[written in 2014]
This piece is about today. Or, maybe it’s a recipe for making tomorrow out of today. Perhaps both things are true. In it I’m writing to breathe; writing to think through and act on my thoughts such that something new and healing may come out of the pain and suffering all around me. And I need to know how to be human here, in this world, with more joy, more equity, more liberty, real freedom and justice. In my mind, I suspect writing is a kind of alchemy. A way of conjuring new worlds into being. This piece is also, then, about God, Spirit, Creative/x potential that is ever present, and yet so perverted in my time.
In the past few years there have been increasing numbers of murders of African Americans by police and law enforcement agents. As I presence myself to the almost invisible character of black people’s oppression in America I am astounded by it’s cascading magnitude and by it’s simultaneous invisibility. It’s like the Elephant in the Room par excellence. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that from the vantage point of 2015, the United States has successfully replaced the Plantation with the Prison Industrial Complex. In 1850 there were xx of black people enslaved in America. Today, there are xx of African Americans in the Prison Industrial Complex (jails, federal prisons, state prisons, private prisons). Between 2000 and 2010 industry supporting prisons has grown xx%. Clearly, the US has never gotten out of the grotesque business of making money off of captivity. (What’s more: prison labor is used to produce nearly 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts and other basic supplies. How’s that for making the most of your incarcerated population to support your imperialist adventures abroad? )
*“…Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell…”
We marched for Mike Brown Saturday. Mike Brown, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and, and, and, and, it’s obscene how many names we read Saturday. When I returned home and allowed the magnitude of this moment to really set in, I found myself weeping, thinking of my uncle who’s been locked up in California prisons since 1984. I wept for my other uncle who died a premature death at the hands of lung cancer, or more precisely, he died at the hands of a system that beleaguered him so much that he smoked cigarettes like it was his job to numb out. I wept for my baby brothers and their safety. I wept for my little cousins. I wept for myself – for the times I knew I was embroiled in a racist situation and chose silence instead of inviting danger.
As I cried I reached for my laptop in the hopes of transmuting this pain into something useful. So, I’m writing because it hurts to be human right now. And by Human, I mean Black. Black and female. Black and queer. Black and poor. Black and educated. It hurts to strain to see the humanity in others who would just as soon do me harm. I strain to not become them. I strain to not be blinded by my pain to the degree that white people become one-dimensional, stereotypes decorating my revolutionary discourses. I strain not to do this to them in the same way they did black folks for centuries in various discourses on Race, Otherness, Africans, and all manner of our alleged inferiority. Sigh, epistemic violence is a fucker and it’s at the heart of our problem.
I was supposed to write my dissertation back in 2008 when Obama was running for President. I wrote a bit, but the weight of my own accumulated trauma was so heavy that I could barely function. But even in my crazy back then, I could still see – just as clear as day as my grandmother would say – that this potential president did not represent “progress” as everyone suggested. His potential presidency did not represent the apotheosis of the Civil Rights Movement,and it certainly didn’t represent the end of the categorical subjection of black people. In fact, I made a very unpopular argument back then: namely that liberal multiculturalism was bad for our health. I just didn’t know how bad it’d turn out to be.
Our contemporary moment has many roots, but I want to focus on one of them: the shock-effect liberal multiculturalism had on deep-seated racism in the US. And when I say the “shock-effect,” I mean to suggest that the election of Barack Obama, while celebrated as indicative of American progress, was actually the event that helped re-entrench and calcify pernicious ways of seeing black people. But this is just what was happening in the foreground. While Obama was busy being serenaded by Beyonce at the Inauguration, the Prison Industrial Complex continued to expand its physical presence and its coffers through the mass incarceration of black folks. For some, the simultaneity of these events seem paradoxical: how could we both have our first Black President, and also have more black folks in captivity today than we did in 1850? What’s going on here?
Well, liberal multiculturalism is an additive political approach that is rooted in inclusionary politics and thus has no interest, and makes no effort, to fundamentally change the social, cultural, economic or political system it seeks to diversify. As such the center (i.e.: the capitalist/corporatist, white, heteropatriarchal, imperialist mainstream) simple accretes itself; it adds a little color here, a few women there. But these additions do not fundamentally change the center. Quite the contrary, those who are “invited” so to speak, into the center are not different enough to make a difference to the politics of the center. Feel me? The underlying structures do not change, but the pretty window dressing does.
Let me put it this way, the irony is that liberal multiculturalism isn’t about the liberation, or even the mere inclusion of people of color categorically, even if the reactionary Right behaves as if it is. The project of integration in the United States has always functioned via tokenism, or individual ascension, rather than collective reparation for oppressive social conditions based upon collective identity. So, while black folks are categorically getting their asses kicked by the system – from job loss, to crappy schools, to heavy policing and families destroyed by the PIC – a few “lucky” ones are able to escape some aspects of racism in the US (specifically class immobility) and join the mainstream “middle class.” Those who “make it” are regarded as proof that the tired-ass “personal responsibility” ideology is actually working and that the struggles the vast majority of black folks face has nothing to do with the system itself. Obama seems to believe this as his constant emphasis on personal responsibility flies in the face of institutional racism, several centuries in the making, which for all intents and purposes, is specifically designed to thwart individual efforts. While it is true that certain folks slip through the cracks or find their way up the proverbial social ladder, it is also true that far more do not and this deficiency is by design.