I wanted to stay in the wake to sound an ordinary note of care.—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake
And while “we are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to this overwhelming force, we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force.”—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake
Care pays attention to how we are known to ourselves and to each other. Care lingers at the ordinary: notices it, names it, creates it, inhabits it, pursues it, practices it.
There might be something theoretically uninteresting about care. It is feminized work, so devalued. It is also, frequently, tedious, repetitive, unglamorous work: feeding the vulnerable, cleaning up shit and puke, washing bedpans, changing nappies, cooking, cleaning, medicating. Repeat. And repeat.
Erotic vomiting sounds more theoretically interesting than regular, repeated vomiting. Or diarrhea.
I am not the first to ask what an attachment to the fabulous, the spectacular, the theoretically interesting has made invisible about the quotidian we inhabit and practice.
I am uninterested in investigating, documenting, theorizing, and inhabiting my own negation—black negation. I am uninterested in remaining within the dynamics of oppression and resistance, oppression and agency, as the dominant frames within which black life is to be thought and theorized. I am uninterested in the brief glimpses of something called black agency found in colonial archives.
Very robust strands of African studies, Postcolonial studies, and Black studies are very interested in black negation. One encounters Hegel’s negating voice as a frame—perhaps the frame—against which study is posed. One reads countless variations of Said—filtered through Mudimbe—as one version of African studies: white supremacist colonial archives misrepresented Africans. One reads very careful studies of how Africans were misrepresented. And gets tired. And bored. And realizes that such misrepresentation is a structural element of the white supremacist colonial archive. And whatever strands of black agency or resistance one finds there are saturated with the toxins of those archives.
Forgive me if I spew some of those toxins along this meander.
White supremacist thought rejects black invention: Wheatley, the acclaimed white man writes, cannot be a poet. The white supremacists who love to travel to Africa ask, constantly: “what have the Africans invented?” And the Africans get stuck on this tar-trap.
White supremacist thought is in the DNA of disciplinary formations, Grace Musila has argued. What happens when black students are formed by disciplines?
(a profound contempt for black thinkers and black thought and black life—toxins accumulate and spread)
Black negation is not only central to disciplinary formation, it is an insatiable appetite. Initially, an appetite for black negation. Later, an appetite for black negation, with apologies. You know this formulation: “White supremacists represented Africans as stupid. Africans are not stupid.”
If you are in African studies, Postcolonial studies, or Black studies, you will recognize this formulation. It is ubiquitous. We are sent to white supremacist archives to discover mis- and overrepresentation, and then told to contest it.
It is debilitating to stay in such toxic spaces: disciplinary formations, colonial archives, disciplinary methods.
we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force
I am so constituted that imagination outruns discretion—Claude McKay, Constab Ballads
We blacks are all somewhat impatient of discipline—Claude McKay, Constab Ballads
It is rewarding to study black negation. I mean this in the banal sense that careers and reputations are built by studying black negation at the same time as that debilitating work makes black life less livable.
It is seductive to be told that if you are clever enough—if you are proclaimed brilliant—you will find space to breathe within philosophies built on black negation. It is distressing to read black thinkers pursuing crumbs within negating texts. Because such pursuits are antithetical to those texts, something strange—I use the word incoherent—happens in such pursuits. You cannot get there from here.
I nod heartily when Chris Taylor writes that he is tracking liberalism “to push back against scholarship that attempts to save the Enlightenment or liberalism from itself by stressing the anticolonial, anti-imperial, or antiracist fundaments of these varied traditions” (Empire of Neglect). I am tired of work that insists Enlightenment philosophy or Modernity always contained its own critique.
Immersing oneself in thinking and feeling built on black negation makes one unrecognizable to oneself. It makes us unknown to ourselves and to each other.
we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force
I continue to find Edward Wilmot Blyden fascinating because over the course of his very long life, he recognized how immersion within colonial modernity’s archives—he was a scholar, immensely learned—made unknowing each other the dominant practice of black sociality. He moved from wanting to civilize indigenous Africans in Liberia to thinking with and about black sociality and difference.
He was interested in how we are known to ourselves and to each other.
I learned my first lesson about disciplinarity from Fanon: it is a problem that interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and anti-disciplinarity cannot solve. How does one unravel the dna of disciplinary formations? And should one even try?
(a note: some might want to undertake that work—I think it’s tedious and unrewarding and even debilitating, but then I’m not trying to get tenure or an endowed chair)
Perhaps what I name here is the unease I have with certain forms of thinking about blackness that get stuck on negation, whether that is mapping, documenting, theorizing, or narrating negation, or, working against negation by focusing on response and resistance: Achebe can only ever respond to Conrad.
There is a generational hitch to this: the first generation of Postcolonial thinkers in Europe and the U.S. started as Europeanists—their work was a sustained engagement with and response to their training.
(I continue to think the term postcolonial is used too loosely to refer to people working with radically different texts and contexts: as method, postcolonial might do something to works written during the colonial period and by colonial subjects. Not all colonial subjects were anticolonial. I find it useful to map what is colonial, anti-colonial, and post-independent. I prefer post-independent to postcolonial and neocolonial. (Think of these as footnotes out of place))
Terms and concepts I find useful: lying (Zora Neale Hurston); invention (Frantz Fanon); afro-fabulation (Tavia Nyong’o); wake (Christina Sharpe); rumor (Grace Musila); speculation (David Kazanjian); wandering (Sarah Jane Cervenak). I am interested in how we are known to ourselves and to each other, the ways we invent to know ourselves and each other, all while surviving methods and disciplines that absent us.
How do we come to know ourselves, especially when many—if not most—of the methods designed to generate knowledge are indifferent, if not actively inimical, to us?
In a panel discussion, Stephanie Smallwood, author of the wonderful Saltwater Slavery, explained that scholars in her field were familiar with her archives, but they were uninterested in asking the questions she asked. They were uninterested in questions of black life and invention. My own brief encounters with economic historians of slavery have been debilitating: they see numbers, refusing to see how those numbers unhuman.
On this meander, I am interested in what it means to think about blackness (beyond negation). I’m uninterested in something called positive representations, because I do not think invention and lying and fabulation and speculation tether themselves to positive and negative representation. I remain deeply interested in representation as a major scene of encounter and pedagogy of feeling.
I think of how impoverished we are when we think representation must be either positive or negative and how dangerous it is to think of many unhumaning representations as merely negative. (More than one creative Kenyan dealing with a U.S. or UK editor has reported being told to “insert” unhumaning representations to add “flavor” and “interest” to a story.)
I am seduced by pursuing unhumaning. My training tells me that doing so is theoretically interesting, the kind of conceptual challenge that real theorists undertake. Yet, I have wondered what survives immersion into debilitating, unhumaning archives and texts.
In “Power,” Adrienne Rich asks whether Marie Curie knew the elements she pursued were poisoning her. It is a question I ask about various strands of African studies, Postcolonial studies, and Black studies.