New languages untethered to the state can help us imagine how we want to live with each other
“Now more than ever, we need the strength to love and dream.” —Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams
“We will need writers who can remember freedom.” —Ursula K. Le Guin
Political vernaculars announce a conversation about politics: They are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They are the words and phrases that disassemble people around the political, as in “I prefer not to discuss politics.” They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we-formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying.
In Kenya, impunity, corruption, negative ethnicity, graft, tribalism, development, dissident, blogger, land grabs, good governance, national security, and constitution are some of our political vernaculars. If we listen to the whispers, we might catch mass graves, torture, exile, disappearances, massacres, and rapes.
Kenyans know these terms as political. And readers of Ngugi wa Thiong’o will already have some framing of the vernacular: Vernaculars are “home” languages banished from colonial institutions, especially schools; they are anti-oppression tools used by those excluded from elite institutions; they are frames through which we apprehend the world, following Fanon; and they are practices for building community. In colonial and post-independence Kenya, vernaculars were also framed as elementary languages—the languages taught in lower primary classes, up until standard 3 or 4, at which point English and Swahili were introduced as “more mature” languages. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.
Vernaculars also discipline, producing habits and dispositions, ways of acting and feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. One notes the repeated cycle: Identify an issue, call for investigations and firings, establish a commission, commission a report, then file the report in the graveyard of reports. Even those who are aware of how this cycle works—even those most critical of it—cannot imagine anything else. And thus, each new scandal enters the established cycle of the political vernacular.
Let me be more explicit: The processes set in motion by existing political vernaculars ultimately remain in the frame created by them. And the less effective these political vernaculars are at diagnosing and establishing processes that work, the more insistently they will be used, as though repetition will somehow break the frame. It will not.
Political vernaculars shape the conversations one can have. Say “corruption” in Kenya and all in attendance will proclaim it a terrible scourge; say “tribalism” and, depending on where we are and who we are with, some will call it terrible. Say “impunity” or “good governance” and the positions are already established, arguments in place, and emotions already arranged. This political is not a place where persuasion can happen, where positions can shift or co-imagining can take place.
Instead, Kenya’s dominant political vernaculars shepherd or funnel us into predictable ends, generating two related demands: that the bad thing stop and that the good thing continue.
Let me be a little more concrete.
“Corruption” is Kenya’s dominant political vernacular. For as long as I can remember, Kenyans have been discussing corruption, and for as long as I can remember, the conversation has focused on stopping corruption. Corruption is a bad thing. Cessation is the demand.
But what kind of demand is cessation? How is cessation related to ecocide, ethnocide, and genocide? Does cessation live in an adjacent neighborhood? Cessation trains imaginations and desires; cessation shepherds and funnels us toward predictable ends, the ending of a bad thing. We demand cessation all the more insistently, even as it fails to obtain the results we want. And the ever-proliferating sites of corruption and ever-multiplying demands for cessation—NGOs set up to tackle corruption, government institutions established to fight corruption, reports published on corruption, stalled court cases on corruption—become a closed, self-perpetuating system, feeding on itself.
One is unable to imagine beyond the thing that must be stopped. There is no “after” corruption. And this inability to imagine an “after” makes cessation the only possible demand, the only way to imagine a future.
Except that cessation does not produce futures.
Corruption is Kenya’s negative political vernacular; development is its opposite number, its positive. (I’ll simply note in passing that corruption often happens on development projects; the vernaculars do not allow this be noted in anything more than passing.) Development is a shepherding political vernacular, because development is what one cannot not want. Development captures imaginations—one is not permitted to think beyond, against, or beside development. But the failure of development projects—often through corruption—only leads to demands for more development projects, and quite often the same ones. Development in Kenya is tightly controlled: We must all want the state-created Vision 2030. Even critics of the state insist that their critiques are devoted to achieving Vision 2030.
As political vernaculars, corruption and development create frames and processes, ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. They act in concert to produce and restrict the demands that can be made. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations.
“Well, what is your solution?” is a common response to political critique. It is not a vernacular; it is, in a way, an anti-vernacular.
“What is your solution?” masquerades as an invitation to participate in a public process, to take part in a collective process in which every voice matters. The “your” is supposed to be democratizing, removing barriers of age, education, and privilege; everyone is welcomed to provide solutions. But the invitation is disingenuous. It diminishes the importance of local, situated knowledges accumulated through experience, training, and research, as well as devaluing expertise gained through research and reflection. Institutional memory—memory from experience and practice and training and research—will be deemed unimportant: One is simply encouraged to provide a “solution,” no matter one’s knowledge base or training.
“What is your solution?” never asks “you” to consider institutional memory and never encourages “you” to imagine that it can think and act with others. Instead, this “you” is atomized, transformed into an isolated solution-provider. “What is your solution?” refuses the possibilities of coalition and collective action.
“What is your solution?” tethers political possibilities to state imaginaries and practices, shepherding us into addressing the state on its own terms. One must learn the state’s languages and processes to engage it; one must learn to be legible on the state’s terms to engage the state. And this is what those asking “what is your solution?” are demanding: that one become fluent in and legible to state-tethered imaginaries. “What is your solution?” is the tethering mechanism, one that does not permit any thinking outside of state imaginaries. And your legibility before the state will be predicated on your fluency in state processes. You will be understood so long as you repeat that which has become habitual.
We need political vernaculars: We need terms that are widely understood and that we can use to build collectivities, to create sharable worlds, to make demands, and to name and fight injustice.
We also need political vernaculars untethered to state imaginaries.
As 2015 came to a close, I imagined a year-long project for 2016. Each month, I would propose a different kind of political vernacular. Over that month, the vernacular would become the occasion for a range of activities: Artists could create around it, teachers could encourage students to write essays and hold debates around it, mainstream media could be encouraged to discuss it. The plan was to saturate as many spaces as possible with that vernacular.
I don’t have any of this pull, of course, but one imagines what one can. While I still think we need different political vernaculars, I don’t know that we need twelve different ones. After a point, that can seem gimmicky. And over the past few years, I have kept returning to two political vernaculars: freedom and love.
It’s normal to save bibliographies for the end, but I must acknowledge, now, the people whose thinking subtends this writing: Claude McKay, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Angelina Weld Grimké, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, bell hooks, Christina Sharpe, Rinaldo Walcott, Dionne Brand, Katherine McKittrick, John Keene, Erica Hunt, Shailja Patel, Melvin Dixon, Wambui Mwangi, Aaron Bady, Kweli Jaoko, Thomas Holt, Fred Moten, Robin Kelley, Chris Taylor, James Baldwin, Mariame Kaba, Paolo Freire, Frantz Fanon, and my mother, who taught me how to imagine freedom.
FREEDOM AND LOVE
Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage.
—Audre Lorde,“Poetry Is Not a Luxury”
Freedom and love are powerful vernaculars. To believe in them now might seem “heretical.” Perhaps because of how powerful such vernaculars are, the Kenyan state has spent the past few years attempting to tether freedom to a state imaginary. But freedom keeps escaping. It will not be tethered that way.
Love is a tarnished vernacular in Kenya: Those of us who grew up under Moi’s “Peace, Love, and Unity” philosophy learned to distrust how love was used as a disciplinary tool. It was our duty to love the president. Freedom and love arrive with complicated histories; privileging them requires “renewed courage.”
What can we do with freedom and love as political vernaculars? What can they do for us?
Freedom and love can help us imagine how we want to live with each other and what we want to build together. They allow us to imagine how we want to feel and act toward each other. And they allow us to imagine how our daily lives might change. To take a very concrete example, we can imagine that a Nairobi that privileged freedom and love would have safe streets for women and queers, no matter the time of day. One could be in public without facing harassment. One could enjoy being in public.
We must be able to imagine in very concrete ways what a world focused on freedom and love would be like.
In their simultaneity, freedom and love exist beyond what the state can tether. They push our imaginations in other directions. Against the state’s war against freedom—since freedom cannot be absolute—we can imagine freedom not as the right to violate, but as a way of being together: your freedom enhances mine. Love becomes central to imagining freedom in this way. We can imagine freedom away from international protocols that try to define and restrict the meanings and practices of freedom. We can imagine what lives devoted to pursuing and experiencing freedom and love would be like.
Freedom and love direct us to create. Keeping them as what we pursue enables us to shape our demands to those in power, demands that go beyond cessation. It’s useful to think of such demands as ways of creating and building.
Freedom and love can shape aesthetic practices. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark has become important to me because she discusses lazy aesthetic practices, those well-worn ways of writing about the world “as is” that replicate, without questioning, all the ways those habits of worlding undo the human. The work of the imagination, she teaches, is something altogether different, something harder, more urgent, more interesting. What can we imagine and create once we stop relying on old, un-humaning tropes?
What kind of world can we create together?
Practice freedom. Practice love.
Freedom and love are doing words. They are we-forming, we-sustaining words. Their conjoined impulse is toward making collective living more possible and more pleasurable.
Asking “is this increasing freedom?” or “is this promoting love?” anchors and pushes other political vernaculars, reminding us what is at stake.
A FINAL NOTE
I have been using “we” and “us” to gather. Gathering is an act of the imagination—one never knows who reads one or if one will be read at all. One imagines that gathering might take place. Perhaps this is optimism.
I write this at a time when Kenya is caught by a security imagination, when state violations of privacy and rights are justified by invoking security. State violence is justified by invoking security. Critiques of the state are shut down in the name of security. Mainstream politics is conducted in the name of security, and it’s unclear if those of us trying to imagine other ways to be and to be together can imagine beyond the security imagination. It’s unclear if anyone can hear us.
Unfreedom is not abstract.
Critiques of the state are now muted. As we did under Moi, we whisper among friends and hope that none of them is working for the state. Our bodies are tense, our muscles clenched, our frown lines deeper, and our laughs are louder, brighter, edging toward the hysterical.
Enmeshed in this, we are trying to imagine it might be different.