Meet Rachel Dolezal
In 2015, a black American civil rights activist, professor of Africana studies and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington, grants an interview with KXLY 4, answering the questions of a reporter outside the frame of the camera that is trained diligently on her facial expressions and responses. Clad in a white blouse that is imprinted with a motif of graphic black squares (which is perhaps a figure of the shocking revelations about to be made), she speaks emotively about her history of being victimized, and about one of her black sons—thirteen years old at the time—feeling so terrorized by a “package” her family had received that he now sleeps next to her in bed. She talks about hate crimes perpetuated against her and her two black sons, and the police modalities for identifying hate crimes. She falls silent sometimes when she considers the seriousness of racism in America, the images of lynched black men she has come across, and her work fighting for racial justice.
“I would love to live in a world where hate crimes didn’t exist, and I can assure my children that we are safe,” she says, her voice almost drowned out by the heavy traffic of vehicles, trucks and people to her left, in what seems like yet another run-off-the-mill interview with an eloquent black woman about prejudice.
When the reporter goes off topic a bit and asks whether her father could make it for an event in Spokane, she smiles and tells him her father has bone cancer and was not able to get cleared for surgery. She looks down to something fluttering outside the frame, out of our sight, apparently a picture the reporter is holding in his hand. There is a palpable shift in her countenance. She looks worried.
The reporter asks, “Is this your father?” She nods hesitantly. “That’s … that’s my dad.”
“This man right here is your father—right there?” the reporter presses further, with a tone of managed incredulity that now spells a marked and awkward segue from the earlier focus of the interview.
“You have a question about that?” she asks, visibly ill at ease.
“Yes ma’am, I was wondering if your father is an African American man.”
“That’s a very … I mean … I don’t know what you are implying.”
“Are you African American?”
She stares at the reporter, her fried brown coiled hair shifting in the wind as her forced smile drains away into a scowl. She is barely able to keep this up much longer.
“I don’t … I don’t understand the question of … I did tell you that yes that’s my dad … and he wasn’t able to come in January.…”
The reporter, Jeff Humphrey, starts to ask if her parents are white, but his subject—Rachel Dolezal, who is to become the eye of a stormy scandal about the politics of race and racial relations in the United States and the unloved poster-child for the contested notion of transracialism—has already walked away.
Thanks to that interview, Rachel Dolezal, a blond white woman who identified as a black woman, and had built a comfortable career on the back of that co-opted identity, was outed as a phony. A hailstorm of studio music and flashy graphics streamed across television surfaces in the nation as journalists and show hosts capitalized on the scandal of her transformation. Not since Clarence King, a nineteenth-century “blue-blood society type who lived half his life as a well-known explorer and Manhattan man about town—and half as a black married man with five children in Brooklyn and Queens,” had anyone else reportedly crossed the racially charged divide that runs through America, and lingered on the other side for so long.
Riding the crest of the controversy to the shore of public outrage, Rachel’s father and mother appeared on television in their Caucasian glory, denouncing their daughter as delusional. Members of the NAACP felt duped, including the preceding president, who believed Rachel when she said she was African American. Rachel’s adopted brothers, both black, announced that Rachel had taken them aside and told them she was going to adopt a new identity, and asked them to keep a secret. “She grew up privileged,” one of her brothers said. “She had good intentions but she didn’t go about it the right way.”
Defending herself, Dolezal released a statement identifying herself as “transracial”—this in spite of the fact that she did not grow up in an ethnically ambiguous household, had Caucasian parents, and reportedly lived a privileged life like most white people in her town.
The seething rage from both black and white communities felt justified. Why would a white woman want to “pass” as a black woman? In earlier times, fair-skinned black women often “passed” as white women or were often mistaken as white. But they used this to reduce the crushing existential load of suffering that they—and people like them—had to endure. Rachel Dolezal’s curious reversal of identity roles felt like the perpetuation of a certain brand of American anything-goes-ism, a state of affairs that applied more to rich white people in the upper echelons of society than to minorities in the doldrums of exclusion.
This much was clear to Ijeoma Oluo—a writer who has your mother’s Igbo name and who, like your mother, is multiracial with a Nigerian father and American mother. I recently came across Ijeoma’s article, which she had written following a visit to Rachel Dolezal, or—as she chooses to be called now, after a Nigerian Igbo man had given her a new name—Nkechi Amare Diallo, following the latter’s recent publication of a book recounting her ordeal as a transracial person.
Oluo’s opinions about Diallo were already rock-bottom; she had been part of previous conversations about the white woman who pretended to be black, and was exhausted with the topic. However, taking an offer to interview Rachel in her home, Ijeoma flew out to meet her—perhaps hoping for a glimpse of someone she might come to sympathize with. She didn’t find that person.
Her report—widely praised and celebrated—was scathing and full-toothed in its in-depth analysis of Nkechi’s apparent malaise, pointing out that Nkechi’s colonizing adoption of black identity was yet another unfortunate instance of white privilege exerting itself.
There was a moment before meeting Dolezal and reading her book that I thought that she genuinely loves black people but took it a little too far. But now I can see this is not the case. This is not a love gone mad. Something else, something even sinister is at work in her relationship and understanding of blackness.
Oluo sniffed out what came across as a critical lack of awareness about whiteness: Diallo, seeming to compare her early childhood experiences to chattel slavery, appeared to have fetishized blackness, unaware of the enormous privilege and power she wielded to be able to co-opt the experiences of black people in her personal quest for redemption. Oluo’s point—that she treated blackness like a plaything, while enjoying the security and access her white skin granted her—amounted to an egregious erasure of black people. Her forays past the drawn lines of racial memory did nothing to dismantle the furniture of white exceptionalism—in fact, as Oluo noted, Diallo shifted the fence a little bit more, taking a chunk of the little ground blacks had left:
I am more than a little skeptical that Dolezal’s identity as the revolutionary strike against the myth of race is anything more than impractical white saviorism—at least when it comes to the ways in which race oppresses black people. Even if there were thousands of Rachel Dolezals in the country, would their claims of blackness do anything to open up the definition of whiteness to those with darker skin, coarser hair, or racialized features?
Oluo was right.
In so far as Diallo’s adventurism left white dominance critically unchallenged, shifting the burden of hospitality and moral nobility to the victim, it was a denial of the power inequities that exist between white and black people. Black people—especially black women like Ijeoma Oluo (who, ironically, would have been labeled “white” or “oyinbo” back home in Nigeria, because of her fair skin and obvious “mulatto look”) do not have the liberty to cross lines or jump fences the way Diallo did. Black people cannot look away, or change their robes in telephone booths (I’m sorry if these references are lost on you, dear!). They are locked in. But power can: power can look away, can take your skin … where to turn would be the death of you, and where if you could exchange your skin for a loaf of bread, you might have done so a long time ago.
Oluo stopped short of calling white Spokane woman Rachel Dolezal–turned–Nkechi Diallo crazy. Like others, she chucked it up to the familiar fluctuations of white supremacy. Nothing strange was happening. Blackness was once again saved; its virginity restored. Oluo’s article was a furious antibody dispatched to eject the viral element from the bloodstream of blackness, an invasion that might very well have weakened the black cause for justice, for reconciliation, for equality, for reparations, for safer streets and friendlier cops, and for the same socioeconomic privileges of normalcy white people enjoy that black people need to be exceptional to attain. For the right to sit at the round table. For a piece of the Future promised everyone regardless of creed or color.
And yet, when the dust settled, I felt slightly unsettled. I found myself asking questions the Forbidden girl had taught me: is this all there is? Is there no more surprise? Isn’t there something yet unexpected in the experience of blackness—or is this it? This eternal dialectic with whiteness? This quest for equality? This closed settlement and barricaded steel walls of secure identity?
The Vexing Matter of Race
Growing up in Nigeria, I didn’t think of myself as black. Sure, I was darker than midnight and all my siblings were fairer than me; this was just a matter of genes and too much beans. In fact, I felt more white than black. White people were fascinating to me. I loved watching “movies”—which, for the sake of needless clarification, always meant movies made in Hollywood. Most of my friends (if not everyone I knew that was my generation) disparagingly called our own movies “films” or “homemade videos”—in our eyes a lesser category of quality, since our products didn’t have the magical special effects and awe-inspiring wizardry that attended Bruce Lee’s gravity-defying leaps, or Steven Seagal’s blustery martial tactics that allowed him to take out an entire mob of gangsters with his lanky limbs. Or Robocop.
You didn’t find white people walking down my street, as they might have done in Johannesburg or Pretoria in South Africa. The white people who came into my country were mostly expatriates, some of whom earned briefcases of dollars working with oil companies, banks, and global conglomerates. They lived on Victoria Island, in the poshest parts of Lagos. If a white person came to my area, everything would have stopped. Bus conductors would have danced merrily while hanging precariously on the sides of their danfo buses—pointing at “oyinbo pipu.” Women who made àkàrà and fried yams like my grandmother might have blushed if a white person came by to patronize them.
Everyone dreamed of “going abroad” someday—and those that got visas after prayerful fasting and spiritual vigils and then squeezed their way into airplanes flying to Europe or America often came back, a few weeks later, with the most disingenuous accents you’ve never heard. They would say “wanna” and “gonna” instead of “want to” and “going to,” deforming their faces and twisting their lips to approximate the elusive sound of a schwa, just to prove to everyone that they’d been there. Done that. We didn’t mind. We let them have their time. The comedic value of watching someone try to speak like an American or with the cockneyed abandon of a Londoner was always dampened by the soft internal reminder that we ourselves hadn’t been “there.” The Western world was a dream, a story everyone wanted to tell. And every story deserved embellishment.
We looked up to African Americans too. I certainly did. To us—to my friends who lapped up every fashion trend propagated by the hip-hop artistes of the day—black Americans had it good. From Notorious B.I.G. to that Reid guy that played a professor on the TV show Snoops, African Americans were just as “other” to us as the white people that liked to jog down the streets in the rich residential areas, their pale pink and sweaty bodies brazenly exposed, to the mild irritation of our mothers. Somewhere at the back of our heads, in vague recollections of history lessons we hardly paid attention to, we knew Black Americans were the children of old slaves—connected to us across watery miles of savagery and maltreatment—but, at least, they lived in a country with constant electricity. They had good schools, good transportation, and white people around them. We had none of that. We were late, living in a world that was never on time. We envied African Americans, and considered them “oyinbo” as well.
I remember my father used to amusedly say the f-word sometimes when he was younger. They were few and far between, and hardly ever in the context of abuse or heightened emotion. In fact, his usage lacked the caustic sting of his “black” sideburn-totting brothers in the diaspora. He mostly learned it from blaxploitation movies, for he too—like his own generation—thought of black Americans as an avant-garde culture.
So while there was “black,” we sometimes felt “black-black”: lower than our better brothers whose fathers couldn’t outrun the trade ships.
But the antagonistic response to whiteness—we didn’t have. Only in small academic circles of those who read Walter Rodney, you know, the professor kinds whose wives would roll their eyes when they started to speak about the ways Europe underdeveloped Africa in the company of friends, and who never made enough money to cajole their spouses to allow them be their quirky selves, did such talk thrive. We didn’t have the immediacy of a ready villain, just the traces of their ghostly presence and a desire to piece the puzzles together so we could get to heaven one fine day. All our agony was reserved for “the government”—those buba-clad politicians that promised us we too could look like London if we elected them into office.
I didn’t know the pain of dispossession or dislocation. Not directly. I didn’t lose a language, since I was born into the one-tongue. I didn’t miss out on bonfire tales by moonlight, since the fires had already been snuffed out by tarred roads long before I was born. I was born in exile—after the dust had settled into a maze everyone was now told was our new reality. To one born in chains, confinement can look like a privilege denied others.
Eventually I became one of those “professor types,” reading Fanon, Baldwin, Achebe and Soyinka. And yes, Walter Rodney too. It felt like an awakening. In the context of my critical surveys of the damage that had been done to our lands, to our psyches, and to our futures, I began to recognize my whiteness and the white halls of power I had been born in. The music stopped, and the world felt like the scratching sound the turntable makes when the needle has skated off the record: the music extinguished, my days were spent pondering the loss of my identity. Where was my original blackness that had been taken from me? And how was I to restore it? My questions took me to an angry pan-Africanism in search of innocent pasts and black essences, and then to a postmodern pacifism but no less agonistic reappraisal of identity and culture—both of which left me in some sort of stable and unproductive blackness … a fugue blackness that sort of hinted at the heritage I was supposed to have, the feelings I was supposed to feel, and the attitudes I was supposed to adopt to be properly “black,” without the satisfaction of the actual thing.
I want you to know, dear, that I hope the world you live “in” is a beautiful world, and that you never know the scowls and rudeness and exclusions I have known for being a certain color—talk less of the pain and suffering our mothers and fathers knew in order to find us a place to plant our feet. I do not know what such a world might look like or what racial justice even means, but I hope to share some of the questions I have been asking as I bring together the pieces of the puzzle of home.
The issue of race is a vexing thing, escaping full articulation. In a time of tearful losses and oppression suffered because one is not the “right” color, much rides on the particular ways and particular thoughts we employ to think about blackness.
The painful memories and whip marks inflicted on black bodies, the intergenerational trauma of chattel slavery and lynched families hanging from trees, the dislocation and disenchantment from one’s own wisdoms, the effacement of the vexed past and the Euro-American appropriation of history, and the influential figure of civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. have inspired a generation to seek to preserve the black experience. The justice-seeking claims and hopes for equality rest heavily on the survival of blackness as a pure category to itself. This is probably why Dolezal was severely criticized by the black community—because her foray into blackness threatened the integrity of the identity and diluted its power to lay hold on the kind of restorative future black communities seek.
At the same time, fetishizing blackness is hardly productive in generating new ways to think about our changing contexts and the complex burdens a changing world places on our identities. Such a strategy invites the risk of subsequent exploitation, and locks blackness into adversarial coordinates.
Another view of race denies there’s even such a thing. There’s no such thing as a black race or a white race. Race is an illusion—or better yet a mirage of power. The closer you get to the shimmering surface, the faster the apparition disappears. Because race is viewed as genetic reductionism, this postmodern interpretation and its distrust of the metanarrative of blackness seeks to denaturalize race, and expose the interests and power dynamics that are stitched into biologically deterministic notions of race. The effect is a rejection of the body entirely and a dependence on what we know, or epistemology.
What this inquiry provides is powerful insights into the politico-economic negotiations and identity-shaping influences that teach us to identify as black, white, yellow, or brown. Yet, it maintains a hostility and fear of the body (and thus negates from the get-go any possible exploration of the agency of the material world in race and identity), and leaves its analysis within the orbit of humanism—centralizing human thoughts and discussions on the matter.
Whatever we posit as the “real story” of race behind the scenes, most of us seem to experience it in its manifoldness—as an economic sorter of persons, as a phenotypic distraction away from the waltz of power that is inscribed upon every frolicking molecule of space in the world. But trying to arrive at the “essence” of race is to obfuscate the intra-active effects that are at play in merely talking about it as an “it.” We are not allowed the luxury of speaking from nowhere—we can only settle with a partial view, one that inexorably excludes other complementary views.
There could therefore be no complete appraisal of white privilege or fully adequate synthesis of all insights about racial oppression into a single unified theory. Things—including concepts and bodies—are inexhaustible; they show up only partially. If you can see everything, then you’ve already missed a spot.
Thinking this way affords us an opportunity to ask the question: What are we missing, then? What are we occluding from the picture in our particular descriptions of blackness and white normativity? What new insights can be generated in particular modes of inquiry and action that could heal racial divides—and possibly conjure a world for your skin to breathe in?
If we must seek to understand racism, then we can turn it this way and that, entangling ourselves with its multidimensionality—however, not with any hope of arriving at the surest, most universal way of thinking about it. There isn’t one. By engaging “it” differently, however, new meanings and modes of action are made possible.
A Language of Trees
Reading about Susanne Wenger, the white woman who had come to Nigeria with her linguist husband in 1950, proved not only to be a counter-story to the Nkechi-Dolezal-Oluo account, but a soft expedition into the first stirrings of a different way to imagine racial relations and responsivity to white normativity. Susanne Wenger not only became “black” in the eyes of the community that adopted her but eventually learned the customs and language of the people of Osogbo so well that she became a priestess—accepted by no less than Yoruba deities and their priests as a sacred intermediary and interlocutor for Orisha worship. She renounced Christianity, divorced her husband, adopted black-black children, rejected formal education as a form of colonization, and was believed to have saved the traditional beliefs in Osogbo from extinction with her work to preserve the forest. Better known by her adopted name, Adunni Olorisa, Wenger died in 2009, in the home she loved and the people who called her their own. It is said that the day she died a midday rain began and ended abruptly, and then she died—surrounded by her fifteen adopted children, some of whom were revered chiefs in Osogbo, Osun State.
Revisiting Wenger’s story recently, I started to wonder about Dolezal’s (or Diallo’s) claims to be transracial and the intense animus this generated in black communities in the West, contrasting this with Wenger’s relatively celebratory reception and welcome into a Yoruba community in Nigeria.
Both incidences are incommensurable in many ways: Diallo is perceived as disingenuous and deceptive in her adoption of an identity that served her particular career and professional choices. Her critics insist she could walk out anytime from her blackness—simply uncoil her hair into its “original” blond look, and no one would bat an eyelid. Wenger, on the other hand, was an Austrian artist who arrived in pre-independence Nigeria with her husband during a time when being white in Nigeria afforded you the highest privileges ordinary citizens didn’t enjoy. Instead, she forsook that identity, and decided to live with a people, eventually learning their language and culture, and becoming a strong advocate for the preservation of those traditions. She didn’t take the identity of blackness; it was offered to her, in a sense.
Many in my time might detect a hint of white saviorism in Wenger’s story and scoff at the familiar story of redemption from abroad—but if one is to be cynical and dismissive, then one must also simultaneously diminish the capacity of the indigenous Yoruba people and rubbish their traditions and rituals for adjudging authenticity.
But there is more to be learned—something that troubles popular accounts of blackness and resituates (not displaces) analytics of racism, white privilege, or antiblackness. Something that rekindles my hope for a racially sensuous world.
Responding to a French documentary maker in 2005, who was inquiring into her remarkable journey and her eventual acceptance by the Osogbo people, Wenger said of her sacred mentor: “He took me by the hand and led me into the spirit world,” adding that “I did not speak Yoruba, and he did not speak English, our only intercourse was the language of the trees.”
The language of trees.
There have been many insightful analyses of blackness and whiteness (such as Oluo’s), many descriptions of microaggressions in racial relations, and many inquiries conducted into the real and horrific injustices that white supremacy occasions. And yet racism persists. As Jerry Rosiek notes:
The persistence of institutionalized racism despite the sheer scope of the suffering it causes, its resilience in the face of multigenerational organized resistance, the way it adapts to and subverts every political and intellectual intervention, suggests that we are dealing with more than a mere conceptual mistake. It suggests that empirical research on the phenomenon of racism, white supremacy, whiteness, anti-Blackness—whatever our theoretical suppositions lead us to call it—will ask more of scholars than adopting alternative epistemologies and practices of description.
What more is demanded of us?
Perhaps we find in this “language of the trees” the interesting proposal that the racializing agent is not singularly human or just a social construction but a flow of material-semiotic practices that engulfs/shapes/constitutes humans together with trees, stones, stories, concepts, and the world. Perhaps the world around us, the environment, pulses with the question of race. What happens if we reconsider blackness, the strictures of identity, and white privilege within a world that is porous, constantly unmaking and remaking boundaries? What if the lenses with which blackness is seen—in agonistic tension with whiteness—are just as much a product of white colonial ways of knowing—an epistemology that does not take into consideration the racializing effects of the material world and thus situates the source of racism in the human? What if racial identity is not a property of persons, but a flow of becomings—of post-human becomings—that challenges our claims to ownership? What if we all are a becoming-each-other? And that even in the sham of pretend-blackness or pretend-whiteness lies the shamanic gestures of an art that speaks an unsuspected truth? A possibility that we are transracial as a matter of fact?
Whatever you do, don’t say nigger: Blackness as a concept of white normativity
Speaking at a town hall event in Sonoma County in California, after being invited to share some of my understandings about racial justice, I began the meeting by inviting the audience to envision a world where racial justice had finally “happened.” What would that look like? The responses traced the contours of a familiar social justice imaginary: no one gets left behind; a cop sharing a thumbs up with a black driver; no one has to live in fear; equal rights. I might have said the same things, including reparations; designing policies to help at-risk people of color, especially black men who have a higher probability of being incarcerated than white men; and seeking the forgiveness of those who were decimated, chained, and eventually cordoned off in reservations in order for nation-states to rise.
But I wonder—as I did in that meeting—about the paradigms of responsivity that make these contributions meaningful, and—more to the point—what they exclude from our collective gaze. How are we responding to white privilege, white normativity, and racism? The imaginary of racial justice and its juridical implications in a sphere of rights posits a directionality … a “there” in future time we are supposed to reach. To climb this pyramid, and claw our way to the top of modernity’s pointy summit in a gesture of arrival, is the suggested route of resolution. The driving ethos is equal access—access for the many races. Access to prestige, to educational opportunities, to career fulfilment, to fair representation. A level playing field. Open doors to white, brown, and black alike. And racial identity—often circumscribed in the caul of accusation and distanced away from the “other”—is the beating heart of this imaginary.
I have said that my journey of decolonization took me to a pan-Africanism and an Afrocentrism that insisted on seeing the world through the unique contexts of the “African.” I even wrote a book called We Will Tell Our Own Story! with the much respected scholar of Afrocentrism and elder Molefi Asante. Inside me, however, the call to African centrality felt like a call to arms, a call to proliferate many other centers in defiance of the previous monocentrality of Euro-American thought. To crouch behind sandbags we had erected to keep the creeping hordes of the white others away. Postmodernism seemed sympathetic to this political project of reengineering history and of calling attention to the processes of elision that underlined the institutionalization of physical and social sciences as white knowledges. I began to fill my bedroom wall with lists of things black people had done—the things written out of history or muted by the status quo, like the silent ‘p’ in psychology. From dustpans to potato chips to the carbon filament and traffic lights—and even the Internet, which might not have been possible were it not for the calculations of one Philip Emeagwali, an Igbo man like your grandfather, which allowed microcomputers to communicate with each other simultaneously within what he called the Hyperball International Network of computers—the items black women and men inventors created became my coordinates to a black heaven.
But, as I may have said, I noticed the constant need to assert my place, to hold up an objectionable finger in gatherings—where I found I was (once again) the only black person present—just to point out Africans “had done it first.” And like a coconut forced open with sweat and toil only to serve a few drops of its tender fluids, asserting black identity felt like doing so much only to get so little.
Not that I was against confrontation. Even now, I understand that there are situations where confrontation is already built into the dynamic of things, where anger must be allowed its troubling passage as one must allow the mysterious night masquerade to dance and scream its frightful secrets in the tight corridors of the village. Confrontation, anger, and pain have their place. But in asserting my voice, in being naturally suspicious of the white subtext in the sentence of the everyday, in being prickly about what “that white woman” or “some other white person” really meant when she suggested that audiences listened to me because I was “exotic”—a young black man that sounded articulate, or why that immigration officer held me at his booth for far longer than the other travelers had been held, I slowly came to the realization that even victimhood could be oppressive. Power shows up in ironic ways. In fetishizing my blackness, I was perhaps “guilty” of some kind of conservation of victimhood and polishing of enemy figures.
What began to give way was my firm grip on identity. There had to be something beyond the stark proliferation of gated communities of racialized bodies, each staking a claim for itself in the flatness and scarcity of modern life. There had to be a different notion outside these lines bloodied fingers and half-broken fingernails had anxiously scratched into the earth to demarcate “them” from “us”—a line white people were barred from crossing, and which most blacks seemed content to preserve.
Bill Maher, white liberal American comic and host of the political talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, learned the hard way about “crossing lines” as he bandied words with his guest, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, while filming on set in May 2017. Midway through their conversation, Maher, in response to a phrase from the senator that had the words “work the fields” in it, responded by saying he was a “house nigger.” A collective groan reverberated across the United States: the joke, most said, was not only in bad taste but was an affront to black people. How dare a white man—even one who had had black female friends—utter the word nigger? The backlash was swift as black celebrities called for Maher’s head to appease the gods of the line—the same line breached by Maher’s presumptuous bravado, the wrath of which even his liberal cred and brand of political incorrectness could not save him from.
When legendary hip-hop artist and actor Ice Cube appeared to film a subsequent Real Time segment, Bill knew what was coming to him. “So I know you are here to promote an album,” he said. “I know you also want to talk about my transgression. What do you want to do first?” Ice Cube, probably the fitting figure for the angry black male, laid into him almost as soon as he had the chance to start talking.
“I love your show, you got a great show,” Ice Cube noted. “But you be bucking up against that line a little bit,” he added, just before upbraiding him for sounding like a “redneck trucker” once in a while.
“I have two questions: what made you think it was cool to say that?” Ice Cube asked. Maher noted that he had given it no thought; it was a comedic reaction in the moment, one that was begging to be made given the ready premise Sasse had inadvertently set up with his own “work the fields” phrase. Ice Cube accepted Maher’s apology, but proceeded to try to get to the “psyche” of the matter. “There’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line ’cause they a little too familiar … it’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man,” he said. “It’s been used as a weapon against us, by white people, and we are not going to let that happen again, by nobody.”
As I watched the clip, I tried to bring myself to imagine the pains of growing up in a black neighborhood, in “the projects” constantly surveilled by white policemen who saw black bodies as threatening. I tried to imagine the anger immortalized in the lyrics from one of Ice Cube’s popular tracks, where he and other members of the rap group NWA write:
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
I tried to hold close the trauma of watching one’s family lynched by fully faced white men who knew that the law was on their side and their extrajudicial killings would sink back into the texture of things. How could one not be angry when white men passed around the body parts of their hollowed-out victims, and smiled for the cameras as they held those parts like souvenirs? The word nigger scorches Negro backs in the heat of its fury, lands on one’s face like auburn spit through gritted teeth, and turns the ghosts of those memories—whose spectral bodies still bear the marks of that painful label.
I could identify with Ice Cube. I may not have agreed with his position, but I could honor the scowl beneath his remarks on Real Time—for, make no mistake about it, white people did name black people. I am no hip-hop lyricist, but in feeling with Ice Cube, in churning those transgressive memories of bodies elided, I imagine that early white slave owners, colonialists, and even present day authority figures say:
I name you nigger. I name you black.
I serve you this dish with a side of repulsion and disgust.
The black I name you is not the innocent absence of light, the tide of night in its ebb and flow, but an abominable vacancy, the depthless stretch of your bodily ineptitude and moral profligacy.
I name you monster, you blight on the glorious order of salvation—perverse and evil in your imaginations. I reduce your many hues to the one color of your sin, Dark Continent.
I name you wretch. And the burden of my days will be to yield to the benevolence I shall exercise in finding ways to save you from yourself. To redeem you into the original score your cacophonous sounds have fallen short of.
I am sorry, dear, if this doesn’t sit with the terroir of your times—all this hate and agony and wounds. But I suspect that whatever world you live in can only be a bit more mature to the extent it has learned how to honor even hate, how to hold space for its passing, how to hold the urgency of its yearning without dumbing it down under the Band-Aids of forced positivity—a point that brings me to the other half of those hastily contrived lyrics of mine, the black response:
You know that thing you did with us? Naming us and all that jazz? Well, I do it to you too. So, here: I name you white. I call you out. I name your pale-pinkness, your aversion to colors, your fragility in the face of difference.
You brand my body with your empire; I name you plague.
You cut me off from the ground and hoisted me in unwilling branches—my limp body suspended in midair a figure for your own longing to fly. Your own longing to escape these rufous curls of earthly matters. But you are no angel, so I name you deluded.
This word you force on me to own me, nigger, let this word be our own shibboleth, but a constant reminder of your twisted benevolence. You will never cross this line. You will always remember your guilt, and speak with deferred words that will not come. For you yourself, in your pale-faced whiteness, will never arrive.
And these words, if faithful to the universe of interracial relations Ice Cube inhabits to some degree, show how blackness is a phenomenon of white arrangements. Much in the same way postmodernism derives its angst from modern foundationalism, blackness is a white construct only made possible by the industrial conditions that assigned dark bodies on a ladder of proximity to power. Blackness is a spatiotemporal allocation of bodies within the logic of modern ascendancy. It is forcing the posthuman polymorphism of bodies into the single teleological track of “American hierarchy.” The line Cube warns Maher and Maher’s audience never to cross, the line that preserves black power and the integrity of our identity—guarded by the reverse engineering of the word nigger and forged in trauma and pain—is the same line that locks us in, keeps us immured to a threshold that delineates possible power to the exclusion of other places of power.
To the degree that white supremacy valorizes, organizes, and directs attention—in an orchestra of bodies and stories—toward the summit of the pyramid, it denies other places of power. It denies the agency of the world around us, the enchantment that sews all things into a quilt of co-becoming. The structure that allocates identity and fixes it in place also befogs the ongoingness of these “identities,” blinding the eye from noticing how spread-out we are, how the many colors we take on bend with the play and openings and closures of topographical shifts, climactic changes, and biological matterings. To speak of blackness as if it were an essence or whiteness as if it were a fixed other is to ironically extend the reach of white normativity.
Ice Cube, in conversation with Maher, notes that black people can use the same word that white people are absolutely barred from using. He suggests that the context doesn’t matter—so long as you are white, you are prohibited from using the n-word. Of course, this essentializes whiteness to estrange it from blackness, which is in turn a move of “white power.”
As a rhetorical device, I might make the claim that prior to the colonial moment, there was no such thing as “blackness.” Except perhaps as an occasional description, “blackness” and its charged theo-psychological undertones of backwardness and biological monstrosity did not emerge except as a substitute category within an industrial order of limited allocations and privileged recipients. This is the same industrial order of the American homeland that situated whiteness as a homogeneous identity offered to newly arrived European immigrants in lieu of their own peculiar peculiarities. The myth of white sameness [in turn anchored] African slaves and aboriginal savages [to] a fantasy of colored difference and a fiction of natural inferiority.
Here, in these modern wastelands, blackness is perpetually hidden away behind the polished figures of its own trauma, behind sensitive walls. Locked in. Waiting. Accusatory. It sees the same vision of power that whiteness coaxes it to adopt: food security as access to shopping malls; prosperity as more dollar bills than one can spend; the self as an atomized individual that knows no community or treats community as the proximity of estranged bodies, not the strange we-ness that precedes I-ness; and the Future—that imaginary of techno-utopian supremacy—as the only possible timeline.
A shamanic perspective draws upon shapeshifting ontologies, cosmologies of dust and threadbare boundaries, and other visions of power-with-the-world. Within such a worldview, one cannot be “black” or “white.” Not for long. This is, however, not an ethos that is blind to colors or seeks to synthesize them into a general all-color neutrality. Instead, it is potentially an approach that emphasizes racial differences and peculiarities only to the degree that it stitches those identities within a quilt of mutual entanglement. Only to the extent that the “other” becomes the condition for the one’s existence, and vice versa. This entanglement ropes in not just human contributions to race but nonhuman contributions as well. In fact, one is not only black but green and blue and yellow-spotted and red-hued. That is because human bodies are the workings of both human and nonhuman agencies, or should we say “non/human” agencies. For example, the role of climate change intra-acting with melanin, and congealing in color-polymorphic bodies and phenotypic plasticity and new genetic adaptations, is just one instance of the way the environment has racializing effects, and why whiteness (or blackness) is not simply a state of mind, a moral choice, or social construction.
Our manners of explaining race hinge on tracing ancestry and examining historical matters in terms of the legacy of colonial infractions and the tragedy of contemporary occlusions. We tend to think of blackness as stable, making it the unit of analysis, holding it constant as factors around it change. That reading does not account for the breathtaking intra-activity of the world, where time itself is not a mere container for the goings-on “in” the world but part of its reiterativity. Being part of an ever-changing, ever fluid, open-ended material-discursive universe means the past is not fixed and is often resituated; that though the intergenerational trauma of racial violence marks our bodies and inhabits social structures, trauma is not to be summarily resolved but is often “practiced into relative stability”; and that the work of decolonization or of addressing these issues are not uniquely human—since race is more-than-human. In short, black bodies are not the products of black ancestries traced back, but the intra-acting negotiation of bodies and climate and economic power and theological categories and the modern will to purpose, direction, and power. In a manner of speaking, blackness (like “whiteness”), to be generative and prolific, needs to be “reimmersed” in the stream of mangled and co-emergent colors it was extricated from. We are not black or white: the interface between bodies and worlds is continuous and ceaselessly flowing so that race is not a property of individuals or something we are “in.” It is the world in its many doings.
Shiva—the god of dust—stands at the door and knocks. The ground is giving way. He melts through “the line” like it wasn’t even there, and he challenges our claims to identity. For healing to happen to both white and black, to address white supremacy, a new ethos is demanded. A quantum leap from keeping the other at bay to noticing we are already the “others,” already entangled in palimpsests of trauma and possibility and co-becoming. New concepts disturb the rigidity of “identity” and help us see how already entangled we are. How prolific, promiscuous, porous, and potent our becoming is. And how this can inspire a different ethos of responsivity.
Crossroads – the Yoruba concept of Ase and Intersectionality
In many African cosmologies, a call-response dynamic is built into the ways we see the world. In Yoruba music, for instance, you are very likely to hear the singer only within the ecology of many other voices, who seem to attend to his or her singing, answer his questions, or emphasize a strain or lyric the singer seeks to expound upon. It is something different from the dependent relationship a band has with its lead singer. The act is premised on this in-betweenness, as is more apparent in juju music and highlife. Sometimes the background even comes to the foreground, switching places in a fluid rejection of static roles. Such is the rhythm that imbues our world.
It is not only present in music, but in how we dance (in dyads) and in how we communicate. I have often found myself more willing and more able to wax poetic when speaking before a crowd, when that crowd “hmm-hmms” or vocalizes presence in some way. Recently, I have begun incorporating the call “aló o” before I speak, asking the audience, European, Asian or otherwise, to respond by shouting “aló!”—oftentimes to comedic results. In retrospect, the many pastors that preached in the churches I attended, who would punctuate their sermons with “Can someone shout ‘Hallelujah’?” ad nauseam, knew in their bones that they were only permitted to speak to the degree the so-called audience also did. To speak is to speak-together-with.
When Yoruba people respond with “asé” to the proclamations of a king, in greeting, in praise of another, or in libatory moments, they perform this call-response betweenness. Asé, usually paraphrased as the Christian “Amen” or “So be it” of Hebraic etymology, means more than a granting of affirmation. In Ifá tradition, it is a philosophy that imbues everything, that makes change happen, that motivates the earth to breathe and the skies to regurgitate rain from their bellies. While some scholars define asé as “a coming to pass; law; command; authority; commandment; enjoinment; imposition; power; precept; discipline; instruction; cannon; biding; document; virtue; effect; consequence; imprecation,” Imhotep writes that asé is extraordinarily complex, a polysemic word that “does not signify anything particular, yet it invests all things, exists everywhere and as the warrant for all creative activity,” and suggests that its underlying theme is “power.”
In other words, asé is the sound of the euphoric “participatoriness” of all things. The tonality of the gathering. The premise of change and the signature of hope. It is the cosmology of middles, one that hints that power is not contained in this or that, hidden away in a trope, or found at the distance. The divine is sprinkled in everything. Asé might very well be aligned with the performativity of dust.
Worthy of mention is that asé is seen as a vital force kept by Èsù, the trickster-deity of the Yoruba pantheon—who in the abracadabra of colonial inflections became Satan, the devil required to satisfy the Christian thirst for duality. But Èsù is something more than devil and is not to be replaced by the ghost that haunts Christian notions of embodied evil, as Funso Aiyejina intones:
The definition of Èsù which has, however, persisted in the popular imagination is the Euro-Christian one which maligns him as the devil/Satan. This definition was midwifed by Bishop Samuel Ajaiyi Crowther (1806–1891) who, in his pioneering translation of the Bible into Yoruba, had chosen Èsù as the Yoruba equivalent of the Christian Satan. In A Dictionary of the Yoruba Language, published in 1913 by the Church Missionary Society Bookshop, Lagos, Nigeria, Èsù is defined as the devil, a definition that would be repeated, albeit alongside other more traditional Yoruba definitions, in the 1958 University of London’s Dictionary of Modern Yoruba.
Aiyejina goes further to read out Èsù’s incredible roster of accomplishments, his cosmic résumé:
In Yoruba philosophy, Èsù emerges as a divine trickster, a disguise-artist, a mischief-maker, a rebel, a challenger of orthodoxy, a shape-shifter, and an enforcer deity. Èsù is the keeper of the divine asé with which Olodumare created the universe; a neutral force who controls both the benevolent and the malevolent supernatural powers; he is the guardian of Orunmila’s oracular utterances. Without Èsù to open the portals to the past and the future, Orunmila, the divination deity would be blind. As a neutral force, he straddles all realms and acts as an essential factor in any attempt to resolve the conflicts between contrasting but coterminous forces in the world. Although he is sometimes portrayed as whimsical, Èsù is actually devoid of all emotions. He supports only those who perform prescribed sacrifices and act in conformity with the moral laws of the universe as laid down by Olodumare. As the deity of the “orita”—often defined as the crossroads but really a complex term that also refers to the front yard of a house, or the gateway to the various bodily orifices—it is Èsù’s duty to take sacrifices to target-deities. Without his intervention, the Yoruba people believe, no sacrifice, no matter how sumptuous, will be efficacious. Philosophically speaking, Èsù is the deity of choice and free will. So, while Ogun may be the deity of war and creativity and Orunmila the deity of wisdom, Èsù is the deity of prescience, imagination, and criticism—literary or otherwise.
Èsù, as the trickster fiddling with the cradling strings from which everything emerges, is the personification of asé:
Èsù is the Divine Messenger between God and Man. Èsù sits at the Crossroad. Èsù is the Orisa that offers choices and possibility. Èsù is the gatekeeper, the guardian of the door. Èsù safeguards the principle of freewill. Èsù is the keeper of asé.
I am especially delighted to know that Èsù sits at the crossroad—and where else would he sit, actually? If asé is borne in response, in the riddling middle of reality, in the betweenness of things, then the one who keeps it has to be a phenomenon of the crossroads. And the fact that Èsù sits there finds a conceptual playmate in the notion of diffraction—the optic phenomenon that “troubles the very notion of dicho-tomy—cutting into two—as a singular act of absolute differentiation, fracturing this from that, now from then”—as put forward by Karen Barad. This concept of diffraction figures in a decolonial notion of self and identity that Barad echoes when she quotes Trinh Minh-ha:
Identity as understood in the context of a certain ideology of dominance has long been a notion that relies on the concept of an essential, authentic core that remains hidden to one’s consciousness and that requires the elimination of all that is considered foreign or not true to the self, that is to say, non-I, other. In such a concept the other is almost unavoidably either opposed to the self or submitted to the self’s dominance. It is always condemned to remain its shadow while attempting at being its equal. Identity, thus understood, supposes that a clear dividing line can be made between I and not-I, he and she; between depth and surface, or vertical and horizontal identity; between us here and them over there.
The concept of self and identity, redescribed in the queer materialism and diffractivity of asé, cannot conceive of the “other” as “negativity, lack, [or] foreignness”; it repudiates the idea of identity as “an impenetrable barrier between self and other [that is set up] in an attempt to establish and maintain its hegemony.” In other words, just as you find bands of darkness in light, and a heart of light in the blackest shadow, the self and the not-self are not separate, and difference—though real—is not fixed, but dynamic and co-emergent.
Èsù sits at the crossroads. The crossroads is not the place that lies ahead, a one-time occurrence. All roads are crossroads; every highway a junction of intra-sections. Matter-mind … reality … every “thing” is already a quilt whose sewers, human and nonhuman, are scattered across space-time—every object a node in the cosmopolitical, material-discursive traffic of things crisscrossing, cross-hatching, crossing-out, bleeding-in each other.
Asé disturbs the idea that whiteness is an “other” to blackness, but sees “both” as arising from the same matrix. It does not deny difference; it queers separation. It dispels the myth of unilineal oppression or independent victimhood, tying both the powered and the disempowered in a call-response ambivalence. Power does not flow from them to us. Dominance cuts both ways, injuring the colonized and reinforcing the strictures of the colonizer, but even that dynamic is not locked in place. The past we often mourn in our intellectual projects that seek a “returning to Eden,” to reclaim a sense of indigeneity, were never coherently indigenous, harmonious, or without shadows. Modernity is not essential evil come destroy our havens of communal living and wellbeing.
Èsù, like Shiva, fritters away the tough edges between us, calling us to inspect our claims to victimhood, to lean into nontarget populations. To learn to pour libations at the crossroads. One cannot easily condense Èsù’s nebulous character into well-polished morals-of-the-story or principles or even underlying themes, a situation that ironically informs a different ethos of racial justice: that in the game of sides, the greatest loss suffered is the other side.
Rethinking race within an extraordinarily lively material world
I make the case, my dear—as a black or rather a “black-black” man looking through the lenses of agential realism and my own indigenous cosmologies—that blackness is a phenomenon of white normativity or of a modern spatialization project that occludes the material vibrancy of the more-than-human world, snuffing out other places of power and hiding away the language of the trees, if you will. Blackness is a product of white power—a response made possible and meaningful within preset frames. In asserting the purity of our identity, in essentializing the other and fixing power in this modern logic of hierarchy and ascendancy, we are blinded to ways of being “otherwise” with planet, with people, with generations to come, and with power. Only within the binary sterilization of modernity, only within a settler epistemology of fixed Newtonian bubble identities, only within a world shorn of its vibrancy and agency, does blackness become naturalized as inferiority and become associated with backwardness. “Outside” of the quests for equality or reconciliation, there is a sensuous, richly generative, luxurious intra-activity of bodies … a stream of becoming and movement that disrupts the hard edges of our claims to blackness or whiteness, and engages white normativity and privilege from a place that is simultaneously compassionate and generative—without turning a blind eye to the oppression suffered.
The way the British colonists took over Igbo settlements and gained adherents for Christianity was to reverse the roles the Osus played. The Osus’ untouchability, once a mark of sacredness, became repulsive distance. They had hitherto operated within a posthuman cosmology, which allowed them to think of themselves within a community of other beings. A web of life that connected them in vital links with their environment. A fish is not wet inside water.
They offered sacrifices and paid homage to the gods, who were in turn embodied performances of their environments, peeping through the stories the people shared, stirring in renegade gusts of wind, dreaming with the soft breathings of every dust-infiltrated surface. The lifeblood of the community they served hinged on the balance between the mundane and the sacred. As such, to be human was to be in debt to other actors, seen and unseen. To be human was to be immersed in a sensuous world that did things to you.
By displacing this posthuman sensitivity, the colonialists downplayed the agencies of the nonhuman and more-than-human world around them—and not just for the Osus … this is how colonialism took place and still does: a shrinkage of the wide, wild, nonessential, non-teleological vitality and abundance of the world into a grim binary, a bitter modernity that reifies the human being as orphaned agent and the world outside of him as tool. Draining all the agency away from the material world, wrapping it into an essentialist bundle, and stuffing it into the human being as a natural category meant that the world was reduced to a machine.
Education was now to be gained in isolated, suspiciously standardized places called schools, and not in the immediacy of a moment or by learning from the environment. The free-flowing gift cultures that coincided with the values of Ubuntu—the idea that I am, not because I think, but because you are—were undermined by a new economic milieu defined by artificial scarcity, greed and pyramidal quests for ascension. A new universal metric for evaluating wealth displaced the abundance these cultures had known. All that was left for the lords to do was to rapidly convert indigenous artefacts, lands and these cultures into commodities.
In order to help this world-eating machine of capital globalization grow more tentacles, a universal time and singular future was pressed upon everyone. A linear notion of time—one that flows from past to present and to the future—helped foreground the discourses of development and progress as the engine of a Future-yet-to-come. That same clock, floating disembodied and static over everything, has shut down the way time was negotiated between plant and ear, between moon and tide, between the bulging saccharine sweetness of a ripe fruit and a farming family. The rituals of attending to what the world is doing are displaced by new modern rituals of trying to escape it.
Blackness—at least to some of us black-black people—is a “passenger concept.” The class divisions on an airplane—first class, business class, and coach—only make sense within the airplane. The plane’s architecture organizes its transient airborne society according to those categories. Could it be said that our black identities speak more to the particular social architecture we inhabit, haunted by worlds elided and practices forgotten, than to some essential identity within?
Modernity, the mapping project of locating bodies (whether female, environmental, object, animal bodies) within absolute categories like “space” and “time,” shaped blackness within an enlightenment settler humanist ontology. As such, white normativity is the heartland of blackness, for it was fashioned not only as a class tool for creating wage-free slave populations, but by the new “blacks” themselves as a rejection of the material essentialism of their bodies by which they were stabilized into servitude. Blackness became their existential struggle to transcend the new spatialized territories, or a rejection of the fixedness of the “nature” exploited by capitalism. Where being black might have been an issue of complexion, modernity’s cubicle ontology predesignated it as “lack.”
If a word is only understood within context—deriving its intelligibility within a stream of other words—then modernity is the gridlock that separates words away from the umbilical cord of sentences. Within this framework, the goal of synthesis—or two separate things coming together—plays out. Justice becomes about black people having just as much economic and political access as white people. However, if blacks finally transcend their unfair placement in white settlements, I would argue that this would be the greatest triumph for white normativity—because even though winners would have changed, the game still abides. When black people fetishize blackness, white settlements are reinforced.
If white normativity is agential, then its purpose is to continue to find intelligent and resilient ways to organize society in a hierarchical way. Its effects are to valorize difference as separation and enforce closures, to lock the “I” away from the “not-I.” By maintaining a harsh cut between black and white, male and female, dead and living, animate and inanimate, modern ontologies obstruct an appreciation for the unending traffic between mutual borders—the intra-activity that insists, quite rudely, that black and white are co-constitutive. Even more critically, and this point needs to be emphasized in the context of the conversation about “other places of power,” the dissociation of the “human” figure from the environment creates relationships of power that emphasize exploitation over nature, not partnership or co-becoming with nature.
This colonial logic of identity—whether black identity, white identity, female identity, or male identity—rigorously denies that spillages are possible, that our bodies are actually doing something that undercuts the rigidity and confidence of our passionate discussions. It nails down identity by settling for an anorexic pixel in the stead of a screen, and for a morsel of the canvas—still life—where the portrait is still being painted by a sympoiesis of bodies. An asé of bodies.
This is all to say that we became black when we were surgically removed from a stream of many colorful becomings, and positioned in a rigid table of categories … when we were stabilized and naturalized as citizens of a globalizing status quo. That status quo is characterized by an emphatic focus on the sole agency and supremacy of human beings above communities of nonhumans, the erosion of multiple pasts, the occlusion of the abundance and gifts of the world, a mechanistic ontology and the fostering of a single Future. To address racism and oppression, one must notice the materiality of the social conditions that hold us in place, in suspense, while occluding other ways of being in the world. In preserving itself, what this complex of oppression invites us to advocate for is equality. The ideal of a world where blacks are finally equal to whites (or even the prospects of black domination) is as unsatisfactory an ethical response to patriarchal domination as is taking a child’s playthings away—and then rewarding the child with the promise not to beat her too much if she stopped crying so loudly.
Why be equal? Why abide a metric of equality that pays no mind to the ways we diffractively enable and disable and permit each other? Why do we gather and mourn at the race track, in a stadium filled with other games to play? It is an underwhelming compensation—one that pretends that blacks—and whites—are really bound by a phallic system of value, and that the only way to be relevant, to be useful, to be real, is to ascend a pyramidal structure, the estranged pinnacle of which is the source of power.
Is there a universal black experience, a policed line that should not be crossed? Is my blackness still subject to the elements, or do I betray it by furnishing you, Alethea, with a “white argument” that betrays the experiences and sufferings of people who look like me? Am I a sell-out? Or is there something in noticing that even this blackness will go the way of other colors: in the compost heap that disciplines everything?
Even right now, like spent charcoal in a dead bonfire exposed to the air, I flitter away in soot and pieces. The closer I come to my identity, the more I see that it is diffracted, dispersed, and unevenly distributed across time and space, so that to say I am “black” is to cut a chunk away from my inexhaustibleness.
Indigenous worlds resist the idea of universal homogeneous world history. The identities of our forebears, seemingly locked in the past, are still being remade. Time bends and dances and jumps from here to there—or, following Barad, makes “here” and “there” by jumping. The idea that “the past is yet to come,” that the Future imposed by the developmental models we subscribe to, and that causality is a lot more than mechanical bodies bouncing off each other, undermines the totalizing regimes of homogeneous time, which—it is possible to argue—was one of the foremost tools employed by colonial forces to estrange communities from their own wealth, from their own intimate partnerships with nature, from their own anticipatory disciplines, and from other places of power.
This moment here now is alive with the dense seeds of other times and spaces—pasts/futures in constant reconfiguration. That the past is alive (not rooted in a singular universal Futurism) challenges the emptiness of enlightenment time. It is not about erasing the tears of oppression that once landed on anonymous barren earth—the sorrows of our mothers and fathers. It is about the constant generativity of what is supposedly done but not forgotten. It is about what the past can yet become, what the tears falling to the ground might yet fertilize. It is the queer idea that we cannot allocate these lively marks on our bodies to the category of “history” (leave it there or bury it, for even the dead are active).
To truly honor the past is to admit it moves—and to admit it still speaks and haunts diffractively through our current specific contexts and circumstances is to do the difficult work of revisiting our standpoints and finding new questions to ask by lingering in the silences of what we don’t know.
The point I stress is that we are haunted by what we’ve repressed. Given insights generated by indigenous traditions, quantum physics, and feminist materialisms about the queerness of temporality, the collective intelligence of the world around us, the intra-connectedness of all things, the agency of materiality and its entanglement with discursivity, we have to rethink racial justice vis-à-vis the rhizomic emergence of identities. If becoming is an “open, nonpurposeful, contingent process,” characterized by a “becoming-with” (or sympoiesis), then racial justice is not necessarily a race for races but might (yet) be a slowing down—to a complete stop if necessary—to consider the tracks that urge us on.
It’s not that there is something conceptually inadequate about our descriptions/actions for racial justice; it is that our engagements are themselves fashioned within an apparatus—namely, modernity—that thrives on those charged distinctions between black and white and absolute notions of separateness to work, while leaving out the contributions the world is already making to our realities.
We are situated in an architecture of racism. Racism or prejudice is not a human attribute any more than humans are themselves independent, self-contained, and separate from the unspeakable material-spiritual goings-on. This architecture is not entirely conversational or discursive. It is biological, material, visceral—implicating not just our communicative transactions or knowledge-creation practices.
Perhaps, then, if the holding milieu were any different, Diallo’s claim to blackness might have been investigated with different lenses. With the sensitivity of an “Osu,” who knows that fathers often “come back” in form of their children, who understands that the whisperings of one’s ancestors are often mistaken for madness, and who knows how to consult with other agencies. But under modern circumstances, each “side” is locked in. An Osu’s blackness generously opens up a world of crazy dreams, ancestral connections, queer pasts, posthuman performativity, and the connections our bodies are making that we moderns do not see because we are trapped in our castles of identity politics. No one is essentially black or white; we all are a becoming-black/white. Race is not biological determinism, or linguistic absolutism—not fixed or arbitrary; it is emergent. It is not even a thing of human ancestry alone, since the human is a matter of the nonhuman becoming.
Race is a gerund.
This is not to say that we should just hold hands (whatever that means!) and walk into some future, forgetting the whispering of our ancestors and the tender wounds inflicted upon us even now. Entanglement is not submission to a hive mind or an effacement of differences; it is instead, as Trinh Minh-ha reminds us again, noticing that we are inescapably interconnected—and this is tragedy and hope.
Who knows? With an Osu cosmology, Diallo’s infiltration might have been an opportunity to meet our notions of identity as if for the first time, to ask weird questions, and to examine the historical, technological, material, geographical and colonial conditions that situate blackness(es) and whiteness(es). I tell this story of the Osus because we are living in times of deep forgetfulness, but the point is not to see that pasts are never remembered—pasts are re-membered. Reconfigured over and over again. Not erased. But manufactured from the threads of this very moment.
In so far as our colors abide on this single track, on this trajectory of progress and anthropocentrism, within this space-time cartography of whiteness—the same framework that once colonized and still colonizes white people too—we might never know other places of power.
Blackness is the figure of being late and the pressure to be punctual to a time that is not ours; it is this Sisyphean striving to arrive early to a party that started long before we were told about it. And for so long, we have stood at the gates, and we have stammered out excuses for not being punctual enough, and we have fought for seats around the table where the juiciest plates are being arranged. We have demanded to be seen, to be heard, to be invited, and to be served. But therein lies the thick Faustian plot: in these moments of angst, for which our loud protests are christened a form of justice-seeking, and which are inscribed with a dense forgetfulness, we do not see that there are other clocks, and that there is no single universal homogenous world history to adhere to. The world does not careen toward progress, and human improvement and well-being are not matters owned by the practices of economic development and growth. There are songs that trees know that we haven’t heard; there are alliances that termites and the pheromones they secrete forge that we can learn from; there are wild things that do not know the moral discipline of purpose or the colonizing influence of instrumentality; and then there are murmurations—the waltz of wind, sky, starling, and ground—which are not meant to be spoken about but merely to be seen and appreciated. In short, there are other powers, other agencies, and other clocks. And, perhaps, we release ourselves not only to the performance of our many colors, but we free those in the posh parties that have somehow denied us entry from their secret fears of losing their own seats at the table, when we say “there are other clocks, and we will not be on time.”
The promise and courage of monstrosity
We are in the marked time of a global socio-economic order that hinders us from noticing our sensuous connections to each other. We are in a convoy of exhausted traffic blind to the expanse of wealth on the sides of the highway leading to an enlightenment Future—the future premised on the assumption that humans are alone, that nature is dead, that you and I are separate from each other. I refuse this premise. This repulsion at the heart of colonial truth. I am not separate from you.
But how do we find our time? One might say that a different feminist ethos of racial sensuousness, an asé of racial justice-making, or what I call ‘transraciality,’ brings us initially to a notion of self and identity that are posthumanist, diffractive and intra-active. It invites us to see that racism does not sprout from racist human bodies containing ignorance and hatred but intra-active relationships that are always yet-to-come.
It slows us down to see that power is not only never complete, not only partially realized, but shared – so that victimhood can become an ironic vocation of maintaining problematic orders of things. In the same vein, it tells us that there is no perfect victim, no innocent past or coherent indigeneity that was lost and which we have to regain. It disciplines our edges and teaches us that every moment is a reconfiguration of identity – and that we do not ease gently from one second to another intact. That we will not solve racial injustice, and that our inability to do so is not a function of our inadequacy or a want of ideas, or because racial injustice is sewn into the very nature of matter, but because we – the once coherent selves of humanist imaginations – are not at all central to the equation of the world. Asé forbids this. We are not complete. We are not in charge. Our best exertions will not embrace everything there is to consider, but will ripple out into the crossroads, touching here, excluding there. Far from being an invitation to despair, or to abandon efforts in service of racial justice, we are “called” so to speak to resituate ourselves within the mangle of other forces and to think of ourselves as co-participants with a world that never was inferior to us; a world that is also embroiled in material explorations and experimentations in the questions of justice. This “transraciality” is the very fabric by which all things matter, and by which things show up only partially. It does not dismiss the imaginary of equality, but it tells us how this is framed in an anorexic, neoliberal apparatus that obfuscates our multiple connections and potentials of partnership “with” nature.
If we frame racial justice within this apparatus—and there are specific contexts that demand this framing—then our victories will be dependent on the enactment of laws and operationalization of policies that address economic, political, and scientific exclusions of people of color. However, other justices are possible. Other ways of meeting each other. In a wide open space, in a world dislodged from its neoliberal coordinates, what racial matterings might look like are yet to be seen—and we may not be prepared for what wants to come next. Since there are no resolutions, no points of firm arrivals that are not already takeoff points for other kinds of emergence, each of our ideas and practices are what the “whole,” or a movement of bodies that precedes us, is doing. Each of our projects are yearnings performing a provisionality. Each of us pours a libation at crossroads.
Perhaps an asé of racial becomings can gain ground in a politics of possibilities thrown open by this commitment to entanglements. Perhaps this is what whiteness can do: to ally with colored bodies and learn to develop “affective muscles” with which they can serve as generous conduits of rage—letting screams of “I hate white people!” be held not as evil or as something to be repressed but as the trans-affective flow that is dispersed in the world at large. To open up places and sites of inquiry where “I don’t know, and I’m not sure we have this figured out” is the theme of the gathering. To direct money toward projects of the commons that do not necessarily yield returns on investment.
And because blackness cannot stay in antagonistic wait for answers, that identity is also being challenged by a world too corrosive for steady boundaries. A different ethos of “transraciality” queers the oppressor-victim dichotomy and could inspire black collectives to seek to understand the positions of nontarget dominant groups, or even extend invitations and receive contributions from others groups made to their traditions that are still extant. Spaces of shared grieving can be co-enacted. And because words don’t possess meanings or come preset with meanings of their own, I even imagine days of jubilee in which white allies are allowed to open that hydraulically sealed capsule, survey its vexed and contemptuous content—the slur “nigger” or its rehabilitated variation “nigga”—and compost it by saying it in a multiracial ritual that allows intergenerational trauma and ghosts to roam free, if only to redeem the word and reclaim it for less divisive connotations.
None of these are of course prescriptions for rekindling racial relations or without risk. None of these are solutions. Also none of these ideas are necessarily teleological or directed at an ultimate portrait of racial justice. They are provocations to “think otherwise, to become otherwise.” Different contexts contain their own enabling and disabling features, a point that reinforces the idea that responsivity is never unilateral or entirely human, but is the shared agency between. There is no correct response for all situations, or fixed racial singularity in the far distance to which we all must tether our aspirations and multiple yearnings. What asé as a new materialist, posthuman redescription of racial matterings and a different ethos of responsivity provokes are opportunities to be otherwise—opportunities to come in touch with times other than the one Future of neoliberal progress that has hijacked racial justice imaginaries. Opportunities to re-member.
Do I dare consider transracialities that invite us to live intersectionally? Do I dare dream of a decolonial politics that allows us to confront these troubling ties we have with the supposed Others? One that frames engagement not merely in terms of reconciliation or equality among races—since equal opportunity within a structure reinforces the structure—but in terms of seeking out crossroads, and pouring libations in the places our bodies intersect with the many others that are already and already yet to be part of us? Do I dare confront the present, and explore its depths for the many within?