Calls for “strategy” in protest are used to marshal in the dominant framework when we seek otherwise.
There was a time when, as a child, I thought the magic of color television was more than just technology. During those confusing young years when I carried around a blanket while sucking my right forefinger—the light blue one; my nickname was Linus to some people—I thought the world at one point was grayscale like television itself, that color needed invention not just for television but for the world. I thought it only recently that the world was “live and in Technicolor.” It made me incredibly sad to think of my parents having to exist in a world of grayscale. This thought about grayscale and color was made possible as a child, I now recall, because The Wizard of Oz always confused me. And it was because of its teetering on grayscale and color, its refusal to value either as more urgent, more desirous.
Over the rainbow was where Dorothy encountered poppies that made her sleepy, and ruby red shoes that she only used to go back to Kansas, and witches both good and wicked. But it was in grayscale that she found family and returned to again, family and friends loved and cherished. Brilliance or monochromatism, neither was more celebratory than the other. The Wizard of Oz never decided for viewers which world was real, which fake, which preferred. And it is in the space of such a relay between color and grayscale that a critique of the normative world is made possible. That is, it is in the space between grayscale and color that we come to realize the assumption that progress across historical time has been made. The space between grayscale and color offers us a way to reconsider where we are in terms of the fights for justice, the fights for equity.
One of my friends says that the beauty in black music is found in how it releases what was compressed in its seed with such intensity, with such vibrational force. The beauty is in what was always there in potential, in the capacity it held to be multiple. How to go from the field holler, the work song, the spiritual—produced from the necessary pidgin glossolalia of a people that had to use bare sound as the building block for communication on skiffs and bateaus, for example—how to go from there to the blues, jazz, gospel, rock and roll, hip hop? The same can be said of black social dance. From the Pattin’ Juba and Ring Shout to the Lindy Hop and Charleston, from the Cakewalk and—my father’s Emporia, Virginia favorite—the Bird Dog, to the Cha-Cha Slide and the Wobble. In each case of choreography and song, black performance produces an ethical demand for critical commentary, critical change that is radical, change that is grounded and founded in the capacity for any song, any dance, any word to be otherwise than it is. This demand for change, change that is founded in movement, in vibration, produces a critique of the normative world.
Look, for example, at Kid A the Great’s one-minute dance.
The control he has of his flesh, the way he makes it pulse and pause, the way he is both precise and poised. All this in each movement, in each vibration. The twisting and elongation of limbs, the finger wagging “no” at 1’18”. The almost mechanic, machine-like footsteps at 1’31” that smooth out to a lush, lavish, loving backwards walk. Kid A knows something about black performance, about resistance and release, about creating a plan for organizing his flesh in the moment of performed encounter. Within the performance itself, Kid A produces antiphony, calling and responding with accuracy and agility in ways that leaves the performance open-ended, leaving us wanting to know more. In black social dance is a restive quality, a refusal of being stilled. And this refusal of being stilled is how change occurs, through nuance, through style.
I like to think of this restive quality as the difference between the Electric Slide created by Ric Silver in 1976 and the Bring in the Katz created by Donnetta McFadden-Coleman in Baltimore. Look at the dance.
Red Hair, I must admit, is my favorite. The energy she gives to the choreography—to the plan already outlined in the routine—yielded each time to personal style and fatigue. That she took the plan, danced with others, connected with others with her hands, are the ways to enunciate uniqueness from within a social group. Red Hair is followed immediately by Plaid Shirt as a close second favorite. She seemed unable to contain herself so much so that she jumped up at 1’30” and began shimmying to the music. Look at the way she, at 1’52”, twirls three times instead of body-rolling. In the cases of both Red Hair and Plaid Shirt we see what sociality looks like. It is the play of dance, the joy of being together doing the same thing differently.
I like to think of Silver’s Electric Slide as the object that Bring in the Katz comments on, the object along which Bring in the Katz aligns itself as otherwise. With Bring in the Katz, we see that any object, any dance or song, has the potential for movement, for vibration. These various choreographies relate to each other. They comment on the dances which came before, but are also openings for what is sure come after. It is a relation grounded in critical distance, in critical creativity, critical complexity. As soon as one thinks they finally have black social dance pegged, another layer is introduced. Bring in the Katz is an elaboration of the phrase “that ain’t nothin but…” — it articulates the relation of difference.
So when the Shmoney dance was first released, one heard echoes and reverberations of distant and recent pasts: “The Shmoney? That ain’t nothin but what my auntie used to do at the family cookout!” And this would be true for lots of choreographies. “The Cha-Cha Slide ain’t nothin but the new Electric Slide!” “The Wobble ain’t nothin but a new Cha-Cha Slide!” On first seeing Bring in the Katz, I said to myself, “that ain’t nothin but a new Electric Slide.” With complexity, with style.
This relation of ain’t nothin but is a refusal of the privation of sociality, of hermetically sealing off the vibrations of movement. The ain’t nothin but announces relation as a knowledge of plurality. The ain’t nothin but, in other words, marks otherwise possibilities. The ain’t nothin but, like Kid A’s choreography, is antiphonal in its very enunciation: it is both call and response, both prayer and praise.
Such a phrase, and the dances or songs or texts referenced, expresses a different relationship to art created than the normal relation, which is about what can be owned. Dance and song cannot belong to any person or group but must be shared as a critical social practice. I see the antithesis of this lots of times at gay dance clubs, when a white person desires to prove not that they can be in critical relation to a choreographic tradition, but that they can own the tradition, mark it as their territory. These learned routines desire to take up space, to display that, yes, white folks can dance too, without understanding the grounding wires of black social dance which is nothing other than black sociality.
Such routinized dancing on cleared dance floors is about articulating the individual bourgeois subject of enlightened thought, not about a fundamental desire to live into the funk, to participate in the funk, to get down, get down with others on the dance floor. That a dance floor should be cleared for such a routine to occur, not knowing what to do after such a one-and-two-and-three-and-four, pause-step-step-pause-shimmy-shimmy-and-sway, is to betray a complete misrecognition of black dance as it uses the concept of the “steal away” as guiding principle and ethical demand. To steal away is the topical thrust, the undergrounded verve of black performance. The steal away is (to riff off Zora Neale Hurston) the unceasing theme around which black performance varies. It is a different relation to time and space, the grounds for, without being educated into, modernity. Thus the dance for us is an ethical demand to vary and antagonize, to be restless and restive against the dominant political economy and its ordering of the world.
There have been many rumblings—on Facebook statuses and Tweets, for example—that the current movement, the current antagonist vibration that finds one strand of its genesis in Ferguson, Missouri, is movement and vibration without strategy. Hashtags like #BlackFridayBlackout, #BlackLivesMatter, #HandUpDontShoot, #ICantBreathe, #NMOS2014, #RaiseTheWage have proliferated, have found their way through various kinds of critical conversations. Marches and boycotts have been organized with technology. Arguments between friends and enemies have ensued. Defriending, unfollowing, blocking. All because of the current moment of political organizing, a type of organizing that seems to lack leadership, that seems to lack strategy. And it is the seeming lack that has led to various dismissals of the possible efficaciousness of such choreographic and sonic resistance. Hashtags are dismissed without attending to the ways such technologies allow for otherwise gatherings of thoughts, of persons. I have read too many make claims, for example, asserting that though marching can have positive effects, that those effects are not long-lasting, they are not strategic in terms of long-term organizing or thought. Disrupting a highway might make for a good spectacular event, but it’s not sustainable. Where is the strategy? The call for “strategy” implies that what is lacking most in this current movement is the hard work of critical thought, of making plans for the future. One of the most public calls for strategy and leadership came from Oprah Winfrey: “What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’”
Calls for strategy, on the one hand, do not take into account the ongoing organizing that has been taking place both before Ferguson’s August 9 murder of Michael Brown—with the Organization for Black Struggle, Black Youth Project 100, Dream Defenders, We Charge Genocide as examples—and how new alliances and forms of movement have flourished since the irruption of protest in his name, because of love. On the other hand, calls for strategy are an effect of the very order we seek to obliterate: the western tradition of rationality that degrades and denigrates blackness as an unwieldy, destabilizing force. Perhaps the organizing that is taking place—an otherwise than strategy—is operating out of a different set of concerns altogether, fundamentally about not assenting to current configurations of power and authority, but about creating new lines of flight, of force, for operation, for action.
That the demands of various organizations have come from a decentralized black leadership is important given the ways the voices of black folks are often drowned out of such conversations about possible otherwise ways to be in the world. We all remember the Occupy movement and its difficulties with considering race. That a primarily black woman-led movement that takes seriously the lives of queer people, that continually makes connections to various forms of state violence is being dismissed as lacking strategy should give us pause. Perhaps what is being uprooted in this current moment is not simply the ways people think about policing and violence but, more fundamentally, the theoretical grounds that set such policing and violence into propulsive motion: white supremacist heteropatriarchal thought. And though similar to other decentralized leadership movements like Occupy, what is different is foregrounding loving black folks, of blackness, in this movement—the ways black is not a secret, not an appendage to thought, but is the excess that constitutes thought, movement, resistance itself. Perhaps, then, this otherwise than strategy—this planning, this choreographic encounter that is not about pasts and futures that assume linear, forward moving, progressive time—feels unstable because it does not reproduce singular charismatic leaders. Al Sharpton, of course, is sad about this.
But what is being implied and sometimes stated explicitly in the so-called lack of strategy is the idea that the movement, folks in this movement, lack the practice of critical thought.The word strategy is used to marshal in the dominant framework when we seek an otherwise. Attention to black social dance gives us the language to refuse: asking for “strategy” ain’t nothin but asking for rationality, ain’t nothing but suppressing the radical movement and thought currently enacted. One would need assume that thought has not already taken place in any of the planning. This, of course, is a ruse. But the categorical distinction of strategy from generalized unthought movement needs to be thought otherwise.
The figuration of marching as nothing begs critical attention. And this is because we are a people that have been thought to be nothing. We are the tradition of the ain’t nothin but. We learn what emerges from those that are called nothing while also critiquing the very concept of nothingness. To come from nothing, to be and speak nothing, as the foundation for liberation is what we need, or at least what we have. This movement is the enactment of an otherwise strategy, an otherwise plan. And this otherwise strategy and plan cannot be owned. It can only be shared.
Ferguson was a no-place, a nothingness we didn’t need to think, or think about until the irruption of August 9. This necessity to think Ferguson as a space from where critical thought emerges is the force of the otherwise. This shift, where knowledge of injustice emerges from Ferguson rather than New York or Los Angeles, is about the choreographies of justice work. With Ferguson, the sense of history is disrupted by the sensual difference between color and grayscale imaging. This image, once colorful, once grayed out, is an instance of the ain’t nothin but of black social dance. Our sense of time, our understanding of temporal movement, relies heavily on our relation to aesthetics, to what we sense. And the desires for strategy, for rigorous philosophizing, is the same epistemic horizon as that which we seek to destroy. Yet this otherwise than strategy is sight, sound, touch, taste, smell working together in varied degrees based on the abilities given to each of us as gift to perceive the worlds we inhabit.
But what to make of color and grayscale images in the cause of justice organizing? What does color and grayscale have to do with choreography? What does color and grayscale have to do with stealing away? How one engages the world is based on what one deems possible, what one deems can happen otherwise than what we have, what we are given. The images, at once colored, at once grayed, give viewers a challenge to normative concepts of time and space. We don’t know, looking at such photographs, if events are taking place in 2014 or 50 years ago. And this not knowing is the occasion to not only challenge the idea that we have moved forward, that we have progressed, that things are undoubtedly “better,” but gives us a chance to reject the very foundations of the concept of linear progress. A total rejection of the current order of things would call on us to reply antiphonally, to figure out other ways to organize to produce justice and equity.
Dorothy discovered as much in her relay between a colored and monochromatic world: it’s all about how one chooses to live into the spaces of possibility. Images made to be grayscale force us to consider not only the problematics of thinking time and space as always already on the path to progression but such images ask us to return to scenes of crimes, scenes of subjection, and to think relationality otherwise. It would be like dancing on floors, creating critical and loving distance from otherwise performances. It would be like twisting and elongating, like pulses and pauses, all in the cause of justice making. It would be, in simple terms, a return to black radicality as the space and zone from which otherwise modalities of living can emerge.