That Transformative Dark Thing
The practice of Black feminist breathing evokes a lineage of Black revolutionaries whose faith in freedom continues to inspire
i. “Black women are inherently valuable”: Black feminist combat breathing
A few weeks ago, the Black feminist writer Alexis De Veaux told me, “The future is your next breath.” The next day, video was released of a police officer telling Eric Harris, “Fuck your breath,” as he died from gunshot wounds. What happens to your breathing when you read, hear or watch these news stories? How quick, how shallow, how deep, how possible is your breathing right now?
What do you believe in that keeps you breathing despite blatant violence and disrespect? What do you believe in more than the evidence of injustice? I believe in the words and actions of Black women and queers across space and time.
Ntozake Shange drew the term “combat breathing” from Frantz Fanon’s description of the embattled breathing of Algerian prisoners of war:
There is no occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of final destruction. Under this condition, the individual’s breathing is an observed and occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing.
Shange redefined this breathing as “the living response / the drive to reconcile the irreconcilable / the Black n white of what we live and where.” In other words, the combat edge of Black feminist breathing is a form of radical presence in the face of multiple forms of violence.
In this moment when people across the world have taken to the streets repeating “I can’t breathe,” I am sitting at my altar and in circles with comrades chanting phrases designed to help us remember how to breathe and how to invite our revolutionary ancestors into our bodies and our movement. I chant these phrases 108 times because the diameter of the sun multiplied by 108 is the distance between the earth and the sun, and the diameter of the moon multiplied by 108 is the distance between the earth and the moon. I chant 108 to invoke the cyclical mathematics of Black space. Surrounding me when I am alone, and in a larger circle encircling our circles when we gather together, are the ancestors who have given their lives, words and actions to an oppositional and often illegal reverence for Black breath. While we are breathing, their energy persists. And while I am breathing the world slows to a pace I can believe in.
When I started using my breath to chant, repeat and remember Black feminist wisdom by myself and with my community, I had no idea that police in New York would choke Eric Garner to death while he cried out, “I can’t breathe.” But I was very familiar with the ongoing state violence that is the context of our Black breathing, especially black trans, cis and queer women and all of us whose lives are undervalued by the threat we pose to the state of things, that transformative dark thing I am calling the god in us.
I believe that though god is not a person, god/the universe/spirit/creation is personified and breathing in all of us. And although it may not be any more technically accurate to imagine god as a wild-haired deep eyed brown skinned woman as it is to imagine god as a Pantene-Pro-V-using blue eyed white male hippie, for me it feels more useful at this historical juncture and on this planet where most of us are dark and feminine. Just saying.
In 1977, informed by a collective process, Demita Frazier, Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith wrote the classic Black feminist text The Combahee River Collective Statement. The Combahee River Collective was a Black lesbian feminist socialist collective founded in 1974 in Boston, Massachusetts. Their visionary work and their understanding of interlocking oppressions have influenced many scholars and activists. The statement is full of nuanced analyses of power, but the phrase that I come back to again and again is short: “Black women are inherently valuable.”
The authors of the Combahee River Collective statement are pointing out that the liberation of Black women is not just a byproduct of the women’s movement or the Black power movement, it is a worthy goal on its own. But they are also challenging how we relate to capitalist value. If we are inherently valuable, our value doesn’t come from what we do and how we are rewarded for it. Our value comes directly from our being. Our value is not contingent on our labor, or our associations, or someone else’s strategy. This is why the Combahee River Collective mobilized itself to address issues that were important to them and other Black women in their communities. They responded to sterilization abuse, and racially segregated construction hiring in the building of a school in their community. They showed up with the belief that Black women and their communities should be able to exist and reproduce themselves on their own terms. In the face of the backlash against the Black power movement and at the dawn of what we now call neoliberalism, you could call this approach action based on the evidence of things not seen, or faith.
Two years after the Combahee River Collective published this statement, they had to stand up for their beliefs in the face of rampant violence. Twelve Black women were killed in Boston in the first three months of 1979. The murders were so frequent that on multiple occasions the collective had to cross out the numbers on their protest signs and pamphlets because another body had been found on the day of the vigil. The breathing of Black women in Boston was severely constricted during the time of the Combahee River Collective, both the stopped breath in the murdered bodies of these women and in the anxious lives of the activists who struggled to respond in the moment. Freedom and even existence for Black women were not shared values in the local or national context of their work. And yet they insisted: Black women are inherently valuable.
The words survive because their authors repeated them in multiple contexts. While they continue to resonate as a political intervention in this moment when we are called to protest about whose lives matter where and when, the words also offer a spiritual insight. Later in the statement, the Combahee River Collective explains the interconnected importance of the freedom of Black women: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom necessitates the destruction of all systems of oppression.”
Black women are inherently valuable is a statement with all our liberation tied up in it. When I repeat it to myself it activates my faith. The first time I repeated it with a group of people, 21 Black feminists of different ages at the Combahee Pilgrimage in South Carolina, we struggled to breathe. Some of us felt like we were speaking an illegal truth. A dangerous truth. A truth that contradicted our daily lives. And yet we allowed ourselves to embody the energy of that proposition.
ii. “My people are free”: Black feminist breathing as liberation theology.
Harriet Tubman dreamed any time of day. A traumatic head injury that Tubman sustained as a young woman while resisting the violence of an overseer caused her to sometimes fall asleep suddenly with her eyes wide open. She could access dream states even in daylight. But one night, as the story goes, Harriet Tubman, also known as Black Moses, was sleeping in the home of some people who she trusted, relatively safe although signs throughout the land called her a fugitive and offered rewards for her capture. She had a dream that night in which she saw the liberation of her people. Maybe she saw me sitting here typing this article, maybe she saw you dancing the other night, but among the forms of freedom she saw in the dream was the end of chattel slavery in the United States. That morning she work up joyful and all day long she repeated the truth: “My people are free.”
She repeated the phrase in the present tense. Even though slavery was alive and well. Even though a major portion of the country was rising up in war to defend slavery. Even though many of her loved ones were enslaved at that very moment. She spoke in the present tense. Not “my people will be free,” but “my people are free.”
Harriet Tubman repeated and affirmed the reality that her dream and her faith gave her access to. Her people were already free, but the state and the property owners simply were not acting in accordance with the reality of human freedom.
Soon after this dream, in June 1862, Harriet Tubman relocated to Beaufort, South Carolina, the rice-plantation-rich stronghold of the Confederate effort. Things were bleak. Tubman, determined to end slavery by every means, used her skills as a healer, as a nurse, a scout, a maker of pies and especially as a spy to organize for a full year in this community where the people spoke Gullah and she could mostly only understand them through song. With a team of eight other scouts and the collaboration of a Union General who had ridden with John Brown on the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Harriet Tubman was able to plan and carry out the largest and most successful revolt against slavery ever documented. On 2 June 1863 at the Combahee River, almost 800 enslaved people living on the rice plantations left their captive homes, flooded the rice fields, burned 35 plantation buildings to the ground and stole themselves into freedom. This surge of freedom energy, at a point in the Civil War so bleak that Lincoln was finally consenting to the development of Black regiments of Union Soldiers, was crucial to the fall of what was arguably the strongest Confederate holding. Many of the participants in the Combahee River Uprising went on to join the Union Army and to continue to work with Harriet Tubman to fight against slavery.
The Combahee River Uprising was the first direct action against slavery that Harriet Tubman was able to celebrate publically, using her own name. While she knew that the fight against state-sanctioned slavery was a crucial priority in the liberation of Black people, she didn’t see the end of slavery as itself guaranteeing the emergence of freedom. Tubman worked with the participants in the Combahee Uprising to create economic cooperatives and learn skills to achieve autonomy after slavery. Tubman had an expansive vision of the freedom of the diverse Black collective she considered to be her people that included the destruction of slavery but which also included the creation of alternative, collaborative, self-determined methods of creating life.
One hundred and fifty years after Harriet Tubman first traveled to Beaufort, South Carolina to organize for freedom, I had a dream. I woke up and got on Google Maps because I knew that I had to go on a pilgrimage to the Combahee River. I was getting ready to turn 30 and I knew I needed some Combahee River water on my altar. It wasn’t until my partner and I were lost in the South Carolina swamps and searching our phones for river access points that I realized that it was 150 years since Harriet Tubman travelled down to South Carolina. My experience under the recently named Harriet Tubman Bridge was so powerful that my partner and I decided to honor see herethe 150th anniversary of the actual rebellion by gathering 21 Black feminists by the river.
iii. “We can impose beauty on our future”: Black feminist breathing as faith-based Afro-futurism.
The Combahee Pilgrims, as we called ourselves, spent a weekend clarifying our freedom at the Penn Center, one of the first schools for formerly enslaved students, built by the newly free very close to the Combahee River. During one conversation, the poet Ai Elo brought up her favorite quotation from Lorraine Hansberry: “We can impose beauty on our future.”
Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun continues to transform audiences; she was an influence on the work of James Baldwin and contributed to the early lesbian newsletter Daughter of Bilitis. She died when she was only in her mid-thirties. Throughout her short life, even after disillusioning and patronizing interfaces with liberal politicians like Robert Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry kept faith in the power of creative practice to shape the future. The people she called the “young, gifted and Black” were the agents and beneficiaries of this faith.
During my morning meditation towards the end of the retreat I repeated the phrase “we can impose beauty on our futures,” 108 times to myself on a twin bed in a room built by newly free, newly literate ancestors. These ancestors may very well have been among those who crossed the Combahee River with everything they could carry, leaving behind forever the only lives they had known. In a letter, Harriet Tubman explains that when the people started to panic in the midst of the thunderstorm that broke out during the escape she struck up a song. On the last day of our retreat we sang a contemporary collaborative version of the song “I’m gonna lay down my burdens down by the riverside” and left behind those practices, relationships and contexts that we needed to leave behind forever in a Harriet Tubman shotgun-at-your-back kind of way. After we had laid everything down we collectively chanted, “We can impose beauty on our future.”
We chanted in unison for about 10 minutes. Then we broke out in ecstatic song and dance, clapping, stomping and improvising the melodies and rhythms of beauty that our future required. We brought our bodies into a future made intentionally beautiful with our breathing. Black feminist breathing is all of that: an Afro-futurist faith practice that incorporates the dreams and prophecies of Black revolutionaries in the production of an embodied present that is love, which is god, which is bright and Black and old and always new and feminine in a queer way and feminist in the very first way.
What I know for sure, with all the faith of my daily existence, is that I find reflection in the resilience, unknowability, and magic that I find in my own darkness and femininity in the sky and in the faces of my people. (My experience of femininity is not in a binary relationship to masculinity. For me, femininity exists in a participatory relationship with creation.)
And this is not simply ego tripping. Black feminist breathing, my spiritual practice, is based on cosmology and theology of being and loving Black women. It is about embodying and promoting those life-giving characteristics that I believe our species needs urgently in order to earn a continued existence on this planet. So yes, Black feminism is salvation. And Black feminist breathing is how I bring that theoretical belief system into my own life and the lives of the people in my communities in a tangible and embodied way.
Black feminist breathing as a cosmology draws on ancestor reverent earth-based belief systems and practices that activate embodiments and personifications of the elements that make life possible. Many traditions have a pantheon of divinities that represent the energies through which life is made and transformed. For example, in the Yoruba tradition the different Orisha represent elements in nature, character-traits, and life lessons. My pantheon of deities that connect back to the truth of everything that exists are also personified and they have specific names like Harriet Tubman, Essex Hemphill, June Jordan and Fannie Lou Hamer. They are Black revolutionary figures that inform my contemporary spiritual practice of Black feminism.
What would it take to cultivate the power of Toni Cade Bambara to hone in on the interconnectedness of our individual well-being, our community accountability, our environmental stewardship and the ringing of the stars? What would it take to embrace our power to be like Harriet Tubman, capable of dreaming freedom and then taking bold actions to bring reality into alignment with those dreams? How can we celebrate and teach the capacity Ida B. Wells had to speak truth to power? The way Audre Lorde channeled her emotional lessons into community resources? The way June Jordan brought rage and love together as an activating force?
One way is faith. We can recognize all of that and more as god-energy, lifeforce, the process of the bright Black universe loving herself. I can recognize that not only are all those powers part of the love that I can access in this lifetime, they are part of who you can be, whoever you are. Black feminism is the structure of my faith in this species, and one of the crucial sacraments of Black feminism is breathing.
The universe is bright Blackness loving herself. And despite everything, all I have to do (today and forever in this body and before it and after it) is be.