On Skipping the First Week of Class:
On Skipping the First Week of Class:
It is lamentable, that many of our children go to school, from four until they are eight or ten, and sometimes fifteen years of age, and leave school knowing but a little more about the grammar of their language than a horse does about handling a musket–and not a few of them are really so ignorant, that they are unable to answer a person correctly, general questions in geography, and to hear them read, would only be to disgust a man who has a taste for reading; which to do well, as trifling as it may appear to some, (to the ignorant in particular) is a great part of learning. – David Walker, 1830
The devil visited me. He lives in my sister’s closet and he was taking his dog for a walk. Shhh. My aunt didn’t see him. She was asleep. His dog is red. People say he has horns, but it’s his dog who has the horns. How silly to confuse the devil with his dog. And then the drums started. Every night, the drums that no one else heard or spoke about. And then that morning I woke up and started folding clothes and they started folding themselves and having more clothes and they filled the room and filled the corridor and filled the kitchen and filled the house and I ran to the kiosk and told Kamau that the clothes were filling the house and he did not laugh and told me to go back home and when I got back home everyone was awake and looking for me because they thought something bad had happened to me. We don’t talk about that day because we would have to talk about the devil who was giving me presents but I didn’t know that so I rejected them and he took them back. Maybe that’s the day I broke. He came back to see if I was okay and he touched my knee and then the drums started again and we are friends again though he stopped coming to see me when I went to Uhuru Park and repeated what the German man said and was told that I was saved and then I read the bible and went to church and felt tingles in my balls when Chris stroked my leg when he was telling me about the power of the spirit. The drums didn’t stop and that was the devil’s way of saying that we were still friends and one day he will come back and maybe touch my leg again. It’s nice when he touches my leg though I think his red dog is very scary. But he only looks scary and maybe he needed to go susu and that is why his horns looked to be in a bad mood. Maybe if the German man who told me to lift my hands and dig in my pockets met the devil and they both raised their hands and dug in their pockets the dog could go play in Uhuru park while they were lifting their hands and digging in their pockets. And then the drums could start again. My sister’s closet is green and that is where the devil leaves from, not where Dante wrote, because it would take too long to get through all those layers and the devil told me he likes fast cars and fast elevators and fast exits. Poor Dante. The devil never visited him so he had to make up stories so that it would sound as though he knew the devil. Maybe if he had been touched on his knee then he would have known to write a story about my sister’s green closet. And then Goethe became very confused. The devil doesn’t do barter trade. When I woke up and started folding clothes he just kept giving me more. Sometimes he doesn’t know when to stop giving because he has no sense of space or need. Goethe thought that the devil wanted Faust’s soul. But where would the devil keep Faust’s soul. He needs to give away things not to take them. He didn’t exactly say that he would come to see me again but then I will go and sit in front of my sister’s closet to wait.
In a recent editorial, Minister for Education, Honorable William Ruto, argues, “What is unjust to one citizen is atrocious to the entire country.” The sentiment would be far nobler were it not uttered by a man who tried to secure votes by spreading homophobic panic. As he campaigned against the new Draft Constitution, Ruto claimed that it paved the way for homosexual marriage. Regrettably, those arguing for the Draft Constitution refuted his claims (actually, refudiated his claims) by arguing that it did not. Homophobia became a shared platform for both Yes and No sides of the referendum.
Former Bush Pimp, Ken Mehlman, has announced that he is gay. And that he is moving to Chelsea. It was, of course, under Mehlman that 11 states passed anti-gay legislation in 2004. And Mehlman’s declaration that he now feels “comfortable with himself” is actually quite irrelevant. And his declaration that he will now work to advance gay rights is even more irrelevant.
It would be a mistake, though, to read these two instances as idiosyncratic. They are, in fact, clues to our political cultures. And they tell us stories that we might not want to hear.
When I heard that Mehlman planned to move to Chelsea, I immediately thought of Charles Nero’s essay, “Why are all the Gay Ghettos White?” Quite apart from the question of race, which we cannot discount, I wondered, “What’s the problem with Chelsea?” What about it makes Mehlman disclose his relocation there. After all, it was not necessary for him to tell us where he was moving. But, obviously, he felt “comfortable” enough with himself and with Chelsea to disclose his location.
Those who travel to used-to-be-gay Dupont Circle, will recognize, I think, the reason for Mehlman’s confidence. So-called gay ghettos have long dropped anything ghetto, as they became more gentrified, more expensive, more apolitical, less interesting, less radical, less innovative. Arguably, Mehlman is moving to a place transformed to make people like him “comfortable.” White. Connected. Gay. Comfortable.
Indeed, his entire “transformation” hinges on one word. Not gay. Comfortable. We have to ask what it is about Chelsea that makes him “comfortable.” Because that is a far greater problem than his coming out. And seeking redemption or tricks through his public coming out.
Beyond spreading homophobia, Ruto’s recent very smart editorial on the value of dissent in a democracy permits him to refute (refudiate) the many accusations leveled at him for spreading ethnic division and, according to some, being one of the masterminds of the post-election violence. A name in the infamous Waki envelope.
Democracy, he argues, requires free speech and dissent. I have uttered these sentiments, as have many other Kenyan progressives.
And while Ruto might be seeking political redemption, I suspect the stakes are far higher. When those accused of anti-democratic ethnic chauvinism begin championing dissent and free speech, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. As with Mehlman, we will have to ask what it is about Kenyan politics that permits the constant resurrection of political figures.
We have a vampiric political system. Those thought long dead and buried rise again to feed on us. And we have yet to figure out how our particular breed of vampire hybrids can be destroyed. If it is possible.
Ruto, unlike Uhuru, is savvy. Much more so than we grant. If our politicians are hybrid vampires, he represents an advance in the evolutionary cycle. One wishes that it were possible to grant him an implant (like Spike’s) that would prevent him from causing harm. In the absence of such technology, he merits close, very close scrutiny.
Books Ordered: Done
Syllabi Completed: 97% Done
Assignments Designed: 90% Done
Karen Hughes has written an article asking those who want to construct the mosque to demonstrate “uncommon respect” and locate it elsewhere. Following her logic, I would like to posit the following as examples of “uncommon respect.”
1. Dear gay people, please show uncommon respect and stop displaying yourselves all over. Don’t force your gayness on us.
2. Dear black people, please show uncommon respect and stop complaining about racism. Don’t force your problems on us.
3. Dear women, please show uncommon respect and stop talking about equality. We all want to get along.
4. Dear unions, please show uncommon respect and stop asking for better labor conditions. When American industry is strong, we are all strong.
5. Dear person with whom I don’t agree, please show uncommon respect and keep quiet. It will make my life easier and the U.S. safer.
What characterizes pornography is not its erotic content
but its masturbatory privacy.— Michael Bell, 2000
At a moment when we are debating what counts as “hallowed ground,” it might be useful to relocate the scene of the discussion, and Erykah Badu’s recent $500 fine is a great point of departure. Badu was fined for stripping naked in her delicious video, “Window Seat.” Depending on the news source, though, she was fined for stripping naked or for stripping naked at the site of JFK’s assassination. Hallowed ground.
If the latter, the question becomes not merely one of decency, an already vexed question given the pornographic imagination that frames black women, but also one of appropriation. Can a black woman re-play the death of a white president? A Kennedy, so-called U.S. royalty? What happens when a woman of color tries to occupy one of the sacred sites of U.S. mourning and whiteness?
As my title might suggest, she broke a rule that, at least since the 1980s, has relegated erotic content to the private. We continue to consume black women’s bodies, but in our homes, on videos, on dvds, via the internet. We have privatized the erotic, turned it into the merely pornographic. My claim here, I hasten to add, has little to do with the erotic/pornography debate, though I continue to learn from Audre Lorde’s wise definition of pornography as sensation without emotion. Instead, I am interested in the pornographic imagination that frames black women, and secures its authority by claiming to inhabit the freedom of the psychic.
Put otherwise, and I am terribly hetero-centric today, men who will not date black women will jerk off to porn featuring black women. Black women offend, as Badu did, when they demand public spaces for their bodies. Especially when those public spaces are not framed through the safe prism of entertainment. In the video, she walks and strips in public. She is not like Beyoncé, whose scanty outfits can be described as stage costumes.
What makes the video even more obscene (off stage) is that it incorporates unknowing publics, families and professionals, who are forced to confront a black woman’s body, a beautiful mature body, in public space. Not merely in public space, but on hallowed ground, a site of martyrdom.
Badu breaks the frame that confines masturbatory fantasies to private, refuses to occupy the secrecy of the pornographic imagination, and dares us to imagine the significance of black deaths in the place of national (white) memory.
Those familiar with Clotel will recognize Badu’s signifying play. In Clotel, the illegitimate mulatto daughter of the president kills herself within view of the White House. Transforming the symbolics of social death into a practice of dying, Clotel sutures the two, drawing our attention to the materiality of social death, the living death inhabited by those unrecognized by the law of the father.
By re-enacting a pornographic death at JFK’s death site, Badu asks us to meditate on the ongoing histories of racial gendering and the persistence of the pornographic imagination. White men might no longer be raping black women—rape being literal and figurative, looking at you Strom Thurmond—but the pornographic imagination continues to shape black women’s access to the public. As a sidenote, I am fascinated by Beyoncé’s role in perpetuating the pornographic imagination, even as I marvel at her ability to deconstruct its premises.
But Badu does more.
In suturing the pornographic imagination to JFK’s death, she makes such an imagination more difficult to inhabit. Our desire for her beautiful body is disrupted by our rage at her desecration or our pleasure in her subversion. Here, the political mediates the libinal. And Badu, as with Kara Walker, insists on re-framing the pornographic imagination through the political, transforming the two in the process.
Do you really want to be the guy who jerks off at the black woman playing dead at JFK’s death site?
It is not simply that Badu strips in public. It is that she strips at the place where two powerful imaginations collide: the pornographic and the national. And she suggests that these two have always been intertwined within U.S. histories. U.S. histories enact a pornographic imagination—Jefferson and Sally Hemings are a metonym, not an anomaly.
That Badu has been fined $500, and has paid it, must surely count as one of history’s ironies.
I am here today my friends to tell you
That the time is coming
When all people, regardless of colour or class, will have
at least one Barry Manilow record.
Benjamin Zephaniah, “I Have a Scheme,” (Propa Propaganda, 1996)
Sits in the heart of Nairobi. I grew up around and in the shadow of its architecture.
Every day and increasingly, I miss its comforting presence. I miss knowing that Islam sits at the center of my home city. I miss a home city whose architecture reflects its religious diversity. I miss the deep sense that people of faith can live together, something Nairobi has always affirmed for me. Always.
In “Critical Fanonism,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues that Frantz Fanon is a Rorschach blot. Available for any and (almost) all appropriations. I suspect that interpretation has hit a wall.
The Journal of Pan African Studies recently issued a call for papers (cfp) on Fanon. I considered submitting something. Whether it be from the manuscript chapter, a hot mess of Hegel and footnotes, or an elaboration of a blogpost.
The manuscript requirements killed the idea.
Submitted articles should have: an introduction, literature review (annotated bibliographies accepted), a methodological construct, results, discussion, conclusions, and suggested steps for further research that can intellectually engage scholars, students and others with interest in African world community studies (Pan African Studies).
Now, I am not averse to learning new formats. A recent submission to a Sociology journal forced me to re-conceive how I structure essays, but not too much. I explained to the nice people who solicited the article that I was a literary scholar and knew nothing about sociological methods. And then I wrote about poetry. I’ll see how that goes.
And, of course, anyone who has had to switch from MLA to Chicago knows about changing gears. Not simply style formats, but brain converters.
That said, the JPAS format is too restrictive. Especially for a journal that claims to be “trans-disciplinary.”
If you are writing on Black Skin, White Masks, for instance, it is almost impossible to produce the kind of essay JPAS want: the text resists synthesis. Fanon himself wages a war against being systematic. He tells us he tried to submit Black Skin, White Masks as his thesis, but it was rejected. As interested in form as it is in content, Black Skin, White Masks compels us to think about the labor of form, refusing to distinguish between form and content. Fanon’s inchoate fantasies and desires mark the manuscript as do his (dis)engagements with Mayotte Capecia, Hegel, Mannoni, and Adler.
And the best scholarship on Fanon wrestles with the ambivalence of his texts. I avoid tracking the two distinct paths charted by those who embrace Black Skin, White Masks and those who adopt The Wretched of the Earth, though I mourn the missed conversations that would happen were we to take the insights about affect and psychic work as seriously as we do those about resistance and revolution.
And, granted, we do need a recent overview of Fanonian scholarship. I would recommend that one essay in the journal be devoted to an extended annotated bibliography, while the rest chart new scholarship.
I am certainly not suggesting that the kind of essay envisioned by JPAS cannot be written. Of course it can. And very successfully. And I will be happy to read the special issue when it is published.
But, as a friend said, the gatekeeping seems incredibly fierce. Perhaps that is the point. We who pursue theoretical projects might be deliberately excluded by the formal requirements of this particular special issue.
I do hope that is not the case. I hope that we learn the Fanonian lesson about taking intellectual risks embodied in the forms we use. (I note, of course, that based on this description, Fanon himself would be unpublishable, but then I suspect that Fanon would be unpublishable in most of today’s journals.)
I wish JPAS the best as they assemble this issue. My Fanon piece, when complete, will seek a more congenial home.