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 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”

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.”

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
You get your feminism
You get your feminism
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.

India Diary: Four

My friend Christina Sharpe calls it thinking juxtapositionally: placing items alongside each other to map relationships and engagements, to see how world-making is generated. Often, Christina does this with visual objects. I’m borrowing her method here to think with Dalit and African American poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, the latter period because it’s what I specialized in and I think that poetry has yet to receive sufficient attention (not sure what sufficient would mean, but the poetry, especially by women, needs much more attention). I know a lot about the Harlem Renaissance and I am slowly—very slowly—learning about Dalit poetry, so this is an attempt to join two aesthetic practices that I think speak to each other, lay claim to each other, and infuse each other, if we complicate linear models of history and think, instead, of how aesthetic works touch each other (frottage), always creating contexts through which they can be experienced.


To be Borne of a Male Mother
Mother, oh dear me
I don’t want to grow in your womb
don’t bear me for nine months in futility.
                You belong to a caste, and father another caste
                you both eloped only to reject the caste.
                When caste is still chasing you, and me too.
                do you think I need to be born?
You could defy caste norms, but couldn’t bear caste confines
you couldn’t sense intricacies of inter-caste marriage.
                When father’s caste is victorious
                when the jury leaned that side
                I don’t want to sprout in your womb
                I want to grow in the womb of a male mother.
Uncle Judge,
pass a decree to the god and mark a copy to me
that fathers only conceive hereafter
bear and rear children.

—Ravinuthala Prema Kishore, trans.K. Purushotham

Black Woman

Don’t knock at my door, little child,
        I cannot let you in
You know not what a world this is
        Of cruelty and sin
Wait in the still eternity
        Until I come to you
The world is cruel, cruel, child
        I cannot let you in!

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
        I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
        Time and time again!
You do not know the monster-men
        Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still my precious child,
        I cannot give you birth.

—Georgia Douglas Johnson


I am slowly working through this writing by Amba Azaad, a disorienting introduction to Dalit political and cultural writing. I have a lot to learn and unlearn, and I’m hoping I can keep listening, no matter how unbearable what I hear.

Faced with the demands of the aesthetic object, I open myself to experiencing it, knowing that feeling marks and guides reflection—I was going to write “thinking,” but that felt untrue. One must risk feeling—the aesthetic object demands this risk. And then training kicks in, and I ask what I should know, no matter how partially, to engage the world of the aesthetic object and to track its action in the world. It wants to do something: What does it want to do? How can it do it? Is it doing it? How does my encounter with it engage with what it wants to do?

How do aesthetic objects encounter each other? What happens when such encounters are staged across geohistory?



When I read “To Be Borne of a Male Mother,” I heard Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poems on motherhood in her second collection Bronze (1922). Along with other black women, Douglas questioned what it meant to become a mother—the concerns of motherhood in slavery, best known through Morrison’s Beloved, continue through the Harlem Renaissance, and, as the murders of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and Trayvon Martin demonstrate, persist into the present:

Reading together the middle passage, the coffle, and, I argue, the birth canal, we see how each has functioned separately and collectively over time to disfigure black maternity, to turn the womb into a factory (producing blackness as abjection much like the slave ship’s hold and the prison), and turning the birth canal into another domestic middle passage with black mothers, after the end of legal hypodescent, still ushering their children into her condition; her non-status, her non-being-ness.—Christina Sharpe, “Black Studies: In the Wake”

But the fit is not quite right, and this is because of the peculiar way caste functions. Here’s Dr. Ambedkar on caste in India:

“Endogamy is the only characteristic that is peculiar to caste.”—“Castes in India” (presentation 1916, publication 1917)

The tyranny practised by the Hindus upon the Balais, an untouchable community in Central India, will serve my purpose. You will find a report of this in the Times of India of 4th January 1928. The correspondent of the Times of India reported that high-caste Hindus—viz., Kalotas, Rajputs and Brahmins, including the Patels and Patwaris of the villages of Kanaria, Bicholi-Hafsi, Bicholi-Mardana, and about 15 other villages in the Indore district (of the Indore State)—informed the Balais of their respective villages that if they wished to live among them, they must conform to the following rules:

1. Balais must not wear gold-lace-bordered pugrees.

2. They must not wear dhotis with coloured or fancy borders.

3. They must convey intimation [=information] of the death of any Hindu to relatives of the deceased—no matter how
far away these relatives may be living.

4. In all Hindu marriages, Balais must play music before the processions and during the marriage.

5. Balai women must not wear gold or silver ornaments; they must not wear fancy gowns or jackets.

6. Balai women must attend all cases of confinement [= childbirth] of Hindu women.

7. Balais must render services without demanding remuneration, and must accept whatever a Hindu is pleased to

8. If the Balais do not agree to abide by these terms, they must clear out of the villages.

[10:] The Balais refused to comply; and the Hindu element proceeded against them. Balais were not allowed to get water from the village wells; they were not allowed to let go their cattle to graze. Balais were prohibited from passing through land owned by a Hindu, so that if the field of a Balai was surrounded by fields owned by Hindus, the Balai could have no access to his own field. The Hindus also let their cattle graze down the fields of Balais. The Balais submitted petitions to the Darbar[= Court of Indore] against these persecutions; but as they could get no timely relief, and the oppression continued, hundreds of Balais with their wives and children were obliged to abandon their homes—in which their ancestors had lived for generations—and to migrate to adjoining States: that is, to villages in Dhar, Dewas, Bagli, Bhopal, Gwalior and other States. What happened to them in their new homes may for the present be left out of our consideration. —Annihilation of Caste (1936)

Contemporary examples of caste-based violence abound.

Johnson and Kishore meet on the grounds of—not motherhood—this thing that needs another name—the “womb to tomb” economy?

To be Borne of a Male Mother
Mother, oh dear me
I don’t want to grow in your womb
don’t bear me for nine months in futility.
                You belong to a caste, and father another caste
                you both eloped only to reject the caste.
                When caste is still chasing you, and me too.
                do you think I need to be born?
You could defy caste norms, but couldn’t bear caste confines
you couldn’t sense intricacies of inter-caste marriage.
                When father’s caste is victorious
                when the jury leaned that side
                I don’t want to sprout in your womb
                I want to grow in the womb of a male mother.
Uncle Judge,
pass a decree to the god and mark a copy to me
that fathers only conceive hereafter
bear and rear children.

—Ravinuthala Prema Kishore, trans.K. Purushotham


(a few days after we arrive in India, a news report says a man went to a Dalit woman’s workplace—he was from her village—he dragged her out and raped her. Almost every account of violence against Dalit women includes rape or some other form of sexual mutilation.)


These might be considered tentative notes toward a still unfolding something.

Humanities & Higher Education in Kenya

In June 2015, Riara University honored Dr. Micere Githae Mugo, professor emerita at Syracuse University. Many gathered to praise her scholarship, her creative writing, and her mentorship to Kenyans in Kenya and abroad. As a poet and scholar, Dr. Mugo gave many Kenyans the words we needed to imagine different ways of being and thinking. It was ironic, then, that Dr. Mugo was honored by an institution that does not offer degrees in literature or creative writing. If one looks at Riara University’s offerings, one notes it does not have any school dedicated to the humanities. Disciplines such as Literature, History, and Philosophy are absent. In many ways, Riara University exemplifies the new ideals of a university education: it is created to produce skilled, knowledgable workers suitable for the development economy.

With the caveat that university websites are notoriously unreliable and often out of date, a brief scan at the new universities in Kenya—besides the public University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, and Moi University—reveals a dearth of departments and programs offering traditional humanist fields. I am not wedded to traditional disciplinary organization, so I’m quite okay with the absence of discipline-specific departments. However, a scan of the curricular offerings demonstrates the same absence of training in the humanities, little or almost no training in literature, history, and philosophy. Across schools, training in English focuses on teaching students how to write for industry: how to produce reports for the NGO industry, for instance, or how to draft proposals. The focus on writing as skill devalues writing as an important site of self- and society-making. As Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “A man who possesses a language possess as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.” The language one possesses—as structure—possesses one, directing the possibilities of one’s thinking.

In one of independent Kenya’s earliest blueprints, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta exiled academic debate—the kind of thinking taught in the humanities—from development:

To the nation I have but one message. When all is said and done we must settle down to the job of building the Kenya nation. To do this we need political stability and an atmosphere of confidence and faith at home. We cannot establish these if we continue with debates on theories and doubts about the aims of our society.

The “job of building the Kenya nation” demanded that “debates on theories . . . about the aims of our society” should cease. Nation building, and more precisely development, required that intellectual debates be silenced. Development programs were to be moral and ethical guides. We continue to live in the wake of this thinking.

Under Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, thinking that was not directed toward development, thinking that did not support the state’s image of itself, was threatened. Scholars and students were detained, imprisoned, and exiled. Subjects and methods that enabled critiques of the state—History, Literature, Philosophy, Marxism, Anti-Colonial Critique—were devalued and de-fanged. The joke is often made that a Kenyan official issued an arrest warrant for Karl Marx. This much-reported story provides a powerful metaphor for what it means to arrest thinking.

State repression was abetted by the neocolonial machinations of neoliberalism. Under colonialism, natives were educated to become useful to the state. The education was skill-based, designed to produce workers who were not thinkers. Needless to say, this strategy failed: freedom dreams cannot be so easily managed, and education creates opportunities beyond what’s envisioned for it. However, skill-based education became the foundation for development: Kenya needed people with the right skills to build the nation. The development imagination was privileged.

Something strange happened.

Prior to independence and, perhaps, in the early years of independence, teachers were esteemed. They were understood to create and spread knowledge, to provide opportunities for minds to expand. The title “Mwalimu” was a title of honor. Indeed, teachers were considered very clever—the geniuses of the village, if you will. In the post-independence period, the designation “best and brightest” no longer applied to teachers: it referred to doctors, architects, lawyers, and engineers. By the mid-80s, teaching was considered a profession for those who were not very clever. This devaluing of teaching at all levels—primary, secondary, post-secondary—was part of sustaining the “best and brightest” myth that, at its core, privileges skill-based learning geared toward nation building over intellectual debates that question state operations. Though I will not elaborate this point here, we need to consider the relationship between so-called elite professions in Kenya—medicine, law, engineering, architecture—and professions produced by vocational training: both produce the same effects, the same subjects with the same relationship to the state. In one sense, both produce skill-based professionals, albeit with different specialties.

Under neocolonial neoliberalism, the development imagination is the dominant frame. It dictates what counts as education and what the educated should do. The NGO sector, for instance, which is consumed with collecting data, writing reports, and creating proposals to receive donor funds, is thoroughly neoliberal and neocolonial. It rarely, if ever, asks about the structures of white supremacy that govern the donor economy. It is based on mastering skills: how to beg for grants, how to master acronyms and abbreviations, how to fit work into donor frames. It is also the place that currently absorbs many Kenyans with advanced degrees and good minds, who dedicate themselves to mastering arcane rules and languages so they can write reports and grant proposals. In many ways, it’s the sector where intellectual production is mastered and strangled by neocolonial neoliberalism. I note this point because many Kenyans pursue higher education so that they can join the NGO sector—it has well-paying jobs, as long as the donor funding continues to flow.

Training in the humanities teaches how to ask difficult, necessary questions: How does the past influence the future? How can we live together? What is the good life? What is an ethical life? What values are worth promoting? How can we learn to disagree without killing each other? What is collectivity? What is a shareable world? What is a livable world? What is freedom? Why is love important? Questions that can be considered in intellectual ways have been outsourced to homes and religious institutions. Certainly, they should also be discussed in these settings, but the humanities have frames and methods and archives for discussing these questions. A recent report claimed that young Kenyan people are okay with corruption. Where would they acquire different ways of thinking?

Devaluing the humanities continues to have devastating effects in Kenya. Sure, it would be great if universities without departments dedicated to the humanities opened such departments, but I’m not wedded to traditional disciplinary divides. Faculty who teach literature and history and philosophy and gender studies could be hired in schools and departments that focus on business and law and computer science and medicine and architecture and engineering. They could be hired to teach in schools that focus on carpentry and ironwork and accounting and dressmaking. Perhaps if we populated Kenya with better thinking, we might be able to demand more from ourselves.


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

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

I see your quiet, sturdy citizenship all the time.

—Barack Obama, SOTU 2016

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

Nothing explodes.

Nothing releases.

An archive builds.

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

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

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

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

a truncated history of microaggressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(pay attention to how pronouns circulate, and where

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

polite applause

An occasion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

another confession: I keep hearing Dionne Brand

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

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

And I?

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

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

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

And I?

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

—Countee Cullen, “Heritage”

and yet . . .

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

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

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

—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake

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

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

—Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”

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

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

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

Obama boasts,

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

Obama boasts,

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

Obama says,

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

Over 23,000 bombs in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

a note on grieving

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

A vernacular: sorry not sorry

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

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

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

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

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

What is the demand?

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

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

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

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

I remain nagged.