Our American Now

England was rolling moss and gathering buds and saving nines, Princess Di in a long dress, and First Aid English to fix our broken tongues. BBC Shakespeare with dowdy sets and James Bond the glamor of attachment. Pictures in an album, the silence we misread as enchantment. Now, the smiles seem a little sadder. Stiff upper lips.

We are different now.

Then: the excitement of speaking English properly. To be Eliza Doolittle. The strangeness of the U.S. accent. Exotic. Kiswahili by Lionel Richie. My father said no to the U.S., convinced it was still barbaric. No fit place to acquire an education. A country squire trapped in his peasant past.

America offered amnesia, unending mobility, accumulation that was not unseemly.

We are ruder now.

Tavia Nyong’o has argued that Barack Obama is the first postcolonial president in the U.S. Uhuru Kenyatta is the first U.S.-educated president of Kenya. If, as so many writers have argued, the U.S. is the great nation founded on forgetting, president Kenyatta’s U.S.-style inauguration following a U.S.-style Bush v. Gore court case has implications for Kenyan memory-work and historical reconstruction. This is not a matter of documentation or truth, but about the urgency and importance attached to memory-work in our ongoing state of crisis. (To be “under-developed” or “developing” or “third world” is to be in a perpetual state of crisis, one intensified by the “global war on terror.”)

The almost ritual invocation of Bush v. Gore during the Supreme Court hearings on the presidential election suggests that we have entered a newly Americanized frame of reference. It marked, I think, a certain departure from the promiscuous cultural mixings we see in popular culture: the adoption of U.S. spelling by Kenyan publications, the presence of more U.S.-style eating establishments, even as our bookstores remain heavily British. Since 2003, when president Kibaki assumed office, many U.S.-trained professionals have “returned” to Kenya or have been instrumental in setting up and engaging with local institutions. One could argue this has been true since at least the late 1960s, but the invocation of Bush v. Gore during the televised Supreme Court hearing formalized a transition in how Kenya is to be thought. (We aspire to be “like” the U.S. as it has grown increasingly repressive, domestically and internationally; that requires a different writing occasion.)

I’m interested in what it means to be “like” the U.S. for memory-work. James Baldwin is my guide here.

Perhaps no country is as anxious about historical memory and memory-work as the U.S. History books are scrubbed clean, public memory denied, the thing happening at the moment described as not-happening, the known classified, the unknown classified, the previously known classified, and memory trained to anticipate the future. The now-here is to be forgotten for a tense predicated on an ever unfolding expansive future. Save room on your camera-phone for what will unfold. Erase the past if you need to. Memory is what is to happen. Memory is desire.

In “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin writes, “About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified.” An interest predicated on a not-here, not-now, anchored in a desire to own something not yet describable, something “experimental.” How to read Baldwin’s desire in this early writing?

Baldwin understands white America’s desire, a “we” he inhabits and makes thinkable and impossible:

Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank if one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the black face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished – at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be much the same thing. (“Many Thousands Gone”)

Who is this writing “we”? What act of forgetting must be undertaken to blank it and accept it as “we”? I must struggle to remember the “I” who is writing the (im)possible we.

He adds,

The making of an American begins at that point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land. This problem has been faced by all Americans throughout our history – in a way it is our history – and it baffles the immigrant and sets on edge the second generation until today. (“Many Thousands Gone”)

Kenya’s American Now is about a relationship to history and to memory and to feeling. It is present in Vision2030, a collective vision predicated on eliminating the unsightly and the unproductive from public view and collective memory; it is present in many shiny plans to develop an educational system predicated on producing appropriate “skills” for new industries that will transform us; it is present in the current attempts to depict the ICC as an imperial invader that took over a Kenyan process and marginalized Kenyan voices; it is present in (successful) attempts to criminalize IDPs, the “welfare mothers” of Kenya; it is present in the new accents on TV that erase traces of other pasts, other affiliations; it is present in the desire for forgettability; it is there in the enforcement of that forgettability.

Kenya’s America Now is about desiring the memory of tomorrow: what is to be made and who we will be constantly overwrites the who and where we have been, those things that “hold us back in bondage.” Kenya’s America Now is being produced by our politicians, our religious leaders, our business leaders, our intellectuals, and our artists, all looking away from here-now and then-there, the Egypt we left and the desert we crossed. We are in a new land of free computes and free maternity care and free secondary education and it is bright and shiny and new and only fools would dare try to look back.

Remember Lot’s Wife.


A man in Kisumu is wailing. He will have to be my proxy as it’s easier to write about someone else’s tears. He is not wailing because Raila Odinga lost this election. That is what a cynical, narrow view of Kenyan politics would say. He is crying because, along with all the other Kenyans who watched the proceedings of the Supreme Court, he saw compelling evidence that the elections lacked credibility. As Kethi Kilonzo argued in court, the process was flawed. Consequently, we cannot trust the results.

He remembers, I think, that the most damning claim from the Kriegler Report was that widespread rigging made it impossible to determine who had won the election. We needed this election to be credible. We needed to move on from the 2007 election by believing that our voices had been heard. That we could trust the electoral body and its processes. The IEBC might have been cleared by the Supreme Court, but they lost whatever trust we had in them. I do not trust their processes. I do not trust their results. I am not willing to entrust them with Kenya’s future.

This man is crying, also, because he believed in the Supreme Court. He believed that presented with compelling evidence that cast doubt on the credibility of the election, the justices would try to assuage our radical doubts, would try to reassure us that we could trust our electoral processes, no matter how long it took to get to the truth.

In their arguments before the court, the lawyers for Africog, of whom Kethi Kilonzo was one, argued that they were representing Wanjiku. Wanjiku represents the ordinary mwananchi, the one most vulnerable to fluctuations in power. Wanjiku is not protected by armed guards and fierce dogs and gated communities. When hell breaks loose, Wanjiku is caught in it: as the injured, the killed, the raped, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. Wanjiku’s voice is rarely heard. And if it were, it’s not clear that it would be understood.

This man from Kisumu is Wanjiku. He saw evidence of a flawed process presented on television and wanted the court to know that he saw this evidence and he demanded an accounting. He wants the fragile faith he had invested in Kenyan institutions—the electoral body, the Supreme Court—to stay alive.

Instead, something was killed.

He was wailing—is still wailing, as long as that video clip exists—to mourn the death of something he needed to believe in: a process that made sense to him. A process that was not governed by an arcane maze of rules and processes, so arcane that Wanjiku can never negotiate it.

He is wailing because he discovered, as I did, that the law is not set up to give voice to the disenfranchised. The law is set up to follow rules.

And this is what I find most wounding.

I have no doubt that when the Supreme Court releases its judgment it will have followed all the rules. I have no doubt that it will be legally sound and might even become a famous case study for legal scholars across the world. I have no doubt that those invested in the minutiae of the law will find this case endlessly rewarding.

I simply can’t care about that.

I care because, along with many other Kenyans who followed the elections and monitored the results, I doubted the credibility of what was being announced. I care because, along with many other Kenyans who followed the case in court, I heard and saw compelling evidence that the elections were not credible. I care because, along with many other Kenyans who have invested their energy, their love, and their devotion to this country, I want to have institutions we can trust, and want to believe that after 50 years where Wanjiku has had no voice, she can finally be heard.

We wail because Wanjiku has been told what she sees, what she hears, what she feels is irrelevant. We wail because Wanjiku has been told that arcane rules trump the truth she knows. We wail because a faith we wanted to have has been decimated.

Something has died.

Public Space

Credit: William Oeri, DN, 3.30.13

Credit: William Oeri, DN, 3.30.13

On March 29, 2013, Inspector General of Kenyan Police David Kimaiyo “warned NGOs against engaging in demonstrations under the guise of practising their rights to congregate, saying they would be dealt with firmly.” Not only did he issue this warning, but he also directed how it should be understood: “This should not be construed as denial of the right to association but a precaution to ensure criminal elements do not hijack such demonstrations and engage in lawlessness.” The warning and Kimaiyo’s interpretation of it try to define how Kenyans should occupy public space, under what circumstances, and with what consequences.

If under President Daniel arap Moi the term “dissident” became a dirty word, then I would argue that two related terms have taken its place: activist and NGOs. As with dissidents, activists and NGOs are framed as being in league with “foreign” powers who “fund them” to undermine Kenyan sovereignty. Activists and NGOs are understood to threaten the “safety” of ordinary, peace-loving Kenyans, who believe in the wisdom and benevolence of elected leaders and the armed forces who protect them from “harm,” a harm that includes dangerous, violence-causing ideas.

Unlike the police who only seek to serve the common good—utumishi kwa wote—NGOs and activists attempt something more insidious. Their plans to “demonstrate” are really only a “guise” for something more disruptive, something that might open the door to “criminal elements” and risk “lawlessness.” The language slithers and coils, hinting but never saying. If, in fact, activists and NGOs have some other motive for planning demonstrations other than exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights of association and to assemble, what is that motive? And what, in fact, is the relationship of “motive” to the right to assembly?

Section 36 of the constitution is explicit on this point:

Every person has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities.

Motive might be an issue if Mr. Kimaiyo could credibly demonstrate that the planned demonstrations will be violent and armed, in which case they are not protected. But Mr. Kimaiyo has no such evidence. Indeed, his claim is that “criminal elements” could “hijack” such demonstrations and cause “lawlessness.” All kinds of things “could” happen. But the right to assembly is not predicated on such speculation.

Mr. Kimaiyo is, perhaps, right to point out that his injunctions do not oppose the “right to association.” As laid out in section 35 of the Constitution, this right reads,

36. (1) Every person has the right to freedom of association, which includes the right to form, join or participate in the activities of an association of any kind.
(2) A person shall not be compelled to join an association of any kind.
(3) Any legislation that requires registration of an association of any kind shall provide that—
(a) registration may not be withheld or withdrawn unreasonably;
(b) there shall be a right to have a fair hearing before a registration is cancelled.

While the right of association and the right of assembly are related, they are not the same thing. Mr. Kimaiyo’s warnings might not affect the right to association, but they do affect the right to assembly.

Mr. Kimaiyo’s desire to control not only association and assembly but also interpretation are worrying. The bill of rights was crafted so that ordinary Kenyans could understand it and invoke its protections as needed. It was crafted in language that allowed shared interpretation without requiring the mediating figure of a highly trained professional. The bill of rights was designed to protect us from state excesses and state repression, both of which are part of our very recent history. In attempting to control the meaning of constitutionally granted rights, Mr. Kimaiyo wades into dangerous territory, and we who value those rights should be prepared to defend them.

This is not to say that rights are never subject to interpretation or debate: the relatively short history of legally guaranteed rights in the form of “bills of rights” or the “rights of man”—here, I’m lazily taking Lynn Hunt’s work as a convenient point of departure—illustrates that such “rights” are always subject to contestation. Such rights are never “beyond” interpretation. Yet, the claim that they are open to interpretation is really quite different from what Mr. Kimaiyo attempts when he tells us that his actions do not violate the spirit of the new constitution.

More to the point, while the day might come when we inhabit a world when potential crimes can be halted by arresting in the present those who might commit them in a possible future, that day has not yet arrived. Note, Mr. Kimaiyo does not say the NGOs and activists are themselves criminal, but that unknown, “criminal elements” might “hijack” demonstrations and create “lawlessness.” This is, actually, an absurd standard. Any situation can be hijacked: an armed gunman can choose to hold a primary school hostage. Does this mean that parents should never send their children to primary school at all because unknown things might happen?

We should be wary when repressive acts are framed as acts of care or benevolence. We do not need a paternalistic police force. Nor do we need a police force that limits how the constitution should be interpreted. Mr. Kimaiyo’s threats have no place in a Kenya that values freedom of association and freedom of assembly.


A document issued in 2008 reads,

Recalling that the Parties have previously agreed to:

    Identify and agree on the modalities of implementation of immediate measures aimed at:

  1. Ensuring the impartial, effective and expeditious investigation of gross and systematic violations of human rights and that those found guilty are brought to justice.

And have expressed a commitment to:

  1. Identification and prosecution of perpetrators of violence, including State security agents
  2. Addressing issues of accountability and transparency

The Parties to the National Dialogue and Reconciliation, together with the Panel of Eminent African Personalities (The Panel), agree to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence (Commission of Inquiry).

This Commission of Inquiry will be a non-judicial body mandated (i) to investigate the facts and surrounding circumstances related to acts of violence that followed the 2007 Presidential Election, (ii) investigate the actions or omissions of State security agencies during the course of the violence, and make recommendation as necessary, and (iii) to recommend measures of a legal, political or administrative nature, as appropriate, including measures with regard to bringing to justice those persons responsible for criminal acts. The Commission of Inquiry aims to prevent any repetition of similar deeds and, in general, to eradicate impunity and promote national reconciliation in Kenya.

I believe this document helped to establish the Kriegler and Waki Commissions, though I’d have to look back at other documentation to be sure. I want to use it as a starting point to consider how we got “here.”

The here, at the moment, features two ICC indictees, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who formed a coalition, ran a sophisticated election campaign, and were elected as president and vice president, respectively. While a petition before the Kenyan supreme court seeks to challenge this election, I am not inclined to believe it will be successful.

Note: I am speculating.

If we take the overall goal of forming the Commission of Inquiry, as specified in the final sentence—to prevent any repetition of similar deeds and, in general, to eradicate impunity and promote national reconciliation in Kenya—we might say that the Commission succeeded, to the extent that there has been no “repetition of similar deeds.” We will have to be generous with that “deeds”: this election opposed Uhuru and Raila, not Kibaki and Raila; while Uhuru appears to have unofficially taken over the presidency, as seen in a series of high-powered meetings, no formal, hurried swearing in has taken place; while rumors of armed militias are not absent, there are no stories of widespread ethnocidal violence directly resulting from this election or within this election period; while messages of ethnic-based violence are not absent, there are no (or few?) reported incidents of ethnocidal violence stemming directly from that violence, which does not mean it is not happening, but silence is another issue; perhaps most crucially, the two principals in this particular election cycle have not holed themselves up in bunkers, watching us kill each other, as they sulk and plan; likewise, Kenyans are not calling to them to “save us” from ourselves, at least I don’t think so. This is not 2007-2008.

It is not clear that something called “national reconciliation” has been achieved, though the extended vote tallying produced a sense of national exhaustion. We wanted it to end, regardless of how it ended. We were united in our affective exhaustion, our strained nerves, our jumpiness. A “we” emerged at the scene of the national marked by profound anxiety and restlessness. One might speak of an affect-nation.

I would like to proliferate the stories around this election, the narratives of how we got “here,” because I’m wary of single explanations. My understanding is partial, and I welcome further additions and complications. I’ll be very schematic.

1. This election had something to do with ethnic coalitions and ethnic fractures:

    It would be foolish to deny that this election was about strategic ethnic alliances, both at the level of those competing for office and, just as importantly, at the level of those voting. I leave it to others to parse in greater detail how voting patterns can be read, but I’m very interested in what happened at the Coast and in Western, and in a few other places where notions of election principals and major parties were challenged in intriguing ways.

2. This election had something to do with generational politics:

    Uhuru’s campaign was sleek and young. His St. Mary’s accent, his cosmopolitan polish, his ability to switch registers, from “deep” Gikuyu to flawless English, his ability to embody Vision 2030, played well, I suspect with voters who heard, in his accents, a vision of the future. His youth gestured toward Obama’s youth, for better or worse. Given that Kenya’s political and development language is so anchored in the youth, I think Uhuru embodied something, some kind of generational change that Raila simply could not.

3. This election had to do with a public, rhetorical shift away from the PEV to the ICC:

    Since 2008, those victims of the post-election violence, the dead and the displaced, have been increasingly marginalized within political discourse. Accusations have been leveled that opportunists are masquerading as IDPs, the more developmental minded have castigated IDPs as waiting for handouts, and those bound to Vision 2030 and its amnesiac foundations have urged IDPs to move on. Not to mention, the philanthropy directed toward IDPs by politicians and social groups has enabled us to group them as those who need philanthropy, a grouping that voids the specificity of how they came to be IDPs. This assault on the notion of the IDP has been accompanied by a shift in emphasis: whereas the Commission of Inquiry was set up to pursue justice for IDPs, the shift to the ICC as the site of justice has highlighted the “problem” of sovereignty.

    Should Kenyans be judged by “foreign” bodies?

    Deep memories of colonialism have been invoked as have been ongoing, if unspoken, resentments about the presence of exploitative and often racist foreigners in Kenya. My own rather nasty encounters with racist whites in Kenya make me froth at the mouth at the thought that similar people might judge black Kenyans. The politics of race and nation have complicated questions of justice: the necessary question of whether African countries are targeted by the ICC quickly supplanted the question of justice for PEV victims. Let me tread carefully: this supplanting is not an accident. Human agents directed thinking in this particular direction.

4. This election had something to do with political dynasties:

    To be honest, I’m not sure how to think about political dynasties. I’m interested in the tangles of loyalties and allegiances created over generations through all kinds of political and economic deals: Uhuru and Raila have vast resources and networks, complex lattice structures of support. Practically, I don’t think dynasties have anything to do with love and have everything to do with mutual obligations. But we’d need to trace the deep structures of obligation—affective, economic, political, cultural, intimate, intellectual—that make Uhuru and Raila privileged dynastic figures.

5. This election had something to do with fear and anxiety:

    We are scared of each other. Scared of how to deal with other. The humanist in me wants to say it’s because we have not been trained in how to think about reasoned debate and the use of passion in such debate. I must confess, I find many discussions with Kenyan thinkers simply exhausting, a game of “I know better.” I simply concede and move on to something else. It has something to do with an educational system rooted in test culture that rewards zero-sum competition. It breeds a particular mindset, a particular set of strategies that refuse intellectual generosity. It might seem like a leap to suggest that our test culture produces an affective orientation that marked these elections, but I want to hold on to the leap.

6. This election had something to do with optimism and faith:

    So many of us wanted to believe that if we set up the right procedures, purchased the right equipment, had the right number of observers, showed up and kept the peace, then things would work out. Frankly, I would rather have optimism and faith instead of resignation and apathy. Election day was filled with news of long lines, of waiting and voting, of pride in taking part in a process. It was a day of optimism and faith.

7.This election had something to do with greed and corruption:

    The massive expansion of bureaucracy created by the new constitution has created multiple new opportunities for power to be amassed and distributed. The simple fact of moving from 8 provinces to 47 counties has multiplied how power will be used, by whom, and for what purposes.

8. This election had something to do with profound gender anxieties:

    The 2/3 clause in the constitution that was supposed to guarantee women form at least 1/3 of all governing structures created massive anxieties around gender: claims that undeserving women were taking over proliferated, as did unrelenting misogyny and sexism.

9. This election had something to do with power:

    With its allocation, its distribution, its concentration, its dissemination, its force, and its deployment.

10. This election had something to do with the war on terror:

    More precisely, this election had something to with the normalization of securitization. It had to do with believing we need to be monitored because we cannot control ourselves. Binyavanga ends One Day, “We fail to trust that we knew ourselves to be possible from the beginning.” We failed to trust and we believed that the strategies developed to fight terror would control our “bad” impulses and guarantee “peace.”

All of these factors, and others, were in play over the long life of this election, a life that, I think, really started in 2008.

I should emphasize that this list is partial and speculative: different factors assumed different intensities and combined differently with other factors at disparate times. And it might be that the intensification of some factors depended on rejecting or contradicting others. Again, I don’t have all (or any) of this worked out, but I’m hoping that the stories we tell can attempt to grasp the complexities of writing a still unfolding present.


If one browses #kenyadecides on twitter, one soon comes across photographs of military personnel driving fancy looking vehicles across Kenya, or at least Nairobi, accompanied by approving comments from the twitterati. Television coverage has emphasized, repeatedly, that over 90,000 military people have been “deployed” across the country to guarantee “peace.” Were we living in a different time, a less militarized time, a time when militarization was not considered part of everyday life, these images of military personnel deployed across the country might traffic under a different name: military coup, state repression, dictatorship.

Now, we call it “peace,” “security,” “necessary.”

Jomo Kenyatta’s short story, “Gentlemen of the Jungle,” ends with a man trapping repressive animals inside a hut, setting the hut on fire, watching them die, and then uttering, “Peace is costly, but it’s worth the expense.” Now, I can’t read this story without thinking of the men, women, and children set ablaze in a church in Kiambaa in 2008 during the post-election violence. I have to think about this killing act and to ask about the cost of “peace.”

Kenyans have been praised for their “order” and “restraint” and control during this election, but how could it be otherwise with such a heavy military presence? How could it be otherwise when the much-proclaimed “peace” is enabled by militarization? The militarization of everyday life tells us, should tell us, that this is not a peaceful election. This is an election conducted under conditions of ongoing war. That we cannot recognize this, that we dare not recognize this, should surely give us pause.

How have we so normalized militarization that we consider it essential to everyday life?

Here is what I wrote in 2011, when I was in Nairobi:

I remain interested in how the fact of being at war lodges itself in the quotidian: in the forms of freedom and practices of bodily integrity we have given up so readily and in the forms of surveillance that we now practice on each other.

Indeed, for all our declarations of “never again” after the PEV, we continue to inhabit its logic and practices of violence.

I asked,

What might it mean to share the banality of war as the basis for sociality?

And I noted,

I blunder into cobweb filaments, the sticky demands of then folded into emerging cavities of now. Time looms. Other intimacies suffuse once-familiar spaces.

Now, NTV is screening footage of a slightly rowdy voting crowd, understandable given long lines. I hear guns going off to “maintain order.” The guns going off elicit no comment. Because they are to maintain order.

How is the militarization of everyday life not a form of quotidian violence?

Can we distinguish between the militarization “required” to maintain peace during elections and that required to “maintain peace” in non-election years?

In 2011, I noticed the militarization of everyday life because of the war with Somalia—presumably, the war against Al-Shabaab. Because of my time in the U.S., because I had witnessed militarization become banal under ongoing war regimes, I worried that the same thing would happen in Kenya. I worried that militarization would be considered necessary. Now, it has been named as the condition of peace. Indeed, it has been named as “peace.”

There is NO commentary on any Kenyan site I have seen that discusses the militarization of this election. I have been corrected on twitter that Kenya has deployed “security,” not “military,” personnel. I’m honestly not smart enough to tell the difference. I heard gunshots on an NTV report. I have seen men in uniform controlling voters. I have seen a nation or at least a national media celebrate the militarization of the election. It would be a mistake to believe that the militarization of peace can be restricted to this election period. And the consequences of that understanding for Kenya should give us pause.

They frighten me.

On Voting

In 2007, I wrote a blogpost that urged Kenyans to vote “for a stranger.” I meant this in at least two ways: one, to vote for the interests of a person you could not possibly know. This might be a person in the present, in a different geographical space, or a person to come, the descendant you could not imagine. Perhaps someone who comes into existence through genetic manipulation in a future that we can barely imagine today. In asking for this, I wanted to push thinking and action beyond self-interest, or at least to suggest it. I was also interested in what it meant to risk the genuinely unknown in Kenyan politics, which, for all the resignations and re-shuffles over close to 50 years now, has been marked by a remarkably consistent cast of characters. What, I wondered, might it mean to go for an “unknown quantity,” to move beyond what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.”

I use Berlant’s very useful concept a lot, so let me provide her definition:

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relations are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.
. . .
[O]ptimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation or profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.

One might think of how ethnicity or tribe might name a structure of cruel optimism: the thing one holds on to because it confirms and affirms so much, even as its disciplinary force might impede thriving. I use ethnicity because I’m thinking about Kenya, but one might equally think of gender in these terms. It is the clinging to the promise of the thing even as it actively produces attrition, exhaustion—“it’s difficult to be this or that thing or to be in this or that relation”—that marks the optimism as cruel.

The unchanging cast in Kenyan politics incarnates the voting publics’ cruel optimism, for we complain about them all the time, even calling some of them “MPigs,” only to return them to office again and again. What might it mean to vote for a stranger? To risk something?

This time around, I’m wondering what it means to vote for IDPs and refugees.

Kenya had IDPs and refugees before the post-election violence. I use these terms as placeholders for an extended, ongoing, violent history of displacement and dispossession that has been a structural feature of Kenyan state-making from its very inception as a colonial state through its post-independent emergence. What was unique about the post-election violence of the previous election was that it forced us to consider, not ignore, the existence of IDPs as a structural feature of our politics. No longer could we ignore “border” and “edge” communities whose distance from Nairobi’s seats of power all but guaranteed their invisibility. Well, we couldn’t ignore them for a few months. Subsequently, we were encouraged to forgive and forget. And, based on a recent peace rally, political leaders have decided that as long as they forgive and forget, all is right with the world.

What would it mean to vote for IDPs and refugees? What would it mean to prioritize their needs and interest over those of an unstable, precarious middle class seduced by the promise of stability in a promised techno-future called Vision2030?

I have been convinced for some time that social mobility is not as available in Kenya as it once was. That what many people see as a new, emerging, burgeoning middle class signals less a new formation than the consolidation of something cultivated through school networks, as the children of post-independence-era professionals (teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, farmers) “spread out,” so to speak, and populate more space. To take my own family, for instance, two parents produced four children: multiply that by many families, and we see what seems to be a “significant” increase in the middle class, which, I think, can be read more readily as a spreading out and consolidation. This is not to say there’s no social mobility; it is to say that I don’t really believe the “new” middle class can be linked so readily to new(er) opportunities for social mobility.

If this is so—and let me emphasize how speculative this claim is—what we have in Kenya is an increased precariat, not middle class, one that goes by the name “youth.” But then, and this is my point, the PEV demonstrated how radically unstable middle-classness could be: it suggested that precarity was not a state one could comfortably move past. Indeed, the strikes by various professional groups over the past few years—doctors, nurses, teachers—have been about being part of the precariat. Unless one comes from established money, professionalization no longer offers the guarantee of social mobility.

IDPs and refugees incarnate the Kenyan precariat, indeed, the global precariat: removed from state protection; unable to count on community protection—as reports of sexual and gendered violence in IDP and refugee camps attest; threatened with further displacement, as the Kenyan government’s efforts to relocate all refugees from urban centers to refugee camps suggest; occupying a spatial limbo, where “home” and “house” are unstable and shifting, as is legal status; stranded in extended holding patterns, as non-citizens, non-immigrants, criminalized immigrants; criminalized and pathologized by neoliberal logics that praise “self responsibility” and scorn vulnerability and weakness and ignore structural problems; treated as disposable, forgettable, and killable. Indeed, treated as unthinkable: not worthy of thought, not worthy of attention, not worthy of imagination, as problems to be solved.

How does it feel to be a problem?

What would it mean to vote “for” and “from” the problem called IDPs and refugees?
I have been wanting not to write about this election. The lie that is political depression tells us that such wanting is personal, idiosyncratic, even desirable. Because we can choose to want. I have thought over the years about what it means to be told, to be assured, that silence is a choice by those who stifle dissent. Indeed, the remarkable consensus among our political candidates represents how successfully we have stifled the notion of politics as necessary dissent.

How does one respond to the accusation that one is silent when leveled by the person who tapes your mouth shut and then complains that you do not speak in fully formed articulate sentences? The shame, the fear, the rage, the helplessness that keeps us silent—this choosing we do not choose. This choosing we can’t not choose. And the peculiar sense that one is always trying to break silence even as one sinks deeper into its abyss. I have been wanting not to write about this election.

I have wondered, been made to wonder, what writing can do, especially as fragile coalitions formed after the previous election on the grounds of shared writing have been strained and have snapped. Writing has seemed the most fragile of bonds, unable to withstand other pressures: life, love, ambition, careerism, patriotism, militarism. It has been easy to believe that silence is a choice, that I have chosen this, that this incarnates agency. It is much easier to talk about choosing than to confess one is scared, one is tired, one is depressed, one is frustrated. So much easier to say I chose this silence.

I had decided not to write about this election. But something—call it hope, call it despair, call it duty—did not permit that not writing. And now I find myself understanding why Fanon closes Black Skin, White Masks with a prayer: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”

Because a future can be hinged on questioning.
I am listening to Nina Simone.

Christopher Dorner’s Love Letter

Had Christopher Dorner been a different kind of camera-ready body, he might have been invited to tell his story by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or Rachel Maddow. Had his story been appropriately juxtapolitical, calibrated to suture and intensify an affect-saturated media-scape, he might have been invited to tell his story by Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters. We might have been invited to feel for him and feel with him. Instead, Christopher Dorner was that most banal of all things: a black man eaten by a system in which he once believed. He was that most banal of all things: the conjunction that makes race possible: a(nother) n(igger) d(ead) (and).

He believed, perhaps, that like the Haitian maroon Makandal or the Hollywood fantasies—Rambo, John Q, Django—one man could disrupt a system long enough for something, anything, to happen. He learned, as so many do, that those charged with protecting us are as driven by careerism and narcissism as they are by whatever altruistic motives they might have. He learned that minorities in the police, those desperate to fit in, assume the racist practices and beliefs that always subtend the impossible dream of cultural and racial assimilation in the U.S. He learned that justice, fairness, and honor are color-coded words, and that believing in them and working to realize them did not mean that one could benefit from them. This is part of a long history of black military service. It is, perhaps, the long story of black military service.

And because he loved America, this “tortured hell” that “feeds . . . bread of bitterness,” he wrote a love letter. He wrote the most difficult kind of love letter, the only one that really matters: a love letter that dares to risk it all.

As bold in its denunciations as it is intense in its passions, Dorner’s love letter “puts it all out there.” It hectors and cajoles, threatens and seduces, states facts and indulges fantasies. And believes, as it must, that writing can make a difference. It is a love letter that is as impassioned as Claude McKay’s “America,” which exemplifies cruel optimism: an attachment to a destroying object or situation.

He asks: “What would you do to clear your name?” Refusing to take for granted that language is shared, he defines name as “your life, your legacy, your journey, sacrifices, and everything you’ve worked hard for every day of your life as an adolescent, young adult and adult.” This definition is crucial, for definition lies at the heart of his dismissal from the force in 2008. In 2007, he reported that a police officer had “kicked” a suspect, a statement corroborated by the suspect’s father and by video footage. The evidence of testimony and corroboration was deemed insufficient. Instead, after a subsequent incident in which Dorner reacted to being insulted by a fellow officer, Dorner was labeled a “bully.”

Here is what Dorner writes:

Journalist, I want you to investigate every location I resided in growing up. Find any incidents where I was ever accused of being a bully. You won’t, because it doesn’t exist. It’s not in my DNA. Never was. I was the only black kid in each of my elementary school classes from first grade to seventh grade in junior high and any instances where I was disciplined for fighting was in response to fellow students provoking common childhood schoolyard fights, or calling me a nigger or other derogatory racial names. I grew up in neighborhoods where blacks make up less than 1%.

My first recollection of racism was in the first grade at Norwalk Christian elementary school in Norwalk, CA. A fellow student, Jim Armstrong if I can recall, called me a nigger on the playground. My response was swift and non-lethal. I struck him fast and hard with a punch an kick. He cried and reported it to a teacher. The teacher reported it to the principal. The principal swatted Jim for using a derogatory word toward me. He then for some unknown reason swatted me for striking Jim in response to him calling me a nigger. He stated as good Christians we are to turn the other cheek as Jesus did. Problem is, I’m not a fucking Christian and that old book, made of fiction and limited non-fiction, called the bible, never once stated Jesus was called a nigger. How dare you swat me for standing up for my rights for demanding that I be treated as an equal human being. That day I made a life decision that i will not tolerate racial derogatory terms spoken to me. Unfortunately I was swatted multiple times for the same exact reason up until junior high. Terminating me for telling the truth of a Caucasian officer kicking a mentally ill man is disgusting. Don’t ever call me a fucking bully. I want all journalists to utilize every source you have that specializes in collections for your reports. With the discovery and evidence available you will see the truth. Unfortunately, I will not be alive to see my name cleared. That’s what this is about, my name. A man is nothing without his name.

Christopher Dorner has been called many things by the LAPD and by those who report on him. His name has been maligned and destroyed and destroyed even more. In mainstream media reports, he has been the problem we are glad to eradicate. And in non-mainstream sources, he has been a “radical” with a bad method. He has been misnamed and unnamed and even de-named. For writing a love letter.

I have insisted on calling what he wrote a love letter because we miss its optimistic tenor when we label it a manifesto or, as one news source has it, a “so-called manifesto.” It is a love letter because it believes that truth-telling can make a better world, a more livable world. It believes that critiquing racism makes a difference. It believes in the promise of America, even as it knows that America will kill him.

Dorner writes: “Self Preservation is no longer important to me. I do not fear death as I died long ago on 1/2/09. I was told by my mother that sometimes bad things happen to good people. I refuse to accept that.” He refuses the too-easy wisdom that permits injustice to flourish, insisting, instead, “I am here to change and make policy.”

Yet, Dorner does not merely inhabit the register of policy; instead, like the mythical Makandal I invoked, he also inhabits the register of the oral performative, as he invokes a series of curses toward the end of his love letter:

Wayne LaPierre, President of the NRA, you’re a vile and inhumane piece of shit. You never even showed 30 seconds of empathy for the children, teachers, and families of Sandy Hook. . . . May all of your immediate and distant family die horrific deaths in front of you.

Westboro Baptist Church, may you all burn slowly in a fire, not from smoke inhalation, but from the flames and only the flames.

Cardinal Mahoney, you are in essence a predator yourself as you enabled your subordinates to molest multiple children in the church over many decades.

May you die a long and slow painful death.

Here, Dorner is writing what Brian Norman describes as a “curse-prayer” that, as a form, “seems to exist outside of historical time,” even as its transcription “brings the curse and curser into the present.” Norman argues, “As a subjunctive utterance, the curse-prayer is forever in search of its own obsolescence.” And adds, “There is something one can do to avoid to subjunctive from happening in the present. That is, a curse needn’t be a prophecy.” The “curse-prayer,” as a ritual, subjunctive form, is not outside of “change and policy,” but a method to drive “change.”

But change is hard, even impossible. And so, for me, the saddest section of this love letter:

To my friends listed below, I wish we could have grown old together and spent more time together. When you reminisce of our friendship and experiences, think of that and that only. Do not dwell on my recent actions the last few days. This was a necessary evil that had to be executed in order for me to obtain my NAME back. The only thing that changes policy and garners attention is death.

The danger of the Hegelian wager, that risking death might bring recognition, is precisely that it is a wager, not a promise. The LAPD has promised to perform a self-examination in response to Dorner’s accusations. But who will watch the watchers? Who will dare to say that heroes should be scrutinized? Power is not self-correcting, except to amass more power.

Dorner’s manifesto ends without ending: “We need to hold ou”

Was he writing “our”? If so, how does the incomplete word speak to the impossibility he occupied? How does the missing legibility, the urgency of that “need,” the promise of that “we” register the truncation his life and name became? And how do we read his truncated words and life in our ongoing, truncating now?

I do not know how to read Christopher Dorner. I have no interest in diagnosing or interpreting him. Not yet. Not now. Perhaps never. I do want to read him. With love. With care. Because he wrote a love letter to America.