Political Imagination

If your political hopes and dreams for Kenya were to be realized, how would you experience that Kenya?

  • Describe a typical day in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible, from waking up to going to sleep.
  • Describe a typical week in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical month in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical year in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a possible trajectory for your life in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.

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It is easy to name what is wrong with Kenya: corruption, impunity, historical injustices, violence against women, land grabbing, poverty, police brutality, negative ethnicity. If you probe a little more, you will hear the problem is a lack of political will to implement laws and policies. The solution, then, is to implement laws and policies.

My sense is that “the problem is implementation” does not have a way to think about the everyday, what political theorist Wambui Mwangi describes as the ground you are standing on, the ground from which you must start. I suspect, also, that “the problem is implementation” crowd cannot translate implementation into quotidian practice.

What would be the ordinary experience of a Kenya in which all the proposed laws and policies and report recommendations were implemented?
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After posing the above questions to an organizer with whom I was co-thinking, I attempted to answer them. I couldn’t. I have been trying to account for this failure.
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Imaginations are rooted—they do not float free from the worlds we inhabit and the worlds that inhabit us. As much as Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya damaged our imaginations, it was still too close to the freedom dreams that imagined a free Kenya to halt all dreaming. Those who came of age during the struggle for independence and under Kenyatta’s regime had the memories of transformations they had created and experienced to draw on. They could imagine beyond what Kenyatta insisted was possible. Their imaginations were not unimpaired by his ethnonationalist, ethnopatriarchal, neocolonial, and anti-intellectual rule. The writing from this period is filled with disappointment and betrayal—but it had not yet hardened into the cynicism of the Moi years.

Generations overlap.

Those of us born into and raised in Moi’s Kenya had a different experience of the political. Mainstream Kenyan histories mark the attempted 1982 coup as the turning point in Moi’s Kenya, the moment the state became more explicitly authoritarian. I think that’s a nice fantasy—the colonial penal code and the constitution imposed on Kenya by the British and the structures of administration created by the British still ruled Kenya. We were born to the disappointed and betrayed—their sense of time and possibility had changed. I think this was the moment when “this is Kenya” took hold.

“This is Kenya” is a hold: stuck firmly in an ongoing present, it does not know how to retrieve the freedom dreams of the independence era and or how to look beyond current repression to imagine something that might be called freedom. This inability to look to past freedom dreams and to imagine a future freedom demands and produces inevitability.

If you pay attention, you will hear the inevitability that elections will not be credible; that the elected will be corrupt; that violence will erupt; that gender equality is impossible; that historical injustices and multi-generational damage cannot be redressed; that the police and prisons cannot be abolished; that corruption cannot be eradicated.

Stuck in the inevitability that “this is Kenya,” we cannot—dare not—imagine anything else

(This “inevitability” enables Kenyans NGOS looking for money abroad to demonstrate ongoing need. It is impossible for NGOs to imagine themselves as unnecessary, because Kenya no longer requires them. They need “this is Kenya.” I will note the paternalistic white supremacy that needs “this is Kenya,” and move on.)

“This is Kenya” names stuckness, the impossibility of imagining it could be otherwise: “let us vote for different thieves.” It traffics in unimaginative pragmatism—a bureaucratic language that derives its power from diagnosing and recording failure: “choices have consequences.” It names the class consolidation that creates a buffer between those whose futures can be imagined, and those deemed disposable.

“This is Kenya” names something that damages and impedes imaginations. I name it, here, not as something I have escaped, but as something we, collectively, might be able to dismantle.
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Feminism and Black studies have taught me how to think of the political as the quotidian, the everyday, the daily, even, at times, the banal. Reading Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and then reading those who have written in their wake—Michelle Cliff, Cedric Robinson, Hortense Spillers, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen. Pauline Hopkins, Walter White, Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde, Saidiya Hartman, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Wambui Mwangi, Katherine McKittrick, John Keene, Frantz Fanon, M. NourbeSe Philip, Dionne Brand, Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, John Murillo III, Grace Ogot, Claude McKay, Christina Sharpe, Alex Weheliye, James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, Sofia Samatar, Rebekah Njau, Yvonne Owuor—I learn how intimacy and kinship and community are invaded, arbitrarily, by property relations, by state repression, by the afterlife of slavery.

We know these stories in their Kenyan accents: the lists of the disappeared, the missing, the exiled, the murdered, the tortured, the raped. The political vernacular for this is “historical injustice.” I fear using the word “historical” relegates what happened to the past. I now use multi-generational damage, to indicate ongoing harm and vulnerability. This multi-generational damage is material: diminished life chances, increased exposure to environmental toxicity, higher risks for police brutality, higher chances for sexual violence, lower rates of education, and higher rates of child mortality from preventable diseases. Just as importantly, this damage extends to the ability to imagine something different, something not this, something that might be called freedom.

It is a mistake to believe that our imaginations and desires are not rooted in the here-now we inhabit. Indeed, it is precisely the here-now we inhabit that can only imagine cessation, first, as the necessary stopping of pain and, second, as ethnocidal and genocidal logics and practices—burn it all down, get rid of everything, fagia wote.
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It is easier to write about damaged imaginations—we experience them daily—than it is to ask how to work with and beyond them—how to imagine beyond what we think we can imagine. I suspect that the kind of remedial thinking that circulates as NGO wisdom—all those buzzwords that boil down to white supremacist paternalist bullshit with an extra helping of heteronormative patriarch—thrives precisely because it encounters no imaginations that can counter its developmental logics. More needs to be said about NGOs in Kenya and their neoliberal strategies and practices—I leave that to someone else.
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I return to my initial questions.

If your political hopes and dreams for Kenya were to be realized, how would you experience that Kenya?

  • Describe a typical day in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible, from waking up to going to sleep.
  • Describe a typical week in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical month in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a typical year in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.
  • Describe a possible trajectory for your life in this transformed Kenya in as much detail as possible.

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On further reflection, I realized that a different Kenya has to be co-imagined, precisely because it has to be a shared Kenya. Shared imagining creates a ground on which to work; it provides a world to build; it anchors and provides energy when we are tired and weak and frustrated. Shared imagining creates measurable goals. It might even shape strategies.
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This co-imagining has to start from the quotidian—from the ordinary ways we make and inhabit daily life—if it is to matter. I think this is difficult, especially during an election year.

Election years encourage us to think in big abstractions: 42 against 1, Kenya, the nation, the state, the party, the ethnic nation. The work of the voter is to support and sacrifice and show up. And while vague election promises point to some shared good that will happen—a new road, a new school, a new project—those promises are rarely, if ever, anchored in what those being addressed need or want. In part, because those promising do not know how to listen. Nor are they interested in co-imagining with those they claim to want to represent.
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Imagining and co-imagining are difficult and might even seem impossible in a Kenya where the already vulnerable are becoming even more vulnerable and more groups are being added to the category of the vulnerable. If we can start from how we would like to experience daily life, we might formulate demands we can make of those who seek to represent us; we might create strategies for living together that diminish vulnerability; and we might practice creating the worlds we would like to inhabit.

Moonlight

Water is another country.
–Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return

At first, the sound of water.

Residence time.1 Black time. Black untime. The memory of water—the memory water has—the memory water is. We keep returning to the water. We keep being returned to the water.

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A face plunges into ice.

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Again.

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my mouth be a reminder,
how saltwater suppose to stop the tongue from swelling.

how teeth be bones too
how my voice sounds of a needed haunting

—Jayy Dodd, “Eloquent,” in Mannish Tongues

Little:

Disquiet: What is it about Moonlight’s depiction of black boy vulnerability—black boy pain, black boy suffering, and the very rare moments of black boy joy—that has made it so amenable to some viewers?

Before I saw the film, I saw all the acclaim that Mahershala Ali was receiving for his work in the film. He is tender. He is loving. He is accepting, especially when he tries, clumsily, to explain the difference between “faggot” and “gay.” Learning from Christina Sharpe and John Keene and Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill and Gloria Naylor and Randall Keenan and Marvin White and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, I am unsurprised by this care between a man and a boy. I am unsettled by the acclaim this “ordinary note of care” has received.

And then, there are Little’s silences.

Because so many have insisted on teaching us, we are now learning how to see and celebrate and think with #blackboyjoy. What are we to do with #blackboysilence?

The words “moving” and “lyrical” have been used many times to describe Moonlight’s silences. The sound of the world as it moves—the surf that always returns. Residence time. I think of Audre Lorde, asking, “What are the words you do not yet have?” Yet, I think, that is a misreading. It is unnecessary to populate Little’s silences. They are unsettling.

What does his gaze want? What do his silences want?

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If this body is a boy & all boys know death
& death bodies Black:

          Then this body knows how boys die.

—Jayy Dodd, “Black Philosophy # 3,” Mannish Tongues

Chiron:

Ashon Crawley wrote a wonderful piece about what it means to be young—to be a teenager—and to desire touch.2 Sharon Holland writes, “Though touching a person may seem simple, it is anything but.”3 Some young queers want sex, as Samuel Delany’s Hogg teaches. Others want touch that acknowledges their erotic desires: “you do, in fact, have these desires—you can exist in the world with these desires.” As I read Ashon, I thought that it is easier to discuss Chiron’s desire than it is to think about Little as desiring.

Perhaps what’s difficult about discussing Little as gay—discussing why the label faggot is applied to him—is that we see little of the gender transgression we associate with young children being called gay/faggot/queer/funny/strange. Unlike in Empire, there is no scene of Little dressing in his mother’s clothing. He does not play with dolls. His wrist is distinctly not limp. He reads as quiet. Too quiet. Shy. Too shy. Though I’m not sure if shy is the word. I want to resist diagnosing silence. Even as I’m convinced silence wants something.

Because Moonlight is so elliptical, it’s difficult to tell what makes Chiron’s classmates—and bullies—mark him as gay. Perhaps it’s something about how he performs or fails to perform teenage masculinity. Perhaps it’s something about how he performs or fails to perform teenage desire. Perhaps it’s something about his gazes and his silences. Perhaps—and this is terrifying to contemplate—it’s his loneliness. Darius Bost teaches me to think about black gay loneliness, about what often subtends and escapes declarations about community and kinship.

Perhaps it’s vulnerability. That softness that bullies seem to scent. That softness that gender policing notices. That softness that so many of us hide behind things we call wit or reading or shade or meanness. (How easily we bruise and callus.)

By the time we meet Chiron, in the second act, he is already wary. The quiet Little is now wary. His downward glances—he’s always looking down—designed to ward off attention. Kevin sees him. Kevin names him Black. Kevin explains why he names Chiron Black—a nickname, a move to recognize him, to touch him.

I need Sharon Holland:

Though touching a person may seem simple, it is anything but. Both physical and psychic, touch is an act that can embody multiple, conflicting agendas. . . . In fact, the touch can alter the very idea as well as the actuality of relationships, morphing friends into enemies and strangers into intimates. For touch can encompass empathy as well as violation, passivity as well as active aggression. It can be safely dangerous, or dangerously safe.4

I needed Holland—I needed the break—because it’s difficult to think about what happens to the touch between Chiron and Kevin, as they move from the beach, to the car, to the school.

Each movement depicts Chiron’s body opening itself more to Kevin’s: from sitting down hunched over at the beach, during the jerk-off, to Chiron’s more open posture as he sits in the car and as he leaves the car, smiling, to Chiron standing, fully open to Kevin’s punches.

In the final shot, before the final punch, when Chiron is fully erect—I don’t have the stomach to use a screenshot—Chiron is fully closed off. I wonder about the work of surviving that encounter—the work of experiencing the hand that grants recognition and generates pleasure turn into the hand that causes pain. Does Chiron know—can he know?—that Kevin is also fighting for his own survival? Is that a too-generous interpretation of Kevin’s actions? Of the care—the ordinary care—that says, “Stay down, Chiron”? Is it that care—the promise of that care—that allows Chiron to drive from Atlanta to Miami in the third section of the film?

Black

Black is stasis and return, a name offered as a promise of care, reclaimed by the film as Chiron, now grown, but arrested, returns to the promise of that care. Black, John Murillo III, writes, is untime. Untimely. By arrest, I gesture to the school-to-prison pipeline dramatized by the film, and to the psychic-physical arrest the adult Chiron confesses: “no one else has touched me.”

We know enough—too much, perhaps—about sexual violence in prisons to question Chiron’s confession. Touch—physical and psychic, what makes and unmakes us. We would like—I would like—to believe that he was safe from sexual violence while locked up. If we want that fantasy—if I want it, and I do—Moonlight offers it. It is an ellipses that allows us to fantasize about something that might be called “the one” or “monogamy” or “true love” or “soul mate.” If I fail to punctuate that ellipses, I will not leave it unmarked. We might ask what it means to touch and to be touched—but not by ignoring the quotidian violence that accompanies vulnerable boy-men who are locked up.

Kevin is the only one who calls Chiron Black, as far as I remember. If others use it, it is not with the, at first, benign friendship and, later, tender care. (I don’t have the stomach to see what Kevin calls Chiron while punching him—I think it is Chiron, not Black. If so, Black remains locked away, an intimate term. A term that touches.)

I like that Little grows into Black, the idea of Black as what can be grown into, claimed with tenderness, with and by an ordinary note of care.

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Are Black’s silences Chiron’s silences? Are they Little’s silences?

Because Darius Bost has taught me how to think about loneliness and because Samuel Delany has taught me to think about black gay sociality and because Marlon Riggs taught me to think about finding black gay community and because James Earl Hardy wrote a series of books on black gay friendship and because there are now multiple YouTube videos of drag balls and because Noah’s Arc exists, I wonder about the couple form at the end of the film. I offer this not as a point of critique—though how can it not be?—but as something that is sitting in me, on me, with me, about the impossibility of black gay sociality in homonormative times.

I wonder if black gay loneliness and the private black gay couple are objects of desire. I think of how James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin circulate, not as gay men who loved and desired—it matters who you love, Essex Hemphill says—but as deracinated, free from anything that might be called gay sociality, so that we need never think about them inhabiting and creating gay worlds and enjoying gay worlds.

What kind of object is black gay loneliness? Who desires it? Why?

We are returned to the water. Residence time.

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We are returned to the water and, through it, to a man named Juan from Cuba. We are returned to the water and, through it, to black boys looking out over the water, seeking something that might be called freedom.


1. “What happened to the bodies? . . . They were eaten, organisms processed them, and those organisms were in turn eaten and processed, and the cycle continues. . . .The amount of time it takes for a substance to enter and the ocean and then leave the ocean is called residence time. Human blood is salty and sodium . . . has a residence time of 55 million years.” (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake)
2. “Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks)
3. Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism.
4. Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism.

Reading Ras Mengesha & Joyce Nyairo

The first section of Ras Mengesha’s The Other Experiment is titled “What We Were Not,” and it moves through scenes of ethnic, gendered, and sexual making and unmaking—declarations of identity in an impossible register (the Somali-named figure who claims to be Kenyan), rituals of intimacy truncated by violence (two men declaring they love each other before a mob descends), and practices of failed gendering (a man confessing that he does not know how to address his abusive partner). Here is the complete first paragraph:

One. Beginnings. Firsts. Newness. It is the beginning, the start, the commencement. The first of many. I am Salim. Salim. I am my beard and my kaftan. One. I am the person in the mirror. I am the tie they make me tie around my neck. Around my neck. Hang-man noose. Hang man. I am Hang Man: super power, hanging . . . to death. Perpetual death. Over and over I hang, over and over I die, over and over I am in hell, over and over, over and over, over and over. One. I am beginning. Beginning, starting, commencing to see truth, life, world, love – nothing. One is hope, one is death, one is possibility. Maybe after I walk out of here I will go back to the original beginning. But no. This is a new one, a new start, I am an alien again, I am now who they say I am. I am who I am not. I am what I am not. I am plane in sky . . . fly, fly, fly, turn, fly, fly, fly, descend, fly, fly, fly, bang! I am building, crash, smash, burn, bang! I am gravity, pulling down things, pulling down heaven, I am hell. I am car, I am matatu, I am loud bang. I am Salim.

Another beginning, this time from Joyce Nyairo’s Kenya@50, which grapples with how to remember Kenya:

Maybe sometimes. That was the legend inscribed above the door of a remodeled Peugeot 404 that used to ply the City Center-Kawangware route, via Hurlingham, in 1986. I would stare at it very often on my daily runs across the city, I tried to work out whether that legend was grammatically correct. Did it need a comma to separate the two words? Or did it need a full stop between the two words? I also pondered the numerous ways in which it could be interpreted, never mind its questionable grammar. That legend was a literary delight because there was nothing fixed about it except the place where it sat—across the door. Its mobility at a cognitive level was replayed as a physical journey as the matatu coursed up Valley Road and down Argwings Kodhek Road.

Ras and Joyce (permit the familiarity) engage the problem of writing from Kenya: in Ras’s work, that problem is one of being, the unstable ways one with the name “Salim” is and is not possible within a Kenyan imaginary, while in Joyce’s work, that problem is one of embattled memory, how one enters into and inhabits the contingent space of Kenya. Joyce writes, “the biggest challenge to the work of forging a more inclusive, less oppressive, more equitable and just Kenya is, it seems to me, constantly undermined by memory—by the lack of it.” She continues, “The confluence of recollected narratives is the only thing that will save us from the twin pitfalls of dangerous ignorance and hazardous half-truths.”

Let me use the coincidence of the matatu to think with these works—I cannot do this as fluently as Kenda Mutongi and Mbũgua wa Mũngai, but I can try. I’m interested in how these works—and these writers—position themselves in relation to the matatu. Historians of the matatu teach that the first matatus were made of bits and pieces and were mobile bits of scrap metal used for public transport. They were cheap. And quickly became popular. Today, we talk about matatu tycoons in Kenya or, in our new vernacular, matatu cartels. From here, where the matatu represents a form of accumulation and power, it’s easy to forget—or never learn—the idea of the matatu as an assemblage of metal scraps bound together by grit and ingenuity.

I think Ras points to this history in the figure of Salim—“I am matatu.” Salim is an assemblage of fantasies and desires, so impossible that the signature gesture of presence—“I am”—must be deferred. The word “I” is the seventeenth in the passage. It is impeded—and facilitated—by “One. Beginnings. Firsts. Newness.,” origin stories that create difficult ground to stand on, difficult ground from which to announce, “I am Salim.” But note, even visually, how long it takes before “I am Salim” can be uttered again. Note how the assertions of self become embattled: “I am my beard and my kaftan.” One hears Fanon, “I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance” (Black Skin, White Masks 116). One also hears a Kenyan politician saying, “your name betrays you.” For Salim, post-Shifta Kenya meets post-9/11 world. It’s difficult not to hear, “I am loud bang” as the destructuration that permits a final statement, “I am Salim.” We—those gathered by this writing—might wonder about the (zombie) figure that so identifies itself.

Where Ras’s “I am Salim-I am matatu” invokes the I-matatu as assemblage, Joyce’s matatu begins life as a “remodeled Peugeot 404,” and it is only toward the end of the passage I have cited that this vehicle is named as a matatu. I cannot, now, construct or even reconstruct the meanings that attach to Peugeot in 1980s Kenya—the brand spoke about class and class aspiration, about labor and masculinity. As far as I can recall, it was not a brand associated with women. (I am mostly uninterested in cars, so that’s as far as I can go.) It was a “remodeled” car, and I do not want to lose sight of that, and of the distance one moves from the matatu as assemblage of scrap parts to the matatu as a remodeled car. I can mark these moments, though I do not know how to think about them.

Unlike “I am Salim—I am matatu,” Joyce’s “I” stands outside the matatu. It catches glimpses of the matatu as it travels across space, as it moves from the city—the seat of government in the 80s—to Kawangware—sometimes considered one of Nairobi’s informal settlements—while passing along and through Valley Road and Hurlingham—close to elite hotels and popular churches and the president’s official residence. All these spaces produce and attach meanings to the matatu. Maybe sometimes. Too, the matatu inspires moral panic: for as long as I can remember, matatus have been accused of corrupting morals and endangering lives. It might be that this danger stems from the cross-class contact matatus permit (Maybe sometimes). We would hear stories of what young men in matatus—the infamous makangas—did to young women. Beware. Class snobbery met—or more precisely used—sexual conservatism. These young urban men—men from slums or slum-adjacent-areas—threatened class mobility. Let’s be clear here: super-rich Kenyans do not use matatus. It was the aspirational classes threatened by the matatus, the aspirational classes who took as common sense that one should marry well, someone with a future, someone presentable.

Openings. Beginnings.

My tentative plan is to dedicate a few blog posts to reading Ras and Joyce together, to see how their works imagine and weave Kenya. I think we need to read each other with care, to listen to how we are co-imagining Kenya, especially at a moment when co-imagining feels so threatened by ethno-nationalist forces, on the one hand, and by bureaucratic pragmatists, on the other. We extend beyond ethno-nationalist desires and imaginations and also beyond rule of law pronouncements and constitutionalisms.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving TV is terrible: families gather from far-flung places; there are predictable anxieties over whether this or that family member will show up; fights break out over many unreconciled issues; tears flow; and, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the show, families sit down to eat a meal and someone, usually the matriarch, says, “we can all eat a meal together.” Or, “we can be civil during a meal.” Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, Too,” teaches us that the question of who gets to sit at the table during a meal is never innocent. It is, in fact, one of the key ways that one’s belonging is affirmed. It doesn’t matter if the meal is left uneaten or is disrupted; one has been invited to sit at the table.

I have been thinking about something I am calling white reconciliation after Trump’s win. White reconciliation names the range of ways ideologically and politically divergent whites are gathered by and into white supremacy by being offered a seat at the family table. As Christina Sharpe points out, white kinship is a political and affective vernacular that subtends and operates alongside white supremacy (I’ll add the link when it’s available). White supremacy uses white kinship to sustain itself: “for our wives and children”; “for our families”; “protect the family”; “protect our children.” This kinship is both filiative (by blood) and affiliative (by choice). And while the language of white supremacy sounds political (and angry—those who use it are accused of being angry), the language of white kinship is taken as apolitical or, to use Lauren Berlant’s term, juxtapolitical: driven and sustained not by political battles to be won, but by feelings and values. Family is important. Family values. White kinship.

White kinship works through white reconciliation or, rather, it requires rituals of white reconciliation. U.S. Thanksgiving is the festival of white reconciliation.

If you’ve been following the election coverage, you might have seen some efforts at white reconciliation. Before the statistical breakdown (incomplete) was available, white reconciliation wanted to claim that Cousin Pookie (those black people who only voted because of Obama) would not vote and had not voted. The narrative had taken shape prior to the election—Obama named Cousin Pookie—and many of the white progressives who supported Hillary Clinton were waiting to use it. (I am speculating, but the history of white progressives railing against “those terrible  black homophobic people” guides this speculation.) The problem was the black misogynists. But, as the (premature) numbers emerged, the narrative was impossible to sustain—over 90% of black women and about 80% of black men had voted for Hillary Clinton. White reconciliation predicated on antiblackness needs alternate strategies.

Despite all the evidence, despite everything Trump said during his campaign, despite all the terrible antiblack people he has recruited and who support him, those invested in white reconciliation—in the promise of a seat at the Thanksgiving table—insist on saying that Trump should be given a chance. I suspect this is a conversation happening across Family WhatsApp Groups (for those in them), and in family group chats, and in family emails. As Thanksgiving approaches, white reconciliation will enter high gear: “I know you’re not getting along with your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/cousin/grandfather, but you’re still coming for Thanksgiving, right?” Some will be guilted into it: “Don’t you have the decency to spend ONE MEAL with your family?” “How dare you let politics divide us?” “We are stronger together.” “Family comes first.” These strategies work.

Once gathered around the table, one is reminded that the relative who voted for Trump is not so bad: they like a certain sport or team; they like music you like; they volunteer with underprivileged people; they have a respectable profession; they tell very funny jokes; they are very good at charades or basketball; they are, in a word, human. They may have “strong political opinions”—note, the rhetoric will shift from “hateful” and “bigoted” and “unhumaning” to “strong”—but they are fundamentally “decent.”

I learned how to think about the word “decent” by reading my friend Praseeda Gopinath’s work. Decent appears to be a neutral term: it does not signal total approval or even liking. It does not mean good or pleasant. It is slightly above bearable—decent, someone you can watch a game with, eat a meal with, drink a beer with, smoke a cigarette with. It appears to be an ethically neutral term. Praseeda’s work showed me how the idea of the decent Englishman masks white supremacy and patriarchy: “he doesn’t beat his wife” is decent;“he doesn’t use overtly racist language” is decent; “he doesn’t object to my gay/lesbian/gender-non-conforming partner” is decent; “he is not burning crosses on the lawn” is decent. The idea of the decent person will serve white reconciliation. (I suspect “not as bad as we expected” will also serve white reconciliation when it comes to Trump.)

Right now, many people are saying, rightly, that normalization should be resisted. They are turning to Nazi Germany to find examples of how normalization happened. I am not a scholar of Europe or WWII. I learned how to think about normalization from feminist activists and scholars and from queer activists and scholars. Audre Lorde taught me how what she calls heterocetera creates shared ground. Adrienne Rich gave me the language of compulsory sexuality and Gayle Rubin taught me how to consider hierarchies of acceptable and unacceptable intimacies. Cathy Cohen and Rinaldo Walcott taught me how to think about punks, bulldaggers, welfare queens, and nation. Christina Sharpe gave me the language of monstrous intimacies, about the production of white kinship in one direction and property in the other. Katherine McKittrick and Dionne Brand taught me how to think about blackness and geography, about the places black bodies bear and are displaced from. Sara Ahmed taught me how to think about tables, about who gets to sit around them. And Simone Browne taught me to think about the race-work of biometrics, about the not-quite-human (Sylvia Wynter and Alex Weheliye) that marks our shared absence from the human-as-whiteness. (I cite to provide others to think with—there are many more.)

I think about intimate sites of normalization—the Thanksgiving table, the PTA meeting, the church fellowship, the grocery store, the gym. It will be the guy from grindr who merits Red Lobster. It will be the new friend with exquisite taste in cheese. It will be the neighbor who baked too many cookies and has to share them. It will be the local farmer who has the best produce at ethical prices. It will be the neighbor who helps shovel the walk after a snowfall. It will be seductive encounter after seductive encounter. For some. For white reconciliation. For the length of a Thanksgiving meal, and beyond.

Michelle Cliff & Cedric Robinson

What truthtelling are you brave enough to utter and endure the consequences of your unpopular message?
—Melvin Dixon

I have gathered books around me—Essex Hemphill, Ceremonies; Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider; Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return; Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck; Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us; Agha Shahid Ali, The Country Without a Post Office. I grieve by gathering books: I cannot imagine a greater tribute to writers than to gather books in their names.
*
When my brother fell
I picked up his weapons
and never once questioned
whether I could carry
the weight and grief,
the responsibility he shouldered.
I never questioned
whether I could aim
or be as precise as he.
He had fallen,
and the passing ceremonies
marking his death
did not stop the war.
—Essex Hemphill, “When My Brother Fell”
*
Michelle Cliff’s If I Could Write this in Fire and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism are open on my desktop. I’m skimming through them as I write, hoping to find ways to describe the black radical tradition they embodied and practiced.

Looking back. To try and see where the background changed places with the foreground. To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear. Lines of color and class. Lines of history and social context. Lines of denial and rejection.—Michelle Cliff, If I Could Write this in Fire

The triangle trade: molasses/rum/slaves. Robinson Crusoe was on a slave-trading journey. Robert Browning was a mulatto. Holding pens. Jamaica was a seasoning station. Split tongues. Sliced ears. Whipped bodies. The constant pretense of civility against rape. Still. Iron collars. Tinplate masks. The latter a precaution: to stop the slaves from eating the sugar cane. Under the tropic sun, faces cooked.

A pregnant woman is to be whipped––they dig a hole to accommodate her belly and place her facedown on the ground. Many of us became light-skinned very fast. Traced ourselves through bastard lines to reach the duke of Devonshire. The earl of Cornwall. The lord of this and the lord of that. Our mothers’ rapes were the things unspoken.—Michelle Cliff, If I Could Write this in Fire

The Black Radical Tradition was an accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle. In the daily encounters and petty resistances to domination, slaves had acquired a sense of the calculus of oppression as well as its overt organization and instrumentation. These experiences lent themselves to a means of preparation for more epic resistance movements.—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

*
“Our mother’s rapes were the things unspoken”

Saidiya Hartman writes,

It has proven difficult, if not impossible, to assimilate black women’s domestic labors and reproductive capacities within narratives of the black worker, slave rebellion, maroonage, or black radicalism, even as this labor was critical to the creation of value, the realization of profit and the accumulation of capital.—“The Belly of the World”

Strategies of endurance and subsistence do not yield easily to the grand narrative of revolution, nor has a space been cleared for the sex worker, welfare mother, and domestic laborer in the annals of the black radical tradition.—“The Belly of the World”

Audre Lorde framed black women’s lives and experiences in terms of survival. In her hands, survival was more than simply enduring. It was not about resigning oneself to a fate and hoping to make it through. It named the strategies of care and knowledge that made it possible to imagine, make, and transmit how to live and how to love and how to be across generations.

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Amina Mama about African women’s strategies of survival: she spoke about women knowing what to eat and where to look for food during wars, about the secrets women passed on about bitter herbs and drought food and food on the march. Prior to that talk, I had read Nalo Hopkinson’s post-apocalyptic Brown Girl in the Ring and it, too, spoke about the survival knowledge women transmit.

Consider the survival work of knowing how to dig for bitter, life-sustaining roots. Consider the radical work of survival.
*
We tend to think that those we esteem as radical have figured it out. Our task, then, is to operationalise (to use a very ugly word) what they’ve figured out. This is a dangerous fiction. In an interview, Michelle Cliff said, “I’m coming into myself as I write,” adding that she was no longer the person who wrote Abeng, her first novel. We know that, as readers, we take books and authors places they could not have anticipated. Reading Judith Butler or Audre Lorde or Dionne Brand or M. NourbeSe Philip or Yvonne Owuor from Nairobi is very different from reading these figures from Baltimore or Delhi or Cape Town.

Geohistory changes how we read survival and precarity and grief and violence and disposability and silence and memory.

We stretch in new ways—pseudopodia is the only image I can generate.
*
For the realisation of new theory we require new history.
—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

If we are to survive, we must take nothing that is dead and choose wisely from among the dying.
—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

Time scrambles: this writing started in India and is being completed in Kenya—accretions and deletions have happened and geo-history is entangled.
*
Tallying loss is always an incomplete endeavour, especially tallying the loss of a catastrophe that is still unfolding.
—Dagmawi Woubshet, Calendar of Loss

In our current historical moment—the afterlife of slavery (Saidiya Hartman), on the way to prison abolition (Mariame Kaba), the ravages of neoliberalism (Stuart Hall, Lisa Duggan), the proliferating sites of black disposability (the sea, the prison, the street, the school, the hospital), the resistance and possibility that is black lives matter, the ongoing work of black students in South Africa, the protests by Dalit groups in India, the fierce contests over the meaning of the political across multiple spaces—

I’m not sure what I can say about “our current historical moment,” about those gathered by that “our” and those willing to be gathered by it. When I read Jayy Dodd and Rinaldo Walcott and Neo Musangi and Sylvia Wynter and Sofia Samatar and Samuel Delany, I am convinced we are in a moment when the human overrepresented as Man is approaching exhaustion, and when I turn to the work being imagined by Christina Sharpe and Dionne Brand and Yvonne Owuor and Mariame Kaba, I see difficult and possible worlds coming into being, worlds where black radicals can be and belong.
*
as a scholar it was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there
—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

There is no ending to this piece of writing. There is no way I can end it.
—Michelle Cliff

I started this writing a few days after learning about Michelle Cliff’s death. I had followed the remarkable outpouring of work about Cedric Robinson and I wondered—I still wonder—how Michelle Cliff would be mourned and remembered, and where. As I look across the sites of mourning, I am sad to see that the two are not mentioned as part of the same tradition. I do not mean this in a biographical way. I mean within the world of imagining and creating freedom dreams.

I knit their names here to mark the capaciousness of the black radical imagination, and to thank them for what they allow us to imagine and to make.

As part of that making, I conclude with Leigh-Ann Naidoo, who, from South Africa, draws a map of possible futures:

We are in the midst of an intense politics of time. It is not easy to accept the burden of a living, prefigurative politics. Immanence is difficult. The fear is intense, and the threat of failure is everywhere. How do we sit, collectively, in the middle of that discomfort, prepared to not know quite where we are going, but be convinced that we have to move?

Audre Lorde, implores us to understand the worth and the purpose of anger. In her words, “Anger is loaded with information and energy. . . . Anger, expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future, is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.” And here, in Lorde’s words, lies the challenge for the student movement. If we are to be custodians of a future that will have dismantled the violence of the past and its stubborn hold on the present, then we cannot get stuck in a politics of shut down. Shutting down is indeed necessary for the arresting of the present. But if we do not use the space that shut down grants to work, seriously, on our vision of the future, if we do not allow ourselves, too, to be challenged and pushed, to read, and talk to each other, to work out our strategies, to doubt, and to find a vision of a future world in which the many oppressions that beset this one are in sight, then the door that we have opened will be closed again.

May we live in a time of difficulty, of critical immanence, and always, always towards justice.

refuge

At first, once a week, and then twice a week, and, eventually, four times a week, I’d head for the gay club in downtown Pittsburgh. It was small, located below street level, dark, leaning toward seedy, and, had I bothered to think about it, a death trap. Middle aged white men gazed at white twinks—the economies of desire did not exist for me, and I knew that early on. It was not a place to make friends. I brought my friends along with me, and left with them. I did not find community there, not in the sense I had once found community in the church groups I had belonged to, a sense of mutual care and responsibility. Yet, I found refuge and escape. Those hours I spent there dancing made many other hostile hours in other places possible.

*

I danced to find the languages my body could never master, to seek unfluencies from Central Africa and West Africa, from Eastern Kenya and Western Kenya, from high school dance festivals and music videos from the U.S. It didn’t matter that I could not master the styles or that I was the only one who could name what I was attempting: my body stretched into the syncretic, finding the languages of refuge and escape and memory.

Friends from Panama and Puerto Rico showed me that dance was possibility, as they shaped their bodies through salsa and merengue and club moves whose names I never mastered. They taught me how to blend where you’re from with where you are, where you dream about with where you live. From them, I learned to take the half-remembered and the never-mastered, and to let my body move into a here that I could inhabit, a now that I could sweat into.

With few exceptions, I danced alone. I could never enjoy the discipline of another body angling into mine, not as I was looking for other selves to inhabit, for geohistories to run through me. This was sacred space.

*

I did not find community in queer clubs. I found racism and white supremacy and body shaming.  I paid a psychic price to be in those spaces—in Pittsburgh, in Chicago, in Seattle. It was the price of the ticket. I also found relief from the anti-queer unhumaning I encountered outside of those spaces, the too-casual ways I could not exist. The “sense of rightness” that is heteronormativity never shares space. It claims all the air in the room, and I found myself gasping.

In the club, I found some air. Tainted, thin, even toxic, but it was breathable.

*

One night—one of those nights when the world breaks—I said to friends: I need to dance. Watch that I don’t do anything crazy. And I danced.  The dancing did not fix the world, but it made the brokenneness a little more bearable.

The queer club was not a church. At best, it was an emergency room. I looked for air to breathe, for bandages to deal with this week’s wounds, for whatever joy dancing would release in my body.

In those spaces where bodies pressed and queers hugged and kissed and strangers simulated sex on the dance floor, worlds were made, affection between queers made quotidian. In working class Pittsburgh, those who ruled those worlds were not the wealthy and the connected, but the fabulous and the daring, those with little social capital outside of these spaces. In these spaces, we college kids from Pitt and Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon ceded some of our privilege, and learned different ways to order society—we didn’t question that we came and left together, and that it was easier for someone from CMU to hook up with someone from Duquesne than it was to hook up with someone who was not a college kid. Class was present, privilege was present, though we might trade blowjobs in the bathroom with cute strangers.

We were generating worlds, learning the kinds of demands we could make, the kinds of lives we desired—this was what Audre Lorde calls the erotic. Having learned the flavor of joy in the club, we could attempt to build worlds that pursued it. In my twenties, I thought this joy came from dancing, and I pledged that I would never stop dancing. Ankles age. Knees age. Bodies grow in ungainly ways. Now, I realize I meant I’d never stop pursuing the kind of joy I found while dancing, that I’d try to build and inhabit a world that made such joy readily available.

I have often sat by myself in queer clubs, looked around, and marvelled at this tribe I claim as my own. Marvelled at our capacity to create beauty, our ability to pursue joy, our willingness to risk pleasure. I have often asked how, having seen these elements, anyone would ever dare to wish us ill. Even as I know that what I see—the joy, the pleasure, the fabulousness, the ordinariness, the loneliness, the ostracism—cannot be seen by those who unhuman.

I celebrate those who find what joy we can. I celebrate those who found what joy they could. May we continue to find joy and to create beauty.

Provisional Notes on Feminism

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought.
—Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”

As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics.
—Combahee River Collective

For me to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but old patterns of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional, which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.
—Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”

Preamble
Writing this from within this penis-bearing, beard-sprouting body feels wrong. A thousand voices are screaming at me to stay in my lane. The history of people like me offering prescriptions to women is long, violent, and ongoing, whether that “like me” refers to African men, black queer men, queer men, or simply men.

Globally, assaults against women are intensifying. Women’s demands to be recognized as full humans—very separate demands from being recognized as equal to men—are being dismissed as unimportant. The demand that women should be recognized as equal to men prioritizes men as the standard—outside the practical claim that women should earn the same as men for the same labor, this demand for equality with men makes little sense for a feminism intent not merely on surviving in the world, but in changing that world.

Hard-won victories are being snatched away and the founding documents of second wave feminism are now as urgent as they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I write this, then, with a sense of urgency created by our current moment, an urgency that compels me to take seriously bell hooks’s claim that feminism is for everyone, but with a deep awareness of how men like me so often attempt to discipline women in the name of feminism.

The Occassion
Three moments occasion this writing. The first is Kenyan, deeply personal, and very wounding. It is a story of ethical failures, patriarchal institutional power, and the risks women take when they dare to tell the truth. The story is not mine to tell, but it fertilizes the ground from which I speak.

Because I cannot tell this story, I turn to stories from related elsewheres: the U.S. and the digital world. I learned about this proxy work from reading James Weldon Johnson, who taught me that imaginative work can create a passage through which to engage difficult pasts and presents without demanding that wounds be reopened. Reading him taught me there are ways to manage difficult, necessary conversations that tell the truth without demanding damaging personal confessions.

I am delaying listing the two proxy occasions—neither one of which is fictional—because, honestly, I’m not looking for a fight.

“Resignation is a feminist issue”
On May 30, 2016, Sara Ahmed announced that she had resigned from her faculty position at Goldsmiths. While she offered very few details about this decision, she noted that the “costs of doing this work have been too high,” referring to her ongoing work on and against sexual harassment. I am no stranger to quit lit; sometimes walking away is the only way to survive. I wish that Ahmed finds the space and time and resources she needs to heal and thrive.

When I read Ahmed’s short blog post, I was arrested by the line, “Resignation is a feminist issue.” It made me uneasy and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Work is a feminist issue.

The work I know best in feminist studies has detailed how women’s domestic work has been undervalued; examined wage gaps between men and women, and the place of race in widening this gap; addressed how patriarchal systems steal women’s labor (the gap between the number of women who work in agriculture in Kenya, for instance, and the number of women who own land); analyzed how moral policing refuses to protect women’s labor (in struggles for sex worker decriminalization and protection, for instance); and demonstrated how hostile work places affect women economically, psychically, and physically.

The little I understand about Ahmed’s resignation comes from these frameworks: women often face hostile work environments that exact economic, psychic, and physical tolls. Some women are forced to leave, though under varying economic circumstances and with a range of economic consequences–for many, leaving plunges them into debt and poverty. Many more women are compelled to stay for a range of economic reasons.

What nagged me about “Resignation is a feminist issue”?

It was a line of reasoning that seemed to read: “I am a feminist. I have resigned. Resignation is a feminist issue.” I write this with the caveat that, often, when one announces such decisions, one needs time to process them and to find the right words, the right sentences, the right paragraphs, or the ones that will be possible. Still. I find myself disturbed by this line of reasoning.

Let me approach it through Lorde, a thinker Ahmed has spent extensive time exploring.

Alexis de Veaux’s biography of Lorde, Warrior Poet, wrestles with the question of what, following Ahmed, can be called living a feminist life. Lorde lived a very human life: she liked sex, she was frequently unfaithful to her partners, and sometimes she was abusive to them. She did not embody feminism: her actions were not feminist because she performed them. She practiced feminism: she embraced feminism as a working, a practice, something one invented in community with others, something one practiced in community with others. We-formation was central to her vision and practice of feminism. It was never an easy we-formation, but radical visions of change are never easy.

Feminist Icons
For many digital feminists, Sara Ahmed is a feminist icon. She is one of the few distinguished feminist scholars who has embraced the digital space, and has made her thinking freely available. Feminism is for everybody (pdf download),  as bell hooks argues, and Ahmed’s feminist practice includes providing free access to her thinking

The feminist icon is a strange figure. Her words and actions are hyper-scrutinized, as though every utterance and practice must incarnate feminism. It is dangerous to be anointed a feminist icon: it is always an impossible standard to meet, and many are waiting to take down the feminist icon. (I use “her” because few he-using and non-binary people are considered feminist icons, though that is changing!)

I value Sara Ahmed’s work. She teaches us to think critically and practically about what it means to practice feminism, about how to pursue living a feminist life. I think writing “Resignation is a feminist issue” was a misstep. One’s commitment to feminist practice does not automatically mark all of one’s actions as feminist.

“I’m With Her”
For me to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but old patterns of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional, which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.
—Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”

Because of U.S. imperialism, because of the aid money the U.S. gives and withholds to manage African economies, because of the weapons it sells to African countries, and because of the military bases it has across Africa, the U.S. election has assumed a weight and significance that I wished it did not have. Empire can afford to ignore the rest of the world but we cannot afford to ignore empire. The U.S. election is globally significant.

Because of patriarchy, Hillary Clinton has been subjected to intensely misogynist attacks, from Republicans and Democrats and Independents, and the entire range of the political spectrum. All the people I know who identify as feminist have recognized the misogynist nature of these attacks. Indeed, if there has been a collective feminist response to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it has been to push back against the misogyny leveled against her.

Substantive critiques have been leveled against Hillary Clinton by some feminists, many focusing on her record on anti-blackness (the infamous “superpredator” comment and the world it helped to build) and her stance on U.S. imperialism and military aggression. These substantive critiques  are grounded on well articulated feminist critiques of the patriarchal, militarized state. Yet, these critiques have been dismissed by some Clinton supporters as irrelevant: the symbolic value of having a woman president trumps Hillary Clinton’s record and her policy positions on U.S. imperialism and military aggression.

I will not link to one particularly tone deaf position that said, “We are the U.S.—we can’t do nothing.”

Feminisms
One way to manage fissures within feminism has been to argue that there are many feminisms: white feminism, black feminism, African feminism, liberal feminism, lesbian feminism, socialist feminism, woman of color feminism, twitter feminism, tumblr feminism, and academic feminism, for instance.

You get your feminism
and
You get your feminism
and
You get your feminism
and
Everyone gets an individualized feminism.

What, then, is the ethical demand that a we-formation called feminism can stage?

Learning from Sara Ahmed, I would like to think about shapes. One way to approach feminism is to imagine the socio-political (here, you can add the economic, the historical, the religious, and whatever else—I use socio-political as a shorthand) as a circle: at the center is patriarchy and women are at the margins. In one model, the practice of feminism is to de-center patriarchy by moving women from the margins to the center. Equality would mean sitting at the same table as men. The structure of the circle remains intact. (I would distinguish this model of moving women to the center from centering women’s voices and concerns–the logic of the circle cannot be sustained when women’s concerns are centered.)

However, other logics come into play: the structure of the circle can only remain intact so long as there’s a margin made up of the dispossessed. As this has played out across multiple places around the world, a group of elite women, have made it to the center. But this movement to the center has done little, if anything, to advance feminist causes (to address violence against women; to address the wage gap; to provide women with safe healthcare; to decriminalize sex work; to address women’s exclusion from leadership roles in religious institutions).

While the model of the margin and the center is useful for explaining existing power structures, I think the practice of politics often associated with it, one based on gaining equality with men, keeps the racialized, working class, and poor dispossessed at the margin.

I have been thinking about intersectionality—and the intersection—as another type of feminist shape. In an ideal world, no one lives at an intersection. Here I’m thinking in a very ordinary way about how roads are constructed and how traffic flows. One might be delayed or obstructed a, but the logic of the intersection is perpetual motion. It is to manage different trajectories that meet occasionally. Unlike in the center-margin model, the goal is never to get to and stay at the intersection. The intersection can be a place of shared resources, a place of gathering energy, a place of poetry. Here, variegated feminists (black, lesbian, twitter) assume those adjectives as the grounds from which they approach and engage the intersection, not as positions splintered from an originary fiction of feminism. To tell the narrative of this kind of feminism requires re-thinking the standard narrative that once there was a white feminism that splintered as it encountered difference. That narrative is damaging.

Still using this model of the intersection, intersectionality is not a fixed position where identities accumulate, but a feminist practice based on a we-formation attentive to geo-history. The opening lines to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s foundational essay on intersectionality get at what I’m trying to articulate:

Over the last two decades, women have organized against the almost routine violence that shapes their lives. Drawing from the strength of shared experience [at the intersection created by shared experience] women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices.

Crenshaw discusses intersectionality as what Hortense Spillers describes as a “locus of confounded identities,” and my rather clumsy metaphor of the intersection risks missing how feminists get there, how long they can afford to stay there, and how long they can afford not to stay there (if you stay with roads—some walk, some bike, some drive, some hitchhike, some crawl, some use crutches, some use wheelchairs, some require assistance to move, some are agoraphobic and cannot make it there).

Yet, it’s worth asking how to think of intersectionality as a feminist practice. Following Lorde, learning how to listen is key.

We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over that our mothers did because we do not pass on what we have learned, or because we are unable to listen. For instance, how many times has this all been said before?—Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”

Difference means many things, chief among them is learning how to listen. Listening is the intersection from which ethical demands can be made. If we all arrive to feminism from different grounds, as we must, we arrive as those who are willing to listen. A we is only possible through listening at the intersection.

Arriving at the intersection is always risky. In the difficult feminist practice of learning how to share space provisionally—remember the intersection is not a location one can ever inhabit, simply a point of contact and passage from which encounters produce ethical demands—a we-formation emerges, energies are amassed, trajectories directed. It might be that one’s passage from one space to another is shifted by an encounter at the intersection. One might direct energies toward a cause that had not previously entered one’s orbit. You might work toward a specific project, organize toward a specific goal, and then, having learned to listen and to work toward something previously outside your orbit, you find your orbit shifting. You open yourself to the risk of shifting directions, of re-mapping trajectories, of following risky paths.

“I’m with her” is an inadequate and damaging response to the ethical feminist demand that one listen. It generates geography as velvet rope and misunderstands the difficult feminist practice of difference. I have wondered about a practice that names itself as feminist and supports U.S. imperialism and militarization. Where the proliferating menu of feminisms suggests that one can choose to do one’s own thing, the model of feminist practice I learn from Lorde insists on the difficult work of we-formation, the difficult work of difference. Feminist practice is collective practice. It must be if it is to create radical change.

I offer the final words to the Combahee River Collective:

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.