What do black people say to each other to describe their relationship to their racial group, when that relationship is crucially forged by incidents of physical and psychic violence which boil down to the “fact” of abject blackness?

—Elizabeth Alexander, “Can You be BLACK and Look at This?”

I see your quiet, sturdy citizenship all the time.

—Barack Obama, SOTU 2016

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric circulates as an aesthetic object that documents microaggressions. The “micro” in microaggressions suggests the low hum of noncatharsis Sianne Ngai taught us to call “ugly feelings.”

Nothing explodes.

Nothing releases.

An archive builds.

We are far from anger, far from rage, far from the demands created by the word racism.

Instead, we are in the world of microaggressions, the world of archive building, the world of opportunities created by the aesthetic object to engage in a dialogue on race or a conversation on race, in which we are encouraged to share our stories of racialization, of being marked by race, singled out, unseen in our particularities and embedded within histories we did not create and do not want to own.

Learning from Fanon, we scream that we are not our histories.

We exist, instead, in the space created by the aesthetic object, a space that creates a we joined by interest in an aesthetic object, marked and unmarked by the stories we come to hear, the stories we come to tell, and the love for aesthetic objects that transcends the fractures of that impossible we.

a truncated history of microaggressions

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric circulates as an aesthetic object that documents  microaggressions.

the term “microaggressions” is credited to the black psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce—a too-quick online search suggests that he first used it in 1970, and here is how he used it:

 Every black must recognize the offensive mechanisms used by the collective white society, usually by means of cumulative pro-racist microaggressions, which keep him psychologically accepting of the disenfranchised state.

—Chester M. Pierce, “Black Psychiatry One Year After Miami”

Here is how a 2007 article in American Psychologist uses the term:

Simply stated, microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group. In the world of business, the term “microinequities” is used to describe the pattern of being overlooked, underrespected, and devalued because of one’s race or gender. Microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily conversations and interactions that they are often dismissed and glossed over as being innocent and innocuous. Yet, as indicated previously microaggressions are detrimental to persons of color because they impair performance in a multitude of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients and by creating inequities.

—Derald Wing Sue et al., “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”

Note how carefully the latter definition moves “beyond” the black-white binary. See how it never mentions white supremacy as the problem—in fact, the word “white” never appears. In this new “beyond,” one need not mention whiteness. It suffices to say “people of color” who are being oppressed by unnamed others. Perhaps even by themselves! Notice how the term “racist” or, to use Pierce’s language, “pro-racist” is carefully absented. Notice how Pierce’s focus on the cumulative effect of microaggressions is glossed over—what is emphasized is the “micro,” not the “aggressions.” Notice, too, the shift from Pierce’s “disenfranchised state” to “impair performance in a multitude of settings.” If Pierce’s work diagnoses microaggressions as tools in the service of white supremacy, as forms of harm that must be seen and destroyed, Sue and his collaborators frame microaggressions as impediments to productivity.


Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric circulates as an aesthetic object that documents  microaggressions.

And in the book’s most powerful passages, Rankine reports from the site of her own body, detailing the racist comments she’s been subjected to, the “jokes,” the judgments. It’s what we commonly call microaggressions, what Rankine calls “invisible racism” for how swift and sneaky it is, how ever-present.—Parul Sehgal, Bookforum

Told mostly through a series of “micro-aggressions” (the term coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults nonblack Americans aim at black people), Citizen is a circuitous and intimate descent into the poet’s past in order to examine race in America.—Nick Laird, New York Review of Books

She writes of this world – her world, not as an outsider, but as someone who suffers the misperceptions and subtle transgressions of colleagues and friends. These moments are often referred to as “micro aggressions”.—Smitha Kohrana, Guardian

Ms. Rankine said that “part of documenting the micro-aggressions is to understand where the bigger, scandalous aggressions come from.” So much racism is unconscious and springs from imagined fears, she said. “It has to do with who gets pulled over, who gets locked up. You have to look not directly, but indirectly.”—Felicia Lee, New York Times

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen offers a searing critique of racism, taking on both the shocking violence of hate crimes and police killings and the micro-aggressions that pervade daily life. The poems show how these micro-aggressions form an unacknowledged norm: a hate that is in fact heritage, to rephrase arguments over the Confederate flag.—Maria A. Windell, Los Angeles Review of Books

Claudia Rankine: One of the things I wanted the book to do was speak to intimate moments. I asked a lot of friends and people I’d meet, “Can you tell me a story of a micro-aggression that happened to you in a place you didn’t expect it to happen?” I wasn’t interested in scandal, or outrageous moments. I was interested in the surprise of the intimate, or the surprise of the ordinary. So you’re just moving along and suddenly you get this moment that breaks your ability to continue, and yet you continue. I wanted those kinds of moments. And initially people would say, “I don’t think I have any.” Their initial reaction was to render invisible those moments weaved into a kind of everydayness. And then I’d tell them something that happened to me, and that would trigger something. It was interesting to watch how the emotion of telling these stories built up in the tellers. They often got very upset. You could feel the anger being released. You could feel the irritation, the disgust, happening as the event was retold. So clearly they weren’t cool with it.—Meara Sharma Interviews Claudia Rankine, Guernica

What does it mean to situate Citizen as the aesthetic object that documents microaggressions? Let me un-nest this question—

(pay attention to how pronouns circulate, and where

It names, first, the singularity with which the aesthetic object by the black artist circulates, a singularity that grants the object its status as aesthetic object. There can only be one black artist. There can only be one black poet. There can only be one aesthetic object by one black poet. Even though Citizen challenges the status of its autonomy by including other art objects and a substantial bibliography, demanding that it be read in conversation with and in relation to the global world of black poetics that includes Aimé Césaire, Louise Bennett, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Micere Mugo, Kofi Awoonor, M. NourbeSe Philip, Wanda Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dionne Brand, Merle Collins, Kamau Brathwaite, Erica Hunt, John Keene, and Brenda Marie Osbey, and that it be situated in the world of black poets and poetries and poetics explored by Geoffrey Jacques, Evie Shockley, Meta Jones, and Anthony Reed, the economy in which the black artist and the aesthetic object produced by that artist exists demands singularity: there can only be one.

The creation of an aesthetic object by a black artist resurrects debates as old as the U.S. If you pay attention to the edges, you will hear echoes of Jefferson claiming that Phillis Wheatley –I will not reproduce his misspelling—cannot be a poet, because the black cannot be a poet.

Citizen takes its place in an archive that documents microaggressions. Website after website documents microaggression, revealing that we—pay attention to how pronouns circulate, and where—are not yet past racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism. We need such archives, but not and never the presumption that we live in some “after,” not and never the presumption that microaggressions are vestigial remnants of something more toxic that has been eliminated. There was, I am reminded, a vibrant life of documenting microaggressions before Citizen as book appeared, one in which excerpts from the book participated. Citizen is pulled into and participates in this documenting, even as it is the aesthetic object of such documenting and, thus, subject to the pressures put on the aesthetic object.

Among many other things, the aesthetic object is an occasion: it gathers and assembles. In the archive-generating world of microaggressions, the aesthetic object can—tread carefully here—be used to suspend certain kinds of judgments.

that’s fucked up, but not necessarily racist
that’s messed up, but not necessarily racist
people are assholes, but not necessarily racist
maybe the person was just having a bad day, and not necessarily being racist

What occasions Citizen gets lost in occasions created to receive Citizen—one might be clumsy.


What do we want from each other
after we have told our stories
do we want
to be healed do we want
mossy quiet stealing over our scars
do we want
the powerful unfrightening sister
who will make the pain go away

—Audre Lorde, “There are No Honest Poems About Dead Women”

Pulling apart: “one’s story of participating in racialization is being solicited.”

Pull apart this thing that does not do the work one hopes it will do. One imagines the occasion, a market in microaggressions: a story about (vestigial) racism is bartered for one about (vestigial) sexism; a story about (vestigial) homophobia is bartered for one about transphobia; a story about ableism is bartered for one about fat phobia. The poet, the “powerful unfrightening sister,” is the occasion for such exchanges.

“Together,” a university official intones, “we can learn how to work through diversity.”

polite applause

An occasion:

Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour. You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.

Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.

The word “citizen” appears only once in the book-length poem. Strictly speaking, this is not true. The word “citizen” appears on the cover of the book, on the title page, and as a running head. If, like me, you are reading the Kindle edition, the word “citizen” is on every digital page. But let us engage the fiction that the word “citizen” appears only once in the book-length poem.

Who is constituted as a citizen and how? That’s the easy question. The expected question. The question that will be asked to skirt more troubling questions.

Here’s one such question: how is black death the occasion for producing a citizen? And what kind of citizen is produced by black death? The questions are familiar—they pulse through the multi-century archive of black intellectual and cultural production. They live in and create the space between “citizen” as a running head and “citizen” as a single, tortured appearance.

Another occasioning: “where were you when you heard?”

Since September 11, 2001, “where were you when?” has defaulted to this date. Loss has been measured against this occasion, mapped in relation to it. The security-generating, military-assembling language of terror processes loss, grades it, assigns it weight and worth and meaning.

Against this, along this, around this—the black death that occasions the citizen

another confession: I keep hearing Dionne Brand

Some of us want entry into the home and nation that are signified by these romances. Some of us in the Diaspora long so for nation – some continuous thread of biological or communal association, some bloodline or legacy which will cement our rights in the place we live. The problem of course is that even if those existed – and they certainly do, if it is in the human contraband which we represent in the romance – they do not guarantee nation for Blacks in the Diaspora. (A Map to the Door of No Return)

What does Citizen want? What do those who gather around and are gathered by the occasion of Citizen want? What forms of belonging and deracination circulate as anecdotes—and what is an anecdote?—about microaggressions?

And I?

In July 2016, it will have been three years since I left the U.S., the place that produced me as a legal alien, where I learned to think about deracination, where I learned to form sentences, and how to be deformed by them. The “you” that so many U.S. readers find themselves implicated in and by eludes me—it’s been a long time since I imagined that literary works generate sites for identification and disidentification.

What feels more than feeling? You are afraid there is something you are missing, something obvious. A feeling that feelings might be irrelevant if they point to one’s irrelevance pulls at you. (Citizen)

Citizen concludes with two images from Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Slave Ship—the first the entire image, the second a detail, Detail of Fish Attacking Slave from The Slave Ship. An encounter with Vincent Woodward’s Delectable Negro has me asking how Citizen is being consumed, how the black body it generates is being eaten. An ongoing encounter with Christina Sharpe’s thinking has me asking what kind of wake work is required for those of us who are gathered by the occasion of black death.

And I?

I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night—

—Countee Cullen, “Heritage”

and yet . . .

We cannot pretend to speak of these things. We reach a limit; our limit.

—Nahum Chandler, X—The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought

I was looking for more than the violence of the slave ship, the migrant and refugee ship, the container ship, and the medical ship.

—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake

To read and unread and misread Citizen because of what accretes around it, because of who gathers around it, who is gathered by and folded into it risks—all reading is a risk, but not all of us are risked, or at risk, in the same way—attributing an agency to the work that is ungenerous. My own concerns have focused on what Nahum Chandler describes as the disaster: carefully, carefully, aware of the traps I can never fully evade,

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

—Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”

I return to this writing a few days after Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union speech. I did not watch the speech, but I could not escape its grasp, its making of citizenship. I might have learned to watch State of the Union speeches after September 11, 2001, when “everything changed.” A special stress was placed on that traditional opening— “My Fellow Americans”—after 9/11, a stress punctuated, now, by the weight and sound and smell of bombs: in 2015, the U.S. dropped over 23,000 bombs in six countries. I do not have the stomach to see how many bombs the U.S. has dropped since 9/11—“the wreck and not the story of the wreck.” Citizen gathers and is gathered around this citizen-making project—a running head meets a single, but not singular, appearance. Shall we call the State of the Union address the running head?

Obama asks, “how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?”

Obama asks, “why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”

Obama boasts,

The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.

Obama boasts,

If you doubt America’s commitment – or mine – to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell. When you come after Americans, we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit

Obama says,

I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen

Over 23,000 bombs in 2015

I am arrested by the idea that the microaggression leads to a pause before one continues:

As usual you drive through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going. (Citizen)

I conclude this writing a week after Obama’s State of the Union speech, on the Monday designated this year as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I am arrested by the question of lag, caught by the duration of the pause. The “micro” in “microaggressions” might describe the lag that one must overcome—that return to the untime of unmaking, that disembedding from the human that one overcomes but does not overcome. How long is that pause? How is it measured? What happens in that pause?

Chester Pierce names that pause as where the cumulative takes hold. What accretes in the pause, and how? A model of resilience reaches for the grit in the oyster, the pearl-making potential of adversity. Recall, the much-lauded Citizen is the aesthetic object that documents microaggressions. White space can be a pause. Pauses are cumulative. Something accumulates in the pause. How long is that pause? How is it to be measured? How does one measure pauses as they accumulate? How does one evaluate the pause that is considered an aesthetic object?

how does one live—how can one breathe—in the pause

a note on grieving

Is there a difference between, “the bastard is dead” and “you are entitled to mourn, but remember he was a bastard”? I think there is. I think it has to do with one’s presumed audience and with the work both statements set out to accomplish. I have seen versions of the second floating around since David Bowie’s death was announced and it makes me uncomfortable because of its presumed audience: those who are mourning and those who are gathered by mourning. When I first saw it, I thought of the infamous Westboro protesters who became notorious for showing up at funerals of queers (and other people whose lives and politics they didn’t support) with signs that insisted those people were evil and were going to hell. The image is not quite right—the analogy is wrong—but it’s the first thing that came to mind.

A vernacular: sorry not sorry

I think a few things are being conflated: the process of grieving following a loss and the whitewashing (or pinkwashing) of eulogies and hagiographies. Even this is imprecise. Saying, “this person’s work meant a lot to me” is not whitewashing (or pinkwashing). Expressing grief is not whitewashing (or pinkwashing). Saying, “I am sad” is not whitewashing (or pinkwashing).

“I know you’re sad, but you’re sad for a bastard” strikes me as cruel, if not wrong. It suggests, for instance, that those who are sad have fairly (whitewashed or pinkwashed) relations to those they are grieving, relations unmarked by complication and ambivalence. This is rarely the case. Mourning—I know I’m switching between mourning and grieving—is never uncomplicated. We may shed tears for people who wounded us deeply—we might even be surprised that we are shedding tears for them. Grief is not rational. Our attachments are not rational—“I don’t know why I’m crying” is a common reaction to announcements of death.

I think it’s okay not to participate in rituals of grieving. One can simply stay away. One can stay silent. Or one can speak about the dead person without joining those who are grieving: “I’m glad the bastard is dead.” When Moi dies—if he ever dies—I will say this without shame. I have planned the t-shirt and the party. I will not say, “you’re entitled to mourn, but he was a bastard.” I think it’s okay to say, “I’m not mourning because he was a bastard.”

I have been repeating a formula: “it’s okay.” I could not figure out a way around its prescription. To that formula, I have attached “I think” and a repeated “I,” both attempts to manage my reaction to this policing of grief.

I’ve been trying to figure out why “you’re entitled to mourn, but remember he was a bastard” continues to nag me. It has something to do with the nature of the demand: what kind of demand is being made? Again, let me emphasize that I understand how such memory-work functions in relation to whitewashing (and pinkwashing) eulogies and hagiographies. I understand the political work of interruption. I’m having a problem grasping the work of “he was a bastard” as a response to “I’m feeling sad.”

What is the demand?

That one should not feel sad? That one’s grief should be modulated? That one’s sadness should come with a disclaimer?

Political interruptions are demands: what is being demanded? What happens when demands are not explicit? What happens if the demands are impossible?

(the impossible demand can transform sadness into frustration and anger, both of which will be directed at the person making the demand, and perhaps that is the point, though I don’t understand how nudging sadness into frustration is politically useful)

I am trying very hard not to abstract deeply felt emotions and positions, not to misrepresent them, but not to think at them simply for the pleasure of thinking.

I remain nagged.


History is not kind to us
we restitch it with living
past memory      forward
into desire
into the panic   articulation
of want      without having
or even the promise of getting.

–Audre Lorde, “On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge”

I have been curious about selfcare/self-care/self care as it has circulated attached to Audre Lorde. A quick (but not comprehensive) search of Audre Lorde’s poetry and prose reveals that she never used selfcare/self-care/ self care, at least never in any of these forms. I suspect the term was familiar to her. It’s common in cancer care—it’s deeply embedded within health paradigms. Another quick (but not comprehensive) search indicates that selfcare/self-care/self care enters English somewhere in the eighteenth century, though the idea of it is much older. (I’m trying not to invoke Foucault’s care of the self, but I’m trying too hard, so let me invoke it here and let it go.)

In its present incarnation, this idea of selfcare/self-care/self care that attaches to Audre Lorde is taken from a passage in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is an act of self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The idea has received generous, loving, and space-clearing elaboration by Nick Mitchell and Sara Ahmed.

Nick argues that Lorde’s critique of self-indulgence valorizes resilience (a term philosopher Robin James thinks about beautifully). This demand for resilience, often incarnated in the figure of the strong black woman, makes it difficult to consider and inhabit vulnerability and pleasure, pain and suffering. The documents of colonial modernity (what some call racial modernity) emphasize the black’s ability to bear pain.

Ahmed draws on one of Lorde’s keywords, survival, to discuss the politics of persistence:

In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered.

Ahmed has taught me to think about the long life of metaphor—how does one assemble what is shattered? Shattering always brings me to glass, sometimes ceramics, but mostly glass. Skin-breaking, body-scarring shards. No matter how quickly and efficiently you sweep up broken glass, little shards might escape, do escape. They gather to pierce. How does one assemble a community from the shattered? What kind of community can that be?

What injuries do we inflict on each other to be together?

An aside from something else I am writing.

I have thought a lot about toxicity and damage—how one lives with them, how one suffers from them, how one is destroyed by them, how one tries to manage them. There’s no shame in saying I have not learned how to manage damage. There’s no shame in saying I don’t want to learn how. Livability cannot be endlessly deferred

I have been stuck on two things (imprecision is needed). Lorde described herself as a poet. In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she explains poetry as the incubator of the emergent.

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 help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have once found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.

Poetry reaches for, runs after, lingers on, makes possible. Poetry thinks. When I think with Lorde, I must think with her poetry.


I’m stuck on self-preservation. What is self-preservation? I think of centipedes rolling in on themselves, hedgehogs curling into spiny balls, tortoises retreating into their shells. Such images take me away from “warfare.” Or make it difficult for me to get to “warfare.” I suspect that “self-preservation” does something wonky to selfcare/self-care/self care, or, perhaps, returns selfcare/self-care/self care to the healthworld in which it is embedded.

The will to persist (conatus, as Elizabeth Povinelli teaches me in her engagement with Spinoza) might be read as “warfare.” But I think it takes a lot of work to get from “self-preservation” to “warfare.” It depends, I think, on which animals one thinks with. I reach for tortoises.

To be minoritized is to be gathered by and through dissolution.

Notice the structure of Lorde’s statement: the move from “caring for myself” to “self-indulgence” to “self-preservation.” Notice the isolation: Essex Hemphill calls this isolation “loneliness.” What if self-preservation relies precisely on this loneliness? Under what conditions is self-preservation possible?
I’m staring at Our Dead Behind Us (1986) and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1992), Lorde’s final two collections of poetry. A Burst of Light falls between these two, even as we know that publication dates for poetry collections may have little relationship to when poems were written. Still, acts of gathering are useful.
Several weeks after I started writing this, I’m still staring at her two collections. I’ve been unable to write through them—even at its most lucid, her poetry is still incredibly difficult. Also, I really want to avoid the poetry-makes-shit-immortal line that we inherit (most famously) from Shakespeare. (Every English major absorbs this.)

Instead, I have been thinking about self-preservation—about pickling and drying and salting and canning and freezing. About what happens to flavor and texture, about health and treatment. The zoloft-fog I refuse to inhabit, though it promises to extend some version of living.

Perhaps I’m stuck at the relationship between survival—one of Lorde’s keywords—and self-preservation. If the Lorde we now think with in our neoliberal times is the Lorde of selfcare/self care/self-care and not the Lorde of survival—I’m trying to tread carefully here—I think we need to ask why. Perhaps self-preservation gives us a different way to get to Lorde.

What is self-preservation’s relationship to survival?

What is that affective and ideological shift? What is the change in tactic, if there is one? I think there is.

I’m tired. I don’t know how to continue. This, too, is about self-preservation.


I used to think I hate the word pole—perhaps I do. Pole is the sorry one offers for minor injuries and the condolence one offers for major losses. It means sorry you are feeling pain. It is a ritual word. A word that carries and means and performs.

I’m not very sure I understand empathy or sympathy. As an undergraduate, I wrestled to distinguish the two. As a teacher, I tried to describe them. Pole always haunted these efforts.

Pole is ritual.

It is what one is supposed to say, what one is trained to say, what one is disciplined to say—the discipline that becomes habit. Habits can be sincere. I’m not sure pole extends or displaces as sympathy or empathy do. It might create something else—or simply sustain a sociality. Sometimes it means I am here. Sometimes it means I am thinking about you. Sometimes it means I cannot be here for you in this or that way but, perhaps, in another way. Now, I’m drawn to the perhaps of it.

I distrust it.
Pole is not about resilience. Though it needs an awareness that the world produces and proliferates injury. It is, perhaps, an injured word. A word that seeks injury, that magnifies injury, that revels in injury so that it can offer comfort.

An army of people march around Kenya offering pole. It falls from a million strange mouths—it sits with injury. I am not sure it offers comfort. Pole waits to leap out, to perform its injury-noticing function. It transfers from house to house, wound to wound, loss to loss, and it multiplies.

We use it so easily. So readily. We stand waiting to use it.

A turn, perhaps.

I have been thinking for a while about Audre Lorde’s question,

What do we want from each other
After we have told our stories

It is an impertinent question, especially at a time when telling one’s story has become part of the data-generating machinery of everyday life. Africans must tell their stories. Queers must tell their stories. Women must tell their stories. So many unheard stories, we are told. So many stories to be told.

And then what?

Lorde’s question is frightening. What if one’s story is deemed useless? What if one’s pain does not matter? What if one’s most profound insights are banal? What if one’s story simply becomes another data point in some unfathomable calculus? What if one’s story is illegible? What if one’s story turns others against one? What if one’s story is disgusting? What if those listening to one’s story do not know how to hear it.

I think of the African writers trying to sell their work abroad to people who don’t know how to hear them. I think of African writers trying to sell their work in Africa to people who don’t know how to hear them.

I think of those convinced that telling stories matters who lack the courage to ask what happens after those stories are told. What do we want from each other? Can we give it to each other?
Pole manages the act of telling stories.

Does it mean, “I have heard you”? Does it mean, “I am here for you”? Does it mean, “what do you need me to do?” Does it mean, “shut up and get over it”?

We say pole to preempt the demand that might come. Having offered my pole, I can walk away, convinced I have given what is required, without giving what might be demanded.

We have become convinced that listening is enough. We have become convinced that being listened to is enough. What do we want from each other? We have learned to say, “to be heard” or “to be listened to” or “to be acknowledged.” To hear “pole.” We have learned not to ask for more, not to believe there might be more, or that there should be more.
Another turn.

We say pole at funerals. I dislike funerals. I will not attend them. I do not like what they attempt to manage. I do not like what they attempt to create. I do not like their lies.

We know what to do at funerals. We know how to plan them, how to stage them, when to say pole, and when to repeat it. We are more comfortable with funerals than we are living with each other. We will chant “never forget” for people whose demands we ignored when they were alive.

Repeatedly, I’m struck by Kenyan gestures of resignation. Shauri ya Mungu is, of course, the most popular. Increasingly, I think pole is another.

Pole refuses to ask what we want from each other after we have told our stories.

a joke has been told

A joke struggles to emerge.

A murder of newly independent black politicians drink whiskey and debate whose dogs are more fiercely anti-black.

For whom does the joke emerge? For whom does the joke struggle?
I have thought for a long time about the laugh. The laugh has often been so cruel that I cannot hear it without wincing, without questioning its intent and target, without questioning the world it imagines and desires. If Freud helps me to understand the laugh’s relationship to the unconscious, that offers little comfort: the unconscious houses our most murderous impulses, our most anti-social tendencies, our most destructive fantasies. How, then, can one appreciate the laugh knowing where it springs from?

Laughs do not dissipate. They fade into each other and grow—the word might be reverberate. Film has taught us how to hear this laugh that lives and grows—the laugh that bounces off and creates surfaces, walls and mirrors, paths and bridges, frightening spaces that can’t be avoided. There is no other way to get from here to there, and no way to avoid needing to get from here to there, and the path is strewn with laughs.

For several years, a friend has told me that laughter is politically necessary, a way to live through today and, maybe, through tomorrow. Laughter may be one of the we-formations that is possible. How do Kenyans make it through whatever? We are famous for our laughter. When my mother laughs, I can hear her from several miles away. Perhaps laughter marks a certain spot, provides a certain direction, gestures to a something possible that is not this—perhaps laughter points the way to a possible elsewhere-not-here that might be worth waiting for, hanging around for, surviving for.

I grasp this argument, because I know how to grasp arguments. As with picking nettles, one must know how to grasp the plant to avoid its sting. The sting remains.
One can be more precise.

The joke is not the laugh. The joke need not lead to the laugh. The laugh is often independent of the joke. But if one follows Freud, the violence of the laugh is never independent of the violence of the joke. Clunkiness is needed here.

Perhaps deracination is key.

I do not enjoy most Kenyan humor. A little something tells me to use humour, as I once learned. I continue to resist British spelling, to resist the person it envisioned as it arrived in this space and the person it continues to envision as it persists here. I cannot enjoy most Kenyan humor. With some effort, I learned to enjoy some humor from elsewhere—but it’s never effortless. Over the past few years, the humor I have found most enjoyable—I wonder if I should muse on humor that’s not enjoyable—exists in fantasy. I have needed non-human settings—though they are often humanoid—to laugh.

The strategy is familiar—I needed to learn how to study other places so my brain could work. I say I am not an Africanist to say something about what happens to my thinking when faced with Kenya-Africa. I have enough tools now, after many years of studying elsewhere, to begin to see a few things, but I will never be able to think of here as I can think of elsewhere, and certainly not while here. Perhaps this explains the thinking-as-data-collection mode that exists here. Shall we call this an aside?
Laughter is the best medicine. Who writes prescriptions for the dysselected?
It takes a while to get to the question.

Do the dysselected have the pharmakon option of medicine:poison?
A joke has been told.

A laugh has been heard.

The dysselected remain.

The Terrain of Cultural Production

I had been invited to chair a panel on cultural production during a graduate student conference held at the BIEA. Because I like to be responsible, I had asked those on the panel to send their work to me–their most complete drafts–at least 48 hours in advance so I could think with it. Partly, because I think it’s a useful exercise for graduate students to process their thinking by drafting it in advance and, partly, because I take intellectual labor seriously. For whatever reason, the panelists did not send me their work in time; I could not think with it, so I withdrew from the panel.

I take my intellectual labor seriously and I expect those who ask me to be an intellectual to take it seriously.

I had drafted remarks for the panel, if not for the panelists. Here they are. The conference theme is “Centres & Peripheries.”
On what terrain can we speak about center and periphery? Where do we assembled here stand to address this relationship? How do we assembled here generate and reproduce centers and peripheries? And how do we, as scholars, benefit from the existence of such centers and peripheries as scholars? I begin by raising the problem of the ethico-political, the problem of what Stuart Hall describes as the terrain of ideological struggle. Let me speculate about three sites where the ethico-political might call on us to think more deliberately about the terrain we occupy and construct in our neoliberal present. Schematically, these three sites are institutional creation, knowledge production, and subject formation in Kenya.

When I started primary school in 1981, Kenya had one public university—the University of Nairobi. By the time I completed primary school, Kenya had three public universities—Moi University had opened in 1984 and Kenyatta University in 1985. Prior to the Structural Adjustment Programs that transformed Kenyan higher education in the 1980s, university education was understood as a public good: public university was free for those students who excelled at high school and students received a living stipend, what was known as “boom.” I went to Nairobi Primary, which is sandwiched between State House and the University of Nairobi. Teachers would tell us that if we worked hard, we would make it “across the street.” We would join the university—by this, they meant the university prior to Structural Adjustment Programs. By the time I finished high school—and qualified to join the university—we had learned to ask new questions. Not, “when shall I get my boom,” but “how shall I pay for university?” It was, of course, an unevenly distributed question. Those of us securely located in professional middle class families had not yet learned how to ask that question. Nor did we know how to think of what asking that question meant about the transformation that had taken place in education.

Today, Kenya has approximately sixty institutions of higher education, public and private. While some people celebrate, we in the humanities and social sciences should be wary. The idea of higher education as a public good transformed, in the 1980s, into an idea of higher education as preparation for the market. This market-driven model dominates Kenya’s higher education landscape. Few of the new universities offer degrees in the humanities and social sciences. Few of the fields and disciplines represented at this conference—anthropology, archeology, philosophy, literature, gender studies, cultural studies, political science, and sociology—have homes in many of these new institutions. Market-driven education in Kenya does not like the humanities and the social sciences. To put it plainly: the humanities and social sciences are at the periphery of Kenya’s expansion in higher education. How might we think about our fields and disciplines as peripheral and vestigial formations in Kenya today?

[I had planned to be politic, but since I canceled my in-person appearance, let me add the following. Within the broader project of generating knowledge about Kenya, Kenyan institutions are peripheral to institutions in Europe and North America. Almost no Kenyan scholars are acclaimed in the broad field of Kenyan studies, and the native informant continues to live on, no matter how educated that informant. Two problems for pedagogy: how to foreground Kenyan thinking in its various forms and how to train foreign researchers not to approach Kenyans as native informants]

Second, knowledge formations. Earlier this year, Tom Odhiambo and Godwin Siundu, both at the University of Nairobi, launched the Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies journal. It was a moment of celebration and a moment of mourning. The journal is published out of the UK, by Taylor and Francis. As far as I know, none of the major Kenyan educational publishers supports an academic journal in the humanities or social sciences. This absence is compounded by the fact that the European and North American scholarly protocols that dominate global academic production continue to unsee Kenyan knowledge makers. Across the broad field of Kenya-focused scholarship, Kenyan thinking plays a minor role. Kenyans continue to function as native informants and research sites to be processed through European and North American thinkers. Pay attention to how often Kenyan thinkers will be cited as thinkers today. Not as informants. But as thinkers. In what should strike us as an absurd formulation: Kenyan thinking is peripheral to knowledge production about Kenya.

Finally, let me note that I’m interested in subject formation and what lies outside of that formation. I continue to learn from Stuart Hall and Sylvia Wynter, Louis Althusser and Luce Irigaray, Freud and Foucault, Judith Butler and Hortense Spillers, Frantz Fanon and Katherine McKittrick. A list of names to remind you that I am not an Africanist. Among many names for those produced at Kenya’s periphery, we might include the indigenous, the domestic worker, the sex worker, the queer, the youth, the refugee, the stateless, the prisoner, and the disappeared. If we are to understand Kenyan knowledge production, these figures should not be absent from our thinking, no matter how much neoliberalism directs our gazes elsewhere.

Frottage: Introduction (part three)

The family tree is not the only way to envision diaspora, and I turn to theorists of “thinghood” to suggest a model for envisioning the black diaspora and for framing black diasporic queerness. Hortense Spillers’s classic “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” offers another genealogy into the queerness of the black diaspora. Spillers theorizes the middle passage as a subject-obliterating, thing-making project. In doing so, she takes on the challenge of contemplating what Aimé Césaire termed “thingification.” This urge to humanize slaves, she contends, is motivated by our inability to imagine the thing-making project of slavery, which is “unimaginable from this distance”; but to insist on the slave’s humanity risks voiding the problem of the slave as commodity, as thing. How might a queer diaspora that begins from thing-making function?

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

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

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

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

If Judith Butler has taught us to claim the genealogy of abject(ion) for queer studies, to seek moments where subjects emerge by producing non-subjects, I am interested in what a genealogy of the “thing” offers to queer genealogies. “Offers” is, perhaps, too mild, for as Fred Moten teaches, blackness is “an ongoing irruption that anarranges every line.” Within colonial modernity, blackness comes to figure as perverse sexuality, as its potential and realization, as the gateway to queer appetite. What Spillers marks as “captured sexualities” hints at the taxonomic logic that will drive sexology’s will to know and ability to organize itself. If, as Foucault demonstrates, sexology is a strategy for cataloguing and managing sexual, that is, human, difference, its formal strategy can be aligned with, if not derived from, the slave catalogues that recorded color, weight, and size, not merely managing human cargo, but actively transforming humans into commodities. It is precisely the “captured sexualities” of the “thing” of “blackness” that haunts sexology, as its necessary underside, as what Morrison might term its Africanist presence. Yet, the thinghood of blackness also renders it difficult to apprehend within a genealogy that takes sexuality as subjectifying. Here, I am marking a deep cleavage within black diaspora studies and queer studies: sexuality represents a vexed meeting ground, the place where a blackness haunted by thinghood encounters a non-blackness haunted by subjectification. We are not on shared ground.

Frottage will name this encounter between queer studies and black diaspora studies, this persistent meeting, this lingering over, this site of stimulation and frustration. But I will swerve from the too-familiar site of the inter-racial to focus on the intra-racial, swerve to complicate the intimacy suggested by the definite article of “the” black diaspora. Against genealogical models that invoke the definite article to claim fictive kinship grounded in a hetero-reproductive imagination, I want to suggest the possibility of using frottage as an uneven relationship of proximity, a persistent, recurring meeting of bodies in space, an attempt to forge aesthetics and culture and politics and history from the shared “capture” of blackness.

In beginning with the thing-making problem of blackness, I depart from recent scholarship in black queer studies that interrogates a predominantly white queer studies using a majority U.S.-based archive. As E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson explain, “just as ‘queer’ challenges notions of heteronormativity and heterosexism, ‘black’ resists notions of assimilations and absorption. And so we endorse the double cross of affirming the inclusivity mobilized under the sign of ‘queer’ while claiming the racial, historical, and cultural specificity attached to the marker ‘black.’” However, by assigning “black” the labor of “specificity” and granting “queer” the power to disrupt sexuality, Johnson and Henderson abandon too readily how blackness “anarranges” sexuality. Where Johnson and Henderson seek to “interanimate” both fields, “sabotaging neither and enabling both,” and while I share this reparative impulse, foregrounding blackness as thinghood does not permit queer studies to be “inclusive” of black specificity, precisely because the subject-making work of queerness cannot be so easily reconciled to the thing-making work of blackness.

Theorizing Frottage
I use frottage to name a range of overlapping interpretive and conceptual strategies. As with Max Ernst’s concept of frottage, which consists of laying paper over a surface and using charcoal or pencil to rub over the paper and thus to reveal the textured surface, I seek in such sustained attention, such sustained rubbing, traces of the unexpected and the familiar, what has been known to be there all along and still retains the power to surprise and re-orient our methods of knowing and being.

As a conceptual strategy, frottage lingers on a critical and historical desire to name the black diaspora as a singular formation, the desire of that definite article “the.” I do not dismiss this desire. Instead, I use frottage to deepen its sense-apprehension, to foreground this intense longing for intimacy. In foregrounding desire and longing, I depart from genealogical models that anchor that definite article within a logic of kinship, whether that be through bio-genetic or fictive kinship. I retain what Marlon Ross terms the “pleasures of identification” without, at the same time, engaging in what Rinaldo Walcott critiques as the “fetish” for “community” in black studies. More precisely, I explore how blackness emerges and means without anchoring it to a genealogical tree. Instead of searching for kinship, I privilege conceptual and affective proximity: the rubbing produced by blackness and as blackness, as that which assembles into one frame multiple histories and geographies. I consider the black diaspora as affective and bodily proximity. Where Earl Lewis has theorized “overlapping diasporas,” I argue that pressing and rubbing rather than overlapping might offer a richer, queerer account of how diaspora functions as intimacy.

Finally, though not exhaustively, I use frottage to suggest diaspora as a multiplicity of sense-apprehensions, including recognition, disorientation, compassion, pity, disgust, condescension, lust, titillation, arousal, and exhaustion. I want to approximate as much as possible the range of bodily sensations produced by the insistent touching that is diaspora. I find especially useful Sianne Ngai’s discussion of “irritation” as a “non-cathartic” “ongoingness.” It might be that the enforced proximity produced by the category of blackness rubs up against the desire for intimacy expressed in the definite article “the,” producing irritation as the black diaspora’s dominant affect. Irritation, a term that captures an emotional and corporeal response, is a helpful term for thinking about the contested nature of blackness as a shared feature of Africa and Afro-diaspora. For the history of blackness as a shared category is marked by disagreement, disavowal, and ambivalence, from those who distinguish themselves as “African, not black,” to those who police blackness as a product of Atlantic slavery and thus unavailable to other populations, to those who claim a nativist distinction between U.S. southern descendants and Afro-Caribbean and African descendants. Yet the visual logic of blackness, which is modernity’s legacy, does not care for such fine distinctions. In using frottage, I foreground the affective conflicts, the irritations, that suture the black diaspora.

In the decades that bracket this project, from 1900 to 1960, representations of and debates about black diasporic intimacy intensified within national and transnational contexts. The literary sites of such representations include Pauline Hopkins’s incestuous romance Of One Blood (1903); Casely Hayford’s pan-African romance Ethiopia Unbound (1911); the lesbian poetries of Angelina Weld Grimké and Gladys Casely-Hayford; the queer poetics of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Richard Bruce Nugent; the vagabond erotics of Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929); the radical feminisms of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929); the ethnographic romance of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (1937); the queer Negritude of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to my Native Land (1947) juxtaposed against the hetero-normative erotics of Leopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry; the charged inter-racial antagonisms of Mayotte Capecia’s Je suis Martiniquaise (1948); the infanticidal imagination of Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952); and the immigrant promiscuities of Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956). I mark these sites to indicate the scope and richness of this temporal period for theorizing a black queer diaspora.

[a bunch of chapter descriptions]

I end with a hopeful Fanon, a Fanon who makes black queerness possible, because Frottage is reparative in impulse. This project started as an impulse to find “sustenance” from works that I had been told offered no space to breathe, but works I could not do without. Maran, Kenyatta, and Fanon are three figures that for a range of biographical, political, cultural, and aesthetic reasons I could not do without. But they seemed to offer no space, no possibilities. This project is one attempt to find possibilities.