radical Black feminist thoughtfeelings (& propaganda)
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
And so begins Toni Cade Bambara’s 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters: Its protagonist Velma Henry, resistantly coming undone in the hands of Minnie Ransom, a trusted healer intimately acquainted with the voices of her ancestral guides. This novel is unsettling for many reasons. Structurally, the many voices and perspectives Bambara uses to tell the story disregard narrative conventions. Deeper still, Velma Henry, a black woman activist hospitalized and seeking healing after a sucide attempt, stands as a haunting embodiment of the ways embattled resistance can literally tear apart the bodymind.
I’ve written out parts of that opening line and posted it on my walls and doors in nearly every place I’ve lived over the past five years. Currently it sparkles in golden glitter ink on a white piece of paper next to my bed. Below it, a list of intentions:
In honor of my wholeness…
I practice being still and quiet.
I am mindful of the things I consume.
(food, meds, energies, conversation, vibes, smells, sounds, etc…)
I check-in with my folks/fam often.
I actively adapt towards pleasure.
I tell the truth.
I listen to my body…
I create. I
These “wholeness-affirming” daily practices that I aspire to build my life around are an effort to answer Minnie’s questions with a “yes!” Nevertheless, the reality of 2020 so far (and overall impact of processing 500+ years Black struggle against White nationalist Empire) often leaves me lying in bed despondent, just like Velma was as she sat on that stool with her physical and psychological wounds on display in the lobby of the community infirmary that her labor helped to establish.
I want to tell Minnie, “yes,” but I’m not sure what “well” means in this current context of converging pandemics. I’m not sure how to hold my wellness alongside an accumulation of rage and insurmountable grief. Everyday, I work against the lure of psychological exhaustion and apathy to reach towards a mode of being and doing in this world that is neither reactionary nor nihilistic. The urgency of now, the resurgence of the contemporary Black liberation movement—now commonly referred to as The Movement for Black Lives—is contagious. With my people unceasingly under fire and vulnerable to every kind of illness this world-society can host, I want to raise a machete and be a part of taking it all down.
But this urgency has found me inside a moment where my bodymind cannot rise to meet it. I desire to rise up and meet the violence of the State with ecstatic motion. I want to run down the streets screaming. I want to throw the full force of my Black aliveness out onto the world. But I am tired, physically aching, and overburdened by hypervigilance. I am also sick in that way that folks with overstressed immune systems often get. My body racked with dull aches and mucus. All of this in the midst of a pandemic where every cough and each touch echoes with the threat of premature death.
In the essay “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance,” Saidiya Hartman resurfaces “The Comet,” a short piece of speculative fiction authored by W.E.B DuBois in 1920. Exactly a century ago, this piece was published in the collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. As Hartman recounts, this was two years after the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 and one year after the Red Summer of white supremacist terrorism in 1919. In Darkwater, DuBois doesn’t deal explicitly with the Spanish Flu. Hartman conjectures that the omission might be because “microbes seemed benign when compared with the bloodletting of the Red Summer. Or because for every year between 1906 and 1920, Black folks in cities experienced a rate of death that equaled the white rate of death at the peak of the pandemic… When the Spanish influenza arrived, they simply died in even greater numbers, but they had been enduring a pandemic for over a decade.”1
All of this feels relevant to our present moment in North America (and throughout the African Diaspora) because it illustrates with startling clarity the fact that this fatal play between Black folks and the Empire has been long running. DuBois, a seminal Black intellectual and sociologist, turns to speculative fiction to theorize the end of this game, the end of the world. Where the last Black man standing is only spared because his lowly position in the world of his labor sends him down into the bowels of a financial institution at precisely the right moment. In contrast, Bambara offers up a Black woman who has tried to remove herself from the world, to take herself off the playing field and let the game move on without her.
In these texts, Bambara and DuBois both signify familiar expressions of Black despair in the face of insurmountable tragedies. Reading the two together surfaces the question: Do we want the world to end or do we want to take ourselves completely out of it? I’ve often found myself somewhere between these two poles. And I mean that literally. Sometimes the idea of survival in this world seems like a cruel joke. Sometimes it feels like we are still playing between the double-bind that Hartman describes in Scenes of Subjection as “the burdened individuality of freedom”—where conventional notions of “freedom” for Black folks really just play out as another social, political, and economic enclosure.
In this current phase of the game, in which my sick and tired body yearns for an escape, I have found myself in deep contemplation of radical abolitionist Black feminist Dharma. I have been avidly consuming the works of Dharma teachers like Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Lama Rod Owens, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Dr. Jasmine Syedullah, and more. Towards the end of the book Radical Dharma (which was intentionally published in 2016, a watershed moment for The Movement for Black Lives), Black feminist political theorist of abolition Dr. Jasmine Syedullah offers:
“What we need now is not more freedoms, but more fugitives. We need more fugitives to find the loopholes in our language of liberation. We need fugitives now to keep abolishing legacies of slavery, colonialism and genocide that persist in the present day. What the world needs now is a pursuit of freedom rooted not in the fear of someone taking what’s ours but in a radical kind of love that refuses to settle for meanings of ‘justice,’ ‘safety’ and ‘independence’ that recreate the shackles, borders, colorlines, and other punitive forms of policing and surveillance we just escaped to claim our freedom… [Freedom] as a practice of mutual respect, reconciliation and repair through which our communities might heal from the injury American freedoms have exacted upon our bodies. No, not just for one. What we need now are sweet ways for everyone to remain fugitive within the domain of state sanctioned violence and neglect that would otherwise render our lives immaterial.”2
This quote holds so much of what I have been thinkingfeeling lately about abolition and our collective survival. Each day, it becomes clearer and clearer that the tools we will need to bring about the new world required by a Black feminist orientation towards abolition are equal parts material, intellectual, emotional, metaphysical, and pyschological. With this knowledge, I make the political decision to root myself in a mindfulness practice that I hope will bring me closer to this kind of fugitivity—an active embrace of freedom as interdependence. I also decide to root myself in the Black surrealist tactic of play.
An Invitation to Remain Fugitive and Playful… #LetsGetStupid2020
I speak about the contemporary and historical manifestations of anti-blackness in terms of “play” and a “game” between Black folks and the Empire as a result of my work with an emergent Black feminist creative project called Gallery of the Streets. Gallery of the Streets exceeds the form of an “arts collective” but takes after the radical aesthetic traditions of the Black Arts Movement and groups like AfriCOBRA and the Black feminist performance collective Rodeo Caldonia. This network of cultural workers located in different cities throughout North America and rooted in a broader global community is committed to practices of radical abolitionist queer Black feminist study. Together we spent a year exploring a “black surrealism” curriculum and then transitioned into workshopping characters and scenes that would make up a ‘visual opera.’
This topsy-turvy face-dive into a rigorous Black absurdity has been conducted by DJ Trickster, kai lumumba barrow. As RingLeader of this band of fugitives, barrow channels the many facets of herselves (abolitionist organizer, political education facilitator, visual artist, sculptress, performance artist, librettist) into the framework of a series of installations and performances titled [B]reach: Adventures in Heterotopia. We are currently fomenting the prologue, We Begin With Play, an abolitionist surrealist visual folk opera political circus laboratory and campaign stump tour. Through a series of local vignettes sited in “appropriated places, temporal spaces, and everyday sites of the mundane”:
“Collaborators will work as an ensemble to compose, design, perform and install immersive guerilla theatre, direct actions, and environmental landscapes. In each location, the circus will highlight the core tensions in the current political, economic, cultural, and ecological moment, while amplifying the Black surreal within the space/time/place continuum and returning to the central question [Black feminist literary theorist and philosopher] Hortense Spillers raises in her work, The Idea of Black Culture. ‘If Black culture is critical culture,’ Spillers posits, ‘perhaps it is an unfinished project.'”3
Collectively we are running a crew of Black feminist presidents on the Blue Lights In Da Basement Party ticket. Here are a few highlights from the party platform: Abolish the Presidency, its Cabinets, Tables and Chairs! A Comfortable Bed for All Who Sleep! Rebuke the Church of High Art! Cancel Celebrity News, Gossip and Celebrity! Cultivate Herbs and Organic Intellectuals! Good Times! Irresistible Theory! Conflict Transformation! And Experiments With Opacity (like the one you are currently reading)! Among Other Things!
Sited from October 2020 to January 2021, juxtaposed against the heightened media and cultural attention to the US Presidential race, the We Begin with Play #LetsGetStupid2020 campaign is a call out to our folks to consider being and doing otherwise in the face of anti-blackness and all its tricks and gags. It is a call to come together and try our hands at the abolitionist practices of study and radical imagination.
In this circus, I am a cheat named Tar Baby. A sticky black thing. A trick. A trap. A quiet, strategically placed, black femme creature who sees and feels it all. As a Principled Artist within this project I have concocted a design for one of the many Fugitive Caucuses to be conducted between October 2020 and January 2021. Fugitive Caucuses are study groups that will meet to contemplate the themes and aims and ideals of We Begin with Play and collaboratively generate Mo’ Better Ideas!
In 2017, my colleague miyuki baker and I began dreaming up a creative Black feminist study group that would amplify the world-making practices and philosophies of Black women thinkers, scholars, and artists. We named the space “The Church of Black feminist Thought” (CoBfT) to articulate our commitments to the radical togetherness of spiritual fellowship. Two years later, CoBFT has blossomed into what we call “an embodied spiritual-political education project,” facilitating convenings, distilling publications, curating exhibitions and staging museum interventions. As a collaborating partner with Gallery of the Streets, CoBfT will host a 7-day embodied citation lab the first week of November as an offering of sweet fugitivity to our community in a time of heightened political absurdity.
Experiments in Supine Possibilities or How “…we might use our position at the bottom… to make a clear leap into revolutionary action.” —The Combahee River Collective, 1979
Inspired by the Black radical tradition, Black surrealist aesthetics and the work we do together as the Church of Black feminist Thought, Experiments in Supine Possibilities or How “…we might use our position at the bottom… to make a clear leap into revolutionary action” is the name we’ve given the 7-day embodied citation lab. This lab asks participants to physically and spiritually reorient themselves to the political mandates of our radical Black feminist demands for a new world. What happens if instead of facing each crisis ‘head on,’ we bear witness to it belly up? The body supine is a vulnerable thing, an open thing, an invitation for rest and the risk of invasion. We see Black bodies supine in death and in spectacle performances of protest like die-ins, but what of our most intimate acts of lying down? Informed by the intersection of Black feminism and disability justice, Experiments in Supine Possibilities is an attempt to think and create from the Black disabled bodymind experience of the world in crisis. How many of us have been laid out by depression, fatigue, apathy, chronic pain in the face of these converging crises? How many of us are scared to lie down for fear we might not be able to get back up? What happens when abolitionist strategy emanates from this place as opposed to from militant postures of self denial?
Experiments in Supine Possibilities declares itself as an attempt to assert these questions on to our current political moment:
THIS IS AN EXPERIMENT IN EMBODYING THE RHETORICAL POSITION OF THE BOTTOM. ASKING: WHAT IF INSTEAD OF FIGHTING FOR CENTER, WE FORCE A REORIENTATION TOWARDS THE BOTTOM? OR WHAT IF WE DON’T FORCE ANYTHING? WHAT IF WE BUILD FROM HERE ALLOWING OUR BACKS SOMETHING TO REST ON TRAINING OUR EYES BEYOND THE CEILING, ROOF, CLOUDS, COSMOS. LYING ON THE BACK REFUSES TO OFFER IT UP AS BRIDGE. THE SUPINE POSSIBILITIES LAB IS AN ATTEMPT AT WEAVING TOGETHER HARRIET TUBMAN’S HYPER-SOMNIA AND BREONNA TAYLOR’S STOLEN SLEEP. THE SUPINE POSSIBILITIES LAB INVITES US TO UNTHINK SURRENDER AND PUSHES US PAST THE CARCERAL LIMITS OF POPULAR IMAGINATION. WHAT ‘JUSTICE’ CAN WE/SHOULD WE CONJURE FOR FALLEN, FORGOTTEN AND DISAPPEARED BLACK WOMEN (TRANS+CIS) AND FEMMES? HOW DO WE COMPLICATE OUR NOTIONS OF REST AND INDIVIDUALIST PRACTICES OF RETREAT? SUPINE POSSIBILITIES INVITES SLOW CONTEMPLATION OF THESE QUESTIONS THROUGH SHARED ACTS OF INTENTION AROUND MARKING SPACE, LYING DOWN AND THE RECORDING OF
DREAMS, THOUGHTS, FEELINGS AND CURIOSITIES UPON RISING.
SUPINE POSSIBILITIES INVITES PARTICIPANTS TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FULLY AVAIL YOURSELF OF THE MESSAGES OR SILENCES OF YOUR BODY
Experiments in Supine Possibilities is an invitation to participate in 7 days of intentional ‘rest-full-ness.’ Assuming a supine posture (laying down on one’s back) for a sustained amount of time in an attempt to let abolitionist strategy emerge from the vantage point of ‘the bottom’. Participants are asked to record observations before and after each “Supine Test.” This embodied citation lab will take place from November 3rd to November 10th, 2020, with orientation meetings on November 2nd and debrief meetings November 11th. This is an invitation to utilize a choreography of pause in the midst of widespread political absurdity
Register as a Participant in the Supine Possibilities Lab for more details, resources and supplies by visiting blackfeministstudy.org/supinepossibilities.
Ra Malika Imhotep is a Black feminist writer and performance artist from Atlanta, Georgia. As a scholar and cultural worker, Ra is invested in exploring relationships between queerness, Black femininity, Southern vernacular culture and the performance of labor. Ra is a co-convener along with miyuki baker of the embodied spiritual-political education project The Church of Black feminist Thought. More details on Ra’s work can be found at: blackfeministstudy.org.
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- Saidiya Hartman, “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance,” BOMB, June 5, 2020, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/the-end-of-white-supremacy-an-american-romance/. ↩
- Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2016), 184. ↩
- #letsgetstupid2020, https://www.breachadventuresinheterotopia.org/collaboration. ↩