I started this blog thinking around a few lines from Baraka’s “Ka’Ba”:
We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new
Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred word?
“Words” is plural in part because I had initially misremembered the line, and in part because I wanted to remind myself to think of the sacredness of words, what they can and can’t do, especially now.
The past few months, we have witnessed an upsurge of black death at the hands of the police (and its deputies, self-appointed and otherwise), and a growing list of things black people cannot do, a partial list including allegedly sell loose cigarettes, seek help following an accident, walk in the street, carry snacks, carry a sandwich, carry a toy gun in an open carry state, listen to your music loud, be children, have our lives and deaths treated seriously.
Their names become our sacred words: Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, VonDerrit Myers, John Crawford, Jordan Davis, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Kendrick Johnson, Ramarley Graham. All those not named here, the many more thousands gone. Each one singular and belonging to a general stream of black life and death.
The length of black life is treated with short worth. – Yasiin Bey, “Thieves in the Night”
“The truth is that this country does not know what to do with its black population now that blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for public comfort.” – James Baldwin, No Name in the Street“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he whisperedto any handy angel in the sky. – Gwendolyn Brooks, “Riot”
There’s a numbing familiarity in even a partial list of those killed at the hands of the state and those who imagine themselves to be acting on its behalf, defending the property of their fellow citizens, which does not ordinarily include black people. There’s a numbing familiarity of waiting for protests, of the typical deflections (“what about black on black crime?” “If they’d cooperated with the police?”) that generally come down to a demand to suffer in silence. A reminder that our attempts to make sense of this overlook the sense these attacks do make, familiar to us from the spiritual: “went to the rock to hide my face, rock cried out no hiding place.”
But we have to make sense of it. We write and invent stories, poems, songs, new narratives and ways of thinking. We have to insist on our outrage, reject the notion that these killings extrajudicial and judicial, are part of the continuing war of terror that has targeted black people since the beginnings of the West.
The master has to devise preoccupations, or instruments of “social death,” that would prevent the slave from
thinking about restarting the war of captivity. One could say, therefore, that preventing the slave’s literal death is the beginning of mastery. Once the master is instituted, I believe, death-his and his slave’s-becomes anathema to him. The master is not, as such, defined alone by the will to live, as Hegel’s allegory suggests, but also by the will to prevent the defeated from dying, either by suicide or through a rebellious mutiny. – Adélékè Adéèkó, The Slave’s Rebellion
Surviving while black produces a range of feelings: guilt, resolve, exhaustion, gratitude, anger, pride, and fear. The word “survive,” which derives from two Latin words “super” (in addition) and “vivere” (live)—and is typically defined as a continuity of existence despite danger and hardship—brings such feelings into stark relief. What, we might ask, does it mean to live a life that exceeds life? – Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies (quoted here)
To make sense. To figure out. To make or fabricate beyond present limits of thought. Black writing in pursuit of sacred and sacralizing words, livable words and worlds, in pursuit of black survival and life, more abundantly.
There seems something more fundamental in the proximity of blackness and death, blackness as alibi for for murder, blackness construed as deadly weapon, than what is ordinarily meant by either the quotidian and ordinary or what is ordinarily meant by spectacle.
To be accused was to be convicted, to be convicted was to be punished. – Frederick Douglass, 1845 narrative.
Spectacles of violence, including the flagrant, contradictory lies told to explain what happened, have a generalized rather than specific disciplinary function, the flaunted impunity reminding those who need reminding not to get to comfortable. That same impunity reminds those who need reassurance that It, the blackness Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about, will not touch them.
The habits and reflexes of black killability are something more like an atmosphere, that thing out the corner of the black eye unnamed and lurking that like as not will materialize as “punishment,” regular reminders not to get too comfortable, of the capriciousness with which black lives may be deemed guilty and deserving punishment. A storm on the horizon that may come your way or not. A generalized atmosphere mingling guilt, exhaustion, and fear with everyday pain and joy, and that makes joy an act of resistance.
To make sense of it in its generality: name it and make it thinkable, shareable, already shared. To make and remake black lives and possibilities. To make sense of it: to find again the words of restoration, creation, stubborn survival. To imagine, as Toni Morrison wrote: “She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it”
Or as Sylvia Wynter put it, summarizing Frantz Fanon: “The true leap, Fanon wrote at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks, consists in introducing invention into existence. The buck stops with us.”