One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses. And so, Newsweek, civilized defender of the indefensible, attempts to drown you in a sea of crocodile tears (“it remained to be seen what sort of personal liberation she had achieved”) and puts you on its cover, chained.
You look exceedingly alone—as alone, say, as the Jewish housewife in the boxcar headed for Dachau, or as any one of our ancestors, chained together in the name of Jesus, headed for a Christian land.
Well. Since we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal, I have been making as much noise as I can, here in Europe, on radio and television—in fact, have just returned from a land, Germany, which was made notorious by a silent majority not so very long ago. I was asked to speak on the case of Miss Angela Davis, and did so. Very probably an exercise in futility, but one must let no opportunity slide.
U.S. Black feminist thought as specialized thought reflects the distinctive themes of African-American women’s experiences. Black feminist thought’s core themes of work, family, sexual politics, motherhood, and political activism rely on paradigms that emphasize the importance of intersecting oppressions in shaping the U.S. matrix of domination. But expressing these themes and paradigms has not been easy because Black women have had to struggle against White male interpretations of the world.
In this context, Black feminist thought can best be viewed as subjugated knowledge. Traditionally, the suppression of Black women’s ideas within White- male-controlled social institutions led African-American women to use music, literature, daily conversations, and everyday behavior as important locations for constructing a Black feminist consciousness. More recently, higher education and the news media have emerged as increasingly important sites for Black feminist intellectual activity. Within these new social locations, Black feminist thought has often become highly visible, yet curiously, despite this visibility, it has become differently subjugated (Collins 1998a, 32–43).
Investigating the subjugated knowledge of subordinate groups—in this case a Black women’s standpoint and Black feminist thought—requires more ingenuity than that needed to examine the standpoints and thought of dominant groups. I found my training as a social scientist inadequate to the task of studying the subjugated knowledge of a Black women’s standpoint. This is because subordinate groups have long had to use alternative ways to create independent self-definitions and self-valuations and to rearticulate them through our own specialists. Like other subordinate groups, African-American women not only have developed a distinctive Black women’s standpoint, but have done so by using alternative ways of producing and validating knowledge.
- Public Speaking (Read-Along), an interactive multimedia installation that uses speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barbara Jordan as points of departure for ruminations on acts of citizenship and collective memory;
- and Public Speaking (Quiet as it’s kept,), an month-long still photography project that documents in gestures individual experiences with public speaking.
I’m pretty interested in the contest of narratives that I imagine has/is taking place in Black intellectual life. Upper or lower case ‘B’? Fight or flight the white gaze? Structural racism or personal responsibility? (A, B, A, in case you’re wondering…)
The more I look at the texts I source for insights into my own life, my own experience, the more I realize that historically and now, a great many people care deeply about what it means to be a People, as Ta-Nehisi put it, how we survive, organize, thrive.
Simultaneously and with a sense of dread, I’ve realized how little intimate contact I have with ‘my people’ since I left South Florida. More than any other place I’ve lived, I’m siloed from people with whom I share origin, history, culture, and experience. And the ‘diversity’ of my experience here only sharpens my awareness of how social class determines what and who you know, what you do and where you do it.
And more than anything, I wish there was someone around who reflected me back to me. Not for narcissism, but for reassurance that I’m here, that I am who I think I am, that I have a place in the world. I need a like-minded ally.
One day I’ll be able to describe why this article is, to me, one of the most important things Ta-Nehisi has written for The Atlantic, but right now I’m taking comfort, solace in knowing that there is someone out there articulating perfectly my understanding of ‘the situation on the ground’ (and I know for a fact, and not an article of faith, that we share the same understanding because we both went to Howard):
Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don’t expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I’ve seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don’t ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.
This symbolism has real meaning. What your country tells you it thinks of you has real meaning. If you see people around you acquiring college degrees and rising only to work as Pullman porters or in the Post Office, while in other communities men become rich, you take a certain message from this. If you see your father being ripped off in the sharecropping fields of Mississippi, you take a certain message about your own prospects. If the preponderance of men in your life are under the supervision of the state, you take some sense of how your country regards you. And if you see someone who is black like you, and was fatherless like you, and endures the barbs of American racism like you, and triumphs like no one you’ve ever known, that too sends a message.
My mother’s admonishings had their place. God forbid I ever embarrass her. God forbid I be like my grandfather, like the fathers of my friends and girlfriends and wife. God forbid I ever stand in front of these white folks and embarrass my ancestors, my people, my dead. And God forbid I ever confuse that creed, which I took from my mother, which I pass on to my son, with a wise and intelligent analysis of my community. My religion can never be science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it.
Catharsis is not policy. Catharsis is not leadership. And shame is not wisdom. And applause can never make a man right. And there are many kinds of personal responsibility. The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy. It is so very hard to say this, to urge people on in a long war. We keep asking the same question, but the answer has not changed.
Are you Black?
Do you make art?
Are you interested in, oh, I don’t know, not the status quo?
Are you not about pimping Blackness to the white art world?
Are you not cool?
But are you cool?
When was the last time you questioned how you look at the world?
What I mean is, when was the last time you were like, ‘Hold on, wait a minute; that’s some crazy white shit I’m doing/coming out of my mouth…’
Do you enjoy long walks on the beach?
Seriously, because back home, some of my best thinking takes place during long walks on the beach.
Or, rather, long runs on the beach.
How do you feel about cross-generational relationships?
Not, romantic, silly, like do you know and count among your closest associations people of all generations?
Are you responsible to youth?
Do you vigorously maintain connections to elders?
Do you posture? You know, with the clothes and the lingo… are you hip?
(I fucking hope not)
Are you, like, not purposefully anti-hip, though? Like, have you moved past style as a lifestyle?
(I bloody-well hope so)
Have you noticed that there’s a lot of being intellectual for the sake of being intellectual and not for the solving of critical community problems? Like, does that un-nerve you? Like, do you wonder what Baldwin would say? Do you wonder what Hansberry would say? Do you wonder what Lawrence would say? Do you wonder what Catlett would say? Would they look at us askew? Would they wrinkle their brow and be like, ‘FTW’ or ‘SMH’. And, I don’t mean to suggest that they did anything more that wrestle with this life, but
do you struggle?
Describe your relationship with the ancestors and the gods.
Describe your relationship with nature.
Describe your relationship with community.
Tell me about your mother.
I gave my public thesis presentation on Friday. Thinking back to what I actually said, my remarks were a little presumptuous, a bit pretentious (to wit: “I don’t trust that our objectives as a group are in harmony with my objectives as a community member; but art is a proposition, right?”)
I did, however, get the chance to talk about library-like spaces in the Q & A period following my formal discussion of my work and thesis. Reading rooms like the American Swedish Institute Library and visible storage facilities like the Luce Centers at both the Brooklyn Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are great spaces to reference when considering ‘homes’ for art that requires quiet contemplation and/or draws on the creative/expressive voice of specific communities.
I also mentioned the American Library Associations Bill of Rights. Highlights from that document include:
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
Thesis. That’s the next thing. All of a sudden, I’m ‘clearer’ than I was a week ago… Nice!