Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Black Feminisms, Political Praxis, and Activist Organization

“I can remember swearing when I was young that I would not change. Because if I changed, I would betray the revolution. And as I’ve grown older I’ve understood I should change. And changing was more honorable than not changing.”
– Grace Lee Boggs, American Revolutionary, The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013)

Yesterday I was speaking to a great friend of mine whom I also consider a great intellect. When explicating the virtues of postmodernism in relation to leftist politics to him, he asked me the earnest question: “how do we organize? Organizing around identity is so easy.” This question comes from the perspective of the many scholars who critique postmodernism for making it more difficult to politically organize.

And yet I put this question beside the question Sarah Haley, the author of the phenomenal No Mercy Here (2016), posed during a talk I attended: “why can’t we organize around Black women?” Her book serves to answer that question in part. Blackness has been criminalized. Black women have had their presence contested, their age divested, and their relation to a certain kind of womanhood effaced. This is why the young Black girl at South Carolina’s Spring Valley High can be brutally manhandled, dragged, and thrown by a school resource officer. This is why the young Black girl at a pool party in a Dallas, Texas suburb can be confronted by twelve officers with their guns drawn and subsequently tackled and physically abused. This is why the young Black woman, only 22, Rekia Boyd, can be shot in the back of the head, murdered by an off duty police officer who never identified himself. This is why, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs can describe the way that, as a child, she was the subject of sexual abuse based on the conceit of sexual maturity and adulthood, can be branded a seductress to account for that sexual abuse, and simultaneously be treated with the paternalistic ire of infantilizing white supremacists logics. White supremacy makes Blackness a space in which a different sort of temporality exists, a space where the projection of qualities of adulthood and childhood can co-exist for the purposes of exploitation and harm of Black people. The processes of oppression that enact these projections can be dated back to North American chattel slavery, as exemplified when Frederick Douglass writes in Narrative (1845), “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant” (emphasis added).

Douglass describes a process that is compounded in the case of Black women, as elaborated by Jacobs in Incidents. The plasticity of the perception of age and the projection of divestiture of qualities attributed to various ages (of white women) in the case of Black women is a significant means by which questions of purity, womanhood, and childhood are disavowed. Haley writes about imprisoned Black women and their abhorrent treatment by penal systems that targeted them in particular. Her book stands in opposition to questions like, “did she deserve it? Was she pure enough? Was she asking for it?” in the discourse of sexual exploitation and physical brutalization of Black women’s bodies in and out of the penitentiary. Sarah Haley refuses to answer those questions, demonstrating how they are themselves manifestations of this violence. They are questions that by entertaining, one is made complicit in the white supremacist logics that have made it so difficult to organize around the issues and tragedies related to Black womanhood. I, too, refuse and reject these questions. I want to center Black women in my political praxis and amplify their voices in activist projects.

If this seems a digression from the initial question posed by my interlocutor, I will clarify. Perhaps there are moments where identity makes organization difficult. Where identity itself is a certain liability. Where identity has served as a weapon, an organizing principle to make oppression and violence more efficient. Theorists like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Hortese Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Sylvia Wynter, and Katherine McKittrick have done essential, groundbreaking, and moving work in rejecting the weaponization of identity against those it classifies — though such a simplistic explication of their works and achievements is a disservice to their diverse writings, theoretical innovations, and political praxis. It can be said, though, that each theorist is concerned to varying degrees with reorganizing what identity means, what Black womanhood means, and what are the avenues that Black womanhood can be made manifest as an insurgent tool of refusal. Hartman and McKittrick in particular conceive of the possibility of refusal in the contexts of the harshest oppression and seek to bring to light, and perhaps celebrate, those refusals. In my reading, Hartman uses the word “redress” to conceptualize how to reconfigure society’s very function in furtherance of righting the wrongs of the (partial) erasure of Black women from the archive and disrupt the mechanisms that have oppressed Black women from the beginnings of chattel slavery into the contemporary moment.

What is the principle of their organization? Not necessarily around identity, but rather around consequences of an oppressive system. In The Black Atlantic (1995), Paul Gilroy re-envisioned the diaspora as those individuals who suffered as a result of the Atlantic slave trade, rather than embracing the formerly accepted model of diaspora as people from a shared origin. This reconfiguration is, perhaps, the logic that dictates certain Black feminist/womanist theoretical interventions. Being subject to a system and experiencing certain kinds of oppression are the moments to mobilize, rather than around an essentialized identity. Focusing on a nexus of potential oppressions and subjection by means of similar systems de-essentializes and diversifies the possible experiences that can be organized under a given rubric (or, to use Sylvia Winter’s term, ‘genre’), in this case that of ‘Black woman.’

Boots Riley, in an interview with RT America in 2011, argues that the issue with political mobilization in the United States is that movements do not organize “around the issues that people deal with on a day-to-day basis of inequality and need.” He says, “we don’t have radical movements that are touching people in the places where they live, in the struggles that they’re having.” Riley comes to the conclusion that many avowed Marxists do: that inequality and need are the fundamental unifying principle among all people (he says there’s no difference between people’s wants and needs around the globe) and that these economic issues should be addressed above and before others (to do a bit of violence to the specificity of his argument). In this piece, however, Riley does stop short of making the argument of people like Slavoj Žižek , Vivek Chibber, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri: that issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other oppressions are a result of capital, and will thus be resolved with the abolition of capital. But putting aside the foregrounding of capital in Riley’s argument, there is something stirring in his articulation of “touching people in the places where they live, in the struggles that they’re having.” Indeed, it seems essential to me to organize around shared struggles and shared life experiences. That principle, one that Riley and I share, may not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the primary issue is one of capital. Black Lives Matter, which Riley’s interview predates, has organized precisely around that principle of organizing around day-to-day struggles — related to police brutality, implicit bias, criminalizing Blackness, the school-to-prison pipeline, and most crucially issues of Black womanhood.

Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks (1967), “By refusing to multiply elements we run the risk of not staying in focus … although it is true that I must free myself from my strangler because I cannot breathe, nevertheless it is unhealthy to graft a psychological element (the impossibility of expanding) onto a physiological base (the physical difficulty of breathing).” There is no question that the proliferation of identity politics of a certain kind has been extremely valuable and politically expedient in changing the lived experience of many, “resolving the physical difficult of breathing”. And yet, what of “the impossibility of expanding”? For this reason, I am concerned about a certain kind of identitarian logic that plays into the organizing principles that expedite not political change but oppression, the same organizing principles that Michel Foucault, Sylvia Wynter, and Katherine McKittrick are concerned with reorganizing or abolishing altogether. The same identitarian logic that produces “the impossibility of expanding” that Fanon describes. We have seen the havoc modernist logic of essential identity, national pride, fundamental truth, and unwavering filiation can wreak. Jacques Lacan, in an address to the École freudienne de Paris, says “stick together for as long as needed in order to do something and then, afterwards, disband in order to do something else.” Essentialized identity and national pride make Lacan’s suggestion impossible. It is for this reason that I believe the work of Lacan, and the notions of postmodernism, have immense value for leftist politics and political mobilization that has been prematurely dismissed by the activist apparatus today. Avowed Marxists sit in conference panels mocking Lacan rather than mining him for insight and run in fear from the idea of metaphor and abstraction that, in their mind, lead to political impotence. And yet, to suggest that I am employing metonymy rather than metaphor, it is the masculinist logic of phallocentrism and fearing impotence that dictate the requirement that every political act occurs literally and in the now. We have not yet mined the past sufficiently and have not resolved its issues. We have not managed the redress that those erased from the archive so richly deserve, and would so enliven our contemporary discourse. To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And to quote Hortense Spillers, “We might concede, at the very least, that sticks and bricks might break our bones, but words will most certainly kill us.” Metaphor and textuality, then, seem to be spaces well worth contesting.

Again, I’m digressing. But all this is meant to serve as an answer to my friend’s question. What principles are we to organize around? The principles of (to paraphrase Boots Riley) quotidian experience and (to quote Saidiya Hartman) redress. The advantage of this is a plastic filiation that lets us live up to Lacan’s call to disband and move on to the next task. To be free to fully attend to the next cause, to be illegible to the organizing apparatuses of oppression, and to be prepared to change oneself are revolutionary acts.