Queer African Studies: Personhood & Pleasure

I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.

—John Mbiti

Let us face it. We are undone by each other. If we are not, we are missing something.

—Judith Butler

I have been reading bits and pieces of African philosophy focused on the problem of personhood. This particular exploration started when I read John Mbiti, and this passage in particular:

Marriage is the one experience without which a person is not considered to be complete, ‘perfect’, and truly a man or a woman. It makes a person really ‘somebody’. It is part of the definition of who a person is according to African views about man. Without marriage, a person is only a human being minus. (Introduction to African Religion 112)

I was captured by the role of marriage in granting “complete” personhood and “true” gender-sex. Mbiti’s use of “complete,” “perfect,” and “truly” generated varieties (or genres) of personhood and gender-sex: complete/incomplete, perfect/imperfect, truly gender-sexed/untruly gender-sexed. Beyond the broad categories suggested by binary thinking, other variations can be imagined, for instance, complete, mostly complete, partially complete, somewhat incomplete, mostly incomplete, and fully incomplete.

Mbiti’s passage became even more compelling when I read Alex Weheliye’s parsing of humanity in racial modernity (following Sylvia Wynter) into full human, not-quite-human, and nonhuman (Habeas Viscus). I wondered how those distinctions could be read into and through African thinking on personhood. In African Religions and Philosophy,  Mbiti writes that one who does not marry is “not only abnormal, but ‘under-human’” (133). Marriage confers and affirms gender-sexed personhood. Personhood is gendered, sexed, and sexualized.

How might a queer thinking and politics intent on generating possibility—livability and pleasure—for varieties of humans engage Mbiti?

Mbiti’s passage ticks many boxes within mainstream Queer studies : compulsory heterosexuality (Adrienne Rich), gender normativity (Gayle Rubin), and heteronormativity (Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner). Each of these come with specific archives—objects, situations, histories, methods—rooted elsewhere (even if Rich gives a nod to non-western geohistories and Rubin draws on anthropological archives). From Wambui Mwangi and Frantz Fanon I learn to begin from where I am standing. And this also means returning to where I started.

I came to Queer studies through feminism and, more specifically, through the essentialism/social constructionism debate. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir had written that a woman is made, not born; sociologist Mary McIntosh had argued that the homosexual could be seen as “playing a role” instead of expressing a “condition”; the Combahee River Collective had written, “As Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.” Frantz Fanon had taught that “the Negro” is viewed as the “biological” in Western thought and politics and daily practice. Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity was a Liyongian final word on gender.

The work I was looking at—Feminist theory, Gay & Lesbian studies, Postcolonial theory, African American studies, and Queer theory—was all deeply convinced that it was important to address biological determinism. Even when it glanced at non-western locations, it understood biological determinism predominantly through North American and European archives and methods.

An Aside: Claiming something is socially constructed does not make it less tenacious than something biologically determined. Both cases, after all, are about forms of sedimentation (sociality as sedimentation, or what Fanon called sociogenesis, and biology/evolution as sedimentation—in both cases, what accumulates over time. The glib uses of “social constructionism” as the tool often fail to reckon with this sedimentation. As I read through African thinking, I realize the problem is how to reckon with different kinds of sedimentation that often elude the essentialism/constructionism binary—we cannot presume that binary directs all possible ways of imagining gender, sex, and something called sexuality).

First Interruption: And then I encountered Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi. The provocation was simple: what if African thinking did not take biological determinism as the way to think about gender? What if the essentialism/constructionism debate that had taken up so much space in feminist and queer debates was not very useful for thinking through African art, culture, history, and politics? What if broadly held ideas of African gender-sex—often rooted in ritual-social transitions from one stage to the other—demand a different set of conceptual tools?

Second Interruption: In 2008, I returned to Kenya for a short period and I encountered the human rights paradigm. Encountering that paradigm nudged me to think more deliberately about the human. Certainly, I’d been doing this work, especially as I worked through the problems of the subject in psychoanalysis and the abject in feminism/queer studies and the colonized in postcolonial studies. But given the dominance of the human rights frame in Kenya, I turned to thinking about what that human was: What was its archive? How was it imagined? Who imagined it? How was it working? For whom was it working? What idea of the human was adequate to gather those pursuing freedom? To think with the human, I had to return to the African diaspora archives I had been working on and to learn to think again with Frantz Fanon and Hortense Spillers, at first, and then Sylvia Wynter, Fred Moten, Christina Sharpe, and M. NourbeSe Philip, again and again.

An Aside: I am not sure what kind of human is produced by human rights. I do not yet have the archives and methods to think about this problem, and I’m not yet convinced it’s the most useful way to think about the human and freedom

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As I was returning to Kenya in 2013, I had been thinking about what felt like twisty thinking in some of the Africa-focused work I was reading. Theory/method sections would work through North American or European thinkers and then turn to African archives to build their arguments. Most work did not attempt the conceptual translation that would justify such a practice. So it read as disjointed, if not incoherent. Why invoke Beauvoir or Butler or Berlant when thinking with African archives, historical or contemporary? After all, these works—philosophy or theory or however one might describe them—emerged from and engaged very particular archives.  As Nkiru Nzwegu writes, “more African scholars need to undertake ground-up research to better grasp their theoretical analysis. Until they do, their work is a mish-mash of disconnected ideas that, on the one hand, fails to explain African phenomena, and on the other, totally distorts the logics of African reality” (“Osunality”). Moreover, if one is to embrace non-continental thinking, what is the place of Afro-diasporic thinking? To the extent that thinking in European languages means traversing modernity, surely Afro-diasporic thinkers have generated indispensable frames.

How does thinking in place, thinking with a geohistory, produce knowledge? An encounter with Katherine McKittrick’s work had led me back to Glissant and, through him, to how to think with and in place. The appearance of “geohistory” in my prose marks this process.

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I’m feeling itchy about the “I” in this writing. It exists to track something idiosyncratic rather than representative, to track how geohistory demands—and, in demanding, might produce—a listening “I.” To mark what have often feel less like epiphanies—I never experience those—and more like stubborn rocks against which I keep stubbing my toes, so that I must experience the place I am.1

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Here’s what I have found so far. The available field of African philosophy is dominated by men: they are the dominant, if not exclusive, figures in common anthologies. They are most commonly cited by other men. For instance, a partial bibliography of personhood thinking includes Tempels, Mbiti, Menkiti, Wiredu, Gyekye, Ikuenobe, Masolo, Matolino, and Oyowe. Gail Presbey makes a very brief appearance, but is anomalous. It has been difficult to find work by African women philosophers. Even when I have found that work, it is generally not cited as important in the field of personhood. (I’m still learning this work, so feel free to correct me.)

Most of the work I’ve read abstracts from its contexts, so while women might have provided languages and frames for what the male philosophers write, the archive of that labor is not evident. Not only is women’s thinking mostly absent from this body of work, something called “womanhood” is rarely taken up as a philosophical idea. Oritsegbubemi Oyowe and Olga Yurkivska write, “African philosophy shows very little concern with gender identity or gender issues.” However, In looking at their bibliography, gender translates as womanhood, and no scholarship from African Masculinity studies or African gay and lesbian studies or African queer studies is cited. Disciplinarity strangles thinking.

I know that something called philosophy is not restricted to the discipline and, indeed, for minoritized people it cannot be. I continue to learn from Barbara Christian:

For people of color have always theorized – but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking. How else have we managed to survive with such spiritedness the assault on our bodies, social institutions, countries, our very humanity? And women, at least the women I grew up around, continuously speculated about the nature of life through pithy language that unmasked the power relations of their world. (“The Race for Theory”)

Still, one needs a starting point.

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Places to think from:

Most radical thought about sex has been embedded within a model of the instincts and their restraints. Concepts of sexual oppression have been lodged within that more biological understanding of sexuality. It is often easier to fall back on the notion of a natural libido subjected to inhumane repression than to reformulate concepts of sexual injustice within a more constructivist framework. (Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”)

Kinship in Africa is unalterably social in focus, and where social kinship and biological kinship diverge, the social prevails. Thus, in many east and west African societies, and among many Bantu-speaking peoples, a child may call his natural mother’s sister’s husband “father.” In many areas, a woman is permitted to undertake rites of marriage to another woman, and act as, and be, father to the progeny who come about by the action of a chosen sexual partner for the mother. Among many Bantu-speaking peoples . . . the terms “father” and “mother” are not even restricted to the biological parents of a child, but are applicable to every adult member, male or female, of the father’s siblings in the one case and the mother’s siblings in the other. Hence, some fathers turn out to be female, and some mothers male. (W. Emmanuel Abraham, “Crisis in African Cultures”)

Across a broad body of work in African philosophy, the ritual-social function of kinship and gender is widely acknowledged. Gender and sex and something that might be called sexuality are not taken as biological givens, but as ritually-socially created. The trouble here: I repeat a certain move that I don’t think needs to be engaged.

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Third Interruption: I am increasingly irritated by the dominance of sexological thinking, which is to say, taxonomic thinking, where gender, sex, and something called sexuality are concerned. A brief look at Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis should convince us that proliferating gender and sexual categories has little to do with freedom, even as the world we inhabit attaches legibility to freedom, or to the promise of freedom. I find the sexological demand, “what is this called in your African language?” silly and dangerous. As silly and dangerous as I find the repressive statement, “this does not exist in x African language, so it didn’t exist.” Why attach taxonomy/etymology to bodily practices and experiences of living? Why take the presence or absence of such taxonomies/etymologies as evidence of anything? Are we to imagine that a word exists to name every single way we experience our bodies and pleasures?

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Compulsory sexuality might be useful here. The problem is the place of desire. Not pleasure.

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Nkiru Nzwegu provides a way to think. Here are four claims:

  1. African sex practices insist on pleasure for all partners, especially women.

Copulation entails notions of reciprocity and acknowledgment of pleasure with gifts. The positive conception of vagina and the recognition of women’s sexual autonomy yields a richer description of the vagina as “mature and experienced,” “taunting” (referring to dexterous pelvic movements during intercourse), “assertive,” “firm,” “tight,” “moist,” “warm,” “rhythmic,” “textured,” and “pulsating.” A corollary of these linguistic developments is that the penis equally comes up for review. Is it long and big enough? Is it experienced and adequate? How long can it retain turgidity? Women decide the criteria for judging penises; their evaluations are required so men could improve their performance and ensure their fulfillment and satisfaction. These evaluations arguably accommodates the interests both sexes have in achieving fulfilling intercourse.

2. Africans understand the distinction between sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction, and value both equally.

In current theoretical discourses, Yoruba ontology, as other ancient African ontologies, seems to emphasize fertility over sexual pleasure and satisfaction. That sexuality appears “hidden,” “concealed,” or “glossed over” is because the philosophical grammar of the ontologies are becoming lost to modern Africans who are disengaging from the indigenous worldviews. No such loss of meaning occurs in the disaporas in the Americas where Òrìsà worship is prevalent and Òsun’s sensuality is celebrated. Epistemologically, Òsun is constituted by two principles—sexuality and fertility—and an elaborate sequence of processes; the former yields sexual pleasure and the latter, children.

3. African sex practices are taught and practiced—in Foucault’s terms, Africans have an ars erotica

The discourse and underlying notion of osunality encourages the treatment of sexual pleasuring and enjoyment as being of optimal importance. To drive home that point, the institution of advisors emerged in diverse societies to facilitate pleasurable experiences, and to instruct young women and couples in the art of lovemaking. “Nuptial advisors” are found in different regions of Africa, and include the Sande sowei (Boone 1986), laobé of Senegal, nwang abe of the Ubang of Nigeria (Uchendu 2003), magnonmaka of Mali (Diallo 2005), ssenga of Baganda (Tamale 2005), shwenkazi in Banyankore, Uganda; tete among the Shona of Zimbabwe; alangizi of the Yao of Malawi and the Chewa of Zambia; nacimbusa of the Bemba of Zambia (Richards 1956), and mayosenge in parts of Zambia, olaka of the Makhuwa of Mozambique (Arnfred 2007) and others.

4. African thinking and practices of pleasure survive in the Afro-diaspora, even when they are lost to or forgotten by continental Africans. This is not “survival” or “retention,” as these words come to us, but something more sacred and dynamic: memory-work, wake-work, pleasure-work.

In current theoretical discourses, Yoruba ontology, as other ancient African ontologies, seems to emphasize fertility over sexual pleasure and satisfaction. That sexuality appears “hidden,” “concealed,” or “glossed over” is because the philosophical grammar of the ontologies are becoming lost to modern Africans who are disengaging from the indigenous worldviews. No such loss of meaning occurs in the disaporas in the Americas where Òrìsà worship is prevalent and Òsun’s sensuality is celebrated. Epistemologically, Òsun is constituted by two principles—sexuality and fertility—and an elaborate sequence of processes; the former yields sexual pleasure and the latter, children.

Whereas African male thinkers—philosophers, theologians, anthropologists—are stuck on kinship, marriage, and reproduction, African women thinkers have mapped the important role of sexual pleasure in African communities. Sexual pleasure—Nzegwu maps it as pre-coital, coital, and post-coital—was studied, taught, practiced, and valued. Sexual choreography was an essential element of dances and sex,  taught by older women to younger women: position your body like this, move like this, stay still like this, take pleasure, give pleasure. Pleasure was enhanced through body adornments—beads worn around the waist, for instance—and body modification. At the heart of sex education and practice was women’s pleasure.

African Queer studies has not spent enough time thinking about the role of women’s pleasure in African communities. What would an African Queer studies that took women’s pleasure seriously look like? What would it sound like? What would it highlight? How might it be a (much-needed) bridge between African Feminism and African Queer studies?

African philosophy has not spent enough time thinking about personhood from the perspective of women’s pleasure. How does pleasure build worlds?

As always, Audre Lorde:

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with any other person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the thread of their difference.

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to much and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.

That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my own capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom at all, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourself and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe. (“Uses of the Erotic”)

Nzegwu teaches me to think of Lorde as a diaspora voice carrying knowledge that Lorde terms “ancient and hidden,” knowledge that has “survived and grown strong” (“Poetry is Not a Luxury”). I think of this knowledge as Afro-diasporic knowledge. I hear it when Gloria Wekker and Omi Tinsley write about mati work as women’s erotic work. I read it in Jackie Kay and Louise Bennett and Dionne Brand and Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler and Zora Neale Hurston. I hear it across musical genres—the insistence on black joy grounded in women’s pleasure, from which living together can be reimagined and practiced.

And I return here, where I stand, knowing the world of the ancestors is Mary Nyanjiru and Zora Neale Hurston, Mekatilili and Ida B. Wells, a gathering of women across Africa and Afro-diaspora, whispering and humming and singing and dancing in our dreams, daring us to embrace the worlds they have imagined.


1. Audre Lorde and Samuel Delany teach me to risk the “I,” and Christina Sharpe gives me the sentences, as she hears them from Saidiya Hartman: “The ‘autobiographical example,’ says Saidiya Hartman, ‘is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it’s not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation onto social and historical processes, as an example of them.’” (In The Wake)

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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Political Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

Generations overlap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a mistake to believe that our imaginations and desires are not rooted in the here-now we inhabit. Indeed, it is precisely the here-now we inhabit that can only imagine cessation, first, as the necessary stopping of pain and, second, as ethnocidal and genocidal logics and practices—burn it all down, get rid of everything, fagia wote.
*

It is easier to write about damaged imaginations—we experience them daily—than it is to ask how to work with and beyond them—how to imagine beyond what we think we can imagine. I suspect that the kind of remedial thinking that circulates as NGO wisdom—all those buzzwords that boil down to white supremacist paternalist bullshit with an extra helping of heteronormative patriarch—thrives precisely because it encounters no imaginations that can counter its developmental logics. More needs to be said about NGOs in Kenya and their neoliberal strategies and practices—I leave that to someone else.
*
I return to my initial questions.

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

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

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

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

Moonlight

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

At first, the sound of water.

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

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A face plunges into ice.

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Again.

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

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

—Jayy Dodd, “Eloquent,” in Mannish Tongues

Little:

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

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

And then, there are Little’s silences.

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

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

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

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

          Then this body knows how boys die.

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

Chiron:

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

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

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

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

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

I need Sharon Holland:

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

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

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

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

Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are returned to the water. Residence time.

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


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

Reading Ras Mengesha & Joyce Nyairo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Openings. Beginnings.

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

Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Provisional Notes on Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work is a feminist issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I offer the final words to the Combahee River Collective:

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