“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”

On Love, On Kindness, On Care

tell them how we died
–ICC Witness #64

Many people will never testify before the international criminal court, or whatever its past and future equivalents might be. It is an impossible court, a court that can never hear the ghosts who flock to its chambers, hoping to hear their names, their stories. Ghosts who rustle through court documents looking for answers, seeking something beyond a justice forever denied. In this most haunted of courts, impossible stories are sought.

A chorus of voices:

I was walking to buy milk
I was playing with friends
I was washing the laundry
I was hopingpraying not to die

What is the collective name for the bombkilled? The governmentdisappeared? The policeslaughtered? The warerased? The developmentsacrificed? What is the collective name for the collateraldamaged? The lookedliketerrorists? The didnotrunfastenough? The livedinthewrongarea? The inthelineoffire? The borninthewrongskinbodyreligiontimegender?
And, still, I cannot stop thinking of love, of kindness, of care.
Four girls in a church: Four boys on a beach

Something resonates

(I can’t help thinking about the football-hating child, the book-loving child, found by a bomb a few pages before a story’s climactic end)

bomb-attracting children

bomb-attracting bodies
One asks friends for unimaginable things: to imagine with one, to provide words that travel in the fear-suffused spaces, in the death-saturated spaces.

Earlier today, I imagined a parent explaining to a child why another parent’s child has to die: “this is my gift to you,” a child-killing parent might say.

I wanted to believe that this child would say: “could we not have had a play date instead?” I wanted to believe in the myth of the peace-bearing child.

More than that: I wanted to believe in the myth of the parent who hears. To believe there might be a person with the ability to make power listen.

These are world-building killings. World-sustaining killings. World-imagining killings.

The “end” of this killing extends these imaginations—births their persistence, demands their use.

(Even now, death-makers learn new rhetorics, new bodily vernaculars, new ways to extend power, adopt new justifications to eliminate life)

(those were death-attracting bodies)
And so, one turns to prayer, to song

You died on the hum of a million voices raised in prayer
but I forget: it’s “tell them how we died”

They died walking, standing, sitting, running
They died terrified
They died having forgotten how to dream

water memories

Before I can return to where I hope to resurrect sensation, I turn back, a familiar and, in many ways, inevitable turning. Faced with today’s nightmares, I need not pursue yesterday’s.

In summer 1996, having learned how to take long distance buses in the U.S., I bused to Mombasa. I came to find the meaning of that trip.

I cannot go back to where I came from. It no longer exists. It should not exist.
–Dionne Brand

An image lingers: a man on a busy street handling his crotch. I do not know if he was fondling himself or scratching, and while I know what he looked like, I cannot describe him. Somehow, description seems irrelevant. I’m tempted to add that the ways we have of describing humans are so saturated with racist assumptions from colonial modernity that description must be—can only be—debilitating. I recall the excitement of my desire for him, how unfocused and bashful it was, how world-tilting. In part, this experience suggests why I react to Samuel Delany’s work as I do: he has the remarkable capacity to render such axis-shifting moments.
A frieze of quotations adorns the little Book First at the City Mall Nakumatt. All the quotations exhort those browsing to read, promising the sorts of thing that such things promise. Some of the names are familiar—Katherine Mansfield, William Styron, John Ruskin. The rest elude me. Helpful annotations make them legible: American essayist, American novelist, American this, American that, English this, and, surprisingly, Chinese that.

Not a single quotation is by an African author.

A creature of (terrible) habits, I have come to the mall, a space I find conceptually interesting. Graduate school habits remain, so I go to malls on weekdays, at hours when most 9-5 people are at work. At such times, malls have different ecologies: the moms who lunch, the seniors who exercise, the tourists, the job seekers. Malls feel less frantic, less harried than during holidays and weekends. At least, this is how I explain this (terrible) habit.

A man—the original version of this had “gentleman”—sits at a table, takes out his phone, looks irritated when a female server approaches to offer a menu. In what I am told is Kenyan vernacular, he does not look at her. Kenyans, I am told, do not look at wait staff. Wait staff must be unimagined as human, as worth seeing.

Malls are a kind of sameness, and this one is not particularly interesting. Perhaps its bland availability most closely approximates what I came to excavate, a name from childhood—Nyali. Incarnated in this particular artifact might be an unfettered delight that once existed, a carefree laugh of the kind I no longer remember enjoying.

Nostalgia might be this impossible search for what one is told must have existed.
Here, at the Gateway to the World, the Door of No Return feels pressing, present in the hues and shades and physiognomies around me, present in the lingua franca that here, perhaps more than elsewhere, lives as a borrowing and an imposition, a stealing and a surviving, a trade language accented by coffles and whips. To become Mswahili, a book tells me, is to be deracinated, to refuse to follow the ethno-legalisms and ethno-rituals that sustain a precarious, ever-unraveling we:us.

To be here, at the Door of No Return, might be to ask how one inhabits the black body, how one “takes part in its mask, its performance.”

Part of what I have wanted is to follow the traces that might unmake this:here as inevitable, to find a wedge that might begin to chip away at those ossifications that started as strategies.
I return, again, to Nobody Knows My Name, a book in which Baldwin tries, repeatedly, to (re)claim an American-ness that he insists is in his blood, an American-ness that he cannot escape. Belonging and attachment wrestle in Baldwin, in a way that they do not in Audre Lorde. Her too-recent immigrant sensibility, to put it crudely, her proximity to the Door of No Return, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for her to claim the promises that Baldwin and, before him, Hughes and Du Bois, claims as his inheritance. But, perhaps, women are always disinherited from promises men claim so easily, too easily. Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood struggles to find a genre within which women in the Americas can survive, let alone thrive. Which leads me back, oddly, to Nobody Knows My Name, a quest narrative looking for the languages and sensations that might make the U.S. possible for Baldwin.
Water Memories:

Water memories are forbidden memories, forbidding memories, disciplined memories, impossible memories. Lines on a map show where people like me might have been taken—stolen, coffled, traded. Other lines, hidden lines, unspeakable lines, exist as traces in many elsewheres I was trained to unrecognize. “We” is a huddling together, a house with no exits, no travel paths, no water memories. Water memories are slip-away memories, wash-away memories, trace-erasing memories.

The road knows that where you find yourself you are.
–Dionne Brand

Every family has stories of the disappeared, the not-talked-about, the grief- or fear- or rage-inducing names, the lingering unforgotten, the shame, the scar, the oozing wound. One learns to unsay particular names, to erase the brief shadows that every so often haunt faces that have forgotten to forget.

Water memories might name a particular fantasy of unforgetting. A wish that something might wash up on time’s shore.
What would one do if one encountered a trace from the forgotten?

More than once, in other elsewheres, I have seen faces I know how to recognize. Traces of long-forgotten migrations, past-unmaking thefts. An idea that we might once have been legible to each other in other ways. We meet, instead, in this stranger-making present. We trade nods or avert gazes, rub suddenly salt-encrusted eyes.

Some of us want entry into the home and nation that are signified by these romances.
–Dionne Brand

A cut at the root.

Picture a root system shaped by terror. Everywhere growths certain that most will not survive, hoping that some might. Multiply this image, forest it. Listen to the song-making leaves, to the song-fleeing wind. Stand in this moment, not because you can, but because you must.
The ocean is more disturbed today, more insistent as it swells and carries, moves and unsettles. Nearby, ocean-born children play with such ease, such fearlessness. I wonder how many generations it takes for terror to dissipate. Slavery on this coast was formally abolished in 1907. The dispossessed linger, those saved from slave-bearing ships only to encounter the ethno-nationalist independent state that refuses to grant attachment, belonging, legibility.

What do those washing their feet in the ocean hope to wash away?

What do those looking out over the ocean hope to find?

Perhaps the terra-memories I cling to, the land-soil green I profess, can only be imagined because of water memories: the land also has its terrors.

There are ways of constructing the world—that is, of putting it together each morning, what it should look like piece by piece—and I don’t feel that I share this with the people in my small town.
–Dionne Brand

A slash at the root.

The bars on the windows here echo the former prison this restaurant abuts. Patterns linger across geographies, cross-fertilize, become traces and memories.

And what this place was called in its own language I do not know.
–Dionne Brand

20 hours into a too-long train trip, I remain entranced by trees.

We have stopped again—I’m not sure where. We keep stopping at seemingly random place, made even more random by the uneven lengths of the stops. A minute here, twenty there, two hours wherever. Sometimes, if you look out of the window fast enough, a name appears, train towers in various states of use and disuse, curious, indifferent, and hostile faces.

Geographies unfold—this is the promise of the train trip: a geography will unfold.

We pass through water-parched lands that stripped water memories from the stolen. Water memories might linger in long-lived trees.