In the wake of so much death, Black Impossibilities
a reflection on a conference that values life
It was like church without the worship and pious hierarchies. We articulated freedom dreams that seem like a luxury to process. We got to think, without suffocating on the White supremacy that our societies try to make seem like oxygen. But White imperialism is not oxygen, so we can create a world without it and still breathe — breathe even better. But, in order to create a different world, we need the earth; so we must honor the indigenous lands we are on, which they opened up the conference with. We must support the first nations, indigenous, native people who have always and continue to protect the earth even at the expense of the death and destruction of their own lives. Black impossibility and resilient indigeneity are parallel struggles in the endeavor for more equitable futures.
We are on a quest for physical and psychic spaces of freedom, searching for the literal grounds of Black liberation, which is human liberation. We pay special attention to lived experiences because we know that capitalism, dispossession, and borders change over time to try to further embed the oppression so we must look beyond and in-between these hegemonic structures. Blackness has always had a contested relationship to space in White-dominated societies. Accordingly, taking space is central to Black joy. Often public spaces for the comfort of Whites have been constructed by the hands of or on the backs of or funded through the blood of Black people. Claims to space are being eroded through gentrification in Black communities across the world from Harlem to Brooklyn to Brixton in London, Matongé in Brussels, Cartagena in Colombia, to Oakland, California. It may look differently in each context, but the consequences and effects on Black and Brown communities are similar. Our struggles are often in public space because we are often seen as being public domain; as if everyone has the right to our culture, our music, our dancing, our hair, our neighborhoods, our bodies. As nayyirah waheed said “every time you touch me. my ancestors place a curse on you.” Thus, it is only fitting the theme of the conference was: i am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. Indeed we are.
Now our ancestor, Ntozake Shange, knew Black impossibility well. She knew that this country makes it impossible for us to see ourselves for who and what we truly are. She knew this world makes it impossible for Black people to live in dignity. Blackness has always been impossibility, which is why we have to make possibilities despite and in-spite of all the attempts to diminish, devalue, and dispossess us. We write ourselves into existence. Black literature has always been a form where we can be who we want and think beyond linear notions of time. As Shange said: “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive.” Imani Perry said in her keynote address that all of her research stems from questions her grandmother asked during her lifetime or would’ve asked. Because for centuries our ancestors have been trying to give us a different world even if that means making sure we do not join the one that exists.
Some of our ancestors jumped from slave ships becoming waves and part of the ocean’s landscape as Kali Tambreé elucidated in her talk; she asked the question: when they jumped from the ships, where do they go? Umniya Najaer talked about the misunderstanding of jaw sickness that affected many babies born into enslavement, thought to occur naturally — in some cases it was a form of infanticide initiated by a doula as way to prevent the baby from being forced into slavery. It was as an attempt dismantle intergenerational enslavement; a form necropolitical sovereignty, giving the baby a different possibility in death since there may not have been one in life. Blackness has never been subject to teleological notions of temporality, like the ocean our time is not linear and does not work on a horizontal plain. As Kali articulated “it is not from/to is is from/through because there is not a finite end.” Our past is our present is our future. Our ancestors continue to guide us and we try our best to honor them with the work that we do.
“There are moments of affirmation that allow you to live in more expansive terms.”
-Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
As Jordan DeSanto reminded us in his talk we must “understand freedom as a practice, rather than an inherited status.” The U.S. has appropriated the word freedom and so distorted its active meaning that it is often used to warrant hate speech and racist ranting. Rather than understanding freedom as a right, for Black communities and immigrants it is often attached to a dominating narrative of prescribed gratefulness and exceptionalism that most White (Christian) citizens are not held to. There’s a troublesome attitude that believes oppressed people should just be grateful to be here and that access to freedom is only possible when one is exceptional. I agree with Soyica Diggs Colbert, who said in her remarks following the Soma panel, that we need to seriously consider “how to make freedom more expansive, rather than relying on Black exceptionalism.” Through speculative theory, looking at Blackness outside of the U.S., invoking Black literature, being alchemists of our oppression (as BMike aptly described), knowing that impossibility and improvisation go hand in hand — in the words of Dr. Ruha Benjamin… we created moments of affirmation with the intention to expand the possibilities for Black liberation.
I entitled my talk “Geographies of Black Futures” because to me Black futures are alternative futures are resilient futures are creative futures are human futures. Black, as in race, is fabricated but humanness is real. And we, Black people, have always been human — even before we were racialized and after race no longer matters. So long as race matters and is used as a form of determinism, “we’re always going to be under siege, even if it’s a polite siege,” Dr. Ruha Benjamin articulated in the last panel of the conference titled ‘Impossible.’ Nation-states governed by White supremacy and imperialism selectively include certain conversations around Blackness and difference to preclude radical Black practices that actually disrupt or make obsolete the unjust systems that make up much of our ‘modern’ societies. Alas, we must actively imagine and create futures outside of these systems. Yes, imagining is apart of the process because often it is first in our imaginations where we realize things that seem impossible are possible. They may be impossible in the current state of things, but are more than possible with radical change. As Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. remarked sitting next to Dr. Benjamin on the last panel, “imagination is not just about fantasy. It is a moral faculty… a result of discipline and practice.” The study of Blackness is the study of possibilities. It is about the practice of imagining, reimagining, and reinvoking our many manifestations and rewriting geographies.
Princeton University’s AAS Graduate Conference Contemporary Cultures of Black Impossibility allowed for a space where antecedent moments and contemporary analysis were in conversation. A space where we could think about 200+ years before and were encouraged to speculate about 200 years down the line. A space where fellow Black woman geographer, Celeste Winston, and I can discuss how her research on ‘marronage geographies’ can be used to think about the potential for police abolition and Black self-determination. A space where Brazilian scholar Fernanda Sousa, on her first trip to the United States, can be surrounded by Black people affirming her work despite the imminent election of (now) President Bolsonaro who believes in committing genocide against Brazil’s poor Black favela communities. A space where we affirm life even though in this country the trajectory of Black bodies is towards death.
So you say, “Teju. So what?” Here’s the what: the architecture of liberation must happen on all fronts and in all spaces, from within and from outside. The institution is not a solution, but it can be used as a place to cultivate the tools, knowledges, and scholars for liberation. We must build bridges within and across activism, academia, and art. The Black Impossibilities conference brought together some of us who are apart of the groundwork to creating new paradigms and inclusive futures. We cannot do this alone or solely within the problematic walls of universities. Yet and still this conference provided a space, I dare say — a Black space, to continue the work of our ancestors.
*Say their names: Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vicki Lee Jones, 67 were killed by a White supremacist on October 24th. Stallard is father of Kellie Watson, the chief racial equity officer for the Louisville mayor. This was only three days before the October 27th mass shooting at Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert D. Bowers, the terrorist who killed 11 at the synagogue is being charged on 29 counts and his act is being referred to as a hate crime. Although Gregory Bush who shot and killed Maurice and Vicki was a known and outspoken racist, police are not calling it a hate crime. They try to separate our oppression so we don’t realize that it is all apart of the same violent structures. Both of these acts were hate crimes committed by White male terrorists. My solidarity is unceasing.