. Summoning every available resource and with renewed rigor, the US state continues what Dylan Rodriguez describes as its “undeclared/ domestic warfare” against impoverished communities comprised primarily of people of color.1 Our current moment, following the first black US presidency, reminds me of the intractability of antiblack racism in western world-making. And that is enough to break my heart, snatch my breath, and leave me virtually speechless.

Under current conditions of economic precarity, social debasement, and authoritarian penality, African American presence and participation in the ordinary, everyday behaviors and movements that characterize civic belonging are converted into ritualized iterations of racial subordination and exclusion—that is, into repetitive public stagings of racial harm. “Racialized surveillance,” Simone Browne argues, “is the fact of anti-blackness.”2 The US carceral state, with its techniques of constant surveillance, preemptive raids and searches, embodied containment, and social removal, effectively robs black people of what Hortense Spillers recently described as “privacy as a fundamental human right.”3 Following Spillers, I pose here a few questions: What aspects or practices of the self gather within the domain of “the private” in the formulation of privacy as a universal right to which every human has claim? What is the utility of modes of public expression – in social media, for example — for staking claims for the rights of the self and of selfhood in general?

Proximity to death—historically constant, socio-politically produced, monetized and spectacularized—characterizes black life in modernity. Considering the ordinariness of death-producing violence visited upon black subjects, I am distressed by the traffic in its spectacle, whether in high literary culture, or on social media, or in the academy. Racism is a lethal apparatus of psychosocial and material asymmetry that supersedes the legal remedy of recognition politics. In the neoliberal academy, we risk being seduced by the enduring romance of subaltern speech as itself as a form of social renewal. We are lulled into the belief that racial pain is exceptional and that its testimony will automatically arbitrate and ameliorate material and political crisis. In the neoliberal academy, we are assured that recognition is the primary metaphor and measure of inclusion within liberal frameworks of personhood and of political mattering. However, narratives of collective injury do not always upend the hegemonic order of things, definitions, to use Morrison’s brilliant summation in Beloved, “belong to the definers, not the defined.”

What Islam has given me, what black feminism gives me, is an alternative framework for existence that neither seeks nor requires the validation of those who have othered and banished me and mine from the ordinary realms and rights of living. Taking seriously black life as defined by the perpetuity of political crisis and continued (personal and collective) experiences of diminishment, I return therefore constantly to black feminism. Black feminism offers and enacts liberatory modes of endurance in our perilous present. And it directs us to go in (inside and inward), to find the “loophole of retreat,” to survey what remains, to gather up the pieces of our broken hearts and our breaking world, and to make last what has been subject to ruin.

2017 is a year of returns. In the sociopolitical sphere, these returns devastate. The continued curtailment of civil rights protections, the closing of borders to the stateless, the militarized occupation of Muslim homelands, the refusal of environmental conservation are all terrifying. 2017 is also the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement. In moments of quietude, in my classes, in communal celebrations, in academic lectures, I invoke the CRC Statement as a life-preserving promise. This document is the most relevant, powerful, affirming, and radicalizing manifesto, political treatise, genealogy of struggle, and avowal of black feminist being and belonging that I have encountered in my life. It provides not only an essential archive of freedom struggle that has been waged over the past decade on behalf of black women, girls, gender nonconforming people but it also gives us the most determined and brilliant analysis of the operations of power and the necessary frameworks to resist it. The Combahee River Collective Statement gives rise to the intellectual developments of intersectionality, critical race theory, black queer studies, and the practice of coalitional political mobilization. The statement recognizes that structural harms converge, overlap, and proliferate in the lives of those whom the law fails to see and thus fails to protect. It recognizes, furthermore, that marginalized people often occupy multiple categories of difference, and that their lives are marked by compounded vulnerabilities. In the 40 years since it was first penned, its foundational concepts and revolutionary aspirations have moved across both disciplines and social spaces as theoretical apparatus and rallying call for coalitional movement building in freedom struggles worldwide.

It is in the spirit of return and out of a sense of renewed political urgency that we might invest in a capacious black feminism to build and to potentially realize survivable black futures. The CRC was a private, mysterious, alternate space convened for and by black women who gathered to soothe and to hear and to heal one another. The Collective was a lived space of self-care, nurturance, and black feminist communion — not unlike Ms. Rain’s classroom, or Janie’s porch, or Baby Suggs’ healing circle. Between and among themselves—the members developed the feminist frameworks of black radical thought and action. Between and among themselves, they made possible for black women the momentary but discrete exercise of individual will, the enactment of pleasure, the political refiguration of racialized gender, and the manifold practices that constitute our black feminist traditions and futures.

Because my own words have been so hard to come by lately, I conclude here with words from the CRC statement—that is, with words to live by: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. . . .We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. . . .We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”4

Political Longing and the Erotics of Race, was published by Duke University Press in 2012. She is writing her second book, provisionally titled “Millennial Style: The Politics of Experiment in Contemporary African Diasporic Culture.”


1Rodrıguez, Dylan. Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime. U of Minnesota P, 2006. (34).
2Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke UP, 2015. (10).
3Spillers, Hortense J. “Women and the Early Republics: Revolution, Sentiment, and Sorrow.” 12 October 2014, Harvard University. W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures.
4Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1986.

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