Untitled (In the Refuge)
You wanted me to tell you that all would be okay. Trapped in your own bubble of self-imposed ignorance, you found yourself surprised at your own evils — as if you didn’t see him coming, as if his repugnance was not your own. You wanted me to assure you that we could and we would find a way out of this. So you did — and you still do — perpetuate new forms of propaganda: vote in 2018; make sure we “flip” the house and try to gain a few seats in the senate; you assume your fear is my own. And then you turn that false equivalency — because our fears are not the same — into your own self-congratulatory political strategy.
But that’s okay: you’ll continue to have internal party debates about whether or not your message should be “economic” or “identity” oriented, as if those are mutually exclusive realities. You want so badly — so badly — to keep whiteness at the center of what you do that even your progressivism is regressive. So you’ll cater to whiteness while remaining appalled by that same whiteness.
But, in a stunning act of complete self-ignorance and sociopolitical contradiction, you’ll come to me to be your therapist and your salvation. You’ll see my black skin and my willingness to build coalitions, and you’ll want my participation while forgetting that I exist.
You’ll tell me how angered and incensed you are by the election and actions of a president you elected. And, while you might acknowledge that your people put him office, you’ll quickly note that you voted for HRC. And then you’ll tell me she was better qualified and not nearly as discriminatory, so any comparisons between the two candidates is both unreasonable and sexist.
You’ll tell me you can’t believe what happened at Charlottesville, ignoring the fact that I’ve been living in Charlottesville my entire lives (and the plural is intentional here).
You’ll talk to me about the language of revolution, but denounce antifa.
You’ll say we need to do something about community-police relations, but remind me that we need police in the process.
You’ll completely bastardize and co-opt concepts like “intersectionality” in order to center yourself in conversations about political strategizing. Not knowing that a black woman coined the term and fleshed it out — fleshed it out in the space where black female flesh is erased — you’ll tell me that your problems matter, too.
You’ll tell me all of these things, and I will listen. I will stand or sit there, as W.E.B. Du Bois once did, drinking coffee and eating with you, seldom saying a a word. Assuming my silence is my tacit agreement, you won’t notice that I haven’t said anything, or that what I said is always and already a strategic move. You’ll never realize that I play spades with my friends, and that I’ve learned early on that you never show your full hand.
So I’ll remain silent, or I’ll smile, or I’ll listen. Hell, I might even console you, assuaging your own sense of guilt. Because I know — I know — that if I told you what I really thought, you wouldn’t be ready. And I’ve already made the strategic decision that all battles aren’t worth fighting.
As you read these words, you’ll struggle with whether or not I’m being deceptive. You’ll want to — and probably will — critique me for my duplicity, for my refusal to be honest with you. You’ll wonder why I withhold my thoughts and my words when you’re “on my side.” Failing to realize that you never created a space for any kind of substantive dialogue, you’ll blame me for the violence you’ve already enacted against me through your assumptions and contradictions.
And I’ll stay there, smiling, silent, or consolatory. Because I know what you want, and I know that you truly don’t give a damn what I want.
What you’ll never fully understand is that my unconscious is haunted by you. When my eyes close, I see strange fruit that grows on the trees you planted and continue to plant. When I close my ears, staccato “I can’t breathes” fill my mind, resonating within my own head in ways that you could not ever imagine. Struggling with the violence you created and continue to sanction, I always put a mask on before I talk with you. Not the white mask Fanon spoke about — although that’s always an option — but a mask of what Sianne Ngai might call a “bartlebyian” form of affective neutrality. You don’t give a damn about what I truly feel; and what makes this worse is that your not giving a damn is already an act of violence that makes other forms of violence possible.
You’ll never realize that your tears watered the soil that would — and will — become my grave. Your fear both trapped and liberated me, opening a space of life within death, a space of living death. Not like the Walking Dead zombies with which you are engrossed, but an “afterlife” that is as incomprehensible as it is fear-inducing.
And so, like Solange, I have to go look for my glory; I escape into my own space of refuge to do my own form of affective work, or “wake work,” as Christina Sharpe might say. I’ll abscond to my refuge to mourn and rest in the beautiful complexity of my blackness. While you’re concerned about what’s happening out of the Oval Office, I’ll be struggling with the fact that you lynched me at eight years old (and you’ll tell me that he was “biracial” in order to show that it happened to you too — to which, again, I sit silently, smile, or console).
While you’re giving to the Red Cross, you’ll ignore the fact that I couldn’t leave during and after Harvey because you placed me on house arrest. You’ll produce guilt-induced charity, but you’ll ignore how your very system continues to deal death to me on a daily basis. So I’ll rot in a mold-infested home because, again, I’m haunted by your specter.
I may not die this time. But the truth is, I’ve died many times before. And, in my space of refuge, I’ll be dead and alive at the same time. I was suffocated into life; I was brought into being through asphyxiation. I was animated through the chokehold; I travel through the spilling of blood. You think of me as violent, but that’s because you’re too narrow-minded and short-sighted to realize that, as Frank Wilderson says, “violence precedes and exceeds blacks.”
But in the refuge, blackness also precedes and exceeds violence. In my space of refuge, I’ll hold my selves. I’ll laugh with my selves, joyously embracing my selves. Even though I’ll do all of this under the specter of death, I’ll also realize that I’ve never been totalized by death. And so I’ll love my selves. I’ll dance with my selves. I’ll do what Ashon Crawley tells us to do: I’ll make art and find my joy. And I’ll find it in what Fred Moten calls erotic language labs, teaching my selves new languages and learning new forms of kinship.
In my space of refuge, I’ll wrestle with whether or not the mask has become my face. Discussing, disagreeing, and debating with my selves in the refuge, I’ll find rest in the very presence of black joy and black feeling. You’ll read my words as an object of study, but I’ll always know that my words are written prayers. My internal disagreements, debates, and discussions are, as Crawley might say, what I believe in. And I will rest in the power of this faith; I’ll be invigorated by the joy and confusion and complexity and power and love made possible in the refuge.
And then I’ll return to you. And the mask — whether or not it actually is my face — will return, hardening with every encounter. But, mistaking my mask for my face, you’ll think you understand me because you understand the actual words I say. You’ll never realize that those words mean so much more and so much less than their actual linguistic composition. You’ll never realize that my words will always exceed your interpretive lens. Returning to your guilt-induced rants and interruptive language practices, you’ll continue to place me under erasure, thinking you understand my words because you understand words in general.
And I’ll sit silently, smiling, or consolatory, waiting for the next time I can return to the refuge, resting in the fact that I never wrote nor spoke these words for you.