Michelle Cliff & Cedric Robinson

What truthtelling are you brave enough to utter and endure the consequences of your unpopular message?
—Melvin Dixon

I have gathered books around me—Essex Hemphill, Ceremonies; Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider; Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return; Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck; Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us; Agha Shahid Ali, The Country Without a Post Office. I grieve by gathering books: I cannot imagine a greater tribute to writers than to gather books in their names.
When my brother fell
I picked up his weapons
and never once questioned
whether I could carry
the weight and grief,
the responsibility he shouldered.
I never questioned
whether I could aim
or be as precise as he.
He had fallen,
and the passing ceremonies
marking his death
did not stop the war.
—Essex Hemphill, “When My Brother Fell”
Michelle Cliff’s If I Could Write this in Fire and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism are open on my desktop. I’m skimming through them as I write, hoping to find ways to describe the black radical tradition they embodied and practiced.

Looking back. To try and see where the background changed places with the foreground. To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear. Lines of color and class. Lines of history and social context. Lines of denial and rejection.—Michelle Cliff, If I Could Write this in Fire

The triangle trade: molasses/rum/slaves. Robinson Crusoe was on a slave-trading journey. Robert Browning was a mulatto. Holding pens. Jamaica was a seasoning station. Split tongues. Sliced ears. Whipped bodies. The constant pretense of civility against rape. Still. Iron collars. Tinplate masks. The latter a precaution: to stop the slaves from eating the sugar cane. Under the tropic sun, faces cooked.

A pregnant woman is to be whipped––they dig a hole to accommodate her belly and place her facedown on the ground. Many of us became light-skinned very fast. Traced ourselves through bastard lines to reach the duke of Devonshire. The earl of Cornwall. The lord of this and the lord of that. Our mothers’ rapes were the things unspoken.—Michelle Cliff, If I Could Write this in Fire

The Black Radical Tradition was an accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle. In the daily encounters and petty resistances to domination, slaves had acquired a sense of the calculus of oppression as well as its overt organization and instrumentation. These experiences lent themselves to a means of preparation for more epic resistance movements.—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

“Our mother’s rapes were the things unspoken”

Saidiya Hartman writes,

It has proven difficult, if not impossible, to assimilate black women’s domestic labors and reproductive capacities within narratives of the black worker, slave rebellion, maroonage, or black radicalism, even as this labor was critical to the creation of value, the realization of profit and the accumulation of capital.—“The Belly of the World”

Strategies of endurance and subsistence do not yield easily to the grand narrative of revolution, nor has a space been cleared for the sex worker, welfare mother, and domestic laborer in the annals of the black radical tradition.—“The Belly of the World”

Audre Lorde framed black women’s lives and experiences in terms of survival. In her hands, survival was more than simply enduring. It was not about resigning oneself to a fate and hoping to make it through. It named the strategies of care and knowledge that made it possible to imagine, make, and transmit how to live and how to love and how to be across generations.

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Amina Mama about African women’s strategies of survival: she spoke about women knowing what to eat and where to look for food during wars, about the secrets women passed on about bitter herbs and drought food and food on the march. Prior to that talk, I had read Nalo Hopkinson’s post-apocalyptic Brown Girl in the Ring and it, too, spoke about the survival knowledge women transmit.

Consider the survival work of knowing how to dig for bitter, life-sustaining roots. Consider the radical work of survival.
We tend to think that those we esteem as radical have figured it out. Our task, then, is to operationalise (to use a very ugly word) what they’ve figured out. This is a dangerous fiction. In an interview, Michelle Cliff said, “I’m coming into myself as I write,” adding that she was no longer the person who wrote Abeng, her first novel. We know that, as readers, we take books and authors places they could not have anticipated. Reading Judith Butler or Audre Lorde or Dionne Brand or M. NourbeSe Philip or Yvonne Owuor from Nairobi is very different from reading these figures from Baltimore or Delhi or Cape Town.

Geohistory changes how we read survival and precarity and grief and violence and disposability and silence and memory.

We stretch in new ways—pseudopodia is the only image I can generate.
For the realisation of new theory we require new history.
—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

If we are to survive, we must take nothing that is dead and choose wisely from among the dying.
—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

Time scrambles: this writing started in India and is being completed in Kenya—accretions and deletions have happened and geo-history is entangled.
Tallying loss is always an incomplete endeavour, especially tallying the loss of a catastrophe that is still unfolding.
—Dagmawi Woubshet, Calendar of Loss

In our current historical moment—the afterlife of slavery (Saidiya Hartman), on the way to prison abolition (Mariame Kaba), the ravages of neoliberalism (Stuart Hall, Lisa Duggan), the proliferating sites of black disposability (the sea, the prison, the street, the school, the hospital), the resistance and possibility that is black lives matter, the ongoing work of black students in South Africa, the protests by Dalit groups in India, the fierce contests over the meaning of the political across multiple spaces—

I’m not sure what I can say about “our current historical moment,” about those gathered by that “our” and those willing to be gathered by it. When I read Jayy Dodd and Rinaldo Walcott and Neo Musangi and Sylvia Wynter and Sofia Samatar and Samuel Delany, I am convinced we are in a moment when the human overrepresented as Man is approaching exhaustion, and when I turn to the work being imagined by Christina Sharpe and Dionne Brand and Yvonne Owuor and Mariame Kaba, I see difficult and possible worlds coming into being, worlds where black radicals can be and belong.
as a scholar it was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there
—Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

There is no ending to this piece of writing. There is no way I can end it.
—Michelle Cliff

I started this writing a few days after learning about Michelle Cliff’s death. I had followed the remarkable outpouring of work about Cedric Robinson and I wondered—I still wonder—how Michelle Cliff would be mourned and remembered, and where. As I look across the sites of mourning, I am sad to see that the two are not mentioned as part of the same tradition. I do not mean this in a biographical way. I mean within the world of imagining and creating freedom dreams.

I knit their names here to mark the capaciousness of the black radical imagination, and to thank them for what they allow us to imagine and to make.

As part of that making, I conclude with Leigh-Ann Naidoo, who, from South Africa, draws a map of possible futures:

We are in the midst of an intense politics of time. It is not easy to accept the burden of a living, prefigurative politics. Immanence is difficult. The fear is intense, and the threat of failure is everywhere. How do we sit, collectively, in the middle of that discomfort, prepared to not know quite where we are going, but be convinced that we have to move?

Audre Lorde, implores us to understand the worth and the purpose of anger. In her words, “Anger is loaded with information and energy. . . . Anger, expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future, is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.” And here, in Lorde’s words, lies the challenge for the student movement. If we are to be custodians of a future that will have dismantled the violence of the past and its stubborn hold on the present, then we cannot get stuck in a politics of shut down. Shutting down is indeed necessary for the arresting of the present. But if we do not use the space that shut down grants to work, seriously, on our vision of the future, if we do not allow ourselves, too, to be challenged and pushed, to read, and talk to each other, to work out our strategies, to doubt, and to find a vision of a future world in which the many oppressions that beset this one are in sight, then the door that we have opened will be closed again.

May we live in a time of difficulty, of critical immanence, and always, always towards justice.


At first, once a week, and then twice a week, and, eventually, four times a week, I’d head for the gay club in downtown Pittsburgh. It was small, located below street level, dark, leaning toward seedy, and, had I bothered to think about it, a death trap. Middle aged white men gazed at white twinks—the economies of desire did not exist for me, and I knew that early on. It was not a place to make friends. I brought my friends along with me, and left with them. I did not find community there, not in the sense I had once found community in the church groups I had belonged to, a sense of mutual care and responsibility. Yet, I found refuge and escape. Those hours I spent there dancing made many other hostile hours in other places possible.


I danced to find the languages my body could never master, to seek unfluencies from Central Africa and West Africa, from Eastern Kenya and Western Kenya, from high school dance festivals and music videos from the U.S. It didn’t matter that I could not master the styles or that I was the only one who could name what I was attempting: my body stretched into the syncretic, finding the languages of refuge and escape and memory.

Friends from Panama and Puerto Rico showed me that dance was possibility, as they shaped their bodies through salsa and merengue and club moves whose names I never mastered. They taught me how to blend where you’re from with where you are, where you dream about with where you live. From them, I learned to take the half-remembered and the never-mastered, and to let my body move into a here that I could inhabit, a now that I could sweat into.

With few exceptions, I danced alone. I could never enjoy the discipline of another body angling into mine, not as I was looking for other selves to inhabit, for geohistories to run through me. This was sacred space.


I did not find community in queer clubs. I found racism and white supremacy and body shaming.  I paid a psychic price to be in those spaces—in Pittsburgh, in Chicago, in Seattle. It was the price of the ticket. I also found relief from the anti-queer unhumaning I encountered outside of those spaces, the too-casual ways I could not exist. The “sense of rightness” that is heteronormativity never shares space. It claims all the air in the room, and I found myself gasping.

In the club, I found some air. Tainted, thin, even toxic, but it was breathable.


One night—one of those nights when the world breaks—I said to friends: I need to dance. Watch that I don’t do anything crazy. And I danced.  The dancing did not fix the world, but it made the brokenneness a little more bearable.

The queer club was not a church. At best, it was an emergency room. I looked for air to breathe, for bandages to deal with this week’s wounds, for whatever joy dancing would release in my body.

In those spaces where bodies pressed and queers hugged and kissed and strangers simulated sex on the dance floor, worlds were made, affection between queers made quotidian. In working class Pittsburgh, those who ruled those worlds were not the wealthy and the connected, but the fabulous and the daring, those with little social capital outside of these spaces. In these spaces, we college kids from Pitt and Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon ceded some of our privilege, and learned different ways to order society—we didn’t question that we came and left together, and that it was easier for someone from CMU to hook up with someone from Duquesne than it was to hook up with someone who was not a college kid. Class was present, privilege was present, though we might trade blowjobs in the bathroom with cute strangers.

We were generating worlds, learning the kinds of demands we could make, the kinds of lives we desired—this was what Audre Lorde calls the erotic. Having learned the flavor of joy in the club, we could attempt to build worlds that pursued it. In my twenties, I thought this joy came from dancing, and I pledged that I would never stop dancing. Ankles age. Knees age. Bodies grow in ungainly ways. Now, I realize I meant I’d never stop pursuing the kind of joy I found while dancing, that I’d try to build and inhabit a world that made such joy readily available.

I have often sat by myself in queer clubs, looked around, and marvelled at this tribe I claim as my own. Marvelled at our capacity to create beauty, our ability to pursue joy, our willingness to risk pleasure. I have often asked how, having seen these elements, anyone would ever dare to wish us ill. Even as I know that what I see—the joy, the pleasure, the fabulousness, the ordinariness, the loneliness, the ostracism—cannot be seen by those who unhuman.

I celebrate those who find what joy we can. I celebrate those who found what joy they could. May we continue to find joy and to create beauty.

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.

Reading: April 27, 2016

Natalie Diaz, No More Cake Here

Jim Harrison, Barking

James Tate, The Painter by Night

Marilyn Chin, Brown Girl Manifesto (Too)

Ricky Laurentiis, Black Iris

Charlene McLure, Can Anyone Live with Eartha Kitt

Camille Rankine, Coincidentia Oppositorium

Tyrone Palmer, Three Poems

Melcion Mateu, Poet’s Sampler

Claire Harris, Kay in Summer

Anne Boyer, Not Writing

Brigit Pegeen Kelly, The Leaving

Olena Kalytiak Davis, sweet reader, flaneled and tulled