Freedom Dreams

Is there nowhere that is kind?
—Angelina Weld Grimké

There are very few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.
—Robin D. G. Kelley

Freedom dreams are sticky investments, promiscuous attachments, Velcro projectiles. We invest in those fighting injustice hopes that we often dare not express, anticipating that their successes will re-shape our worlds, chart different (dissident) possibilities for being, and being together. Freedom dreams rupture inevitable quotidians, irritating the certainties of slow violence and arbitrary execution. Each new victory seeds another future, an alternate trajectory. If nothing else, each new victory whispers, “it need not be like this.” We hold on to these whispers, gather them, chant them: “it need not be like this.”


After Christopher Dorner’s death, I started thinking with Essex Hemphill about memory work. Hemphill writes, “It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference.” I turned to bell hooks to learn about world-re-envisioning love, world-sustaining love, world-making love. I learned from James Baldwin—I’m still learning—the difficult labor of surviving because of love, and to love.


Resistance is an act of love. Protest is an act of love. Survival is an act of love. Yet, I find myself wondering at how many other ways there might be to love. About how to multiply these other ways of loving, to fill them not with the uncertainty of arbitrary violence, the always-available potential for death, the injunction to love fiercely because life can be so rudely truncated, but with differently paced forms of loving filled with richness and variety, with the slow unfolding that lasts all night and beyond.


Done took my livin’ as it came
     Done grabbed my joy, done risked my life
–Sterling A. Brown

We gather around Ferguson, Missouri, from around the world to mourn Mike Brown’s truncated life. We assemble with familiar phrases—“gone too soon,” “untimely death,” “tragic loss”—phrases that too many of us have uttered too often, phrases that we would prefer not to utter. Phrases that store still-unfolding histories of disposability. We gather in global moments of silence and global articulations of rage. We gather with the hope that Mike Brown had “grabbed” his “joy” when he could. We gather with the residents of Ferguson as they try to imagine a livable beyond, to build from this moment a more shareable world. And amidst the noise, we try to listen for their freedom dreams, to dream with them.


It might be impossible for those of us outside Ferguson not to try to pursue our own freedom dreams through Ferguson. We want to see our hopes realized: hopes that a racist police system will be indicted and undone; hopes that Mike Brown’s family will receive justice and compassion; hopes that fragile coalitions formed around Ferguson will continue to grow and to forge even more powerful alliances; hopes that those freedom dreams emerging from Ferguson will transform other spaces; hopes that the attention paid to Mike Brown’s killing will give pause should a similar situation occur and that lives will be saved; hopes that this moment will not simply be another place and date to add to an already too-long list, but will undo the very logics and practices that make such geographies:geo-histories possible. This is already too much to ask of and from Ferguson. We can hope that our freedom dreams help to nurture those of Mike Brown’s family. We can hope that we learn from Ferguson how to shape and inhabit freedom dreams. We can hope that we learn to listen to Ferguson’s freedom dreams.

*with many thanks to Robin Kelley for the phrase “freedom dreams”

Black Queer Studies Now

The possible shapes of what has not been before exist only in that back place, where we keep those unnamed, untamed longings for something different and beyond what is now called possible, to which our analysis and our understanding can only build roads.

—Audre Lorde

Anniversaries are strange things, especially at the juncture of black and queer, for they invoke the “many thousands gone,” all the black queer artists and intellectuals who did not live to see this field emerge, but whose work has provided ongoing sustenance and provocation, daring us to imagine more and imagine better. I dedicate this meditation to the ones we remember, the ones who inspire, the ones who died too soon, the ones we have forgotten, the ones we never knew, the ones we loved, the ones we could have loved: to those listening for their names.1

It has been close to 15 years since the Black Queer Studies at the Millennium conference held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2000, and close to 10 years since E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson published the co-edited Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, which combined selected papers from that conference with other foundational work in black queer studies. Black Queer Studies was envisioned as a celebration of a still-emergent and vibrant field, which had been energized by works including Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (1999), Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000), Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2003), Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (2001), and Sharon Holland’s Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and Black Subjectivity (2000). These works ranged widely in their methods and archives, all insisting that the figure of the black queer was central to the emergence of disciplines and fields including sexology (Somerville), sociology (Ferguson), urban studies (Delany), public policy (Cohen), and affect and material culture (Holland).

    Edit: As Darius Bost’s work reminds me, this listing of university press books does not account for foundational work published in many elsewheres by Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Charles Nero, and Eric Garber, among many others.

Because the conference and the publication that followed were billed as celebrations, they were marked by strategic ellipses that were both energizing and disciplinary. In her Foreword to Black Queer Studies, Holland writes, “Because hindsight is always dangerous, I will not critique what is missing from this collection, but rather only describe its missed opportunities as a kind of melancholia.” 2

    Edit: Holland’s cryptic statement about “a kind of melancholia” had initially led me to consider melancholia’s relationship to a:the lost object. Melancholia, Freud writes, “may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object,” where the object is “lost as an object of love.” Or, melancholia might be a loss where one “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost.” Holland’s “a kind of melancholia” suggests a “loved object” was/is missing in the black queer studies institutionalized as/by an anthology. Or simply an object whose loss could be felt, but which could not be named.

    Holland’s barely-there, easy-to-miss invocation of “melancholia” unsettles the field-making endeavors of black queer studies by cultivating profound ambivalence about its “objects,” about what it chooses to “love” and “remember” and take as foundational. This “aside,” barely heard, is so very important.

If Holland’s strategic silence roots ambivalence at the heart of black queer studies, this ambivalence is not shared by the editors. Henderson and Johnson claim that the collection seeks to “interanimate” black studies and queer studies, and to “build a bridge” between the two to advance “long-term and mutually liberatory goals.”3 The collection aims to enhance “unity and community.”4 This focus on “unity and community” dictated the editorial choice to focus predominantly on the U.S., an odd decision given the important scholarship in the fields of the black diaspora and the black Atlantic that had transformed the academy since the early 1990s.5 It also felt odd because the black women scholars credited by Johnson and Henderson as foundational figures, including Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, embraced a broadly international imagination.

Simultaneously, Johnson and Henderson divide the labor of “black” and “queer” strangely. “Both terms,” they write, “are markers or signifiers of difference: just as ‘queer’ challenges notions of heteronormativity and heterosexism, ‘black’ resists notions of assimilation and absorption.” This division of labor allows queer to be about “inclusivity” while black is about “historical and cultural specificity.”6 This division of labor seems to forget the scholarship by black feminists on blackness and sexuality, on blackness as non-normativity, and even un-normativity.7

Perhaps the biggest dissonance happens when the fields represented by “black” and “queer” are mapped through their entrance into the academy—the emergence of Black studies and Queer studies. Dissonant because this institutionalization evades the more contentious genealogies of blackness and queerness that would render improbable, if not impossible, the rapprochement between the two that Henderson and Johnson seek. In the absence of such genealogies, a certain professional politeness marks the Introduction to Black Queer Studies. In many ways, a silencing politeness.

By silencing politeness, I mark the absence in the volume of scholarship on sexually explicit work: no engagement with any forms of black pornography or erotica; no engagement with the problem sex poses for Black studies as it encounters Queer studies; no real engagement with black queer popular cultures—say, the fiction of James Earl Hardy. A commitment to “respectability” that left desire unspoken:unspeakable.

It seems odd to describe as “polite” essays that critiqued the race-blindness of queer studies (Marlon Ross on Sedgwick’s closet, Charles Nero on gay white ghettos); extended Barbara Smith in critiquing what Dwight McBride memorably termed “straight black studies”; followed Barbara Christian’s injunction to theorize otherwise (E. Patrick Johnson’s “Quare studies”); prioritized archives based on black lives and cultural production (Jewel Gomez on black lesbian texts, Kara Keeling on black lesbian cinema, Mae Henderson on Baldwin, Philip Harper on his transnational travels and desire encounters). Except, repeatedly, many of these essays are coy, bashful, unwilling (or unable) to speak to what Rinaldo Walcott describes as “shameful and funky sexual practices.” One notes, for instance, that E. Patrick Johnson’s notion of “quare” as a “theory in the flesh” has relatively little (if anything) to say about fleshly appetites:

    Quare studies must encourage strategic coalition building around laws and policies that have the potential to affect us all across racial, sexual, and class divides, Quare studies must incorporate under its rubric a praxis related to the sites of public policy, family, church, and community.

    Quare studies would reinstate the subject and the identity around which the subject circulates that queer theory so easily dismisses. By refocusing our attention on racialized bodies, experiences, and knowledges of transgendered people, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals of color, quare studies grounds the discursive process of mediated identification and subjectivity in a political praxis that speaks to the material existence of “colored” bodies.

Johnson’s “manifesto” leaves unspoken:unspeakable the idea that black queer practices might be about sex, desire, fucking, going down, sex toys, public sex, cruising, fisting, leather, s/m. Instead, his essay ends on a coy note about men who like to cook and clean. One reads black gay cultural production from the 1980s and 90s and then turns to Johnson to see all that fierce desire and sexiness exiled, muted.

(From Hemphill’s “Now we think as we fuck”


Johnson’s “Now we think as we cook”)

citational analysis produces its own shapes of thinking and feeling. I had said I could not write this, by which I mean: I struggle to unlearn what is habit, to find what is necessary. Registers clang up against each other, clog up prose.

Two essays in Black Queer Studies offered the most provocative and compelling discussions of what the field might do: Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: On the Radical Politics of Queer Studies,” first published in 1997, and Rinaldo Walcott’s “Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora.”

This is an “interested” statement, by which I mean, these two essays helped to guide my own work and to affirm that I wanted to do was possible. Their particular questions and approaches have been incredibly generative and energizing.

A shift in registers:

Dates are fuzzy, but I first encountered Cohen’s article as I was “transitioning” out of Gay and Lesbian studies and moving “into” queer studies, an impossible fiction, but one that I needed to re-think the shape of the world. From years on black “queer” listservs, where we debated the word “gay” and sought better ways of naming ourselves (adodi, same gender loving, in the life, in the family, the children), I knew the world described in the books I read, the world I saw in clubs and bookstores and sex clubs, could not/did not see or imagine me. Essex Hemphill was a bible. He gave me the language of class and race, of precarity and optimism, of desire and solitude. When Cohen’s work told me that queer studies had yet to find ways to be relevant to black lives (or, in Rinaldo Walcott’s terms, black life forms), the world became more possible.

The too-easy switch between “gay and lesbians” and “queer,” Cohen argued, foreclosed the “radical possibilities” queer might offer as a genealogy or excavation of practices and logics of intimate surveillance and management. For Cohen, the distinction between “heterosexuality”/”heteronormativity” and “queer” obscured what was at stake: “one’s relation to power.”

    Cohen offers a different map to get to “queer,” one whose names are Kimberle Crenshaw, Barbara Ransby, Angela Davis, Cheryl Clarke, and Audre Lorde; one that starts not with “I Hate Straights,” but with the Combahee River Collective’s statement. Where one starts matters. The path one follows matters. The tracks one leaves matter.

Cohen’s key word is “transformational”: “a [transformational] politics does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws that make these institutions and relationships oppressive.”

Cohen’s insistence that “the work” required examining relationships of power helped to unblock the anxieties I experienced when I could not find “gays and lesbians” in the black diaspora spaces I wanted to explore.

I write this after Renisha McBride’s killer has been convicted, as Mike Brown’s death changes yet another town, as Ferguson, Missouri, grieves under the weight of martial law—these traces of grief and rage, of a desire to make a world where these things are impossible, and this from my Nairobi bedroom, a stretch Cohen grants.

And if Cohen’s archives remained anchored in the twentieth century, her method of reading intimacy in relation to power permitted, even encouraged, many of us to look elsewhere, to re-think “queer” while being attentive to the intimacy-making and intimacy-destroying histories of blackness.

I append here a list of names: Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, as a promissory note

Re-reading Rinaldo Walcott, I am struck by how much his questions shaped mine: “Is black queer studies the improper object of the black studies project? Or can black queer studies even reside within the confines of the black studies project proper?” “Proper” is a key term here, as Walcott asks about the U.S.-centeredness of black studies, its relative inattention to other sites of blackness, and its desire for “epistemological respectability.”

But that is not what I wanted to write.

Still un-training.

With the exception of Cohen’s essay, many of the essays in the anthology left me with a sense of what, adapting Marlon Ross’s language, might be termed U.S. claustrophilia: if, as Ross argued, (white) queer studies was obsessed with the figure/problem of the (white) closet, much of the black queer studies in the anthology could not emerge from the U.S. closet, a space that felt oppressive, and even impossible. And also false to the histories that preceded it: histories of many black lesbians and gay men traveling the world as they figured out their hungers, their desires, their ways of being possible.

Walcott’s insistence on diaspora—on travel, dispersal, undoing, genealogy, random encounters, misapprehension, split loyalties, betrayal, capture, revolution—produced a shape of the world that could be imagined, and theorized, differently. Diaspora genealogies also open the archive of black studies, demanding that we move beyond formal institutionalization in the U.S. to consider the intellectual labor performed in London in the 1930s (C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta), France in the 1920s and 1930s (the Nardal sisters, Lamine Senghor, Césaire), Makerere and Dar es Salaam in the 1960s (George Shepperson, Ezekiel Mphahlele).

As I wrestled to find geo-histories to think with and write about, Walcott helped me to re-discover Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” an essay that became foundational to my vision of black queer studies.

Permit an excursion from work in progress:

Spillers theorizes the middle passage as a subject-obliterating, thing-making project. In doing so, she takes on the challenge of contemplating what Aimé Césaire termed “thingification.”8 This urge to humanize slaves, she contends, is motivated by our inability to imagine the thing-making project of slavery, which is “unimaginable from this distance”; but to insist on the slave’s humanity risks voiding the problem of the slave as commodity, as thing.9 How might a queer diaspora that begins from thing-making function?

Spillers provides a tantalizing glimpse of this (im)possibility:

    The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body – a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence, biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail, is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time – in stunning contradiction – the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning.10

In positing the “theft of the body” from “active desire” Spillers strips away a foundation of queer studies: the role of desire, whether that be same-sex desire or desire for gender or desire for fetish-sex or aimless, polymorphous desire.11 It is not that one’s desire is criminalized or pathologized, as Foucault might have it; but that desire itself becomes impossible in the brutal transition of thing-making. Thing-making proceeds through gender-undifferentiation, through the practices and logics of commodification, labor, and punishment.

But the story becomes even more complicated, for the same process that produces the slave as “thing” simultaneously inflects the slave’s thingness with “sensuality.” Although Spillers elaborates a 4-stage process that seems to proceed in a linear fashion, it might be more useful to understand this step-making as a strategic fiction that attempts to render partial, recursive, fractured, and synchronous stages: the “captive body” is at once as densely saturated with the power to elicit “sensuality” as it is excluded by its thing-ness from gaining agency through that sensuality.12 If, as a thought experiment, one takes Spillers’s sequence in a linear fashion, then one ends up with a move from a “captive body,” severed from its “active desire,” which acts as a “thing,” and through that process of thingification, becomes a “captive sexuality.” Sexuality, then, would not name the place of subjectification, as it has in queer studies. Instead, it would name theft and commodification, thing-making and gender-undifferentiation. The queerness of the black diaspora, then, would stem from an effort to describe this figuration, which is unaccounted for in sexology’s archives: the thing “severed” from its “active desire.”


The re-turn to Spillers was also a re-engagement with black diaspora histories, with the difficult labor of thinking through the problem of “the thing,” of “fungibility,” of what Walcott terms “black life forms.”

But I get ahead of myself.


In their Introduction, Henderson and Johnson admit that Black Queer Studies privileges the humanities, a function, perhaps, of intimacies, but also, one might speculate, of institutional and disciplinary priorities over what is worth funding. In the years since the anthology appeared, a growing body of work has used social science methods, at times located squarely within the social sciences and, at other times, embracing broadly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods. Complicating and even undoing archives and methods understood as foundational in queer studies, scholars and artists and activists have privileged sites of black sociality—the church, the club, the ballroom, for instance—to re-theorize black queerness. Black queer cultures and subcultures are richly represented and theorized on youtube, on multiple tumblrs, and in a range of independent film productions. And while some of this work is slowly—very slowly—making its way into the peer-reviewed academy, the radical critiques of method and foundations embedded in most of this work remain unheard. For instance, what would happen if black lives and histories were placed at the center of queer theorizing? What would happen, Sharon Holland asks, if the black lesbian were centered?

Equally important, the geographies of black queer scholarship have expanded, stretching and rupturing what Walcott describes as the too-easy alignment between blackness and the U.S. In work by Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Thomas Glave, Maja Horn, Jaffari Allen, Nadia Ellis, Shaka McGlotten, and Lyndon Gill, a queer Caribbean flows, listening to and learning from queer predecessors—Claude McKay, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, M. NourbeSe Philip, the many who have charted and navigated dissident waterways. A North American gaze focused on Africa is attempting to interact with black queer studies, in work by T.J. Tallie, Brenna Munro, Xavier Livermon, and Ashley Currier, though these conversations often seem muted, still waiting to happen.

(Many names are missing here: Tavia Nyong’o, C. Riley Snorton, Marlon Bailey, LaMonda Stallings, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Rosamond King, David Green, Kai Green, Zakiyyah Jackson, Neo Musangi, Zethu Matebeni, and many others I have yet to encounter)


Another kind of re-beginning:

The urgencies of the killing present have shaped the direction of much black queer labor as it has tried to document black queer disposability and develop paradigms for livability. The proximity to being undone haunts black queer cultural and intellectual production, whether it be in the form of “mainstream” queer canons that do not acknowledge the existence or contributions of black queer scholarship; in restrictive zoning laws and practices that reduce spaces for black queer sociality; in mainstream expressions and articulations of blackness that continue to unsee black queer lives, framing them as embarrassing problems to be solved or ignored; in lukewarm liberal versions of “inclusion” that depend on deracination; and in forms of institutionalization that mute what Cohen described as the radical potential of queer politics.


And, still, something insists that I am “doing this wrong,” not posing the “major questions” raised by this body of scholarship. This writing seems supremely “unhelpful” to those looking to get a “handle” on “the field.”

My “training” is fighting other instincts.


It is not clear to me that “black queer studies” can ever be/come a “proper object,” for blackness “anarranges” all claims to “the proper.” And it has seemed to me that the most urgent work produced in/around black queer studies raises, insistently, the problem of what Rinaldo Walcott terms “black life forms.” The tasks “before” black queer studies are genealogical—thinking with Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers and Fred Moten and Alexander Weheliye about those figures/bodies designated as “black,” how they are not only foundational to what is known as “the human,” but also how they unmake the assumptions tied to that human. This thinking goes beyond the “subject-making/subject-unmaking” focus of work from Foucault through Butler and Bersani and Edelman, demonstrating the limits of identitarian/anti-identitarian critiques, the limits of psychoanalytic approaches for which the black as possible subject will never have been possible. (And, here, I’m suggesting that the reading of Fanon as an “intervention” into psychoanalysis also misses the mark.) And so the problem of “how” to begin with a figure already barred from apprehension within the regimes of the human taken for granted even by a notion such as “the abject.” The black, after all, is not what is “violently excluded,” but what has never been possible to “include” in a notion of “the human.”

If, in fact, black queer studies begins with the impossibility of psychoanalytic subjectification, how might one speak about the unmaking desire of “the thing”?

This genealogical work unfolds into considering the place of what Christina Sharpe theorizes as “post-slavery” subjects who inhabit “monstrous intimacies”: the quotidian unmaking of being that is everyday blackness, the ease with which fungibility and killability mark black life forms. How does one think about life forms whose being is perpetually marked by unmaking? I write this as a Kenyan legislator proposes that queers in Kenya should be stoned to death. Queerness unfolds across:through this unmaking. Black queerness, rooted in the archives of disposability. How might one think with, find, inhabit, theorize from these archives of disposability? What is the labor of dwelling in these ungeographies of impossibility?

I write this with the strong awareness that much black queer scholarship on the contemporary focuses on strategies of livability—on love, on kindness, on ecstasy, on community, on resistance, on agency, on possibility. Much black queer scholarship and cultural production is engaged in rich forms of world-building and world-re-envisioning.

Simply: my head is not there. Not yet. Not now.

I am still trying to figure out how to think with:about impossible figures, unmade figures, unbeing figures, with the fleshed and unfleshed, with the thing that desires. With the bodies fleshed to be disposable: with the impossible futures that Edelman cannot apprehend. I am still trying to find the forms with which to write of black life forms that disrupt the possibilities of available forms, undoing sentences, grammar, the stanza, the line, the page. And if this writing is to do the kind of work I envision it doing, it undoes itself, as it must.


Black queer studies now might refuse José Muñoz’s invitation to envision a queerness that is “not yet here” by insisting on a queerness that has always been, that is foundational to blackness, producing the forms blackness can’t not inhabit in its various disposable and killable illegibilities. Black queer studies now might insist, as Zakiyyah Jackson does, on following Sylvia Wynter to ask about the forms of the human that blackness can engage, occupy, undo, uninhabit, re-think. Black queer studies now might refuse the so-called founding gestures of queer studies that privilege a color-coded West, disengaging from the troubling funkiness of blackness. Black queer studies now might continue charting the dissident geographies mapped by Dionne Brand and Katherine McKittrick and Thomas Glave. Black queer studies now might adopt what Nyong’o describes as an “improper affective stance” fueled by the “strangest of intimacies” that make demands yet to be imagined. Black queer studies now might insist on the grandness of its ass-splitting vision, its world-remaking vision.

As we continue to remember and call upon those who are listening for their names.

1. Melvin Dixon, “I’ll be Somewhere Listening for My Name”

2. Sharon P. Holland, “Foreword: ‘Home’ is a Four-Letter Word” in Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson.

3. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 1, 6.

4. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.

5. I’m thinking of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing, and Identity (New York: Routledge, 1994). Less obvious works including Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and influential essays by Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty.

6. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.

7. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and Evelynn Hammonds, “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality”

8. Césaire uses “thingification” to argue that colonial oppressors lose their humanity because of their oppressive acts. I am adapting his language here to frame the emergence of blackness within colonial modernity.

9. Here, I depart from recent scholarship by Omise’eke Tinsley, which has speculated that erotic practices on slave ships helped to maintain humanity. Much as I relish this claim, I would like to consider how a more difficult history of thing-making and thinghood can inform black queer diasporic scholarship.

10. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”

11. I have in mind the foundational role of desire in work by Guy Hocquenhoem, Teresa de Lauretis, Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, Susan Stryker, Samuel Delany, Robert Reid-Pharr, and Michael Warner

12. This claim is properly understood as a speculative one, for historical records demonstrate how the enslaved used their sensuality.

“hands up, don’t shoot”

We all know that hands raised in the air at a moment of conflict indicate surrender. They say, “I’m unarmed” or “I’ve laid down my arms” and “please, do not harm me” and “I am in your power.” At least, those of us who watch tv and films, read cartoons and novels, track newspapers and magazines. This “I surrender” sign is a global vernacular, taught and circulated by children’s cartoons. (We might need to ask why children’s cartoons teach this vernacular.) And so, what is striking about “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as a chanted slogan and as printed words on handmade, often homemade, signs is that it indexes the failure of this bodily vernacular when performed by a black body, by a killable body. Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular, the error that makes this bodily action illegible, the disposability that renders the gesture irrelevant.

Blackness, after all, is the great alchemy of social relations: it transforms hands reaching into pockets into weapons of mass destruction, wallets and brooms and keys and phones into machines whose wielders must be destroyed, proximity into justification for violence and murder. It lives as an unsounding: “how is one supposed to understand these people?” As always-threatening movement, even when that movement says, “I surrender.” Or, “please, don’t kill me.” Or, “I am trying to participate in a global bodily vernacular.”

We know, of course, that black bodies transform bodily vernaculars: the slight flinch when one shrugs, the wary smiles when one grins, the tensed muscles when one frowns, the relief when one keeps quiet, the intense concentration when one tries to speak, the closed faces when one enters the room. We know that black bodily vernaculars translate as sensuality, as aggression, as rudeness, as servility, as anger, as indiscretion, as incivility, as out-of-place, as disorderly, as illegible, as unhearable, as unhuman.

We know, as well, that the blend of bodily vernaculars combined with chants combined with signs that say “I surrender” issuing from black bodies are read as threatening order, disrupting a world view that insists certain vernaculars are shared, a world view that privileges certain visions and versions of being human.

Learning from Rinaldo Walcott, we might ask, “how do black life forms use vernaculars that were never designed for them?” As the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” bodily vernacular spreads—now, in images from Howard University students, black law students at Harvard, in protest across the U.S., we see the unhearing of these bodily vernaculars. An unhearing in statements that demand black obedience, in calls to “defend the police” and “protect property.” An unhearing that says, black life forms do not have access to vernaculars of the human, no matter how global the circulation of those vernaculars.

If “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” is an expression of “humanity,” as one tweet has it, we must ask for whom that humanity is available. In fact, the insistent repetition of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” by black bodies across the U.S. might offer a less promising narrative: it might suggest the banality with which black life forms can never gain access to the vernaculars of the human.

in the lull

no liberated psychic zone offers me sanctuary
—Frank Wilderson III

What happens “in the lull between well-publicized crises”? Learning from professor Christina Sharpe, one might answer, the sadomasochism of everyday life. One might also answer, after the killing comes the dying. Wars, after all, whether termed “incursions” or “offensives” or “skirmishes,” have long afterlives. The time of “rebuilding” is also the time of dying and fading, the time of disease and famine. A time of gendered precarity, of labor insecurity, of psychic stretching and breaking. The “after” or the “lull” is a time of slow violence, of living in toxic environments, trying to survive unnamable losses. If it is a time of “recovery,” as we sometimes want to believe, we might ask what is being recovered and how.

The “lull” is not an ending, merely a suspension of hostilities or, more likely, a suspension of attention-grabbing hostilities. The “lull,” with its indefinite temporality, is still a death-making time:space. A time when the practices of killability become habits of disposability: when the certainty of death is replaced by the uncertainty of death. When the “will happen” becomes more capricious, but never less cruel or damaging.

(a too-familiar story hovers over this: a woman raped during war says she can never love the child of her rapist)

#kasaraniconcentrationcamp was never a “well-publicized crisis,” at least not in Kenya. It was:is a crisis for the many Somalis profiled and harassed in Kenya, recognized as such by many in the Somali diaspora, but, with the exception of a handful of articles in the mainstream newspapers, it was never framed as a “crisis,” that is, as something requiring attention, care, thought. It was a “legal exercise.” And if its legality was questioned, it was part of the long and quotidian unhumaning of Somalis in Kenya’s history, another link in the chain of massacres and forced encampments.

The “lull” between the “well-publicized” is the home of unrelenting killability and killing. It is the place of unimagining futures. In Wilderson’s terms, “a life constituted by disorientation rather than a life interrupted by disorientation.”

I still have not yet learned how to mourn for those around me, for those in Kenya: for the many whose names my tongue caresses so easily, so familiarly; for the many whose names remain hidden, made invisible by practices of disposability; for the many whose deaths enable my own precarious stability; for the many I have needed to learn to unsee, to unhear. This, too, is a lull.

The lull is not a zone of non-happening. The arbitrary violence that defines disposability observes no schedules. It is the quotidianness of unpublicized, but not unmourned, deaths.

This wakefulness is dogged by bits of brick
from the old wall
And pieces of broken armour that hurt my feet
—Phyllis Muthoni

In the grave-digging lull, the elegy-writing lull, the dirge-singing lull, the sackcloth-donning lull, the life-valuing lull, the death-surviving lull.

How might the unhumaned speak of damage?

after #kasaraniconcentrationcamp

We have entered the “after” of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp. The tweets protesting it have slowed down; the few political figures who seemed to oppose it have gone silent; the urgency with which its wrongness was felt and proclaimed seems to have faded; and the updates on police harassment and extortion have slowed to a trickle. All of this is not bad. The very successful #kasaraniiftar managed to get access to those held in Kasarani and provided much-needed information on those held there. I believe there are court cases challenging the legality of the entire operation. And the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) Monitoring Report On Operation Sanitization Eastleigh Publically Known As “USALAMA WATCH” has raised important questions about police (mis)conduct, though we are yet to see how, and whether, this report will be implemented.

As far as I know, #usalamawatch is ongoing, and so the “after” of after #kasaraniconcentrationcamp cannot be understood as cessation. Instead, it might be more properly understood as a normalization of the sentiments and practices that led to and sustain #kasaraniconcentrationcamp: anti-Somali sentiment, anti-terrorist hysteria, intense islamophobia, police overreach (a euphemism for police harassment, intimidation, extortion, and violence), legislative inability (or unwillingness) to defend constitutionally-guaranteed rights, the ignoring of constitutionally-granted rights, the intensifying securitization of everyday life, and the ongoing unhumaning of those the state deems disposable. To this list, we might add the ongoing criminalization of refugees and IDPs, who are now perceived as drains on national resources and obstacles to “development.”

The “after” of after #kasaraniconcentrationcamp has not left us feeling any more secure. If anything, it has deepened ethno-religious cleavages and consolidated ethno-nationalist solidarities. It has made Kenya and Kenyan-ness more fraught, more contested, even more unachievable.

What does one do when one is rejected by the place one calls home?

Now, strangers in uniform search us as we enter grocery stores, churches, train stations, events held on public grounds. Kenya has become a wand nation. Many of us stand behind these procedures, convinced that wand-induced paranoia will save us from the unhumaning we displace onto others. That we submit to wanding means that others should submit to #kasaraniconcentrationcamp, to the state’s arbitrary invasion and ongoing unhumaning. These become, somehow, equivalent operations. After all, Kenya Must Be Protected. Security Starts With Us!

The securityantiterrorist wrapping with which #kasaraniconcentrationcamp has been presented to the world has been so successful that the possibility of international intervention is slim to none. But this has seemed less significant to me than the ongoing silence of many Kenyans with platforms. For some, it appears #kasaraniconcentrationcamp is simply one more item on a long list that demonstrates this government is inefficient. This stance unsees the labor of unhumaning undertaken by #kasaraniconcentrationcamp. For some, it appears that because the “prison” was legally gazetted by the Inspector General of the Police, it has a legal status that, say, the torture chambers at Nyayo House did not. This technical legality suggests that #kasaraniconcentrationcamp is “not as bad” or is “legal.” And this stance should compel us to think more deeply about legal strategies of unhumaning, and what it means that we can legalize unhumaning.

The “after” of after #kasaraniconcentrationcamp includes the physical and psychic tolls on those arrested, those harassed, those intimidated, those whose bodies have been weakened by apprehension and disease, those whose spirits have been wounded by an indifferent state, those whose notions of belonging and safety have been destroyed. It includes new silences about memories one prefers not to have. It includes dirges for those who have died and for stillborn hopes.

The after of after #kasaraniconcentrationcamp is a new quotidian in which the fact of holding fellow humans in unhumaning conditions is taken as banal, inevitable, and even praiseworthy. We have yet to assess what this banal unhumaning means given that it has taken place under a new constitution that was, ostensibly, supposed to prevent unhumaning. It might be that a constitution meant to prevent another Moi regime cannot cope with a moment of global securitization, in which case #usalamawatch and #kasaraniconcentrationcamp are presents:futures the constitution makers could never have conceived. Certainly, the ongoing assaults against the constitution have sapped energy and will from many who fought for it, and #kasaraniconcentrationcamp takes place as many are exhausted, frustrated, disheartened, but still willing to dream of presents:futures other than this one.

If, for many of us, the post-election violence (PEV) marked a major shift in how Kenya could be imagined, I would argue that #kasaraniconcentrationcamp is equally as significant: if the aftermath of PEV was dedicated to finding ways to value lives, it might be that #kasaraniconcentrationcamp marks the precise moment when a formal intention to value life was rendered irrelevant, when unhumaning became central to a development-centered project Kenya.

dying beautifully

You will be told the death was staged: humans do not die that way, blood does not move like that, limbs do not separate from bodies so easily, headless bodies appear only in fantastic stories, children do not die, explosives do not sound like that, sand does not interact that way with blood, a dead hand cannot possibly pose that way, real tears are never so eloquent, real men don’t cry, and only fools die when the sun is shining.

You will be told that war is glorious hues of color pinned on a hero’s chest, newly-composed marches that energize tramping feet, a light display more elegant than fireworks and more sublime than shooting stars, a muse that inspires empire-building epics, an endless source of scripts for global blockbusters, a necessary economy boost, a book that is unputdownable.

Walking into an art exhibition, you will be told about the new war-inspired techniques: paint extracted from lachrymal glands at the point of death, brushes created from delicate pre-pubescent eyelashes, splatter techniques modeled on rocket-splashed blood; you will learn about the underground market in “found art” that specializes in children’s shoes, quilts made from stolen burial shrouds, intricately layered loops of cries captured from the last 3 seconds before death, primitive sculptures made from pure blood-saturated soil. A clever artist will use all the available photographs of the war-killed to create a collage that honors the armament factories that sustain great economies.

Acting schools across the world will use footage of the dying to instruct students: fall this way, watch the blood fly out of you that way, feel your limbs detach this way, experience your flesh melting that way, demonstrate pain this way, illustrate loss that way, practice how to die beautifully.

And because acting students who have watched footage of the dying learn how to die beautifully, flinging limbs this way and that, decapitating their heads this way and that, spilling blood this way and that, those who watch them learn that dying is an art, begin to evaluate when dying is real, proclaim, with confidence, that some forms of dying do not look real, that some dying looks fake.

You will be told that children do not die that way, that they must have been trained by amateur acting coaches, that those are child-sized adults whose flailing limbs betray them, that such overacting is emotional manipulation, that the figure of the child should not be used to sway political decisions, that children cannot be aware they are dying, that the rules of war are child-friendly, that it is obscene to mention children in plush conference rooms full of strategists and world leaders bedeviled by moral dilemmas.

Children die so beautifully: untutored bodies fly in missile trajectories, young blood shimmers in sun waves, flexible limbs dance away from flying bodies, weightless tears prism rainbows, beautiful screams instruct birdsong, and muses weep because they do not know how to inspire such beauty.

We kill them because they die so beautifully.

“these are the materials”

but this is not a bad dream of mine                    these are the materials
–Adrienne Rich

Two page of silence punctuate an elegiac essay, a tribute from a loving wife to a now-gone husband. One enters the post-elliptic somewhere in a conversation—one is tempted to write “somewhere in the middle” or “somewhere close to the beginning” or “somewhere close to the end,” an ordering of temporality that misunderstands the ongoing conversation, the ordering of timbre and tone, the sequence of pause and repetition. And the cut.

What happens to names when time stops?
—Susan Howe

:a wall of names: a grave of names: a funeral of names : a massacre of names: a genocide of names: a killing of names: a murder of names: an extinction of names:

Now, we count in hundreds: the days since girls were taken in Chibok; the days since #kasaraniconcentrationcamp was opened; the bodies of the mounting dead in #Gaza, #Lamu, #elsewhere. Counting has become difficult: in books, captives mark days on walls and floors to “orient” themselves.


We who count from outside seek order. We want to believe that time passes at the same rate on the inside as it does on the outside. Despite knowing better, we want to believe in a shared experience of time. To forget, if we can, that time stretches and bends and tears and ruptures. That time pulls and lags and pauses and cuts. That violent time ravages bodies.

(but, now, I want bodies to tell a different kind of story—and must check that desire)
I do not like, and might actively resent, Adrienne Rich’s poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” It feels laden, heavy, weighed down, lagging, time extending, time ravaging. And Rich’s reminder—“these are the materials”—does not help. What is it to write with “the materials” at hand? To write with(in) the archives of disposability? To read:hear:see:feel how disposability is envisioned, created, distributed, destroying?

These are the materials:

These are the materials:

These are the materials:

These are the materials:

“these are the materials”
This register is dismissed as “sentimental.”

One should cite from the philosophers of war, the policy makers of war, the treaty breakers of war, the death-machine suppliers of war, the economists of war. Perhaps begin with the observation that “perpetual peace” is impossible, and then move to “war is politics by other means,” and then, citation by citation, unsee the unmaking of life we describe as war, adopt accounting procedures produced by insurance companies, slave ship captains, concentration camp philosophers, genocidal settlers, ecocidal profiteers, and powerful men with moral dilemmas.

“these are [also] the materials”
“Then there are the phrases I seize in order to distort them”—Rosmarie Waldrop

“We learn to value being loved as an advantage that allows us to renounce other advantages”—Sigmund Freud

“An accumulation of simultaneous deaths strikes us as something utterly terrible”—Sigmund Freud

“Death can now no longer be denied; we are obliged to believe in it”—Sigmund Freud

“Even today, what our children learn as global history in school is essentially a sequence of genocides”—Sigmund Freud

Freud will argue that the drive toward destruction—the death drive—can be countered by the drive toward attachment—the erotic drive. Writing on war, he will insist that he is a theoretician: he has no “practical” lessons to offer. And if one objects to his developmental logic—that war and violence are “regressions” to more “primitive” selves—one also finds oneself startled (is that the right word?) by how inarticulate war makes Freud. He is “disillusioned” by the failed/failing promise of “civilization,” even as he invests boundless faith in “reason.”

A self-declared pacifist, Freud seems unable to theorize war. His attempts to think about war are, Maud Ellman writes, “laboured and apologetic,” “offered with a sense of resignation.” A self-declared pacifist, I am unable to be articulate about war. I cannot read “great” war journalism or fiction: death-fertilized eloquence.
and then, there are the poets who valorize death
“I have dreamt many times of a new sacred haven for women: a safe and holy place where the women will pour out their thoughts, their cries and their joy”—Rebeka Njau

There is no redeeming vision in Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, at least none for women. The two most powerful women, the immortal Anyanwu and the pattern maker Mary, one of her descendants, exist as memories, pathways, in the final book in the series. And while some women have power at the end, they are subject to a patriarchal order, a world where the most powerful survive. A world where power is genocidal.
It will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple
–Adrienne Rich, “Final Notations”