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

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“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.

4 thoughts on “Michelle Cliff & Cedric Robinson

  1. I’ve been rereading Cliff and marveling at the change between Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. I can see the trace of the same person, but the space between Abeng and No Telephone is extraordinary. I next will take up Free Enterprise, though have had to take a break of necessity because the work that Cliff requires of the mind and spirit is so extraordinary, I cannot sustain myself. I have to turn to Margaret Atwood’s newest dystopia to step outside of the heart work that Cliff demands. I’m embarrassed to say I do not know Cedric Robinson’s work, but appreciate you making the connection. There was little outpouring, I thought, about Cliff’s death and I desperately want to see her in dialogue with others.
    I’m glad to see you gathering the dead around you.

    • It’s a grim work–I’ve been thinking a lot about the 80s and 90s and I’m not sure how people do it. I’m much happier in the 1920s and 30s. I hope you get a chance–and the will–to write about Cliff, and the changes you see, if you’re able. I keep thinking of Melvin Dixon saying that if we don’t write about ourselves then no one will. He was right. And, sadly, the turn to theory really killed a lot of thinking about creative writers.

      • Yes, there is a lot of grimness in the 80s and 90s and it is especially disturbing to me after how much hope there was in the 70s. I completely agree with Dixon. I just found an article about Pat Parker from the early 90s, I think. There is very little about her work, too.

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