Notes Toward a #kenyasyllabus

A syllabus is generative. The framework of readings and activities creates a shared space for thinking and creating. Objects of study produce shared frames of reference—those assembled by those objects may disagree over how those objects mean and work, but the objects create a ground from which to begin and a space to which to return. These processes of beginning and returning, subtended by difference and enriched by interpretation, guide imaginative possibilities. These processes lead to co-imagining, even when difference makes co-imagining difficult and even impossible. Impossibility is often a function of a time-lag: the uneven interval between encounter and transformation.

Shall I be idealistic and say that all co-imagining encounters leave their trace?

*

I learned the phrase “dream of a common language” from Adrienne Rich. Before I encountered it, primary school had taught me the difference between official languages—Kiswahili and English are Kenya’s official languages, the languages of governance and administration—and home languages—in polyglot Nairobi, these included multiple ethnic languages inflected by the experiences of urbanity; the varieties of Swahili spoken across accents, never sanifu, always functional; and Sheng, the language of urban youth culture. Vernacular was an odd word, a word we learned early in primary school that purported to describe what was not official.

In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s hands, vernacular was a decolonizing tool—but we are no longer in Kenyatta’s 1970s and Moi’s 1980s, and the decolonizing potential of vernacular languages has been co-opted by Kenyan ethnonationalisms.

From Ngugi’s experiments with community-based vernacular theater, I learned to think about vernacular arts—perhaps vernaculars, in general—as calls to assemble and co-imagine. From Rich’s work, I learned to think about the space of difference in language—those extended white spaces between words in her poems. To think of vernaculars as calls                 to assemble that succeed                 to the extent that they recognize their incomplete nature and always leave                 room for the changing call                of the political. From the varieties of languages spoken in Nairobi, that stew of official and home, functional and invented, I learned to think about creating the languages that are needed, bending and twisting and borrowing and weaving to generate possible worlds—worlds that make us—those assembled—more possible.

*

When Kenya promulgated a new constitution in 2010—and in the process leading up to this promulgation—those people designated as “stakeholders” encouraged the rest of us to read the constitution. At the time, I wondered what made a document created by legal experts and NGO bureaucrats legible to those of us not familiar with legal and NGO vernaculars. It was disingenuous to expect non-experts to understand what experts had crafted, especially because non-experts had not been involved in the process of crafting the constitution. Consider, for instance, if the draft constitution had been peer reviewed by primary school students (Std. 6 or 7). Consider if it had been tested in the low-income neighborhoods that make up most of Nairobi. What might those experts who drafted the constitution have done differently if they had made it speak to those it was meant to serve?

The constitution, a legal document full of bureaucratese, was offered as a Kenyan vernacular: a syllabus, if you will, that would guide our imaginations and create possibilities for living and a common language that would provide our differences with a common frame. On the very day it was officially promulgated, it was violated. A few years later, when then-ICC indictees Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were permitted to run for office, it was violated again. I cite only two instances of ongoing constitutional violations. Those who fought for a new constitution continue to insist that it is the “most progressive” constitution in Africa, refusing to acknowledge that a constitution is only as valuable as the promises it enforces. For now, we are saddled with a lumbering, cumbersome document full of bureaucratese that the majority of Kenyans can neither understand nor navigate. The constitution is offered as a vernacular, but it cannot fulfill that role.

The other vernacular offered to Kenyans is human rights.

In the 1980s, Moi singled out Amnesty International as a dissident organization. Dissident was one of Moi’s keywords. Every critique of Moi’s regime from a human rights organization was dismissed as supporting dissidence and attempting to undermine the peace, love, and unity we enjoyed under Moi. Human rights entered Kenya’s vernaculars as a foreign tool—Moi and his propaganda machine described it as foreign—designed to undermine Moi’s regime and something described vaguely as traditional values—a stew of religion and invented traditions. By the early 1990s, human rights assumed a more local face: a signal moment is 1991, when the Kenya Human Rights Commission was established in Washington, DC. It was registered in Kenya in 1994. This movement from DC to Nairobi might seem minor, but it continues to mark how human rights is apprehended in Kenya: as a foreign import.

Kenya’s independence-era government was intent on what was called “Africanization”: to build a skilled, educated labor force that would take over the administrative and professional jobs that had been withheld from Africans. The most significant blueprint for this process was Sessional Paper No. 10: African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, authored by a young Tom Mboya. In the opening section of the Paper, Mboya outlines the objectives of societies:

The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include—

    1. political equality;
    2. social justice;
    3. human dignity including freedom of conscience;
    4. freedom from want, disease, and exploitations;
    5. equal opportunities; and
    6. high and growing per capita incomes equitable distributed

These objectives were to be grounded in African Socialism:

In the phrase “African Socialism,” the word “African” is not introduced to describe a continent to which a foreign ideology is to be transplanted. It is meant to convey the African roots of a system that is itself African in its characteristics. African Socialism is a term describing an African political and economic system that is positively African not being imported from any country or being a blueprint of any foreign ideology but capable of incorporating useful and compatible techniques from whatever source.

Whatever African Socialism was—Mboya’s tautological definition does not help—it was to be African, not imported. Indeed, the entire passage hinges on the distinction between African and foreign.

Human rights is not a key term in the 1965 Sessional Paper and, in fact, the emphasis on African Socialism embedded in African values and “not being imported” casts a long shadow over the reception of human rights in Kenya. African Socialism does not survive long—it is certainly not part of the vernacular that circulates in 70s and 80s political, academic, and popular cultures. But the African/foreign distinction lingers.

Human rights frames were essential to challenging Moi’s regime and creating new ways of imagining ourselves. They have continued to provide legibility for many minoritized Kenyans—poor, queer, sex workers, refugees, stateless—who may speak and be recognized as human rights activists and defenders. At the same time, the transformation of human rights into an industry in Kenya (and elsewhere), most often supported by donor funds from abroad, and now conducted in donor-mandated vernaculars (buzzwords) has made it a difficult frame. Instead of domesticating human rights, finding ways to make UN and donor bureaucratese speak in Kenyan accents, the human rights industry has made learning its buzzwords and bureaucratic procedures a condition for engaging it. Moreover, because human rights frameworks have not been domesticated—made available for popular, everyday use—they remain open to the charge that they are foreign and elitist.

If the constitution and human rights fail to be effective vernaculars, what is circulating in their place? By which I mean, what circulate as shared objects—visual, aural, and written—that assemble Kenyans in ways that generate interpretation while making space for difference?

*

What are our shared objects of study? What objects provide the ground from which we depart and to which we return, with our varying interpretations that make space for difference? What objects generate our vernaculars? What objects shape our imaginations?

These questions may seem irrelevant in an era dominated by data. We have data and more data and more data and graphs and charts and statistics and infographics and facts. So many facts. And we are hungry for even more facts.

Forgive me, I hear Mr. Gradgrind:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!

I worry that the data-ification of our lives means that even when presented with disparate objects—history, fiction, poetry, music, photography, sculpture, anthropology—the impulse will be to extract data from it. I worry that our imaginations have been so badly trained and damaged that all we can do is produce more and more data: more reports, more charts, more statistics. From what I’ve observed, the circulation of data does not generate transformative vernaculars.

*

Instead of shared objects of study, I think two things circulate: bureaucratic processes and affects.

Bureaucratic processes circulate as the demand for solutions to problems. Those solutions come wrapped up as commissions, committees, task forces, working groups, reports, and endless recommendations, and a key recommendation is always that more study is needed, so more commissions, committees, task forces, working groups, reports, and recommendations, setting up yet another cycle. You cannot complain that nothing is being done, even as you wonder what this thing being done actually is.

Affects circulate, mostly frustration, anger, and exhaustion. As they circulate, they attaches to different bodies and situations: the anger directed toward an indifferent and murderous state finds targets in workplaces and domestic spaces and public spaces. Anger and frustration are gathered and dispersed by ethnonationalisms, generating temporary catharsis while also accumulating more energy.

*

Without shared objects of study that might become a #kenyasyllabus—sounds, images, words—we are incapable of creating shared vernaculars that matter to the possibility of a we-formation. We are unable to remain tethered to each other by those objects, even as we co-imagine away from them. We trade data and opinion and quote the constitution and human rights frames at each other, but I am not sure what this produces.

*

What might a #kenyasyllabus look like? I don’t know. I assume it will vary across regions, as different objects have different weight for local populations. I assume that its genres will be varied, as it must make room for difference. I assume that as it circulates it will create shared vernaculars—guided by diverse interpretations and open to difference. I assume that it will assemble people and, as it assembles, it will change. I assume that the process of assembling it will model what it means to learn from each other and to share with each other and to live with each other. I assume that the range of objects assembled will be as broad as those who are assembled by those objects, and that the process of studying the assembled objects will take seriously the lifeworlds those objects occupy.

Love Chronicle XIII (for G)

I want to understand the link between cum and tears

I had been looking for you and when you did not
show, the leaves changed their patterns, losing their
vibrancy in an unexpected deluge

What falls and cannot be un-broken

I find you beautiful, also, a suitable addition to my
collection of mummified love objects

When you said you researched images of AIDS, I
wondered if you played echo or narcissus

But line figures keep obscuring my vision, refusing
to grant me the sanctity of maleness,

Men, you see, have lateral placing, which means
astigmatism bends gender

The tragedy of going blind

I wanted to play Tiresius but you kept drawing me
to Dionysus, so we compromised that vestal virgins
might be interesting, if overrated

I confess to being envious of your beauty, your
colossus-like stride, even as I patched your broken
toe

Blushes and Giggles

Something quiet passes between us, my fear of
intimacy, my desire for infection, the unspoken,
unconsummated

You stopped writing and I keep waiting, living
between love and obsession

To remember, in perfect sentences

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.

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.

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.

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.

self-preservation

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.

Second.

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.